Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Long Putters

A year ago Ernie Els was struggling mightily with the putter. He was openly critical of long putters, but in desperation, as his putting skills were deteriorating, Els himself made the switch to a long putter late last fall. He became the third major championship winner in the past year to have the long putter in his bag on Sunday at Royal Lytham..
Keegan Bradley was the first player to win a major with a long putter when he hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy at last year’s PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club. Next it was Webb Simpson winning the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club this summer in San Francisco. Only Masters Champion, Bubba Watson, has used a conventional length putter in the past year as a major champion.
Three-time major champion, Padraig Harrington, was extremely vocal in his criticism of the long putter on Sunday night after Els defeated Adam Scott, also the user of a long putter, at Royal Lytham. The objection that most players make is that if a player can’t putt with a conventional club, why should  they have a crutch to compete with those that can.
Even Tiger Woods admitted recently that he has had conversations with Peter Dawson, Chief of the Royal and Ancient, golf’s rules makers. Woods has encouraged the R&A to act on the issue sooner than later.
“I’ve talked to Peter about this for a number of years and gone back and forth on how we could word it,” said Woods. “My idea was to have it so that the putter would be equal to or less than the shortest club in your bag. I think with that we’d be able to get away from any type of belly anchoring.”
Woods has heard that the R&A and the USGA are ready to focus on the stroke rather than the club, but doubts whether that is the right decision. “You can still anchor the putter like Bernhard Langer did against the arm,” he said. “But, that’s still the art of swinging the club.”
Mike Davis, Executive Director of the USGA, outlined to me last week why the debate is so complicated. The R&A and the USGA met a couple of times last week at Lytham, as well as at the first two majors of the season. The discussions have been lengthy and tedious, delving into the detail and wording of the rulebook.
“If you want to ban something, what do you want to ban? Because you just say the word ‘anchoring’, it can mean a lot of things,” Davis told me. “And it’s not just putting either. There are clubs now where you can anchor a club underneath your armpit and pitch that way. The point is, there’s a lot more to this than just somebody putting with a belly putter.”
Yet despite the complexities, there is a palpable desire to make a definitive decision soon. Dawson said last week, “I think it is incumbent on us to make our position reasonably clear in months rather than years.”
Davis concurred, “Whatever gets done is going to be tough in the short run. If we decide to do nothing, that decision- I mean, that indecision, if you will- is actually a decision. If we decide to do nothing, it’s really unfair to the game of golf and to future governing bodies.”
Any rules changes could not come into effect until 2016, allowing players time to reacquaint themselves with the short stick. There is also a threat that some of the players who are impacted could make contact with lawyers and file a lawsuit.
Besides Bradley, Simpson, Els and Scott, other well-known players using the long putter include Matt Kuchar, Fred Couples and the LPGA’s Michelle Wie. Phil Mickelson experimented with the long putter during last year’s FedEx Cup, but returned to the short club.
“Obviously, if the standard of putting goes up, which it clearly does, guys wouldn’t be using them if they didn’t putt better with them, right?” said Mickelson. “If the standard of putting goes up, it puts more pressure on the guys that aren’t using one just to compete. So, all of a sudden it’s hard for a normal putter. Is he doing the right thing? Should he be using the long putter?”
“It’s not only the significant increase with the elite touring professionals, but a significant increase with recreational players,” Davis added. ” This has been going on for 15 to 20 years, but until now it’s been a small group of golfers. Now, in the last year and a half, that’s changed.”
Currently, about 25% of the players on the PGA Tour use the long putter. It begs the question, if there is that much of an advantage to the long putter then why are the vast majority of players still using shorter clubs?
Adam Scott missed a crucial four-footer on #16 Sunday at Lytham. Most would say that shot was the one that cost him the Open Championship. His long putter didn’t make the difference when it counted the most.
“As long as it’s legal, I’ll keep cheating like the rest of them,” said Els last October when he switched to the longer model.
Does that mean Els’ achievement, or Bradley’s and Simpson’s, are diminished in any way?
“Absolutely not,” said Dawson. “These championships are conducted under rules of play at the time and that doesn’t detract in any way from the winner as long as he obeys the rules of play at the time. Bobby Jones used concave faced clubs for some of his major championships and they were outlawed later.”   

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Open Champ- Final

“I had a great week here. Everybody offered me encouragement. Were you just being nice to me, or did you really think I could win?” observed Ernie Els when he spoke at the 18th green and was being crowned the “Champion Golfer of the Year” by the Royal and Ancient minutes after winning the 2012 Open Championship at Royal Lytham.
Those words came after he paid tribute to his good friend, Adam Scott, who had just made four straight bogeys to finish with 75 and lose to Els by one shot. Sunday at the Open proved why professional golf might be the cruelest of all sports.
Scott was rolling on Sunday. He appeared that he was going to win while everybody else around him, Els excluded, was shooting themselves in the foot. First, it was Brandt Snedecker making two straight double bogeys on the front nine. Next, it was Tiger Woods who suffered a triple bogey on the Sixth Hole when he literally had to lie on the ground to hit a bunker shot. Finally, Graeme McDowell snapped hooked his tee shot into the gorse on the Eleventh Hole making a critical double bogey and it looked as though Scott was home free.
It was stacking up as the ideal day for the likeable Scott who was trying to win his first major. When he birdied the Fourteenth Hole, Scott was four shots ahead of Els. But, he admittedly hit a bad shot on each of the four closing holes while Els was making pars until he sunk a 20-footer for birdie on the Eighteenth Hole.
In winning his second Claret Jug, Els became one of a few players to win majors in three different decades. Twice a U.S. Open Champion in 1994 and ‘97, he has now won British Opens in 2002 and 2012. In the end, it was a duel between two of golf’s most likeable players- Els and Scott.
Eight times in his professional career, Scott has led after 54 holes. On six occasions, he won the tournament. Sunday’s rejection at Royal Lytham will probably haunt Scott more than the one he faced when his ex-girlfriend Kate Hudson left him for Alex Rodriguez.
The loss had to be just as bitter for Scott’s caddy, Steve Williams. It was Williams who packed the Tiger’s bag when he was winning most of his majors. A year ago after Scott won a WGC event Williams labeled it “my greatest win ever”- a defined slam directed at his old boss, Woods.
If Scott had any advantage on the last four holes, it should have been from the wisdom and experience of Williams. It would seem logical that Williams could have jockeyed his player through those final holes with some resolve and guile, having been in that position many times before with Tiger.
I guess it shows that caddies are way overrated and ultimately it is the guy holding the club that will decide the outcome. Never more true than on Sunday at The Open.
Royal Lytham once again wrote a unique chapter in Open history and proved why many in the U.K. think it’s the greatest test in the rota. Consider this. Snedeker set the 36-hole scoring record with a score of 10-under par. Nicholas Colsaerts, of Belgium, became the first player in history to shoot two 65’s in the same Open. This was the 141st Open and those are historical achievements, and still, neither player won.
As I reported earlier in the week, Lytham’s illustrious past winners include David Duval, Tom Lehman, Seve Ballesteros (2), Gary Player, Tony Jacklin, Bob Charles, Peter Thomson, Bobby Locke and Bobby Jones. Els, winning his second Open at Lytham, fits its history.
Over the years, the villages of Lytham and St. Annes have suffered through tough economic times. Mills have shut down and the only constant has been the Irish Sea and its ancient shoreline. It is a blighted northwest coast of England and the area has truly been shaped by time. Royal Lytham has been aptly described as a grinder’s course.
The conditions in the final round were reasonable by Open standards. The winds “were a bit frisky” as described by the legendary, Peter Allis. In the end, it was the collection bunkers that decided the winner. Golf course architects can create obstacles for players to deal with. George Lowe was the original designer in 1886. Harry Colt “modernized” Lytham in 1919. Lowe and Colt succeeded in making sure that nearly every ball headed in the direction of a bunker, found it.
On Sunday, Adam Scott had everything to lose and only his first major to gain. Before the round started Els was asked how tough it would be for his buddy Scott to win. His answer was simple and prophetic, “The final round of an Open Championship offers a test that is eternal. It won’t be easy,” said the eventual winner.
The great Mariano Rivera was once asked what the difference was between closing the final out of a game versus the World Series. “It’s the difference between being forgotten and remembered”, said Rivera.
Everyone will remember that Ernie Els won his second Open at Lytham. Eventually, everyone will forget that Adam Scott couldn’t close the deal- at least everybody, but Scott.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Open Champ- Part 5

On Friday, 43,900 spectators slogged around a soggy Royal Lytham. Overnight rains left many cross walks and spectator areas looking like a well-travelled cattle lot in the Midwest. Sloppy, smelly and slick made walking a nasty process at times.
Overnight rains left some bunkers still under water late in the day. Several players were forced to hit shots out of water in the bunkers because there was no casual water relief and they wanted to avoid penalty shots if they played the shot outside the bunker. But, it takes a lot to dampen the spirits of Open fans. Beer gardens were open early and by 9 a.m. many were well underway consuming libations.
Steve Stricker teed off at 9:53 a.m. and I joined his group for the entire round. His playing partners were again Anders Hansen of Denmark and Toru Taniguchi from Japan. The Stricker group had the misfortune of playing behind Luke Donald, Phil Mickelson and Geoff Ogilvy. The throng following Donald and Mickelson was massive. To make matters worse, Rory McIlroy was a couple of groups ahead.
So, many of the 43,900 were in our area of the course all day Friday until the afternoon wave teed off with its marquee group of Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose. Keep in mind that Lytham’s 18 holes are housed on about 200 acres, so forty plus thousand people in a tight area like this is the biggest can of sardines that I will ever be a part of.
Stricker hit 16 greens in regulation on Thursday. He had a pretty stress free 67. His iron play was impeccable and the only kink in his armor was a few errant tee shots. Friday was a different story. His driving was razor sharp, but the same guy who holed a wedge on #13 in round one, missed several greens with short irons and it was clear from the first hole that the greatest of golf’s grinders was going to be grinding hard in round two.
At the end of the day, Stricker had carded a one over par 71 and was -2 for the tournament. He still remained in the top ten although he was eight shots off the lead set by Brandt Snedeker who set a 36-hole Open scoring record. That’s in 141 years of Opens. He had 10 birdies and 26 pars after two rounds- the only player in the 156 man field with no bogeys.
Stricker’s day began at 6:00 a.m. when he woke up. He arrived at Lytham around 7 a.m. and ate a hearty breakfast. The Open Championship is known for weather and Stricker’s biggest fear was that he would get the raw end of the weather stick because rain was forecast for Friday morning. The afternoon wave, which Stricker was part of in round one, had a little bit tougher weather on Thursday.
In my opinion, the ideal tee times in an Open Championship are Thursday morning and Friday afternoon. Players are geared up for the start of the championship, so you might as well go early on Thursday. Friday afternoon gives players a chance to sleep in. If you are playing well, you get afternoon times on Saturday and Sunday. That’s my preference, some might disagree.
After Stricker finished his round, he grabbed something to eat at the player’s dining area around 3 p.m. Then it was back to the range for 30 minutes to work out a few swing glitches. Before he left the course to go back to the hotel, Steve spent some time on the putting green.
Once back at the hotel, it was a combination of light napping and Open viewing on television. Many players will tell you they don’t watch golf on TV- don’t believe it. They do. Stricker was watching when Tom Watson canned a long putt on the 18th hole to make the cut in this year’s Open. This is an amazing feat for Watson, the oldest player in this year’s field and the only 5-time Open Champion at Lytham.
Then it was off to dinner for Stricker and his buddy, Don Edwards. Steve being a creature of habit, once again ate at the IMG house Friday night. He is breaking it up Saturday morning by eating in the hotel restaurant. Daring move by the guy that never changes deer stands on his farm in Wisconsin.
I did learn one interesting thing today. There is a player in the field named Eliot Saltman. He is from Scotland and he is large in stature in more ways than one. Saltman is currently serving a six month suspension from the European Tour for cheating. Even so, the R&A has allowed him to compete in the Open Championship.
It seems Saltman was recently tried and convicted by a committee of his peers for cheating. He did so by improving his lie on the putting green. The European Tour staged a hearing with several witnesses testifying against Saltman, thus the suspension. It’s rather curious that he is allowed to play in the Open Championship.
The entry form in the PGA Championship states that players must be PGA members and that any player’s application for entry may be rejected at any time and that the applicant’s participation is subject to all Rules, Regulations and Provisions of the Constitution and By-Laws of the PGA of America.  Although, it does not state it, I would say that we would have the right to reject a player’s entry if he was suspended for cheating.
Between Saltman’s berth in the 2012 Open Championship and Stricker’s breakfast of pancakes in the hotel restaurant, it looks the beginning of an unpredictable weekend here at the 141st Open Championship.  

Friday, July 20, 2012

Open Champ Part 4

Steve Stricker suffered a damaging blow to his golf equipment and psyche when his Titleist 909 driver developed a crack in the head on Tuesday during a practice round. The club simply wore out after thousands of drives impacted the face. Stricker admitted that sooner or later he figured this would happen, just not this week. There is nothing worse for the 14th ranked player in the world than to have something as catastrophic as this happen hours before a major championship begins.
Stricker is old school. His driver was five years old and he had won $13 million with it during that time span. While most golfers at any level are all about the latest and greatest in technology, Steve is more about “if it works stick with it”. You might find it interesting to know that Stricker not only was using a driver that was a couple of generations old, but he also uses Titleist Pro V1 balls that are of the same vintage as his driver was.
So, Tuesday night and all day Wednesday, he had the full attention of the Titleist Tour staff and Stricker tested all kinds of shaft options in a new Titleist 913 driver model that won’t be released to the public until later this fall. He messed primarily with the loft adjustments and settled in on a neutral position.
When Stricker gets it going sideways, it goes left. He lost the John Deere Classic last week when he hooked a couple of drives late in the final round. Steve is a player who has to feel comfortable starting his driver down the right side of the fairway and using a natural release of his hands to draw, or slightly hook the ball.
Royal Lytham can be a nervous driving course for players because of the 206 bunkers that it has. Part of Stricker’s practice round strategy was to figure out what holes to hit driver, three wood or even a hybrid off the tee to manipulate over or short of the treacherous fairway bunkers at Lytham.
The reason the fairway bunkers are avoidable is because of their steep faces which feature buried sod layers stacked upon each other. Many times the ball will find the front of the bunker and the only shot a player has is to take a sand wedge and pop the shot over the lip of the trap and back into play. It takes some pretty miraculous work to save a par from Lytham’s fairway bunkers.
Stricker is a classic grinder on the golf course. He shows little emotion and is normally unflappable even in the toughest of times. But, losing his trusted driver the week of a major championship will test even somebody with Stricker’s resolve. It was apparent on the back nine at Lytham on Thursday.
The 13th hole is a 355 yard, par four. He was two under par heading into the final six holes on Lytham’s back nine. Stricker had debated all week on what club to hit off the tee. He picked the three wood and laced a shot down the left side of the fairway in perfect position. His next shot was a wedge that one hopped right in the bottom of the hole for an eagle 2. The shot lifted him to 4th place on the leaderboard and a score of four under par.
The 14th hole is a 444 yard hole that played into the wind on Thursday. With all of the momentum on his side, Stricker curiously pulled out his three wood and fanned his tee shot right into the fescue rough. It was a very conservative play for Stricker who had hit his new driver well all day.
Faced with a difficult lie, Stricker’s only option was to wedge the ball back into the fairway. As he hit the shot his club face closed down when it got into the deep rough and he yanked the ball across the fairway into a Lytham bunker. His ball finished well into the face and he was forced to take a lob wedge and advance it a few yards out of the bunker. Stricker wound up lipping out his bogey putt and walked off the green at two under par for the tournament- losing the two strokes he had minutes earlier made up with the eagle.
As I watched him play the 14th I had to wonder if the old driver had been in the bag would he have hit it off the tee instead of the three wood? Would the outcome have been different? To Steve’s credit he played the final four holes one under par and finished with a 67. But, it just goes to show that even the greatest players in the world do some of the same things that all golfers do.
On an unrelated note, players such as Stricker try to create a comfortable set of surroundings during an Open Championship week. Cultural differences can make the eating somewhat challenging for Americans who travel abroad.
Steve is represented by the International Management Group (IMG). The sports agency rents a house this week in Lytham and when their players get ready to eat dinner they head to the IMG house. A chef is standing by to fix the players whatever they want for dinner.
Some players travel with their families at the Open Championship. Stricker is here without his wife and kids, who are back in Wisconsin. His support staff is in the form of Don Edwards, a good friend and ex-college teammate at the University of Illinois. While these guys have their own hotel rooms, they travel to the course together and spend nearly every waking hour of the day with each other. These players need a sounding board and confidant during a week like this.
Stricker, Keegan Bradley, Hunter Mahan, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, Paul Casey and Fredrick Jacobson are all staying at the same hotel that I am. These players can be seen working out in the hotel fitness room early in the morning or late in the day depending on their tee times. Even with the rigors of major championship golf they find time to stay in their routines..
There is a lot at stake this week at Royal Lytham. Majors define careers and this year they will play a huge part in determining who represents the U.S. and Europe in the Ryder Cup. Guys like Stricker are doing whatever they can to prepare and try to seize the moment.
It’s an interesting week and hopefully you have a better understanding of what goes on. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Open Champ. Part 3

Part of the intrigue of attending an Open Championship is taking in the culture and history of the area. This is my fourth British Open trip and all have been different. Two trips to Scotland have been followed by a couple to England.
In 2009, I was at Turnberry when Tom Watson nearly rolled back the hands of time and became the oldest player ever to win a major championship. Watson hit a perfect second shot to the final hole. His ball landed just past the hole and rolled over the back of the green. He made bogey and went on to lose an excruciating playoff to Stewart Cink.
A stark reality of years gone by at Turnberry, is an abandoned airstrip on the north edge of the golf course. It had been used for English fighter plane training during World War II. The course suffered major damage during the war and Turnberry was actually shut down for a time.
In 2010, I made my first trip to St. Andrews and the Old Course. The highlight for me that year was getting to play the oldest course in the world on the day after Louis Oosthuizen lapped the field.
Following that round on the Old Course, I was taken to the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse where we had a pint in the Members’ Room. Located near my table was a glass case bearing the original Claret Jug and the Champions Belt that Young Tom Morris retired in 1870 by virtue of this third straight Open Championship title.
Just a quick note about Young Tom. He was born in 1851. You do the math. He was 19 years old when he won his third straight Open Championship. He competed in his first Open at age 14. Young Tom Morris was truly the first and most impressive child prodigy in the history of golf- probably all of sports.
Even in the town of St. Andrews, the devastation of World War II is visible. Still standing are the ruins of the St. Andrews Cathedral, which was destroyed by German bombers. There is a memorial on an outer wall left standing to all those who died during the air raids. Just a few feet away are the graves of Old and Young Tom Morris as well as Allan Roberston, the first recognized golf pro.  War has no regard for historical significance.
A year ago, I went to my first Open Championship in England. Royal St. George’s was the site and I stayed in Canterbury. Truthfully, after Turnberry and St. Andrews, I thought the previous two Opens would be hard to top until an emotional Darren Clarke won his first major championship and became a  very popular ”champion golfer of the year”  
The Canterbury area, located on the southeast coast of England, was named “Hell’s Corner” during World War II because of the relentless German bombings of the English countryside. I remember playing the Rye Golf Club on a rainy and blustery Saturday morning. Located just off of the 4th fairway were the remains of a concrete pillbox used by the English during the war to stave off potential German invaders.
Earlier in the week, we played Littlestone GC. About a hundred yards off the 17th tee in the English Channel was a huge slab of concrete. Our caddy informed us that it was a remnant of the dock that the United States had launched D-Day invasion boats from. The coast of France was visible that day from Littlestone and it was eerie to look across the Channel and see Normandy Beach.
So, here I am this week on the northwest coast of England at Royal Lytham. Sure enough, the lasting effects of war are felt here too. Lytham sits hard and low by the Irish Sea, uncomfortably so at the outset of World War II. It required that precautionary measures be taken. An anti-tank ditch was dug across the gut of the course, from the third to the 14th green. Posts were inserted on Lytham’s flat fairways to thwart their use as enemy landing strips.     
We, as Americans, pride ourselves on the sacrifice of war to protect our country’s basic freedoms. Until 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, other than Revolutionary and Civil Wars, rarely have Americans had to deal with conflict from a warring enemy on our native soil.
The mood in and around London in 1940 was not so cheery. It had been a bombing target for 57 straight days.  But, even exposed to the daily horrors of war, the British continued to play recreational golf. Certainly, it was done with less frequency and more terror.
Richmond Golf Club, which  is located in suburban London, saw German bombs strike its course in 1940. Club officials took it upon themselves to impose “Temporary Rules.”
One rule noted that “if an enemy action should destroy one’s ball it could be replaced without penalty.”
Another stated, “a player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place. Penalty one stroke.”
Richmond GC argued that the Temporary Rules were written in earnest. They even defended the stroke play penalty for playing a second ball when an errant shot was caused by an explosion in the middle of a swing. The club argued that players might otherwise be tempted to abuse the rule, banning noise that occurred at a distance too far to have been a factor.
The interruption of war not only affected the courses, but also the development of England’s best players as pointed out by the great Peter Allis.
“My father might have had another two or three years at the top level. But, a lot of men in their 20’s went away for five or six years. They had little chance of fulfilling their potential, whatever their sport,” said  Allis.
Some did not return and one of those was Ronald George Inglis, twice the Scottish Boys champion. He was a RAF pilot who was 21 when he was killed over Germany in 1942. It was a steep price that was shared by all of Britain, as well as its allies.
But, at the end of World War II the Brits showed again that they were the ultimate stewards of the game when they presented U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower, war hero and avid golfer, a lifetime honorary membership at St. Andrews courtesy of the Royal and Ancient.
What’s not to like about this place and these people?  

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Open Champ Part 2

On Monday the headlines in the Daily Express, a local U.K. newspaper, said, “It’s too tough for Tiger- Open favorite Woods claims Lytham hazard is simply unplayable.” Sometimes the media can sensationalize with a headline, but not here.
Neil Spires who wrote the article said, “Tiger Woods took one look at Royal Lytham yesterday and declared the venue for the Open Championship unplayable. The pre-tournament favourite’s verdict after flying overnight for his practice round was that the rough, fed by the wet summer, is so thick as to render it virtually inescapable.”
“Oh my God,” said Woods. “It’s just that you can’t get out of it. The bottom six inches is so lush.
“The wispy stuff we’ve always faced at every British Open, but at the bottom it’s almost unplayable in some places. I’ve never seen the rough this high and dense,” added Woods.
Royal Lytham was already considered by many to be the toughest test in the Open rota. Now some fear it could become a bloodbath as the rainiest summer on record in the U.K. offers no let up this week. More rain is forecasted and it has all of the players talking.
“It’s an eye opener. The course plays very difficult and you really have to drive it well here to have any chance to score,” said Keegan Bradley, PGA Champion. “I am trying to avoid the rough at all costs. It’s very spotty. One foot to the left and you are hitting it to the green. Another foot and you are chipping it out to the fairway. It’s a flip of the coin whether you’re going to get a good lie or not.”
On Monday I played down the road at Royal Birkdale, site of nine Open Championships and a Ryder Cup. I found the playing conditions to be the toughest I ever experienced. Birkdale is a tight driving course by links standards and virtually any ball that bounded into the rough off the fairways or greens was lost. Tiger’s description of Lytham’s rough was accurate. The bottom six inches of the 18 inch rough is like a jungle.
Bradley understated it. It’s a flip of the coin on whether or not you will find your ball. You will lose that flip more times than not. I played Birkdale with Derek Sprague, PGA Secretary, and between the two of us we probably lost a dozen balls.
I told Sprague, “If this was a war, you and are unloading our guns at an enemy we can’t hit! We are defenseless out here. The course is just waiting us out. Eventually, we could run out of ammo and it’s going to creep up on us and just snap our necks!”
We each made a couple of birdies and we did hit a few good shots. But, the severity of the rough and the consequences of being in it, made each and every hole more intimidating.
On Monday night I ran into Steve Stricker in the hotel lobby. He had a tough finish at the John Deere on Sunday missing his fourth straight win at the Deere due to an errant driver on the final few holes. He had flown overnight to Lytham on a charter provided by John Deere and was just returning from 9 holes at Lytham. Unshaven and a bit weary from jet lag, Stricker was still his pleasant self.
I mentioned his errant tee shots from the day before and he just grinned, shook his head and said, “Yeah, if I do that here I am toast. The rough is probably the most brutal I have ever seen.”
Even Englishman Paul Casey, more used to links conditions, acknowledged to me that the rough could be a major problem.
“I think it’s a fair test, but the rough is brutal in places and the weather forecast is not good.”
Maybe Keegan Bradley who will be playing in only his third major, and first Open Championship, summed it up best. He stopped short of claiming the Open at Lytham is a lottery, but says that without Lady Luck smiling upon you, you have no chance.
“There’s a little more luck involved over here- you get a weird hop and it skips around a bunker- so hopefully I have a little luck stored up,” mused Bradley.
The fact that everybody has shifted their attention from the 206 bunkers that Lytham has buried in its ground to the rough that haunts errant shots is probably the biggest indicator of how tough this place will be.
If you are looking for a winner here’s a list of the PGA Tour’s most accurate drivers. Graeme McDowell is number two on the list. He grew up in Northern Ireland and knows these conditions well. G-Mac has seen his game improve in recent weeks. His tough resolve and accuracy off the tee could be the difference.
Three Americans stand out in the PGA Tour’s Driving Accuracy statistics. Ben Curtis, himself a former Open Champion ranks in the top ten. Also near the top are Hunter Mahan and Jason Dufner. Curtis seems to play his best in majors and the other two are up and comers who know how to win.
But, after all, this is the U.K. and these conditions would seem to favor an accurate European player. Number one on their Tour stats list in driving accuracy is Adilson Da Silva. He qualified for this Open despite being the 500th ranked player in the world today. His European Tour winnings for 2012 are a paltry $32,500 pounds. Da Silva has hit fairways with an amazing 85% accuracy this summer. The leader on the PGA Tour is at 72%.
Da Silva tees off at 6:41 a.m. on Thursday. That’s 1:41 a.m. in the Eastern time zone. So, if you wake up and see that name on the leader board, remember that you heard it here first- even though Royal Lytham’s history says that a quality player will win this Open. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Open Champ. Part One

I arrived in the small town of Lancashire late Sunday morning. No matter how many times you make this trip to the United Kingdom, it’s pretty tough to escape jet lag. There is a strategy involved, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. It’s advisable to arrange your departure from the U.S. in the evening, so you can catch a few hours of sleep before you arrive in England the next morning. When you do arrive here, the trick is then staying up all day with no sleep, so you can make the next day feel like real time. I am five hours ahead of the East Coast this week.
My 6’2” frame finds it difficult to find a good sleeping position on an airplane, even with reclining seats. So, on Sunday after about 4 hours sleep over a 40 hour period of time, I was running on fumes. Former British Open champ, Justin Leonard, was a few rows in front of me on my flight from Chicago. So was John Wood, the caddy for Hunter Mahan.
I played with Leonard in a pro-am in Dallas last November. He won the 1997 Open Championship held at Royal Troon Golf Club and he has been a member of three Ryder Cup teams. Justin is a quiet guy who has won 13 times on the PGA Tour. He just turned 40 and is looking to generate some energy into his 2012 season here at Royal Lytham this week.
Wood has enjoyed a good run on Mahan’s bag. I got to know John at the Celtic Manor Ryder Cup in Wales. His locker was directly across from mine. Wood is typical of the new breed of PGA Tour caddies- smart, focused, driven and fiercely loyal to his player. John is here ahead of Mahan, laying the ground work for what he and Hunter hope will be a break through major championship week for the tenth ranked player in the world.
This year’s Open Championship is being played at Royal Lytham and St. Annes. This will be the 11th time the British Open has been played here dating back to 1926. The course is known for its bunkering- 206 in all. Some call Lytham the toughest of all the Open courses. The course is narrow, with small greens, small targets and it has very penal bunkers.
Bobby Jones won here in 1926. Bobby Locke followed in 1952. Then it was Peter Thomson in 1958 and Bob Charles in 1963. Tony Jacklin won in 1969, Gary Player in 1974 and Seve Ballesteros took home the Claret Jug in 1979 and ’88. Americans Tom Lehman, 1996, and David Duval, 2001, were the last two winners at Royal Lytham.
“It’s really a punishing course. The ball is going to bounce and you have to anticipate that and judge it,” says Thomson, the ’58 champ. “I put it at the top of the list. In every way it’s a championship course. It will bring out the best player without a doubt.”
The front nine is unusual in that it has three par 3’s, including the first hole. The front nine runs mostly northwest to southeast, the same direction as the prevailing wind. Traditionally, Open competitors have made their best scores on the opening nine. In fact, the front nine at Lytham has conceded more sub-30 scores (5) than any other nine on the British Open rota. 
As easy as the front nine can be, the back nine is brutally tough. The final six holes are all par fours and they are heavily bunkered and normally play into the teeth of the wind. Shots finding the sand will no doubt result in bogeys or double bogeys. Many think that Lytham’s finishing holes are the toughest in all of golf.
Lytham has produced an impressive list of global champions. There is not a single fluke among its winners. Tom Lehman was ranked 13th in the world when he won here and that is the highest ranked player to win at Lytham. Jack Nicklaus played here six times and never won.
The Irish Sea sits about 500 yards from the golf course, although it is not visible from the sandy links. The weather has always been a factor at Lytham. The forecast for this week is low 60’s, rain and wind. That could change several times each day and in typical Open fashion some players may get the break of the waves when they play on Thursday and Friday.
The spectator drama this week at Lytham will probably center around phenominal par saves. There is always a chance that the sun will shine and the wind will stop, at least for awhile. Somebody could reel off a few birdies if that happens, but the tournament will be won with miraculous short game play and incredible par saves.
I am staying at a hotel near Lancashire, which is about seven miles from Royal Lytham. This has been one of the wettest springs on record in this part of England resulting in thick, lush rough at the area courses.  As I rode from Manchester to Lancashire, my driver said that this was the first day in two weeks that it hadn’t rained. For those looking at a map, Lytham is about a four hour car ride northwest of London.
This tournament is where major championship golf really began. Started in 1859 at Prestwick, the Open Championship was first held to crown the champion golfer after the death of legendary Scottish professional, Allan Robertson. He was recognized as the best player in the world until his death. The Open Championship was established to end the debate that raged throughout the countryside regarding who would succeed Roberston as the world’s best.
Nothing has really changed since 1859. That is why we are here at Royal Lytham this week. And judging by the past, it would appear that one of the world’s best will win this week. This is the first of four stories that I will write at this year’s Open Championship. I look forward to having you with me.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

July 2, 2012

Late Sunday afternoon many Indiana golfers escaped the torrid heat by sitting on their air conditioned couches watching Tiger Woods bounce Bo Van Pelt on the final two holes at Congressional GC in Washington D.C. Van Pelt, a native of Richmond, put up a game effort. But, he ultimately succumbed to the hottest player in professional golf.
Yep, that’s right. Tiger Woods is now the hottest player in the world of golf. Sunday’s victory is his third win in just seven starts on the PGA Tour in 2012. It’s an impressive start to a season that places Woods as the frontrunner to become the PGA Tour “Comeback Player of the Year”.
Unfortunately for Tiger, his career is now being defined by many on whether or not he will surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championship titles. There was no better evidence of this, than at the conclusion of Sunday’s CBS telecast.
The normally unflappable Jim Nantz expressed angst over the fact that many judge Tiger’s recent accomplishments solely on his inability to win majors. “He’s back. Are you kidding? Tiger Woods is the first three-time winner on the PGA Tour this year. When will it stop?” said Nantz.
The Emmy award winning golf analyst observed that if Woods stays healthy he will probably compete on the PGA Tour for at least ten more years. That potentially represents over 40 starts in majors and certainly, Woods will have opportunities to win five more major championships.
“Five majors is a career for a lot of great players,” said Nick Faldo, himself a winner of six majors. Faldo’s perspective might be the most insightful of the summer when you consider the following.
Byron Nelson and Seve Ballesteros each won five majors during their careers. Phil Mickelson and Raymond Floyd join Old and Young Tom Morris as four-time major championship winners. Jimmy Demaret, Billy Casper, Vijay Singh, Hale Irwin, Ernie Els, Julius Boros, Payne Stewart, Padraig Harrington and Nick Price each won three.
Are you starting to see Faldo’s picture? Pick any pair on this list of two-time major winners and Woods will have to beat their combined efforts to overtake Nicklaus- Ben Crenshaw, Fuzzy Zoeller, Curtis Strange, Greg Norman and Johnny Miller. As you can see, even though Woods has 14 major championships in his grasp, winning five more will be an incredible feat.
Think about it. If Tiger beats Jack’s record he will have to win as many majors as Ernie Els and Greg Norman have combined for in their careers. And the next time Miller and Strange, both TV personalities, doubt Tiger’s resurgence remind them that Woods currently has 10 more major championships than they combined for!
And lest we forget about Nicklaus, who with 18 majors has won as many as Gary Player (9) and Ben Hogan (9) combined. Or, who has won more than Tom Watson (8) and Arnold Palmer (7) combined. Or, who has won more than Faldo (6), Lee Trevino (6) and Byron Nelson (5) combined.  
The final two majors of 2012 will be played in the next six weeks. The Open Championship will be staged at Royal Lytham and St. Annes Golf Club. This English links course is located north of London and is known for having the five most grueling finishing holes in the Open rotation. Look for the weather to be cool, blustery and wet. David Duval (2001), Tom Lehman (1996) and Seve Ballesteros (1979) are the last three Open champions at Lytham.
The PGA Championship will take place in early August at The Ocean Course on Kiawah Island in South Carolina. This Pete Dye design promises to be extremely challenging. As cool as Lytham will likely be, Kiawah should be sweltering in August. Kiawah has hosted a Ryder Cup and a Senior PGA, but this will be its first major championship on the regular Tour.
I saw David Feherty interview Tom Lehman the other night and he asked the former Open Champion about the current state of the game. Lehman said, “Golf is like all sports. It needs dominating players to help produce great rivalries. That’s the only thing that concerns me about today’s young players. I don’t know if we have that.”
That interview was taped on Memorial Day. Since then, Tiger Woods has won two tournaments and re-established himself as the number one player in golf. To Lehman’s point, dominance may have resurfaced with Woods, although to a lesser degree than we once saw from the great Tiger.
It’s been Woods against the world for the past couple of years. Odds makers have installed him as the favorite to win the last two majors of 2012. Tiger is back and that is a good thing for golf. Will he win five more majors and pass Jack? History and the careers of a bunch of great players would say no.
Have you ever seen a Tiger with a monkey on its back?