Thursday, March 9, 2017

Miura K-grind wedges reinforce the brand’s reputation for excellence

Miura golf clubs have a well-deserved reputation for high quality, outstanding performance, and craftsmanship. Manufactured in Himeji, Japan, the historic seat of Japanese steel-working which produced the legendary swords of the samurai warriors,  Miura irons and wedges are forged from mild steel in an 11-step process which includes three proprietary forging steps. The special forging process creates the uniform grain structure that gives these clubs their world-class feel and performance.

The Series 1957 K-Grind wedge is a good example of the quality and craftsmanship which characterizes all of Miura’s products. The K-Grind wedges are limited-edition clubs, bearing the “Series 1957” designation in commemoration of the year founder Katsuhiro Miura’s began making golf clubs. The K-Grind wedge is distinguished by three channels ground into the sole, forming passages which increase the club’s ability to pass smoothly through heavy sand or thick rough.

The balance and feel of the K-Grind wedge is exemplary. Even without the benefit of the personalized fitting process which usually accompanies the acquisition of a club of this quality, I felt at home with the 56° K-Grind wedge after just a few swings. The club performed beautifully for me on shots ranging from full swings from the fairway to short chips from tight lies around the green.

The Miura K-Grind wedge presents a good look at address.

Out of sand – never the strongest part of my game – I was very pleased with the consistent, confidence-inspiring performance of this club. I usually play a sand wedge with significantly lower bounce than the 12 degrees of the 56° K-Grind, but I found that a firm, accelerating swing with no hesitation (one of my problems in bunkers…) produced a high-flying, soft-landing ball flight, even with the less-than-premium range balls in the bunker practice area at my local course.

Classic ball-contact surface with no gimmicks.

I had similar results with the K-Grind from the dense rough around the practice green. Whether square-to-square or with the face flared open for a higher trajectory, the club moved smoothly through the deep grass on full- and partial-swing shots, just as Mr Miura intended when he designed the fluted sole.

The K-Grind’s unique fluted sole helps the club
slide through both sand and dense rough.

Full shots on the grass-surface range with the K-Grind were fun – that’s the only way I can describe them. The high-arcing flight of a full wedge shot is one of the great joys of golf for me, and the consistent flight, precise distance control, and tight dispersion that I got out of full-swing shots with the K-Grind were the most fun I’ve had with a golf club in my hand in months.

It’s understood that Miura irons and wedges are premium clubs which command a premium price, and they are available only through specialist fitting centers – not at your local golf-and-tennis center or big-box sporting goods store. However, for the golfer who is ready to step up to a higher level of performance and precision in their “red zone” scoring clubs, these wedges are certainly worthy of consideration.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Pebble Beach beats Disney to the punch with “Beauty and the Beast” imitation at AT&T Pro-Am

The big news in movies right now is the upcoming release of Disney’s live-action version of Beauty and the Beast on March 17th, but the PGA Tour and Pebble Beach beat Disney to the punch by a month with a week of beauty-and-the-beast weather for the AT&T Pro-Am.
A nice change from the horror show of the Thursday and Friday weather, Saturday and Sunday at Pebble Beach were picture-perfect. (photo by author)
I hate to harp on the Monterey Peninsula weather for the AT&T Pro-Am, but weather is so often a big part of the story at any golf tournament, and given the volatility of the conditions at this time of the year in this part of the world, it is always part of the story for this event.

Dating from the early days of the “Crosby Clambake”, when the event was held in January, “Crosby weather” has been a catchphrase for conditions that frequently ranged from cold and damp to downright nasty. Over the last five years or so, while California has suffered through historic drought conditions, the AT&T Pro-Am has been blessed with mostly good weather. Sure, there has been a rain delay or two, and even a pair of waterspouts over Carmel Bay (not affecting play) in 2013, but since 2011 the event has had a disproportionate number of days of beautiful weather, the kind of conditions that the local Chamber of Commerce, and CBS-TV’s golf producers, love.

In 2017, as record-setting rains put paid to the historic drought conditions that have plagued the state of California, the beastly side of Monterey Peninsula weather showed up again for the AT&T Pro-Am. Pounding rain and winds gusting to 35 mph forced a stoppage of play on Thursday, and while play continued on Friday, drizzle and low fog marked the day, with foggy conditions forcing a short play stoppage at Pebble Beach in the early afternoon before halting play altogether at 4:21 p.m.

Weather gurus predicted better conditions for the weekend, sunny and calm, and all concerned had their fingers crossed that they would be right, for the sake of catching up on Saturday to allow a Sunday finish to the tournament. When play was shut down Friday afternoon by fog only 33 players had completed their second rounds, leaving 121 players who would have to be back in position Saturday morning wherever they had been when play was called on Friday – and then all 154 players had to get in their third round.

Saturday dawned calm and dry, with only a few puffy white clouds as stage-dressing. As the the players who still had holes to complete brought  Round 2 to a close, the leaderboard showed a triumvirate at the top: World #1 Jason Day, World #6 (and AT&T spokesperson) Jordan Spieth, and 199th-ranked Derek Fathauer, a no-win journeyman breathing rarefied air on a big stage.

Two-time AT&T Pro-Am winner Brandt Snedeker was T-4 (and six strokes back) at the conclusion of second round play, and another two-time winner, World #4 Dustin Johnson, was not totally out of the picture at 4-under, T-14. These and all the other A-listers would, of course, be playing at Pebble on Saturday, where all the best scenery (and the cameras) are.

The men at the top of the leaderboard reacted in various ways to the Mr Hyde/Dr Jekyll transition in the weather from Friday to Saturday. Jason Day threw his game into reverse on a stretch of those “easy, nothing-special” inland holes that Pebble is “famous” for, carding three bogeys and a double in a five-hole stretch from 11 to 15, before making birdie on 17 and bogey on 18 (his ninth hole). Four birdies in six holes from four to nine were spoiled by a double-bogey on the par-3 fifth, leaving the World #1 sitting T-11 after 54 holes, a drop of ten spots on the day.

Third-round co-leader Derek Fathauer did what many out-of-nowhere leaders/co-leaders do – he faded. Playing out of the limelight at MPCC-Shore, Fathauer carded a one-over 73 and slipped five places to T-6.

The pair of two-time winners mentioned above, Brandt Snedeker and Dustin Johnson, each brought their experience at Pebble to bear on the situation today, and took advantage of the weather to move up the scoreboard.

Snedeker leveraged a seven-birdie, two-bogey day into a two-spot bump to solo second at 11-under, and DJ rode a clean six-birdie card to solo third after 54 holes at 10 under par. There was some controversy about the drop that Johnson took on 18 after knocking his second shot into Carmel Bay, but no official action was taken at the time.

Taking the fullest advantage of the Chamber-of-Commerce weather was second-round, and eventually third-round, leader Justin Spieth. Spieth ran away and hid from the rest of the field, racking up his second 65 in a row on the strength of an eight-birdie round that was spoiled only by a tough bogey on #8, the opening stanza of the “Cliffs of Doom” stretch of par-4s that concludes the ocean-side stretch of holes that runs from #4 to #10. He finished the day at 17-under, carrying a 6-stroke lead, and the momentum of a pair of birdies on list final two holes, into Sunday’s final round.

Three surprise movers who all landed at T-6 after 54 holes were Aussie Geoff Ogilvy, who knocked down a clean-card 66 at Pebble; Scott Stallings, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour who last notched a “W” in 2014 at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines; and NorCal stalwart Kevin Chappell, who moved up 23 spots after carding a 5-under 67 at Pebble, with two bogeys.

Day Four dawns clear, bright, and beautiful
Sunday at the 2017 AT&T Pro-Am was, if anything, a more beautiful day than Saturday had been – it was the kind of weather that had people checking the ads posted in the window of the real estate office at the Pebble Beach Gallery shops (and then recoiling in amazement, or horror, at the prices…)

Spieth came out of the blocks in the fourth round playing flat, carding one birdie early – on the short par-5 2nd hole – before getting locked in to a string of pars. In the meantime, Snedeker and an even less-likely challenger, 2011 U.S. Amateur champion Kelly Kraft, were making birdies.

Kraft had five birdies, three pars, and a bogey on the front nine to go out in 32 before another birdie on the under-appreciated 11th hole pulled him to within three shots of Spieth. Two-time former AT&T Pro-Am champ Snedeker also snuck a bit closer to Spieth with a 2-under front nine, turning at 13-under, five back of the young Texan.

Saturday’s back nine was where Spieth had made a charge, carrying momentum forward from a birdie at the tough par-4 ninth hole, making two more birdies immediately, at 10 and 11, and three more down the stretch, at 15, 17, and 18 – but a similar charge never materialized on Sunday. Luckily for Spieth, Kelly Kraft’s front-nine play didn’t carry forward to the later holes. Kraft pulled to within three strokes of Spieth after eleven holes, but couldn’t muster any more birdies over the last seven holes and so never put any real pressure on the eventual winner.

Spieth opened up a bit of breathing room with a 30-foot birdie putt on the par-3 17th hole, though by that point in the tournament only a total meltdown on the 18th hole would have lost the day for him. Even with a flat round that opened par-birdie and closed birdie-par with fourteen pars in between, Spieth hung on for the win.

After Spieth and Kraft, a pair of two-time former champions – Dustin Johnson and Brandt Snedeker – were third and fourth, with the trio of Gary Woodland, Jason Day, and Jon Rahm sharing fifth place. Four-time AT&T Pro-Am winner Phil Mickelson looked like an outside prospect to mount a challenge after 54 holes, but a dearth of birdies, and an imploding back nine 44, which included two bogies, a double, and – wait for it – a quadruple-bogey, dropped him an ear-popping 37 spots to solo 65th, otherwise known as DFL.

Friday, February 10, 2017

“Crosby weather” strikes again at AT&T Pro-Am

After several years of pretty reasonable weather at the AT&T Pro-Am (years which encompassed a period of historic drought in California, by the way…) classic “Crosby weather” returned with a vengeance on the first day of the 2017 tournament.

“Crosby weather” is the blustery, rainy (and once, in 1962, snowy) smörgåsbord of conditions which the Monterey Peninsula may experience in the period from January to mid-February when the Crosby Pro-Am (now the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am) has been played over the years.

PGA Tour officials, no strangers to weather-related issues at their events, moved all of Thursday’s tee times up an hour in anticipation of the heavy weather that was predicted to arrive around midday, and while it was not a complete solution, the earlier start allowed all but half a dozen players to complete at least twelve holes, and 72 players, a little less than half the field, actually completed first round play.

Play was stopped at 1:34 PM local time due to unplayable conditions. Wind gusts up to 35 mph were recorded by PGA Tour weather officials, but water puddling on the greens – more so at Pebble than the other two courses in the rota – was the reason that play was called. Conditions were less severe at Spyglass Hill and MPCC-Shore, but calling play at one course means calling play at all three in order to keep rounds at all courses synchronized.

Play was officially cancelled for the day at 2:39 PM, when Tour officials announced that players with first-round play to complete would be back in position at 7:30 AM Friday, with second-round play commencing one hour later than originally scheduled, at 9:00 AM.

All three co-leaders, tied at 4-under, completed play Wednesday: Rick Lamb – a Tour grad in his first year on the PGA Tour; Seung-Yul Noh, a Korean player with one win, in 2014, to his credit in eight years on Tour; and Joel Dahmen, who is in his second year on the PGA Tour. Among the better-known players who also get to sleep in a bit Friday morning are World #1 Jason Day, of Australia; 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk, and World #6 Jordan Spieth.

Clovis, CA’s Bryson DeChambeau strokes a putt on the 2nd hole of Monterey Peninsula Country Club’s Shore Course using the face-forward, arm-lock putting style that he has recently adopted.
Players with Northern California associations had mixed results to show for Wednesday’s truncated play. San Jose State grad Mark Hubbard turned in a 3-under scorecard at Pebble Beach, while Sacramento’s Nick Watney is 3-under through 13 holes at the tournament’s namesake course. Ricky Barnes, of Stockton, completed his round on Monterey Peninsula Country Club’s (MPCC) Shore Course in par; Spencer Levin, of Sacramento, is +2 through 16 at Spyglass Hills, while Fresno-area natives Bryson DeChambeau and Kevin Chappell are +2 through 11 and +3 through 15, respectively, at MPCC, and Alameda’s James Hahn is +4 through 17 on the Shore Course.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Will 2017 be the Year of the Rooster – or the Tiger (Woods, that is)?

Are you looking forward to 2017? I’m talking about golf here – not politics, not movies, not football, baseball, basketball or tennis: strictly golf. If you are, what exactly are you looking forward to?

Let me be prescient for a moment, or try to be, and see if I can predict what you’re going to say, or what many are going to say. I predict that many, many of you will say that what you are looking forward to in golf in 2017 is The Return of Tiger Woods (though maybe that should be in all caps: THE RETURN OF TIGER WOODS.)

Ever since Woods embarked on his course of back surgeries some, what, 16, 17 months ago now? – the world of golf has been panting for The Return of The Big Cat. He teased his fans with talk of a return at the season opener of the 2016-2017 PGA Tour year at the Safeway Open in Napa, only to bail out at the last minute. (Screwed me out of a paycheck for an article on his return that I never got to write, but I’m not bitter about that – much – and the lunch spread in media dining was amazing.)

When he did return, several weeks later, it was at the Hero Challenge, an event which he hosts, sponsored by a company which sponsors him. A limited-field event for the top 18 players in the world – at a time when he was ranked 898th. (Nice to be on the selection committee, isn’t it?) OK, to be fair, his rankings slid to those depths because he hadn’t been playing, of course, not because he had been playing and had sucked.

So how did he do? He finished 15th out of 17 (Justin Rose WD’d with back pain), 14 strokes back of winner Hideki Matsuyama – but the golf world, or at least the majority of it, went berserk. “HE’S BACK!”, the headlines screamed.

Thanks to a “strong” showing against the top dozen and a half players in the world – and the OWGR’s wonky algorithms – Woods vaulted to #650 after his performance at the Hero Championship, a nosebleed-inducing ascent of 248 spots in one go, and now “Tiger’s back” is the story for 2017, as it has been for a year and a half (yes, I know – bad pun…).

Many pundits and players alike are predicting a great year for Woods in 2017 – a PGA Tour win, a strong showing in one or more majors – good things all around. Of course, the departure of Nike Golf from the hardware side of the business is a factor for Woods, among others, but many see hope in his return to the faithful Scotty Cameron putter which served him so well for so many years. He had Taylormade clubs in the bag above the irons for the Hero Championship, and has recently announced a switch to the Bridgestone B330S golf ball.

One of the big questions surrounding Woods’ return concerns the schedule he will play. Lacking a win on Tour in 2015-2016 the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua is out of the question – not that he bothered showing up for it in recent years anyway. The desert events – the Careerbuilder Challenge and Phoenix Open are out – a pro-am and a zoo. For his first event the smart money is on Torrey Pines, a venue at which he has enjoyed nearly unprecedented success, including his most recent win there, in 2013, one of the five he notched up that season.

After Torrey will he then play in the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, the scene of what is arguably the greatest triumph of his career, when he lapped the field at the 2000 U.S. Open? Despite his success there he has often bad-mouthed the greens at Pebble, which grow bumpy late in the day thanks to their poa annua content. In his last appearance there, in 2012, he was crushed by Phil Mickelson in the final round after Mickelson overcame a 6-stroke deficit to roll up his fourth win at the iconic Monterey Peninsula venue – so I’m guessing Pebble is a “no”.

Woods has committed to play in the Genesis Championship at Riviera Country Club, the location of his first PGA Tour event, at the age of 16, in 1992. His TGR Live organization is putting the event on, and it will benefit the Tiger Woods Foundation. Without that association I’d guess that he would be a no-show at Riviera; he has never favored the venue, and this will be his first time back at Riviera since 2006.

After Riviera my guess is that he is not likely to come out again until Bay Hill, out of respect for the late Arnold Palmer, and after that, of course, the Masters. Post-Masters I would bet on The Players Championship as his next event, the site of another of his five wins in 2013; it was his second win at the PGA Tour’s flagship event, his first having come in 2001.

After mid-May my crystal ball gets fuzzy, with moments of clarity around the time of the U.S. Open, the Open Championship and the PGA Championship – assuming that between playing and practicing his back woes don’t return, or some other injury doesn’t jump up and make itself known in his increasingly creaky, cranky 41-year-old body.

There are many in golf, media and fans alike, who think that Tiger Woods is Good for Golf. If by “golf” one means TV ratings for the PGA Tour then I think that they have a point. People tune in to watch him, as the ratings for the 2016 Hero Championship show – they were exactly double the number for 2015, increasing by 100% over the previous years, and viewership more than doubled, with a 115% increase over 2015. If we’re talking about the larger concept of the game of golf, though, I don’t think it means much to business at your local golf course whether Woods is in the field at that weeks’ PGA Tour event or on the sofa with a bowl of Froot Loops at his mansion in Jupiter.

That being said, there are any number of people playing the game recreationally, and maybe even professionally, who will tell you that Tiger is the reason they got into the game. For them, though the Chinese calendar calls 2017 the Year of the Rooster, they are hoping that it will turn out to be another Year of the Tiger.