Thursday, December 26, 2013

2013 in Review: My Top 18 Courses Played

2013 in Review: My Top 18 Courses Played

One of the most frequently asked questions that I get in my role as President of the PGA of America is “What is your favorite golf course?” It’s a tough question for me to answer because I am lucky enough to play great courses everywhere I travel. In 2013, my PGA duties put me on the road 194 days and it even amazed me as to the great golfing venues that I experienced this year. 
Truthfully, it’s easy to lose track of the magnitude of where I play and as I compiled a list for this story, it was very eye opening. It’s safe to say that my travels in 2013 gave me a lifetime of great memories in one year. Here is my list, in order of “My Top 18 Courses of 2013.”
1.     Augusta National Golf Club: I have been fortunate to play here five times and it never gets old because each round could potentially be your last at the most exclusive venue in the world. As I walk down the hill on #11 to the green and look squarely into Amen Corner, I am reminded that his is the most hallowed spot in all of golf.
2.     The Old Course at St. Andrews: This is the oldest golf course in the world. Standing on the first tee and thinking about everyone from Old Tom Morris to Tiger Woods who have hit tee shots here is intimidating. It’s quirky and most golfers either love it or hate it because of its nuances. The Old Course has 14 double greens. Need I say more?
3.     Pine Valley Golf Club: The course celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013. It is widely recognized as the most difficult course in the world. Gene Littler once took 13 shots on the par 3, 5th Hole. It took five years to build with horse and plow. Architect George Crump committed suicide before it was finished.    
4.     Bethpage Black Course: Designed by A.W. Tillinghast and opened in 1936, a sign on the 1st Tee reads, “The Black Course is An Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only for Highly Skilled Golfers.” It will host the 2019 PGA Championship and the 2024 Ryder Cup. An argument could be made that The Black is tougher than Pine Valley.
5.     Oak Hill Country Club: This course has hosted more major championships and Ryder Cups than any course in America. The East Course is the gem of the 36-hole layout, but the West can hold its own. In 2013, Jason Dufner became Oak Hill’s latest major champion and set up his PGA Championship win with a record-tying 63 on Friday.
6.     North Berwick GC- West Course: Founded in 1832, it is the third oldest course in the world still playing the same fairways it had when it opened. Just as quirky as Prestwick, it features the world’s first ‘Redan’ hole which means the green is wider than deep running away from the tee box. I drove the 18th hole, a par 4, and made the putt for 2.
7.     Oakmont: This venue near Pittsburgh has hosted numerous major championships. My round here was a payoff to ESPN’s Mike Greenberg (“Mike & Mike In the Morning”) on a bet involving the Colts and Jets the year that Peyton Manning got hurt. It was the most enjoyable round of my 2013.
8.     Liberty National GC: Site of the Barclay’s overlooking Manhattan with the Statue of Liberty several hundred yards off shore. This round featured a day with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The course was impressive, but Giuliani even more so.
9.     Bellerive CC: Another of the old classics in America. Site of this year’s Senior PGA and the 2018 PGA Championship. My round here was with Roger Chapman, the gracious Englishman who defended his Sr. PGA title.
10.  Old Memorial: This Tampa golf course stacks up with any in the U.S. It is the brainchild of Chris Sullivan, owner of Outback Steakhouses. Old Memorial has plenty of bunkers and water to test anyone, but the monument on the #10 green memorializing two members killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11 leave a lasting mark on any golfer.
11.  Gleneagles King’s Course: This is the site of the inaugural International Matches held in 1921 which later led to the Ryder Cup. One of its sister courses, The Centenary, will host the 2014 Ryder Cup matches.
12.  The Bear’s Club: Built by Jack Nicklaus and home to many PGA TOUR players in Palm Beach, this place reeks of quality. The best hot dog in all of golf- a Hebrew National grilled and served on a toasted bun at the half way house.
13.  Torrey Pines: The best course in Southern California and host of many U.S. Opens and the Farmers Insurance Classic. I enjoyed this round with Trevor Hoffman, former great closer for the Padres and the all-time saves leader in the National League.
14.  The Olympic Club: Another multiple U.S. Open site. Billy Casper stormed back from seven shots on his final nine holes to beat Arnold Palmer in 1966. The Olympic Club and its downtown athletic club have over 9,000 members.
15.  Trump International: Designed by Jim Fazio, who also did The Legends GC; this stately Palm Beach course reflects the personality of its owner- Donald Trump. While I played the course, Trump landed his helicopter on the clubhouse lawn and came out to say hello while I was on the 13th green. That’s hospitality!
16.  Pete Dye Course at French Lick: The best golf destination in Indiana. The West Baden Hotel and all things French Lick make this a must for anybody who loves golf.
17.  Dunbar GC: Located on Scotland’s Golf Coast and in its ‘Cradle of Golf’, the course was built in 1856. It is one of Scotland’s true links courses, which means it is a seaside location with nine holes out and nine back in. A wall built by 17th Century French prisoners of war winds throughout the course. Anonymous to many, but a must to play.
18.  St. Andrews Golf Club: The “other” Saint Andrews located in Westchester County and America’s oldest golf club celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2013. One of the five founding members of the United States Golf Association.

Not a bad year. Actually, not a bad lifetime for many. I am very fortunate!       

The Most Impressive 18 People of 2013

Years come and go. Some are more memorable than others. Human nature always causes for some sentimental reflections every December as another page on the calendar of life gets turned. For the sport of golf, 2013 may very well be one of the most memorable in modern day history.
This year was laced with controversies from anchoring to rules infractions. Governing bodies disagreed publicly for the first time in the history of the game, which resulted in divisiveness among some, but unity among others. On the course, the major championships produced their own unforgettable drama.
My perch for this historic and sometimes tumultuous year was from inside the cage. Some would say that I contributed to the controversy, the mayhem and at times poured gasoline on the chaos that was golf in 2013. I never viewed it that way. As President of the PGA of America it is my sole responsibility to represent the thoughts and opinions of the majority of my 27,000 constituents. The PGA was heard on views that dealt with the Rules of Golf, inclusion, growing the game and championship site selections.
The most profound memories that I have from this year are more about the people who left an impression on me. Some might surprise you. Others may not.  So, here we go, the Most Impressive 18 People of 2013- in no particular order.

Glen Nager: USGA President
History will forever link the two of us because of the anchoring controversy. Often our relationship was testy to say the least. The fact of the matter was that Nager represented his constituency while I did the same. Never in golf had a rule change impacted the enjoyment of the game and therein was the problem.
In many ways, you could not find two more opposite people than Glen and me. He is a high profile lawyer in a top Washington DC firm. He has tried numerous cases in the Supreme Court. His world is not mine. But, his passion for an issue or belief that is best for his faction is equal to mine.
I spent two days with Nager at Augusta National Golf Club back in February when we organized the Drive, Chip and Putt competition between the PGA, USGA and Augusta National. We stayed in the same cabin, dined together and actually teamed up to win a competition on the Masters course. These two days fell during the peak of the 90-day comment period on anchoring. It was an unlikely retreat and some would have viewed it as golf’s version of Sleeping with the Enemy.
On that first night at ANGC, I climbed out of a van that was taking us to dinner. I placed my right hand on the seat back for a brace. As I stepped out of the van, my hand came in contact with Nager’s face and I knocked his glasses off his face. He quipped, “Wait until the media gets a hold of this. Ted Bishop strikes Glen Nager and knocks his glasses to the ground.”
I remember Nager making a birdie on the 15th hole the following day. He is apologetic about his the quality of his game, which he shouldn’t be. He shot a 77 at Pine Valley’s Centennial in June.  As you might expect, he is a grinder and a tough competitor. That, we have in common.  
When his time is said and done in February, Nager will have left a profound mark on the USGA. Whether you agree with what he did or how he did it, the fact is that he negotiated the largest television contract in the history of golf and forever solidified the financial position of the USGA. He stood down the PGA of America and the PGA TOUR on the anchoring ban. Nager risked his reputation, his popularity and even his status at the USGA for principals that he believed in. For that, Glen Nager has to be a formidable person in the 2013 world of golf.

Rory McIlroy: Major Champion
At 24 years old, Rory McIlroy has experienced more than most do in a lifetime. He has won two major championships by record setting margins. Earlier this year, he signed a huge contract with Nike. But, 2013 was a year to forget for the popular kid from Northern Ireland. He did not win a tournament until late in the year when he went down under to beat Adam Scott at the Australian Open.
Through it all, McIlroy handled the adversity pretty well other than an abrupt WD at the Honda Classic when an inflamed wisdom tooth overcame another poor round of ball striking. As defending champion of the PGA Championship, he was stellar. It started in March when he showed up at PGA HQ to receive the 2012 PGA of America Player of the Year and Vardon Trophy awards.
He arrived at the PGA Championship Media Day in June in the early morning hours after the Memorial Tournament. McIlroy spent the day playing with Craig Harmon, Oak Hill pro and me. It was his first look at the venue he would defend on. He was a star at the afternoon press conference and later spent time in downtown Rochester at the PGA Championship display. His dad, Jerry, was at his side. The interaction between father and son was impressive.
In August, Rory hosted the Champions Dinner attended by a record number of former PGA Championship winners. That was a personal testimony to McIlroy. In a sour year of golf, his disposition was anything but that. He was dignified, humble and handled himself with class. Don’t forget this guy is only 24 years old and his best days are ahead. The 2014 Comeback Player of the Year? Rory McIlroy.      

The Mickelson Family
It was another tough U.S. Open in 2013 for Phil Mickelson. His sixth runner-up in the national championship came at Merion GC in Philadelphia. One more blown opportunity for Lefty. It looked like this could his final chance to win a major.
Mickelson went home. He hibernated for a few days and then showed up at the Scottish Open. Links golf was not his forte and he surprised everyone with a win at Castle Stuart. At 43 years old, what were the chances of Phil winning two weeks in a row when he went to Muirfield for the Open Championship? The rest is history. The finest two weeks of Mickelson’s career.
Less than a month later, Amy Mickelson showed up at 168 Whitney Street in Rochester, NY with her three kids and parents. She was there to participate in a Habitat for Humanity work day as part of an effort between PGA of America wives and PGA TOUR wives. She rolled her sleeves up, laid sod and performed manual labor. All the while, her son, Evan hung out with 8-year old Elisha Galletti whose family was the recipient of the house.
As she was leaving, Amy asked me if it was okay for Evan to give Elisha his cell phone number so the two could stay in touch. That’s Amy Mickelson. Genuine, caring and sincere. She is truly the woman behind a great man.

Paul Miller, PGA Pro
Sometime after Christmas in 2012, I received a call from Paul Miller the PGA pro at the Newtown Country Club in Newtown, CT. He asked if I could help get something donated from the PGA of America that would be given to first responders at Sandy Hook Elementary for a fundraiser he was conducting in May of 2013. His request came less than two weeks after the tragic shooting in Newtown rocked our world.  
On May 5 it was my privilege to join Michael Breed from the Golf Channel at the Newtown Country Club. This course is a 9-hole private club with about 175 members- 100 less than it had a few years ago. The day was about healing and forgetting. Fifty-six first responders were treated to a day of golf, a steak and lobster dinner plus each received one of the donated items.
Newtown CC extended complimentary memberships to all surviving Newtown families. Paul Miller was giving his first golf lessons to a Sandy Hook mom and dad on the following Friday. Newtown is a quaint, small town. To think that this tragedy could happen here was unbelievable. But, then again, if it could happen in Newtown it could happen in Anywhere, USA.

Tim Finchem: PGA TOUR Commissioner
I would argue that the Commissioner of the PGA TOUR is the most powerful person in golf today. Some find him to be intimidating. He is methodical, insightful and a visionary who took a foundation built by his predecessor Deane Bemon and expanded it to tremendous proportions.
But, behind the public Finchem is a witty, engaging and very likeable guy. What impressed me most about “The Commish” in 2013 was his passion for recreational amateurs and their overall enjoyment of the game. When the PGA TOUR made its stand on anchoring it looked past its own interests. Finchem saw the big picture and that is why he has become a larger than life figure in golf.

Rudy Giuliani: Former Mayor of New York City
We rode the back nine together during a round of golf in early June at Liberty National, the course overlooking the Manhattan skyline. I commented on how unfair the press had been with its criticism of the President of the United States for playing 80 rounds of golf during his first four years in Office.            
To which the former Mayor of New York City grinned and responded, “I couldn’t agree more. I think the United States would be far better off if President Obama spent more time on the golf course and less time in the White House.”

Paul McGinley: Captain of the European Ryder Cup Team
Sly like a fox is Paul McGinley. He rides comfortably in the shadow of his counterpart, Tom Watson. McGinley speaks publicly about his affection and admiration of Watson. Somehow he has managed to capture the role of underdog in the 2014 Ryder Cup matches in Scotland at Gleneagles despite the Euros winning seven of the last nine matches.
There is nothing not to like about McGinley. He is the man for the commons. He embodies the workmanlike European mentality which has become part of the formula on how to beat the Americans. This week he turned down the opportunity to write a book on his experiences as Ryder Cup Captain.
“I want the players to know that what happens behind the scenes next year stays there and they can be free and open. I won’t write a book,” said McGinley. “We had a team meeting on Saturday night (at Medinah in 2012) which lasted for about 20 minutes and if you had sat and observed a team that was four points behind you would have come out and called your bookie to find out what their odds were. It was not a case of ‘Braveheart’ standing on chairs but there was a feeling in the room that this was achievable.”
That is classic McGinley. Beware Tom Watson.

The Rest of The Most Impressive People of 2013
Billy Payne: Chairman Augusta National GC- “A futuristic change agent.”
Peter Dawson: Royal and Ancient- “A decent man who is in a tough position.”
Donald Trump: Golf Course Owner- “Dynamic, taller than you think and a pleasant surprise.”
Jack Nicklaus: Legend- “His legacy grows. Bigger holes and shorter rounds. Jack gets it.”
Steve Stricker: PGA TOUR player- “He is proving that less can be more. Nicest guy in golf.”
Jason Dufner: PGA Champion- “What you see is what you get. A total chill out!”
Adam Scott: Masters Champion- “Classy. Understands the business of golf. Totally impressive.”
Pete Bevacqua: CEO PGA of America- “Brilliant. Bethpage, International PGA and NBC. All him.”
Arnold Palmer: Legend- “Still the King even though he went from bifurcator to conformist.”
Mark Steinberg: Agent- “Best stable in golf- Woods, Rose and Kuchar. Who’s next?”
Lee Trevino: PGA Distinguished Service Award Winner- “A true classic. THE rags to riches story.”

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

2013 PGA Championship

My first experience with Jason Dufner was a last year’s Ryder Cup. He was a man of few words. He epitomized the phrase “He lets his sticks do the talking.”
Dufner compiled a 3-1 record and was one of the bright spots for Team USA. My “Duf Man” recollection from that week at Medinah was when I found myself one on one with him in an elevator in the team hotel. We exchanged greetings and then he asked me, “Are you having fun?”
I replied, “Sure, how about you.”
Dufner’s response, “If this isn’t fun, I don’t know what is.”
Most Ryder Cuppers would not use the word fun to describe the experience. It would be more like stressful, pressure packed, brutal, nerve racking, etc. But, not Dufner and that probably best describes one of golf’s coolest customers.
It was apparent during last Friday’s second round that Dufner would be a factor in the 95th PGA Championship. He tied the lowest round ever shot in a major championship with a sizzling 63 and I had the pleasure of watching it as I walked with Steve Stricker, Hidecki Matsuyama and Dufner.
On the opening hole he drove it in the deep rough and muscled his second barely over the creek and was 30 yards short of the green in regulation. He pitched up to twenty feet and sank the putt for par. Not a likely start to a 63.
Dufner canned a wedge on the second hole for an eagle 2 and he was on his way. Stricker went to Dufner and high fived him. He embraced Dufner who seemed embarrassed by the attention. Safe to say the normally low key Stricker was giddy compared to Dufner who holed the shot. Duf showed little emotion as he strode to the green and pulled his ball out of the hole.
After two more birdies, he was four under par heading into the difficult seventh hole. Dufner fanned his drive to the right and found the creek. He took a penalty stroke and dropped, which left him a 195 yard shot with a tree in front. Dufner hit a low cut shot that wound up about 45-feet from the hole. He knocked in the putt and saved an unlikely par. It was then, I knew this round was going to be special.
Dufner had three chances on 16-17-18 to make a birdie and shoot golf’s first 62 in a major championship. His best chance came on the final hole, but he left his 20-footer short. Yes, short of all things with history looking him right in the eye.
On Wednesday of last week, Mac Fritz from Titleist left some autographed items in my locker for the Pay It Forward Johnson County silent auction. They included Oak Hill flags, several hats and other things signed by Stricker, Adam Scott and Webb Simpson. But, most notably there was a Dufner wedge. This is significant because a year ago Fritz gave me a McIlroy signed wedge and he went onto win the PGA Championship. History repeats itself and I can’t wait to see whose wedge Fritz sticks in my locker next year.
On Saturday morning, after Dufner’s historic 63, the PGA Officers sat in front of the Oak Hill clubhouse and assumed the “Dufnering” position. For those that don’t know, Dufner made this pose famous last winter and it has been emulated thousands of times since Sunday. “Dufnering” constitutes sitting on the ground, feet straight ahead, neck slightly bowed with an erect back and hands hugging your thighs. It’s the ultimate chilling out position.
During the photo shoot, Zach Johnson who was Dufner’s Ryder Cup partner from Medinah, walked by and tweeted a picture of the PGA’s version of “Dufnering”. The tweet went viral. It was another bit PGA irony. Looking back on last week there were all kinds of little signs that this was going to be Dufner’s week.
Around 7 p.m. on Sunday night I had the privilege to introduce and present Dufner with the Wanamaker Trophy on the 18th green. Two years ago he had a four shot lead with four holes to play at the Atlanta Athletic Club. It appeared that Dufner would be the 2011 PGA Champ. But, Keegan Bradley rallied and beat Dufner in a three-hole playoff.
Last Tuesday McIlroy asked Bradley to speak on his behalf at the Champions Dinner. Bradley mentioned that he had played his practice round with Dufner that day and Keegan was extended a dinner invitation by his playing partner.
Bradley grinned and said, “I told Jason that I already had dinner plans tonight.”
When Dufner walked off of the 18th green on his way to sign his scorecard Sunday, his buddy Bradley was standing there waiting to give him a congratulatory hug. The two embraced and I couldn’t help but think that those two will be dining together every Tuesday night of the PGA Championship for the rest of their lives.
Don’t be fooled by Dufner’s demeanor. He is smart, articulate and funny. He is a student of Ben Hogan. He prides himself in playing with Hogan-like characteristics. This War Eagle from Auburn conducts himself like his idol The Hawk.

During the Champions Toast in the Oak Hill clubhouse, Dufner reminded everyone that he had been picked by GolfWorld magazine to win a major this year. It was his modest way of saying that he had lofty personal goals for 2013. Dufner definitely delivered.

PGA Championship Press


PGA Champ Interview

Friday, August 2, 2013

French Lick

On Tuesday the PGA of America announced that it will hold the 2015 Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid at the Pete Dye Golf Course in French Lick. This championship is the most prestigious in all of senior golf and the announcement commanded lots of attention. Indiana Governor Mike Pence joined Jeff Fettig, CEO of Whirlpool; Steve Ferguson, Chairman of the Board of the Cook Group and President of French Lick Resorts and me in making the announcement.
It was truly an historic day for French Lick, which hosted the 1924 PGA Championship won by the legendary Walter Hagen. Over the years, French Lick has formulated an impressive resume of top flight golf events. Those include the Midwest Amateur, LPGA Championship, PGA Professional National Championship and the Big Ten Men’s and Women’s Championships.
For Pete Dye, it will be another major championship feather in his design portfolio, which is already impressive. The Indiana native has many great courses to his credit. None are any more breath taking than the Pete Dye Course at French Lick, which is located on top of one of the state’s highest elevations. This course will challenge the best senior players in the world in a variety of ways.
Indiana’s weather in late May can change in a hurry- several times in one day as a matter of fact. Wind promises to be a factor at French Lick and it could blow in 2-3 different directions during the four rounds of the Senior PGA. Just when players think they have this place figured out, they won’t. The elevation changes of the property will add to the drama. It is a guarantee that players will either like or hate this place.
Kerry Haigh is the Chief Championships Officer for the PGA. He handled the course setup in 2010 when 312 club professionals invaded French Lick and West Baden. Mike Small, the golf coach at University of Illinois, won the event with a score of ten under par. Small carved out a 65 during one of those rounds to set the course record. So, the place can be had and Haigh will make sure that French Lick is fair on top of challenging.
Tuesday was a very special day for Steve Ferguson. In many ways it was the culmination of a dream, which was to bring a major golf championship to Southern Indiana. Ferguson has been the father of French Lick in many ways. He secured the blessings and finances from the late Bill Cook to complete the total restoration to French Lick’s hotels and golf courses. Estimates indicate that this has been at least a $500 million project.           
Between the West Baden Hotel and the French Lick Springs Resort, over 600 hotel rooms await visitors. The ’24 PGA was held at the Donald Ross Course, previously known to many as the Hill Course. It has also been redone and there is no better 36 hole facility in the Midwest than French Lick. 
When Ferguson contacted Dye about building another course at French Lick in 2005, Pete wasn’t sure he could even do it on the property available. Ferguson will smile and tell you that it was good to know Pete let him know that before he started building it.
Dye, whom has done many philanthropic golf course design projects has unfortunately been tagged with the label “that given an unlimited budget, he can exceed it”. Upon walking and mentally surveying the property, Dye reached out to Ferguson and arranged a luncheon meeting.
Pete informed him that a golf course could be built, but Ferguson would need to acquire the mansion and acreage that sat on the highest point of the property. Otherwise, no golf course would be possible. This mansion is now the current clubhouse at the Pete Dye Course as Ferguson was able to acquire it from the landowner for a reasonable price.
Dye immediately went to work and created a true masterpiece. From the time the project started until it was finished, Ferguson had no idea what Pete was charging for the design fee. Dye once joked, “If you don’t like what I build, then don’t pay me.”
Finally in the fall of 2008, Alice Dye called Ferguson’s office in Bloomington and said that Pete needed to be paid now because we just elected a new President and she knew taxes were going to increase. When Ferguson called Pete to find out the price, Dye said, “Now, why would Alice call you and ask for that?”
Ferguson had researched Dye’s normal design fee and shot him a number. Pete responded, “I think that’s too much.”
Too which Ferguson coyly said, “Well, Pete, I will be happy to under pay you for your work.”
The two eventually agreed on the price and payment terms.  Since then they have entered into a consulting agreement which allows Dye to keep his finger prints on French Lick. That costs Ferguson $1 per year. Dye’s expenses are still unclear to Ferguson on whether Pete expects to be reimbursed.
In 2015 the Senior PGA will be televised for 12 hours reaching 130 countries and 430 million households. Those numbers even raised the eyebrows of Governor Pence when it comes to exposure for Indiana and its tourism. This year’s Senior PGA field consisted of 122 players representing 35 states. 34 international players came from 18 countries.
There were 19 major Champions who have combined to win 32 major championships. In addition, this year’s field included five former PGA Champions; eight U.S. and European Ryder Cup captains as well as seven members of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Ferguson is a big picture guy. He had the determination, vision, leadership and courage to resurrect French Lick. He looks forward to bringing this major event to Orange County and Southern Indiana. It was a very special day for Ferguson, no doubt. But, it was a bigger day for French Lick and Indiana. This was a proud day to be a Hoosier.          

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Open Championship Wrap

On Sunday afternoon about thirty minutes after Phil Mickelson accepted the Claret Jug from the R&A upon winning the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield, I starting penning my weekly congratulatory letter to the latest winner on the professional golfing circuit. It’s a PGA of America tradition; the President sends a note to the winners on behalf of our Association.
This particular letter was easy to write. Mickelson’s emotional victory was arguably the best of his career, if not the most unlikely. When someone suggested to me last week that Phil might win the British Open, I scoffed and said, “Are you kidding? What are the odds? He just won the Scottish Open and you think this guy, who never plays well on links courses, will do it twice in a row? No way,” I said.
I would even go as far to say that the last two weeks have been the best of Lefty’s professional golf career. Give the guy credit. He went to Scotland, put himself out there and worked hard to adapt his game to true links golf. He had the fortitude to do this after yet another heart break less than a month ago at the U.S. Open. Make no mistake, behind that patented Mickelson smile is a solid wall of toughness.  
He won the Open Championship with the same style and flair that Jack Nicklaus captured the 1987 Masters. Mickelson bolted out of the pack somewhere in the middle of the round. He was five shots back heading into Sunday and was listed at 20 to 1 by the British bookies. He overcame some bad luck on the 16th hole. Then he hit two gargantuan shots into the par five 17th hole and converted a two-putt birdie.
Even when he went to the tee at the 18th and flashed a confident smile, there was still doubt as to whether Phil could finish it off. Remember Winged Foot? Could he avoid a mishap in a fairway bunker? He did that and more. When he rolled in the birdie putt on final green, it was over. Sure, there were groups left on the course, but they would be like late callers at their own wake when they arrived to Muirfield’s 18th green. This championship was dead and buried.
It was Mickelson’s fifth major title. He joins Byron Nelson and Seve Ballesteros in that elite club. Phil has now won three of golf’s four majors, excluding the elusive U.S.Open where he has finished runner-up six times. There is something about those painful losses such as the one at Merion that make this guy even more lovable.
After he sank the winning putt at Muirfield, he walked off the green and embraced his wife, Amy, and their three kids with a prolonged hug. Mickelson defintely married up. Amy is one of the classiest Tour wives and is no doubt Phil’s rock during his lowest times, which post-Merion definitely was.
Then to kill time while his nearest challengers finished, he signed hundreds of autographs near the clubhouse. That’s a Mickelson trademark at every Tour event. Before he leaves the property, he will spend a couple of hours signing. Is there any wonder why people love this guy?
Speaking of five majors- that is still the magic number before Tiger Woods can pass Nicklaus for the all-time major championship title. Think about this. Five majors is a career for Mickelson, Ballesteros and Nelson.  Here’s another interesting tidbit. Woods has never won a major when trailing after three rounds. Nicklaus, on the other hand, trailed heading into the final round on eight occasions in his 18 major championship wins.
Woods and Mickelson now sit atop the World Golf Rankings as #1 and #2, respectively. It’s hard to gauge the intensity of their rivalry nowadays. These are veterans who have accomplished a variety of things in their careers. Woods once owned the head-to-head match-up in the majors. The scale has tilted in Phil’s favor in the past few years. Both players have distinct fan bases. To their credit, it’s pretty amazing that two veterans are still dominating the sport at this stage in their careers.  
It was a tough week for Peter Dawson and his constituents from the R&A. They were severely scrutinized by the press for Muirfield’s men only membership. This was a hot political topic in Scotland. It’s the 21st Century and way overdue that these clubs drop their discriminatory practices.
What a shame it would be to see a classic venue such as Muirfield fall from the rotation. The R&A should not be forced to make that decision. That responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of Muirfield, Troon and St. Andrews.
Finally, Tom Watson was in the field at Muirfield evaluating his American troops in preparation for the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, Scotland. Watson told me that he was looking for guys who can handle the pressure.

Any chance that we can have 12 Phil Mickelsons on that Ryder Cup team?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Open 2013

The 142nd Open Championship starts Thursday at Muirfield located in Gullane, East Lothian, Scotland overlooking the Firth of Forth.  Although Muirfield is a links course and is set upon elevated ancient land claimed from the sea highlighted by its sandy base and small sea shells in its bunkers, it has an unusual layout which was designed by Old Tom Morris.
Most links courses run along the coast and then back again leading to two sets of nine holes, each of which will roughly face in the same direction. One nine goes out and the other comes back in. Muirfield, however, was among the first courses to depart from this arrangement and is arranged as two loops of nine holes, one clockwise and one counterclockwise. This means that, assuming the wind direction remains the same throughout a round, every hole on the course has a different apparent wind direction from the tee. No more than three consecutive holes follow the same direction at any time.     
The Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, now based at Muirfield, holds the claim of being the oldest verifiable organized golf club in the world, although the game of golf is several centuries older. The club’s records date back continuously to 1744, when it produced thirteen “Rules of Golf” for its first competition which was played at Leith Links for the “Silver Cup.”
The club played on five holes at Leith Links for nearly a century, but overcrowding forced a move in 1836 to Mussleburgh Old Course’s 9-holes. Musselbrough, like many prestigious Scottish courses is a public course and this course also became too crowded for the liking of the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
In 1891, the club built a new private 18-hole course at Muirfield, taking the Open Championship with them. This situation caused some ill feeling at Musselbrugh, which lost the right to hold the Open from that point forward. Because Old Tom Morris had designed Muirfield, it met with wide approval from the start. It has been modified and updated several times as late as the 1920’s, but not touched since. Muirfield held its first Open in 1892 and was the first tournament anywhere contested over four rounds or 72 holes.
Muirfield cosmetically fits the description of a links course to a tea. Its soil is sandy and because of its lack of moisture, the grass tends to have short blades with long roots. The best way to describe its fairways would be like applying a coating of tightly cut grass on top of concrete. Only 92 of the courses in Scotland (17%) are true “links” courses.
The grass in Muirfield’s rough is often the wispy long grass which makes play very difficult even in a good lie. This spring was wet in East Lothian and the recent warm temperatures have made the seaside fescue grasses thick and tough to control shots from.
The bunkers at Muirfield will prove to be menacing and players will try to avoid at all costs, particularly in the fairways. Escape from these deep bunkers is only possible if the ball is not close to a sod stacked face. Many times a player will have to hit a shot sideways or even backwards to get the ball out of the bunker.
The locals here are concerned that the dry and fast conditions (referred to as “wee bouncy”) will cause the scoring to be unusually low by Open Championship standards. In all likelihood, the wind will make things interesting and create all of the challenge the players need.
“It only takes about 10 mph of wind around here to make Muirfield challenging,” Sergio Garcia told me Tuesday night.
With the concrete like ground conditions many players are hitting 5-irons off the tee downwind to 250 yards. Garcia admitted that he “only hit three or four drivers” in his practice rounds. At the same time, he was quick to point out that many of the fairways funnel into the bunkers and even with irons off the tee, bounces can present problems and balls will run out into bunkers.
Speaking of Garcia, he was a guest milling around on Tuesday night at the International Golf Writers Dinner. Many former major champions attended the invitation only affair. Garcia, who has never won a major, circulated during the cocktail hour outside the tent hosting the dinner at Muirfield. The Spaniard was clad in jeans and a golf shirt. He obviously had taken it upon himself to interface with the media and other golf officials in hopes of improving his image following remarks he made about Tiger Woods in late May. In my opinion it was a classy move on his part.
I’m staying in North Berwick, which is just seven miles up the road from Muirfield. It’s the home of the North Berwick Club which was founded in 1832, some 59 years before Muirfield. Late Sunday afternoon I had a chance to play North Berwick after a couple hours of sleep and a severe case of jet lag. It’s a quirky course, very reminiscent of Prestwick.
The 18th hole is a drivable par four of 277 yards. Interestingly the green on this hole sits near a narrow street where local golfers park their cars. The view of these parked cars from the 18th tee is imposing from the standpoint that most average golfers hit slices off the tee and the prevailing wind is left to right. On top of that, the North Berwick clubhouse sits behind the green and people gather in the bar upstairs and watch the action on the finishing hole.
I took my weary legs to the 18th tee at approximately 9:05 p.m. and launched my tee shot towards the green. I lost sight of the ball, but my playing partners informed me that it wound up 20-feet left of the flag on the green. With a new bounce in my step, I strode to the green and made the putt for an eagle 2. The cheerful peanut gallery sitting on the clubhouse veranda applauded. It was a golf highlight for me.

A couple of days later I discovered that part of the fee we paid to play North Berwick included a two pound surcharge for liability insurance to cover an errant shot and the potential of a broken car window. Only in Scotland would the powers to be implement that policy. Was this one for the purists? Maybe not, but a smart one, that certainly fits the spirit of this great country.             

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

July 10, 2013

In 1421 a Scottish regiment aiding the French against the English at the Seige of Bauge is introduced to the game of chole. Hugh Kennedy, Robert Stewart and John Smale, three of the identified players, are credited with introducing chole to Scotland in the form of golf.
The game quickly caught on with great interest. So much so, that in 1457 golf was prohibited on Sundays because it interfered with military training for the wars against the English. Later that year, golf along with football was banned by the Scots’ Parliament of James II to preserve the skills of archery. It seems the Scottish leadership was afraid that golf had become a diversion that threatened national security.
In 1470 the ban was reaffirmed by the Parliament of James II. In 1491 the golf ban was again affirmed by the Parliament, this time under James IV. Finally, in 1502 with the signing of the Treaty of Glasgow between England and Scotland, the ban on golf is lifted. James IV made the first recorded purchase of a set of golf clubs, ironically from a bow-make in Perth.
The beauty of modern-day Scotland is that some things never change. Golf is still banned on Sundays at the Old Course at St. Andrews by the Royal and Ancient. On the Sabbath, the legendary golf links at St. Andrews becomes a public park where families spread their blankets and open picnic baskets on the 18th fairway. The Old Course becomes a direct walking route from the village to the rocky beach of the North Sea on Sundays.
And then there is this testy relationship between the Scots and the English. Alex Salmond is the First Minister of Scotland. He is smart, articulate and leading a charge to gain freedom for Scotland from the United Kingdom in the form of a referendum vote on Thursday, September 18, 2014- just a couple of weeks before the Ryder Cup. It’s also the same year that the Scots will host the Commonwealth Games.
Following months of discussion and argument, the Scottish and UK governments struck a deal on how to take things forward with arrangements to be put to the Scottish Parliament for final approval. Essentially, everyone over the age of 16 who lives in Scotland is eligible to vote. Interestingly, the 800,000 Scots who live elsewhere in the UK do not get a vote, while the 400,000 Brits who live in Scotland do get to vote.
The referendum question will be simple: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
The campaign for Scottish independence began in earnest in 1707. At the time, the view was that Scotland was desperate for cash, but opponents of the move were outraged by claims that the Scots who put their names to the “Act of Union” (keeping the country part of the UK) were bribed. The episode moved Scotland’s legendary Robert Burns to write, “We are bought and sold for English gold. Such a parcel of rogues in a nation.”
Fast forward many years to 1934, and the establishment of the Scottish National party, created through the amalgamation of the Scottish Party and the National party of Scotland. After decades of ups and downs, the party won its first election in 2007 and formed a minority government. Eventually, in 2011 it secured its mandate for an independence referendum. Do the Scots really want independence? That’s hard to say, but most will tell you that the referendum will be closer than people think.
Scotland will again play host to the 142nd Open Championship next week at Muirfield, which many feel is the finest venue on the British Open rotation. Muirfield has hosted the Open Championship fifteen times, most recently in 2002 when Ernie Els lifted the trophy. Other past winners at Muirfield include Nick Faldo (twice), Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Henry Cotton, Alf Perry, Walter Hagen, Harry Vardon and Harold Hilton. Muirfield also hosted the British Amateur Championship ten times, the Ryder Cup three times and the Walker Cup twice.
There has been a swirling controversy in 2013 surrounding Muirfield’s membership policy that does not permit women to become members. It’s been a hot topic in the British press. No doubt the issue has been fueled since Muirfield last hosted the Open Championship because Augusta National admitted two women as members in 2012.
Said Kevin McKenna from The Observer, “Muirfield is one of our finest links courses and a regular host of this, the greatest golf tournament on Earth. By allowing this club to host the Open regularly, Scotland tells the world that a significant part of it remains backward and ridiculous. We permit Muirfield to be Scotland for a week or so and thus we tell the world that we treat women like second-class citizens.
“Muirfield is not alone in its cretinous, anti-women policy. Two other clubs that host the Open- Royal Troon and the R&A at St. Andrews- similarly refuse to allow women to join their organisations. The people who run the outfits insist that they do not break equality laws as they are private clubs that allow black people to use their facilities, but only if they are accompanied by white people.
“We are also told there exist dozens of women-only clubs in Scotland to cater for “the ladies”. These, though, possess few of the challenges and little of the splendor of many of the male-only clubs. The fact remains that if you are a woman who takes golf seriously you are barred from holding membership at some of Scotland’s finest clubs,” added McKenna.
Recently, First Minister Salmond made a stand when he refused his annual invitation to the Open. Salmond who is an enthusiastic golfer simply stated that his conscience could not allow him to attend an event being hosted by such an organization he views as sexist. Salmond’s stance was somewhat undermined when his own tourism minister accepted an invitation to attend Muirfield’s Open.
Some things never change in Scotland. The feud between the Scots and the English has persisted for centuries. Golf is still banned on Sundays at the Old Course. Women can’t join some of the country’s select clubs. As a visiting American next week at Muirfield, I choose to be an enthusiastic guest who offers no further political opinion on any of these issues.

But, in the spirit of Scottish predictability, count on this year’s Champion Golfer being from that short list of former major champions who are in the field at Muirfield. Look at its past winners. Els, Faldo, Watson, Trevino, Nicklaus, Player and Hagen. Is this fair and equal to all of those “other” players in the Open Championship field? No, but it’s just the Scottish way and that’s their business.