Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Billy Casper

It’s been a weird year on the PGA Tour. Several players have experienced major collapses on the final day of competition for the past three weeks in a row.  First, it was Kyle Stanley who blew a five shot lead at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines when he made an eight on the final hole of play. Stanley bounced back to win the following week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in Scottsdale when   Spencer Levin blew an eight shot lead.

Last Sunday at the AT&T Pebble Beach, Phil Mickelson shot a 64 and beat Charlie Wi (72) by eight shots during the final round to grab the win. It was the third straight week that the leader let a huge opportunity get away. But, believe it or not, professional golfers have been blowing big leads for decades. Even some of the greatest golfers of all time have seen monumental leads slip through their hands.

Case in point- Arnold Palmer at the 1966 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. This is a timely story as the U.S. Open returns to The Olympic Club this June and it will be the 45th anniversary of Palmer’s famous collapse or Billy Casper’s great comeback. I spent some time with Casper this week and it was an experience that I will soon not forget. Here’s the story. You be the judge.

Palmer entered the final round of play in 1966 with a three-shot lead. Arnie fired a front nine score of 32 during Sunday’s final round and saw his lead grow to a commanding seven shots with nine holes to play. If Palmer shot 37 or better on the back nine at Olympic, he would break Ben Hogan’s seventy-two hole U.S. Open scoring record of 276. The tournament was basically over.

“You could practically feel the energy generated by Arnold’s front nine. Every hole, the crowd got bigger- until it reached a certain critical mass and actually began to get smaller as some people, their views completely obscured, gave up and left the course for home so they could watch Arnie win on TV,” recalls Casper.

“I couldn’t leave, but was ready to place the U.S. Open crown on Arnold Palmer’s head as much as anyone,” laughed Casper. “At that point I was two shots ahead of Jack Nicklaus and Tony Lema and as we stood on the tenth tee about to start the final nine, I said to Arnold, ‘I would like to finish second.’”

“He answered, ‘I will do everything I can to help you!’” recalled Casper. It was a light hearted exchange with Casper acknowledging Palmer’s seemingly insurmountable lead and Palmer acknowledging that he would help Casper finish second by winning the tournament.

Even though Palmer bogeyed the tenth hole, both players traded pars on eleven and birdies at twelve. The lead was six shots with six to play. Palmer bogeyed the thirteenth and after both players made pars on fourteen, Casper trailed by five shots with four holes to play.

“Golf is a game of swings. But, I was really sensing that I was running out of time,” said Casper, who at 80 years of age has a keen memory of the ’66 Open.

“We both aimed at the flag on fifteen. My ball wound up thirty feet above the hole and Arnold was short sided in an adjacent bunker,” recalled Casper. “All week my putting had been solid, as had Arnold’s. The greens had gotten slicker than a parking lot and I had not three-putted once in the entire tournament.”

Casper made his putt and Palmer missed a twelve-footer for par after blasting from a bunker. The lead was still three with three holes to go. “At that point it was still just a prayer,” said Casper.

Arnold Palmer was a winner of seven major championships and forty-seven tournaments in 11 years on the PGA Tour. This was Arnold Palmer, not the aforementioned Kyle Stanley, Spencer Levin or Charlie Wi. The king of golf surely would hold on.

Palmer snapped hooked his drive on the 604-yard sixteenth hole. His ball wound up in the deep rough and it forced a bogey. Casper made a thirteen-footer for birdie and closed the gap to a single shot with two holes to play. On seventeen, Palmer again snapped his drive into the left rough. He beat it out with a wedge and made another bogey. Casper who also hit an errant tee shot managed to save par.

The tournament was tied with one hole to play. Casper had made up seven shots in eight holes, five shots in the last three holes.  Both players made par on the eighteenth and the stage was set for an 18-hole playoff the next day.

“As impressive as anything Arnold Palmer did in his career was the way he handled the press conference that followed,” said Casper. “Over the years I have watched countless heartbreaking losses at sporting events, live and on television. Sometimes the victims skip the press conferences or give surly one word answers.

“I think of Arnold that day at Olympic. He sat in the press room for over an hour and he took every question that was asked. When it was over, a USGA official asked if wanted to exit through a side door so he could avoid the crowds outside. Arnold said no, they way he played he deserved whatever they did to him,” said Casper.

On the eve of the playoff, Casper and his wife drove 40 miles north of San Francisco to a Sunday night fireside chat he had agreed to do for the Mormon Church. “A deal’s a deal. I got there an hour late and the place was packed,” remembered Casper. “It was after eleven o’clock when we got back to the house we were staying in. I hadn’t eaten since lunch. My wife grilled me some pork chops and I went to bed.”

The next day, Casper shot 69 and Palmer had 73. It was the second U.S. Open title for Casper who had won in 1960 at Winged Foot. While many will remember Palmer’s demise in 1966 at The Olympic Club, the numbers point to a great victory for Casper.

During that week, there were 440 rounds played at The Olympic Club. There were only 15 rounds under par- and Casper had four of those. Billy Casper won the Open, Palmer didn’t lose it. It was the third U.S. Open that Palmer had lost in a playoff and Arnie would never win another major in his career.

“When we walked off the eighteenth hole after the playoff, I told Arnold I was sorry,” said Casper. “I meant that. He shot 71 in the final round of the U.S. Open on Sunday and that should have been good enough for the win.

“You think of what you accomplished with a win like that and you can’t help but think of what you deprived the other guy from,” reflected Casper. “Well, anyway, that is the game.”

Just ask Stanley, Levin and Wi.   

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Mike Greenburg

“ I have got to admit that when I heard the Super Bowl was going to be played in Indianapolis, I thought what is that all about,” said Mike Greenberg, of “Mike and Mike in the Morning”  ESPN’s popular morning radio show. “I would describe the week in Indy as magnificent and sensational.”

Many Hoosiers will have a lifetime of memories to share after the dust settles on last week’s Super Bowl XLVI. Like many of you, I made multiple trips downtown for a variety of Super Bowl activities including a Thursday lunch with Greenberg. I returned Friday night just to experience the Super Bowl village. On Sunday, I was back as NBC’s guest for hospitality at the Omni hotel, the NBC Super Bowl Pre-Game Party, the NFL Tailgate experience and finally the game.

As great as all of the week’s activities were, my personal highlight was my lunch with Greeny.  You see, for over a decade I have started virtually every weekday morning of my life with Greenberg and his partner, Mike Golic.

Greenberg and Golic are the perfect odd couple. Golic is a former NFL football player who starred collegiately at Notre Dame. He is the tough, boisterous and sometimes crude definition of the man’s man. Greenberg, on the other hand, majored in journalism at Northwestern. He spent summers as a kid in the Poconos and takes pride in his Jewish heritage.

Some would say that Greenberg invented the term metrosexual- derived from metropolitan and heterosexual coined in 1994 describing a man (especially one living in an urban, post-industrial, capitalist culture) who spends a lot of time shopping for his appearance.

Even though I am a former athlete and don’t consider myself exactly a metrosexual, I have always identified with Greenberg. He is an avid over the top fan of his favorite team- the NY Jets. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. He can be passionate, brash, opinionated and relentless at times.

And “the Green Man” is an avid golfer who takes pride in the fact that he has lowered his handicap from 24 to 12 in just three years. He credits  Danny Tzivanis,  his PGA professional Rolling Hills CC  in Connecticut for “saving his golfing life.”  Golf was the topic that dominated our 90 minute lunch conversation last week. From my standpoint, what’s not to like about Mike Greenberg.

From Greenberg’s point of view, what was not to like about Indianapolis hosting the Super Bowl?
“I thought Indy was terrific. The enthusiasm of the city was infectious, and the natural friendliness of the people really shined through,” said Greenberg. “The best part was the ease and convenience. Everything is so nicely situated it made for the easiest week of the 16 Super Bowls I have covered.”
Greeny also had many great memories of the week, but he openly lamented the cocktail sauce at Indianapolis’ most famous steakhouse. “The first bite is fun, I get that,” mused Greeny. “But, every one after that is absolute torture. It’s too hot to enjoy.”   

Each morning during Super Bowl week hundreds of Central Indiana fans showed up to see “Mike and Mike” do their radio show, which also airs on ESPN 2 television.

“Aside from having lunch with my friend Ted Bishop (I had to throw that in), the best part of the week was seeing the crowds that came out to see us live. Huge crowds were there to greet us every morning when we arrived at 5:30 to get started. The excitement of the fans was wonderful,” said Greenberg.

Greenberg showed up for our Noon lunch and he was famished. He purposely bypassed breakfast in anticipation of our meeting at a popular downtown eatery. Greeny ordered a salmon appetizer and upon completion of the first course, in typical Greenberg fashion, he pulled out a small bottle of hand sanitizer. He applied it to his hands and prepared for the entrée. Vintage Greenberg!

The hottest topic of Super Bowl week was the ongoing saga between Peyton Manning and Jim Irsay. Several Colts, including Reggie Wayne and Jeff Saturday, were vocal in their sentiments that the game should be the focus- not Manning. Greenberg had a different perspective.

“I don’t think it overshadowed anything at all. It is not uncommon for a major story to play out during Super Bowl week. I think it adds to the overall interest and once the game is kicked off, no one is thinking of it,” remarked Greenberg.
One of the reasons for our lunch meeting was to settle the score on a wager we had made prior to the start of the NFL season. Greeny took the Jets and I had the Colts. Best regular season record wins a round of golf with two buddies courtesy of the loser. If Greenberg lost, he entertained two of my friends and me at Rolling Hills. If I lost, he got anywhere in the U.S. short of Augusta National GC.

Obviously, I lost and last week’s lunch was the official announcement of Greeny’s course of choice. The round will be played at the famed Oakmont CC near Pittsburgh sometime this summer. His choice is rated among the top 5 in the United States. Oakmont has hosted nine U.S. Opens and number ten will come in 2016. Additionally, the club has hosted three PGA Championships, five U.S. Amateurs and two U.S. Women’s Opens. Good choice and I can’t wait to see the 12 handicapper tackle Oakmont!
“If I was any kind of a man, I would give you a mulligan and call off the bet because of Manning’s injury,” laughed Greenberg. “But, I am not.” So, off to Oakmont we go.

I communicated with Greenberg on Sunday morning minutes before he and Golic went on the air for their special Super Bowl show. If you were the NFL Commissioner would you ever consider bringing the Super Bowl back to Indy?
“Absolutely, it was one of the best week’s the league has had in a long time,” he said.
How about Greenberg’s impression of Hoosiers?
“The friendliest collection of people you could ever hope to meet.”
What else can we ask for? Great job Indy. Proud to be a Hoosier.