Friday, August 12, 2016

“I’ll take any medal over a major championship”

Bubba Watson sat in the media center at the PGA Championship at Baltusrol two weeks ago and patiently answered questions. You never know what you might get from Bubba. The only guarantee is an honest answer.

Would you rather win an Olympic Gold medal or the PGA Championship?
“I’ve won two major championships, so that’s an easy question,” quipped Watson. “I’ll take the Gold. In fact, I’ll take any medal over the PGA Championship.”

Not all players felt that way leading up to the Summer Games in Rio. The top four players in the world all bypassed these Olympics for reasons that stemmed from the threat of the Zika virus to apprehension about safety and security in Rio. By now, the absence of Jason Day (1), Dustin Johnson (2), Jordan Spieth (3) and Rory McIlroy (4) is old news. Throw in denials by Adam Scott (7), Branden Grace (10) and Hideki Matsuyama (19) and it was a bitter pill for the International Golf Federation to swallow. The IGF had worked hard to get golf back in the Olympics.     
“Success will be measured on a number of levels,” said Peter Dawson this week. He is the president of the IGF. “First that we have a compelling and exciting event, that the spectators, many of whom have never been exposed to golf, learn a little about golf, and we’ll never know if someone who watches will be inspired to play golf, but statistically some of that must happen.”

As the players filtered into Rio in the past week, golf in the Olympics has really gained momentum and interest. Once they arrived it seemed that Zika and security were no longer in play. It reminded me of when I went to Sochi, Russia for the 2014 winter games. NBC Nightly News reported massive cell phone hacking and instructed visitors to not turn phones on in Sochi. 

The Washington Post reported that Al Queda possessed hand held rocket launchers and they could be positioned in the mountains near the Sochi airport with the ability to shoot down incoming and outgoing planes. I asked myself “Why am I going?” My family begged me not to make the trip. Once in Sochi, I never felt safer and thoroughly enjoyed the Olympic competition. It was American press propaganda at its finest and I think Rio is a target too.

Jaime Diaz of Golf Digest is in Rio and had this to offer, “Rio is naturally beautiful, as the television shots of the iconic coastline drive home, but other than the stadiums and the arenas where the games are played, the infrastructure and amenities are inferior quality and workmanship.

“The five-story media center was built in a rush, with unfurnished rooms everywhere and unreliable plumbing,” added Diaz. “In our apartment, built specifically to house visitors to the Olympics, a mirror over the bathroom sink shattered in the middle of the night. It had been held up by four strips of double-edged tape.

“But, simply that golf is in the Olympics will be a success. And really, for one, but essential reason. The players who bought in and came to Rio have seen their expectations exceeded,” concluded Diaz.
At #5 in the world, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson is the highest ranked player in the world to be in Rio. Stenson won the Open Championship at Troon last month and offered an interesting perspective. “Believe me, I’m proud to be the Open Champion. But around the world, not many know what that means. But, most people know what an Olympic Gold Medal is.”

Joining Bubba in representing the United States are Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar and Patrick Reed. Fowler arrived early and joined Michael Phelps in leading the U.S. delegation at the Opening ceremonies.

“I speak for myself, but I feel like I speak for the rest of the guys that if there’s a chance at winning the golf tournament or taking a risk possibly down the stretch to win the gold, I don’t think we are going to play it safe by any means,” said Fowler.

Watson was seated nearby and he interjected, “I’m going to layup and go for bronze,” he said which prompted laughter in the room. “There’s no money changing hands. It’s all about having that medal around your neck and being on the podium.”

The quality of the Olympic golf field is not up to normal PGA Tour standards, let alone a major championship. Sixty players will be represented by 34 countries. However, there are some well-known players in the field besides the ones I’ve mentioned.  Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington and Danny Willett are in Rio. And golf fans will get to some new faces like Marcus Fraser of Australia who jumped out to an early lead on Thursday.

At 45 years of age, Harrington has an interesting perspective. He took an active role back in 2009 to pitch golf to the IGF. Back then he was ranked seventh in the world and he is now 128th. Harrington is representing Ireland because McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell all elected not to play.
“I absolutely thought I would be here,” said Harrington. “But that’s the nature of the sport, when you’re at the top of your game, you don’t believe it’s ever going to change. You think it’s going to last forever. Hindsight says that’s not true.”

It makes you wonder what some of the players who chose not to go to Rio are thinking this week………… and four years from now.    


Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Andy Sanders, PGA Championship Victory at Baltusrol

One Shot at a Time- Andy Sanders, PGA Championship Victory at Baltusrol

On the Sunday night before the PGA Championship, Jimmy Walker and Andy Sanders, his caddie, showed up near Baltusrol after a 14th place finish in the Canadian Open. To that point, Walker had zero wins for 2016 and he had missed five cuts in the nineteen tournaments that he had started. Many in golf have felt that the 37-year old Walker has been an underachiever of sorts given his overall talents which include great length off the tee and a putting stroke that is considered one of the best on Tour.

When I spent time with Walker at the 2014 Ryder Cup in Scotland his skills were evident. “If Jimmy Walker ever figures out how good he really is, there will be no stopping him,” Andy North, former U.S. Open Champ, remarked on multiple occasions when he served as a vice captain at Gleneagles.
But, on the dawn of the PGA Championship, it looked as if Walker might continue to toil in oblivion. Even Sanders, who knows Walker better than anybody, could not envision what was ahead in the next few days.

“We certainly showed up at the PGA Championship not expecting to win. I knew we were doing some good things and trending in the right direction,” said Sanders. “Jimmy’s confidence was growing and he was starting to gain some momentum. After seeing the course, I thought this would be another week of gaining more positives.”

When Sanders spoke about ‘trending’ he meant that Walker was starting to drive it better and hit more fairways. He was making more putts and his confidence level was getting better. In particular, Walker’s overall temperament was improving. Walker would appear to be somewhat unflappable, especially after last week’s PGA victory but according to Sanders that’s not necessarily the case.
“Jimmy wears his emotions on his sleeves. He is pretty intense. He plays hard all of the time and never gives up. Sometimes he wants it so bad- too bad. That’s the real Jimmy,” Sanders confided.
Even after Walker shot 65 on Thursday and grabbed the first round lead, Sanders admitted a PGA Championship was still not in the thought process.

“We weren’t really thinking about winning at that point. We had a long way to go to win the golf tournament. We just got off to a good start. Jimmy had never been there before. He had never led in a major championship,” remarked Sanders.

The weather soon became the story at Baltusrol. Rain forced long delays and forced players out of their routines and rhythm. Players react to these situations in different ways. It can be an obstacle or it can present an opportunity.

“It’s just golf. These are things you just have to deal with. We got a lucky draw in the fact that we played early/late in the first two rounds,” said Sanders. “You learn to accept it and deal with it.”
Walker fired a stellar 66 in round two and found himself atop the leaderboard again. With 36 holes remaining and weather being a big factor, Walker and Sanders left the course around 6 p.m. on Saturday night.

“I had dinner around eight o’clock and went to bed at 11 p.m. I really didn’t think we would be playing a lot of golf on Sunday. I guess that was a good thing because we still weren’t thinking that much about winning. I suppose it might have been a good thing that we really didn’t feel like we were sleeping on a lead Saturday night,” said Sanders.
Walker got off to a slow start on Sunday. He bogeyed two of his first five holes. Sanders knew his man was out of sync.

“Jimmy was a little quick all morning, even on the practice tee. When he gets that way it effects everything he does,” Sanders admitted. “He missed a couple of fairways and two makeable putts. The sixth hole is a big hole, a good par four. He hit a great drive, knocked to about 10-feet and made the putt for birdie. That might have been the key hole for the week. Jimmy got settled down and starting playing well.” 

Walker became workmanlike finishing his third round with a 67. It continued in the final round as he fought off Jason Day and Henrik Stenson. Walker did appear unflappable as he went through a 28-hole stretch bogey free. It seemed that he locked up the PGA Championship with a crucial birdie on the 17th hole in the final round. That gave him a three shot lead with a hole to go.
“I definitely felt really good when that putt went in. We had a three-shotter and even if J. Day made eagle it didn’t matter,” said Sanders.

Day did make eagle as Walker watched from the fairway. All Jimmy had to do was make par on the final hole and the Wanamaker Trophy was his. Many questioned his decision to go for the green on his second shot rather than play a safe layup shot.

“If you lay up you bring the creek and the bunkers in play. It’s an awkward shot. It really only took 200 yards to clear all of the trouble. Jimmy suggested the 3-wood. We were playing lift, clean and place so the ball was basically on a tee,” said Sanders. “I would have rather seen him hit it left but with soft greens the pitch we had on the third shot was pretty easy. He took his medicine pretty good and left a longer putt than I would have liked.”

Sanders admits that he and Walker have taken “a fair amount” of criticism for how they played the final hole. Ultimately Walker had to make a three-footer to win the PGA. Was Sanders nervous?
“The ball rolled by the hole, so we knew what it would do going back. It was an inside right putt. In the past two weeks we started reading putts together. I think it helps release any doubts that Jimmy has when he is over the ball. I remember thinking ‘I can’t believe this is to really win the PGA championship.’” said Sanders.

Walker made the putt and walked away with a $1.8 million check. His total 2016 PGA Tour earnings had been $1.4 million. He and Sanders will now be at the Ryder Cup.
“I know it means a tremendous amount to Jimmy. We always say that we want the season to start in Maui (Tournament of Champions) and end at the Tour Championship. That means you had a good year,” said Sanders.

Walker and Sanders have a bond that goes way back. The two played collegiate golf against each other. They traveled together on the mini-tours until the effects of medication he was taking for Multiple Sclerosis ended Sanders’ playing career. That’s when Walker asked his good friend to caddie.

My final questions to Sanders was this. When Jimmy made the winning putt was there any bittersweet sensation maybe that could have been you winning the PGA?
“I’m so far removed from that. I never had the game to win a major. I’m happy for Jimmy and it was great to be a part of this. My health is great and all is good,” said Sanders who actually took my questions as he drove to his doctor for a routine check-up.

For those that don’t know, Sanders’ grandmother, Dottie, lived across the street from me in Franklin for 15 years. His dad, Greg, is a PGA pro and he was a standout golfer at Franklin High School. I’ve known Andy since he was a little kid. He is truly an inspiration on how to deal with adversity.
Walker and Sanders will take a week off and then get back at it.

“I can’t wait for the Ryder Cup. I really enjoyed that environment and we definitely have some unfinished business to take care of,” said Sanders.