Saturday, December 20, 2014

Andy Sanders

Back in the 1990’s when Andy Sanders was visiting Franklin, staying with his grandparents and playing golf, it would not have been a surprise to hear his grandmother, Dottie, telling him that someday he would be in the competition at The Masters and Ryder Cup. She was proud of her grandson and she would tell anyone willing to listen how good Andy was going to be. I know because I lived across the street from Dottie on Carriage Lane here in Franklin.

Those predictions did come true, but not in a way that Dottie imagined. Unfortunately she never lived to see Andy enjoy success in golf at the highest level. Sanders was one of the country’s best junior golfers and he attended the University of Houston on a golf scholarship. After college he played on the Nationwide Tour from 2002-04 aspiring to continue his playing career.

Then one day Sanders woke up and experienced a blind spot in his right eye. Initially he thought it was a problem attributed to his contact lenses. Sanders would soon discover that he had Multiple Sclerosis. He tried to fight through the condition and keep on playing. He was receiving muscle injections every other week and eventually he contracted vertigo which was the worst thing that could happen to a golfer.

“My playing career ended because of the medicine, not the MS. Those shots depressed me night and day. They gave me vertigo and losing my balance was the end of my playing career,” recalls Sanders.  “There is no way you can’t look back and have some second thoughts. I made my choices at the time and now I am incredibly fortunate with my family and hopefully I have a great career ahead of me.”  

The career that he speaks of is being a professional caddy for Jimmy Walker, a three-time winner on the PGA TOUR and member of the 2014 United States Ryder Cup team. With Sanders on the bag, Walker won $5.8 million this year and is currently ranked 19th in the Official World Golf Rankings. It was a breakout year for Walker whose relationship with Sanders goes back to their college playing days.

Walker played at Baylor while Sanders was at Houston. The two were not close in college, but their paths crossed occasionally. The two players were the same age and turned pro the same year. Both attended the Canadian Tour Qualifying School and spent many Mondays qualifying against each other for Nationwide Tour spots. Neither had status during this time and they wound up traveling some together. They were at similar stages in their careers and a mutual respect developed.
Walker continued on as a player while Sanders was coping with the MS issues. In 2007 a strange thing happened at a Nationwide Tour event in West Virginia that would eventually form the bond between the two men.

“I was at this tournament caddying for a player named Jason Schultz and Jimmy came to me and asked me to give him a putting lesson. It was kind of weird. Here I am caddying for another player and giving an opposing player a lesson,” laughs Sanders. “Jimmy wound up winning that tournament and during the Nationwide Tour Championship that fall, he asked me if I would caddy for him on the PGA Tour in 2008.”

Walker struggled that next year and only made nine cuts in 21 starts. He and Sanders made a paltry $282,249 together that first year. It was hardly enough to make expenses. Walker continued to improve over the next few years and he cracked the million dollar mark in earnings in 2011. Still, many considered him to be an under achiever. Enter Butch Harmon who gave Walker a reliable swing.

“Butch has made a huge impact on Jimmy’s golf swing. He is not searching anymore and he now knows where he is headed. Butch expects the best,” says Sanders. “The stats may not show the improvement in Jimmy’s game. I see it in his confidence with his decision making. He knows how to play the game.”    

There is a partnership between the best players in the world and their caddies. Smart caddies know when to speak or be silent and Sanders has that figured out.

“My role on the course varies some days more than others. You have to know what your guy needs. Some days he is not all there. Other days he is and then you just shut up and give him the yardage and stay out of the way. Often times, less is more. I have his confidence to do whatever he needs. It’s better to be outspoken when you need to. It wasn’t like that in the beginning,” reveals Sanders.

When asked to give an example of when he felt the caddy made a difference Sanders replied, “At the Fry’ last year when Jimmy got his first win we were down by four to Brooks Koepka. On the 7th hole Jimmy said something like ‘we don’t have much of a chance- he’s got a four- shotter.’ I told him that Brooks had never won before. Let’s make a couple of birdies and see what happens. We birdied #8 and #9 all and of a sudden we were only one shot back and we went on to win.”

Sanders says his best experiences of 2014 were caddying in his first Masters and Ryder Cup. He had played Augusta in 2005 but last year was his first as a looper. The weather was perfect all week and Walker finished in the top ten. At Gleneagles, Walker was paired with Rickie Fowler on Friday and Saturday. That duo was a formidable American team. Walker then beat Lee Westwood on Sunday. 
“The Ryder Cup is the Ryder Cup and it only happens every two years. The only thing that was bad was the outcome. I remember being with Phil (Mickelson), Keegan (Bradley), Rickie and Jimmy on that Wednesday afternoon in a practice round and usually you can’t wait to get the practice rounds over.  But, as I walked down the 16th fairway I hated to see that day and the rest of them end,” said Sanders.

Sanders is enjoying three weeks off over the Holidays, which is his longest vacation of the year. He looks forward to just hanging out with his family. His wife Megan is expecting their third child on January 29 and he will miss the Phoenix and San Diego tour stops to be with his family. Jimmy Johnson, the regular caddy for Steve Stricker will substitute for Walker in Sanders’ absence.

 “We have had a little bit of 2015 goal talk which I initiated, but Jimmy doesn’t respond much to that. My job will be to try and get him fired up. We will just work hard to keep getting better,” concluded Sanders. Walker has increased his PGA TOUR earnings every year since 2008 with Sanders on the bag and there is no reason to believe this won’t happen again next year. 

Dottie would be very proud of her grandson- Andy Sanders, the caddy.   

Monday, December 1, 2014

Ryder Cup Task Force

Sometime in the next few days eleven men who will meet concerning the future of the United States Ryder Cup fortunes will gather in an undisclosed location and start the process of trying to “fix” the biannual tradition of losing Samuel Ryder’s trophy to the Europeans. This will be the inaugural meeting of the PGA Ryder Cup Task Force.

Many would say that the infatuation existing around this international golf competition has grown out of proportion. Americans hate to lose in anything. Sports fans in this country are attracted to iconic franchises like the Yankees, Celtics and Packers because they win. Golf fans are no different, but when it comes to the Ryder Cup, Americans have no fan options besides Team USA. So, it’s no surprise that the most recent loss at Gleneagles- the 8th in the last ten Ryder Cups- drew the ire of so many U.S. golf fans.

No one expressed more dissatisfaction with the American fortunes than Phil Mickelson during his autopsy on Sunday night at Gleneagles. Phil is certainly entitled to his opinion, but his timing and the public criticism of Tom Watson was greeted with mixed reactions. Mickelson should not get the credit or the blame for the formation of the Ryder Cup Task Force.

The purpose of the Task Force has been well documented. It will examine the process of selecting a Captain. The Task Force will evaluate the timing of the announcement of the players who earn a spot on the U.S. team. Finally, it will take a look at the week of the Ryder Cup competition and suggest ways to put the players in a better position to be prepared to win.  

Former Captains- Davis Love III, Raymond Floyd and Tom Lehman have been named to the group. Love was a likeable and well-organized Captain who had his team in great position to win on Saturday night at Medinah when the U.S. held a 10-6 lead. Lehman, although his team was beaten badly in Ireland in 2006, was highly respected by his team. Floyd played on nine winning Ryder Cup teams, was later a Captain, and has been a vice captain twice under Paul Azinger and Watson.

All three were highly endorsed by players who join them on the Task Force. The missing Captain’s ingredient is Azinger, the last winning U.S. Captain in 2008. He is an intriguing guy. No one is more passionate than and he will be the first to tell you that he revolutionized the American fortunes with his ‘pod system’ which paired players with like personalities. However, many former Captains will argue they used a similar formula as did Azinger. He declined to join the Task Force last October.

The five players on the Task Force are Rickie Fowler, two-time Ryder Cupper who represents the generation in their Twenties. Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker are veterans who are liked by their peers and both are viewed to be pensive, methodical thinkers. No Ryder Cup Task Force would have credibility without Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Both have expressed enthusiasm and great interest at being involved. All five of these players could someday be a Ryder Cup Captain.

While this is a PGA of America Task Force, the former captains and players will set the course. In the end it will be the decision of the PGA to accept or reject the direction of the players and former Captains. The formation of the Task Force was a bold statement from the PGA in that it was willing to hear what other people think- most notably the players. 

In my opinion (and not Ryder Cup Task Force) the solutions to a winning Ryder Cup formula are obvious.
1. Develop a system where an individual should be a Vice Captain before they are named as a Ryder Cup Captain. Since 1990, only Love was a Vice Captain before being Captain. Paul McGinley was a Vice Captain four times before being picked to lead the Euros in 2014.  
As the President’s Cup Captain, Fred Couples never lost a match. He was a Ryder Cup staple as a player. Why not name Couples as the 2016 Ryder Cup Captain? He will need administrative help from his Vice Captains and that could come in the form of people such as David Toms, Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker. This trio could focus on what Couples won’t administratively. All are likely to be Captains someday.

2. In 2016 the PGA should not announce the “guaranteed” spots on the Ryder Cup team at the PGA Championship because the event will be played in late July due to the Olympics. It would be a catastrophe to announce a good portion of the team two months ahead of the Ryder Cup.
I would keep the Ryder Cup Points the same as they are now, but I recommend ten guaranteed spots in 2016. Those should be determined on Labor Day after the Deutsche Bank, which is in the second round of the FedEx Playoffs. The remaining two picks should be up to the Captain after the Tour Championship. Since the competition is a domestic Ryder Cup the PGA should be able to handle the “same week” logistics of clothing, travel, tickets for the final two players. This gives our Captain the strongest U.S. team possible.

3. Put the players in a better position to win the week of the Ryder Cup. They need more practice time and the schedule during the week limits that. Do some of the player interviews before the Ryder Cup week. Don’t make the players spend hours on a bus going to and from Milwaukee to the Gala Dinner.

Long-term we need to prepare U.S. players to compete in formats like Alternate Shot. The PGA should implement Alternate Shot into the State, National and Regional competitions of PGA Junior League. The PGA JL is 9-hole matches played in three-hole segments by kids 7-13 years old. Play 3-holes Alternate Shot, 3-holes Best Ball and 3-holes Scramble. Someday a U.S. Ryder Cup player will recall his first experience playing Alternate Shot and it will be in the PGA Junior League.  
Finally, some will say that this Task Force needs input from an “outside” entity like USA Basketball which transformed losers into winners at the Olympic level. I could argue that we never lose the President’s Cup so our players do know how “to win as a team.”

At Gleneagles the U.S. lost by thirty-some shots. A mad scientist could have concocted Azinger, Vince Lombardi, Joe Torre and Red Auerbach into a Ryder Captain and the results would not have changed.  I would use a little Bubba Watson logic to close this out. 

“I was 0-3 in the Ryder Cup because I didn’t make enough putts. That’s not the Captain’s fault,” said Watson at the PGA Grand Slam. Those are the truest words spoken since September 28.