Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Masters Preview

It’s tough to beat this week in sports. The NCAA basketball finals. Opening Day for Major League Baseball. The Masters week. There is something for everyone and even many casual or non-golfers will tune into The Masters this weekend. This golf tournament has become the biggest in the world.
For many golf operators in the Northern States this week kicks off another new season. There is something about the pristine beauty of Augusta National that motivates all of us associated with the sport of golf. Everybody will optimistically approach 2015 next week and we can thank The Masters for that. 

As compelling as the telecast of The Masters is, golfers will have a hard time staying in front of the TV this week and not heading to the course to play or hit golf balls. I was a victim of that in 1986 when Jack Nicklaus became the oldest winner of The Masters at the age of 46. The finish that year was going to be a good one with Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman and Bernhard Langer all in the mix. Nicklaus had played the first eight holes in even par and it looked like he was a non-factor.

Some of my buddies and I were watching The Masters at the Phil Harris Golf Course in Linton. We were itching to get out and play ourselves. So, we hit the links mid-afternoon only to miss one of the most historic finishes ever. Nicklaus would make a birdie on #9 and then fire a six-under par 30 on the Back Nine to edge Norman and win his sixth Masters title.

The 2015 Masters story lines are numerous. Rory McIlroy will be trying to win his career Grand Slam. He has won the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship. Only a Green Jacket at Augusta eludes the lad from Northern Ireland when it comes to major championship victories.

Bubba Watson will attempt to win back-to-back Masters. The last time this happened was in 2001-’02 when Tiger Woods did it. Nick Faldo (1989-’90) and Jack Nicklaus (1965-’66) are the only other players to win two consecutive Masters. With another victory Watson would join the elite group of Faldo, Jimmy Demaret, Sam Snead, Gary Player and Phil Mickelson as three-time winners.

Lefties have won six of the past twelve Masters starting with Mike Weir in 2003. Mickelson did it in 2004- ‘06- ’10 and then Bubba in 2012- ’14. All three are right to left players and today’s Augusta National demands that ball flight. A win this year would also mean Watson has won three of the past four Masters. Only Nicklaus has equaled that feat by winning in 1963- ’65- ’66.

The hottest player on the PGA Tour right now is Jordan Spieth. In the last three weeks he has a victory, a runner-up and a sudden death playoff loss on Sunday at the Shell Houston Open. A year ago at The Masters, Spieth had a two shot lead early in the final round, but he fell to Watson and ultimately finished tied for second. Spieth just seems to improve every week.

Jimmy Walker has five PGA Tour victories in the past 18 months, a feat unmatched by any player including McIlroy. Walker won as recently as two weeks ago at San Antonio. He has what it takes to win at Augusta. Walker has length and a great short game. Of local interest, his caddy is Andy Sanders whose father, Greg, graduated from Franklin High School.   
There will be plenty of attention on Ben Crenshaw who will playing in his final Masters. He won this event in 1984 and 1995. Crenshaw will probably make his final stroll up the 18th Fairway at The Masters on Friday. Gentle Ben will be playing in his 44th Masters this week and he has recorded a top five finish on eight occasions. Crenshaw who is considered as one of the finest putters in the history of the game won the ’95 Masters and never recorded a three-putt- a rare feat on Augusta’s tricky greens.

You can always count on some quirky drama at The Masters. Even though the course has gotten longer over the years, in 2014 Miguel Angel Jimenez and Bernhard Langer, both Seniors, finished in the Top 10. Two years ago during the second round Woods hit a perfect third shot into the par-5 15th Hole only to have his ball hit the flagstick and bound backwards into the lake in front of the green. He took an incorrect drop which led to a controversial penalty being assessed the following day forcing him out of contention with an 8 on the hole.    
Speaking of Woods, he will be making another comeback this week. I have lost track of Tiger’s comebacks. It’s getting old from a legend who has all of a sudden become long in the tooth for a 39-year old. Don’t expect anything out of Woods this week. His recent chipping woes set him up for failure with Augusta’s green side undulations and tight lies.

In a recent poll conducted by Geoff Shackelford of Golf Digest, 68% of the 1,000 plus who voted said that Woods would either miss the Masters cut, not finish the first two rounds or never even make it to the tee on Thursday. Woods has taken lots of time off to work on his game and get ready for The Masters. Sadly, I am afraid we will again see a man who is only a shadow of himself.

Conversely, The Masters won’t let us down this week. It always delivers lots of special moments filled with beautiful scenery. Whatever the story lines that are about to unfold, they will be historic and we will talk about them for years to come. After all, this is The Masters.     

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer is 85 years old. This week he will again serve as host to his own Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando. For true golf fans this is one of the most precious weeks on the golf calendar. Not even the great ones like Palmer can defy age. Who knows how many more of these Bay Hill events The King will be able to host?

The top five players in the Official World Golf Rankings- Rory McIlroy; Bubba Watson; Henrik Stenson; Adam Scott and Jason Day will all be in this week’s field. This is a fitting tribute to Palmer and what he did to forge the modern day game. Still, many of golf’s top players will not be at Bay Hill this week and that is too bad because this should be an event that all PGA TOUR players mark on their calendars. 

Spending a week with Arnold Palmer at this stage in his life is being in rarified air. Even his age, Palmer has a lot to offer today’s players. He is still a mentor, a great sportsman and someone who players can learn from. But, more than that, playing in the Arnold Palmer Invitational is a fitting way to say thanks to the guy who made today’s multi-million dollar purses possible.

Several years ago during the week of Bay Hill, Palmer talked about his commitment to the PGA TOUR during his early days as a professional golfer. He spoke of the obligation that he felt to attend cookouts and cocktail parties early in the week of TOUR events as a display of support to the tournament sponsors who put up the hard work and dollars. Playing in the weekly pro-am was something Palmer said he looked forward to.

More revealing was hearing Palmer say that he felt an obligation to play in every PGA TOUR stop at least once in a three or four year period of time. He admitted that it was impossible to commit to every tournament in a given year, but Palmer recognized the importance of his presence to all tournament sponsors.

Many of today’s top players will commit to a schedule that only includes 15-17 events per year. This includes the four major championships, The Players Championship plus the five World Golf Championship events. Unfortunately for the rest of the regular TOUR stops that doesn’t leave much support from the game’s top players. This was evident during the West Coast swing earlier this winter when most of the top players skipped all or most of the events.

Granted the landscape of today’s professional game is different than it was back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when Palmer was making his mark on the TOUR. Today’s players are earning millions from outside endorsements and they simply don’t need to play in 25-30 events per year. This is unhealthy for the long-term stability of the professional game. 

To Palmer’s credit, even at age 85, when his game has deserted him, he shows up at Augusta National and plays in the Par 3 tournament. He fell this winter and injured his shoulder, but he will still attempt to hit the ceremonial first tee shot to start the 2015 Masters. People don’t care where the tee shot goes. So what if Arnie tops a shot in the Par 3? This might be your last chance to see Arnold Palmer swing a golf club. 

On two occasions I had the opportunity to meet with Palmer in his second floor Bay Hill office overlooking the course he built. The first time was on the Monday after his tournament in 2013 and the subject was the proposed ban of the anchored stroke. The next time was in May 2014 and the subject was his father, Deacon, and the formation of an award by the PGA of America to recognize Palmer’s father for his accomplishments in golf.

Each time I entered Palmer’s office my heart was pounding with anticipation knowing that I was in the presence of possibly the most influential person in the sport’s history. His office is cluttered with memorabilia and family photos. Two large leather arm chairs sit in front of his desk. His big yellow lab, Mulligan, will either greet you in the receiving area outside the office or quietly keep an eye on you while softly panting on the floor next to The King. 

Palmer still has the charisma and the charm. He can still stare you down with that stern look that makes your knees tremble. His hand shake is extremely firm. The twinkle still exists in those aging eyes. The infectious smile that won the hearts of millions still comes easy for Palmer. But, sadly Arnold Palmer is entering the winter of his great life.

This is a very special week in golf. We never know when an Arnold Palmer Invitational might be the last of its kind. These are the final pages of history being turned.