And On the 2nd Week of April, Bobby Jones Said,

"Let There Be The Masters."

“Let There Be The Masters.”

Obligatory link to the greatest website in sports.  Masters.com.

Happy Masters week, everyone.  The shining beacon that is The Masters holds an especially dear place in my heart this year after enduring MEGA-WINTER.  I haven’t had a chance to play golf yet this year–possibly a new all-time low for me, and I don’t think many people around here have gotten their proper fix.  The few warm days we’ve had, you’ve probably needed a canoe to navigate most local dog tracks.  I see the hunger for golf in people’s eyes, I hear it in their wavering voices as they gently cradle their new $400 drivers.  The Masters is going to take care of that for you, because the Masters always delivers.  Even when it’s bad–it’s good.

I don’t know many sporting events that could live up to that billing.  The NCAA tournament coming to a conclusion tonight, might work for some people.  Perhaps the NHL playoffs?  But other big-time events stand out to me for how utterly terrible they can be–The Super Bowl? During my formative years, the Pro Bowl was more competitive.  The Masters though is almost guaranteed to deliver some excitement.  Now that we’re safely out of the, “Tiger could win by 11 era,” things have been quite good lately…

2013: Adam Scott’s playoff win.  After Snedeker, Day and some others fell off the pace Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera exchanged blows on the 18th.  Cabrera’s 2nd shot when he needed a birdie to tie was electrifying and a great moment with his son on the bag.  Scott’s putt in the playoff erased decades of Australian demons.

2012: Bubba’s Hook.  Another playoff, one remembered for Watson’s brilliant recovery from the woods on the 10th hole, but earlier in the day, playoff loser Louis Oosthuizen made a two on the par-5 second hole and vaulted into contention with just the 4th double eagle in the tournament’s history.

2011:  The Rory Buckle.  After McIlroy started (hilariously?) leaking oil on the back nine, this thing was wide open. We even had a hint of a Tiger Woods charge before he started missing putts and ran out of holes.  A two-man battle between Jason Day and Adam Scott was interrupted by Charl Schwartzel who decided to birdie the last four holes and win by two.

2010:  Mickelson’s Pine Straw Shot.  The least dramatic of the last four tournaments had the most lasting shot, with Mickelson dodging a tree on 13 to set up a birdie that kept a flawless final round going.  Mickelson pulled away from a field that included Lee Westwood, Tiger Woods and Fred Couples for a relatively comfortable win.

***

As you can see, we are on a hell of a run of events and I hardly even mentioned Tiger Woods, so while his absence will certainly be noted, it’s not a reason to tune out.  If you think you’re going to miss Tiger, just get up every couple of hours and lip out a 4-footer on your carpet.  That should fill the void.

No Tiger, Phil may be still hurting and so we’re left with what many people are calling a changing of the guard type of Major.  A new, fresh era.  Non-Tiger and Phil contenders can be broken down into a few categories:

Next Dominant Player:

  1. Rory McIlroy.  As much I dislike Rory as a fan, he’s in this category by himself, because he’s still younger than most of his peers, and he’s won two majors in dominant fashion.  You can’t disrespect Rory by listing him with Adam Scott, even if Scott has had a better last 12 months.

Major Validators:  This is a long list and could be longer.  There are a lot of guys out there toward the top of the Official World Golf Rankings who have one major.  None of these guys is likely to have even Mickelson, or Ernie Els’ career, but with every major victory you validate the one prior and separate yourself more from the field.

  1. Adam Scott
  2. Jason Dufner
  3. Keegan Bradley
  4. Justin Rose
  5. Bubba Watson
  6. Charl Schwartzel
  7. Louis Oosthuizen

Career Cappers:  Some guys, despite their talent are likely to never get to the heights of the multiple major winners. They are looking for a signature win and still have the game to get it done.

  1. Sergio Garcia
  2. Matt Kuchar
  3. Brandt Snedeker
  4. Ian Poulter
  5. Henrik Stenson

Next Generation:  Very fresh faces who could use a major win to challenge the like of Rory and could become the game’s next great player–in time.

  1. Jordan Spieth
  2. Patrick Reed
  3. Hideki Matsuyama
  4. Jason Day

You could certainly add names to most of these lists, but I feel like this will be story that the press gravitates toward depending on which players are in contention.  For me, I’d like to see someone very old, or very young win this year. Or Dufner, I kind of like Dufner.  But, give me a playoff between Craig and Kevin Stadler and I’d be pretty riveted.

***

Five Thoughts Presented As Facts:

1. Someone is going to butcher the 1st hole on Sunday and vanish from contention.  The first hole at Augusta National is so, so hard.  One bad drive and you’re hacking out, skanking up, two chip and three putting your way to triple or worse.  Leading Candidate: Matt Every.

2. Sergio Garcia’s going to contend.  No one should ever pick Sergio to win any event, especially a major, but I think Sergio has 4-6 serious flirtations with a major left in his career.  I think he’s more likely to break through at an Open Championship where putting has been mostly neutralized, but he’s close to top form and has a decent Augusta track record.

3. We Won’t Hear Much About Slow Play.  There’s the small field for one, but I have a feeling that if the final twosome six hours on Sunday, we’d all be happy to watch.  Plus, after the blowback from giving a 14-year old a slow play penalty last year, I think the tournament committee will go back to being content making this issue someone’s else’s problem.

4. We’ll Hear ALL ABOUT the Eisenhower Tree.  For those living in a dark hole, we lost the Eisenhower Tree to this winter’s ferocious ice storm.  The tree, named after that guy who was you know, like a General and President and stuff, was a major hazard on the 17th hole.  For those expecting the tree to be replaced like nothing happened, that apparently is not the case as Augusta is moving on without its signature piece of foliage.  I expect 11-17 minutes from Nantzy on the history of the tree.

5. You’ll Root For Someone To Hit in the Water on 15.  Let’s be honest here.  Things are going to be tight.  You’ll end up on one side of the coin.  Maybe it’s someone you really dislike, maybe it’s someone you just can’t justify as a Masters champion.  They’re going to come to 15, probably needing a birdie to keep pace, they’re going to take out their hybrid (this player will almost always be hitting a hybrid and not a 3-iron) and you’re going to say, “Get in the f*cking drink.”  That’s sports.

The Top-10–In Exact Order:  

In case you forgot, I put on one of the great golf handicapping clinics of all-time last year, nailing the PGA, the Open Championship and having Justin Rose finishing 2nd at the US Open.  I’m not entirely sure I got enough credit for this, which is a shame, because it’s very unlikely to ever happen again.

  1. Matt Kuchar
  2. Zach Johnson
  3. Rory McIlroy
  4. Jason Dufner
  5. Hideki Matsuyama
  6. Sergio Garcia
  7. Jason Day
  8. Angel Cabrera
  9. Adam Scott
  10. Keegan Bradley

 

Golf Equipment Guide.

For Those With Cabin Fever.

For Those With Cabin Fever.

I’m not sure when the tees are going to go back in the ground in Pennsylvania.  It’s going to be a while.  I’ve never been one to play golf through the winter, but by Mid-February you start to think about possibly stealing a round. Not this year.  So to pass the time a bit, quench the thirst, I thought I’d offer up a little equipment guide for those with the itch.  I’ve never done anything like this before, but I’m nothing if not opinionated.  Find the key to shaving zero shots off your game….

Drivers:

It's Callaway's Year.

It’s Callaway’s Year.

It seems like TaylorMade is finally suffering some backlash from consumers who don’t appreciate their short product cycle.  If you ever really want a T-MAG driver, be patient, it’ll save you a bunch of money.  Along with killing the value of their clubs in trade, TaylorMade is now well into the life of its “speed pocket” technology.  What felt like a revolution with the original RBZ woods barely moves the needle in the Jetspeed driver.  On the other hand, Callaway is making a huge push with its Big Bertha marketing campaign and has a piece of real innovation with the gravity core in the Big Bertha Alpha.  Unfortunately, that driver will cost you half a stack ($499 retail).  

Best New Driver:  Callaway Big Bertha.  

The Big Bertha, just released on Valentine’s Day, is creating more buzz than any driver I’ve seen in past two years.  For most consumers, they’re simply looking for yardage, and for an average player that means more distance from all spots on the face.  Spoiler, if you are a 18-handicap you probably don’t center it up THAT often.  The Big Bertha accomplishes this forgiveness and still gives the player several adjustability options with a sliding weight on the back of the club and two adjustable weights for the heel and toe. 

Best Drivers for Better Players:  

*The Titleist 913 series remains a standard in this category, but since it’s been over a year since its launch, I’m not going to include it on this list.  

For a lot of good players the quest for a driver involves reducing carry-robbing spin.  If you’re on the PGA Tour and have this problem you can get hooked up with a $500 shaft and all is well, but we’re starting to see some lower spinning clubheads that allow high-speed players to use a bit more loft and start maxing out their carry potential. There are two leaders in this category…

Big Bertha Alpha: The Alpha’s gravity core can lower spin by several hundred RPMs without any other adjustment to the golf club.  This is a huge technological advancement.  But, since the Alpha is $499, and the lower spin won’t benefit the average player, beware buying this driver just because it is the latest and greatest.  Most players will be better off with the regular Bertha, or even the X2Hot.  

TaylorMade SLDR TP/SLDR 430:  The SLDR is TaylorMade’s best advancement in a while and the driver has been incredibly popular with their Tour Staff.  The issue with the low-spinning SLDR is that it is not for every player and you need an experienced fitter to set you up with the correct loft, etc.  Again, most players will be better off with T-Mag’s Jetspeed line, but these clubs aren’t a huge departure from other recent releases.  

Sleeper Driver: Cobra Bio Cell/Bio Cell+

You may have not given a second thought to Cobra since you saw your grandfather playing the original King Cobra Offset woods in the nineties, but with an increasing presence on Tour, Cobra is responding with some serious clubs. They may look awful, and you may not be craving an orange driver in your bag, but if you are looking for pure distance, the Bio Cell is a must try.  Solid stock shaft option as well.  

***

Fairway Woods: 

I Like My Fairway Woods Like I Like My...Nevermind.

I Like My Fairway Woods Like I Like My…Nevermind.

My general advice on fairway woods is that you should never, EVER, abandon a fairway wood like you like and consistently get in play in pursuit of a few extra yards.  Does it matter if you hit your 3-wood 235 or 241?  Not really. And that is true regardless of the wood and how far you hit them.  However, if you are in the market for a new fairway wood…

Best (Newish) Fairway Wood:  Adams Tight Lies

As I said, most of this is personal preference.  Size of head, depth of face.  I actually prefer the look of a little bit deeper faced fairway wood.  I like the XHot Deep Series (X2Hot Deep Coming Soon) and the 913 FD, but I found it tough to argue with the performance of the Tight Lies.  It has velocity slots on the top and the bottom of the club, making it not the most beautiful club at address, but this thing is a rocket.  And, it launches surprisingly high and offers forgiveness as well.  Great all-around club.  And, this is coming from someone who equated the original Tight Lies club with the Alien wedge.  

Longest Fairway Woods (In Addition to the Tight Lies): 

  1. TaylorMade Jetspeed
  2. Callaway Big Bertha
  3. Cobra Bio Cell
  4. Callaway X2Hot

The TaylorMade Jetspeed is undoubtedly a monster.  It carries forever.  The Callaway Big Bertha is also a very long club as is the X2Hot, but I don’t see the technological advancement in comparison to the original XHot to make the upgrade.  And again, the Cobra is a sneaky long and quality option.  

***

Hybrids:

Touch 'Em All, You Just Went Yard.

Touch ‘Em All, You Just Went Yard.

My advice for fairway woods holds true here as well, though I would encourage seeking out more carry distance in your hybrids.  These are some of the most important clubs in the bag as executing from 175-230 can drastically improve your game.  If you can suddenly get to a 210 yard par-3 instead of hoping to get somewhere around the surface, that can be a big help.  

*Much like the 913 Drivers, I must mention the Ping G25 Hybrids.  These are probably my favorite hybrids on the market right now and the whole G25 line, while not brand new is great equipment.  Unfortunately Ping has a long product cycle and it can sometimes feel like you aren’t getting great value paying full retail for a club more than a year after its release.  

Best New Hybrid:  Callaway x2Hot.

If you are starting to think I’m a paid advertiser for Callaway, I’ll just mention that I thought the original Xhot hybrids were mostly garbage.  I didn’t like the shape (I prefer  my hybrids to look like mini-fairway woods as opposed to driving irons) and I didn’t see anything noteworthy in the performance.  The X2HOT changes that.  Callaway has put their cup face fairway technology into the hybrids and the result is more distance.  A LOT more distance.  

Best of the Rest: 

  1. Adams XTD
  2. Taylormade Jetspeed
  3. Nike VRS Covert 2.0

Adams makes a really good hybrid and I’ll be anxious to see the new Pro Series that will launch later this year.  For now, the XTD is a monster but probably only for better players with some wallet ($300 for a hybrid).  TaylorMade has always done well in this category, and don’t be afraid to try an original RBZ if you are new to this market.  The performance will be comparable for half the price.  I have vowed in the past to never say a positive thing about a Nike club, this came on the release of their fabled Slingshot irons years ago, but they’ve come a long way and the Covert 2.0 hybrid is a solid option and the 2.0 Driver isn’t terrible either.  Won’t be in my bag, but trying to be fair here.  Also, for the average and recreational player, don’t be afraid to re-explore the Cobra Baffler or Adams New Idea.

***

Iron Sets:  

If You Ever Wanted to Try Mizuno...

If You Ever Wanted to Try Mizuno…

Iron technology moves faster than you might think.  Thin faces and strong lofts have created a boom in iron distance.  If you are at home swinging a set of 10-year old irons, I promise you will gain at least a club in distance just by going to the new technology.  You can put your same horsebleep swing on it–promise.  Part of this is what used to be a 5-iron is now almost a 7-iron, but also the equipment companies are making thinner iron faces while not sacrificing the solid feel that most golfers crave.  

*Note on Blade Irons:  If you play blade irons, you probably don’t need any advice from me.  On the other end of the spectrum I wouldn’t encourage anyone to get into blade irons from a CB model just feel like a player, or in pursuit of “feedback.”  If you want blades, the same companies have been making the best for a while.  Mizuno, Miura, Titleist…

My Favorite Irons Across A Few Categories:

(Mostly) Players Iron: TaylorMade TP CB.  One of my favorite iron sets ever was the Taylor Made 300 Forged. If someone ever wants to get me a present, you can track down a set of these for me.  I could probably no longer hit the 3-iron, but they were gorgeous.  And the feel was incredible.  I don’t know if TaylorMade has reached that height since, but the most forgiving of their new TP line is my favorite.  Unfortunately, these are not forged, but still offer pretty solid feel.  

Forged Forgiveness: Mizuno EZ Forged.  Mizuno with their forging and weak lofts isn’t for everyone, but you aren’t going to find many better or consistently made forged clubs out in the market–especially from a major manufacturer.  The new EZ line opens up Mizuno to a new cast of players.  Longer than previous iterations of their game improvement irons, the EZ line reminds you of some of Ping’s best work.  The EZ Forged doesn’t look like a traditional Mizuno forged club, but the feel is there and they are surprisingly easy to hit.  

Runnner Up: Callaway Apex–Long and Forgiving for an iron of their shape and construction.  

Players Cavity Backs: Titleist 714 AP2.  I’ve heard some lament the new AP2 saying it’s not forgiving, doesn’t go anywhere, among other things.  Personally, I think the club looks great and feels great–when you flush it.  I am probably looking for a bit more forgiveness at this point and maybe trying to squeeze a few yards as well, but there is nothing wrong with this club.  Beautiful package.  

Worth Noting: Callaway X2Hot Pro:  A much more forgiving and longer iron in a pretty compact package.  

New Irons to Buy if You Aren’t Good:

  1. Ping Karsten
  2. Taylormade Speedblade
  3. Adams Idea Hybrid Iron Set
  4. Cobra Baffler XL

The majority of these clubs will look hideous at address, but if you don’t know any better–who cares?  They’ll get it in the air, they’ll correct your mishits, and make the game more fun.  The Ping Karsten is one to watch, the first iron Ping has made where they are focusing on distance.  Could be a winner for them.  The Speedblade is not a super game-improvement iron, but is the most forgiving club currently in T-Mag’s lineup.  Always a contender when seeking distance in this category.  

***

Wedges:

The World Eagerly Awaits.

The World Eagerly Awaits.

There isn’t much to say on wedges.  Instead of recommendations, I’ll offer a few tips for getting your wedges:

1.  If you have custom specs, or are a low-handicap player, do not buy wedges off the rack.  If you have a Dynamic Gold x100 in your pitching wedge, you probably shouldn’t have a basic wedge flex shaft in your sand wedge.  Also, if your other clubs are long/short or have a lie angle adjustment, it makes sense to do this to your wedge also.  

2. Don’t get too bogged down in sole grind.  Different grind options on the sole are the newest things we’re seeing in wedges, but this matters more to very good players, or players who can afford to switch out their wedges based on conditions.  You probably want the wedge that is most versatile for the conditions you usually play in, not a wedge that Phil had specifically designed for Augusta.  The grinds that offer a variable bounce angle are worth looking into. 

3. Mid-Bounce is almost always the way to go.

4. Check your spin.  For most players the spin of a wedge is the most important factor.  Don’t just buy a Cleveland or Vokey because you think you are supposed to, go somewhere you can see how they perform for you.  

***

Putters: 

You've Seen These Heads Before.

You’ve Seen These Heads Before.

Not a soul out there should be taking putting advice from me, not only am I a very average putter I don’t really feel the difference between a lot of the available options.  There are certain putters that could better fit your stroke, but other than that I wouldn’t be comfortable recommending one putter over another.  Of what’s out there right now, I like the feel (I think) of the TR line from Ping, the newest of which can be found in the Karstens you see above. Also the first putter I’ve seen available in that old copper finish in a long time.  I also reluctantly like some of the putters in the Nike MOD line, and new Scotty Camerons will be available this spring including the return of one of my favorite heads–the Squareback.  

Thoughts on Counter-Balanced Putters:  In response to the ban on long and anchored putters, a lot of manufacturers are offering counter-balanced options.  This is a putter in the 36-39 inch range with a heavy head and a heavy grip.  They are designed to be choked-up on, and the argument is they greatly stabilize the face.  I find these putters roll out very well, and do swing nicely, but whether or not they are here to stay remains to be seen.  

***

Golf Balls:

How's 38 Compression Sound?

How’s 38 Compression Sound?

Things have changed a lot since my days on the college golf team when I would proudly tee it up with a Titleist Professional 100 every time out.  Back in the day MEN used 100 compression.  Of course the golf balls had rubber bands in them…

Personally, I cannot tell the difference between most tour balls.  It is important to know however that if you want the performance of a tour ball there are now more options than there used to be.  Most players would benefit from exploring the Bridgestone B330 RX line, Callaway’s Speed Regime 1/2, and other balls that are designed for less than tour clubhead speeds.  

If you are an average player, who is looking for distance, doesn’t spend a lot of time on fast/penal greens and doesn’t want to spend a fortune, please buy the following:

  1. Callaway Supersoft (38 compression–goes forever)
  2. Wilson Staff Duo
  3. Titleist Velocity
  4. Maxfli Noodle
  5. Bridgestone E-Series

***

Shoes:

Footjoy Steps Up.

Footjoy Steps Up.

When I was in high school there was little I wanted more than a pair of Footjoy Classics.  This is what the guys on tour wore, they were leather soled, probably uncomfortable for the first 20 wears and the opposite of light.  But, they were also a status symbol.  I never got a pair.  They were QUITE expensive.  By the time I could afford a pair, the Classics were replaced by the ICON–Footjoy no longer making a leather soled shoe.  Even though I never got the Classics, my taste in shoes has remained traditional.  I still wear spiked shoes and play most of my rounds in Dryjoy Tours.  But, I’m starting to come around a bit on the weight factor as companies combine lightness with a look that doesn’t scream soccer or sweet, sweet skating…

My Top-5 Shoes:

1.  Footjoy DNA.  I wish I could still wear “nails” as they were called so I could dig in and take a pass at the ball.  This is why I try to get as much spike as I can for my money.  The DNA has serious traction, but is far lighter and more comfortable than the Dryjoy Tour.  

2.  Nike Lunar Control.  Rory’s shoe.  Very light and tons of cushion, but still feels substantial and stabilizing.  

3. Footjoy Dryjoy Casual.  Kind of like the old “shop shoes” which I also always wanted, but a bit more stylish and very lightweight.  

4. Ecco Biom Hybid.  I prefer the look of the Tour Hybrid (a dress shoe look), but the other style currently worn by Fred Couples/Graeme McDowell etc., are much more popular.  

5.  Adidas Adipure.  I’m pretty sure these are out of the line for 2014, and that’s a shame.  Adidas’s best shoe by a mile.  

***

That’s it…feel free to ask questions, I’ve hit them all (badly).  

 

On Riches and Embarrassments: The Golf Digest Top-50 Instructors.

20 Grand To Tell You About a 4th Wedge.

20 Grand To Tell You About a 4th Wedge.

Perhaps you know that golf has a bit of an affordability problem.  It’s never going to be a game that will have a truly broad reach, but even the middle class is probably starting to feel a bit closed out.  I played nine holes of golf on Sunday afternoon. Late, it was almost evening.  It was at the least glamorous course you could imagine.  The least expensive place around.  It cost $28.  And what struck me most was that the course was almost deserted.  Late Sunday afternoon is not a popular time for golf during football season.  Wouldn’t the course be better served with a $15 rate?  Or even $20?  It is October.  Wouldn’t this scare up a few more groups?  Or, would charging that much invalidate the people who pay $50+ earlier in the day?

For most of my life I didn’t pay to play golf.  When I was a kid my parents paid the bill.  I was on the golf team in college and that allowed me to play plenty of free golf.  After college it was working at golf courses.  For a five-year stretch or so through my late twenties I might have paid two or three greens fees a year while playing the most golf of my life at top-level courses. During this time I also got balls, clubs, gloves, tees, range balls and any number of things for either no or little cost.  This is a great way to play golf.  But, it ends, and when I stopped working at the golf course I came face to face with a hobby that I could barely afford.  I’ve played fewer rounds of golf in the past three or four years than I’ve ever played in my life.

Part of this is just life, it’s just time.  Golf is time consuming and when you aren’t already at a course and can’t hit a few balls quickly after your shift or play nine holes for free before dark it can be hard to motivate.  It’s hard to coordinate a group, or find the right tee time.  But, another reason is that without free golf and free practice, I’ve become a good bit worse.  I was never a great player, but I was all right, and I got accustomed to playing at a certain level.  But, to stay at that level, I’d need to practice and play a lot of golf.  I simply can’t afford to do that.  I don’t really practice much anymore, I settle for rolling the dice when I go out to the course.  There are times I play like I used to and there are times that I play so poorly I don’t really recognize my own shots.  I’m getting better at becoming a casual golfer, but it’s not easy.

Of course, I could always take a lesson or two to improve my game, but there’s another dilemma.  Golf lessons aren’t cheap. Never has this point been hammered home more efficiently than it is in the most recent Golf Digest.  The magazine proudly unveils its list of the game’s best instructors.  The bold font on the cover says, “I can help you,” by Sean Foley.  Sean Foley is Tiger Woods’ instructor.  Inside the magazine Foley has a tip for hitting your fairway woods.  He says you should swing at them smoothly and consistently.  He suggests you approach a 3-wood like a 9-iron and even recommends alternating between the two clubs on the range.  I’ve got two things in response to this.  First–what if you can’t hit your 9-iron?  Second, this is the worst, most general tip I’ve ever heard.  And, Golf Digest is constantly full of wisdom like this.  Some stupid blurb re-packaged by a famous player or coach.  You’ll never learn golf from blurbs.  But, this is as close as you’ll ever get to having Sean Foley actually help your game.  I imagine it’s not the easiest slot to get, but if you can, Foley charges $250 an hour. Compared to his peers this makes him a shocking bargain.

Among the top-50 teachers listed in Golf Digest, exactly ONE of them charges less than $100 an hour.  That’s Manuel De La Torre of Milwaukee Country Club.  He charges $80 an hour.  Hats off, Manuel.  More commonly on this list you’ll see 2, 3, 5 hundred dollars for a lesson.  And, then things get comical.  Fifteen thousand dollars for a “day” with Hank Haney.  Twenty thousand will get you same with Dave Pelz.  Can you get a good short game in a day?  NO.  Can you be swindled?  Certainly. I should throw in a disclaimer here that all of the teachers on the list would probably be a great help to your game over a period of time, but really where do these exorbitant fees come from?  Should learning anything cost so much?  I guess these guys have the right to make as much money as they can, but when did coaching become something you got rich doing?

Even if you throw out the outlier, high-end guys like Haney, what is the purpose of this list in Golf Digest?  Is this their only clientele?  Certainly people who don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on instruction read Golf Digest, and if that is who they are targeting doesn’t that say enough about golf in itself?

The magazine publishes a list of the best golf courses and just like this list of teachers who will never teach the average player, the average player will never set foot on the Top-100 courses.  But, a course is something different.  It’s something you could appreciate without playing and who knows, maybe you get on one day.  Maybe you save up for a Bandon Dunes trip.  But, whose goal is to spend ten grand on a lesson?  I think the number of people using a picture of Cypress Point as their desktop background outnumbers the ones who use a picture of Dave Pelz by about 10 million to one (the one is probably Pelz himself or Phil Mickelson).

The point of all this is, I’m disappointed in Golf Digest.  I’ve never been a fan of their instruction sections, but it’s almost impossible to learn from a magazine anyway.  Here’s a chance to actually help, but this list seems like an especially big waste of time.  Singling out teachers who don’t need the accolades while there are plenty of decent teachers who are probably scraping by and plenty of players who would like to know where to go to find these people who give affordable lessons.  I know Golf Digest will always have a place on the tables in the locker rooms of country clubs, but I wonder if the number of clubs, and the number of people who gather around those tables will continue to get smaller.

I still like to play golf, I just wish I had the money to play it more often.  I fear I’m not alone in this sentiment.

 

Jean Short Open 2013–I Lost the Belt.

Your New Champions.

Your New Champions.

What can you say about the JSO that hasn’t already been said?  It’s pure sporting spectacle.  But in the past couple of years, we’ve also realized that it may be the most evenly matched golf contest in all the land.  It took 20 holes to decide the historic 2012 version, and this year it seemed like extra holes were possible again until Stars & Stripes up there made the putt of his loving life on the 18th green.  It was a well-deserved and emotional win, especially for Haas, who takes ownership of the championship belt buckle for the 1st time.  You could say he was born to wear it, and his general intoxication–with life, with Coors Light, with the result–on the 18th green made it hard for the losing team to feel too bad about themselves.  But, it still stings.  The accessories closet is a bit barren.  Speaking of which…

Second Place (of Two).

Second Place (of Two).

Before we get into the rundown (I think I’ll do hole-by-hole this year), it’s important to note that Pickering is in uncommonly bad shape.  You really should never, ever go play that golf course.  It’s not in “HAHA bad shape,” it’s borderline unplayable. The rumor that “The Pick,” is about to be shutdown was denied in the clubhouse, but the course conditions could lead you to believe otherwise.  Scary day for the JSO, and a sad day for those with deep-rooted feelings of Chester County golf nostalgia.

1st Hole–The first hole is a spot for ceremonial pictures, we usually get our weirdest looks as well.  The course was certainly more crowded this year.  More eyes took in the show.  A single college player asked us right before we went off, “Mind if I go ahead–you guys look…pretty serious.”  Fire away young man!  Team 3PT/Rando would win the 1st when Stars and Stripes 3 putted from about 12 feet.  Not foreshadowing.

2nd Hole–The 2nd Hole is closest to the pin/furthest to the pin must drink a beer.  The winning team drank, there was another 3-putt, this one for a halve and we moved to the 3rd tee still 1-up.

3rd Hole–Three is where the modified shamble really takes hold.  Haas hit the green in “1″ and proceeded to make birdie to square the match.  Walking off the green I said, “We’ve got a horserace with 15 holes to go.”  I was dead-on.

4th Hole–I panic when i realize I haven’t put on any sunscreen and I’m playing golf without a hat on for the first time in maybe 30 years.  That’s just an aside.  But, on the 4th hole we try to get a perfect shot of everyone at impact on the tee.  This has never worked.  Until…

245 Right Down the Middle.

245 Right Down the Middle.

5th Hole–I think we halved the 4th?  It’s not important.  The 5th hole is long drive/short drive drinks a beer.  The 5th is also where Haas hit a car last year (on the bounce/no injuries), but at 375 yards, dead downhill–you don’t want to leave the driver in the bag.  Everyone missed safely left off the tee.  Then Haas’ shot from the left rough went sailing toward the street. I calmly said, “That’s over the road.”  The ball then hit the street about 2 inches from a car.  We lost the hole–I probably 3 putted.

6th Hole–Putters only Par-3.  Sounds fun, and it is.  At almost 200 yards, it’s a long putt.  Rando lasered one down there to about 40 yards and we easily made four from there.  Cakewalk city.  Back to all square.

7th Hole–High water mark for Team Rando/3PT.  After a big drive I coaxed in a 40 foot birdie putt which set off a wild celebration on the green.  Rando, “Was that the longest putt you’ve ever made.”  Me:  “No.  Maybe.”

8th Hole–Let’s just say we followed up that putt with the quote, “I think that’s the worst shot I’ve ever seen Gross hit.”  It was also my first “negative one” for a truly horrible shot.  Pretty embarrassing.  In my defense, it’s not that easy to play golf in suspenders.  Of course, Haas was in overalls.   We lose the hole–back to all square.

9th Hole–Don’t really remember.  We halved it.  Just a race to get to the clubhouse at this point, get some calories back in the system.  Non-liquid calories, that is.

10th Hole–Reverse Shamble.  Playing from the worst ball, both teams have to re-tee after hitting the ball out of play.  From the JSO approved drop zone, I hit one to 4 feet, then miss the putt.  We’re still tied.  I’m starting to think about missed opportunities?  No, still confident.

11th Hole–We lose control of the JSO thanks to another bogey from the middle of the fairway.  Somewhere around this point, Stars & Stripes finds the zone, the perfect BAL?  Whatever it is, he starts playing steady performer to Haas’ erratic greatness.

12th Hole–One down, Rando and I both miss the green from 60? 50? 38 yards?  And, we begin arguing with each other.  I’m not sure about what.  Who was playing worse?  I think I said, “My partner can’t hit a chip shot.”  Then he said, “Whose drive got us down there?”  Then we were fine.  Somehow the hole was halved.

13th Hole–We get back to even after the winners can’t locate either of their tee shots.

14 Hole–We go right back to one behind thanks to a 7 (net 4 birdie) from Haas.  This included two swings and misses, the 1st of which was rewarded a (-1) great shot point.  It may be of note that at this point, Haas’ posture has started to noticeably change.  He’s really getting down there with his ball at this point.  Getting personal….

Not Textbook, but Effective.

Not Textbook, but Effective.

15th Hole–One club only.  Last year on this hole I made a par with just my 7-iron.  For some reason I switch to 8-iron this year, but still manage to hit the green in 2 shots.  We have a decided edge until Stars & Bars knocks one in for the halve from about 12 feet with his something-iron.  Is there destiny involved in this?  Still one down.

16th Hole–Beer Par.  Haas is the only player who has ever successfully tried or completed a beer par (three beers) on the Par 3 sixteenth hole.  But, as we drove to the tee, both teams plotted their strategy.  Not willing to go dormie two, we decided we at least needed to threaten Beer Par.  Somehow I got nominated for this.  I actually got off to a good start before Rando knocked it to about 10 feet with his damn driver from 145.  Shot of the Day!  I scaled off of beer par, Haas completed it easily and the hole was tied in threes.

17th Hole–Down one, I decide it’s time to put a tee through the cap of a water bottle and hit off that.  There is some discussion over whether this is wise, considering the situation, but it feels like the only thing to do.  17 is pretty generous off the tee, an embarrassing, short par-5 and we managed to get one down there and win the hole.  ALL SQUARE.

*Unfortunately I was not able to upload the video of this shot, or any of our other fine videos.  I will work on that.

18th Hole–Here we go.  For the record, I still feel like we’re going to win, but there is no hard evidence to support that feeling.  Eighteen, contrary to some other holes at Pickering is ALMOST a real hole.  It’s probably 400 yards.  A bit uphill.  Both teams were fine off the tee, but true to the day’s form, Rando and I both missed the green while Stars and Stripes connected.  No offense, but this was one of the 13 most unlikely GIRs in golf history.  This is what we were up against.  So, I go up there and chip to about 20 feet (terrible).  Rando’s in his pocket, because remember–he can’t chip at all and it looks like Kev, there I said it, his name is Kev has two comfortable putts for the win.  Until he rolls the first one 12 FEET PAST.  New life?  Nope, he calmly drained it.  Everyone fought back tears.  I took off the belt and another JSO was in the books…

Few More Shots…

From The Payne Stewart Denim Collection.

From The Payne Stewart Denim Collection.

Textbook Ball Position

Textbook Ball Position

I Wonder How the Crops Are Doing?

I Wonder How the Crops Are Doing?

The PGA Championship.

What a Dump.

What a Dump.

I know not too much time has passed since the Open Championship, because Phil is still ear-to-ear, but the PGA Championship is upon us–back at venerable Oak Hill.  The storylines for the PGA are often dictated by what happens earlier in the golf season.  Long the major without a true identity, the PGA has tried to latch onto, “Glory’s Last Shot,” and there is some truth in that corniness, especially for a player like Tiger Woods who is judged solely on his performance in the major championships.  

With Phil and Tiger back at numbers 1&2 in the World, this is definitely has the feel of a head-to-head battle.  While Tiger vs. Phil rarely plays out on the course, it certainly plays well in the media and there is plenty of debate leading up to this tournament about who owns the better season to this point and whether or not either should be considered the odds on favorite to win this week.  

It’s funny that you have to defend the honor of regular PGA Tour events for a player with 14 majors, but that is the case for Woods, who probably trails Mickelson’s year in some polls despite rolling off five wins–most in convincing fashion.  Are five regular wins better than 3 worldwide wins including the Open Championship?  Most people would say no, and Tiger might be among them.  He’s done so much to downplay the significance of the non-majors through his career that we hardly even take notice when Tiger obliterates the field at Firestone.  

I equate Tiger’s dominance in his “pet” events–Bay Hill, Torrey Pines, Memorial, Firestone, etc to the NBA Dunk contest.  No matter what you see, you will eventually get bored with it over time, and for the most part we are bored with Tiger’s regular tour conquests.  The only way Tiger will recapture our attention is by translating his dominance back to the majors.  When Tiger makes the putts and holds up on a major Sunday we will finally know that he is “back,” though we still may not be impressed.  

Phil is lucky to not face such an overwhelming burden of proof.  He’s already done the unexpected this year, and so while he enters the event as the favorite, or co-favorite, the expectation for him doesn’t carry as much weight.  Phil’s great year has already been sealed, while Tiger has been searching for his own since 2009.  So, we’re back to Phil vs. Tiger, but the stakes for each player are vastly different.  

Other stories of Note:

The Defending Champion–It was a year ago that Rory McIlroy cruised to his second major championship runaway.  In the interim, he’s switched to Nike equipment and seen some rust on his game develop into a legitimate mental rut.  I don’t know anyone who expects Rory to salvage his year this week and if it weren’t for Tiger and Phil, we’d probably still be digesting a lot of “what is wrong with Rory,” stories.  I still think Rory is a streak player, a better one with higher peaks than we’ve possibly seen, but streaky nonetheless.  I don’t think we’re going to see his best golf for the remainder of this year, and beyond that, I’m not sure where his career is heading.  

The First Time Major Winner–The PGA has always been associated with the 1st time major winner.  Deep fields, perhaps the choice of courses, has allowed for some unexpected champions.  Some have gone on to great careers, others have just been a blip on the screen.  The last time the PGA was at Oak Hill, Shaun Micheel hit one of the great 7-iron shots ever, but he’s rarely been heard from since.  In recent years, the event has been the domain of the young gun.  Kaymer, Bradley and McIlroy all in their 20s, two world #1s and close calls for other rising stars like Jason Dufner, Dustin Johnson and Nick Watney. Will the PGA be someone’s first major this week?  Will it be a young player, or will someone’s career finally get that signature moment like Azinger in ’93, Love in ’97, or Toms in ’01?

The Course–Oak Hill is a brute.  Only three players (Micheel, Chad Campbell and Tim Clark) broke par in ’03, and the course is known as an exacting test of ball-striking and precision.  The players will need to be accurate, and length plus accuracy could be a real advantage.  I’d expect the great drivers of the ball (Dustin Johnson, Mahan, Sergio, Keegan Bradley, Rose, Stenson) to populate the leaderboards this week.  Of course, most majors eventually come down to the greens–just listen to Tiger–so it should be noted that it was a pretty harsh summer for Oak Hill.  Tiger was critical of the greens on a pre-tournament visit, but apparently they are in better shape as we get ready to start things off tomorrow.  If the greens aren’t up to speed, or are especially bumpy, this is even better news for the ball-strikers.  

The Five Best Pairings:  

5.  Mickelson/Rose/Scott–The traditional PGA pairing of the year’s 1st three major winners.  Doesn’t show a lot of creativity, but all three of these players could contend.  We saw Mickelson harness the energy of a disappointment at Merion, how will he handle coming off a win?  I think he runs out of steam.  

4. Beem/Brooks/Micheel–A bit cruel, but amusing enough to make the list.  Here the PGA groups three guys who “accidentally” won the tournament.  Why tarnish three groups when you can just lump them together?  

3. Dustin Johnson/Charl Schwartzel/Henrik Stenson–If I could pick one group the winner might come out of, this would likely be my pick.  A lot of talk about Oak Hill being tailor-made for DJ, but he’s yet to show he can close a major.  Will his talent eventually allow him to win one by accident?

2. Tiger/Davis Love III/Keegan Bradley–I’m not sure how Davis got in this group, but Tiger and Keegan finished 1/2 last week and are both serious contenders.  For Tiger, away from the friendly confines of Firestone, it’ll be about his putting.  The first time he complains about getting the speed the down, you can probably write him off.  Bradley needs a win to cap what’s been a very consistent year. 

1. Dufner/Stricker/Matsuyama–Wait, what?  Allow me to explain….

The Definitive (No-Longer Arbitrary after nailing the Open) Top-10:

  1. Jason Dufner
  2. Henrik Stenson
  3. Dustin Johnson
  4. TIger Woods
  5. Zach Johnson
  6. Brandt Snedeker
  7. Gary Woodland
  8. Sergio Garcia
  9. Angel Cabrera 
  10. Martin Laird

The Open Championship

If History Is Any Indication, You'll Know the Guy Standing Here on Sunday.

If History Is Any Indication, You’ll Know the Guy Standing Here on Sunday.

I’ve spent the last several years trying to give the Open Championship its proper amount of respect.  I’ll try to avoid calling it The British Open, which isn’t the entirely semantic battle it seems, but more than that I’ll consider it at least on par with the Masters and the United States Open.  We all know the PGA, Glory’s Last Shot, has a long way to go and will probably never get there.

I can tell you what turned me off about the Open Championship as a young golf fan.  First off, I loathed the BBC coverage.  Where’s the ball?  Who knows, just cut to a wide shot of the green.  I didn’t understand the style of golf course and I wasn’t particularly fond of the list of winners.  Faldo, Ian Baker-Finch, Nick Price, Tom Lehman, Faldo again and again…these weren’t guys I was a fan of, and of course there was always that element of randomness.  Whether it be the weather, or that Todd Hamilton could raise the trophy, I think I always found the Open Championship a bit too quirky.

But, I’ve been coming around.  The TV coverage has been improved by leaps and bounds.  As to the style of the golf course–I’ve never seen a course in the United States look or play worse after removing the large majority of their trees.  The courses on the Open rota don’t suffer from such issues.  And, while holes and pot bunkers can sometimes boggle the mind the courses are never contrived or artificial.

What really changed my mind for good though, was the 2009 tournament at Turnberry where Tom Watson lost the playoff to Stewart Cink.  That result will forever be in my top-5 most disappointing finishes to a sporting event and my casual distaste for Stewart Cink grew into a searing hatred, but it was such a captivating week of golf.  If Watson had won, I don’t know if it could have been properly framed.  That he nearly won was a big enough story and what it showed me was that the Open Championship could often be the fairest test.

Which brings us to Muirfield, which could be called the truest of all Open tests and perhaps the greatest course in the World for identifying great champions.  Els, Faldo, Faldo, Watson, Trevino, Nicklaus, Player.  Those are the last seven winners at Muirfield.  It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that only Hall of Famers win at Muirfield.  The course is respected to the point of reverence.  Jack Nicklaus called his own course Muirfield Village.  Nick Faldo is kinda, sorta coming out of retirement this week to take a final lap around the course where he won two Open Championships.  So, while golf tournaments are more wide open than they’ve ever been, I’d expect plenty of recognizable names atop the leaderboard.  And, if a first-timer ends up with the trophy?  They could be headed to the Hall of Fame–the roster of champions would back that up…

A Quick Preview

The Best Pairings:

Sir Nick Faldo, Tom Watson and Fred Couples:  The best Open players of two generations and Fred who won last year’s Senior Open Championship.  Could the Englishman be the least popular one in the group?

Justin Rose, Brandt Snedeker and Ernie Els:  Players very rarely repeat at Majors, but I like Ernie’s chances this week. Brandt Snedeker has been MIA since he had to take time off after his torrid start.

Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Hideki Matsuyama:  The adjective for the year for Rory has been, “lost.”  I don’t see him finding anything this week, maybe if they were at St. Andrews.  Phil won last week in Scotland and in the most Phil utterance ever, has declared he’s finally figured out how to putt in the U.K.  Only took Pelz and him 20 years to figure it out.

Russell Henley, Jordan Spieth, Matthew Fitzpatrick: Spieth just became the first teenager to win on tour in 80 years. He makes new blood Henley look like a 29-year old playing AAA.  I’m not sure Spieth can transition off the high of a win and to links golf fast enough, but expect him to ride a huge wave of confidence for the rest of the year.  Fitzpatrick is an 18-year old qualifier.

Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Charl Schwartzel:  I’m about two years away from giving up on Sergio and about two tournaments away from giving up on Westwood.  I still think the Open is Sergio’s best shot where a foul week of conditions could accentuate his ball-striking.

Rickie Fowler, Matteo Manassero, Hunter Mahan:  I like Fowler’s and Manassero’s chances this week.  Fowler is a legitimate threat in the wind.  As usual, I do not like Mahan’s chances.

Tiger Woods, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen:  Tiger has been carting around Lindsey Vonn this week like they’re playing a 9-hole modified shamble before the club’s bridge championship.  I don’t think he’s got a shot.  McDowell let me down at the US Open, and I never know about Louis’ form.  Where does this guy play?

The Forecast:

I don’t know if this is good or bad news, but the weather is supposed to be fantastic this week for the tournament. Warm, and no outrageous wind conditions.  No rain either, which I assume could always change.  The course should be nice and firm, but I’d expect good scores especially early in the week.

The Definitive, Yet Arbitrary Top-10:  Coming off a very respectable US Open Showing.

  1. Phil Mickelson
  2. Ernie Els
  3. Branden Grace
  4. Rickie Fowler
  5. Henrik Stenson
  6. Jason Day
  7. Matteo Manassero
  8. Sergio Garcia
  9. Shane Lowry
  10. Matt Kuchar

143.  Todd Hamilton

 

So, yes, I’m picking Phil back-to-back.  I got so close last time that I think I might actually have it this time around.  If I’m judging Phil’s crazy eyes right, and I like to think I am, I feel like he’s rebounded from what happened at Merion. He’s in full-smile, family mode right now.  He’s not going to have to fight the conditions.  I really think this might be his best shot at a Claret Jug.  And, I had a hell of time coming up with true dark horses this week.  I guess I’m just caught up in Muirfield’s A-List mystique.

 

Roses Are Red, The Wicker is Too, When it Comes to the Open, Phil Has No Clue

The King of Philadelphia*

The King of Philadelphia*

*With Apologies to Frank Palumbo.

Last night Big Dub lamented the headline writer’s dream that Justin Rose’s last name creates.  It’s pun paradise.  I challenge anyone to do worse than this headline.  You can’t.  But it has all the elements–Rose, cornball factor, and of course the mention of Mickelson.  Winning  a major is great, but I’m sure it’s slightly diminished when the story is the guy who finished second.  Mickelson now has 8 runner-up finishes in Major Championships (6 in the US Open).  Jack Nicklaus holds what is believed to be the record with nineteen 2nd place finishes.  Could Phil catch Jack before Tiger?  Maybe if they played the US Open more than once a year.  I will get to Phil, but I don’t want to bury the lede any longer.  Let’s talk about the golf course…just kidding.

Justin Rose did manage to win the US Open on Sunday, even if you will hear arguments that Phil lost it with his front nine mistakes and back nine wedge play.  Rose was a popular pick all week (Hey, did someone pick Mickelson and Rose 1/2 in the wrong order?).  He’s a great ball-striker, a fixture atop the total driving statistics and as we saw at last year’s Ryder Cup, he’s becoming a bit of a clutch putter as well.  Rose made some beautiful putts in the early portion of his round Sunday, but it was his ball-striking that carried him through Merion’s last two holes when it became clear that two pars would likely be enough.

Rose is a bit under the radar for the general golf fan, but his win moved him to #3 in the world, and the more spotlight he gets the more the public will see why he’s considered one of the best guys on tour by the “insiders.”  Rose performed beautifully during his post-round interviews, and perhaps even won over a few fans who had spent the day living and dying with Phil Mickelson.  A lot has been made of the quality of Merion’s champions.  Certainly with Jones and Hogan on the roster you get off to a good start, but Rose’s ultimate place on the list will determined by how he finishes his career.  He’s certainly better than a fluke champion, but will Sunday be the high point of his career?  With the depth of the modern fields is it realistic to expect players to validate their major wins with more majors?

I don’t know if Rose will win another major, but it seems like he’s more suited for difficult setups.  And, already a winner at Aronimink in 2010, Rose is especially fond of what some might call, “old-style” golf courses.  The U.S. Open will likely not return to Merion during Rose’s prime, but I’m sure he’ll be content if the USGA goes back to growing 6-inch rough at its Open venues.

Which brings us to Merion’s performance as host.  The reviews seem to be mostly positive, bordering on raves from some of the top finishers.  Mickelson was smitten.  But there were certainly critics, Zach Johnson among them, who believe the USGA “manipulates” golf courses and doesn’t allow them to be played as they were designed.  It’s such a fine line with the US Open, and I think Merion did well this week to not cross over to the absurd.  The pins, at times, were borderline.  But it wasn’t Shinnecock and it wasn’t the Olympic Club in ’98.  As for the rough, when you get 8 inches of rain, I’m not sure how you contain the rough.  And the rough has always been a hazard at Merion.  Personally, I’m OK with requiring the players to hit straight tee shots, especially when 1/2 of those tee shots are irons or hybrids.  The rough may limit your ability to recover, but why is that the preferred skill as opposed to accuracy?

I think Merion showed itself capable of hosting the US Open this year, and in future years, but the logistics will remain a real challenge.  US Opens are already assigned through 2020.  How often is the USGA willing to sacrifice revenue for a smaller venue?  How often are the members willing to sacrifice both their courses?  I wouldn’t expect a return visit any time soon, but at least we know now that it isn’t out of the question.

Finally–Phil.  The early parts of Sunday’s round featured some spectacular collapses.  Luke Donald fell apart after drilling a spectator.  Charl Schwartzel couldn’t hit the hole from 5 feet.  And of course, Steve Stricker hit a cold shank.  On a hole where he’d already hit a tee shot out of bounds.  I’m not sure if there is anything more embarrassing than having a shank put on “pro-tracer,” but that’s what happened to Stricker.  How he took the club back the rest of the day is a real mystery.  That he only made only a couple more bogeys is a miracle.

Phil’s demise wasn’t as colorful.  He made what I’d call a couple of “routine doubles.”  No penalty shots,  just a few poor decisions and bad putts on difficult holes.  It happens.  Phil still hadn’t clicked when he holed out for eagle on 10.  That shot vaulted him back into the tournament, but also masked what wasn’t his best day.  Sure, he could have easily won by three or four, but without a little bit of luck on 10, he may not have even been in contention down the stretch.  His bogey on 13 was the fatal error, and why someone who hits 4-iron 235 yards was hitting pitching wedge from 121?  We’ll likely never know.

I do feel for Phil, my sympathy toward him has grown over the years.  I actually think he deserves to win a US Open.  He’s had a full career, but it’s plain to see how much he wants this one, and yet it feels destined to become his version of Norman’s green jacket.  The guy remains polarizing.  He was the clear fan favorite, and yet there are still those who can’t stand his “act.”  What I appreciate from Phil is the unwavering belief in his game and the unflinching candor in the face of defeat.  Not many players would stand up after the round and lay out for you that they were “heartbroken.”  There’s rarely spin from Mickelson after a major.  He tells you how bad he wants it, and how badly it hurts when he finishes second.

For those Phil fans out there, I can offer a bit of empathy.  As a die-hard Payne Stewart fan, I had to deal with countless US Open disappointments.  And, Payne wasn’t a guy who won a few times a year.  There were years where the US Open was the only time he really was in contention.  So, conceding the fact that he did win in 1991, there were excruciating moments over the next decade.  He lost to Lee Janzen in 1993.  Then in the mid-nineties, he took to leading early and fading fast over the weekend.  In 1998, Janzen, bad luck and a loose Sunday round got him again.  He was 41, you thought   he’d wasted his last, best chances, but he came back and won in 1999 at Pinehurst.  Where’s the 2014 US Open?  Pinehurst.  Maybe some hope for Phil.

 

Friday At Merion.

Not Pictured: Me.

Not Pictured: Me.

 

We put in a comprehensive effort at Merion yesterday.  Miles were walked.  Wares were acquired.  And mediocre food was consumed.  As someone who has now attended a handful of golf tournaments in person, I think it’s safe to say that when you go to an event of this magnitude, you go to see golfers and golf shots—not the tournament.  It isn’t very easy to follow the big picture while you are in the gallery, but it certainly offers a new perspective.  Mostly, you realize how good the players are and how difficult the shots they face can be.  For leaderboard watching, it’s probably best to get on your couch by Sunday.  Here’s a sampling of the day…(all times VERY approximate)

9:30 AM—On the walk in, we bask in the industrious nature of the residents of Ardmore.  They are selling their driveways, cold refreshments and in some cases abstract art.  We pass a yard that has several slabs of concrete, painted green, with golf balls glued to the top.  A sign says, “You can take this home.”  For now, we’ll pass.

9:36 AM—The scalper presence is pretty light, and feels a bit like Amateur Hour.  It is a golf tournament though.  But, tickets are available.  For a moment we contemplate what else might be for sale?

9:45 AM—We enter Gate 3.  Our shoes will be ruined in 3, 2, 1…

9:46 AM—Port-O-Lets.  Johnny-On-The-Spot.  All portable sh*tter companies must hyphenate their names.  The conditions inside promote dehydration.

9:55 AM—We pass up a decent vantage point on 13 to wander over to the 1st fairway.  We see our first shot.  A gentleman from New York, who has “been to 3 British Opens,” calls Merion a terrible spectator course.  He has a bit of a point, but damn, we just got here.

10:00 AM—Big Names start walking right past us to get to the 11th tee.  Donald, McDowell, Kaymer, Furyk, Westwood and Fluff Cowan.  Almost to a man, they appear smaller than you would think.

10:12 AM—ADAM SCOTT walks by (handsome as ever).  Steve Williams storms by and there goes Tiger, escorted by 4 police officers.  Tiger will maintain at least a 2-cop lead over the rest of the field for the remainder of the day.

10:20 AM—Who’s that tall blonde woman?  OH, just your every day Lindsay Vonn sighting.  Complete with a Red Bull hat.  Gotta satisfy the sponsors.  She walks with the regular gallery while Tiger’s agent was on his hip between the ropes.

10:30 AM—The 13th hole is now a mob scene.  We wander.

10:41 AM—1st beer.  The selection is, Bud Heavy, Stella Artois and Michelob Ultra.  Not that impressed.  What we didn’t know then, if we actually wanted anything on the menu, this would have been the time to get it.

10:46 AM—Melissa Stark!

11:00 AM—We arrive at the grandstand on the 18th tee.  It’s about ½ full.  We contemplate whether we should sit down.  We take a seat.  This is probably the best decision we make all day.

11:00-12:30 PM—We watch several groups play 17 and tee off on 18.  As Tiger gets close the crowd swells to ridiculous proportions.  Tiger makes an up-and-down par, G-Mac and Darren Clarke make a mess, Angel Cabrera smokes, but the best show was put on by Geoff Ogilvy.  Ogilvy flew his tee shot on 17 into the grandstand.  He then made a miraculous up and down, gave his ball to the fan he pelted, rushed over to the 18th tee and appeared to block one into the quarry.  He then went up and played from the middle of the fairway.  He took a double bogey on the hole, but I still have no idea how that happened.

12:30 PM—Along with 85% of the other people on the property, we decide to eat and hit the merchandise tent.  The merchandise tent is overwhelming.  In my mind, it is what looting would feel like if the people paid for the merchandise.  As soon as I get into line, I regret some of my choices, but there’s no turning back.

1:00 PM—Hundreds of people are in line for food.  Presumably, they all want the Thai Chicken Wrap.  The joke is, there are no Thai Chicken Wraps!  There are hot dogs, PB&J Uncrustables and cheesesteaks on hot dog rolls.  I want to remain positive, but when your food is significantly worse than what you’d find at a Little League concession stand—that’s an issue.

1:20 PM—Lunch becomes mostly beer and Rold Gold pretzels.  They’re the skinny pretzel with the big fat taste.

1:40 PM—Tiger is finishing up his round on the front nine and we head over that way.

1:46 PM—Lindsay Vonn!

1:55 PM—This portion of the golf course is packed.  We wait a while at a crosswalk as Ernie Els, Webb Simpson and Amateur Champion Stephen Fox walk by.  Els, as you’d expect is gets his share of, “Big Erns!”

2:15 PM—We head for open ground, ending up in the far corner of the property.  I enter an auxiliary merchandise tent to right previous wrongs.

2:45 PM—Ukee Washington!

3:00 PM—Contemplate riding the shuttle to the practice area just to sit down for a while.  Possibly time to mention the conditions.  It’s very muddy outside the ropes.  There aren’t really places to sit, the people who brought chairs are carrying them around all afternoon.

3:30 PM—There is a empty section alongside the 6th green and 7th tee.  We fill up on Michelob Ultra and make our way over.

3:35 PM—Our first look at what must be one of the hardest pin placements on the golf course.  Over the next several hours, no one will make a putt over 6 or 7 feet and those were straight uphill.  A good half the field is coming into the par four with a short 3rd shot.  Donald Trump’s club pro, John Nieporte, on his way to 84, makes a mess in the right bunker.  When he cleans up for triple, the crowd goes wild!

4:15 PM—Downtime as we wait for Phil and the other big names of the afternoon.  The gallery grows and it’s clear the sun and booze are starting to “influence” the crowd.  Things are getting a bit mouthy.  With no players around, most of the lip is being directed at the USGA volunteers, who I must say are walking around with a bit too much entitlement.

5:00PM—Bubba, Dustin Johnson and Nicholas Coalsaerts are the first big group to come through.  Bubba is the only one who hits the deadly 6th green.

5:03 PM—Bubba Watson’s Wife!  (No Paulina Gretzky sightings)

5:05 PM—Bubba hits the best putt we see all afternoon.  Still not sure how it didn’t go in, Bubba looks perplexed.

5:08 PM—Dottie Pepper!

5:11 PM—Bubba and Co. tee off on 7 and walk by us.  Someone in the gallery offers, “Come on Bubba, Bubby, Booby, Boobies,” in a baby voice.  This sends his entire crew into hysterical laughter.

5:20 PM—Here comes Phil.  He hits the green as does Steve Stricker.  Keegan Bradley goes long left.  As Bradley approaches the green, on his way to missing the cut by a mile, it’s quite clear he’s over-stimulated.  He hits a terrific chip, but can’t convert.  Mickelson, who doesn’t look chubby in person (and may have been wearing a Man-Spanxx t-shirt), is loving the crowd.  He’s starving for the attention.  The gallery is happy to oblige.

5:22 PM—Phil misses the putt with a so-so effort.  Stricker also misses.  We are not going to see a birdie.  No chance.

5:30 PM—One of the leaders, Justin Rose, hits it right next to our spot on the ropes.  He hits an incredible flop, but can’t convert the par putt.

5:40 PM—A Groundhog runs across the fairway.  Crowd goes wild.

5:47 PM—We have about had our fill.  Calf muscles are approaching failure.  We watch a few more groups on our way out.  It allows us to see our worst shot of the day.  Stewart Cink, the least popular Open Champion of the last 20 years, hits what I’d call a “cold, roll top” out of the left rough.  It’s in the air for a blink, trundles across the fairway at an almost 90-degree angle and nestles into the left rough—still a good 100 yards from the green.  Whoops.

5:50 PM—Groundhog again!

6:15 PM—So long, Merion.  It was an experience worth far more than a ruined pair of sneakers.

I think things are setting up for a good weekend.  The course could be brutal this afternoon as it drys out.  I think it will separate the leaderboard a bit, but there still should be enough people in contention for a shootout on Sunday.

Shankin’ in The Rain: The US Open at Merion.

If Only it Were the Fall. Though, At Merion, They Probably say "Autumn."

If Only it Were the Fall. Though, At Merion, They Probably say “Autumn.”

We’re here.  This is the week where every golfer within 100 miles of Philadelphia forgets the fact that Merion (occasionally pronounced Murry-In) is one of the more exclusive clubs around and adopts the venue as their home track.  This is the week people will lie about playing the course, they’ll give you sunnier than usual descriptions of Merion’s members and might not even complain about turning in their cell phones.  The Philadelphia area loves big sporting moments, for so long we were starved, and so for one week Merion might as well be the course in the Inquirer advertising the 2 for $55 weekend cart special.  The masses are going to overrun the place.  I hope they’re ready.  

Normally for a major championship I’d do at least two posts, but it’s all about time constraints.  So, we’re going to have to do a mega-post.  That will include me picking my winner on Monday.  That’s what we call in the business–prognostication suicide.  But saddle up, here we go…

***

The Golf Course:

Merion is the type of course that makes you appreciate golf architecture even if you know nothing about the subject.  A common complaint people have about public courses is that the holes are right on top of each other, too many holes run parallel to each other, etc.  All of this happens at Merion.  For example, my only time at the course I played to the 12th green from the 11 fairway.  I almost branded a grounds crew member working on 4 with my tee shot on 5.  The 18 holes are squeezed onto a tiny piece of property and yet it works–some would say perfectly.  It may not be the best course in the world, but you could make the argument it’s the best match of property and route.  

Not Pictured: The Main Line Mansions.

Not Pictured: The Main Line Mansions.

The U.S. Open has been absent from Merion since 1981 and many people thought it would never return.  The logistics of the property and the lack of yardage were a nightmare for the modern ball and merchandise tent.  It’s taken a lot of creativity (to stretch Merion to almost 7,000 yards) and a lot of compromise from the USGA and surrounding properties to make this event happen.  What we don’t know is if this will be a second last hurrah.  Could Merion possibly get back into the USGA’s rotation?  On a semi-permanent basis?  Or will they have to again downshift to events like the Walker Cup, or possibly a US Senior or Women’s Open?  

Speaking of downgraded events, Merion re-opened its relationship with the USGA with the 1998 Girls Junior.  This was the first time I ever saw the course.  I had two takeaways from that day.  First, the condition of the golf course was like nothing I’d seen.  Merion had put on its best face for this smaller event and I wonder if that showed the USGA something that had been lacking.  If you watch highlights from the 1981 Open, you’ll see a course that is hardly in the condition you’d expect.  Course conditioning has taken giant leaps forward from that time regardless, but I’ve also heard that Merion let itself go a little in the 1980s.  They needed to recapture the bunkering, the teeth of the golf course.  Everything was in full and stunning display for the 1998 Girls Junior.  Of course, I was an easily wooed spectator.  

The other thing I remember from that day is what makes this week so surprising.  These high school age girls were tearing the course up.  Obviously, the course wasn’t being played under US Open conditions, but the birdies were plentiful.  On that day I would have told you there was no way Merion could reasonably host the best players in the World.  To paraphrase a one-time roommate of mine, “They’d shoot 0.”  

How will all this work then?  A few years after the Girls Junior I had my one and only chance to play the course.  And even from the members tees, in benign conditions, playing the course gives you a better idea of what makes the course so challenging.  For a full rundown of my day there, you can read this post.  (Fair Warning: It has a very sad, non-golf related ending).  But, the point is, playing Merion allows you to see the importance of position, and shows you how quickly a hole can get away from you.  You also realize that the yardage on the card isn’t indicative of the test.  The long holes at Merion are very long.  The short holes are very short and will often require a layup.  So, while Merion certainly needed to be stretched to 7,000 yards, it definitely didn’t need to be stretched to  7,400.  

***

Oh My God–The Rain:

It’s a shame the USGA can’t move the U.S. Open around the calendar to accommodate the location.  Anyone who has played golf in the Mid-Atlantic knows that the fall is the best time of year.  The greens are the fastest.  The courses have firmed up as the humidity leaves the air, and there’s no doubt in my mind that a late-September U.S. Open at Merion would receive universally glowing reviews.  But, it’s June.  We’ve had an incredibly wet spring and it’s still raining.  Over the weekend we were pounded.  Merion took a body blow.  

The 11th looked more like 17 at Sawgrass over the weekend.  Via the 700 Level.

The 11th looked more like 17 at Sawgrass over the weekend. Via the 700 Level.

It’s raining again today.  It doesn’t look like things will fully dry out until the weekend.  Perhaps, on Sunday, we might get a glimpse of what the course could have been, but I’m afraid the damage has been done.  The greens and fairways are probably going to be a bit too soft.  It puts the course in a vulnerable position like Congressional faced a few years ago.  Do you allow someone to shoot 15-16 under par?  What Merion will have is incredibly difficult, tall and lush rough.  It’s been great grass growing weather and Merion has the tall stuff right off the fairway.  I’m afraid that the players will balk at this as well.  My great fear is that the weather turns the week into a bitch fest.  And, no one bitches like professional golfers.  So, everyone say a quick ode to Jones that this is the last rain we see all week.  

***

Hey, I’m Going Friday!

I’ll be at the course, trying to get a view of someone, doing something.  If you are going to be there, let me know and we totally will not meet up.  Unless of course, you are also showing up at 7:11 am to follow Angel, Geoff Ogilvy and Paul Lawrie.  I don’t really have anything more for this section, I just wanted everyone to know that I will be there and it should add volumes to my recap post.  And, if things get really weird, I might do a timeline.  

***

Speaking of the Pairings:

Things are going to be a little congested on the East Course.  Even with the spectators limited to 25,000, the consensus seems to be that you need to find a spot and park yourself if you want to see any quality action.  I probably won’t be doing this, but that’s the suggestion.  I’m not sure if the USGA has helped, or hindered the traffic problem by pairing Tiger/Rory and Adam Scott.  Will anyone be following the rest of the field?  Some other pairings, sampled from the full list of tee times…

Hunter Mahan/Nick Watney/Peter Hanson–Early reports have Mahan being one of the players who is attacking Merion with aggressive lines and plays.  It’ll be a story this week, aggression vs. control.  In this instance, I see Mahan losing out.

 David Toms/Darren Clarke/Jose Maria Olazabal–If it was 10 years ago, Toms might be the RUNAWAY favorite.  The other two guys have no shot.  

Luke Donald/Martin Kaymer/Lee Westwood–Donald is the rich man’s Toms at this point, but needs a major.  Westwood’s short game won’t hold up this week.  Keep searching–Lee.  Also, two guys named “Lee” can’t win a major on the same course.  Violation. 

Webb Simpson/Stephen Fox/Ernie Els–One day, I hope one year the defending US Amateur champion just loses his game and shoots 112 at the Open.  Not Fox, he seems like a nice kid, but I’d still like to see that happen.  I have problems.  Also of note: how will the Philly faithful deal with the long putter contingent?

Bubba Watson/Dustin Johnson/Nicholas Colsaerts–The obligatory long hitters group.  Can’t see more than 5 or 6 drivers for anyone.  We’ll see.  I’d give Colsaerts the best chance.  

Phil Mickelson/Keegan Bradley/Steve Stricker–Phil has himself talked into this week.  He LOVES Merion.  And, he rallied for a good finish yesterday.  One of these years will be Phil’s last, best shot.  Did it already happen?

Rickie Fowler/Matteo Manassero/Jason Day–There will  be at least 1,000 dipsh*t kids in flat brims following Fowler around. And half of them will dressed in some monochromatic Puma nightmare.  Steer clear.  Fowler could do well here if he could get clicking.

Sergio Garcia/Stewart Cink/Paddy Harrington–I fear that an article will be written this week about Sergio, Philly fans and Santa Claus.  I’ll post the link by Friday.  

***

Random Predictions:  

Low Score of the Week:  63–Thursday.  It’s coming.  Brace yourself.  I expect it may come from an American player you’ve KINDA heard of.  He’ll then shoot 71-70-76.  

High Score of the Week:  83–The Wheels are coming off someone’s wagon on Sunday.  

The Forgotten Hazard:  People might hit some balls OB this week.  Seems like pros rarely visit the white stakes, but there are some lurking pretty close at Merion.  

The Overrated Hazard:  The Quarry on 16.  It’s an incredible visual, it makes for a great hole, but it’s not like guys are going to be hacking around in the bottom of that thing.  

Most Fun Hole to Watch:  13.  The tiny little par three will feature countless easy birdies and probably a bunch of guys making a mess in the cavernous bunkers.  Also–Hole-in-One potential. 

Number of Times Hogan’s 1-Iron is Mentioned: Over/Under 234.5

Hardest hole on the course:  18.  No question.  On Sunday, you will hear, “We’ve had (pick a number between 1 and 3) birdies here all day.  

Winning Score:  11-under.  

***

The Definitive, Yet Arbitrary Top-10: 

  1. Phil Mickelson
  2. Justin Rose
  3. Matteo Manassero
  4. Charl Schwartzel
  5. Tiger Woods
  6. Bill Haas
  7. Frederik Jacobsen
  8. Jordan Spieth
  9. Scott Stallings
  10. Rickie Fowler

Steve Williams Carries Adam Scott (‘s Bag) To Masters Title.

Ruined 36 Jim Nantz Angel Puns

Ruined 36 Jim Nantz Angel Puns

Another great ending to the Masters.  I wonder if today, sitting around the well-pledged libraries of the clubhouse if the members are just congratulating themselves?  Someone takes a sip of Scotch, gazes lovingly at a life-sized oil painting of Bobby Jones and says, “We run the perfect golf tournament.”  It’d be hard to argue.  We’re on a run of years now with scintillating finishes and memorable shots and it’s all happened without Tiger Woods sliding into his 5th green jacket.  For a sport that seems to be reliant on individual star power, the Masters and Augusta National pull themselves above that level most years.

What I’ll take away from the event this year was the quality of the golf of the playoff.  My Masters’ playoff memories include Scott “Choke” Hoch, Len Mattiace making a thousand on 10, Ray Floyd splashing down on 11, Kenny Perry squandering his chance at history and of course, Bubba’s awful tee shot before, “THE HOOK.”  The Masters makes people choke.  Jason Day all but admitted it in his post-round comments.  The playoff is even worse.  Perhaps this is why a Masters sudden death playoff has never extended beyond two holes.  You either see something miraculous, or someone gives it away.

If you want to be picky, I suppose you could criticize the shots Scott and Angel Cabrera hit into 18 on the first playoff hole, but that would ignore the inherent difficulty of that shot.  And then Cabrera nearly holed his chip, Scott made a nervy 3-footer and they were off to the 10th.  Cabrera’s monster iron off the 10th tee was something from another era.  Thirty years ago professional golfers carried 2-irons to “get the ball in play,” and now they’re practically extinct.  Whatever souped up driving iron Cabrera hit in the playoff was something to behold.  Of course, his putt ended up teasing the edge like Oosthuizen’s last year, but there was no choke in Cabrera.  When the guy shows up–he’s there to stay.

And, Adam Scott has always been a great ball-striker.  He’s the kind of guy who would make a 2-handicap quit the game if they had to hit balls next to him on the range every day.  We’ve been hearing, “if the guy could ever make some putts,” for years.  Last year, when Scott gave away the Open Championship you had to wonder if the cumulative impact of his missed putts was starting to take hold on the rest of his game (Sergio-itis).  But, Scott found the putting stroke late Sunday and made two of the more memorable putts in Masters’ history, the first of which, I thought he had no chance to make.

I’ve always had Scott in the category of guys who I thought could eventually get a major (Hey, I picked him 3rd–not bad?).  It’s a group populated by guys like Dustin Johnson.  Eventually, these guys are just too good to not put it together for one week.  Greg Norman was the most snake bit player in the history of the majors and he gave away plenty too, but he still went out of his mind a couple of times and won the Open twice.  One of these days, Dustin will get so far out in front that he can’t blow it, or he’ll lip-in a crucial putt when he needs it, like Scott did on Sunday.  These guys are too talented to not win a major, where as players like Lee Westwood and Luke Donald–you wonder.

I’m sure it’s a relief for Scott this morning to be free of “the label.”  He’s been a guy who has been pigeon-holed his entire career.  First, he was the guy with Tiger’s swing–an automatic and unfair heir apparent.  Since then, he’s been replaced by an even younger group of Australian golfers and become the favorite of women who are stuck on the couch watching golf.  An honorable distinction, but I doubt something Scott aspired to.  Now, he’s a major champion.  He’s a guy that could have, should have won 2 of the last three majors.  It’ll be interesting to see where he takes it from here.

Some other things of note…

Disappointing Performance by the Top of the World:

Rory and Luke Donald were never factors, Tiger got lost in controversy and didn’t meet his own standards and I’m not sure if Phil Mickelson even played the event.  Did anyone see him?  It’s strange to me how someone like Mickelson can have a week like he did.  The guy has owned the course in the past.  You’re telling me Fred Couples (god that he is) can get around with relative ease for 3 of 4 rounds, can play in the last group Saturday and end up 13th at 53 years old and Phil someone with a (better?) set of similar skills and a decade younger finishes with 77-76-73?  I don’t get it.

Speaking of the Tiger Rules Controversy:

First, I don’t believe that Tiger intentionally took a bad drop.  He knows that every eye is on him and he would have never admitted to it in his interview after the round.  In fact, I wonder if as those words were coming out of Tiger’s mouth if he didn’t have an alarm go off in his subconscious saying, “OH Fudgesicle.”  I think he was flustered, or enraged by that terrible break and made one of the bigger bonehead moves you’ll ever see.  Joe LaCava failed miserably here too.  There’s really no question Tiger took a bad drop, the question is whether he should have been disqualified.  Prior to a rule change a couple of years ago, Tiger would have been out, but a new rules allows the DQ to be waived under “exceptional circumstances.”  That’s quite vague wording for a rule, but that’s golf’s style.  I don’t know that Tiger’s free pass falls in line with the spirit of the rule, but you can certainly shoe horn it in there.  Bottom line, he didn’t win anyway, and we’ll forget about it soon enough.

Closing Shot:

I think they’ve found a nice balance in the setup at Augusta.  I looked at scores on Friday and wondered how hard they could make the course if they wanted to…I’m quite certain with some moderate changes +10 would win.  But, the balance they seem to be at now is that we’re seeing less eagles and maybe fewer “runs,” but the course is still vulnerable to a hot back nine, you simply have to be playing near perfect golf to take advantage.  So, a guy like Scott who is closing well can still make the needed birdies, while someone like Brandt Snedeker, who is leaking oil, is quickly shuffled toward the back of the pack.  It may not be perfect, but it’s working for me.

That it for now–See you at Merion!