[This Space Vacant]

Teeing it up today . . . Happy Friday!

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Change of Scene

After living through the pressure cooker that is the Masters, many PGA tour players welcome the respite that comes after the three hour drive to Hilton Head SC and the Harbor Town Golf Links, home of the RBC Heritage (starts today 4/18 and runs through the weekend). The setting and vibe could not be more contrasting.

Augusta National is set deep in a hilly forest of Georgia pines.

Harbor Town is laid out on flat land, surrounded by Spanish moss-laden live oaks, condos, and Calibogue Sound.

Augusta National features wide fairways and greens large enough to land small aircraft if they weren’t so damned undulating.

Harbor Town’s fairways are so tight that, as the late Ken Venturi noted, golfers need to march single file down them, and greens that are mostly flat and thimble-sized.

Augusta National’s main landmarks are Magnolia Lane and its classic clubhouse.

Harbor Town’s main landmark is a candy-striped lighthouse overlooking its 18th hole.

The opening ceremony of the Masters features legends of the game teeing off.

The opening ceremony of the Heritage features the previous year’s champion teeing off with a hickory shafted club while a canon booms.

The winner of the Masters is awarded The Green Jacket, an honor so coveted that many winners wear it virtually everywhere they go.

The winner of the Heritage receives The Red Plaid Jacket. Despite claims to the contrary, I don’t see them getting a lot of wear in public.

The (Mostly) Great White Fathers of Augusta leave their fingerprints on every aspect of The Masters, including TV coverage, media access, on-course rulings, and crowd control (love those black-suited Pinkertons!).

The sponsors of The Heritage just want to be sure that their logos are prominently displayed and their commercials get aired.

Tiger Woods has won The Masters five times.

Tiger Woods played The Heritage once and finished tied for 18th.

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When Pete Dye designed Harbor Town in the late sixties, it was not so much a response to Augusta National as it was a rejoinder to trends in golf course architecture in general at the time, particularly to the reliance of generic runway tees and tepid shot values that were the hallmarks of Robert Trent Jones, the most prolific course builder of that time.

Harbor Town introduced to the golfing world many of Dye’s trademarks – angled tee pads, pot bunkers, visual trickery, and, of course, those railroad ties that serve as bunker facings on many holes. Dye borrowed this idea from Prestwick, the original site of the Open Championship. Its 3rd hole is named Cardinal in reference to the giant fairway bunker that intersects its fairway; it resembles a cardinal’s hat and features the aforementioned ties.

I played Harbor Town twice back in the late 80’s at a time when I was still pretty much a novice, and while Ken Venturi’s assessment of its fairways may be a slight exaggeration, he wasn’t far off the mark. Even when my drives found the fairway, there were times when I found myself aerially stymied by large, overhanging live oak branches (it was at Harbor Town where I stopped appreciating the aesthetics of Spanish moss).

I had my best luck on the par-3 holes (a very strong set of one shotters) – no trees to negotiate from the tee box – but for the most part, it’s easier wading through a bunch of Walmart shoppers than keeping a ball in the fairway at Harbor Town.

But Hilton Head in general is a fine destination indeed, with plenty of other, more user-friendly courses to play (as well as a number of exclusive gems such as Long Cove, Wexford Plantation, and Colleton River). There are miles of beaches, many dining options, and, despite the seeming never ending traffic on US 278, the atmosphere is surprisingly laid back.

And even though Harbor Town can seem claustrophobic, the rush that one feels when he/she hits the 17th tee and tries to gauge the wind off the sound is palpable.

And on 18, the fairway opens up to be about 60 yards wide, but the sound that borders the left side of the fairway and the lighthouse in back of the 18th green make a vivid final impression of a unique golf experience.

Just don’t nail the condo out of bounds on the right, like I did.

 

The Real Mackenzie

{NOTE: On Wednesdays, I’m going to focus more on course design and architecture to varying degrees of detail. This week, I want to talk a little bit about Pasatiempo, which is hosting the Western Intercollegiate Tournament}

During broadcasts of The Masters, whoever is behind the microphone will invariably point out that Augusta National was designed by Dr. Alistair Mackenzie.

Technically, that is true. Mackenzie, with input from Bobby Jones, laid out the original 18 holes; however, so many course designers have been invited to make modifications to address the combined onslaught of technology and improved skill on the golfer’s part that with few exceptions, any evidence that The Good Doctor had even been on the premises has largely been erased. Ironically, the most obvious remnant of Mackenzie’s presence is the large, irregularly shaped bunker that sits about 50 yards short of the 10th green. I’ve watched the Masters for almost all of my adult life and have never seen anyone play from there.

Despite that, Augusta has tried to maintain the strategic values espoused by both Mackenzie and Jones, both of whom were admirers of The Old Course at St Andrews, which presents the golfer with wide fairways and large, undulating greens, leaving it up to him/her to figure out the best route to attach the flag. Oftentimes this may not immediately apparent, which is why it’s rare for a first time participant in The Masters will fare particularly well.

Dr Mackenzie left his largest mark in Australia’s Sand Belt, creating such masterpieces as Royal Melbourne (which will be on display later this year for The Presidents Cup). His best known work in the United States is Cypress Point, a spectacular track on California’s Monterrey Peninsula that most of us will only see via photograph.

But there’s another Mackenzie masterpiece that has been on full display this week. The Western Intercollegiate is being played at Pasatiempo and broadcasted on the Golf Channel (final round is Wednesday, 4/17 at 4:00 PM Eastern).

At 6,600 yards, Pasatiempo (located in Santa Cruz CA) is the classic response to those who think that lengthening courses is the only response to today’s bomb-and-gouge philosophy. If you were disappointed about the relatively soft conditions that took some of the fire out of putting at Augusta last weekend, you will be more than compensated by the action at Pasatiempo, where the greens are about as easy to negotiate as finding one’s way home after a night on Bourbon Street. Even the flattening effects of the television screen cannot hide the wild contours and false fronts of these complexes.

The back nine of Pasatiempo rivals any nine hole set in the world, thanks in large part to a steep barranca that Mackenzie masterfully engages throughout the side (in its own way, the barranca reminds me of the ancient wall that runs through North Berwick West). Take the 11th hole, for example – it’s a relatively short par 4 that appears to be wide open off the tee until one realizes that because of some well placed cypress trees and the offset of the green, he/she needs to hug the left side of the fairway to get the best angle of approach. Doing so brings the golfer precariously close to the edge of the barranca. It would be an interesting study to watch someone play this hole on a regular basis to see how close to that hazard he/she is willing to challenge.

Pasatiempo is open to the public – by no means is it a cheap round, what with a $275 walking fee, but to play a genuine Alistair Mackenzie gem might be worth ponying up the cash.

If not – try to catch it this afternoon. Much like its distant cousin in Georgia, Pasatiempo will be the star of any tournament it hosts.

Sage Advice, or Self Indulgence? You Decide.

One of reasons that I feel uniquely qualified to write about golf is that I’ve played the game at most every level that the somewhat serious golfer can imagine (my handicap index has ranged from 24 to 5 and now currently sits at around 10) and the peaks and valleys that accompany that experience.

I’ve won a couple of club tournaments and absolute tanked more than my share.

I’ve had stretches of play that have given me pause about taking my game to the next level, and others that would literally depress me for days.

In 1992, I had a case of the shanks that lasted almost an entire season and nearly drove me from the game.

I’ve played on cow-pasture courses in New Hampshire and the Open Championship sites of Scotland – and enjoyed both experiences.

I’ve waited overnight in my car to line up for a starting time at Bethpage Black (next month’s PGA site) and queued up at 4:00 AM to get on The Old Course of St Andrews.

I’ve witnessed at least 15 hole-in-ones and have never personally made one (not that I’m bitter).

At the same time, I’ve holed out from the fairway at least a half-dozen times, ranging in distances from 100 to 175 yards.

And I’ve broken a window of a house bordering a fairway.


These days, my game is best described as “perplexing.” No matter how much I stretch prior to a round, my back usually is balky to the point where either Advil or a Tramadol and a couple of beers are required to loosen it. On most days, this results in a round that will start shakily, but once everything kicks in, I’ll go for anywhere from 7 to 10 holes where I will rarely miss a shot. At some point along the way after that, I’ll completely mess up a hole and then, depending on my mood, recommit to the final few holes (to varying degrees of success) or laugh the whole thing off.

It’s a strange way to go about playing, and at times confounds the hell out of my playing partners, particularly when there’s a bet or a tournament involved. And trust me, if there’s something on the line, whether it’s a beer or $20 (I’m not a high-stakes player), I’m definitely grinding, particularly if there’s a partner or team counting on me.

But it’s my reaction over a bad shot that confuses people. Once in a great while, the occasional “goddam” or worse will be uttered, but most of the time, I find myself either shaking my head or, in a lot of cases, outright laughing.

It hasn’t always been that way. When I first started, clubs would fly, curses would fly, and tantrums would run rampant. I soon learned that club throwing was pretty much verboten, but the curses would continue, and the tantrums were replaced by silent, self-directed tongue-lashings filled with self-loathing (one of the overlooked but nonetheless verifiable truths of the game is that if we spoke to others the way that we do to ourselves on a golf course, we’d not only not have any friends, we would likely be locked up).

Along the way, I read some of the work of sports psychologist Bob Rotella and the straight-forward teaching of the late Harvey Penick, both of which helped guide me toward playing some of the best golf of my life.

But one of the other overlooked but nonetheless verifiable truths of the game (there are many of these) is that no matter how well one plays, or how one tries to manage his/her expectations, he/she will always feel like that should have played better. It’s like clockwork – shoot a good score, and my mind will immediately spit out, “Man, if you hadn’t missed that short putt on #12, you would have REALLY had some round!”

I’m turning 66 this year, which, despite what Gary Player might say, puts me well into the back nine of life. And there have been plenty of personal embarrassments that the game has bestowed upon me, which are lovingly recorded in other entries of this blog that will entertain and astonish you.

So these days, I laugh. Or try to, anyway.

Augusta Tries to Grow the Game

One day was celebration of a return to glory.

The other was recognition of the remarkable ability of a gender.

One can argue which of these was more significant. All I know is that Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley has to be wearing a broad smile after what transpired at his club the past eight days.

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The climax of the Tiger Woods Redemption Story is what’s dominating news cycles, social media, and sports talk radio this morning, and frankly, it should be. His victory, highlighted by a vintage Tiger dagger on 16 (he nearly recorded the third ace of the day on that hole), also provided a certain measure of revenge against his previous two major championship vanquishers – Open Champion Francesco Molinari (who looked rock solid for three and a half rounds until he joined the Death By Rae’s Creek Fraternity at the 12th hole) and PGA Champion Brooks Koepka (who had chances late in the round but couldn’t convert some makeable putts).

From a pure golf standpoint, how Woods ultimately won was something of a departure from his usual M-O. Must of us are accustomed to Tiger recovering from errant tee shots and holing every putt in sight, and while there were a few Big Cat sightings in Augusta’s pines and a couple of bombs holed out, what sealed the tournament for him was the way he managed the course.

They say that experience counts at Augusta, and Woods’s play throughout the competition was, pardon the pun, masterful. He understood when to attack, and, more importantly, when to back off. Nowhere was this more evident than on Augusta’s 12th hole, perhaps the most perplexing par 3 hole in the world. Many have postulated on how best to judge the wind; apparently the theories of Molinari, Koepka, and Tony Finau were faulty, as all three of them dumped their tee shots into Rae’s Creek.

Tiger was having none of that. Having played there enough to understand that firing at the Sunday flag on 12 is a fool’s game, he rifled a 9-iron over the front bunker, leaving a lengthy but dry putt. That unspectacular shot essentially won the tournament for him.

The reaction to his victory has been . . . well, interesting. Sports media, of course, loves a good story, and the story of Tiger Woods has been as wild as that of any major celebrity. It’s also leading the speculation of him reaching Jack Nicklaus’s major victory mark of 18 and a possible Grand Slam (“He’s won at Bethpage! He’s won at Pebble Beach! He’s won at – oh wait, they haven’t played the Open Championship at Royal Portrush since 1952 . . . No matter, he’s going to do it!”).

Social media reaction has been mixed, as many have chosen to judge Woods on his (and his handlers) past moments of arrogance and sins of the flesh (I wonder how many of the latter voted for Donald Trump?).

For me, the real story was Tiger’s post-victory celebration with his family, the reception he received from his fellow competitors as he marched to the scorer’s area, and, most of all, the manner in which he fielded questions from the assembled golf media. While he will always keep some distance between himself and the press, his joy and humility were palpable. And his final statement to them was downright funny – “Now I have something for show and tell on Monday!”


While Tiger’s win can be considered another one for the ages, what transpired at Augusta on the Saturday prior to the Masters may have broader long term implications for the future of golf.

The Augusta National Women’s Amateur, first announced last year by Chairman Ridley, was an unqualified success; the perfect confluence of setting and personality. Seventy-two of the world’s best female amateurs were invited to the event, one which featured a rather unusual format – the first two rounds were played at Champions Retreat in nearby Evans, Georgia on Wednesday and Thursday, which reduced the field to 30. But all participants were afforded the opportunity to play a practice round at Augusta National on Friday, with the 30 finalists teeing off on Saturday.

So while the course provided the setting – particularly the second nine (along with all the other jargon that The Great (mostly) White Fathers of Augusta impose of the golf community, I learned this year that there is not a front nine and back nine there; instead, it’s “the first nine” and “second nine”) – the personality was spread among the participants, almost all of whom were beaming as they finished their rounds.

The main fireworks came from the final pairing of Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi, who pulled away from the rest of the field and put on a display of shot-making that left even the most hardened golfing chauvinist awestruck. Ms Fassi is a next-level star-in-waiting – a native of Mexico and a star at the University of Arkansas, she possesses a powerful swing and a thousand megawatt smile. Her interaction with the “patrons” (translation from Augusta lingo – “spectators”) was on a level with that of Lee Trevino, and should bring a breath of fresh air to the LPGA.

Jennifer Kupcho, on the other hand, was a bit more reserved – although she, too, could not hide her delight at playing at Augusta. And she pulled off two of the gutsiest shots I’ve seen on the 13th and 15th holes that for all intents won the tournament for her. The Wake Forest senior should also make some noise in the future, as well.

More than the quality of play exhibited by these two young women was their obvious mutual respect and sportsmanship. They conversed throughout the round, applauded each other’s shots, and, at the risk of gushing, did the game of golf proud.


 

Which leads me to the fulcrum of my gist.

Much has been said about the impact of Tiger Woods on golf. The argument goes that he would bring more people – particularly young people of various ethnic backgrounds – into the game. One look at the Augusta National sponsored Drive, Chip, and Putt competition (held for ages 7 through 13 the day after the Women’s Amateur) would certainly support that point. And the obvious spike in television ratings when Tiger is in the field cannot be denied.

At the same time, some have tried to make the point that Tiger’s absence from the game has resulted in a downturn in participation and the closing of golf courses. That’s giving The Cat a bit too much credit. Course closings are more of a result of a projection made back in the 80’s and 90’s that retiring baby boomers would take up the game in droves. That has simply not turned out to be the case.

Where the game’s best opportunity for growth has been – and will continue to be – is participation by women. Many savvy parents have recognized the opportunities presented by Title IX and steered their daughters toward the game. And as more women have climbed the corporate ladder, familiarity with the game affords exposure to more clients.

My friend Sharon, a retired insurance executive and avid golfer, will watch her local high school girl’s golf team practice from her back patio. I once asked her what appealed to her about watching them.

“How intense they are,” she replied. “The control and command of the game at such a young age.”

“That’s good insight,” I replied.

She continued.

“The way they cheer for each other and walk down the course together. They realize the competition is within yourself and not who you are playing with.”

I think she has something there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Cat Redux

I really want to write about how a resolute Brooks Koepka overpowered Bellrieve CC in St Louis this past weekend to win the 100th PGA Championship, his second major victory this season and his third in two years.

I wish I could expand on how Koepka has translated his pure athleticism into perhaps the most powerful and accurate swing in all of golf, and how unflappable and stoic he remained in the midst of one of the wildest on course atmospheres in modern golf history.

And I’d love to delve into what drives Brooks Koepka; how he carries a chip – hell, an entire tree limb – on his shoulder whenever he tees it up, as he continues to generally be overlooked or ignored as a force with which to be reckoned in the golfing world.

While I’m at it – Adam Scott’s brave effort, driven in part by the death of fellow Aussie golfer and friend Jarred Lyle, perhaps deserves an entry of its own.

But no – there’s really only one story to write about this year’s PGA. It’s been the story of this golf season, and one that may or may not be over. But damn . . .

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I had read a lot of Tiger Woods’s exploits as a youth golfer, but the first time I saw him tee it up was at the 1994 US Amateur. It was played at Sawgrass that year; his opponent in the finals was Trip Kuehne, an accomplished player from one of the first families of American golf. Tiger was a skinny teenager clad in shorts and a wide-brimmed straw hat that day. The most vivid memory I have of that match, one from which Woods came back from a 5 stroke deficient with 12 to play, was his uncanny ability to recover from what looked to be inescapable situations on Pete Dye’s torture track of a golf course.

I was reminded of this on Sunday, when Woods shot a three-under par 32 on the front side of Bellrieve despite not hitting a single fairway. In many ways, it was vintage Tiger, replete with helicopter follow-through swings when he needed to work the ball, early strides to the hole when he just knew the ball was going to drop, and, of course, several patented fist pumps, including a final hole birdie that sent the record-breaking number of St Louis spectators into delirium.

The only thing missing was Tiger’s name being engraved on the Wanamaker for a 5th time, but unlike in the past (and to paraphrase his own words), second place this time definitely did not suck. His final round 64 was the best he ever shot in the final round of a major, the smile he wore in congratulating Koepka was genuine, and his post-tournament presser was as reflective as any of us have heard from him.

I count myself among those who thought that Woods could not make his way back this far into golfing relevance. Part of it was driven from the empirical evidence of his physical condition and play from previous comeback attempts. I’ll also admit to a strong dislike of what I saw as arrogance toward media and his own fans, and behavior on the course that was excused as “intensity” while condemned when displayed by others.

The fallout from the infamous Thanksgiving fire-hydrant incident was seen as an appropriate comeuppance by his detractors (myself included), although in retrospect, his “sins” pale in comparison to those of two other icons who fell at that time, Joe Paterno and Lance Armstrong. Nonetheless, as Woods receded and new faces emerged, it seemed evident to me that golf was ready for the next era.

And it may well be. The talent level in golf has never been higher or more competitive, not only in America but around the world. What makes it special is that the guy who inspired it all is back in the mix. At this point, it’s almost irrelevant whether or not Tiger wins another tournament (although if he does, it will likely shut down all social media).

The fact is, much like that 1994 US Amateur, Tiger hasn’t just punched out of the trees; he’s pulled off what looked to be impossible. Yeah, I’m on board. Pass the crow, I’ll eat it.

 

The Open Championship – Or How The Quiet Italian Killed The Cat

Italy’s Francesco Molinari is likely not a name familiar to the casual golf observer. In fact, for a time Francesco wasn’t even the best known golfing Molinari, as his older brother Edoardo won the 2005 US Amateur. But the younger Molinari developed a reputation as a superior striker of the golf ball, and this year has seemed to crack the code with his short game, having won on both the Euro and American PGA tours and finishing second at the John Deere Classic prior to the Open Championship.

And now he is The Champion Golfer of the Year.

Before we get to the particulars, a tip of the hat must go to the R&A and the greens keeping staff at Carnoustie. As we previously discussed, Carnoustie is a difficult but fair test of golf, and with the proper climate conditions, it delivers everything that a championship track should. As it turned out, Mother Nature provided a variety of backdrops (rain Friday and nearly no wind to speak of on Saturday), but a welcome (at least for fans of the Open Championship) “fresh breeze” on Sunday (topping out at the 25 mph mark) made for an wild day of golf.

And there were no complaints from the field, no USGA jackets scurrying around the course or answering queries on TV … are you watching there in Fair Lawn, NJ?

Going into the weekend, Kevin Kisner was the surprise co-leader – surprising in that he arrived at Carnoustie in less than optimal form, not having posted a top 20 finish in months. But he putted spectacularly on the slower fescue greens, and found himself tied with 2015 Open champ Zach Johnson at 6 under par.

And then Saturday came. The lack of wind rendered the course nearly defenseless – Justin Rose fired a 64, while defending champ Jordan Spieth and the aforementioned Molinari each carded 65. But the biggest eruption came from a certain feline-monikered golfer named Eldrick Woods, who, after two rather indifferent even par rounds, practically broke social media with an electrifying 66.

Still, that found him 4 shots behind Spieth, Kisner, and rising star Xander Schauffele, all of whom finished at 9 under. Molinari was 3 back, and would be paired with Woods for the final round.

Sunday brought a lot of wind and for awhile, an unlikely leader in The clubhouse in England’s Eddie Pepperell, who is as close as golf gets to having a Renaissance Man. Eddie went around in 67 despite, as he openly admitted on Twitter, suffering from the after effects of a night on the town. That put him at 5 under, which for a long time looked like a possibility for a playoff.

This came about as a result of the three leaders shifting their games in reverse and returning to the pack. Kisner’s putting abandoned him, Schauffele realized that he was leading golf’s oldest championship, and Spieth – well, with Jordan Spieth, one never knows what he’ll get. On Sunday, he took an ugly double on #6, and it was all downhill from there.

So for a brief time on Sunday, the stars aligned f.or the Tiger Woods worshippers of the world. The Big Cat had taken sole posession of the lead on 7 and on the 10th hole, he hoisted a 155 yard wedge shot from a nasty fairway bunker that no other person on the planet could have imagined trying to the front part of the green to save par. Commentators Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller were hyperventilating. “Is this the year 2000 again?,” wondered Hicks.

No, it wasn’t. Woods hit a wayward iron off the tee on 11 and an even worse second that fortunately (for him) struck a spectator and bounded back in play towards the back of the green. Faced with the choice of playing a safe chip leaving a 12 putt for par or attempting a high-risk flop shot that even at the height of his powers would have a less than 50% chance of succeding, Tiger, perhaps feeling some hubris from what he pulled off on 10, choose the latter. It didn’t work, and his chances of winning greatly diminished from that point on.

But it was a thrilling exhibition of his ability and, of course, a reminder that he creates as much buzz as any sporting figure in the world. At the same time, it also revealed a 42 year old golfer attempting to return to past glory but not quite being able to close the deal. As Rory McIlroy stated, Tiger just doesn’t scare the field anymore. That’s not to say that he can’t or won’t win again- his 6th place finish put him into the WGC event at Firestone, a locale whose confines are as friendly to him as Wrigley Field’s are to the Cubs -but it’ll be a helluva lot harder to do.

While all this was going on, Molinari, playing alongside Tiger (who later described Molinari’s play as “beautiful”), quietly went about his business, grinding out a Nick Faldo-esque 13 consecutive pars before making birdie on 14 to take the lead along with Schaffele, who showed a lot of moxie after an indifferent front 9.  He added a birdie on 18 (which played ridiculously easy on Sunday) to go up by one, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Schaffele, who was playing 17 as this happened. 17 at Carnoustie into the wind is one of the hardest par-4’s in the world, as the Barry Burn traverses the fairway twice and forces players to lay back to a less than comfortable distance. In Xander’s case, he had 254 yards to a tucked right hand flag. The prudent play would have been for him to hit to the center of the green, two putt for par, and take his chances on 18. Shauffelle chose otherwise and pushed his approach well to the right, leaving him with a short sided pitch made even more difficult by the presence of a finicky three year old child trapped with his mother at the spectator rope. To his everlasting credit, Xander saw the humor in the situation and allowed himself a chuckle. Alas, he was unable to get up and down.

Molinari watched all of this from a comfortable waiting area with an air that could be described as calm concern, occasionally flashing a smile that reminds one of a younger version of actor Hank Azari. His victory speech was modest and gracious, if not particularly memorable. And I’m not sure that, given the bombast of Tiger Woods’s performance, many will recall how well he played. So I’m here to remind one and all that for the final 36 holes of the Open Championship on one of the most difficult courses in the world, Francesco Molinari did not make a single bogey.

Hai giocato a golf bellissimo, Franceso.