Sunday, September 30, 2012

Day 4- Ryder Cup

Even though the Ryder Cup has been around for 87 years, in some ways 2012 might be the year that the competition has transformed to another level. Certainly, for the United States it is a year where rookies and the youth of the team are defining the future of the American Ryder Cup legacy.
It’s hard to say if players like Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker will ever play on another Ryder Cup team. Who knows how many Ryder Cups that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will be a part of as players. There is little doubt that Furyk, Mickelson and Woods will someday be Ryder Cup Captains. It’s doubtful that Stricker will be a captain since he never won a major championship.
Keegan Bradley became the first rookie since Loren Roberts in 1995 to start out the competition with a 3-0 record. He drug Mickelson along as a partner and the ’12 version of the Ryder Cup is the first time that Phil has ever won three or more points in a Cup match. Those two played 44 holes as partners this week and only trailed three holes.
It was totally Mickelson’s choice to sit out on Saturday afternoon. He made that apparent on Friday night as I wheeled him and his wife, Amy, in from the 18th green after watching the end of the Stricker-Woods match. He said he wanted to rest of Saturday afternoon so he could be ready for his singles match. It’s a chance for Mickelson to finish 4-0 in the 2012 Ryder Cup and it will certainly open a new chapter in his Cup history which was dismal prior to this year. He entered 2012 with a 11-17-6 record.
Bradley has sought out Mickelson as a mentor since winning the 2011 PGA Championship. It’s well known that the two play high stakes practice round matches and Mickelson has seemingly made Keegan his protégé. Bradley played with such great emotion in his three matches that at one point on Friday after making another long birdie putt he screamed so hard that he actually saw black spots in his eyes.
Then there is Bubba Watson who has now started a Ryder Cup first tee tradition for himself by revving up the crowd into a cheering frenzy while he is hitting his tee shot on the opening hole. The first tee at the Ryder Cup is always crazy and Bubba has taken it to another level. It’s brilliant and the modern day PGA Tour version of Happy Gilmore follows the tee shot by “high fiving” fans all the way down the first hole.
PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem has been a guest of the PGA of America and he has got to love what he sees from this new breed of Tour players. Jason Dufner either has great nerves or none at all. This guy has a worse hair problem than McIlroy, but absolutely nothing seems to shake him up.
We bumped into each other on the team floor on Friday night and he asked me if I was having fun. I said yes and countered the question, “How can you not have fun this week.” That’s a volume of content for Dufner.
That seems to be the key for the Americans. Davis Love III talked about making sure his team keeps things in proper perspective all week and he talked about “having fun.” In golf, having fun happens when you play good. It’s kind of the chicken and egg scenario. It seems to be easier to first play good and then have fun rather than play good by having fun.  
And you can’t forget Webb Simpson and Brandt Snedeker. Simpson has flown under the radar at this Ryder Cup because he has been Bubba’s partner. The fact of the matter is that Webb has probably hit more good shots than Bubba and made more birdies. They are the perfect team because Simpson seems to be okay with the “Bub-ba Wat-son” cheers on every hole. Simpson just keeps smiling and pouring in birdies while his partner hauls in the accolades.
Saturday morning I drove Mandy Snedeker in a golf cart for 18 holes as she watched her new eleven million dollar man (Fed Ex Cup winner) team with Furyk to beat Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell 1 up. Mandy is eight months pregnant and you can talk all you want about the pressure of playing in a Ryder Cup, but let me tell you, driving an expectant mother through speed bumps and clumpy roughs is no picnic either.
“This week is incredible. We have never experienced anything like this,” she said as we headed up the 14th hole yesterday. “I hope this is the first of many Ryder Cups for us because this is just the coolest thing we have ever done.”
In 2010, at Celtic Manor, Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson were rookies. Kuchar was 1-1-2 in his four matches and DJ was 1-3-0. This year as partners they are undefeated in two matches. The experience that they gained in the rain and slop in Wales has no doubt paid off this year. Zach Johnson is the middle man on the team playing in his third Ryder Cup. He has been Dufner’s partner and Zach now has an all-time winning Ryder Cup record thanks to 2012.
The Team USA torch has been passed. Zach will be the wily veteran and the nucleus will be comprised of the likes of Bubba, Webb, DJ, Duf, Sneds, Kuch and Keegan. In professional golf you know you have made it when people recognize you by anything but your first and last name. These eight guys have achieved that type of fame in 2012 and it could spell lots of trouble for the Europeans in the years that lie ahead.        

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ryder Cup Day Three

Davis Love III has a great sense of golf history. He is a former PGA champion and a member of five Ryder Cup teams. He is also the son of a PGA member.
What many people do not know is that the Ryder Cup competition is owned by the PGA of America, not the PGA Tour. My PGA, the other one not to be confused with the Tour, is the largest working sports organization in the world today. Back in the late 1960’s the tour players split from the PGA of America and one of the crumbs they left behind for my Association was” this beautiful little gold cup” as Ben Crenshaw calls it.
As I said earlier in the week, there was a day not too many decades ago when the PGA of America had to pay the networks to televise the Ryder Cup. Things really changed in 1991 when this match was held at Kiawah Island and that Ryder Cup was dubbed “The War by the Shore.” That Ryder Cup became one of the most hotly contested Cup matches ever.
People that have been around this match longer than me will tell you that the modern day Ryder Cup was born in 1991. And it was probably a time when the Ryder Cup reached its low point from a sportsmanship standpoint. After that year, both the European and American organizations that control the Ryder Cup matches took a step back and tried to insure that the spirit of the game would be upheld and magnified in the future.
There is no one who has a greater appreciation for the tradition and history of the game than Love III. He has made it clear from the beginning of his captaincy that he wanted U.S. fans in Chicago to be spirited and engaged, but respectful to his European opponents. Love has demanded the same thing from his team.
When Love showed his team a riveting  Ryder Cup video one night this week you could hear a pin drop.  Love put a lot of work into the production and content of the video. There were testimonials from legends such as Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Arnold Palmer.
Hogan talked about how important the Ryder Cup was to his career. He spoke to the enormity of playing for your country. Snead said that being on the Ryder Cup team was the one thing that all players dreamed of doing. He said that you felt left out if you were not included on the team.
Nelson said that the most impressionable Ryder Cup image that he had was to see players with the same shirts, slacks and golf bags. It was the first time Nelson ever saw a golf team dressed together and it gave him the motivation to work hard on his game so he could play on Ryder Cup teams. Palmer talked about he cried almost everytime he recounts his Ryder Cup experiences.
Curtis Strange talked about how the Ryder Cup was the one time in golf when the players don’t play for money. The right to play for your country is a privilege according to Strange and you do it with no monetary thoughts in mind.
Maybe the most profound comment came from Tom Watson who remembered a conversation that he had another sporting legend.
“Mickey Mantle called me right before he died and told me that he had just watched the Ryder Cup and he said that it was the greatest sporting event that he had ever seen,” said Watson who is the last American captain to lead his team to victory on foreign soil at The Belfry in 1993.
As we walked out of the restaurant, Brandt Snedeker, one of four Ryder Cup rookies quipped, “I wasn’t nervous about all of this until I watched that video.”
No American player on Love’s squad has a winning Ryder Cup record. Here are the respective records of both teams.
Phil Mickelson                   11-17-6           Lee Westwood                  16-11-6
Tiger Woods                      13-14-2          Sergio Garcia                     14-6-4
Jim Furyk                            8-15-4           Luke Donald                       8-2-1
Steve Stricker                    3-3-1               Ian Poulter                         8-3-0
Zach Johnson                     3-3-1              Graeme McDowell           4-2-2
Matt Kuchar                       1-1-2              Paul Lawrie                        3-1-1
Dustin Johnson                  1-3-0                Justin Rose                         3-1-0
Bubba Watson                  1-3-0                Martin Kaymer                  2-1-1
Keegan Bradley                 Rookie              Rory Mcilroy                      1-1-2
Webb Simpson                  Rookie              Peter Hanson                     1-2-0
Jason Dufner                     Rookie               Francesco Molinari          0-2-1
Brandt Snedeker               Rookie               Nicolas Colsaerts              Rookie
The Americans are 41-59-16 (.410) compared to the Europeans’ record of 60-32-18 (.653). These marks mean nothing on Friday morning. Mickelson is now the longest tenured American player with nine Ryder Cup experiences and 34 matches played. Billy Casper has the American record with 37 matches played. Woods has only played on one winning American team. Furyk has the 2nd worst record in Ryder Cup history for those players who have a minimum of 15 appearances.
Garcia has the 6th best all-time Ryder Cup record. He is 8-0-1 in foursome play. Westwood has won 19 points in Ryder Cup play. Nick Faldo has the all-time record with 25 points, which Westwood is a good bet to pass someday soon. Donald has never played on a losing Ryder Cup team and Poulter has taken over Ballesteros’ role as the most despised Euro opponent by many players.  Get set for a great weekend!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ryder Cup- Day 2

The Ryder Cup week is a very special time for me. It’s truly one of the highlights of my professional golf career. Over the years I have been very fortunate to meet a lot of interesting people through golf and the PGA of America. This week is when I get the opportunity to form relationships and spend time with some of the greatest players in the world.
As a PGA Officer, we are assigned an assistant captain to pair with for the week. Our job is to drive a team golf car, provide food and drink to the players while they are on course, store clothing and do whatever is needed during competition. This frees up the assistant to interface with the players.
This year I was privileged to get assigned to Fred Couples. A week ago, Tim Finchem who is the Commissioner of the PGA Tour, announced that Couples would be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in May of 2013. Couples is a former Masters Champion and 14-time winner on the Tour. He played in multiple Ryder Cups and has captained the U.S. to victory in the past two President Cups, a match between the U.S. and the rest of the world- excluding Europe.
Freddie has always been a huge crowd favorite going back to his early days on the Tour when he was nicknamed “Boom Boom” for his monstrous drives. Couples is Mr. Cool in everything he does. His mannerisms, his suave demeanor, his good looks and his mellow personality have made him a darling of golf fans for nearly four decades.
This week Couples comes to the Ryder Cup with an ailing back that forced him to withdraw from a Champions Tour event a couple of weeks ago. He is probably done playing in 2012 and it was a great tribute to his friendship with Davis Love III that he would show up here this week to perform the duties of an assistant captain given the pain that he is in.
I spent Monday night eating in the team room with Couples, Tiger Woods, Steve and Nicki Stricker along with Mike Hulbert, another assistant captain. As Stricker once told me, “Freddie is just one of those cool guys that all men want to be like and all women want to be around.”
That’s a rare combination.
Tuesday I spent the day with Couples as we were assigned the Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson group. This was the first group out and we spent 10 holes with them before we dropped back and hauled Tiger along with his caddy Joe LaCava, back to the clubhouse after nine holes of play.
Most of the Ryder Cup team has played eight of the past ten weeks on the Tour. The players are trying to pace themselves into this week’s competition. Our guys will play 9 or 18 holes today and tomorrow and then go just 9 holes on Thursday before the Opening Ceremonies.
Woods by his own admission today wasn’t consumed in Tuesday’s practice round. It was apparent that the rookies were wired and had lots of energy. Mickelson and Bradley played Watson and Simpson in a match worth a few bucks. Other veterans like Stricker, Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson used the majority of the practice round to putt or drive.
It was incredible to see the crowds for the practice days here at Medinah CC given the fact that only 24 players are on the course at one time. Couples spotted a young kid dressed in orange with a flat billed cap as we drove up to the practice tee on Tuesday. The lad was probably 12 years old.
“Hey, Rickie, what are you doing here?” yelled Couples as we drove by. The reference was to Rickie Fowler’s standard orange dress on Sundays at the PGA Tour events. Once the practice round got started, the kid all of a sudden showed up inside the ropes with Freddie. The next thing you knew, his kid sister was also walking alongside Couples. We kept the kids in peanut butter sandwiches and plenty of drinks before they returned to their parents on the 11th hole.
Think about that. You are a school kid cutting class to go to a practice round at the Ryder Cup. You spend 10 holes inside the ropes with Fred Couples, Butch Harmon, Jim McLean, Mickelson, Simpson, Watson and Bradley. And then you show up on the WGN news at 6 p.m. There has never been a better reason to experience detention.
This has been a relaxing and good start to the Ryder Cup week for our players. There is a good mix of rookies and veteran leadership. Love and his wife, Robin, have gone out of their way to make all of us feel a part of the team. Everybody seems to be on the same page and a U.S. victory is the only goal we have.
The key will be to keep this same atmosphere going once the competition starts on Friday.
Our team room has four ping pong tables (table tennis is the correct term according to Phil). Each morning in the locker room, players are verifying their table tennis records with each other in their head to head matches.
“Now, Zach, you were 3-5 against me last night, right,” chides Mickelson.
“Yeah,” replied Johnson, “But, the week’s not over.”
That’s right, it’s only starting and my bet is the table tennis will not take a back seat at night to the Ryder Cup. The ping pong match time might become shorter with strategy meetings and 36-holes ahead the following day. But, the spirit of the competition won’t change.
That is just one of the many things that makes this week so special.        

Ryder Cup

Late Monday afternoon, Jose Maria Olazabal showed up at Medinah Country Club with the Ryder Cup in hand. He had made the flight over the Atlantic Ocean with three European team members and three assistant captains. Our American contingent greeted the Spanish born captain at the putting green in front of the clubhouse.
After a few handshakes and pleasantries, Olazabal and Davis Love III, the U.S. Captain, departed for the media center and the first interviews of the Ryder Cup week. Earlier in the morning, a local Chicago television sports anchor referred to this week as “the Super Bowl on steroids.”
Consider these facts. Over half a billion spectators worldwide will watch the Ryder Cup this week. It will be shown in over 300 countries. There are over 150 television cameras on site at Medinah this week. Prior to that, the most to ever cover a golf tournament anywhere was 81. As Love told his team and their wives, “Just remember every move you make will be on TV, so don’t pick your nose.”
During Monday’s press conference both captains answered a battery of questions. Olazabal explained how the Ryder Cup had changed in the last 15 years. More Europeans are playing the PGA Tour full time these days. Many of those players have residences here in the U.S.
“The players know each other better today,” said the Spaniard. “I think it’s important to feel comfortable in your surroundings and that is certainly the case today with our players. I think that is why we have had success playing over here in recent years.”
Conversely, the Americans typically play one event a year in Europe- the British Open. It’s been 1993 since the U.S. has won a Ryder Cup on foreign soil. There is no doubt that the Euros have adapted better to the road games than the Americans.
Yes, the Ryder Cup is a big deal. This morning at breakfast, Mike Hulbert who is one of the assistant captains for the U.S. relayed a story about Ian Poulter, Englishman who is playing in his fourth Cup match.
Hulbert said that Poulter recalled the first Ryder Cup match that he ever attended. Poulter was 16 years old at the time and he slept in a tent outside The Belfry to watch the Ryder Cup matches. Hulbert said that Poulter knew from that time on that the Ryder Cup was something he would dream about playing in.
Poulter recalled watching the great European team led by Langer, Faldo, Woosnam and Ballesteros. That experience would forever remain etched in Poulter’s mind. It formed the fabric of what Poulter calls his biggest mission in golf. Earn a spot on the Ryder Cup team. It probably explains his 8-3-1 record and the tenacity that he brings to this competition. 
This will be the first Ryder Cup since Seve Ballesteros died after a courageous battle with cancer over a year ago. In the history of the modern Ryder Cup there was no more feared opponent than the great Ballesteros. He epitomized the European toughness and the legendary Spaniard had a fierce competitive attitude that carried over to the entire European team.
Ballesteros was also known for intimidation and gamesmanship. He was despised, although respected, by many opponents. But, to his European Ryder Cup teammates he was inspiration and many would say that Seve single handedly transformed the modern day Ryder Cup.     
Ballesteros teamed with Olazabal to rack up a 10-2-2 record in Cup matches. The Spanish duo won a total of 12 points playing together. That is twice as many points as any other Ryder Cup partnership has ever won.  Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam earned six.  Arnold Palmer and Gardner Dickinson are the all-time top American team, winning five points.
Olazabal has dedicated this Ryder Cup to his fallen comrade. When asked about the relationship that he had with Ballesteros, Olazabal was clearly moved. Tears formed in his eyes and his lips quivered. He recognized that Seve had been his mentor and that he had spoken confidentially to Love about some type of a Sunday tribute to Ballesteros. As if the Euros need any more help.
“I remember my first Ryder Cup at The Belfry in 1997. Seve went to Tony Jacklin who was our captain and said that he wanted to play with me,” recalled Olazabal. “We were in the first match out. I was so nervous walking across the bridge from the putting green to the first tee. I could not look up from the ground I was so nervous. When we got to the tee Seve looked at me and said, ‘Jose, just go play your game and I will take care of the rest.’ And he did just that.”
Monday night in the team room, I couldn’t help but look at the America rookies like Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley, Brandt Snedeker and Jason Dufner. My thoughts turned to Ballesteros and I wondered what these young pups knew about the great Spaniard and his Ryder Cup legacy.
Ping pong balls were bouncing all over the place. Posters were being signed. Corn hole bags were being tossed. It was a loose atmosphere in the U.S. team room. It was one void of any memories of Ballesteros. In the back of my mind I know that before the week is over they will know more about the great Seve.
Olazabal and the Europeans will be hell bent on leaving a history lesson behind for the Americans.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ryder Cup Preview

Back in 1927 Samuel Ryder, an English businessman, entrepreneur, golf enthusiast and golf promoter, funded an international golf competition between the twelve best professional golfers in the United States and the twelve best in the United Kingdom. It’s a pretty safe bet that he had no clue where this golf match would grow.
Ironically, Ryder originated the idea of selling garden seeds in “penny packets” and he built a very successful business on this concept. His concept on this international golf match between the U.S. and the U.K. is probably the most powerful seed ever planted because no golf competition in the world can rival that of the Ryder Cup.
Early matches between the two sides were fairly even. After World War II, repeated U.S. dominance led to a decision to extend the representation of the British and Irish team to include continental Europe in 1979. Jack Nicklaus approached then PGA of America President, Don Padgett, about the idea of expanding the matches to make them more competitive. Padgett, a native Hoosier, agreed to the idea.
This change was needed because the Ryder Cup had become a lopsided competition that held little or no fan interest. In fact, back then the PGA actually had to pay network TV to televise the competition.  The decision to expand was prompted by the success of a new generation of Spanish golfers of the time which included Seve Ballesteros. Europe has now included players from Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden.
Since 1979, Europe has won the Cup eight times outright and retained it once by tying. The Americans have won seven times of this period. Recently, however, the Ryder Cup has been dominated by Europe. The United States has only won the Cup once since 1999. Next week 24 of the top 35 players in the world rankings will converge on Medinah Country Club in Chicago. In the history of the Ryder Cup this will its strongest field- ever.
There are 28 points up for grabs in the three day competition. Friday and Saturday will feature four matches morning and afternoon. The format will be foursome (alternate shot) and four ball (better ball). Then on Sunday, there will be twelve singles matches, which will determine the winner of the Ryder Cup. Since the Euros are the defending champions, they can retain the Cup with 14 points and a split.
The 2012 United States team will be led by Davis Love III who was selected two years ago to be the captain. Love has spent the past couple of years planning, picking out team uniforms, watching players and trying to mix up a recipe for American success. Love is all about trying to create an environment where his players “won’t be trying too hard to win.”
The U.S. squad will feature Tiger Woods (2), Jason Dufner (6), Bubba Watson (7), Webb Simpson (8), Steve Stricker (10), Dustin Johnson (12), Keegan Bradley (13), Matt Kuchar (14), Phil Mickelson (15), Zach Johnson (16), Brandt Snedeker (18) and Jim Furyk (28).
The European lineup, which is captained by Jose Maria Ozazabal, includes Rory McIlroy (1), Luke Donald (3), Lee Westwood (4), Justin Rose (9), Graeme McDowell (17), Sergio Garcia (19), Peter Hanson (23), Ian Poulter (24), Paul Lawrie (27), Francesco Molinari (31), Martin Kaymer (32) and Nicolas Colsaerts (35).
The Americans have the higher rated team, but don’t let the rankings deceive you. The combined Ryder Cup record of the U.S. team which includes four rookies is 41-59-16 (.410). The Euros are 60-32-18 (.652) and have only one newcomer- Colsaerts from Belgium. On top of this, expect Olazabal who with his 18-8-5 career Ryder Cup record and one of the fiercest international competitors ever, to impart a lot of wisdom on his team.
Traditionally, the host captain will work with the golf course superintendent to set up the golf course to best suit his team. Paul Azinger did this at Valhalla in 2008 by shaving roughs, offering easy pin placements and putting his team in position to make birdies. The strategy paid off. Love has done some of the same at Medinah.
The roughs are down. Stricker was appointed as “the designated putter” and rumors have it that he and Love made a recent trip to Medinah to work on hole locations. Besides giving his team a friendly golf course to play, Love will try to do the same with the team environment next week in Chicago.
Michael Jordan, who played basketball at North Carolina when Love was on the golf team, will be hanging around the U.S. squad to impart wisdom, humor and competitive strategy. Love picked his good buddy, Fred Couples as an assistant captain. Couples has directed the last two President’s Cup teams to victory. He is popular and respected by the players. Another assistant captain is Jeff Sluman, former PGA Champion and a Chicago native who is no stranger to Medinah.
Three United States’ Presidents will probably attend the Ryder Cup at some point next week, including Barack Obama and the two Bush’s.
The stage is set for the 39th version of the Ryder Cup, which has really robbed the attention of this week’s Tour Championship in Atlanta. It’s hard to believe that all of this hype this was made possible with a penny packet of garden seeds.
“The Ryder Cup is the most pressure packed and dramatic competition in all of sports,” says Jon Miller, President of Programming for NBC Sports. “We have covered it all. Wimbledon, the World series, Super Bowls, the Stanley Cup, the Olympics and nothing compares with the pressure of the Ryder Cup.’
What else is there to say? I look forward to taking you on my Ryder Cup journey next week in Chicago.