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.

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