Saturday, December 31, 2011

Who Will You Root For?

The latest Golf Channel spot hyping the upcoming 2012 PGA golf season uses the tagline: “Who will you root for?” accompanied by several quick little vignettes showing the lighter side of a number of the more engaging pro golfers you see playing PGA events. Seeing these spots over the last week or so has raised to the surface of my mind a question which has lain latent for some time – “Do I root for one player over another, or do I root for good golf?”

Cheering on “your” team is a time-honored tradition in sport, and it makes sense when there is some sort of connection—for instance, cheering on your high school or college football/baseball/basketball team, or even a local professional sports franchise. In the case of the sports teams from your high school or college, the athletes on the team may be your friends and classmates.

The connection becomes much more tenuous once the leap is made to professional sports; professional athletes in the Big 3 team sports (baseball, football, basketball) are guns-for-hire, and since the advent of free agency they are highly mobile, and generally have no ties to the community the team represents and no loyalty to to their franchise beyond the terms of their contract. Still, a fan can root for the local team, identifying with, and attaching their loyalty to, the franchise, no matter who is wearing the uniform.

Golf, however, is different. No teams, no franchises—the players are all “free agents” (actually, more like individual contractors…). So, when you watch golf on TV, or at a tournament, do you root for a specific player because he is from your home state, went to your college, or just seems like he is a nice guy? Or… do you just root for good golf?

I have examined this question in some depth recently, because for the last year I have been following professional golf more closely than I have in the past: writing about it, thinking about it, and reading more closely what the professional media people write about it. In the midst of the more focused attention I have been paying to the larger picture when it comes to professional golf, it has occurred to me that rooting for a particular player to win a tournament is, in effect, rooting for a millionaire to make another million bucks… and how much sense does that make?

It’s difficult to watch a golf tournament and not nurture at least a small, deeply-hidden kernel of desire for a particular player to come out on top if they are in contention, but whenever the “cheer ’em on” impulse sneaks up on me while watching a golf tournament, I do my best to suppress it and summon up a dispassionate demeanor.

Sportswriter Dan Jenkins addressed the issue, in his usual light-hearted way, in his 2008 novel, The Franchise Babe. His protagonist, sportswriter Jack Brannon, becomes friendly with a rising young LPGA star named Ginger Clayton while following her over the course of a few weeks for a magazine story and, in the usual lucky manner of Dan’s main characters, becomes more than just friendly with the young golfer’s attractive, divorced mother, Thurlene. In the final round of a fictionalized major tournament, Jack is overheard by another sportswriter, Cy Ronack (a thinly-veiled nod to Jenkins’ friend, real-life golf writer Ron Sirak), cheering on the young golfer while she makes a run for the win:
‘Ginger’s iron shot to the sixteenth grabbed a chair. The shot gave her an inviting eight-foot birdie putt. It prompted a loud “Oh, yeah!” out of Thurlene, and an audible “All right!” out of me. Which drew a glance from Cy Ronack, who said, “I’ve always heard that journalists are impartial.”

I said, “We are—I’m rooting for my story.” ’

I used to root for one player over another when I watched golf, based on the factors I mentioned above. I would generally root for Phil Mickelson in preference to other players because Phil seems like a nice guy, because he has had a number of personal obstacles to overcome lately, etc.; or if Phil was not in contention, I might root for another player because he’s from California (Nick Watney, Hunter Mahan, Anthony Kim, Rickie Fowler, to name a few) or because he seemed like a nice guy (Matt Kuchar, Jonathan Byrd, Paul Goydos, Steve Stricker). If no player for whom I felt any sort of connection happened to be in contention in a tournament, I just sat back and waited to see who came out on top.

Of course it is unsportsmanlike to actively root against a particular golfer, and I never do. There are some players for whom I have no particular affinity, or whose on-course behavior I find lacking (sorry to say, but Tiger Woods falls into this category), but if one of these players is in contention I try to maintain a neutral attitude.

Lately, though I do not have the professional journalist’s obligation to remain impartial, I can’t bring myself to root for any particular golfer to win a tournament, because in most cases I would be—as I mentioned above—rooting for a millionaire to make another million dollars.

You might say that rooting for your favorite pro team from one of the Big 3 sports is doing the same thing, but in those cases the athletes aren’t directly earning a big paycheck for winning a particular game. Sure, the top athletes in those sports make stupid money, but it’s as part of a contract, not for each game. This is another aspect of professional golf which differs from the Big 3 team sports—individual performance leads to individual gain. (In fact, if a golfer doesn’t play well enough and misses the cut—no paycheck. Pro golfers are the ultimate private contractors of professional sports.) This difference between the Big 3 team sports and golf reinforces the “no root” rule—cheer on an individual player, and you are not cheering for a team to make it to the playoffs, or win the big championship—you are cheering for one guy to get richer.

Of course not all pro golfers are millionaires, but you have to get pretty far down the 2011 money list (#90, as a matter of fact…) to find a guy who didn’t make at least $1 million in official on-course earnings this season. Fifty-four of those ninety guys made over a million dollars in the 2011 season without even winning a tournament. Scroll down the list to #143 and you find the first guy whose on-course income drops below half a million dollars; scroll even further down the list, to #183, and you find the first guy whose on-course earnings were below a quarter of a million dollars.

The upshot of all this is that I don’t—I can’t—root for any of these guys, but I do root for great golf. I watch professional golf, on TV and in person, because I love to see the skill these guys (and gals—the LPGA ladies rock…) display at a difficult, capricious, maddening game that commands so much of my attention and interest. I watched professional golf on TV, off and on, before I started playing, but I appreciate it much more now than I used to—and that’s because I now have a greater appreciation for how damned hard it is to do what they do.

When I’m watching a tournament, I’m rooting for the golfer who is standing over a 30-foot downhill left-to-right-breaking putt, on a green that rolls like a linoleum floor, to sink that putt—because it’s hard to do.

I am rooting for the golfer who has a second shot on a long par-4 to a triple-contoured green with bunkers left and long and water right to hit the shot and hold the green – because it’s hard to do.

I’m rooting for the golfer faced with a tee shot to a U.S. Open fairway that’s been narrowed and tweaked toward a cliff that drops to the Pacific Ocean, to hit that fairway, stay out of the rough, and have a chance at a good shot across the cliffs to the narrow, bunker-guarded green on the other side (you may recognize that I am talking about the 8th at Pebble Beach here…) – because it’s hard to do.

So, I don’t root for golfers – I root for good golf; and usually, week in, week out, whether it’s the PGA, the European Tour, the LPGA, the Champions Tour, or the Nationwide Tour, I get to see not only good golf, but great golf.

I try not to think about the private jets, posh mansions, Merry-Christmas-to-me sports cars (Paula Creamer that was—she posted a photo of her pretty white “Christmas-present-to-me” Porsche to her Twitter account a day or two ago; I’m surprised she didn’t get it in pink…) and all the other trappings of the quite ridiculous professional athlete lifestyle that accompany life in the upper echelons of the sport. I put all that other stuff aside, and I root for golf.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pacific Grove Golf Links – "The Poor Man’s Pebble Beach"

California’s Monterey Peninsula is home to some of the finest, most widely renowned – and expensive – golf courses in the world. Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, and Spyglass Hill (to name just three) make this area one of the most coveted golf destinations in the world, but enjoying the magnificent scenery and the challenging golf experiences on these courses will set you back a pretty penny. If $495 (Pebble) or $360 (Spyglass Hill) per round is not your idea of a golf bargain (forget Cypress, it’s a private – and very exclusive – club), you might want to consider the muni course just a short jaunt up the Peninsula (on the famed 17-Mile Drive) from these paragons – Pacific Grove Golf Links. With rates from $40 for weekday play (low season – 11/01 to 04/30) and even lower with the available annual discount card, and generous discounts for 9-hole and twilight play, Pacific Grove Golf Links provides first-rate Monterey Peninsula golf at an affordable price.

A little bit of history

Designed by noted amateur golf competitor & course architect H. Chandler Egan, Pacific Grove Golf Links opened in May 1932 as a 9-hole parkland course. The land on which the course was built was sold to the city of Pacific Grove by Del Monte Properties Company owner S.F.B. Morse (a nephew of the Samuel Morse of telegraph fame) for a $10 gold piece and a promise that the city would maintain and irrigate the property as a golf course for a minimum of 5 years. The city kept that bargain, and then some, but nearly 30 years would pass before the course expanded to 18 holes.

In 1960, noted golf course architect Jack Neville – co-creator, with Douglas Grant, of the Pebble Beach Golf Links – approached the Pacific Grove Rotary Club with a proposal to add a seaward nine to the existing course. The additional holes were laid out on a parcel of dune-covered, true “linksland” at the extreme tip of the Monterey Peninsula – Point Piños – just across Asilomar Boulevard from the original nine holes. Leased from the U. S. Coast Guard by the city of Pacific Grove at the time, the parcel is home to the historic Point Piños lighthouse. The land and the lighthouse were deeded to the city by the Coast Guard in 2006.

Pacific Grove Golf Links’ claim to fame

Aside from the location amid some of the most beautiful seaside scenery in the world, Pacific Grove Golf Links has the distinction of offering players two distinct golf experiences in one round. The original nine holes open your round in a rolling, tree-lined parkland environment, while the second nine play across open linksland that would look familiar to Old Tom Morris.

The front nine at Pacific Grove: Parkland par excellence

Chandler Egan’s opening nine at Pacific Grove Golf Links is a typical American-style parkland course. Tree-lined and somewhat narrow, the opening holes trend slightly uphill, but the thing you’ll notice about PG’s front nine is the unusual 3-3-4-4-5-5 opening sequence. The course was not originally laid out that way – the format of the nine holes from 1932 to 1960 featured opening and closing par-5’s (the current Holes 5 & 6, respectively) in an out-and-back figure-eight layout. With the addition of the seaward nine in 1960, the location of the club house was changed to its current Asilomar Boulevard location in order to lie between the two halves of the course. By the way, the street you cross going from the 4th green to the 5th tee, and the 6th green to the 7th tee, is the north end of the famed 17-Mile Drive.

The opening par-3 is a nice warmup: 146 from the white tees, slightly uphill, with a bunker back left and a mound to the right. You will want an accurate shot to the left side of the green and below the flag for a good chance at birdie or par on the back-to-front sloping green. The 2nd hole is a more severe test – it is longer (nearly 200 from the blues), more severely uphill, and with a bunker short left and mounding short right accuracy is again the key.

The first of the consecutive par-4s is a mid-length (305 from the white tees) dogleg left which wants a 190- to 200-yard tee shot to the right side of the fairway, avoiding the tree that intrudes from the left about 95 yards from the center of the green. The slightly oval green slopes away on the diagonal, with bunkers left front and long. The second par-4 is an easier-appearing hole – straighter and shorter than the preceding hole, but out-of-bounds right and trees left call for a good straight tee shot with a long iron or a hybrid, while the shallow green – just 18 paces front to back – can be a challenge to hold with your approach. Bunkers right front and back center await an errant second shot.

Stepping up in distance again for the 3rd pair of holes in the opening sequence, you find yourself crossing the figure-eight (and the tail end of the famed 17-Mile Drive) to the tee box of the 5th hole, a 510-yard slight dogleg left that was the closing hole of the original nine-hole layout. Shave the inside of the curve with your drive for a good position for your second shot. A strong second shot, well-played, could well see you on the front fringe, or even rolling onto the green if conditions are dry and firm, but be wary of the seemingly-unprotected green – deeper than wide and angling slightly right, it has no bunkers, defending the hole with subtle contours that will challenge your green-reading skills.

The last of the unique opening stanza of the front nine is Long Tom: 527 yards long, uphill, into the prevailing breeze – and this used to be the opening hole. Golfers were made of stern stuff back in 1932, I suppose; imagine playing this hole with persimmon and balata… Keep your drive to the left to open up the angle for your second shot, and leave yourself a good wedge distance for your third – bunkers left and right guard the front quadrants, but only slight mounds at the back will keep a thinned approach shot from skittling over the green and across the 17-Mile Drive.

After crossing the figure-of-eight – and 17-Mile Drive – again, the final third of the front nine begins with the 304-yard 7th hole. It has a straight-forward look from the tee box, but the slight rise to the fairway – which crests about 150 yards out – conceals a bend to the left which is created more by the placement of two bunkers pinching in from right and left than by the actual running shape of the fairway. The narrow front opening of the green is skewed to the left by the bunkers, so a tee shot favoring the left side of the fairway as it disappears from your view over the crest will leave you with a better shot at the green.

The 8th hole, the final par-4 on the front nine, describes a sweeping left-to-right arc that will challenge you to move the ball in that direction in order to place yourself in a good position for your approach. Knock a 240-odd yard fade out there, with the help of a little roll out on the end, and you will have about 165 yards to the diagonally-set, slightly kidney-shaped green. The bunker at the left front is almost purely cosmetic, but the shallow green – no more than 19 paces front to back, can be a challenge to hold; if conditions allow, play a little short of the green and plan on rolling on.

The closing act of the parkland half of the Pacific Grove Golf Links is a long but innocuous-looking par-3. Nearly dead straight, with no bunkers, the 213-yard hole is slightly downhill, but plays into the prevailing breeze. At first glance the 9th hole appears to have only its length and a slightly narrow entrance to the green working in its defense, but on closer examination a slight right-to-left bias is discernible. Like a few of the other greens on the front nine, the green at 9 is set on a diagonal to the fairway, but the opposite set of the green adds drama. A back-right flag begs for a left-to-right ball flight, but with the trees between the 9th and 1st fairways intruding on your favored line (visually, at least) from the left, that can be an intimidating prospect. A left front flag sets up for a gentle draw, following the bias of the fairway, but at 22 paces front to back, that end of the green presents a small target.

Pacific Grove Golf Link’s front nine presents the experienced golfer with a number of challenging tactical problems without punishing the high-handicap player – a basic tenet of golf course design espoused by distinguished architect Dr Alister Mackenzie, of Cypress Point and Augusta National fame. Handsome grounds set about with cypress trees are a visual treat, and holes 4, 5, and 6 offer pleasant vistas north and north-east across Monterey Bay. The opening nine sets the back nine an unenviable task; following this set of holes and maintaining the high standard that has been established is a tall order, but it will be seen that the seaward side is well up to the job.

Pacific Grove’s back nine: A taste of classic links-style golf

The back nine at Pacific Grove Golf Links lies across Asilomar Boulevard from the clubhouse and the opening and closing holes of the front nine, but with all its differences, it could be a world away. Set on a parcel of linksland surrounding the Point Piños lighthouse, the second half of the course constitutes such a profoundly different style of course architecture that the two nines could be different courses entirely.

The back nine at Pacific Grove Golf Links is golf in a beautiful coastal setting.
Copyright © 2002-2011 Kenneth & Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project,

The opening hole of the seaward nine is a short par-3 (109 yards from the blues) that tees off a few yards away from the Point Piños lighthouse. Number 10 eases you into the transition between the parkland front nine and the links golf character of the back nine – the line of cypress trees lining the fairway on the right (seaward side) gives the illusion of shelter from the sea breezes that swirl around Point Piños, but a high-lofted approach shot will be subject to the whims of the winds. The deceptively simple-appearing green has some subtle and confounding breaks – you can be proud of your par when you walk away from #10!

From the 11th hole onward the golfer at Pacific Grove will be getting a taste of the Scottish origins of the game, played on close-cropped turf over rolling linksland – the type of near-waste area between the dunes and the more sheltered inland pastures traditionally used for grazing sheep in Scotland. The next six holes – 11 through 16 – feature open, undulating fairways bordered by low dunes and sandy waste areas. These fairways may look inviting, but they require proper placement to set up a profitable approach to the green. The wind, as always on ocean-side courses, will be a factor; in true links fashion, most of these holes allow a low, running approach to the green in case the wind is too strong or gusty.

The 11th hole features an inviting tee shot to the wide, open fairway, but accurate iron play is required for a good approach to the oval green, set back into dunes with a deep bunker on the left. A brisk wind will increase the difficulty of this simple-appearing hole – welcome to links golf!

A short walk through the dunes from 11 green brings you to the 12th tee, where the view down the opening stretch of this 500-odd yard sharp dogleg-right par-5 is a stunning vista over an undulating fairway to Monterey Bay. Dramatically shaped to follow the contour of the coastline, 12 offers low dunes to the right of the fairway, with out-of-bounds (Sunset Drive) on the left. At about 245 yards to the corner from the white tees, a good position for your tee shot is to the outside of the corner, with anything from a long iron to a 3-wood for your second – cutting the corner is an exercise best left to the highly-skilled player. The fairway turns a bit to the right in chip-shot range of the round green, so a left-favoring position will give you the best angle for your 3rd – and unless a rare south wind and two good shots conspire to get you up in two, there will be a third shot to the green.

The 13th hole doubles back on the direction of the 12th, and the view from the elevated tee of this 300+ yard par-4 is inviting. The fairway narrows somewhat at the bend of the slight dogleg left, and if the usual crosswind off the ocean is up, proceed with caution – a hybrid or 3-wood tee shot, leaving a 9-iron or wedge to the green is the order of the day. In calm conditions, and if your driver is behaving, take it deep for a chip to the green, but remain mindful of the sandy waste area to the left between the 12th and 13th fairways.

Seaview, the 14th hole, also plays from an elevated tee, and offers another sweeping view to the north across Monterey Bay. Sandy waste borders the fairway right and left, but it opens up to a generous width in the 220- to 250-yard range (from the whites), narrowing again from there to the green. Caution is called for on your second shot, as it will be somewhat blind, and lateral hazard borders the final approach and much of the green. The green is not tiered, but attention to the two distinct areas defined by the right to left slope is required.

Doubling back to the south once again, the 15th hole offers a view of the famous Point Piños lighthouse and the wide-open fairway of the second longest par-4 on the course. Downhill, but playing slightly into a prevailing crosswind, a well-played tee shot will leave you with a mid-iron second and the choice of an aerial or running approach, depending upon the wind. Mind the low mound guarding the left side of the smallish, round green.

The 16th, or Lighthouse, hole once again maximizes the drama and beauty of the setting, with an opening shot from an elevated tee affording views across Point Piños to the crashing surf a mere 100 yards or so beyond the green. The wide-open-appearing fairway is deceptive, as it narrows and falls away to the left at just the distance where the mid-to-low handicapper will want to place their drive. Out of bounds guards the right side (a wicked slice from the tee box will constitute a donation to the ball collection at the small driving range which lies between 16 and 18 fairways – don’t ask me how I know this…). Skirting the left side of the fairway offers the best angle into the kidney-shaped green. Bunkers pinch the green from the right and left, and given the drop off behind the green, a classic links-golf-style run up is a good bet to get on with a chance at par.

The final two holes return to a more parkland-like look, though 17, the final par 3 on the course, lies right alongside Coast View Drive, a few yards from crashing surf. The straight-forward 138-yard hole features a water carry of 60 yards or so, but the generous apron below the green leaves plenty of bailout room short. A bunker left and a noticeable back-to-front slope to the green are the hole’s best defenses; leave your tee shot below the hole and you will have a good chance at par or better.

Drawing down the curtain on your round at Pacific Grove Golf Links, the 294-yard par-4 18th hole – Last Chance – offers OB right (the driving range again…), a fairway bunker left, and an elevated green with a false front that absolutely must be carried with a nice high approach. A 3-wood from the tee followed by a crisply-struck short iron is a good combination for success at 18. Avoid the bunker right of the green, leave yourself a make-able birdie putt with your second shot, and you may end your round on a high note.

The best of both worlds in Monterey Peninsula golf – Pebble Beach variety at workingman’s rates

With its unique pairing of parkland front nine and links-style back nine, each side consisting of an enjoyable and challenging series of holes, Pacific Grove Golf Links is an affordable taste of Monterey Peninsula-style golf that will tempt you back to Point Piños again and again. A small, but perfectly adequate, driving range back-dropped by the historic Point Piños Lighthouse, and a generous and representative practice putting green allow the golfer to prepare for the round to come. The generally excellent Central California weather means that year-round play is the norm at Pacific Grove; coastal fogs and the odd winter-time rain storm constitute the only serious obstacles to play.

In addition to the excellence of the golf, the links side of the course is a tribute to the high environmental standards which are being applied more and more to golf courses around the country. The Point Piños terrain through which the holes of the back nine wends is a dunes restoration area. Ongoing since 2005, the Biological Habitat and Dunes Restoration Plan at Pacific Grove Golf Links is restoring native plants to the area, eliminating the ubiquitous iceplant, a native of South Africa, which has become so common in California’s coastal areas.

Whether you live in the area and, inexplicably, have never played a round of golf at Pacific Grove Golf Links, or are visiting the Monterey Peninsula, you owe it to yourself to experience its unique combination of tree-lined parkland terrain and seaside links golf.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Woods, Weather, and a 1st-time Winner are the Stories at 2011 Open

Except for the anxiety and performance pressure on the golfers who are trying to get, regain, or hang on to fully-exempt status on the PGA Tour, the Fall Series tournaments – the four post-FedEx Cup tournaments which are last call for a move up the money list – are generally lacking in compelling storylines. The 2011 Open, second of the four events, was a notable exception. Three stories kept the tournament front and center in the golf world: Tiger Woods, a potpourri of weather, and a dead-heat finish between two potential first-time winners.

Weeks before the first tee was stuck in the turf at the 2011 Open, it was a big story in the world of professional golf – and all because of an announcement by Tiger Woods.

As a Fall Series event – one of the four post-FedEx Cup events that close out the PGA Tour season– the Open is not the place where one would expect to see the biggest golfing sensation of the last decade in the field. Fall Series tournaments usually feature fields composed of up-and-comers who haven’t quite gotten there yet, down-and-outers who are clinging to the fringes and hoping to find their way back onto the PGA Tour gravy train, and the occasional cherry-picking fully-exempt player who is looking to play shark in a school of minnows and swoop an easy paycheck.

That changed for the Open on August 29th, when Tiger Woods announced – via his website, – that he had entered the Open. It can’t be said that the announcement came as a complete surprise. A few weeks earlier 2011 U.S. Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples had selected Woods as an early captain’s pick for the U.S. team. Couples came under a lot of criticism for the early pick, given the state of Tiger’s game, and had responded by asking Woods to get some competitive rounds in before the team headed Down Under to Melbourne, Australia for the Cup matches. With little to choose from in the remaining weeks, it was fairly certain that Tiger would choose one of the four Fall Series events. The only question remaining was – which one?
Would it be Las Vegas, where he had picked up his first professional victory in 1996, or the Open, played down the road from Stanford University where he had played his college golf? Maybe the McGladrey Classic in the Georgia Low Country, or Disney to work in a family outing with the kids?

As it turned out, he picked the Open. Maybe it was the Central California connection, or maybe it was some intense lobbying by the Fry brothers, owners of the electronics chain store which was sponsoring the tournament. Either way, it was a story that set the golf world abuzz. 

Personally, I was of two minds about Woods’ involvement.

I am not Tiger’s biggest fan, so I wasn’t looking forward to his presence at the tournament – mostly because my hopes for a quiet day on the golf course went out the window with his announcement. I had been planning for weeks to go down to San Martin on Friday of tournament week to see the pros play. There were already some marquee names involved: Ernie Els, Angel Cabrera, Justin Leonard, Paul Casey, etc. – and the chance to see these guys, and some of the other pros I see on TV, was enough of a draw for me.

I had picked Friday because I figured that the course would be a little less crowded on a weekday, and I would be able to move around more easily; also because it’s the day when guys are pushing to make the cut, and if you pick the right groupings you might see some great shots made – or at least attempted. That goes double for the Fall Series tournaments, because there are going to be a bunch of guys in the field who really need to make a cut and get a paycheck. I also wanted to see the course – CordeValle Resort is a pricey ($$) spa/resort in the foothills of the southern reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains west of the Santa Clara Valley, and until there’s an upturn in my finances, the chances of me visiting the place on a paying/playing basis are slim.

Once it was announced that Tiger would be playing, I knew that there would be much larger crowds – not all of whom would necessarily be golf fans – even on Friday. Actually, especially on Friday, because the way he had been playing, there was no guarantee that Tiger would be around for the weekend. I knew that having Tiger in the lineup would be good for ticket sales and TV viewership, and a real boost to the tournament, but personally, I could have done without it.

I wasn’t wrong about any of this. Ticket sales skyrocketed after Tiger’s announcement, and sportswriters all over the country were Googling “San Martin, CA” and making plans to head for Silicon Valley. Based on what I saw on the television coverage, and in person on Friday of tournament week, easily three-fourths of the spectators on the grounds were following Tiger’s group. I watched his group tee off Friday morning on 10, then cut across to try for a spot near the green on 12, skipping the 10th green and the entire 11th hole – no luck. Peeking between people in front of me, over their shoulders and such, I got glimpses – but that’s all – of Tiger, Patrick Cantlay and Louis Oosthuizen. I peeled off, leaving Tiger and his playing partners to the throng.

Tiger would attract much more attention before the weekend was out – and to the surprise of many, he actually made it to the weekend. An opening round of 73, which included a duffer’s delight double-bogey on the par-5 12th, had many wondering whether his G5 would be warming up Friday afternoon for the hop back to Florida, but he put together three consecutive rounds of 68 after that, a mix of brilliance and farce that included missed putts and smothered hooks, f-bombs and flying clubs.

Three rounds in the 60s is usually not a record to sniff at, but when they follow a 73, and the rest of the field is going that low and lower, they’re not enough. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the Open, 68s were cheap; in fact, that was the most common score posted each of those three days, and the low scores were 4 to 6 strokes lower. Still, the network cameras, and a majority of the people, were around Tiger – including one misguided whack-o who got his 15 minutes of fame by running into the 7th green with a hotdog that he threw in Tiger’s general direction, only to be cuffed by a deputy sheriff and hauled away.

With a Tiger and a clown at the 7th green, the gallery around Woods’ threesome was just two elephants and a trapeze act short of a circus.

The director of a golf tournament lives and dies by the weather in the last couple of weeks leading up to their tournament. Months of preparation can be jeopardized by an untimely storm, and as the first day of official play at the 2011 Open arrived – Wednesday, Pro-Am day – so did the first autumn storm to hit the Central Coast. After weeks of the kind of weather that our area Chambers of Commerce love to brag about, the local weather reports were predicting rain and possible thunderstorms for Wednesday, scattered light showers Thursday, then clearing for the remainder of the weekend.

Chilly, windy – and worst of all, wet – weather swept in late Tuesday night and persisted through the early hours of Wednesday morning. It was a lucky stroke for the tournament that the worst of it was over by the time the first pro-am groups were teeing off, and everyone kept umbrellas and rain gear handy as scattered showers trailing behind the front kept the field on their toes. Far from being over as the sun rose on Thursday, the storm pulled a secondary front through the area, and the first day of professional play was a game of hide-and-seek with the rain as a series of squalls swept down from the north, punctuated by periods of sunshine and intense blue skies. As darkness fell on the first day of the tournament, however, the sky was clear, and hopes were high for smooth sailing for the remainder of the event.

Weather-savvy folks will tell you that a clear night after a day of rain is a good formula for fog. Sure enough, Friday morning in the Santa Clara Valley dawned under clear skies – from about 1,000 feet above sea level and up. Down at ground level, in the valley and up to a little above the 320- to 420-foot elevation where the CordeValle resort lies, the combination of damp ground, damp air and a clear night sky had resulted in a heavy ground-level fog that hugged the ground like a blanket, reducing visibility to a chip shot.

The crowd around the 10th tee, where Tiger was scheduled to tee off at 7:40 am, grew restive as the sky grew lighter but the fog showed no signs of lifting. A couple of the course marshals who were working the 10th tee performed a little tag-team stand-up comedy, keeping the crowd amused as successive delays were announced – 15 minutes, 20 minutes, another hour, etc. Figures could be seen in the distance, spectators lining the fairway all the way to the green, but they disappeared and reappeared as the mist swirled, thinned and thickened. At around 9:00 a.m. the view from the 10th tee was clear all the way down to the green, but the mist persisted behind, up by the 1st and 2nd tees – play was still delayed. Finally, at 9:40 a.m., the first groups were announced and play began.

From that point on, the tournament was blessed with beautiful weather – blue skies, light breezes, and abundant sunshine. Tournament volunteers were handing out sample-sized tubes of sunblock and lip balm. A few puffy, picture-perfect white clouds appeared in the sky as the day progressed, but they sailed around the course, skirting the hillsides which rise above the fairways as if they didn’t dare violate the airspace directly above the tournament.

Though the day was bright and sunny, the light had that soft autumnal quality so often seen in a Central California October day. And light, or its lack, was to be the sole remaining weather-related issue over the last three days of the tournament.

Everyone knew that Friday morning’s 2-and-a-half hour delay was going to cause a problem. The ideal 4-hour round of 18 holes is an unrealistic goal in a professional tournament at the best of times, and with the afternoon wave – originally scheduled to start play at 11:40 – going off at 2:30, second round play was sure to be carried over ’til Saturday morning. Play progressed as the shadows lengthened, the sun dipping closer and closer to the hills looming over the course to the west. When the horn finally sounded at 6:35 p.m., the majority of the afternoon wave were still out on the course, only two or three pairings from each side of the course having finished their rounds. The cut was still undecided, and those players who had yet to finish would be in for another day with an early start – and potentially a very long day for those who made the cut and moved on to play the weekend.

The weather for the remainder of the weekend was picture-perfect. After extended days Friday and Saturday, both a result of the fog-delayed start of Friday play, Sunday’s round also came close to being affected by the length of the day, but for a different reason – the round was extended due to a dramatic playoff between two potential first-time winners that came within a hair of carrying the final day’s play over to Monday.

A First-time Winner
The last big story at the 2011 Open was the biggest of all. Tiger’s presence in the field had caused a sensation, and his erratic play and advancement to the weekend prolonged the hype, but as he slid down the leaderboard the spotlight dimmed; the rainy, foggy, dark-too-early weather story collapsed under the pressure of the gorgeous Central California October days that defined the weekend – and as the weekend unfolded, the story that rose above all was the duel between two men who were both poised to achieve their first victory on the PGA Tour – Briny Baird and Bryce Molder.

When play concluded Saturday evening, Florida native Briny Baird was in an unfamiliar position – alone at the top of the leaderboard after 54 holes. Baird is what veteran sportswriter Dan Jenkins calls a “lurker” – a player who has ridden the PGA Tour gravy train for some years, making cuts, finishing in the money (“swooping some clip”), but never ringing the bell and posting a “W”.

Baird, son of 3-time PGA Tour winner Butch Baird, is a 39-year old journeyman who turned pro in 1998. He has four 2nd-place finishes to his credit in 13 seasons on the Tour, along with thirty top 10s, and has collected just shy of $12M in on-course earnings in that time, making him the highest-earning player on the Tour without a win.

Despite his past monetary success, Baird was coming into the 2011 Open at a low point in his career. He had come to the end of the 2010 season sitting at 127th on the money list, losing his fully-exempt status on the Tour, and had played seventeen tournaments in 2011 with a partial exemption. Slipping further down the standings over the course of the season, Baird came into the 2011 Open 148th on the money list, on the real bubble. Finish below 150 and you do not have even partially-exempt status – number 151 and below are faced with a year of sponsor’s exemptions (basically writing letters to tournament chairman begging for one of the discretionary spots they save for local amateurs, fallen champions, etc.), or a return trip to Q School. Baird had a lot riding on a good finish at Frys.

The other player who figured in the end-of-tournament drama on Sunday afternoon was 31-year-old Bryce Molder. A college golf standout at Georgia Tech who hadn’t lived up to his early promise after turning pro in 2001, Molder had twice dropped back to the Nationwide Tour after failing to retain his playing status on the PGA Tour – and had twice regained his status. He seemed to have hit his stride over the last few seasons, making between 13 and 16 cuts each of the last three years, with annual earnings between $1.0M and $1.3M each season since 2009.

The two men took slightly different paths to arrive at their playoff showdown on Sunday afternoon. Baird scored a bogey-free 67 in Thursday’s rain-plagued round, ending the day in a 4-way tie for first place. Friday’s fog-delayed round saw a lot of movement on the leaderboard, and Baird slipped back to T4 when England’s Paul Casey, South African Ernie Els, and 1st-year pro Bud Cauley moved up into 1st and T2 positions, respectively. Baird didn’t slip because he played poorly – he shot a 2-under 69 – but the great scoring conditions saw a flurry of low scores (35 golfers shot 68 or better in the second round), and Casey’s 64, and the pair of 66s shot by Els and Cauley allowed them to slip past him.

Baird stepped up to the challenge on Saturday. Third-round play started at 10:15 Saturday morning, after the second round wrap-up concluded, and the late start and fine weather obviously agreed with him – he posted one of three rounds of 64 on the day. Baird put seven birdies on his scorecard against two bogeys, as well as notching up an eagle at the par-4 17th hole – one of four eagles scored on 17 that day – finishing the 3rd round with a total score of 200.

Molder got off to a bit slower start than Baird had, posting an even-par 71 through the intermittent rain squalls on Thursday, but he bounced back on Friday to shoot 67 in the second round, two back of his eventual opponent in the playoff.

I happened to be following Molder’s threesome, which included Paul Goydos and Chris DiMarco, on Friday, and I could see that Molder was comfortable on the course and comfortable with his game. Take the birdie he scored on the par-4 5th hole, for example. The 5th hole at CordeValle is a downhill dogleg left which plays at 454 yards from the championship tees, with a pinched-in landing area right where the fairway bends. A menacing fairway bunker at the outside of the bend, just where the fairway narrows, combines with the leftward alignment of the championship tee box to make a well-placed tee shot a difficult proposition.

Molder found that bunker off the tee on Friday afternoon, and was then faced with a daunting second shot to the back-right flag. Two more bunkers lay directly between him and the green – the closest was not a concern, but the far bunker nestled up against the front face of the right-slanting green when seen from Molder’s point of view – but neither bunker seemed to concern him. His second shot, out of the fairway bunker, was a clean pick off the sand with what looked like a 6 iron. It homed in on the flag like a well-sighted mortar round, dropping in to within 8 feet of the hole for a strong birdie chance. He rolled it in decisively for his second birdie, of an eventual five, for the round.

A bogey on the par-3 11th hole, when a pushed tee ball resulted in a chip and two putts for a four, didn’t appear to faze him, anymore than did the fact that play was called 3 holes later, at 6:35 p.m., requiring his group, and several others remaining on the course, to finish second round play on Saturday morning – the last of his five birdies in the round came on 17 as he was finishing second-round play Saturday morning. After wrapping up his second round, Molder came back out and went lower still in the third round, putting up a clean scorecard – 6 birdies, no bogeys – for a 65. His three-round total was 203, three shots back of the 54-hole leader, Briny Baird.

For a guy who has said that it took him some time to get comfortable on the Tour after turning pro, Bryce Molder looked very much at ease during regulation play on Sunday. Once again he went around CordeValle like it was his home course, knocking down 7 birdies against no bogeys for a 64. Baird stumbled a bit in regulation play, carding two bogeys against 4 birdies through sixteen holes, at which point he was 2 shots back of Molder, playing one hole ahead of him. Els, Casey, and Cauley, who were sitting between Molder and Baird as final round play began, had slipped back – Cauley and Els only by 2 and 3 strokes, respectively; Casey had blown up to a 71 under the weight of a double on 6 and three bogeys which were just counter-balanced by three birdies and a chip-in eagle on the par-5 15th.

Baird was coming to 17 as Molder finished the 72nd hole with a par and a 72-hole score of 267. Between his stumbles earlier in the round and Molder’s surge, Baird found himself with a 2-stroke deficit with two holes to play – he was going to have to make something happen if he wanted a chance to do more than settle for yet another 2nd-place finish.

The 17th hole was a good a place as any to do – or try to do – something dramatic. As the weekend’s Kodak Challenge Hole, the 17th was a dramatic setting – a dangerous, yet driveable, par-4 with water guarding the front right quadrant of the green, the hole had been played from one of the more forward tee box during the weekend rounds. The combination of a receptive green (thanks to its bowl shape and the damp weather a couple of days before) and the shortened hole meant that driver from the elevated tee was a realistic proposition. The hole had yielded a fair number of birdies and even eagles during the 3rd and 4th rounds, and Baird himself had hit it for two in the 3rd round.

Baird aimed his tee shot straight at the right front flag, daring the carry over the water below the green. The line was perfect, but the distance was not – it dropped short, and to observers behind the green, including the TV cameras, it appeared that it might have gone into the water. Luckily for Baird, it hadn’t – the ball was on the bank below the flag, sitting up in a good lie. Anyone watching would have been justified in thinking that a great chip and a good putt would get him out of there with a birdie and one more chance to tie it up, at 18. Baird might have been thinking that himself.

What we got, instead of a great chip and a good putt, was a fantastic chip shot – and no putt. Baird popped the ball up high off the steep bank, landing it soft and short of the hole with just enough forward momentum to take a coupe of small hops and roll into the hole. In the space of a breath, Baird went from two down and playoff a rather remote possibility, to tied up with one to play. A routine-looking par at 18 (though the mid-length par putt must have felt anything but routine to Baird – it was a clutch effort in a tight spot) set the stage for a showdown – as shadows engulfed the “heart of the valley”, only two men were left standing, each with a chance to get the “win-less” monkey off his back and take that big step up to the next level in their career.

The designated playoff holes for the open are 17 & 18 – the usual arrangement – but this playoff was a TV producer’s dream – two potential first-time winners playing off over two dramatic finishing holes, battling each other while racing the looming darkness. What came next was a breath-holding endurance contest that no one could have foreseen, as Baird and Molder went toe-to-toe for six more holes, playing the Kodak Challenge Hole and the downhill dogleg-left par-4 18th three more times each.

For all the dramatic possibilities that the 17th hole held, both men played it rather routinely, three times in a row. Molder appeared to have, and miss, the same birdie putt three times at 17 – a downhill right-to-left slider that squeaked by heart-breakingly close – 3 times! Baird had birdie putts from three different zip codes on 17, but couldn’t convert any of them for the win.

Eighteen was also a story mostly of putts missed and made, though Molder injected his own moment of drama into the proceedings when his tee shot on the second time through 18 landed short and left, in the hazard. From an ugly, weedy lie, on a bank with the ball well above his feet, he took a mighty swing with a rescue club, his ball painting a beautiful right-to-left arching line across the sky, all the way to the green. From a lie which would have had 99 of 100 golfers chipping out short, but safe, to the fairway – but in a situation in which that was just not an acceptable solution, he kept himself alive with a Mickleson-esque shot that he will probably see in his dreams for years to come. In a Hollywood movie, he would have made the long birdie putt after the dramatic save from the hazard – but just as Mickleson himself didn’t make the putt after the dramatic save from behind the tree at the 13th at Augusta in 2010, Molder didn’t roll this one in. He made the par putt, though, and when Baird missed a shorter, but by no means easy, birdie putt, the playoff continued.

As I stated above, both men played the 17th hole rather routinely through the playoff. It was nerve-wracking, given the situation, but nothing spectacular happened. Curiously, for all the prolonged drama, the last act at the 18th hole was also almost routine. Two drives in the fairway, two approach shots on the green, Baird leaves his birdie putt short (and stands off to one side, looking away) as Molder, from a good bit closer, makes his – and that’s the game folks.

Just as well that he did, too, because there wasn’t enough light to take another run at it. Can you imagine the night the two men would have had, sleeping (or trying to sleep) knowing that they had to get up in the morning and go back to 17 again? (Beneath the cheers for Molder’s victory, there was a just-detectable undercurrent of relief on the part of the media people, both TV and print, who had been holding their breath in anticipation not only of extended viewing times and short deadlines, but of re-scheduled flights and re-booked hotel rooms.)

Bryce Molder was, predictably, somewhat at a loss for words as he was interviewed literally moments after the winning putt (finally) dropped. A big paycheck (the biggest of his career to date…), a two-year exemption on the Tour – and a promotion from the ranks of the no-win “lurkers” who fill out the fields at the week-to-week, non-major tournaments on the Tour; it was a lot to take in. After 131 starts on the PGA Tour, he had finally notched up a “W”.

For a guy who had just blown the chance to nip a record-length winless streak (348 starts without a win), Briny Baird was fairly well composed in his on-the-spot post-round interview; disappointed, but keeping a stiff upper lip. Though he would be carrying that “no win” monkey around for a while longer, he had a lot to be thankful for: he had pocketed a paycheck that would keep many a Joe Duffer muni golfer in beer and Titleists until retirement, and more importantly, he had secured his fully-exempt status for the 2012 season, guaranteeing himself a spot in as many regular Tour events as he wanted to play – 15+ chances at more big paychecks, 15+ chances to get that “no win” monkey off his back.

Baird also had a lot to be proud of, because he had pulled himself out of a nearly two-season-long slump, and demonstrated that he could still put himself into contention on Tour. To get a win, you have to get yourself in with a chance; do it enough times and your chances for a win get better and better. Do it enough times, and you increase the belief within yourself that you can do it, and that’s probably the most important thing of all.

Veteran sportswriter Dan Jenkins put these words in the mouth of his sportswriter character Jack Brannon in the novel The Franchise Babe: “…the game’s 90% mental once you know how to grip the club…”. Both of the men who played and replayed those two holes in the lengthening shadows at CordeValle that afternoon came away with strengthened mental games – it will be interesting to see how (or if) they carry that new strength into the new season when January 2012 rolls around.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Santa Teresa’s Short Course: The South Bay’s Nine-Hole Jewel

Santa Teresa Golf Club is nestled up against the feet of the Santa Teresa Hills, a rugged outrider of the Santa Cruz Mountains which separates Almaden Valley from the southern end of the Santa Clara Valley; and tucked up to one side of the 18-hole course, actually climbing the lower slopes of Coyote Peak, is the 9-hole, par-27 Short Course.

A 9-hole course of this length is usually described as a “pitch-and-putt," a mildly derisive term for a beginner’s collection of short holes which require only an easy pitch shot from the tee and a putt or two on a flat, featureless green. “Pitch-and-putts” lie somewhere between an executive 9-hole course (which will generally feature at least a pair of par-4s) and a mini-golf layout in the golfing spectrum, and are generally looked down upon by accomplished golfers, but the Short Course at Santa Teresa is a notable exception to that rule.

Challenging but not overly difficult, the Short Course offers a variety of holes ranging in length from 74 to 124 yards. Where the main course at Santa Teresa has water in play in only one location – right of the fairway at 18 (and that’s a seasonal hazard that’s dry a good 10 months of the year, typically) – there is water in play on five of the nine holes on the Short Course. The greens, like all of the greens at Santa Teresa, are smooth, well-tended and consistent, with shape and contour ranging from fairly flat and straightforward to moderately-sloped and undulating, and there are hole-position possibilities that range from easy to challenging on most of the greens.

Santa Teresa’s Short Course is convenient, and affordable too. No tee-time is required – just pay your green fee in the Pro Shop ($11 weekdays, $15 on the weekend) and walk to the first tee. Hit from the grass in the tee boxes instead of teeing it up and it’s like playing nine holes worth of testing approach shots and read-and-speed putting – a great way to strengthen your short game.

All nine of the holes on the Short Course have their own quirks and character, but the most noteworthy are #4, #7, and #9. The 4th hole, the longest hole on the course at 124 yards, features a well-elevated tee box, a big eucalyptus tree intruding on the fairway from the left, water right and long, and bunkers left and right front. If the wind is blowing it’s most likely to be left to right, toward the water, so depending upon the strength of the breeze this hole offers you a choice of a high, arcing shot over the intruding foliage of the big eucalyptus, or a low, under-the-wind punch shot. The high shot offers a softer, hit-and-stop landing at the risk of a bunker shot or a water ball if the wind catches it; the low punch reduces the danger from the wind, but if overdone may run through the back-to-front sloped green to the mounds behind, or if severely over-played, to the water hazard between the 4th and 9th greens.

You don’t expect to find a risk-reward hole on a par-27 nine-holer, but #4 merits the name. Holding a high soft 8-iron into that left-to-right breeze, over the big overhanging branch of the eucalyptus and dropping it right in the center of the green for a chance at birdie is a moment you’ll remember like your first kiss.

The 7th hole is the second-longest on the course, playing a nominal 122 yards, with the added attraction of playing into the prevailing wind. #7 features a pair of tee boxes, and plays somewhat differently depending on which of the two the markers are in use that day. The right-hand tee box offers a straighter shot to the green, but brings the wooded copse bordering the right side of the fairway more into play. The trees are more visual intimidation than real obstacles, but a ball that goes into the trees will rattle around and come to rest in some pretty tall grass, with a slim chance of a clean recovery shot to the green from there.

The left-hand tee box at #7 is surrounded by good-sized trees, creating a closed-in feeling that makes the tee shot feel tighter than it is, and which also brings the lone bunker, which sits at the left front of the green, into play. Shy away from that bunker and your tee ball may well find the low ground, and high grass, right of the green – but the good news is that a ball on the near-side upslope there will offer a fairly simple chip back onto the large, nearly dead-flat green.

The last of these three notable holes, the 9th, offers a great finish to your round. Playing to a nominal length of 116 yards, #9 generally plays down wind. The water right of the fairway isn’t particularly dangerous unless you’ve contracted a case of the shanks, but the pond that borders the full length of the right-hand side of the green is a ball magnet. The left-front bunker can be a daunting up-and-down if your ball lands too close to the back lip, and once on the green there are two levels and a long, undulating center portion that will test your green-reading skills.

A word to the wise: if the flag is back-right on this hole, don’t challenge it from the tee unless you are feeling very Hogan-like that day. There is a drop-off just past the usual pin position up in that corner which will feed an overcooked tee shot right off the green into the water. Even an over-zealous putt from near the front of the green is dangerous with that hole position – if your ball crests the rise with too much momentum, and the hole hasn’t gotten in the way, you had better hope the grounds crew haven’t cut the rough between the green and the water hazard too short! When I see that back-right flag on #9, I know that whoever set the pin positions that morning is taking out a bad mood on poor, defenseless golfers.

If you are looking for a good spot for a quick round of golf when you don’t have time for 18 holes, or if you want to tune up your short game to prepare for an important tournament – or to show up your buddies during your regular round – come down to Santa Teresa and try the Short Course.

Santa Teresa Golf Course is located at 260 Bernal Road, San Jose – phone 408/225-2650 or visit for more information.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Book Review - The Match: The Day The Game of Golf Changed Forever ☺☺☺

If I had read The Match: The Day The Game of Golf Changed Forever before I read Mark Frost’s other golf-related books (The Greatest Game Ever Played and The Grand Slam: Bobby Jones, America, and the Story of Golf) I would have missed out on a couple of really good reads – because I would never have picked up another of his books.

The main substance of this book – the story of a unique, one-time golf match between two aging masters of the professional game (Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson) and two up-and-coming young amateurs (Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward) at one of the most beautiful, and exclusive, golf courses in the country, Cypress Point, on California's Monterey Peninsula – would have made a good magazine article. In order to tease it out to book length, however, Frost mixes in biographical chapters on the lives of the four participants, as well as the two instigators of the match, Eddie Lowery, a successful Bay Area businessman and supporter of amateur golf (who, as a pint-sized 10-year-old, caddied for Francis Ouimet in his improbable 1913 U.S. Open victory over Englishmen Harry Vardon and Ted Ray) and George Coleman, a wealthy California business figure. It’s mostly blatant, and superfluous, padding – the material on Hogan has been chronicled better elsewhere, with a lighter touch, by more skilled writers (Curt Sampson comes to mind…) and the dirt-digging on Eddie Lowery’s business dealings and troubles with the amateur golf establishment borders on the sordid.

Frost’s florid writing style in this book is off-putting and sensationalistic; he leaves no superlative unturned, and must have worn out his thesaurus in the search for more and better adjectives the further he got along in the story. His chapters on Hogan are fawning and overly-sentimental, reminiscent of James Dodson's saccharine 2004 biography of the man (no surprise that Frost singles out Dodson for mention in his Oscar show-length thank you’s).

One thing that Frost never pays off on is the title’s tagline: “The Day The Game of Golf Changed Forever”. How can an event which was witnessed by a relative handful of people, a private golf match with no title or championship significance, be said to have changed the game of golf forever? The match did occur at a cusp in the sport, as golf was changing from a pastime of the wealthy in which amateur sportsmen were held in higher esteem than the professional practitioners of the sport, to the Arnold Palmer-inspired pastime of suburban professionals and blue-collar workers, when TV and its attendant influx of money made it a national sensation that provided a viable, even lucrative, living for the touring professionals in the game – but none of those changes hinged on, or were precipitated by “The Match”.

Razor out the biographical padding, leaving only the chapters on the match itself and the afterword on the history of the course and you’ll have an enjoyable lunchtime read (my enjoyment of the historical afterword may be attributable to local interest, as I was born and raised just inland of the Monterey Peninsula, in the Salinas Valley). If you’re ready to immerse yourself in more of the early history of the game, pick up Frost’s other books – The Greatest Game Ever Played and The Grand Slam: Bobby Jones, America, and the Story of Golf – they are much better books.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tiger Woods to play, Fall Series PGA tourney in South Bay

Tiger Woods has announced, via his website, that he will play the Open, the only PGA tour stop in the South Bay. Oct. 6-9, at CordeValle Golf Club in San Martin, California. It will be Woods’ first appearance at the tournament.

“Obviously, we are very excited Tiger has decided to play in our event,” said Kathy Kolder, Open Tournament Chairperson and Executive Vice President of Fry’s Electronics. “The boost in marquee value he brings will not only help the tournament and increase the tournament’s economic impact in San Jose, but it will also help us raise more funds for participating charities.”

The Open was first played in 2007 at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, AZ. The event moved to CordeValle, a Robert Trent Jones-designed course which opened in 1999, in 2010.

The 2010 event was won by Rocco Mediate, a journeyman pro who became a household name and fan favorite after battling Woods in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego. Mediate lost to Woods in the first hole of a sudden-death playoff. 

Woods has come under criticism from some members of the sports media for not playing more competitive events since recovering from knee and Achilles tendon injuries sustained at The Masters in April 2011, and the scrutiny of his competitive schedule has intensified since U.S. President’s Cup team captain Freddy Couples announced last week that he was awarding one of his discretionary spots on the United States squad to Woods.

Once the most dominant player in all of professional golf, Woods has performed spottily since events in his personal life derailed his playing schedule beginning in November 2009. Coupled with recurring injuries and a much-talked-about revamp of his golf swing, events of the last almost 2 years have seen Woods slide from the World #1 position to 38th in the Official World Golf Rankings.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Tiger Comes Roarin’ Back

No, not that Tiger… the tiger who is roaring on the PGA Tour in recent weeks is David Toms, the soft-spoken LSU alumnus and dedicated Tiger sports fan who provided PGA fans with thrills, heartbreak, and triumph at the 2011 editions of The Player’s Championship and the Colonial Invitational.

Toms thrilled golf fans with a strong performance during the first two days of The Player’s Championship at TPC Sawgrass, braving heat, humidity, weather delays and that crazy 17th hole and posting a 69 and a 67 to head into the weekend with a 1-stroke lead over Nick Watney, 2 strokes over Steve Stricker and World # 3 Luke Donald – with a pack of other strong contenders 3 and 4 strokes back.

At the end of the 3rd round, which concluded Sunday morning due to a 4 ½-hour weather delay on Saturday when torrential rains pounded the area, Toms and Korea’s K.J. Choi were tied at 2nd, 1 stroke back of 2010 U.S. Open Champion Graeme McDowell, whose rounds of 67, 69, & 69 had fueled a steady climb to the top of the leaderboard. Seven players were sitting 2 strokes back of Toms and Choi at the start of the 4th round, and eventual 3rd-place finisher Paul Goydos was sitting 3 back along with the long-hitting young Spaniard Alvaro Quiros.

At this point the press pundits, both print and TV, were starting to talk about David Toms. At 44, Toms hadn’t had a win in the past 6 years, though he had been playing pretty consistent golf in recent years, with two top-5 finishes in 2010, seven top-10s (including a pair of runner-up finishes) in 2009, 6 top-25s in 2008, and an impressive 4-0-1 record in the 2007 U.S. President’s Cup… well, you get the idea. Like many Tour pros Toms has suffered his share of injuries and medical issues over the years, including wrist surgery in 2003, back problems and a heart-related scare in 2005 when we was rushed off the course to a hospital during the first round of the 84 Lumber Classic. Doctors diagnosed a non-life-threatening condition called supraventricular tachycardia which was cured through surgery the following November. All these facts were recounted by the on-screen commentators as the weekend progressed, increasing the viewers’ appreciation of what David has accomplished, and overcome, throughout his career.

The final round of play saw Toms and Choi duking it out toe-to-toe. Toms was 2 up at the end of the first nine with a 2-under 34, thanks to 3 birdies and a bogey against Choi’s birdie/bogey even-par 36, then Choi battled back on the inward nine, pulling even after Toms hit an indecisive hybrid shot from the right rough that fell short of the 16th green, splashing down in the hazard a yard or two short of being safe. Choi birdied the (in)famous 17th hole to go 1 up, but Toms made the shot of the round – and probably the tournament  – when he put his 2nd shot on the green, hole high, from 180 yards out, out of a sand-filled divot, and poured in the 17-foot putt for a birdie. Choi made par after his approach shot came up just short of the green on the right – and it was back to 17 for a playoff.

Just as it was for Paul Goydos four years ago, when he and Sergio Garcia went to 17 for the first hole of a playoff at the Players Championship, the crazy little island green par-3 was David Toms’ downfall – though not in as spectacular a fashion. While Goydos went out with a splash when his tee ball was knocked down by an untimely gust of wind, Toms went out with – let’s face it – a whimper. His birdie putt whispered past the hole, narrowly missing going in, then he just made a bad stab at the 3 ½-foot par putt and missed it – a $684,000 mistake. Choi walked right through that open door and hoisted the crystal, becoming the first Asian-born champion of The Players Championship, and the fourth consecutive non-American winner.

The second-place finish had to be a bittersweet result for David Toms. After 6 years without an appearance in the winner’s circle, he was that close to hoisting a trophy (and banking a big check… ) again. In a post-round interview he allowed as how he had been thinking about the next shot, the (potential) tee shot on 18, instead of the short putt on 17. That  moment’s inattention was all it took to whiff the putt. After 6 years of close-but-no-cigar Top 10 and Top 5 finishes, Toms can be excused for getting a teensy bit ahead of himself at this point, but the afternoon’s outcome should serve as a lesson to all of us, recreational, amateur, and professional alike, that golf is an exacting game, and inattention – even for an eye-blink – will bite you.

That is a lesson that David’s 13-year-old son, Carter, can take away from his father’s heart-breaking loss that afternoon. Carter, who plays on his school golf team, and is described by Toms as “a real golf nut” has been credited by his father with restoring his enthusiasm for the game. If Carter, who was visibly upset at his father’s loss, had only known what was coming the next week in Fort Worth, he might have felt better about that 3 ½-foot putt his dad missed on 17 at TPC Sawgrass…


The 2nd place finish at The Players Championship vaulted David Toms so high up the World Golf Rankings, so fast – up 29 places, from 75 to 46, in one week – that it probably gave him a nosebleed. The sudden ascent into the Top 50 didn’t affect him, evidently, any more than that missed putt had – because he came out of the gates the next week at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial Country Club like a man on a mission, posting a blistering pair of 62’s to once again lead going into the weekend.

The previous Friday, at The Players’ Championship, David Toms’ lead going into the weekend was only 1 stroke. Nick Watney was the guy sitting back there with a 135 to David’s 134, and there were a gaggle of guys you can’t afford to ignore – Luke Donald, Steve Stricker, Graeme McDowell, etc. – at 2 or 3 strokes back. One week later, on Friday night at the Colonial, Toms was sleeping on a 7-stroke lead, and I imagine his head rested more lightly on the pillow that evening than it had the Friday before. Unfortunately, Saturday’s round at Colonial had Toms-watchers thinking that maybe he relaxed a bit too much, as he ballooned to a 74 and slid back to 2nd place, one stroke behind the consistent Charlie Wi, who shot a cool, collected 66 through the swirling, blustery North Texas winds for a 3-day total of 197 (64-67-66).

The increase in the wind on Saturday threw more than one player off their game; the scoring average was up by a hair over 2 strokes, and the high and low scores – especially the high score – were higher than the Thursday and Friday rounds (81/65, vs 75/62 and 74/62). With the temperature and the humidity both hovering in the 90s, ever-colorful on-course commentator David Feherty likened the winds to “…the breeze blowing off my morning bowl of oatmeal”.

Saturday night must have been a long one for Toms; he had blown up by 12 strokes compared to the two days before and turned a 7-stroke lead into a 1-stroke deficit – and the wind would probably still be blowing on Sunday. It was gut-check time for the 44-year-old former LSU Tiger, and he must have engaged in some heavy contemplation that evening. It wouldn’t help his state of mind that he had a long morning ahead of him on Sunday waiting for his tee time; time and again I have heard Tour pros talk about the difficulty in staying loose, both mentally and physically, while they waited for their turn up on the tee in the last group, especially when they are in the position of having to protect a slim lead, or in Toms’ case, regain a lead that they had squandered the day before.

Things got worse before they got better for David Toms on that hot, humid, windy Sunday afternoon at Colonial Country Club. He dropped one, then two shots to Charlie Wi. At the par-3 4th hole he gained a stroke on Wi, with a par to Wi’s bogey, then gave it back at the 5th, with a par to Wi’s birdie. Toms got his second wind, or found his “GO” gear at the 6th hole, though – he got another stroke back on Wi, then another, and held on to close out the front nine back where he started, one stroke back.

Toms got his back nine off to a good start with a solid par against Wi’s bogey 5, closing the gap to even; and then, at the 635-yard, par-5 11th hole, those Texas winds came around and bellied David Toms’ sails. Two good swings left him in the fairway with 83 yards to the flag. The flag was tucked right, with a bunker between the hole and Toms’ position in the fairway, but neither the flag’s position, nor the intervening bunker impressed themselves on Toms. He lofted a beautiful wedge shot dead on line with the flag, dropping it a foot or two short and mere inches right of the flagstick; with a couple of bounding hops it carried past the hole, then thought better of things, bit, and spun back, right into the hole for an eagle 3 – and the lead.

With the wind at his back and the bit in his mouth (metaphorically-speaking), after the timely hole-out at the 11th hole, David Toms took command of the tournament. He built his lead up to two, then three strokes, going par-par-birdie-par through the 15th hole to his opponent’s bogey-par-par-par. Charlie Wi surged back with a birdie at 16 to cut his deficit by one stroke, then Toms gave a shot back when he bogeyed the par-4 17th hole. The Korean-born Wi’s surge was too little–too late, though, as the man from Shreveport, Louisiana matched pars with Charlie on the 18th hole to step into the winner’s circle for the first time since the 2006 Sony Open in Hawaii.

In a PGA season that was being lauded as the “Year of the Youngsters”, David Toms is the third 40-something to win on the Tour this year. In two weeks he has banked just over $2.1M in prize money, shot from 75th to 28th in the World Golf Rankings, and showed that hanging in there, staying cool, and bringing experience to bear when the chips are down is the key to success on the PGA Tour.

While I wouldn’t say that there are any “bad” guys on the PGA Tour, David Toms is certainly one of the “good” guys. A die-hard LSU Tiger supporter and a passionate Louisianan whose David Toms Foundation has raised millions to help underprivileged, abused and abandoned children, in addition to bringing much-needed aid to the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, David Toms has shown the golf world that a sleeping tiger may come back, roaring, when least expected. Will o'the Glen congratulates David on a thrilling, inspiring couple of weeks on Tour, and I wish him continued success.