Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Players Championship

On Sunday, Tiger Woods once again proved his worth to the sport of golf as NBC posted its highest television rating for a PGA TOUR event in 2013 during the final round of The Players Championship. The network drew a 5.5 rating which is outstanding for a regular TOUR event. Woods won his fourth title of the year and dueled out a host of players down the stretch- including his arch-rival Sergio Garcia.
The Players Championship is a hybrid when it comes to professional golf tournaments. The four majors are well defined- The Masters, the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship being clearly the most prestigious in all of golf. The PGA Championship has the strongest field among the four majors and to the credit of The Players it has arguably the second strongest field in professional golf.
The Woods-Garcia rivalry is not necessarily golf’s version of Ali-Frazier, but it makes for interesting drama. Things heated up on Saturday when Garcia was apparently distracted during his swing by a crowd reaction to Woods’ club selection on a par five hole. After hitting his shot, one he wasn't satisfied with, Garcia glared across the fairway at Woods.
During a post round interview, Garcia quipped, “We really don’t enjoy each other’s company. You don’t have to be a rocket engineer to figure that out.”
When asked about his interpretation of the situation, Woods responded, “I’m not surprised he found something to complain about.”
The Woods-Garcia tiff was just the latest in golf’s ongoing “war of words” between various parties. The PGA Tour and the PGA of America have sparred with the USGA and the R&A all winter over anchoring. Peter Dawson, from the R&A, and I have traded several shots on various issues facing the game today.
Is all of this good for golf? Many purists would say that it’s probably not in best interests of the sport. Golf is probably the only major sport in the world where fist fights don’t take place. So, we stick with words in golf and let our clubs do the talking. I say the conversations have been okay and at the end of the day, the sport will be stronger.
Last week’s activities at The Players Championship started with the World Golf Hall of Fame induction of Fred Couples, Colin Montgomerie, Ken Venturi, Willie Park, Jr. and Ken Schofield. Many debated the merits of the Class of ’13, but I could not disagree more.
The Couples and Montgomerie inductions drew scrutiny because between the two of them, they had only one major championship. That was by Couples at The Masters. The ever popular Couples was inducted ahead of Davis Love III and Mark O’Meara, both two-time major championship winners and owners of more PGA TOUR wins than Couples.
Montgomerie won 31 times on the European Tour, the most by any British player, and he was a stalwart in the Ryder Cup. He is the fourth player in the last five years to be inducted into the Hall of Fame without winning a major. Montgomerie also won the European Order of Merit eight times.
Venturi won the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional in torrid heat while suffering through a heat stroke. He enjoyed 35 years of distinguished service to CBS. Park won the British open in 1887 and 1889 and then broadened his influence in the game by building clubs, golf courses and writing. Schofield was the head of the European Tour from 1975 to 2004. He grew that tour from 17 to 45 events and paved the way for continental Europe to be part of the Ryder Cup.
Montgomerie told a story about how he was interviewing for a job with IMG, the top player agency in sports, in 1996. He met his two prospective employers on the 10th tee at Turnberry GC in Scotland. It’s a location that is as far removed from the clubhouse as you can get. Figuring that he wasn't a priority to IMG, he unassumingly teed it up and shot a 29 on the back nine at Turnberry.
When Monte walked off the course, the two guys from IMG said, “Instead of you working for us, we are going to work for you.”
Couples was the last to get inducted on that Monday night. Known for his poise and overall coolness, it was strange to see Freddie get choked up several times during his acceptance speech. He was overcome with emotion at the end of the night, reading two sentences from a piece of paper.
“Thanks for taking a kid from Seattle and putting him in the Hall of Fame,” Couples said as his chin buckled. “This is the coolest night of my life.”
He walked off the stage in tears, thrusting both arms in the air.
I’m wiping a tear away as I write this. It was a great kickoff to a superb week at The Players.             

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Newtown, CT

Sometime around 1:30 p.m. on Friday, December 14,2012, I stepped outside of PJ Clark’s, a saloon on 3rd Avenue in Manhattan. Twenty four hours earlier the PGA of America had announced that Tom Watson would be the Captain of the 2014 Ryder Cup team. It had been a whirlwind couple of days in New York City. NBC’s Today Show, the Empire State Building press conference, and a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden plus numerous interviews and press conferences created  a week that I will never forget.
But, on the street corner that Friday afternoon at one of Sinatra’s hangouts, it all seemed like a blip in the past when I checked my Blackberry and saw reports that a mass shooting had taken place at the Sandy Hook Elementary School about an hour north in Newtown, CT. Four events of tragic magnitude stand out in my 59 years. The Kennedy assassination, the Columbine shootings, 9/11 and the Sandy Hook Elementary carnage are permanently etched in my memory bank.
Last Sunday, I went to Newtown to be part of a day that honored the first responders at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. I joined Michael Breed, of Golf Channel’s “The Fix,” and participated in a golf outing hosted by Paul Miller, PGA professional at the 9-hole Newton Country Club. Sixty-eight players, most of them policemen, fire fighters and ambulance personnel, comprised the field.
“When you drive into Newtown, you will go about 8 mph and you will say to yourself, ‘How could something that awful happen in this town?’” Breed told me last week.
Newtown is charming and located in Fairfield County. It was founded in 1705 and is set in rural Connecticut. Its population is 28,000 and it contains several small boroughs- one of which is Sandy Hook. Newtown is truly Anytown, USA. Breed was right. It is unthinkable that this tragedy, which resulted in 32 deaths on December 14, 2012, could happen here.
Shortly after 9:30 a.m. on that fateful day, Adam Lanza shot his way through the locked glass doors at Sandy Hook and went on a shooting rampage that killed 26 children, ages 6-12 and six adults. Lanza shot all of his victims multiple times, including 6-year old Noah Ponzer, who he shot eleven times. Lanza later shot himself in the head when the first responders entered the school.
The courageous stories of the six murdered adults along with others inside the school, all primarily women, are well documented. Who knows how many lives were saved by their heroic efforts. My trip to Newtown only solidified my belief that this tragic story could have happened anywhere in our country. It’s a typical American town with people like you and me living in it.
According to Breed who lives about 30 minutes away in downstate Connecticut, the scene at Sandy Hook was so bad when the first seven responders arrived that they called into the Newtown police department and advised that no one else enter. To this day, those first seven responders have not returned to work.
Paul Miller has been the golf professional at Newtown CC for 19 years. The club was built in 1915. Like many small town private clubs it has fallen on hard times the last few years as its membership has declined from 270 to 187. Dan Baker works for the PGA of America and he described Newtown CC.
“I grew up there and was a junior member at Newtown CC. Joe Lacava, Tiger’s caddie, and I both played there. NCC’s greens are as big as car hoods which is why I generally hit it at the flag because if you were 20 feet right or left you were off the green,” said Baker.
“NCC, back in the day, was jokingly referred to as a bar with a golf course attached to it. The kind of place where golf was always fun. I wish I could be there today. Great memories!” recalled Baker.
On Sunday, Paul Miller and his members put the fun back into NCC. They created a day that quietly said thanks to all those first responders and area agencies that had been so instrumental in the events of 12/14/12. The club has offered complimentary memberships to any of the families affected by the tragedy at Sandy Hook. Three of those have taken NCC up on its offer and Miller will be giving lessons to a mom and dad of a Sandy Hook victim on Friday.
Miller, along with the help of Breed, created a raffle where every participant in Sunday’s outing received a prize. The donors were golfs greats- Woods, Palmer, Norman, Player, Nicklaus, Pavin, Stockton along with many of golf’s top manufacturers. The best surprise of the day was when Allen Newman, with the JetBlue Challenge, announced that all 68 participants in the outing would receive a free 5 day/ 4 night vacation to Casa De Campo.
Golf Digest and the Golf Channel covered the day on Sunday, but Miller and his NCC membership had refrained from any pre-outing publicity as they did not want to turn the day into a media circus out of respect for the first responders. Breed conducted a clinic and around Noon on Sunday, nearly 3,000 motorcyclists roared into Newtown. They had paid $2 each to be a part of the ride for Sandy Hook’s responders.
It was eerie. You could hear the sirens accompanying the roar of the  motorcycles while Breed was finishing up his clinic. I thought to myself, sirens can never sound the same in Newtown. It has to be a constant reminder, a daily torture.
Main Street in Newtown houses the Police Department and the Newtown Ambulance service. These were recognizable images from the national news stories back in December. Dickinson Road, the site of Sandy Hook Elementary is coned off prohibiting any kind of traffic near the school. It’s probably better that the painful reminder of that day be sealed off, but looking down that road past the cones still congers up sadness. The Trinity Church where so many of the memorial services were conducted stood tall and proud against the Connecticut horizon.
Sunday was a day of celebration .It was calm with a clear blue sky. Newtown was peaceful and almost surreal. Miller and his members at NCC managed to do the impossible. They made people forget the horrors of this small town, if only for a day. People laughed, the libations flowed, a few tears were shed but all in all- it was golf helping heal people’s lives. It was a great day in Newtown, truly Anytown, USA.            
   Sandy Hook golf clinic
 Michael Breed

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

May 1, 2013

News in the golf world never seems to take a nap in 2013. Every week is laced with some intense, high powered issue and this week has been no exception.
Vijay Singh was relieved from any wrongdoing in the case of his use of deer antler spray by the PGA TOUR. After considerable review by the TOUR, and Commissioner Tim Finchem, it was deemed that Singh had not violated the TOUR’s substance abuse policy.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has determined that the use of deer antler spray is not considered prohibited. Based on that information, and given WADA’s lead role in interpreting the Prohibited List, the TOUR deemed it only fair to no longer treat Singh’s use of deer antler spray as a violation of the TOUR’s anti-doping program.
Singh has cooperated with the TOUR investigation and has been completely forthcoming and honest. During his Tuesday press conference, Finchem emphasized that the TOUR is committed to increasing its educational initiatives to remind players of the PGA TOUR Anti-Doping Program and the risk of utilizing any product without full understanding of the ingredients contained in that product.     
Ironically, Singh withdrew from this week’s Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow this week in Charlotte due to an ailing shoulder.
On Wednesday, the USGA and R&A released a statement on the handling of the Tiger Woods’ drop on Hole 15 during the second round of the Masters. This situation raised two questions of interpretation under the Rules of Golf.
1.      The Ruling that Woods Dropped In and Played From a Wrong Place
The Rules do not define “as nearly as possible” in terms of a specific measured distance, because the conditions unique to each situation can affect how near to the original spot it is possible to drop a ball and because dropping a ball is an imprecise act. But, in this type of situation, in which the original spot was clearly identifiable as being just behind the back edge of the divot hole created by Woods’ previous stroke and the fact there were no other unusual circumstances, “as nearly as possible” means that the player must attempt to drop the ball on or next to (but not nearer the hole than) that spot. Woods did not do so. As a result, he was correctly penalized two strokes for dropping in and playing from a wrong place.
2.      The Decision to Waive the Penalty of Disqualification
In deciding to waive the disqualification penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard, the Committee recognized that it had talked to Woods- before he returned his scorecard- about his drop on the 15th hole. About the Committee’s ruling, the Committee likely would have corrected that ruling and concluded that Woods had dropped in and played from a wrong place. In that case, he would have returned a correct score of 8 for the 15th hole and the issue of disqualification would not have arisen.
The Decisions on the Rules of Golf authorize a Committee to correct an incorrect decision before the competition has closed. They establish where a Committee incorrectly advises a competitor, before he returns his scorecard, that he has incurred no penalty. Then the Committee subsequently corrects its mistake and it is appropriate for the Committee to waive the disqualification penalty.
The Masters Tournament Committee concluded that its actions taken prior to Woods’ returning his scorecard created an exceptional individual case that unfairly led to the potential for disqualification. In hindsight, the Committee determined that its initial ruling was incorrect, as well as that it had erred in resolving this question without first seeking information from Woods. Then they failed to inform Woods of the ruling.
As part of this ongoing assessment, and in keeping with its regular practice, the Rules of Golf Committees of the USGA and the R&A will review the exceptional situation that occurred at the 2013 Masters Tournament, assess the potential implications for other types of situations, and determine whether any adjustment to the Rules and/or Decisions is appropriate.
Let the implementation and execution of the rules rest with the governing bodies. But, I will maintain that as a player, Tiger Woods acted appropriately. I don’t recall seeing a situation in any other sport when an athlete would correct a ball or strike by an umpire; a referee’s flag or a line judge’s call.           
Finally, Tianlang Guan was offered sponsor’s exemption for the upcoming Byron Nelson Classic this month in Dallas. Some in the media have been critical of giving the 14-year old Chinese player exemptions into PGA TOUR events such as the one he received in last week’s Zurich event in New Orleans. Are you kidding me?
Guan made the cut at The Masters and then shot a second round 69 en route to making the cut at New Orleans. He has indicated that he will attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open. It has been the most refreshing story in golf for the past month. A 14-year old who can compete with the world’s best players. Let this madness continue!