Friday, June 23, 2017

The world of golf loses an icon – “Sandy” Tatum is dead at 96

Stanford men’s golf alumnus, distinguished lawyer, president of the USGA (1978 – 1980), and savior of Harding Park golf course—Frank Donovan “Sandy” Tatum left behind quite a legacy when he died Thursday morning, 2-1/2 weeks short of his 97 birthday.

Tatum, who was born in Los Angeles on July 10, 1920, grew up playing golf at the likes of the Wilshire and Bel Air country clubs. Tatum’s father was a serious golfer, and the son grew up to have a strong passion and reverence for the game.

An outstanding player on the Stanford University men’s golf team, Tatum lettered in golf for three straight years beginning in 1940, was a member of the national championship teams in ’41 and ’42, and won the individual NCAA Championship in 1942. Tatum, Tiger Woods (1996) and Cameron Wilson (2014) are the only Stanford men to have won the individual title—a feat which earned Tatum a spot in the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame. A member of Phi Beta Kappa and a Rhodes scholar, Tatum was the first American to play golf for Oxford University.

In the Bay Area, Tatum is perhaps best known and respected for his role in the design of The Links at Spanish Bay, in Pebble Beach, and the renovation of San Francisco’s Harding Park Golf Course (now known as TPC Harding Park).

Harding, now a tree-lined beauty surrounded by Lake Merced, in the southwest quadrant of the city, had, by the late 1990s, deteriorated into a weedy, neglected eyesore in the wake of years of neglect. The course was in such poor condition that no one batted an eye when the fairways were pressed into duty as parking for the 1998 U.S. Open being held at the nearby Olympic Club.

Though he held memberships at such distinguished, and exclusive, private clubs as Cypress Point and San Francisco Golf Club, Tatum had for many years played in the San Francisco City Championship, the longest-running municipal championship tournament in the United States. Played at Harding Park and other city venues, the SFCC has long been regarded as a bastion of egalitarian amateur golf, a tradition which Tatum had grown to revere.

Throwing himself into the midst of often-labyrinthine San Francisco politics, and allied with then-Mayor Willie Brown, and Michael Cohen, who was San Francisco’s city attorney at the time, Tatum was instrumental in bringing about a near-miraculous turnaround in the venerable course’s fortunes.

Though it ran $7 million over budget, for which Tatum was roundly criticized, the renovation project elevated Harding Park to a world-class venue which has generated millions of dollars worth of income for city coffers, notably from professional events such as the 2005 American Express Championship, the 2009 President’s Cup, the 2013 Charles Schwab Cup Championship, and the 2015 WGC Match Play Championship. The resurrection of Harding Park was one of the achievements that saw Tatum inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.

Tatum’s influence in the world of golf extended well beyond the bounds of the Bay Area. He served as president of the USGA in the ’70s, and was a member of the organization’s executive committee from 1972 to 1980.

It was during this time that Tatum achieved a measure of worldwide notoriety (well, at least in the golf world) when he directed the setup of famed Winged Foot Golf Club in New York for the 1974 U.S. Open. The narrowed fairways, deep rough, and greens running at roughly the speed of your kitchen floor that are typical of a U.S. Open added up to a 7-over par winning score for eventual champion Hale Irwin. Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson finished at +12, Tom Kite and Gary Player at +13, and Jack Nicklaus at +14.

Players had so much trouble with the course, and scores were so high, that the event was dubbed “The Massacre at Winged Foot”. Some of the players in the field complained that the USGA had made the setup so severe in order to embarrass them. Tatum’s response to the complaint was classic: “We’re not trying to embarrass the best players in the game. We’re trying to identify them.”

No one anecdote can sum up the life of a man like Sandy Tatum, but that one comes close, I think—at least within the scope of the world of golf. He was idealistic, and dedicated to the ideals he held with respect to the game. He was one of golf’s champions, both on and off the course, over a long and successful life, and the game of golf, and the community of people who also love that game, are poorer for his passing.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Return to the Ocean Course – Half Moon Bay Golf Links lures me back

I first played the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links some five years ago, and again, once or twice, in the next couple of years. Realizing that I hadn’t visited in at least three years, I recently booked a tee time there, taking advantage of the combination of their very friendly twilight rates and the long days as the summer solstice approaches.

Half Moon Bay Golf Links’ combination of a classic linksland golf course – the Ocean Course – and the traditional sunset piper may have you thinking you’re playing a round at the home of golf and not in Northern California.Photo courtesy The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay

Everything was as I remembered it from earlier visits. The service at the pro shop is exemplary, from check-in to getting your clubs secured in your cart. The course conditions during my recent visit were similarly top-notch. Helped, no doubt, by the past winter’s abundant rain, the fairways and greens were in beautiful shape, and even the rough and native areas were manageable (don’t ask me how I know this…).

As I mentioned in my 2013 article on the Ocean Course, the sister layout to Half Moon Bay’s Arnold-Palmer-designed Old Course is as close to true Scottish links golf as I think you are likely to find on the West Coast. The coastal shelf which lies between the crashing Pacific surf and the Coast Range hills in long, intermittent stretches from as far north as Mendocino to south of Big Sur is perhaps a bit more fertile than the semi-barren linksland which sheep—and bored Scottish shepherds—transformed into the home of golf, but the rolling terrain, fescue turf, and wind-dominated weather present a reasonable facsimile of the ancestral conditions.

There is one small drawback to a twilight round on the Ocean Course, and it’s dictated by a convergence of the course’s physical layout and its geographic setting. We think of the sun setting straight away from the shoreline on the Pacific Coast, but as the sun approaches its most northerly position in the sky in the run up to the solstice, that’s not strictly true, and the golden orb sinks into the sea 30-odd degrees north of west. While the coastline runs almost exactly north and south at Half Moon Bay, the sun is setting further north—and several of the holes on the Ocean Course are laid out at angles that line up almost directly into the setting sun. If you are having a less-than-straight driving day, those into-the-sun tee shots and approach shots, especially on the back nine, can be problematic.

Golf is an outdoor activity, though, so we expect weather and light conditions that are not always ideal—it’s part of the game. Awareness of weather conditions and how they can affect play are part of the deal, and part of what makes golf such a challenging and, ultimately, satisfying game. In the end, what counts is the whole experience, and the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links provides a rare and very satisfying golf experience. The wide, inviting fairways present challenges by way of subtle contours and uneven lies, and the smooth-rolling greens require a bit of close study to determine the breaks and the true line to the hole.

I love a good American Parkland-style golf course (like Half Moon Bay’s Old Course), but the Ocean course is a nice look at the other side of golf – virtually treeless, with close-cropped fescue turf that invites the running game when windy conditions dictate it; and all without the cost of a flight to Scotland! The Ocean course will challenge you, without a doubt; with slopes ranging from 119 (red tees) to 136 (whites, for women) it is definitely a course which demands respect, but which also rewards good play.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Golfers contend for spots in the U.S. National Championships on golf’s “longest day”

The calendar tells us that 2017’s longest day is still a couple of weeks away, but for over a thousand golfers across the United States and in England and Japan, June 5 was the longest day – the day that they would play 36 holes of golf in hopes of earning a spot in the USGA’s two biggest national championships, the U.S. Open and Women’s Open.

Nine hundred hopefuls vie for 72 spots in the ’17 U.S. Open
On the men’s side, 753 players at ten locations across the USA; 111 in England, at Walton Heath Golf Club; and 36 in Japan, at Ono Golf Club, teed it up in sectional qualifying tournaments on Monday, June 5 in hopes of earning a spot in the field at the 117th United States Open, held the week of Fathers Day at Erin Hills Golf Club in Wisconsin. 900 hopeful players, but only 72 – a scant eight out of 100 – would earn their way to the Big Show.

Those 900 players already represent the cream of the crop, because to get to sectionals they had to have either survived local qualifying in the dozens of tournaments that were held between May 2nd and May 18th, or be exempt from local qualifying based on their standing in the Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR).

California’s sectional qualifying venue alternates between the northern and southern halves of the state; this year it was Southern California’s turn to host the event, at Newport Beach Golf Club and Big Canyon Golf Club, in Newport Beach. Among the 103 players at the SoCal venue were five from the May 16th local qualifier at The Preserve Golf Club in Carmel – medalist Luke Vivolo, John Crater, Mac McClung, Christopher Marin and first alternate Erick Justesen, in place of the absent J.R. Warthen.

After rounds on the par-71 Newport Beach course and par-72 Big Canyon course, it was amateur players who ruled the day in the California qualifier. Five of the six qualifiers from Newport Beach/Big Canyon were amateurs, led by medalist John Oda, a native of Honolulu who is playing college golf for the UNLV Running Rebels. Oda, a rising senior at UNLV, carded rounds of 64 and 68 at Newport Beach and Big Canyon, respectively, to take top honors with an 11-under 32, two strokes ahead of Arizona’s Mason Andersen, an incoming freshman at Arizona State University.

Five of the six qualifiers form the Newport Beach/Big Canyon sectional qualifier pose in front of the scoreboard. from L to R: medalist John Oda, Mason Andersen, Stewart Hagestad, Sahith Theegala, and Kevin Dougherty (Copyright USGA/JD Cuban)

Next among the qualifiers from Newport Beach, with an 8-under 135, was local player Stewart Hagestad, a 2013 USC graduate. Hagestad is the reigning U.S. Mid-Am champion, and in April became the first Mid-Am champion to make the cut at the Masters – and topped that accomplishment two days later by taking Low Amateur honors at the prestigious event. Pepperdine University sophomore Sahith Theegala was a stroke back of Hagestad with a 136-stroke total, followed by the lone professional in the group, Torrance, CA, native Kevin Dougherty, a 2014 graduate of Oklahoma State.

Northern California was represented by the final qualifier, Sacramento’s Cameron Champ, a junior at Texas A & M, who survived a one-hole playoff against Stanford’s Brandon Wu to take the final spot. Danville, CA, native Wu was the medalist at the May 3rd local qualifier at Yocha Dehe Golf Club in Brooks, CA. Champ and Wu only had a shot at a transfer spot at all because of a late change from five to six qualifiers at the SoCal venue, the result of withdrawals from the Columbia, Ohio, sectional qualifier.

Women take on Lake Merced Golf Club for a chance at the distaff championship

The smaller number of women vying for spots in the U.S. Women’s Open precludes the necessity for local qualifying; the 1,709 contestants who entered are playing for their chance between May 22nd and June 12th at 21 courses across the United States, as well as one each in England, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the People’s Republic of China. The women’s championship will be held in Bedminster, New Jersey, July 13 – 16.

Lake Merced Golf Club, in Daly City, hosted one of six sectional events that were held on June 5th. This was the eighth sectional qualifier for Lake Merced, which hosted the 1990 U.S. Amateur and 2012 U.S. Girls’ Junior championships. Seventy-seven contestants took on the tough par-72 LMGC layout, vying for two qualifying spots.

Emily Childs, a professional hailing from Alameda, was the medalist at LMGC, carding an even-par 144 total with rounds of 70 and 74. Childs, a former Cal golfer, was the 2010 NCGA Women’s Amateur champion.

Danville’s Ty Akabane, a member of the NCGA’s Junior Tour of Northern California, carded a pair of 2-over 74’s to move on to the Women’s Open.

Andrea Lee of Hermosa Beach and Danville’s Sarah Banke each carded 5-over totals of 149, just one stroke shy of a potential playoff with Akabane for the second spot.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

U.S. Open hopefuls tee up their dreams at The Preserve Golf Club

The best thing, in my mind, about the U.S. Open golf tournament can be summed up in one word – “open”. What that means is that anyone can enter (well, anyone who meets the handicap criteria) and take their shot at earning a spot in the field at one of the most prestigious golf competitions in the world – the U.S. Open.

The Open will be held this year at Erin Hills Golf Club in Wisconsin – a first both for the Erin Hills course and the Badger State.

At 113 local qualifying tournaments across the United States, and new for this year, one in Canada, aspiring golfers tee up their dreams of glory, trying to be one of the lucky, and talented, players who will earn the right to compete on one of the golf world’s biggest stages – 8,979 players competing for 525 spots in the next stage.

Players hopeful of earning a spot in the 2017 U.S Open at Erin Hills, WI, warming up on the range at The Preserve Golf Club in Carmel. (photo by author)

As of May 16th, 95 of the 114 local qualifiers have been conducted, including three in Northern California – at Fountaingrove Golf and Athletic Club in Santa Rosa; at Ruby Hill Golf Club in Pleasanton; and at The Preserve Golf Club in Carmel; a fourth NorCal qualifier will take place May 18th at the Granite Bay Golf Club in Granite Bay. Over 7,700 players signed up to play in those 95 local qualifying tournaments, and 449 have won their way through to the next step, the sectional qualifying tournaments which take place on June 5th in Ono City, Japan; Surrey England; and ten locations across the United States.

In the May 16th local qualifier at The Preserve Golf Club, which is located in the hills above Carmel Valley about 12 miles, as the crow flies, from Pebble Beach, 78 players were signed up to play for five spots that would advance to the next round. Spread over 26 groupings and two hours of tee times off two tees, the 78 players, minus a handful of WD’s, took on The Preserve’s 7,100-odd-yard-long par-72 Tom Fazio course in high hopes of earning their way to sectional qualifying.

The Preserve GC’s Tom Fazio-designed course provided a worthy test for the field of U.S. Open hopefuls. Lying gracefully on the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains landscape, the Preserve course features seven elevated tee shots, two blind tee shots, two notably uphill tee shots and two heroic carries off the tee box – one of them at the 18th hole. Contoured fairways, well-placed bunkering and some inventive green-to-fairway relationships make this a thinking-person’s golf course where shot placement is vital.

The key to scoring well on this course, however, is putting. The greens are complex and well-contoured – they are never penal, but they definitely require complete focus. The correct position on the green, with respect to the flag, is vital, and a good feel for the subtleties of the break is necessary to keep your putt totals in the low 30s or below. I watched one member of the threesome I followed for the day crush drives and land exquisite approach shots, even from poor positions around the greens – but repeated failure to follow up with really top-notch putting made the difference between guaranteed advancement to sectionals and a “better luck next year” finish.

Local talent dominated the event, with Carmel High alum and UC Davis standout Luke Vivolo taking medalist honors with a 4-under 68, three strokes better than second-place finisher John Crater, of Monterey, a golf pro at Corral de Tierra Country Club in Salinas. Vivolo took his lead on the field on the front nine, carding 4-under 32 on the strength of three birdies, an eagle on the par-5 eighth hole, and one bogey.

Seven players who stood at even-par 72 at the end of regulation play went out again to determine the remaining three advancing players and two alternates. Three holes of play were required to determine the second alternate spot, which went to Stanford freshman David Snyder, but two holes was all it took to separate the remaining group of four players into qualifiers and first alternate.

Clean shots to the green and two-putt pars at the 186-yard par-2 second hole advanced Fremont’s Mac McClung, J. R. Warthen of Pacific Grove, and Christopher Marin of Monterey. San Jose’s Erick Justensen watched his tee shot at #2 ride the right-to-left breeze into the left-hand bunker, from which he could manage no better than bogey, leaving him as first alternate.

The qualifiers from today’s event at The Preserve, as well as the other Northern and Southern California local qualifiers, are likely to be headed for the sectional qualifier to be held June 5th at Big Canyon CC and Newport Beach CC in Southern California.