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.