Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Joe Skovron, PGA Tour Caddy

It was during one of those extended rain delays at the Ryder Cup in Wales last fall when I shared a ride to the clubhouse with Joe Skovron. He was there in the official USA party as Rickie Fowler’s caddy. We, as PGA Officers, shared the same locker bay in the team room with the caddies.  I had noticed this polite, young kid from Southern California and was impressed with him from the beginning.
Ironically, as a kid, Skovron always saw himself playing on the PGA Tour. It was his goal from the time he started playing at age 9 until he hung up his clubs after a stint on the mini-tours when he was 26. He grew up in what he describes as a “sports family” and even more specifically a “golf family”.  
“My dad is a lifetime member of the PGA of America and loves the game of golf more than anyone I have ever met in my life”, says Skovron. “My mom has been involved in the golf business for much of her life as well. She runs our local junior golf association, where both Rickie Fowler and Brendan Steele (winner of the recent Valero Texas Open) got their starts.”
Joe Skovron, the golfer, twice earned Division III All American honors at the University of LaVerne. He graduated Summa Cum Laude with a BS in Movement and Sports Science. He coached his alma mater in 2008-09 leading it to a runner-up finish in the NCAA Championships.  After playing and coaching, Skovron found himself about to embark on a new role in golf.
“I got into caddying through playing tournament golf. I roomed with Brendan (Steele) and would caddy for him the last couple of rounds every once in a while when I missed a cut and he was in contention. Occasionally, I also caddied for Charlotte Mayorkas,” recalls Skovron.
Today, Skovron can be found toting the sack for one of the PGA Tour’s hottest stars. He and Rickie Fowler go way back. Skovron is eight years older than Fowler, but both grew up practicing at the Murietta Golf Range and playing the same courses. Skovron had followed Fowler’s career and the two had played a lot of golf together.
“One day when we were playing golf he asked me to come out and caddy the Nationwide Tour Event in Columbus when he was still an amateur. He finished 2nd, asked me to caddy for him when he turned pro and I have been his full time caddy ever since,” recalls Skovron.
In a week that Fowler plays on the PGA Tour, Skovron will fly into the tournament site Sunday night or Monday morning. He will spend 3-4 hours walking the course if he hasn’t seen it before or 2-3 hours if it is a repeat site. During this time, he will check carries, thru lines, etc.
On Tuesday, Fowler will normally play a practice round. That gives Skovron a look at the course with Rickie hitting shots. Player and caddy talk about course strategy. They review pin positions from the year before, talk about the best leaves and avoiding certain spots on the green. Wednesdays are usually a pro-am day and this gives Skovron his second look at the course.
“On tournament days, I usually get to the course 1.5-2 hours before our tee time. I get the day’s pin sheet and mark the pins in my yardage book, eat, and Rickie normally starts his golf warm up about an hour before he plays,” says Skovron.  The rest of the week includes dinners, hanging out and booking future travel. Other normal daily tasks usually take up the afternoons and evenings.
When asked about the worst and best parts of the job, Skovron says, “Not sure if there really is a worst part. I am lucky enough to have a job I love.  My favorite part of the job is being in contention down the stretch. The feeling you get when your player is in contention, the challenge of being at your best when the tournament is on the line. That is fun to me!”
There was no bigger drama down the stretch than during the singles matches at the 2010 Ryder Cup when Fowler stormed back from 4 down to tie Edoardo Molinari and earned a critical ½ point for the U.S. team. For Skovron, it was the culmination to the best golf week of his life.
“The Ryder Cup is such a special event. Anytime you represent your country is special. Getting to be part of a team in golf is so much fun. To be part of a team with guys that I looked up to as a kid, that was very special,” said Skovron. “The Ryder Cup coming down to the last matches and Rickie’s being one of the pivotal points… that’s what it’s all about. That is why players play and that’s why the caddies are out there. You want to be part of something special like that.”
For all of his worldly golf ways, Skovron had never been to Augusta National Golf Club until a week before this year’s Masters. He says the experience lived up to the hype. The golf course was even more than he expected- different than any other. The Masters was his favorite event growing up and it didn’t disappoint Skovron who found himself with Fowler, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day during the first two rounds.
“Our group’s scores those first two days speak for themselves. All three guys played great. Rory, Jason and Rickie are all good guys and I enjoyed those first two rounds. There are so many good young players out there right now and, more importantly, a lot of those guys are very good people. The future of golf looks like it is in good hands,” observed Skovron.  “Getting to play with Freddie (Couples) on Saturday at Augusta was pretty cool as well.”
In my conversations with Skovron it is very apparent that he is not frustrated with his role as a caddy versus being the player.
“While my career as a player didn’t work out, all of the time I spent on the golf course over the years and all of the sacrifices my family made, have paid off and allowed me to end up with a career as a PGA Tour caddy,” surmises Skovron.
It would appear that Skovron’s relationship with Fowler could be long term in the sometimes fickle world of player/caddy relationships on the PGA Tour. At least, that is Skovron’s wish.
“I’m hoping that I have a bright future caddying out here. I would love to caddy for Rickie for a long time and be by his side when he accomplishes the goals he has set for himself,” concluded Skovron.
My guess is that Rickie Fowler and Joe Skovron will grow old together! 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Get Golf Ready Thrives at Retaining New Golfers

SOURCE: PGA of America
April 12, 2011 14:11 ET

PALM BEACH GARDENS, FL--(Marketwire - Apr 12, 2011) - Play Golf America has announced that Get Golf Ready (GGR), a program aimed at bringing adults into the game in a fast, fun and affordable way, expands into its third year. Currently, 1,630 facilities nationwide are certified to host GGR programs (
There are 27 million golfers in the United States, and through a three-year study conducted by the NGF, researchers found there are approximately another 27 million who are HIP on Golf (Have an Interest in Playing). With the statistics showing that for every golfer in America, there is another who wants to learn how to play, GGR fills that necessary niche in today's golf industry by offering a series of five introductory lessons beginning at $99.
Get Golf Ready has been Play Golf America's featured program since its inception (2009). Since then, PGA/LPGA Professionals have reported that more than 34,000 participants have gone through the program, with 42 percent never having played golf before and another 44 percent being former golfers.
"We are thrilled that Get Golf Ready was launched under the Play Golf America umbrella," said Allen Wronowski, PGA of America President. "The two-year results prove that we can not only attract new golfers through affordable programs, but also keep them engaged through instruction and fun activities, including future playing opportunities."
From data received from students following the completion the program, 97 percent reported that GGR met or exceeded their expectations, and 84 percent continued to play and practice throughout the year. GGR retention rates demonstrate the effectiveness of the program when it comes to teaching skills that motivate participants to return to the course.
In just two years, GGR has already generated an additional $19.9 million in revenue for the golf industry. In 2010, participating golf courses averaged more than 30 participants and based on the average golfer spending, those facilities could generate an additional $24,000 in revenue for the industry as a result of hosting the program.
"We expect to see the Get Golf Ready impact to the industry continue to climb as the program keeps evolving," said Cathy Harbin, Director of Golf 20/20. "For example, 1000 participating facilities averaging 30 students who spend the industry average of $808 per year results in more than $24 million in revenue generated by these new golfers in one year."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Golf Becoming Larger Piece of Indiana's Economy

National Golf Day in Washington DC
PGA President Allen Wronowski, PGA Vice President Ted Bishop,
 PGA Secretary Derek Sprague and PGA CEO Joe Steranka

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana native Ted Bishop spent Sunday at the exclusive Augusta National Golf Club as a rules official for the prestigious Masters golf tournament, where the winner earned international fame and took home $1.44 million in prize winnings.

He spent Tuesday morning at the Indiana Statehouse, talking to legislators about how golf is a game for the common man — and one that brings in millions of dollars to the state's economy.

Bishop, vice president of the PGA of America, uttered a phrase legislators love to hear, that golf is a “tax-revenue generator” before telling them that its impact is on par with some of the state's more iconic industries, such as soybean production and dairy products.

“I’m here to dispute the notion that golf is a game for the elite,” said Bishop, who learned the game as a teenager working a public par-3 golf course in Logansport. The former PGA pro will serve as president of the PGA next year.

Bishop spoke at a press conference in the first-floor atrium of the Statehouse, while PGA professionals from Indiana golf courses offered legislators and their staffers swing lessons and putting advice in a makeshift hitting cage and putting green set up nearby.

Facing a long day of legislative business, few lawmakers took  advantage of the offer.

But Bishop and members of the Indiana Golf Alliance, whose members work in the state’s golf industry, made sure legislators and the media knew about a just-released study that says Indiana’s 400-plus golf courses and ranges generate about $600 million a year in gross revenues and that the golf industry employs about 21,000 Hoosiers.

“And that’s not to mention all the business deals that get done on Indiana golf courses,” said Rep. Bob Morris, a freshman Republican legislator from Fort Wayne. Last week, Golf Digest magazine named Sycamore Hills Golf Course in Fort Wayne to its biannual “America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses.” Augusta National, where the Masters was played last week, tops the list.

The Indiana Golf Economy study was commissioned by GOLF 20/20, an initiative of the World Golf Foundation. It’s one of a series of economic-impact studies commissioned by the golf industry and prompted by federal legislation created after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.

In the wake of the hurricane, Congress created a tax-incentive program designed to boost business investment in the coastal area. But specifically excluded from the program were massage parlors, liquor stores, casinos and golf courses.

Bishop said it was a wakeup call to the golf industry that it needed to boost the economic benefits of the sport. Economic impact studies for more than 20 states have been conducted since then.

Indiana has hosted some prestigious golf tournaments, including the 2010 PGA Professionals National Championship at the Pete Dye Golf Course in French Lick. But both Bishop and Indiana Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman said much of the game’s economic impact —including $136 million in golf-related tourism — comes from public golf courses that have greens fees of less than $30.

That’s why Bishop had one last piece of advice for his Statehouse audience: “I just ask that you play more golf.”

Story written by
Maureen Hayden
Tribune-Star Statehouse Bureau

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Masters Finale

Chaos is not a term typically synonymous with Augusta National, but that is exactly what was happening on Sunday afternoon at The Masters. I heard a patron ask why The National doesn’t have electric scoreboards and hand held TV’s like other golf majors. The answer is simple. The Masters doesn’t want to and it doesn’t don’t need to.
For those that have never experienced a final round at The Masters let me paint you a picture. Manual scoreboards with slots that open like little windows house the hole by hole under par scores for each player on the leaderboards. The windows open in groups of three and when that happens there is a collective inhale across Augusta National. When the new total is posted there is a roar or a groan.
On Sunday the roars came in abundance.  The groans, while few, were just as telling. The largest roar was not caused by a lion, but from a Tiger who snatched up an eagle on Hole 8. That same Tiger had devoured a whole flock of birdies in the two hours leading up to his arrival at the par-5 eigth. This Tiger’s presence, who some had said had been missing,  was now felt all over Augusta National. 
From my rules post on the 10th green I could experience the final round through my ears. Like claps of thunder, there were constant eruptions all over golf’s most hallowed grounds. You knew where the leaders were and the roars predictably told where the birdies and eagles were being made. Really, you didn’t have to see the action, the roars told the story.
There was one particular groan I didn’t need to hear.  “The groan” wasn’t something you just heard, you felt it. And for me, sitting near the 10th green, I saw it as well. Rory McIlroy, the 21 year old Irishman who had been leading or co-leading for three and a half rounds, made a fateful triple bogey on the opening hole of the back nine in route to an inward 43. I watched the window open on the leaderboard, saw his 11 go to an 8 and waited to hear the groans from the crowds in front and behind my post. Each groan felt made my heart sink little more for the kid. I can only imagine how he felt.
As McIlroy was making his 7 on Hole 10, that same Tiger that had produced so many roars earlier was supposedly on the prowl back in Amen Corner. But the silence told the story. A three-putt bogey at Hole 12 and a pedestrian par at Hole 13 crippled the Tiger in his quest for another Green Jacket.  If the roars and groans can tell a story, so can the quiet disappointment of fans.
 But the story was still getting told and still getting better. A slew of other players who would grab a share of the lead at some point, seven others in fact. I started to run the logistics of a eight, nine, ten-man playoff.  It was mind-boggling.
But alas, a little known South African named Charl Schwartzel emerged from the chaos. All he did was birdie the final four holes laying claim to the 2011 Masters. No player had ever birdied the last four holes to win a major golf championship. Great nerves, clutch shots and a world of talent can produce some incredible golf. I look forward to seeing Mr. Schwartzel at more tournaments including our PGA Championship outside of Atlanta and of course, at the PGA Grand Slam of Golf.
Was this the greatest Masters ever? That is debatable. I would argue that if Tiger had won, especially in a four-birdies-to-finish fashion, we would say that this year’s Masters was the greatest of all time. But it was Charl Scwartzel who emerged from the pack. How he plays the rest of his career may determine how great a Masters this was. If he were to go on and win multiple majors, people will look back on this tournament as a defining moment in golf. But regardless, no one can deny that this was one of the most chaotic, intense and dramatic Masters - with more eagles, birdies and roar producing shots - than Augusta has seen in a long time.
It wasn’t that long ago when some pundits thought that the course was too penal, that scoring conditions had muted those famous roars.  You won’t hear those voices any more, at least, not for a long time.  This year’s weather conditions helped the tournament staff to control moisture levels allowing the greens to be responsive to high shots. The edges around most water hazards had longer grass, which held up many shots from going into the water and actually gave players fluffy lies, which made recovering a possibility.  Our friends at Augusta National knew the type of tournament they wanted, and boy did they ever get it.
But, in the end it was the players who still had to hit the shots, make the putt, to produce the roars. And they did. Forget McIlroy’s final nine holes, let’s remember his sterling play in the first 63. That momentum opened the door for the likes of Jason Day and Rickie Fowler, two Masters’ rookies who produced some fireworks of their own. It’s not a coincidence that these three were playing partners on Thursday and Friday – and all played outstanding golf.
These young studs strolled the sacred grounds with no fear, lots of confidence and gave us a peek into the future. All three talked about the inspiration that they had gained as kids watching Tiger win the 1997 Masters by a double digit margin. McIlroy was 7 years old; Day was 9 years old and Fowler was 11 years old when Tiger lapped the field 14 years ago. And we should not forget Schwartzel who was the elder statesman of 12 years old at the time!
So, just how significant was the 2011 Masters? We know that Tiger can produce plenty of roars, but now there are the young lions who beckon the roars also! It’s a shame we have to wait another year for another Masters. And who knows if we’ll ever get another one as exciting as this one.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Masters Day 3

One thing I always remind myself during special occasions is: This is going to make a great memory.

I've been extremely fortunate to have made many great memories in my life in golf, and a large number of them center around this week's venue: Augusta National Golf club.

I am often asked about my favorite Masters' memory. This is easy. My first trip to Augusta National and this tournament was in 1983. The Saturday round had been rained out and I received a phone call from a friend who owned a private plane and he suggested that we fly to Augusta early on Sunday and witness the final two rounds. I thought this guy was crazy. I was still a PGA apprentice, so I would need a ticket, as would the entire foursome who went.

We left Sullivan, Indiana's airport early that Sunday and arrived at Augusta's Bush Field mid- morning. Somehow we found a rental car, battled traffic and bought four tickets for the last two rounds for the cost of $75 apiece. (I don't think this would work as well today!) Seve Ballesteros trailed by one shot heading into Monday's finale. He went four under par on the first four holes (two birdies and an eagle) and led by five at the turn on his way to victory.

Back in 1983 we entered The National at the gate leading down
Magnolia Lane
. I will never forget the sensation of walking down the tree lined entrance and being inside the gates of Augusta National for the first time in my life. I found a pay phone near the practice tee and called my dad in Logansport.

"You will never guess where I am?" I said in a needling tone.

"Hopefully, not in the klink (his sarcastic term for jail)", Jim Bishop replied.

"I am standing here at The Masters watching Arnold Palmer hit balls." I responded.

The downer of a follow up is that my dad told me several years later that someday he really wanted to go to The Masters. I never made that happen and it will always be one of the biggest regrets of my life.  I would encourage all golf fans to put this on the Bucket List and do what you can to make it happen. If you don't, you'll regret it one day. Trust me.

In 1984 we made a repeat visit to The Masters and witnessed the final two rounds. On Sunday, four birdies in a five hole stretch gave Ben Crenshaw the lead, but it was a birdie on No. 15 that sealed a two-stroke victory over Tom Watson. My second time at The Masters was just as good as the first. Maybe it was better because we knew what we were doing and where to watch. The point is The Masters never gets old. The golf course takes your breath away every time you step foot on it.

I'm sure many of you realize that 2011 is the 25th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus' famous come-from-behind win in 1986. Heading into Sunday, the Golden Bear was on the third page of the leaderboard. Deadly putting with an oversize MacGregor putter spurred a dazzling final-nine 30 that included an eagle-birdie-birdie stretch on holes 15, 16 and 17 propelling Nicklaus to his record sixth Masters title.  How's that for a memory?

I even have a great Masters memory that didn't even happen at the Masters! I had the privilege to direct a pro-am in Arizona back in the 1980s. We honored Byron Nelson in November of 1986. Each day I would eat breakfast with Nelson. I would drive him 45 minutes one way to the golf course. It was just Byron and me. I still pinch myself thinking about those four days so long ago.

Nelson told me a story about how he picked up a pen and stationery and began writing Nicklaus a note as Jack started to play the final nine holes at Augusta in 1986. I remember Nelson saying, "I thought that it was just great that Jack could still compete in a major championship at that point in his career. I never dreamed that he would win, but I just kept writing as he played each hole," said Nelson. "I wound up writing a letter that chronicled all of his back nine and sent it to Jack."

That would be a letter to read, wouldn't it?

Earlier this week, I attended the memorial service at West Lake for Frank Chirkanian, the CBS sports legend, and the architect of modern day golf coverage. Experts in the business would also credit Chirkanian for much of the modern day popularity that The Masters enjoys. His influence and innovative approach to Masters coverage is unsurpassed.

The night before that final round in 1986, Chirkanian conducted a production meeting and told his celebrated group of announcers to be prepared for something special to happen on Sunday. "I don't know  what it will be, but be ready and be brief. Think of four woods that will capture whatever the moment is."

The great ones always have vision.

And because of that. We get to have great memories of their work.

Seventy years ago Craig Wood won The Masters and he said, "I might do anything now because this is the happiest day of my life."

In 1951, sixty years ago, Ben Hogan won and he said, "If I never win again I won't complain."

Fifty years ago it was Gary Player who won. "They say Arnold Palmer gave me the 1961 Masters by double-bogeying the 72nd hole. In fact, Arnold wouldn't have had a chance had I not double bogeyed 15. Writers place too much emphasis on the last hole."

Charles Coody was a surprise winner in 1971.

Tom Watson nipped Nicklaus by two shots in 1981 and said, "It feels great to beat the top player in the game over the last 20 years. I'd be lying if I said that didn't make any difference."

In 1991 Ian Woosnam won the Green Jacket and he humbly said, "Never, ever, in my heart did I ever feel I would be part of it."

And 10 years ago Tiger Woods won his fourth consecutive major championship. Afterwards, Woods' swing coach Butch Harmon summed up the significance of this masterful performance. "What this is, is something no one who has walked this planet has ever done before."

Who knows what the story will be on Sunday night. One thing is for sure, every Masters takes on its own personality.  And it's going to create an incredible memory for all golf fans.
Ted's View while working one day at the Masters!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Masters Day 2

This week, one of my hats (as I've mentioned in my earlier post) will be that of a Rules Official.  That role officially kicked off at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday. It was there in the Magnolia Suite, located behind the #1 fairway, that over 100 officials from all over the world convened with Fred Ridley, Tournament Chairman, in preparation for the start of the 75th Masters.  It was there that we received our assignments for the week. We all agreed it would be a week of great golf and great times. It always has been.

My assignments for the week will be as follows: Thursday, Hole #3; Friday, the green on Hole #13; Saturday, Hole #8 and then on Sunday, Hole #10. I will be working with David Price, PGA Rules Committee Chairman on Thursday and Saturday. Price is one of the top rules experts in all of golf. I know that between us, and especially with David's comprehensive knowledge and classy demeanor, we're prepared and ready.

Working rules at The Masters is a far different than giving a ruling in the club championship at The Legends Golf Club! You always want to get it right, but especially when the entire golf world is watching.  Plus, every golf fan seemingly thinks they are an expert on the rules. so the fans and players expect you to know and they won't relent if you don't.

It's funny how this works, but in my previous two years I have actually had to give five rulings. As luck would have it, John Merrick and Padraig Harrington have each surfaced twice. Truthfully, when a Rules Official reports to his or her assignment, the hope is for no rulings and no controversy. That being said, we all know anything is possible in golf.  And we'll be ready for anything.

But regardless, it's going to be one of the best Masters ever. The weather this week promises to be picture perfect. It will be sunny and hot by the weekend. The course will play hard and fast, which will mean that experienced players should have the edge. That's my call anyways.

The City of Augusta shuts its school system down for Masters' week. It is certainly like a holiday in the golf world, especially in these parts. I can't blame them. Though, not all the locals stick around to celebrate. Many in fact, will rent their homes to players, officials and spectators. And just guessing, I bet they get a pretty good rate.

As for me, my schedule for the week is crazy. After spending all day at the course on Wednesday we attended the Golf Writers' Dinner, which is actually a favorite of mine. Thursday found me at the course by 6:30 a.m. until approximately 5 p.m. that evening.  The PGA of America hosted a late-night reception as well.

Then, after a long day at Amen Corner on the 13th green on Friday, I will head to a dinner party at the ESPN house. Saturday and Sunday evenings are actually times when we can relax at night and have some guests over to the house where we are staying.

But my favorite spot is still on the grounds of The National, as the natives call the Masters' venue. It may well be the huge live oak tree on the back of the clubhouse lawn. This is a meeting place for many that attend the tournament. The view from here is spectacular. It is the highest point on the property and you can look all of the way down into Amen Corner, which is officially defined as  #11 green and Holes #12 and #13.

It is here that the players walk from the clubhouse to the putting green and then to the tee at #1. It was great to renew some Ryder Cup acquaintances with Matt Kuchar, Rickie Fowler, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker and their caddies. I also had a chance to meet Peter Uihlein, defending U.S. Amateur Champion and son of Wally, the CEO of the Acushnet Company. Uihlein and Fowler were teammates at Oklahoma State.
Davis Love III, our 2012 Ryder Cup Captain is in this year's Masters' field by virtue of his sixth place finish in last year's U.S. Open. He stopped and talked briefly. Love looked over his shoulder at Fowler and Uihlein and said, "That could be two of my players!"

The Masters is always a reunion of sorts. For me it was a chance to hook up with the legendary Jack Burke, 1956 Masters Champion. I had first met Burke 30 years ago when running the Phil Harris Golf Course in Linton, IN. He and Jay Hebert had come to play in Phil's tournament and they conducted a clinic prior to the event.

Burke is truly a golf icon. He and Jimmy Demaret founded The Champions Golf Club in Houston, TX. Burke has been a Ryder Cup player and captain. He is an expert in the business of golf. As a young PGA pro back in the 1980's, I had a chance to spend the better part of ten years being around Burke. His influence on my career was profound.  Wednesday's meeting under the oak tree was a chance of fate for me.  I had that rare opportunity to say thanks to Mr. Burke.

Obviously, The National is full of history. Where else would legends like Nicklaus, Palmer and Player return every year to play in a nine hole par three tournament? Where else would former champions such as Burke, Billy Casper, Doug Ford and Tommy Aaron come to just hang out on the lawn underneath an umbrella table?

Interestingly enough when Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones founded The National in 1932 it was not without challenges. Mired in the Great Depression, the state of the economy made it tough to sell memberships. Horton Smith won the first Masters in 1934 and had to wait several months for his trophy because the members had to pool their funds together to get one made.

It's been documented several times that in the 1930's, the club was on the verge of bankruptcy. But, the tenacity of Roberts and Jones saved The National. A television contract with CBS in the mid 1950's brought the nation's eye to this beautiful place. Aren't we all glad that happened.

The Masters constantly reminds viewers of tradition, but this can be a very progressive championship as well. It was here, they invented gallery ropes, the scoring system seen today at every PGA Tour event (over/under par) and the first ever televised golf tournament in living color- just to name a few.

Mere words cannot express the beauty and magic of this place. Amen Corner is haunted in a good way and as you read this on Friday, I will be stationed somewhere behind the 13th green among the azaleas and dogwoods. For approximately eight hours I will be in golf Heaven.  

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Masters Day 1 2011

Jeff Overton arrived at Augusta National last Saturday with Mike Mayer, his former college coach from Indiana University and his current PGA instructor. Despite playing in five previous major championships and the 2010 Ryder Cup, this is Overton's first trip down
Magnolia Lane
and to the Masters.

"We wanted to get to the course and go to work," said Mayer. "Saturday was Jeff's first time to play Augusta National. We went out in the afternoon and when we were on the green at #3, we noticed Tiger Woods behind us. We waited and wound up playing the rest of the front nine with him.

"Tiger was great to Jeff. He helped him with the subtle parts of the course and gave us tips on where pin placements would likely be. When we got to #9, Tiger gave Jeff some advice for the back nine and asked if he wanted to join him for 18 holes on Sunday."

It was the first time that Overton had spent much time with Woods on the golf course, though the two were of course, able to get to know each other a little as teammates on last year's Ryder Cup squad. So of course, Jeff was eager to take Woods up on the offer and met him on Sunday for the full round. Who better to give you advice on the course than a four-time Masters champion?  "There was no better way to get the nerves out of Jeff's system than to play his first two rounds at Augusta with Tiger Woods," observed Mayer.

But that's how things have shaped up for both Overton and Mayer. It's been a storybook ride so far, and it just seems to be getting better.  Though Overton has seen his share of headlines, Mayer has been happy to step back from the limelight and enjoy his student's many successes. But he's still as involved and enthusiastic as he's ever been about teaching and the love of golf.

Mayer graduated from high school in 1975 and went to work as a sports writer for the North Vernon (IN) Plain Dealer. But his love of golf led to a career change and his efforts got him named pro/superintendent of the Muscatuck Country Club a few years later. From there, Mayer got an assistant pro's job at Indiana University. He worked hard and eventually wound up as the head pro and men's golf coach at IU.

Mayer first saw Overton as a high school freshman in 1998. "There was something different about Jeff, even back then. He was a gym rat on the golf course and he had the ability to make birdies and not stop," recalls Mayer. "He wasn't highly recruited, but had solid fundamentals. I didn't change his swing when he got to college. We just tweaked some things and he trusted me. It has been a great relationship."

Under Mayer's watchful eye, Overton gradually improved from what Mayer called "a decent, but not spectacular freshman year". Overton won his four college events as a junior and that run launched his career. He wound up as a two-time All-American setting the IU scoring record while earning All Big Ten honors four times.

Overton won the final match of the 2005 Walker Cup at the Chicago Golf Club. "That just gave him another boost of confidence," said Mayer. "One of the best phone calls I ever got was when he called to tell me that he got his PGA Tour card."

Today, Overton lives in Bloomington, IN which gives Mayer plenty of time to monitor his prized pupil. "Jeff's swing is unique and he has some moving parts. I am able to help him get his swing in a plane where he can be successful. I like to think that I can be a calming influence on him"

Mayer's influence on Overton might not have been more evident than at the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in Wales. Mayer was part of a large IU contingent that followed Overton to the Ryder Cup. "That was my best time with Jeff as a teacher and coach. You have to be there to really understand the magnitude of that setting and he got comfortable in those surroundings. He just kept playing better all week."

So what is Mayer doing to help get Overton ready for his Masters' debut? "The game plan is to attack the par five's. We feel like we need to be 10-under par on those holes. The par four's are real difficult. I think the golf course really fits him and he has to make the 5-7 foot putts."

Mayer says that the Masters' preparation takes place on the course and in the car to and from Augusta National. "We don't talk about it when we get home. Lately, we talked about Butler basketball," laughed Mayer. "But, on the course this week's focus was on putting. His ball striking has been superb." 

Augusta National's toughest hole? "I think it is the 12th", said Mayer. "That is the greatest short par three in golf. The wind always swirls in that part of the course and it is the scariest 145-yard shot I have ever seen."

On Wednesday afternoon, Mayer left Augusta National and returned to Indiana University where his team will host the Indiana Invitational this weekend. It's back to reality for this PGA professional. "My job was to get Jeff ready for The Masters and I have done that. Now, it's back to business and taking care of my team."

Even Mayer admits that this ride has been pretty incredible. "After I got out of the newspaper business, my goal was to become a PGA member. Getting my PGA membership is still one of the highlights of my life. I wear a lot of hats and no doubt I have gotten to wear some special hats because of Jeff Overton."

This weekend will be a challenge for Mayer. His focus will be on his IU team, but he admits that he will be checking the TV to get Overton updates. He admits to having a DVR and what would happen if Overton would be in contention on Sunday?

"I will probably turn my team over to my assistant and I will be on a plane headed to Augusta," says Mayer.

And for what it is worth. The last time a rookie won The Masters was in 1979.

Fuzzy Zoeller, another Indiana native, pulled off the feat. Overton and Mayer would love nothing better than to see history repeat itself on Sunday.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Opening Day

“Golf provides us with many special opportunities,” quipped Joe Steranka, the Chief Executive Officer of the PGA of America, as we walked through the bowels of Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Thursday prior to Opening Day for the Cardinals.

A few minutes later, our PGA delegation found itself standing on the field behind the batting cage. Albert Pujols stood a few feet away. The sun glistened down on the newly mown grass and the downtown skyline featuring the famed Arch was magnificent. Mike Shannon, Cardinals’ great and long time announcer stopped by to chat about golf.

Several hours before, we had met civic leaders at the famed Bellerive Country Club- host of both the PGA Championship and United States Open. Among those we talked with was Ozzie Smith, Baseball Hall of Fame member and legendary Cardinal’s shortstop. Smith is now a champion for the Gateway PGA Golf Foundation.

Yes, golf has certainly provided me with great opportunities and experiences that I otherwise would not have had. I view this essay as my inaugural literary tee shot of the 2011 season! Next week I head south to Augusta National for my third stint as a rules official at The Masters.

I will love sharing those experiences with you. A few weeks ago I played Augusta National. The course was in the best shape that I have seen it in my times there. Based on the winter weather in the South, the flowering trees and plants should be spectacular at The Masters. There will be a rules committee meeting on Wednesday morning. That is when I find out what my assignments will be.

There is never a bad day at Augusta National. When I finish my tenure as a PGA Officer in 2016 I will have spent approximately 90 days either being a spectator, playing the course or serving as a rules official. Think about that. I will have spent almost three months of my life at Augusta National Golf Club- you never take that for granted.

This golf season promises to be compelling and exciting. We are in an era where new stars are emerging every week. The Tiger Woods story line, changes but never goes away.  Woods will get it sorted out and it will be sooner than later. Even though odds makers have him listed as the favorite at 7 to 1 to win The Masters, I don’t see Woods winning next week.

After three-putting six times at Augusta National on March 11, I have a renewed appreciation for what it takes to win. Avoiding three putts in The Masters will mean putting the ball in the proper place on the green with great iron play. I wouldn’t call Augusta National a tight driving course, which allows players like Woods and Phil Mickelson to always be in the hunt for a green jacket.

That being said, Woods and Mickelson have been replaced at the top of the World Golf Rankings by players such as Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell. This is the first time since the early 1990’s that no American player has been among the top four ranked players in the world. My picks next week will be Kaymer and Matt Kuchar, a Georgia Tech grad, who is positioned to grab a major championship sometime soon.

You can expect my Masters reports on Thursday, Friday and Saturday next week. I hope to pass on the flavor and intimacy of everything about this magical place. Those of us in the golf business feel that The Masters is the official beginning of the northern golf season. I look forward to bringing Amen Corner to the doorstep of your mind.

As far as the rest of 2011 golf season goes, we will just have to wait and see what happens. It’s like holing that fairway shot for an unexpected eagle. In golf, you just never know when a great moment is going to happen!

Two years of Ryder Cup build up allowed me to get to know Corey Pavin like a brother. Being up close with the American team last year was incredible. I forged friendships with Matt Kuchar, Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk. I became an admirer of Rickie Fowler who is one of the brightest and most humble stars that golf has to offer. The Ryder Cup experience gave me a better understanding of Tiger Woods and the real person that he is. Like all of us, he made mistakes and we owe him the chance to rectify the error of his ways.

An unexpected round at The Old Course on the day after the British Open will always be one of my greatest memories. I made three birdies that day, including two straight on #9 and #10 after driving the green on the opening hole of the back nine. Knowing that I was walking in the foot steps of Old Tom Morris at Saint Andrews was almost too much to bear. Downing a pint in the Royal and Ancient clubhouse a few feet from Young Tom Morris’ champions’ belt and the original Claret Jug was priceless.

Winning the pro-am at The PGA Grand Slam of Golf in Bermuda last October was unexpected. Our team set the pro-am scoring record with a score of 16 under par. Ian Baker-Finch, former British Open champ, was one of my teammates. His outstanding play was only surpassed by his gentlemanly demeanor.

Graeme McDowell, U.S. Open champion joined us for six holes and he might have had the greatest line of 2011. “Being in the final group at the Ryder Cup with everything depending on that match made the final day at the U.S. Open feel like a Sunday afternoon round with my dad,” laughed McDowell.

And that folks- says it all. This promises to be a great golf season and no matter what transpires I am excited to take you on the journey with me!       
A day at Augusta National! 
From left to right Derek Sprague, PGA Secretary, Gene Howerdd, Augusta National Member,
Ted Bishop, PGA Vice President, Allen Wronowski, PGA President