Wednesday, June 19, 2013

June 2013

I’m writing this from the Philadelphia airport on my way to Indianapolis for a day at home before heading to Bend, Oregon for the PGA Professional National Championship. The month of June 2013 will be the most brutal stretch of travel that I have as President of the PGA of America.
The month started with the PGA Championship Media Day at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, NY. After a Monday round with defending PGA champion Rory McIlroy, it was a Tuesday morning groundbreaking ceremony at a Habitat for Humanity house that the PGA is doing in conjunction with our Championship and the Rochester community.
From there it was onto New York City for a Yankee game. The next day was a round of golf with former New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani, at Liberty National which is located across the Hudson River looking right into the face of the Statue of Liberty and the financial district of Manhattan. The following day it was a round of golf at Bethpage Black from 7,400 yards and the U.S. Open tees. That was the hardest day I have ever spent on a golf course.
The week was capped off by being part of the 125th anniversary for Saint Andrews Golf Club at Hastings on Hudson about 25 minutes from NYC. My youngest daughter Ambry is a PGA member at this club, which is the oldest in the United States. I returned to Franklin for two days and the IHSAA Boys State Finals at The Legends before heading to Philadelphia for the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club.
It was my privilege to serve on the USGA Rules Committee at the Open. I was a forward observer with Charl Scwartzel, Tim Clark and Louis Oosthuizen on Thursday and Friday of last week. Saturday afternoon I was privileged to be the observer with the final group of the day which included Phil Mickelson, Luke Donald and Billy Horschel.
Ironically, Justin Rose the 2013 champion played in the group ahead of me all three days. It was no surprise to me that Rose won the second major championship of the year. His entire game was solid all week. Rose was actually four over par after 13 holes in the first round. The Englishman rebounded to play the final 59 holes in three under par earning a two shot victory.
On the final Sunday of the Open, I joined Tim Finchem, PGA Tour Commissioner, and the USGA’s Glen Nager and Mike Davis for an 11 a.m. meeting on a variety of important issues. I decided to take the rest of the day off from rules duties and watch the Open finale in my hotel room. In my opinion, this day was going to probably be historical and I wanted to see how it would unfold.  
Walking the course at Merion was extremely tough because of the length of the rough. The drag and friction on your shoes along with the elevation change was rugged. On top of that, the rounds were long and the days started at 5 a.m. and usually ended at dark.
On Monday of this week, I joined Derek Sprague, PGA Vice President at the International Celebration for Pine Valley’s 100th anniversary. This New Jersey course is annually rated as the #1 golf course in the world. Many also consider it to be the toughest course on the globe.
The PGA of America was honored to be invited along with 37 other entities including the PGA Tour, USGA plus the Royal and Ancient. More impressive were the 33 national and international clubs and their top two officials who rounded out the field. Representatives from all over the world were summoned to help Pine Valley commemorate 100 years of golfing history.
At Monday’s practice round, Sprague and I played with Jim Davis who is only the sixth club president in the club’s illustrious century of history. We were joined by PV member Tom “Total” Loss who serves as Rules expert for CBS television. On Tuesday we played with a twosome from Royal Liverpool in England, the site of next year’s Open Championship. Our final round was with officials from Baltusrol who will play host to the 2016 PGA Championship.
Three days at Pine Valley are a mixture of Heaven and Hell. The camaraderie and stories were boundless and it was one of my highest honors to be included in this group. I never take for granted the things that I get exposed to through the PGA and this event was an example of that. The golf course lived up to its billing. Every shot is a grind.
It was the fifth time I have been to Pine Valley. An errant shot can easily result in an ‘X’ on your scorecard. The greens are severe and there is nothing easy about the course who has hosted to Walker Cups. Pine Valley has a simple motto. “We are not a course of championships, but a course for champions.”
Today, I am in Franklin for a day before I head to Bend, OR and the PGA PNC. I serve as tournament chairman. The 312 player field is comprised of PGA professionals. It’s the national championship for club pros. The total purse is $550,000 and the top twenty finishers earn a spot in the PGA Championship at Oak Hill in August.
I’ll be in Oregon for eight days before returning home on June 27 for two days. After that it’s an important PGA Tour Policy Board meeting at the Greenbriar on July 1. Following that I will be in Washington D.C. that night throwing out the first pitch at a Nationals game.

THEN it’s home sweet home to Franklin before the Open Championship at Muirfield in Scotland.                              

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Open 2013

The 2013 U.S. Open has established itself as a landmark major golf championship and the credit goes to the United States Golf Association. In particular, Mike Davis the USGA’s Executive Director who specializes in golf course setups for its championships, has proven that you can return to the past.
Call Davis a genius because Merion has demonstrated that a golf course doesn’t have to be long to be deserving of a major championship. The great equalizer has been the rough. Players who miss the fairway by six inches might not be able to do more than advance a wedge. During the past couple of days many wedge shots inside 100 yards have been errant failing to find a green.
Merion 2013 has opened the door for future major championships. Other courses that might not measure 7,500 yards in length could be in play for a major. This U.S. Open might have changed everything including any thoughts that the governing bodies have regarding a roll back of the golf ball to help preserve course integrity.
Reg Jones is the onsite coordinator and he somehow was able to build a U.S. Open city inside Merion’s 115 acre grounds. Is it ideal? No, it’s not. But, it has worked and performed under some very tough weather issues. Thursday’s evacuation plans went off without a hitch. That’s no small feat given the fact that the players’ lockers are located a mile from the Merion clubhouse. By the way, that clubhouse was given up by the Merion membership for this Open.
Thursday I spent the day with Tim Clark, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen. All three players are from South Africa. Schwartzel won the 2011 Masters. Oosthuizen captured the 2010 British Open. Clark won the 2010 Players Championship. The group teed off #11 at 7:33 a.m. and finished at around 4:30 p.m. after the three and a half hour rain delay.
Clark created fame for himself several years ago when he knocked off the world’s number Tiger Woods, in the Match Play Championship. During the past few months, Clark has become the face and spokesman for the anchored putters on the PGA Tour. Tim is affable, respected and well-liked by his fellow players.
Clark is 5’7’ and weighs 165 pounds. He has a slight bulge in the middle and his walk has somewhat of a waddle to it. He had his own fan club at Merion on Thursday. Two guys, sizable in stature, wore t-shirts with Clark’s image on it. Tim had spotted the guys during the round and went over and traded fist pumps as he walked off the 15th hole during the rain delay. It was a classic Clark moment.
On Friday I was fortunate to be with Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker and Keegan Bradley. Mickelson flew out early Thursday morning on a private plane from San Diego. No jet lag for Phil as he opened with a 3-under par 67. The U.S. Open has caused Mickelson heart burn on several occasions. He has seen several chances to win this major pass him by.
Mickelson is using his “Frankenwood” in lieu of a driver. It’s a souped-up three wood. Phil doesn’t even have a driver in his bag. Mickelson has ridden his short game the past two days and it will be interesting to see if he holds up over the weekend.
Merion is intimidating. The fairways are narrow and they force the ball to the rough. Even the best players in the world will find themselves guiding a lot of shots in order to avoid the rough. If the course dries out this weekend it could get real tough to keep the ball in the fairway and the rough will only keep growing.
The 3rd and 17th holes are long and imposing par three’s. The 10th is a drivable par four, but miss the green and you probably won’t make birdie. Don’t hit a wicker basket on top of the flagstick like Lee Westwood did on the 12th Thursday resulting in a perfect shot gone bogey.
Fairway divots might become a factor this weekend. Many of the landing areas feed into condensed areas of the fairway. Balls will collect in tight spots where divots are plentiful. Some have said that this should cause a change in the Rules of Golf. A player hits a perfect tee shot and finds a ‘divoty’ grave. Why not make it Ground Under Repair? Rule 13-1b says otherwise- “The ball must be played as it lies”.
Merion is like that old suit you keep in your closet. It may not be fashionable all of the time, but it’s timeless. And every couple of decades you can drag it out and wear it anywhere, assuming it still fits. And that is what sets Merion apart.
Beginning in 1930 when Bobby Jones completed the Grand Slam with his U.S. Amateur win, continuing with Olin Dutra in the ’34 Open; Hogan in ’50; Trevino in ’71; David Graham in 1981 and again sometime Sunday afternoon in 2013.
Merion still fits and the USGA wears it well. 


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Quirky Merion

Some are calling Merion Golf Club a pint sized major championship venue because it only stretches to 6,996 yards. The historic par 70 United States Open course falls about 500 yards short of normal major championship yardage requirements. But, when you consider Merion’s storied history, it is nothing short of gargantuan.  
Bobby Jones completed the Grand Slam at Merion in 1934. Ben Hogan came back from a near-fatal accident and won here in 1950. Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff for the ages in 1971. David Graham won the last U.S. Open at Merion in 1981. Left for dead by the USGA, it appeared that the fabled grounds in Ardmore, PA would never again play host to our national golf championship.
The reason was simple. Major championship golf had outgrown Merion, which played around 6,500 yards when Graham won. Besides being short in stature, it appeared that Merion’s East Course which is located on only 125 acres could not handle the massive infrastructure needed for an event such as the U.S. Open.
But, give the USGA credit, and far more than they deserve for their decision to ban the anchored putting stroke. The return to Merion is brilliant. This might be the most talked about major championship in the last 25 years. Can the old gal stand up to the artillery that she will face from today’s professional golfers who hit it outta sight and outta mind?
Complicating things this week will be the weather. Merion is soaked after getting dumped on over the weekend by a tropical storm. Estimates would indicate the course has taken in excess of six inches of rain since last Friday. More showers are forecast for later in the week. The hope of a hard and fast Open venue is down the drain- literally.
The course will serve up soft greens that will be like big dart boards. The narrow fairways will hold tee shots. Ah, but the rough. As late as last week, the roughs were still being fertilized. Ah, the rough. DO NOT ENTER. TRAVEL AT YOUR OWN RISK. Hit it in the rough and you simply advance it out, assuming you find your ball. Accuracy will be a premium.
Creativity abounds here. The players will be using a make shift locker room setup on the West Course at Merion which is located about one mile from the East Course. That is also where players will hit balls and for the first time in my recollection, fans will not be able to watch the players practice at a major.
A lot has been written and said regarding the traffic around Merion. Players will have to deal with an inconvenience they are unaccustomed to. It will be necessary to leave in plenty of time to get to Merion and I’ll take slim odds that somebody misses a tee time this week.
On top of that, players will start on Holes 1 and 11 on Thursday and Friday- not 1 and 10 as is customary based on the routing of the course. It’s safe to say that Merion is quirky, but in a very good way.
There will only be 25,000 spectators allowed on the grounds each day compared to 45,000 next year at Pinehurst. Grandstands have been constructed to seat 17,000 people, which is about 5,000 more seating than a normal Open.
Merion’s trademark is its wicker baskets which sit on top of the flagsticks. These babies weigh about 25 pounds each and it will complicate things for the players because they will not be able to look at flags that would help identify the direction of Merion’s swirling winds. You might not notice on television, but the baskets are red on the front nine and orange on the back nine.
The most famous picture in all of golf is that 1 iron shot that Hogan hit on the 72nd hole of the 1950 Open. He made par and won a playoff the next day against George Fazio and Lloyd Mangrum.  To this day, a plaque remains on the spot in the 18th fairway here at Merion where Hogan hit the shot.
All week long players have dropped golf balls near that plaque and tried to replicate Hogan’s famous shot. “I hope to avoid Ben’s plaque on #18 because the divots around it are plentiful,” quipped Ernie Els this week.
Merion is where Trevino threw the rubber snake at Nicklaus moments before they teed it up in their 1971 playoff. Oh, and one other quirky Merion feature. The first tee on the East Course sits next to the terrace at the clubhouse where diners can reach out and grab a driver on the downswing from a player hitting a tee shot. It’s that close.
There is no place like Merion. On Thursday, I will observe the group of Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Tim Clark at 7:33 a.m. Clark is the leader of the anchored putters. Pure USGA irony that I would observe this group?
On Friday afternoon at 12:41 p.m. I am assigned to the threesome of Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker and Keegan Bradley. It doesn’t get much better than that. Thanks USGA for that one!

This promises to be a U.S. Open for the ages. Enjoy it. This is a step back in time. This is great for golf. The USGA got this one right.

Friday, June 7, 2013

June 6, 2013

Rory McIlroy showed up late on Sunday night in Rochester, NY for the PGA Championship Media Day at Oak Hill Country Club. He was fresh off the Memorial Tournament where he had another lackluster performance finishing over par for the tournament after barely making another cut. It’s been a disappointing year for the 24-year old from Northern Ireland. But, never the less he showed up for his duties on Monday which included a round with the President of the PGA of America.
Oak Hill CC is one of the most storied golf venues in the U.S. It has hosted ten major events since 1949 including the Ryder Cup, PGA Championships, U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur Championship. Its past champions include the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Cary Midlecoff, Curtis Strange and former Indiana Hoosier, Shaun Micheel.
Craig Harmon, bother of renowned teacher Butch, and 41-year head golf professional at Oak Hill joined McIlroy, Rob Correa from CBS and me in the 18-hole round. I had played with Rory at the PGA Grand Slam of Golf a few years ago. In March, I had the privilege of presenting him with the 2012 PGA of America Player of the Year and the Vardon Trophy. So, he and I were not strangers and that made the round more relaxing for me.
Harmon was instrumental in giving McIlroy an insider’s view on Oak Hill. The course was long and the rough was brutal. The greens were fast, but not yet at major championship speeds. McIlroy fired an easy 67 leaving several shots on the putting green. His round was highlighted by back to back 2’s on the 14th and 15th holes. He knocked his second shot in the jar on the par four 14th and followed that with a birdie on the tough par three 15th.
Rory was impressive in his ball striking. He only missed a couple of fairways and afterwards at the press conference, he spoke confidently about his game.
“Last year at this time when I wasn’t playing well, I wondered if I would ever win again,” recalled McIlroy. “This year is different. I am playing much better and feel like I am ready to put the pieces together. I just feel like I am going to start playing well really soon and winning will come.”
Gerry McIlroy accompanied his son to Oak Hill. The elder Irishman is a solid player in his own right. He is a common man, a former owner of a bar in Hollywood, Ireland. But, Father McIlroy has an affinity for the United States.
“This is the best country in the world. Americans are nice people and always very helpful. Rosie (wife) and I love it over here. It truly is the land of opportunity,” said Gerry.
He and Rosie did a fantastic job raising their son. Rory is an example of everything that is good in a modern day sports star. He is humble, polite and has a shy way about him. When asked about a potential rivalry between Tiger Woods and him his response was to the point.
“What rivalry? He has won 76 Tour events and I have won six. Tiger has 14 majors and I have two. How can that be a rivalry?” asked McIlroy.
Woods will be entertaining  McIlroy at The Medalist Club in Jupiter, FL on Saturday. Afterwards, the two will have dinner together.
“Where in the world can you guys eat in Palm Beach without being constantly interrupted?” asked Harmon when Rory told us about the day.
“His house. Tiger is bringing in a chef,” smiled McIlroy.
Throughout the day on Monday, McIlroy signed autographs and posed for numerous pictures with young kids who obviously admired the Irish star. On Monday night, he and his dad left for Merion in Philadelphia and two rounds in preparation for next week’s U.S. Open. He seems ready and more importantly so does his game.
I reflected back to March when McIlroy was asked who his most favorite golfing partner had ever been. He said that it was former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani. As a young boy, the memories of 9/11 were still etched in McIlroy’s mind.
“To play with Rudy Giuliani, who was a hero during 9/11 was incredible,” said McIlroy.
On Wednesday, I had that same privilege. I joined the former NYC mayor at Liberty National, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Giuliani is a member there and the landscape is incredible. From nearly every point on the golf course you can see the Statue of Liberty and the new Freedom Tower, which replaces the World Trade Center.
Giuliani started playing golf in 1998. He is now 68 years old. The face of 9/11 has a law firm, as well as consulting and security businesses. He strives to play at least two rounds of golf a week. Not long, but mostly straight- Giuliani also has a good short game.
“I love to play. It’s truly the sport of a lifetime,” said Giuliani. “I played baseball and other sports when I was younger, but I wish I had played golf sooner.”
After our round at Liberty National we sat around and listened to him tell stories. Lots of those were about George Steinbrenner and the Yankees. He is an avid baseball fan and the Yanks are his first love. I ask him where he was on 9/11.
“I was at the Peninsula Hotel on 55th Street and 5th Avenue. I was told a twin engine plane had hit the North Tower. Then when the South Tower was hit, we knew it was something bad,” recalled Giuliani. “I drove down there and set up about two blocks from the World Trade Center. When the North Tower went down I was trapped for about 30 minutes and reports were out that I had died.”
He said it took about a week for any normalcy to return to his life. It was that long before he ate a meal that required utensils.

“People will always remember where they were when Kennedy was shot and 9/11 happened. Everyday somebody tells me where they were on 9/11. I suppose in some ways it’s still part of the healing process,” says Giliani. McIlroy was right. Giuliani is truly an American hero.