Thursday, November 29, 2012

You’ve Got To Love Johnny Miller…

…especially if you’re a golf writer looking for a quote. With over two dozen wins on the PGA Tour, two majors to his credit and a 22-year career in the broadcast booth for CBS, Johnny has the credibility to speak his mind – and he certainly does; he is well-known for not pulling punches when doling out his opinions from the broadcast tower or in interviews.

Sportswriter Dan Jenkins mentioned Johnny’s acerbic commentary style in his 2005 novel Slim and None, when his main character, fictitious PGA Tour pro Bobby Joe Grooves, compared Miller to the blunt-spoken announcers at European Tour events:

“Hit a bad shot in America and every announcer but Johnny Miller will throw you a softball. Say something like, ‘That’s not exactly what he had in mind.’ 

But hit a bad shot in Europe and the Brit on the mike will say, ‘Ah, there’s old Aunt Martha, trying to play golf again.’ ”

Johnny was on hand the weekend before Thanksgiving at Pebble Beach as honorary host of the Callaway Pebble Beach Invitational pro-am tournament. Enjoying a pristine late-autumn Central Coast afternoon while he waited by the 18th green to present the trophy to tournament winner Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey, Johnny was asked about the news that the current world #1, Rory McIlroy, was soon to make a wholesale equipment change. The young Northern Irishman is rumored to be signing a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal with Nike, and dropping the Titleist clubs and ball that have been in his bag for four European Tour victories, six PGA Tour wins, and two major championships. Johnny’s answer was typically blunt:

“It could be a major issue. It’s one thing to change clubs, but it’s another thing when you change ball and clubs. I did that with Wilson in ’75, and it literally ruined my career. I never tell anybody that, but since we got on it… they had that truncated-cone dimple ball and crappy woods – the irons were good, but I mean it was a disaster for me. It would have been one thing if I could have kept playing Titleist or something, but they wanted me to switch to their new ball.”
The problem with good players is they think they can win with a rental set, you know, but it really isn’t true. You have so much confidence you feel like ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter, I’ll take the big bucks…’ ”

McIlroy obviously feels differently about it than Miller; on Tuesday in Dubai he was asked by reporters if he had any concerns that the change would jeopardize his game. He replied, 

“No, not at all. I think all the manufacturers make great equipment nowadays and it’s all very similar – a lot of them get their clubs made at the same factories. I don’t think it will make any difference.”

With Nike in the equipment news recently promoting their new “cavity-back” Covert driver, and the second generation of their resin-core-technology ball, this is probably not what Rory’s new handlers in Beaverton would like to hear.

On the other hand, the folks at “The House That Swoosh Built” may not be concerned. With players’ roles these days more as brand ambassadors than pitchmen for a specific line of clubs or model of ball, McIlroy is not likely to be shoehorned into an existing product line; in fact, far from playing clubs manufactured in some überfactory churning out clubs for all comers, Rory’s new sticks are likely to be handmade Nike-skinned replicas of his successful Titleist clubs, and the ball he plays may be a finely-tuned special, custom-crafted to his liking – the goal is for him to win with the Swoosh on display, and the details of what he uses to get there will probably never be known outside his immediate circle.
McIlroy rubbed a little salt in the wound for his former friends at Titleist with comments he made after his victory at the Dubai Championship Sunday. Asked what he would do with his clubs now that he had played his last round with them, he responded (laughing), “I’m not sure yet, I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll keep them as a bit of a memento.” 


Of course, you can’t talk about Rory McIlroy these days without also talking about Tiger Woods. Not only are the two knee-deep in a palsy-walsy “bromance” of a sort that would have been unthinkable for Woods to get involved in – at least with a competitive rival – in his glory days, they are going to be stablemates in the Nike Golf empire.

With three wins – but no majors – on his record in 2012, and a new wunderkind potentially relegating him to a second-fiddle position at Nike, speculation about what lies ahead for a sputtering Tiger Woods is the subject of much discussion in golf circles these days. Johnny also had something to say about what’s to come for Tiger:
“I think Tiger will have a good year; obviously he’s due to win a Masters. If he can win a Masters and get that monkey [off his back]…The old career is gone – it’s like it’s past history; somebody else did it. Now he’s got kind of a new time of his life, which just about every golfer goes through from 35 on. It’ll be interesting to see if he can get the little bugs out of his head, the worries and this and that.” 
“Right now the young guys aren’t scared of him, that’s the big difference. Before everybody was scared to death of him, but now it’s sort of like ‘Yeah, yeah, you were great, unbelievably great, but that was before – now it’s our turn.’ That’s what he’s got to overcome.”
Love him or hate him – there is rarely any middle ground – Johnny Miller is always worth listening to. When he’s in the mood to talk he’ll tell you exactly what he’s thinking, and even if you don’t agree with what he says, you have to admit that there are few in the world of golf who have as much credibility to back up their opinions.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Golf pros pay their dues – in Wednesday Pro-Ams

Think a golf pro’s life is a bed of roses? All private jets, courtesy cars, and million-dollar paychecks? Well sure, in the upper strata of the profession there’s a lot of that, and even the “bubble boys”, the guys who are floating in the nether-land around the 125 mark in the standings are making a hell of a living compared to your typical blue-collar guy, desk jockey, or even small-corporation CEO, but the guys (and gals) who play the game for a living pay their dues – every week in the Wednesday Pro-Am.

The Wednesday pro-am is a staple of every professional golf tournament, and along with skyboxes and hospitality areas, it is a big part of the income stream that supports professional golf’s commitment to charitable giving.

So, besides the obvious benefits that come to the recipients of the tournament’s charitable giving, the benefits to the amateur players are many: the thrill of playing a round of golf with a big-time pro; the good feeling that comes from knowing that their money not only bought them a great experience, but is helping one of the many local charities that are supported by the event; and bragging rights for a year about the time they teed it up with Ernie, or Vijay, or Phil.

But for the pros? What is their experience like? You might have to get a golf pro good and drunk before he’d admit it (these guys are not known to be prone to biting the hand that feeds them…), but many of them dread the Wednesday pro-am more than a root canal sans novacaine.

In addition to the same good feeling that the amateur players get – knowing that their efforts are helping charitable causes – they know that they are supporting the Tour which supports them by acting as a draw to bring the big-money amateurs into the fold. They also know that when they tee off with a threesome of amateurs in tow, they are in for a 5- to 6-hour round during which they will spend a lot of time doing things like standing over their ball in the fairway while a playing partner looks for yet another lost Titleist, and listening to excuses like “I carry a 10 handicap, but these new clubs just are not working out for me!”

The pro’s three partners are usually named Hooker, Slycem, and Chunk – or should be, if you go by the majority of shots they hit. They’re generally local business bigshots (LBBs), or the top salesman who works for a local business bigshot. Top salesman gets the pro-am slot when the LBB’s latest trophy wife swears she’ll divorce him and pull his bank account out through his ears if he doesn’t take her to Hawaii instead of to another damned golf tournament.

The three amateurs are either playing the latest blades – custom-forged and hand-ground by trolls in the Black Forest, surgical implements which the Tour pro himself wouldn’t try to hit, or grand-dad’s Tommy Armour Silver Scot irons with shiny-slick leather grips (“They’re the originals!”, he’ll exclaim with pride) that have more business being in a glass case in a museum than out on a golf course.

Off the tee they’ll hit screaming worm-burners or high pop-ups; on the rare occasion when they do get in the fairway they’ll hit smothered hooks, banana balls, or chili-dips so severe that the local planning commission has to approve their divot. Out of a greenside bunker – and oh lordy, do they find the bunkers – they’ll take a mighty swing that scatters two shovelfuls of sand onto the green, only to have the ball pop up and land at their feet; or they’ll hit a thinned screamer that sets a new Land Speed Record traversing 200 feet of green to find the other bunker – or a water hazard – on the opposite side.

The long-suffering pro plays through all this commotion and distraction with a smile on his face and a smoldering fire in his heart. He’s trying to get a read on the golf course so that he has a clue where he should be playing the ball tomorrow when the real action starts.

The pro wants his caddy studying breaks and grain patterns on the greens, not helping the amateurs and their drinking-buddy caddies find another lost Pro V1x, or reading the 40-foot, double-hump, triple-breaking putt that Amateur #2 left himself after skulling a 60-yard wedge shot 140 yards to the far side of the green.

After the round he’ll pal it up with his ams at the post-round awards banquet (like he wants to spend another minute with these guys…), and pose for a few more pictures with the ams and their former-cheerleader wives, cussing to himself and hoping that the sadistic tournament committee doesn’t parch the greens ’til they’re slicker than a linoleum floor for tomorrow – when the course becomes his office, and he goes to work to earn his living.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Book Review: “Let There Be Pebble: A Mid-Handicapper’s Year in America’s Garden of Golf” ☹

I lingered a long time with my fingers poised over the keyboard while I pondered how to proceed with this review. On the face of it there is much to be admired – even envied – about a golfer/golf-writer/wanna-be novelist who ditches his hum-drum life in some Midwestern fly-over state to spend a year in one of the most beautiful physical landscapes on the planet, schmoozing with the best professional golfers in the world, not to mention celebrities from the worlds of sports, TV, movies, and music who also flock to the place. On the other hand, there is also something a bit “Gee, Toto – I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!” about it.

The chronicle of this journey, as related by author Zachary Michael Jack, careers drunkenly back and forth between two extremes. The book frequently lapses into an uncomfortably-adolescent hero-worship of both the place – Pebble Beach Golf Links and the nearby town of Carmel – and the people who live there and/or frequent the area professionally or as tourists; it will then veer off into a coldly cynical assessment of the California-craziness of the place as seen through the lens of a Midwestern upbringing, with long stretches in which the author settles into a naively insouciant familiarity that struck me as somewhat self-deluding.

Jack deserves credit for having the
chutzpah to shoulder his way into the Pebble Beach/Carmel community, like the gawky nerd who crashes a party thrown by his high school social superiors. Taking in four big-time golf tournaments at Pebble Beach during his year Out West, he interviewed anyone who would stand still long enough, from the mayor of Carmel and the people responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Pebble Beach Golf Links, to golf luminaries such as Gary Player, Johnny Miller, and Jack Nicklaus – even the other golf writers who were covering the tournaments. He brazened his way through open houses in multi-million dollar homes on 17-Mile Drive while renting a room in a Carmel bungalow and sleeping on a yoga mat, and took a stab at the singles dating scene in the area. He ventured north, to San Francisco and Sausalito, where he spoke with (and fawned over) Michael Murphy, founder of the Esalen Institute and the author of a book that is simultaneously (and sadly) the worst book ever written about golf, and the one which has probably sold the most copies: Golf in the Kingdom.

Despite the implication of the sub-title, “A Mid-Handicapper’s Year in America’s Garden of Golf”, Jack appears not to have played much golf during his year in Pebble Beach. He refers to only two rounds played, one at Pebble Beach Golf Links itself, and another at “The Poor Man’s Pebble Beach”, Pacific Grove Municipal Golf Links – a fine municipal course just up the road from the high-priced tracks of the Del Monte Forest – which he dismissed as ordinary. He spends nearly as much time dropping names, and describing (and dissing) the politics and social mores of the area as he does talking about golf.

Another reviewer noted that the author of this book seemed to be very fond of the sound of his own voice – and I most heartily second that opinion. His prose is verbose and overwrought, and he revels in inane wordplay and puns of the worst sort (
not that there is a good sort...). To make matters worse, the book appears to have been proofread and edited by a dropout from sophomore English – bad enough coming from a commercial publishing house, but the egregious lack of quality is made even sadder by the fact that the book was published by the University of Nebraska Press.

By way of example:

  • On two occasions in the text, in a reference to a person seemingly suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome (a neuropsychiatric disorder characterized by motor and vocal tics), the person is spoken of as having “Turret’s”.
  • Bushmill’s Whiskey, one of the sponsors of Irishman Graeme McDowell,  the winner of the 2010 U. S. Open which Jack chronicles briefly in the book, is referred to as “Bushnell’s” (makers of precision optical instruments and laser rangefinders for golf and sportshooting).
  • The name of a well-known Bay Area sportswriter is misspelled.
  • He uses, unattributed, the nicknames for Pebble Beach as a whole – “Double-Bogey by the Sea”, and its most difficult stretch of holes  – “Abalone Corner” (the eighth, ninth, and tenth), which were coined by Golf Hall of Fame sportswriter Dan Jenkins.

The list of similar inanities, malapropisms, and flat-out mistakes goes on and on, and they come more frequently the further along in the book one reads, as if the proofreader was skipping along hurriedly in order to get an unpleasant job over with.

I have to admit, I only finished this book to see just how much worse it could get – and the further I read, the worse it got. This is the biggest train-wreck of a book I have read since I put down
Golf in the Kingdom about 2/3rds of the way through. Pebble Beach and the Monterey Peninsula area deserve to be treated much better than they fared at the hands of Mr Jack, and if there were border guards controlling access to the region, they would have the author’s picture in their “Undesirables” file, to prevent his returning and perpetrating any more nonsense of this kind.

The book jacket describes the author as a former newspaper columnist and sportswriter, and his current bio has him writing poetry, and teaching English at a small Methodist college in Naperville, Illinois. Heaven help his students if they retain anything they learn from him about writing.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

High-tech help for your golf game at GolfTEC Improvement Centers

In almost no other sport or game is the quest for perfection so potentially frustrating, if not downright futile, as in the game of golf. Unlike nearly every other major game or sport, golf is played on an ever-changing field of play, with a variety of implements that are each designed to a different job – from smacking the ball 200-hundred + yards down the fairway, to rolling it a few feet, or even a few inches, along the ground on the putting green – and everything in between. Mastering the skills required to use all of these tools correctly, in order to get the ball from the tee, to the green, and into the hole – in the least number of stokes – can be a supremely frustrating journey.

Browsing the shelves of golf books in the “Sports” section at your local bookstore (if you can still find one) or library (ditto…) will illustrate a fundamental truth – something over 90% of the books related to the subject of golf ever published, and many of the bestselling, are instructional titles. The problem is that teaching yourself to play golf effectively, beyond the most basic concepts of stance and grip, is beyond the capabilities of all but a very small, gifted, percentage of the population. For example: professional golfer Larry Nelson, with 10 PGA Tour victories and 19 Champions Tour victories to his credit, including the 1981 & 1987 PGA Championships and the 1983 U.S. Open Championship—didn’t take up golf until he was in his early twenties. Freshly mustered out of the army after a tour of duty in Viet Nam, he taught himself to play by reading Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, the best selling golf instructional book ever published.

For most of us, though, playing golf with any level of facility is going to involve professional help. One of the most common teaching venues is at a driving range – either in a group lesson or one-on-one with a teaching pro – which seems logical. Since the point of the exercise is to produce the desired ball flight, hitting balls at a driving range where the flight of the ball can be observed seems to make sense.

While the satisfaction of smacking balls downrange is enticing, there is no guarantee that either you or your instructor will be able to effectively make the connection between your actions and their result. A more certain method of connecting swing motion with result is to make use of the latest instructional technology, in an indoor teaching facility equipped with video cameras and launch monitors.

One resource that I have recently explored in my own pursuit of improved quality and consistency in my golf game is the local GolfTEC Improvement Center. Started in 1995 by two graduates of the Mississippi State University Professional Golf Management program, Joe Assell and Mike Clinton, in nine years, GolfTEC has grown from modest beginnings to 148 locations across the country, with a footprint covering approximately 70% of the United States.

While other teaching facilities may utilize the same type of equipment that GolfTEC centers do – video cameras, launch monitors, and biometric measurement systems – the heart of GolfTEC’s teaching system, and its greatest strength, is the database of swing motion information that GolfTEC instructors can draw upon to evaluate a student’s swing. Built up over years of measuring the swings of PGA, LPGA, and Champions Tour pros in the fitness vans that accompany the professional golf circuit, this treasure trove of information allows a GolfTEC instructor to compare the student’s body motion during the golf swing to the information compiled from sessions with the finest professional golfers in the world.

After fitting you with a pair of tiny, three-axis accelerometers, one between your shoulder blades and another at waist level, your instructor will film your swing a few times, gathering video and biometric data as a baseline from which to begin your instruction. Then, 
pick a pro golfer to compare your swing to, or more realistically, let the GolfTEC instructor pick one (because, hey – everyone thinks that they swing like Freddie Couples…).

With your data in the bank, your instructor will pull up a video clip of the chosen pro from their extensive database, and show you an enlightening (but often sobering…) side-by-side comparison of your swing and the pro’s, accompanied by the biometric data showing the body motions that affect your golf swing. With the video and the biometrics of your swing as a baseline, your instructor will show you how your swing motions compare to the chosen pro’s, and where your swing can be improved.

Your first session at a GolfTEC Improvement Center is just the beginning of your journey to a better golf game. With just the adjustments in my grip, setup, and swing that I was shown in my first session, I saw noticeable improvement in the direction and consistency of my driving and iron play. Depending upon the level of your desire for improvement, and the amount of time and money you are able to devote to the project, your instructor can lay out a lesson plan that will help you achieve your goals in the game of golf.

If you are serious about improving your skill level, and your enjoyment of the game, you owe it to yourself to check out your local GolfTec Improvement Center.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Movie Review: “Golf In The Kingdom” ☺

Michael Murphy’s book Golf in the Kingdom is one of the most revered volumes in golf literature, commanding pride of place in many a golfer’s bookcase – why I’ll never know, as the book is a mish-mash of pseudo-mystical babble that has nothing of value to say about the game of golf.  Through this book, Murphy, who is one of the co-founders of the Esalen Institute, and a central figure in the Human Potential Movement, is almost single-handedly responsible for the golf-as-spiritual-journey movement (keep your crystal-gazing meditation – give me a flat left wrist, a straight left arm, and a full follow-through…).

The book is so pretentious, so obscure, so dismally bad that it is hard for me to believe that my hometown of Salinas, the small Central California farming town that gave rise to the literary genius of John Steinbeck, can also claim Murphy as a native son (I blame Stanford University – that’s where Murphy, a pre-med student, wandered into a class on comparative religion by mistake, starting him on his path to mysticism. Without that fateful wrong turn, he might have ended up as just another 8-handicap internist spending his Wednesday afternoons at the country club).

So, take a bad book, hand it over to an inexperienced filmmaker – indie director Susan Streitfeld (with one minor feminist flick to her credit) – to make a movie out of (as screenwriter and director), and the result is this terrible bit of nonsense.

The actors, an experienced cast which includes Malcom McDowell (A Clockwork Orange, Hidalgo, Bobby Jones: A Stroke of Genius – in which he portrayed Bobby Jones’ friend, and the original golf writer, O. B. Keeler), Frances Fisher (L.A. Story, Titanic), Julian Sands (A Room With A View, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and the ever-lovely Joanne Whaley (Willow, Scandal) overplay the dinner-party scenes in the manner of summer-stock novices striving to make an impression – a fault which I lay at the feet of the director, as I have seen all of these actors deliver fine, nuanced performances in other films.

Mason Gamble (Dennis the Menace, A Gentleman’s Game – a much better golf movie, based on the book by Tom Coyne), who portrays the young Michael Murphy, stopping off in Scotland for a round of golf on his way to study navel-gazing techniques in India, and David O’Hara, who is best known for his portrayal of the mad Irishman Stephen in Mel Gibson’s 1995 film Braveheart, suffer by comparison with the other cast members mostly by virtue of spending more time on screen under Ms Streitfeld’s direction. 

The film jumps from scene to scene, back and forth in the storyline (such as it is) with such reckless abandon that it must be intentionally non-linear – no one could edit a film this badly by accident and hope to ever work in the field again. The staging of the dinner party scenes is reminiscent of some low-budget local theater group’s idea of minimalism, filmed, as they were, in an Oregon barn rather than in a weather-beaten 18th-century home in a storm-battered seaside Scottish university town (or at least in a reasonable facsimile of that setting).

The exteriors were filmed at a superb golf course complex on the Oregon coast, Bandon Dunes. Unfortunately, Bandon – though comprising several linksland-style courses – looks little like the east coast of Scotland, where “The Kingdom” of the title (The Kingdom of Fife, home of St Andrews and many other iconic Scottish courses) is supposed to be found. It’s beautiful, but it’s not Scotland. Aside from the (imported) stands of gorse, the vegetation is all wrong, and then there’s the issue of the sun rising on the wrong side of the land. Nice try, on a low budget, but they’re not fooling anyone who has any experience of the Pacific coast of the United States, or the east coast of Scotland.

After premiering in Oregon, at Bandon, and screening at a few film festivals here and there, I don’t think that this film ever hit theater screens. Even here in the San Francisco Bay Area, where small indie films of all types can find audiences, this film was never screened (that I have been able to determine). If you insist on seeing this train wreck for yourself, it is available to rent from Netflix – take my advice, though, and have a copy of Caddyshack or Tin Cup on hand as an antidote, to be administered immediately after you eject this disc from the DVD player…

Sunday, July 29, 2012

First Tee Open Unites Juniors, Seniors in Unique Tournament Format

The one-of-a-kind format of the Nature Valley First Tee Open – pairing junior golfers from The First Tee organization with Champions tour professionals – is an inspired twist on the successful AT&T Pro-Am formula which keeps amateur/pro pairings together through weekend play. The May-September groupings bring together golfers of disparate backgrounds and vastly different levels of experience in pairings that unite age and experience with youth and enthusiasm. The Champions Tour players who take part in this event are unanimous in their praise of the youngsters from the various First Tee organizations around the country with whom they are teamed, and the younger golfers are appreciative of the opportunity they are afforded to learn from their veteran playing partners.

A good example of the type of serendipitous pairing that can result from this format is the 2012 grouping of Bay Area native Michael Allen and Sioux Falls, South Dakota teen Claire Jansa. In June 2012, Jansa, 17, a member of the First Tee of South Dakota, was at home watching the coverage of the U.S. Open with her father, PGA Professional Tom Jansa, and saw Allen on TV. Tom, who manages three golf courses in their hometown of Sioux Falls, told her, jokingly, “Watch this guy – you might be teeing it up with him in a couple of weeks.”

Allen, whose presence in the field at the 2012 Open at the Olympic Club was a career highlight – he grew up playing golf at the Olympic Club but failed to make the field the last two times the U.S. Open was held there – had an impressive run at the 2012 Open. He qualified into the field from a sectional tournament at nearby Lake Merced Golf Club, and made the cut to play the weekend when many top-ranked PGA pros did not, ultimately finishing T-56. Coming off of a good couple of months, with two wins in April in Champions Tour events, and the T-56 at the U.S Open, Allen’s fans in the Bay Area were optimistic about his chances for a good result in The First Tee Open

As luck would have it, at the pairings dinner on the Tuesday evening of tournament week, Claire found out that her partner was – Michael Allen. Allen missed the Leaders and Legends dinner Thursday evening, so Claire didn’t get a chance to meet him until Friday morning, but they clicked immediately. Galleried by Claire’s family and some of Michael Allen’s friends and fans from the Bay Area, the duo played their first round at Del Monte Golf Course, the companion venue to Pebble Beach Golf Links for The First Tee Open. Del Monte, a 1920-vintage layout which holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously-operated golf course west of the Mississippi River, is less well-known than Pebble Beach, but it is a challenging layout with smallish greens and imaginative bunkering that requires strategically-placed golf shots to score well on. 

Allen had matching front and back nines in that first round at Del Monte, with a bogey and two birdies apiece for a 2-under 70. His birdie on the par-4 seventh hole (the 16th of his round – he and Claire had started on #10) came as a result of a clutch approach to the multi-tiered green. With the flag in a tough spot, tucked back-left on the upper tier, Allen’s tee shot was sitting in the light rough right of the fairway under an oak tree. Besides a good angle to the opening in the left-to-right-running green, his shot didn’t have much going for it: 125 yards uphill, to a pin tucked away on a back tier. Bad lie, tree branches, back pin and all, Allen knocked it stiff, leaving himself a birdie putt of about a foot. 

Allen’s young partner had a slightly up-and-down morning at Del Monte, falling mid-round into a bad habit that her father described as “sliding across the shot”, resulting in some tough misses left. Her short game held up well throughout the round, though, and she made a par-saving chip on #1 that elicited applause from the gallery – and made the highlights on the Golf Channel coverage which aired later in the day.
Claire Jansa, in the fairway at the 15th hole at Del Monte Golf Course, Monterey, CA.

Photo credit: Gary K. McCormick
Finding herself in the light rough about 3 yards off the green after her approach shot at #1, on a slight downhill lie to a green that ran away slightly, the youngster from Sioux Falls hit a delicately-drawn chip that popped up and dropped onto the fringe of the green, killing just enough of the ball’s momentum to let it run down to within inches of the hole for a clutch par save. It was a shot that would have been easy to slip under and land short, to die in the rough, or to hit thin so that it skittled past the hole in a rush. With Allen’s 2-under round and a birdie contribution from Claire, the duo finished the day at 69 in the Pro-Jr competition, T-14.

In the second round, Saturday at Pebble Beach, Allen made a strong start with birdies at 1, 2, and 4, then settled into a steady rhythm of pars, broken only by a 3-putt bogey at the tough par-4 eighth hole – the opening stanza of the tough 3-hole oceanfront stretch that sportswriter Dan Jenkins has dubbed “Abalone Corner”. He stayed out of trouble on 9 and 10, and threaded the needle of the uphill-blind-tee-shot par-4 11th, where the course turns inland (and the scenery changes from cliffs, beach, and miles of Pacific Ocean to multi-million-dollar mansions) for a par. Sitting at 4 under now, a few shots back of the leaders but within hailing distance, Allen needed to break the par chain and make some birdies. Unfortunately, the break in the chain, when it happened, came from the wrong side.

The par-4 fifteenth hole is not one of the most famous holes in Pebble’s pantheon. It’s a straight 396-yard par-4, but the tee shot from the tips is blind. A tough collection of fairway bunkers guards the left side of the fairway, which sets up the best angle into the green, so the tendency off the tee is to shy right. That’s what Allen did, with the result that his tee shot ended up in the right rough about 160 yards from the flag. His approach shot out of the lush, damp rough was a low jumper that plugged itself in the face of the front right bunker. It took Allen a couple of mighty slashes to get it out – and then only to the rough short of the fringe around the green surface proper. A chip and two putts later and a triple-bogey seven had dropped him well off the pace. He finished par-par-bogey to head into the final round at +2.

Meanwhile, Allen’s junior partner was getting the full Pebble Beach experience – some highlights, some lowlights. Claire’s second shot to the par-4 fourth caught a nice “member’s bounce” off of the mound at the left front of the green and rolled to tap-in range, for a birdie (another shot that made the highlight reel on the Golf Channel coverage); then, a few holes later she thinned her approach at #8, finding the water in the cove that yawns between the main fairway and the green and adding another Titleist to the sea god’s collection. Claire seemed to have trouble finding her groove on the second half of the course. She wasn’t making any mistakes, but she just didn’t seem to be able to catch that extra gear that a golfer needs to break out of a spell of the doldrums and start making birdies

The hardest thing to do during a round of golf is to keep your mind and your attention facing forward, forgetting a bad shot or bad hole, and moving on to the next one with a clean slate. Many golfers would have let the triple-bogey seven at the 15th hole get to them, especially with a challenging closing stretch like Pebble’s last three holes lying ahead. It is a mark of Michael Allen’s professionalism that he did not, and in fact, at the 17th tee, he was smiling and joking with Claire, putting her at her ease with a challenging tee shot coming up.

When I got a chance to speak to her the next day about her Saturday round, Claire was free with her praise for her professional partner, especially in the wake of his maddening seven at the 15th hole. She was impressed with his ability to put the bad hole behind him and move on, saying that his behavior had been a good lesson for her. Allen’s “next shot” attitude and light-hearted chat at the seventeenth tee got Claire in the right frame of mind, because her tee shot at the iconic par-3 17th hole homed in on the flag like a guided missile, leaving her a pretty little 4-foot birdie chance after a hop and a little roll.

On her way up to the green at 17, Claire was interviewed by Golf Channel for their broadcast, as all the First Tee kids were, and was asked which of the Nine Core Values of The First Tee program she thought was most important in playing the tournament. She answered “Perseverance”, as many of the other kids had, citing the need to stay patient and look ahead to your next shot when playing a tough course like Pebble Beach. When prompted by the interviewer, though, Claire recounted a story illustrating the core value “Honesty”.

In the first round of her high school state championship tournament back home in South Dakota, Claire had added up her hole-by-hole scores and written down a total score of 75. Her dad, Tom, came up to her when she left the scorer’s tent and asked, “76?”, and Claire replied, “No, 75.” Tom, who follows his daughter’s rounds closely, as you might expect, called her on it, reminding her that she had made double-bogey on a hole for which she had marked down bogey.

Realizing that her father was right, Claire turned herself in for the incorrect score – which hadn’t been detected by anyone else in the tournament – knowing that it was the right thing to do. She didn’t let her father or her coach do it, she did it herself. Disqualified from the first round scoring, and out of the running for the individual title, Claire played her heart out in the second round, as did her O’Gorman team mates, to take the state title despite the lack of Claire’s good score for the 1st round.

That was a tough story to tell, especially walking up to the17th green at Pebble Beach, but it’s typical of the kind of candor, and respect for the game, that you find in the First Tee kids who play this tournament. Happily for Claire, after relating a painful episode like that, she got to enjoy the experience of rolling in that sweet birdie putt at 17.

Claire and Michael Allen didn’t play together in the final round of The First Tee Open – their combined Pro-Junior score fell short of the cut line by three strokes. Sunday morning while Allen was playing in the final round at Pebble Beach, Claire played in the Core Values Cup at Del Monte Golf Course, a consolation tournament of sorts for the First Tee Juniors and amateur players who didn’t make the cut for the main event.

On another grey, foggy morning at Del Monte, Claire’s team, playing a best-ball scramble, shot a 58, one stroke back of 1st place. Claire had a good morning at Del Monte – straight off the tee, sure on her approaches and rolling in putts. On the 16th hole, after hitting her approach shot from the fairway to about 3 feet for a near sure-thing birdie, she looked up in mock dismay and said, “Where was this yesterday?”

After the conclusion of play at Del Monte, Claire and her family came to Pebble Beach to watch the last half of Michael Allen’s round and cheer her partner on to the finish. Allen started strong in Sunday’s round, as he had the previous day, with three birdies on the front nine, unfortunately giving back the hard-won strokes with bogeys at 10, 13 & 14. At #17, the iconic par-3 where so much Pebble Beach golf history has been made, Allen emulated Claire’s tee shot of the day before – but with the flag set in the more difficult, traditional Sunday position in the back-left lobe of the hour-glass-shaped green – knocking it stiff and rolling in his birdie putt. With a par on the dramatic closing hole, the par-5 that sweeps to the left with the Pacific Ocean as a lateral water hazard, Allen closed out his round at -1 on the day, and the same for the tournament, to finish T-24.

After he finished his round, Michael & Claire both signed autographs for the gaggle of kids waiting just off the 18th green and posed for photographs. Claire’s younger sister Sophie scored the big prize – Michael signed the visor he had worn for the tournament and gave it to her.
Champions Tour pro Michael Allen and and Claire Jansa, his Junior partner for the 2012 First Tee Open, signed autographs and posed for photos after Michael finished his final round of the tournament at Pebble Beach Golf Links.

Photo credit: Gary K. McCormick

The almost-universal reaction of the participants in this one-of-a-kind tournament is one of appreciation – on both sides of the age and experience divide. The junior participants appreciate, and value, the experience of their Champions Tour partner, benefiting from their input and guidance as the tournament progresses; the Champions Tour pros appreciate the maturity, enthusiasm, and skill of their much-younger junior partners. Many stay in touch after the conclusion of the tournament, further strengthening the ties between the generations that will help the game of golf grow into the future.

For 2013 the Nature Valley First Tee Open will move to later in the season. It is scheduled for September 23-29, 2013, which is good news for players and spectators alike. Late September and early October typically bring the most glorious weather of the year to the Central Coast, with sunny, but mild, days and crisply cool evenings. Spectacular scenery at one of the most revered golf courses in the world, the best weather the Central Coast has to offer, and great golf by Champions Tour pros and their junior partners showcasing the history and the future of the game at once – it’s an opportunity not to be missed.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Cool under pressure, Livermore’s Casie Cathrea advances another step in 2012 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship

The mounting pressure of succeeding rounds of match play didn’t seem to faze Livermore teen Casie Cathrea today at the U.S. Girls’ Jr. Championship. Facing future Santa Clara Bronco Anne Freman, of Las Vegas, Nevada, in the second match of the day for both girls, Cathrea stayed calm and collected even when a lost ball on the second hole sent her back to the tee.

Wearing the Day-Glo orange and black of her future OSU Cowboy teammates, Casie jump-started her round with a clean 2-on/2-putt par at the opening hole, against the bogey-5 Freman scored after thinning her second shot into the right-front bunker. Teeing off first at the second hole, Cathrea launched a towering drive hard across the inside corner of the 368-yard dogleg right par-4. Appearing at first to have cleared the top branches of a huge pine guarding the corner, the ball disappeared into the upper branches, never to be seen again.
Casie Cathrea, 16, of Livermore, CA, awaits the start of her third round in the match play portion of the 2012 U.S. Junior Girls’ Championship at Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City. July 19, 2012 (Photo credit: Gary K. McCormick)
After the allowed 5-minute search for the lost ball, Cathrea hitched a ride back to the tee in a USGA rules official’s cart. Teeing up a second ball she nailed shot #3 clear of the corner and just onto the mild downslope fronting the green. A pitch and two putts later she was out of the hole with a six against Freman’s par, and the match was all square. 

Watching her as she stood on the tee box of the 122-yard par-3 third hole, you would never have known that Cathrea had just lost a hole to a lost-ball double-bogey. After watching her opponent launch a tee shot straight over the flagstick to drop and stop about 30 feet straight uphill from the hole, Casie launched her own missile on the same line – and stuffed it inside Freman’s ball, a good 10 feet closer to the hole. Freman rolled her birdie putt gently downhill toward the hole, coming up a foot or two short, then Cathrea, with a nice teach from her opponent’s line, rolled her birdie putt down the slope to die in the hole and go one up in the match again.

Starting with the 4th hole, an uphill par-4 with a tee shot to a landing area hidden by the crest of a rise, Cathrea racked up 3 wins in a row to go four up in the match. Her opponent, Freman, a rising senior at Faith Lutheran High School in Las Vegas who will be attending Santa Clara University in 2013, played well through this stretch, but a bunkered ball here or a slipped putt there made the difference between a win and a loss as the holes went by.

Though it might have appeared at first glance that Cathrea had the match going her way, at the 395-yard par-4 seventh hole Freman made it clear that she wasn’t going down without a fight, belting her drive 20 yards past the long-hitting Cathrea to the left-center of the fairway. Her approach shot found the right front bunker – one of three guarding the green – but she wedged out to 6 feet and rolled in the par putt to halve the hole.
Future Santa Clara University Bronco Anne Freman, of Las Vegas, NV, watches her tee shot on its way on the 7th hole of Lake Merced Golf Club during her match against Casie Cathrea of Livermore in the third round of match play at the 2012 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship. (Photo credit: Gary K. McCormick)
Freman dropped to 5-under at the par-3 eighth hole, which was played at 128 yards this round, from a more forward tee box than in earlier rounds. Her tee ball found another right front bunker, and her splash-out rolled well past the hole to leave a delicate downhill slider for par. She missed the comebacker, going five down after conceding Cathrea’s two-foot par putt.

At the 481-yard par-5 ninth hole it was Cathrea’s turn to find a bunker with her approach shot, while Freman put her second shot just short of the green on the front fringe. Cathrea splashed out to about three feet from the hole, but missed her birdie putt, giving one back to Freman when the Nevadan chipped on close to the hole from just off the green, and sank the resulting birdie putt.

The ocean breeze was freshening and wisps of fog were starting to blow in overhead as the match made the turn. Both girls bogeyed the upwind 10th hole, halving it at 5 apiece as they adjusted to the strengthening breeze. At the shorter but more exposed eleventh hole, Freman found the right rough with her drive, landing in a tough spot with a line to the green but under low branches that complicated her shot. Her low punch out of the lush rough didn’t travel far enough to find the green or the fairway. She chipped out of the rough to four feet below the flagstick, but lost the hole when her par putt failed to find the hole.

The match came to the par-3 twelfth hole with Cathrea up five with seven to play. Both put their tee shots short and right, Freman’s catching a backwards bounce off of a huge cypress that left her well short of the green in more of the clingy rough. Cathrea left her second shot short of the green in the rough, while Freman’s second found the right hand bunker. Halving the hole with a pair of bogeys after their individual misadventures, the two competitors came to the thirteenth hole determined to make up ground.

Cathrea’s drive on the thirteenth found the shallow rough right of the fairway in the low collection area between the main fairway and the green, while Freman’s drive was center cut in the same area. Both girls fired stunningly-accurate approach shots, Freman’s about four feet above and right of the flag, Cathrea’s maybe three feet away, right and slightly below. Both made their birdie putts, and they went to the fourteenth hole with Cathrea “dormie” at +5 with five holes to play.

Inspired, perhaps, by the hard-charging play they had each demonstrated at the previous hole, both girls flew long, straight drives well down the fairway at the par-5 14th hole, Cathrea’s dead center and Freman’s nearer the right side of the fairway. Freman made a fine approach shot to the front fringe of the green, leaving herself a long chip-and-a-putt scenario for birdie, but Cathrea made a definite statement about how she felt the match should conclude when she flew her approach shot to the tucked back-right flag, leaving a two-foot putt between herself and an eagle 3 – and a win. Freman’s chip shot came up short, in the right-hand fringe, and after her birdie putt died below the hole she conceded the eagle, and the match, to Cathrea.

The win over Anne Freman pits Casie against a formidable opponent in Ariya Jutanugarn – the 2011 Junior Girls’ Champion – in the next round. Some members of the national golf media who are reporting this tournament have as much as conceded the upcoming match to Jutanugarn, looking forward to a matchup between the burly Thai and Lydia Ko, the Korean-born New Zealander who is the current world #1 female junior.

Jutanugarn will be a tough opponent, but Casie – who shot a course-record 66 at Lake Merced Golf Club in the second round of the stroke play portion of this event – is not a player to be counted out before the final putt has dropped.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Ideal Conditions at the 2012 First Tee Open

A low overcast hung over Carmel Bay early Thursday morning for the final day of practice rounds at The First Tee Open, and even had one of the aerial camera platforms been present in the skies above the course, it wasn’t blimp weather at Pebble Beach. The directors of the Golf Channel and NBC coverage of the AT&T Pro-Am dearly love to zoom in on idyllic scenes from their omniscient point-of-view high above Stillwater Cove and Carmel Bay – whales cruising by and spouting their feathery plumes of seawater, dolphins cavorting in the startlingly blue Pacific waters, dogs frolicking along the beach below the cliffs paralleling the 9th and 10th fairways – the whole gamut of shots that are guaranteed to warm the heart of any Carmel Chamber of Commerce member or local realtor. No, the low overcast enveloping the skies above the course would have kept Snoopy I or II, or the Farmers Insurance airship, in the hangar, or isolated above a rolling carpet of fluffy white fog. Still, while it was not a day to excite the creative instincts of a television director, it was ideal golf weather.

The calm, cool conditions meant no swirling sea breezes turning a well-played shot into a bunker-bound double-bogey in the making. It was just cool enough that the exertion of walking the course and swinging a golf club warmed you up instead of wearing you out, and much of the field were out taking advantage of the conditions. As course workers put finishing touches on the greens, tees, and fairways on the back nine, player groups were already on the front side, starting their final tune-ups on the iconic seaside course.

Groups including players such as Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, and Fuzzy Zoeller, playing with their junior or pro-am partners, were out on the course taking stock of the conditions, trying rolls from different spots on the greens, chipping on from various spots around the peripheries of the greens – and despite the fact that there is money on the line for the pros, enjoying a great day on a world-class golf course.

In general, this week the eyes of the golf world are focused on higher profile events – the U.S. Women’s Open, at Black Wolf Run in Kohler, WI; the Greenbrier Classic, this week’s PGA Tour event, at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, WVa; and the European Tour’s French Open at Le Golf National, in Paris; but a golf fan could do worse than to come down to the Monterey Peninsula this weekend and spend a day, or two, or three, walking the cart paths of Pebble Beach Golf Links and Del Monte Golf Course.

You’re not going to see Tiger or Phil or Bubba, but compared to the throngs who crowd the ropes when the AT&T or the U.S. Open are played here at Pebble Beach, The First Tee Open is a tremendous opportunity to see some great golf played on one of the world’s finest–and best-known–golf courses, with easy viewing, no crowds, and nearby parking. While the stars of the PGA or LPGA aren’t here, the field of Champions Tour players includes past champions of the U.S. Open, Masters, British Open, and PGA Championship, as well as Golf Hall of Fame members, and former Ryder Cup stalwarts.

These heroes of the greensward are joined by the crème de la crème of The First Tee – boys and girls from across the country who exemplify the goals of the organization, and who have earned the right to be paired with a Champions Tour pro in this unique tournament format – two days of Pro-Am/Pro-Junior competition, with the pay-to-play amateurs competing alongside of, but scored separately from, the Pro-Jr. teams. Much like the format of the AT&T Pro-Am, in which the top amateurs play alongside their professional partners on the last day of the tournament, in The First Tee Open, the top Pro-Jr. teams will play together on Sunday, putting the youngsters on the big stage with playing partners who are old enough to be their fathers – or in some instances, grandfathers!

As the final day of practice wore on, the fog burned off – and while the breeze that sprang up at the same time was enough to make shots to some of the more exposed greens a bit more interesting than they had been in the morning, it was by no means punitive. The weather forecast is for more of the same through the weekend, with a mild warming trend – ideal weather for playing, or watching, golf on the Monterey Peninsula.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

UK fans miffed at their blokes’ poor showings in the U.S. Open

A couple of days after the conclusion of the U.S. Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, an article appeared in the blog section of the UK-based golf website which was entitled “US Open spoiled by Olympic set-up designed to expose stars” and subtitled “USGA ‘blazer brigade’ seem to take delight in humiliating our heroes”.

A few quotes from the column:
“Will we remember Webb Simpson ticking off this major as the first of many or will he be remembered as just a guy who got lucky and won his shiny new Olympic gold medal on a brutal goat track set into a San Francisco hillside.”
“…it seemed grossly over indulgent of the USGA to artificially create glass-surfaced greens surrounded by ugly collars of gnarly rough simply with the intention of making our heroes look foolish…”
I have a feeling that the tone of this blog entry would have been much different if one of the UK’s own had prevailed that week at the Olympic Club.

I was at the 2012 Open in person, working as a volunteer as well as covering the tournament for a local media outlet, and I spent a lot of time on the course watching play. I would like to point out to the author of this diatribe, a Mr Bob Warters, that the Olympic Club’s Lake Course is no “goat track”, and I imagine that we might see a replay of a famous duel which took place nearby in the 1860s were he to say as much to a club member in person.

Every player I heard interviewed said that the course was tough but fair. Firm, fast fairways with uneven lies made proper placement of tee shots paramount, which is nearly always true of U.S. Open courses. Approaches had to fly high and land softly to hold the greens, which, though also firm and fast, never ran higher than 13. The greens rolled true and smooth, thanks to the replacement of the dreaded poa annua with creeping bentgrass two years ago – no one but Mr Warters has characterized them as “glass-topped”.

There was speculation in the media prior to this year’s Open that the USGA would come over the top with a brutal setup this year in “revenge” for last year’s runaway at Congressional. The drubbing that Rory McIlroy gave Congressional at the 2011 U.S. Open was a combination of the planets coming into alignment for young McIlroy – he hit nearly every shot as perfectly as one could wish, and was absolutely at the top of his game – and a course setup which was emasculated by green-softening rains earlier in the week. There was no conspiracy by the USGA to get revenge at the Olympic Club for last year’s Open; they merely took a tough test of golf – the Olympic Club’s Lake Course – and cranked the screws down a notch or two, that’s all.

I fully expected to see Luke Donald do very well at the 2012 Open – that he didn’t can be attributed, I think, to the fact that his game was just not on. It happens to the best of us. He said himself that he never got the feel of the greens, though a look at the stats show that it wasn’t just putting that was his downfall.

Harrington and Westwood each made some bad shots and also got some bad breaks (Westy’s ‘tree ball’ at the 5th on Sunday comes to mind), and when you are playing a U.S. Open course, there is little margin for either.

As for Rory, well, he is a talented young man, but streaky. He and his girlfriend have both fallen from the pinnacles of their respective sports in recent weeks. She has dropped from the #1 position in women’s tennis to something like #10, and she went out in the first round at Wimbledon. Maybe they each need to focus on making their living in their respective sports rather than conducting a high-profile, inter-continental celebrity romance.

I will close by saying that, before anyone gets on about how tricked-up and unfair the course was, they should know this: on the Monday following the tournament a dozen or so of the media people who had been in attendance played the course (they hold a lottery – these were the lucky winners), to the Sunday pins, and a young lady who is an associate editor at Golf Digest magazine shot 89 – wearing sneakers and using rented clubs (she didn’t have her golf kit with her). OK, the young lady is a 4 handicap or thereabouts, but still – a sobering fact for the pros to contemplate.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The 10 Best College Golf Courses in America

Among the factors that play into the selection of the college your son or daughter will attend, a really great golf course may figure well down the list unless a spot on the golf team is in the works. Think about it, though – college is stressful, and if your scholar is already a recreational golfer, a fun, challenging golf course on or near campus is a great resource for relaxation. How would you rather have your son or daughter decompress after a tough round of mid-terms – creeping brews at a smoky local tavern, or out in the fresh air, chasing a Titleist (well, OK, maybe a MaxFli – most college kids are on a budget…) down the sunlit greensward of the campus golf course?

The golf course at Stanford University, nestled against the Coast Range foothills at the edge of “The Farm”, was called “a complete golf course” by distinguished Stanford alum & Golf Hall-of-Fame member Tom Watson. Photo credit:

Institutes of higher learning as diverse as Stanford University, Mount Holyoke College and Texas Tech University are blessed with challenging, accessible courses, and you will find layouts designed by such giants of course architecture as Dr. Alister Mackenzie, Tom Fazio, and Charles Blair MacDonald at colleges and universities across the country (In order: Ohio State, University of Michigan; Oklahoma State University; Yale).

If you feel like researching campus golf courses is just one more thing you don’t have time to do, never fear – my friends at have already done it for you. Click over to the page The 10 Most Impressive College Golf Courses on their website and read on.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

An Evening with a Champion – 1966 U.S. Open Winner Billy Casper at Lake Merced Golf Club

The Lake Course at San Francisco’s Olympic Club has gained a reputation for producing come-from-behind winners whenever it hosts the U.S. Open golf tournament. The first time that the Olympic Club hosted the Open, in 1955, an unheralded municipal course pro from Iowa named Jack Fleck overtook the great Ben Hogan to tie in regulation play, and then defeated Hogan in a playoff the next day. In 1966, Arnold Palmer had a seven-stroke lead over Billy Casper going into the final round. Overly-complacent with such a large lead in hand with nine holes to play, Palmer had pressed too hard on Olympic’s back nine in pursuit of Ben Hogan’s U.S. Open scoring record. Casper made birdies while Palmer made bogies, and once again a leader was overtaken to force a playoff, and the come-from-behind player won. In this instance it was less of an upset than the Fleck vs. Hogan battle eleven years earlier – Casper had twenty-nine wins to his credit at that point, including the 1959 U.S. Open.

The U.S. Open returned to the storied environs of the Olympic Club this year, for the fifth time, and these past champions returned to the Bay Area to revisit the scene of their long-ago triumphs, and to be fêted by appreciative golf enthusiasts. On the evening of Wednesday, June 13th, the night before the opening rounds of the 112th U.S. Open were to begin, one of these great champions from the past shared his recollections of those events with a roomful of golf fans – Billy Casper joined a group of the members of Lake Merced Golf Club for an evening of conversation and recollection, not only about those five eventful days in 1966 at the Olympic Club, but his entire career. I was privileged to be among Mr Casper’s audience that evening, as a guest of Lake Merced’s general manager, Donna Lowe. It was a wonderful evening with a great past champion of our game, and a fitting prelude to the competition that was to begin the following morning, less than a mile away, at the Olympic Club.

Billy Casper, 1966 United States Open champion, spoke to an attentive group at Lake Merced Golf Club on the evening of Wednesday, June 13th, 2012 – the night before the start of the 2012 United States Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, the site of his Open victory 46 years before. Photo credit: Sarah Reid/LMGC

As reflected in the title of his recent autobiography, The Big Three and Me, Casper languished somewhat in the shadow of the three most recognizable players of the late 1960s – Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus. This is quite amazing given their respective records: in the period from 1964 to 1970, Casper won 27 times on Tour to Nicklaus’ 25, and Palmer and Player’s combined 21. Casper’s victories in that six-year span included the 1966 U.S. Open, of course, and the 1970 Masters, both wins coming in playoffs. Casper acquired a reputation as something of an eccentric at the time – for instance, it was well known that he included exotic game meats such as buffalo, bear and elk in his diet; what was not so well known was that his eccentric diet came as a result of doctor’s orders to rotate different types of protein because of food allergies.

The Big Three and Me, the new autobiography of Billy Casper.
His audience learned this and much more as Mr Casper spoke that evening, sitting in the handsome dining room of the Lake Merced Golf Club’s clubhouse with the evening sun playing shadows across the 18th hole just over his shoulder. Introduced by his long-time friend, retired attorney James Parkinson (Mr Parkinson assisted Mr Casper in the production of his book), who acted as MC and prompter, Casper offered a retrospective of his life and career, with an emphasis on the events of that same week, 46 years earlier, when the U.S. Open came to the Olympic Club for the second time.

With a level of recall that is quite remarkable in a man 80 years of age, Casper related the events of that midsummer weekend nearly a half-century ago to a rapt audience. Palmer and Casper had come to the last nine holes on Sunday with Palmer in command of a 7-shot lead over Casper, and Jack Nicklaus another two shots back. As they made their way to the 10th tee, Palmer heard Casper say, “I’m going to have to play like hell just to finish second.” and responded “I’ll do everything I can to help you.” That somewhat cocky response from Palmer stiffened Casper’s resolve, and while Palmer turned his attention toward the larger goal of breaking the Hogan scoring record, and away from his fellow competitor and victory in the tournament at hand, Casper determined to do his best to do better than to “just finish second.”

With a nearly stroke-by-stroke recollection of their play over the last nine holes of Olympic’s Lake Course, Mr Casper related to the audience Palmer’s fall, and his own rise, over the closing holes of regulation play: Palmer’s duckhook into the rough at 10 for a bogey to Casper’s par, paring his lead to six; their matching pars and birdies at the 11th and 12th holes, respectively; another pull to the left by Palmer at the par-3 13th to Casper’s par – cutting Palmer’s lead to five with five holes to play. After matching pars at 14, the 15th hole changed things up – Casper was safely on in one, facing a breaking 20-foot putt for birdie, but Palmer’s over-confident try for the flag bounced off the firm, fast putting surface into the back rough. Casper rolled in his birdie putt and Palmer made bogey – a two-shot swing, and Palmer’s lead was now three, with three holes to play.

Now they came to the 16th hole, a big sweeping left-hander of a par-5 which was playing at 604 yards that day. The sixteenth hole had been a subject of conversation leading up to the beginning of play at the 2012 Open, due to a new tee box which stretched the length of the hole to a record-setting 670 yards. Though no one could have known it on that Wednesday evening before the tournament, the 16th hole was to play a part in the final result of the 2012 tournament that was similar to the part it had played in 1966.

Just as Jim Furyk was to do the Sunday following this evening’s talk, Palmer’s tee shot in 1966 went hard left off the tee. While Furyk’s tee shot ended up in the left-hand trees from a shortened tee – only 562 yards that day – Palmer’s drive from 604 ended up in the thick rough left of the fairway. He had tried for a long drawing tee shot that would get him close enough for a chance to get on in two, but he had tried too hard, and pulled it left. After two slashes at the ball with an iron, Palmer was out. His spoon (3-wood) from the fairway ended up in a greenside bunker, but he salvaged a bogey six with a blast out of the bunker and a 4-foot putt – “…the greatest six I ever made,” he called it later.

As good as Palmer’s save at 16 was, Casper had made a birdie with a conservative drive to the fairway, an advance to within a pitch-shot of the green with a spoon, and a wedge to fifteen feet. He rolled in the 15-footer for birdie and another two-shot swing – Palmer’s lead was down to a single stroke.

Stories of his life and career came easily to mind for Mr Casper – with only a little prompting from his long-time friend, and co-producer of his book, James Parkinson (seated). Photo credit: Sarah Reid/LMGC

Mr Casper recounted these events as if they had happened last week instead of nearly a half-century ago, and his audience of Lake Merced club members and guests hung on every word. He recalled how Palmer missed a seven-foot putt for par on the 17th hole, tying the tournament, and how, after matching pars at the amphitheater-like finishing hole, they finished in a dead-heat 278 after 72 holes of regulation play. The seven-stroke slide over the last nine holes seemed to have taken the wind out of Palmer’s sails, though, and Casper rolled up the victory in the 18-hole playoff the following day, carding a 1-under 69 to Palmer’s 3-over score of 73.

Two U.S. Opens at the Olympic Club, eleven years apart, two come-from-behind victories – and those of us in the audience at Lake Merced Golf Club that evening were lucky enough to hear the story of the second directly from the victor, Billy Casper. Mr Casper took a couple of questions from the audience before wrapping things up (asked if he still played as well as he used to, he said “I hit it so short now, I can hear my ball land.”), and then the evening was over – much too soon. He signed souvenir pin flags and copies of his book for audience members before leaving – mementoes of a memorable evening with a great champion.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Third time’s the charm at U.S. Open for Bay Area native Michael Allen

The return of the U.S. Open to San Francisco’s Olympic Club for 2012 was a special opportunity for San Mateo native Michael Allen. Allen, 53, a professional golfer who now makes his home in Scottsdale, AZ, has been a member of the Olympic Club since he was 14 years old, and a professional golfer since he was 25. The U.S. Open has been held at the Olympic Club two previous times since he became a pro, in 1987 and 1998, but he didn’t make the field – he failed to qualify in 1987, and was an alternate in 1998 but didn’t play.
The 2012 Open was likely to be Allen’s final shot at playing in the Open on his home turf; there has never been less than an 11-year gap between Opens at the Olympic Club, and once it was 21 years between goes; on that schedule Allen would be 64, minimum, before the Open came here again.
The last-gasp nature of this year’s Open makes it all the sweeter that, in his third try at qualifying for a spot in the field at the most prestigious championship golf tournament in the United States, when it is being played on his old home course, Michael Allen made it into the field. The sectional tourney he played, 36 holes of demanding, pressure-filled golf in one day, was held at Lake Merced Golf Club and Harding Park Golf Course, right across the lake from the Olympic Club – courses that are also familiar territory for the Peninsula-born golfer.
To put Allen’s achievement into perspective, here are a few stats and facts from the 2012 Open:
  • 8,527 players took part in local qualifying tournaments at 109 locations across the United States.
  • 550 players advanced out of local qualifying to sectional qualifying tournaments which were held at 11 locations in the continental United States (some players with professional or elite amateur status went straight to sectional qualifying; Allen was one of those).
  • Approximately half of the 156-man field, or about 78 players, came out of sectional qualifiers; 17 of those came from the two international qualifiers, in England and Japan, leaving about 61 spots from the eleven sites in the U. S.
Given the nature of a U.S. Open-prepared golf course – not for nothing is the tournament billed as “The Toughest Test in Golf”– making the field after going through qualifying is somewhat akin to going from the frying pan into the fire. The USGA’s course setup for the Open generally includes narrow fairways, high rough, and lightning-fast greens, factors that increase the difficulty of a course by placing a premium on precise shot-making, while also increasing the penalties for poorly-placed shots. It is significant that not only did Allen make it through sectional qualifying and into the field at the Open – his 71-73 – 144 score at the end of the first two rounds was good enough for T-18, 5 back of 2nd-round leader Jim Furyk – he made the cut to play the final rounds of the tournament, for a shot at the championship.
World-class players have been humbled by Open courses, trunk-slamming after two rounds and heading for home – and this year at the Olympic Club, several were. Notable players in the field who didn’t make the cut:
  • Rory McIlroy – the defending U. S. Open champion shot 77-73 – 150 (+10) to miss the cut by 2 shots. “Rors” was confounded by the demands of the Lake Course despite a strong showing as recently as the week before at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis. He had three rounds in the 60s in Memphis, marred only by a third-round 72 that dropped him to T-7, three strokes behind eventual winner Dustin Johnson.
  • Bubba Watson – the 2012 Masters champion shot 78-71 – 149 and missed the cut by one shot. The voluble Floridian, who is 1st in driving distance on the PGA Tour so far this year, but 99th in driving accuracy, hit only 12 of 28 fairways and 20 of 36 greens in regulation in his two rounds on the Lake Course, but his real downfall lay in the 64 putts he took in two rounds, ranking 133rd of 156 players in that category. Bubba packed up his bright pink Ping driver and went home after Friday’s round,  declaring “This course is too tough for me.”
  • Louis Oosthuizen – the 2010 British Open champion and 2012 Master runner-up shot 77-72 – 149 and missed the cut by one shot. Oosthuizen had real trouble off the tee at the Olympic Club, hitting only 8 of 28 fairways. The resulting scrambling saw him on 19 greens in regulation, but his total of 60 putts makes it evident that he never came to grip with the greens on the Lake Course, and he carded only one birdie in 36 holes.
  • Luke Donald – the OWGR World #1-ranked player shot 79-72 – 151 and missed the cut by three shots. Donald, a shortish driver whose accurate iron play and short game have carried him to a total of 48 weeks at the top of the OWGR’s World Rankings, had been forecast to give a good showing on the Lake Course, where accuracy off the tee, and a sharp short game, are key. He struggled with all aspects of his game through his two rounds, however, hitting only 13 fairways and 18 greens in two days, and taking 64 putts in 36 holes.
In the third round, Allen struggled on the difficult opening stretch, where holes 1 through 6 had been playing harder than any group of holes on the course. He made bogey on 1 and 3, and double-bogey on the 6th to go 4-over through six holes. A birdie on 7 brought him back one, but five bogeys on the back nine were relieved by only three pars and an eagle, his second of the tournament, on the par-5 17th hole. The round of 77 dropped him from T-18 to T-61.
A change in the weather from Saturday to Sunday – from beautiful sunny skies and mild temps to blowing mist and damp chill – was mirror-imaged in Allen’s game, which improved markedly. He opened the round with a birdie 3 on the 2nd hole, then a bogey on the fifth hole brought him back to even par for the front nine. A run of nine straight pars was finally broken by a bogey at the 15th hole; two more bogeys, on the par-5 16th – which had been shortened to 562 yards in the final round without diminishing its difficulty – and the dramatic 18th hole, with its uphill approach shot to an amphitheater green overlooked by the clubhouse, brought him home with a 73, for a four-round total of 294, 14 over par, and a T-56 finish.
All things considered, Michael Allen has a lot to be proud of in his performance at the 2012 Open. Local knowledge certainly played a part, but even given his familiarity with the layout of the course and the quirks of the local weather, he had never played the Lake Course in U.S. Open nick – the toughest it is ever likely to be. After the round, Allen told an interviewer, “…I just came out today to see if I could put up a good score. I know I can play this course well and really just enjoy the day. It’s been a lot of fun.”