Tag Archives: St Andrews

The Ridiculous and the Sublime

 

The Golf Nerd Goddess and I dutifully awoke at 1:00 AM Saturday to catch the delayed finish of the second round of the Open Championship. Well, that’s not exactly true – the GNG woke up while I remained in a semi-conscious state. In any event, this particular circumstance was driven by a deluge on Friday morning that resulted in pushing off the start of round 2 by three and a half hours. This led to about 20 groups unable to finish, although the good officials of the Royal & Ancient (the ruling body of golf in that part of the world that is not the United States) were urging the participants to play on in what looked to be rapidly diminishing daylight.

Whether or not the R&A would admit it, this decision was largely driven by the desire to have Tom Watson finish his round and receive his final sendoff. This was to be his final Open Championship and he was by no means going to make the cut. Again, whether or not the R&A would admit it, I’m sure they had no interest in making Tom Watson, five time Open Championship winner, crawl out of bed early Saturday morning and finish his round in front of 20 or 30 spectators.

[Earlier in the day, Sir Nick Faldo made his final Open bow, taking time to pull out from his bag the sweater – or “jumper,” as the Brits call it – that he wore during his first Open victory in 1990. While still fitting, it was also a reminder of the hideous golf fashion of the era. Then again, when ISN’T there a hideous golf fashion era?]

But the explanation given by the R&A – at least as it was translated from the official working with the ESPN broadcasting crew – was that players “had the option” of playing on or marking their place of play and continuing the next day, which seemed a somewhat malleable ruling. This had some players walking off the course while others pressed on. Pre-tournament favorites Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson, paired with Hidecki Matsuyama, decided to vacate the premises after their second shots on the par-5 14th . Matsuyama chose to finish the hole. It was all very confusing.

Meanwhile, up ahead Tom Watson was, by his own admission, hacking his way to a bogey on 18. The grandstands had been long vacated, but the street bordering the 18th fairway (called, appropriately enough, “The Links”) was jammed with spectators, many of whom left local pubs to watch Watson end his day. He tapped in for bogey, doffed his hat in acknowledgement to the crowd, found his wife, kissed her and whispered in her ear, “It’s over.”

Not so for those who were trying to finish their second round – and as I shook the fog off from my sleep, I could make out commentator Paul Azinger stating that he thought what was going on was not fair. For a moment I thought he was referring to the previous evening’s activities, but no, this was a brand new issue.

It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that the wind can blow quite severely in Scotland, particularly by the seaside. Five years ago, play was stopped for about an hour and a half due to winds blowing balls about on the putting surfaces, which can be unnerving to a player standing over a crucial putt. Apparently, the same scene was playing out on the course now, except for the fact that no one from the R&A seemed willing to make a decision. Brook Koefka, part of the group that started on the 11th hole (which happens to be the highest point of the course) refused to putt. He was engaged in a lengthy conversation with an R&A official who wasn’t budging.

Meanwhile, on other parts of the course, play continued with farcical results. Spieth and Johnson returned to their positions from the night before, only to be faced with delicate pitches that would be impacted by the howling winds. Both players bogeyed 14. While this was going on, Louis Oosthuizen lagged his putt on 13 to about a foot and a half away from the hole. As he approached his ball to mark it, the wind pushed it even closer. Oosty was confused by how to proceed (in actuality, he could have marked the ball after the wind had blown it to the more favorable decision, as he had done nothing to make it move), and was waiting for an official to explain how to proceed. At this point, Azinger and fellow commentator Curtis Strange were imploring Oosty to mark the ball, but it was too late – by the time the official arrived, the ball was blown another 6 or 7 feet past the hole, at which point poor Louis doubled over in a combination of laughter and tears.

Finally, the R&A stopped play, but were roundly criticized for allowing the round to begin (Dustin Johnson was particularly agitated). The argument from the majority players was that once the complaint by Koefka was lodged on the 11th, play should have stopped all over the course. The R&A response was that the greens had been tested prior to the start of play and were deemed “challenging but fair,” but that the wind speed picked up once play began. In any event, play did not resume until almost 5:00 PM local time; the 2nd round finally completed, the cut line established, and the 3rd and 4th rounds rescheduled for Sunday and Monday.

The great Dan Jenkins had the last word on the whole mess when he tweeted, “I’m glad these R&A officials weren’t in charge of anything during World War II.”


Upon seeing Oosthuizen’s putt lip out on the last playoff hole, a putt that would have further extended an already exhausting 144th Open Championship, Zach Johnson seemed not to have any sort of reaction at all, other than maybe a grimace over poor Oosty’s misfortune. His caddy Damon Green – who earlier on in the day celebrated Johnson’s 18th hole birdie that put him in the playoff thusly – turned to high-five his man, but Johnson was in such a state of shock that he left poor Damon hanging for what seemed an eternity. Johnson could barely complete a post-round interview with ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi, so overcome with emotion was he.

I’m sure one could have gotten pretty long odds on a Zach Johnson win from the local punters. Since winning the 2007 Masters, Johnson has been a solid, if unspectacular presence on the tour. He’s not a big hitter, but on courses that require superior shot making, he’s always a threat (2 of his 12 career wins have come at Colonial, which was the domain of Ben Hogan). And he is very good at controlling his shot trajectory (or “flighting the shot,” as Azinger would put it), which is absolutely essential in negotiating the windy conditions that typically prevail on an Open course.

But with so many story lines coming into this year’s Open (Can Spieth continue his quest for the Slam? Can Dustin Johnson recover from his US Open disappointment? Can Tiger re-claim a semblance of his game? Who will get the bigger ovation, Watson or Faldo? Can Ivor Robson survive another Open without leaving his starting post?), Zach was pretty much overlooked as a serious contender, despite his opening round 66.

DJ was the main focus of the first two rounds; his driving prowess allowed him to blow by most of the trouble that the Old Course presents, and many pundits were ready to crown him after the elongated second round even though his lead was only one shot. He faded badly on the weekend and was never a factor afterwards.

Or maybe he did a body swap with Marc Leishman, who after just finishing inside the cut line, went on an historic tear by going 64 – 66 and might have won the thing outright had he not stumble with a bogey on 16. Still, he made his way into the playoff, along with this space’s pick, Oosthuizen.

Yes, our boy Oosty came back from that nearly 6 hour delay on Saturday to make that wind blown putt. His final round 69 was at times excruciating to watch – his swing, normally one of golf’s most elegant, wasn’t quite right; on at least half a dozen occasions, his right hand came off the club after impact. But he came to 18 needing a birdie to tie Zach and Leishman, and made a clutch 5-footer to join the playoff.

To some, the playoff seemed anti-climactic, due to the absence of one Jordan Spieth. Not that he didn’t try. He followed an indifferent second round with a scintillating 66, and, after backing up a nightmarish double bogey on the 8th (where he improbably 4-putted ) with a pair of birdies to put himself back in range, he arrived at 16 a shot behind (at that time) Johnson and Leishman. When his 40-foot birdie putt dropped there, it looked for all the world that Destiny (large “D”) had tapped the young Texan on the shoulder.

Of course, it was not to be – The Road Hole got Spieth, as it’s gotten so many before him. And he made a bit of a mess of the last hole, where a birdie could have gotten him into the playoff.

I’ve heard some claim that Spieth “choked,” and that without him, the playoff was anti-climatic. As to the first point, that is pure, unadulterated nonsense. Choking is a complete breakdown; Greg Norman blowing a 6 shot lead at the 1996 Masters and ultimately losing by 5 is a textbook example, as is Jean Van de Velde’s meltdown on the 18th at Carnoustie in 1999, where he totally took leave of his senses. Spieth’s missed putt on 17 and misplayed wedge shot on 18 were both thoroughly discussed and thought out; unfortunately, the execution in both cases was lacking.

As far as the 4-hole playoff being anti-climatic – well, Spieth stuck around to watch it, as did a lot of us, and it was classic, coming down to Oosthuizen’s try for birdie on 18 that would have sent he and Johnson back to the 18th tee had it gone in, which may have been indeed too much for a lot of us to comprehend.

So Zach Johnson joins a very short list of golfers who have won at both Augusta and St Andrews, and we’ll have a short respite before the season’s final major at Whistling Straits. Last year’s PGA Championship was the year’s best tournament. Given what’s gone on with this year’s majors, it will do well to be included in the conversation.

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Waiting in Line at the Old Course

August 17th, 2001, 5:30 AM Greenwich Mean Time, St Andrews, UK.

I’m 5th or 6th in an ever-growing line of “single” golfers hoping to have my name called by the starter (once he arrives) to join a group on the first tee at The Old Course. There was plenty of nervous chatter amongst the group, as the published tee sheet appeared to be full. Tee times would start at 7:00 AM; there appeared to be a single opening in the second group going off, but another wouldn’t occur until after 10:00.

The fellow who was officially first in line tells us that he had been in country for 8 days; a relative had gotten married in Edinburgh and he had cajoled his better half to make the hour or so drive up to St Andrews the night previously so that he could try to get off this morning. Taking no chances, he arrived at 4:00 AM.

I peer out at the wide expanse of rumpled brownish green grass that comprises the broad  parallel fairways of the 1st and 18th hole, and ponder how in hell Ian Baker-Finch ever hooked one out of bounds into Tom Morris Way.

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It had been quite a trip already. The former Mrs. Golf Nerd and I had arrived in Scotland about 10 days prior; we had worked out an equitable schedule (at least I thought it was) of golf, touring, and site seeing for the trip. I received my baptism into links golf at Prestwick, the original home of the Open Championship. Roger, my caddy, guided me through a maze of dunes and blind shots, and I discovered golf holes named after mountain ranges (Himalayas, The Alps), religious figures (The Cardinal), transportation features (Railway, Tunnel, Bridge), and things found at home (Wall, Clock). I also learned some basics lessons about playing a links course:

  • Don’t ever chip when putting will do. Most of the time, the fairways are faster than the greens.
  • Don’t take your eye off the ball once you’ve struck it, even if the shot appears to be fine. There are crazy bounces to be had, even (especially) in the fairway.
  • If you find a fairway bunker, it’s a shot lost. Accept it and don’t be a hero.
  • The 8-iron that traveled 175 yards downwind might not reach triple-digits when hit back into it.

That last point was particularly important. On the outward (downwind) nine, with Roger’s expert guidance I fashioned a rather sporty 2-over par 38 that, with any luck with the putter, could have been even better. Once we hit the inward side, however, my shots began to balloon and I found myself hanging on for dear life. Thankfully, the final two holes at Prestwick are fairly short par-4’s, and making par on both brought me home with a respectable 82, which earned me a “Well done” from both Roger and my playing partner that day, a Canadian named Ian Roberts who had come over to play in the British Senior Amateur.

In any event, the lessons learned at Prestwick stayed with me for the remainder of the trip. I shot a decent round at Turnberry, after which we wound up with their caddy master and a few other folks downing a few drinks at a local pub. Game on.

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The starter arrives at around 6:45 and patiently answers our questions as we check in with our handicap cards (24 maximum for men, 36 for women). Yes, we’re pretty busy today. No, don’t get a caddy until you’ve confirmed a game. And finally – please, don’t stray too far, you never know what might happen here.

The 7:00 AM group is called. They fire away amidst nervous laughter; then the next group, a threesome strides to the tee. The tee master asks politely if they would mind having a single golfer join them; the leader of the group responds affirmatively and our early riser, shit-eating grin and all, bounds up to join the group, shakes hands all around, and hits a perfect drive down the first fairway. We all look on with envy.

One of the fellows in front of me mutters, “Well, it looks like we’re going to be here awhile. Who wants to grab some breakfast?” A few other guys grunt yes; he looks at me. The starter’s last words stuck in my head.

“No thanks, I’ll just hang out here.”

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From Scotland’s western coast, we made the long, picturesque drive through Stirling NS Perthshire to the Northern Highlands. We lodge in Tain (home of Glenmorangie Whiskey), but my golf destination is Royal Dornoch, a course that but for its remote location would be worthy of hosting an Open Championship. My round there started with much promise; a birdie on #3 backed up by a solid par on #2 and a nifty up-and-down on #3 that had my caddie, a young lad named Garry who was a fortnight away from starting service in the RAF, urging me on excitedly. Unfortunately, the highlight reel largely ended there, as Royal Dornoch showed its fangs and had me on my heels for the remainder of the round.

But Dornoch is a lovely walking town with lively locals, and my spirits were lifted measurably. There was a brief afternoon shower that resulted in a lovely rainbow over the Moray Firth, and all seemed right with the world.

A few days later, we found ourselves in the seaside town of Nairn. We attended their Highlands Games competition (a/k/a “Big Men in Kilts Throwing Strange Objects”) in the morning, followed by an afternoon round at Nairn CC, a course whose first six holes are hard by the sea and a sturdy enough test to host the Walker Cup in 1997 (won by the Great Britain and Ireland side, a fact that my caddie Gordon took great delight in pointing out to me). It also turned out to be the site of my best round of the trip.

I was paired with a club professional from South Africa named Errol Mills, who I later learned was traveling through Europe that summer with his wife and playing various Senior European Tour events – “Not that I expect to win anything,” he noted, but he had numerous friends and acquaintances who played in those events.

In any event, I had my “A” game rolling on the front nine, particularly with the putter. Unlike most links courses whose greens are fescue, Nairn’s are pure bent grass (they are green to the point of appearing artificial from a distance) and have plenty of speed. I rolled in almost everything I looked at, and at the end of the first 9, Gordon whispered to me, “Gary, you’re beating the pro!”

I really wasn’t trying to do anything of the sort, but I did shoot 37 to his 38. If there was pride involved, it kicked in for Errol on the inward 9, as he missed nary a shot for the remainder of the round, and only an uncooperative putter prevented him from finishing lower that the 73 that he eventually carded.

I hit a couple of loose holes to start the back nine, but recovered well enough to fashion a 40 on the back and shot 77, easily the best score that I would shoot on the trip.   Errol and I shook hands after the round; I told him, “I admire your work.” He smiled and replied, “I was holding my breath on some of those putts you made. How about a drink?”

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The starter calls out the names for the 7:20 and 7:30 times; I’m figuring that it must be a large group of guys who are traveling together. No one is heading for the starter’s shed. The names are called again. Still nothing. A third time . . .

Only this time, I hear my name being called, and there’s a civilized rush to the shed. The 7:20/7:30 groups did not show up. I paid my greens fees, made a quick dash to the caddy shack and drew a sturdy old Scot named Colin, and strode to the first tee to meet the rest of the group. There’s Hugh, a good-natured Canadian, Matt, an Aussie who shakes my hand as he conversed via cell phone, and John, an older Englishman whose wife stands by him; evidently, she’s planning on following him around The Old Course.

Colin asks me my handicap and where I’ve played during the trip. I give him the abridged version of the itinerary. At some point of the conversation, I mention that I hit a right to left ball; his eyes light up and he exclaims, “Aye, you should fare well here then!”

Then the tee-starter calls me, Colin hands me the driver, and while I try to act calm, my hands shake as I address the ball. My tempo is way too quick, and I flare a weak slice that is heading toward the O.B. stakes. I look anxiously at Colin. “Is than out?” I ask.

“Nae, you probably went in the burn. Let’s go.” Colin seems to be pretty blunt.

We walk toward the right hand corner of the fairway where Swilcan Burn and the narrow roadway that borders the first tee meet. There are two surprises awaiting.

First – my ball is neither in the burn or out of bounds; it lays nicely a yard short of both calamities no more that 90 yards from the center of the green.

Second – walking up the roadway, I spot the group of fellows who had left the singles queue. I wave slyly to them as Colin hands me the gap wedge; the look on their faces range from shock to one who has seen his winning lottery ticket get flushed down the toilet.

I should be concentrating on the next shot, but that rainbow I saw in Dornoch is stuck in my mind.

 

 

The Golf Nerd’s Open Preview

The Open Championship at the Old Course at St Andrews is less than two weeks away, and already the storylines are mounting . . .

CHECKING OUT:

Tom Watson, (Sir) Nick Faldo, and Ivor Robson.

The first two names are familiar to even the most casual golf fans. Both have announced that this will be their final year of participation in the Open, and have between them carried off the Claret Jug eight times. It will be interesting to see who gets the bigger ovation.

Faldo, of course, is an Englishman, which could play either way to the Scots. His relationship with the UK press has always been frosty (after one Open victory, he famously announced at the post-championship presser, “I’d like to thank you all from the heart of my bottom”), but he’s won twice on the Old Course and, now that he is on the other side of the microphone on CBS broadcasts, has at least outwardly softened his demeanor.

Watson, on the other hand, has practically become a Scot by assimilation. He’s won the Open five times (although, ironically, never at the Old Course) and, in 2009 at the age of 59, came within an overcooked 8-iron on the final hole of winning a sixth. He generally sports a very Scottish look during the Open, topping off his wardrobe by wearing a tam. Arnold Palmer was responsible for re-establishing the Open as an important championship for the American professional golfer, but no one has embraced it more than Watson. It says here that when “Toom” crosses the Swilcan Bridge and makes his final walk up the 18th fairway, there won’t be a dry eye in all of Scotland.

As for Ivor Robson . . . since 1975, Mr Robson has stood at the first tee of the Open Championship to announce each pair in his unmistakable tenor voice. This year is rumored to be his last Open, as well.

THE SLAM:

Having blown away the field at Augusta and outlasting both the course and the field at Chambers Bay, Jordan Speith has the opportunity to climb another rung on the ladder to completing golf’s Grand Slam. So one would think that young Speith would already be in Scotland; at minimum playing at the Scottish Open in Gullane to acclimate himself to the weather and the peculiarities of links golf?

Nope. Jordan is honoring a commitment he made to play in the John Deere Classic in the Quad Cities, where he obtained his first tour victory. Apparently his preparation to date for the Open has been to play a few Old Course holes on his at-home golf simulator, which may show preferred lines of play but does nothing to prepare one for the rumpled fairways, severe greenside undulations, and deep pot bunkers that permeate the course. On the other hand, he’s two for two in major championships this year, so who am I to judge?

THE INJURED:

Rory McIlroy is out; a victim of a injury suffered while playing a pickup game up soccer.

Look, I get that the vagrancies of life can intrude on one’s being. Also, shit happens. But really, Rory? Couldn’t you have gone to Wimbledon and razzed Carolyn Wozniak instead? Or hung out with your hot new girlfriend?

There’s been an outpouring of sympathy from other golfers, including Phil Mickelson, who once famously lost half a season due to a skiing accident. My own take is that sympathy is somewhat offset by a secret relief that McIlroy won’t be in the field. Call me a cynic.

SPEAKING OF PHIL:

He was recently linked to a money-laundering scheme, although he has not been charged with any wrongdoing. This is the second time in just over a year that The Lefthander has been linked to a financial investigation (previously, the FBI had questioned him in regard to an SEC matter); Mickelson’s response was pure gold:

People are going to say things good; they are going to say things bad; they are going to say things true; they are going to say things not true. The fact is I’m comfortable enough with who I am as a person that I don’t feel like I need to comment on every little report that comes out.”

Chutzpah, thy name is Phil.

LATE ENTRIES:

To give some pizazz to the three Tour events between the two Opens, PGA Tour players can qualify for the Open Championship with victories and/or high finishes in those tournaments. Last week at The Greenbrier, Danny Lee scored a trip to St Andrews by winning in a sudden-death playoff over three other players.

Danny lives in our neighborhood in DFW, and plays out of our club, so my friends and I were quite pleased to see our “homeboy” do well (for the record, he is of Korean decent, but emigrated here from New Zealand). One would think that winning $1.2 million and qualifying for the Open would be enough, but no:

I love it here. My one wish is that I had a girlfriend. It wouldn’t be so lonely in my room.”

Ladies, operators are waiting.

WHO WILL WIN:

Who the hell knows? Great players win at St Andrews . . . as do some long shots, like John Daly. The last Open champion at St Andrews was a then-unknown Louis Oostheizen, who anhialated the course and the field in 2010. Much depends on the wind, which is truly the Old Course’s major defense. When it blows, the winning score runs around 6-under (Nicklaus, 1978, and Daly, 1995 come to mind). When it doesn’t, it can go deep into the red numbers.

So . . . some predictions:

Watson: Makes the cut

Faldo: Doesn’t make the cut

Tiger: Squeezes into the top 20 if he remembers to aim left.

Bubba Watson: Pisses off Ivor Robson by constantly calling him “Ian.”

Ian Poulter: Effusive in his praise of St Andrews (while still steaming about the condition of the greens at this year’s US Open). Top Ten finish, doesn’t win.

Ricky Fowler: Unveils special Old Course Puma clothes lines. Makes cut.

Danny Lee: Finds true love; heart-broken when he learns that his intended has visa issues.

Speith: Experience with wind play helps, makes decent run, but doesn’t win.

Louis Oostheizen: Your winner.