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.”

Friday, June 15, 2012

16th hole at Olympic’s Lake Course will be “Lake Merced Monster” for 2012 Open

The USGA has made a number of the usual “U.S. Open setup” course changes to the Olympic Club’s Lake Course in preparation for the 112th United States Open Golf Tournament – lengthening holes, narrowing and re-routing fairways, growing out the rough, and shaving runoff areas around some greens. Of all those changes, however, there is one which has excited the imaginations of spectators, and raised the ire of players, more than any other: the stretching of the par-5 16th hole to 670 yards by the addition of a new tee box.
Players evaluate their second shots on the long par-5 16th hole at the Olympic Club’s Lake Course during a practice round for the 2012 U.S. Open photo credit: Gary K. McCormick (2012)
A lot of golf fans I have talked to are fed up with the pros automatically assuming that a par-5 is pretty much an automatic birdie – or even an eagle opportunity given a really great second shot – and obviously, the USGA feels the same way. USGA Director Mike Davis and his course-setup gurus wanted a true three-shot par-5 at the Olympic Club for the 2012 Open, and unable to dial back the ball or club design, they found the opportunity they were looking for in the Lake Course’s 16th hole.
A long, left-curving par-5 at the bottom of the course, near the shore of Lake Merced, the 16th is the first of two consecutive par-5s on Olympic’s Lake Course – the only par-5s on the course. At 609 yards from the blacks it was already a pretty testing hole before the changes, and then the USGA cranked up the difficulty by adding another tee box, 60 yards farther back, between the 10th and 15th greens and the 11th tee. For the volunteer course marshals, and spectators trying to follow playing groups through this part of the course, this area will be a traffic nightmare; for the players it could be a bad dream of a different sort.
Reaction to the changes from the players has been mixed, ranging from Tiger Woods: “If you hit two good shots into 16 you're going to have a wedge in there, [and] you should make birdie.” to a somewhat testy Bubba Watson: “I don't know why it needs to be 670 with the deepest rough of the golf course.”
Steve Stricker, when asked how he felt about having to wait until 16 for the first par 5 on the course, and then having two par-5s in a row, said,“Is that a par-5? (Laughter) [Q. Par six?] Yeah, it’s a par six.” Phil Mickelson had this reaction to 16: “… you play 15 holes of really tough, tough golf. And you finally get your first par-5 and it’s the toughest hole on the course.”
In Tuesday and Wednesday’s practice rounds, most players were trying various combinations of driver and 3-wood, back tee and front tee, and taking a long hard look at where each shot ended up. With the fairway narrowed toward the left in the landing area, a shot to the rough on the outside of the curve meant a hard choice between a 7-iron or a hybrid; players were seen trying both. The position of the green, and especially the placement of the opening to the green, a narrow sward between a pair of deep-ish bunkers, dictates an approach from the right, but the curve and width of the fairway makes that position difficult to achieve.
With the back tee slated to be used in at least two rounds, players will be faced with a hard choice: take 3-wood for better assurance of a position in the fairway and a clean lie – but farther back, behind the curve and with a poor angle to the green; or, take driver and try for a great angle for the approach, but with the possibility of ending up in a sticky, ankle-deep lie in the rye and bluegrass combo that comprises the rough at Olympic.
Olympic’s 18th hole, with its amphitheater setting and Spanish-style club house backdrop (reminiscent of the finishing hole at another classic California course, Riviera Country Club) may be the glamour hole, and the long par-3 13th, with its shaved and severely sloping runoff areas, may be the little monster this week, but the big, bad 16th hole will be the real “Monster of Lake Merced” at the 2012 Open.
[UPDATE: After the first round of regulation play, the 16th hole was rated #2, playing to a stroke average of 5.536.]

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Tiger Woods poised to claim another legend’s record with a win in 2012 Open

Much has been made in the sports media in recent years of Tiger Woods’ pursuit of the records of Jack Nicklaus, especially Nicklaus’ 18 professional major victories. Tigers’ win last week at Jack’s own tournament, the Memorial, which is played on Jack’s course, Muirfield Village, in Dublin, Ohio, equaled Jack’s record of 73 PGA Tour wins, moving Tiger into a tie for 2nd place in that category, behind Sam Snead’s mark of 82. Little has been made, however, of the possibility of Tiger overtaking one of the achievements of the most revered American golfer of all time, Robert T. “Bobby” Jones, Jr.

The United States Golf Association (USGA), golf’s American ruling body, oversees the rules and regulations governing the game (in concert with the Royal and Ancient, the United Kingdom’s golf ruling body), and also administers seventeen annual championships, ranging from the Junior Amateur (for golfers under the age of 18) to the highest test, the United States Open. The records of who won, and when, who was the oldest or youngest winner, as well as many other shades of accomplishment, are compiled in the USGA’s Media Guide. An annually-published compendium of USGA records, which runs to 496 pages this year, the Media Guide is the last word in who did what, and when, in all USGA championship events over the last 112 years.

Buried deep within the USGA Media Guide is a record which Tiger Woods currently shares with Bobby Jones – “Most Championships Won, All Events” (which coincides with “Most Men’s Championships Won”). Jones, a lifelong amateur player, holds the ultimate record in golf with victories in the U.S. and British Amateur Championships, and the U.S. and British Open Championships in a single calendar year, a feat which he accomplished in 1930. Referred to as the “Grand Slam”, it was the crowning achievement of Jones’ career – after the final event of the “Slam”, the U.S. Amateur Championship, at Merion Cricket Club in Haverford, PA, Jones retired from competitive golf – at age 28. Over 14 years of competition leading up to the “Grand Slam”, Jones notched up wins in no fewer than nine USGA championships: four U. S. Open victories (in which he defeated the leading professional players of the day) – in 1923, 1926, 1929 & 1930, and five U.S. Amateur wins – 1924, 1925, 1927, 1928, and 1930, making him the most prolific USGA champion of all – until Tiger Woods came along.

Tiger’s USGA championship record is a nicely symmetric combination of three Junior Amateur titles, with victories in 1991, 1992, and 1993; three U.S. Amateur titles, with another three consecutive wins, in 1994, 1995, and 1996; and three U.S. Open titles – 2000, 2002, and 2008. As Tiger’s game rounds back into form after a tumultuous 3-1/2 years of injuries, swing changes, and personal issues, he is being discussed as a serious contender for the 2012 U.S. Open title. If Woods successfully navigates the tight fairways and small, contoured greens of the Lake Course at San Francisco’s Olympic Club next week for a win, he will be one more step on the road to topping Jack Nicklaus’ professional major victories record, but he will also take sole possession of the record he now shares with the greatest American golfer of all time – Bobby Jones.

Friday, June 8, 2012

From ”The Longest Day in Golf” to “The Toughest Test in Golf”: Three Stories

Take 130 golfers, spread them over two tough, championship-caliber golf courses, mix in rain, and a chill wind off the Pacific – and then tell them that they have to play the golf of their lives for 36 holes, all in one day, for a chance at seven spots in the field at the biggest event in U.S. golf: that was U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying at Lake Merced Golf Club and Harding Park Golf Course on Monday, June 4th.

Billed as “The Longest Day in Golf”, U.S. Open sectional qualifying tournaments were held at eleven sites all across the United States on June 4th, 2012, but the qualifying tournament that took place here in the Bay Area had a special cachet that the other sites didn’t – the golfers at the Bay Area Sectional would be playing literally within sight of their goal: San Francisco’s Olympic Club. The 2012 United States Open Golf Tournament will be played on the Olympic Club’s Lake Course, which is located just across Lake Merced from Harding Park Golf Course and just a few blocks along Daly City streets from Lake Merced Golf Club.

There were any number of potential stories in the offing as the first players teed off (in unseasonably rainy & windy conditions) at seven o’clock that morning: local amateurs taking a shot at a spot in the field at “The Toughest Test in Golf”; journeyman pros seeking validation for years of “almost there” contention by making it to the big show; young, up-and-coming pros trying to take their competitive careers to the next level, and junior golfers getting their first taste of the pressure of high-level competition. But three stories rose above the rest as the sun was setting into the Pacific Ocean that evening, just west of the three golf courses that are central to the tale. The leading characters in those stories are James Hahn, a young pro on the Nationwide Tour; Michael Allen, a journeyman pro who found his greatest success late in life; and Sebastian Crampton, a high-school-aged golfer with a long, fluid swing and the cool demeanor of a seasoned competitor.

The day before “The Longest Day in Golf”, James Hahn, a San Bruno resident and former Cal golfer, was 2,500 miles away from Lake Merced Golf Club, his home course and one of the two courses where the drama of San Francisco-area sectional qualifying was going to be played out. The week before sectional qualifying he was playing a Nationwide Tour event, the Rex Hospital Open, in Raleigh, NC. Hahn, 30, tried the life of a professional golfer when he came out of college, playing the mini-tours with little success. He actually gave up the game for a year, taking a job at an advertising agency in Alameda, before deciding to take another crack at it. He plays on the Nationwide Tour, professional golf’s equivalent of Triple-A baseball, and had been having a pretty good year leading into the week before U.S. Open qualifying: two Top 10 finishes, five of eight cuts made, and nearly $60,000 in on-course earnings.

Despite the fact that he knew he was going to be across the country from the Bay Area just days before the qualifying tournament, Hahn selected his home course as his qualifying site when he submitted his entry for the U.S. Open. Even though he’d made five of eight cuts to that point in the season, he figured that there was no guarantee that he’d make this one, and was set to fly home over the weekend and get in some practice rounds before the Monday qualifier.

As things turned out, Hahn was flying high, literally and figuratively, Sunday night after the conclusion of play in Raleigh – he had carded four solid rounds in the 60s at the par-71 Wakefield Plantation course, survived a 2-man playoff, and chalked up his first professional victory. The win, and accompanying $99,000 paycheck, boosted Hahn to #5 in the Nationwide Tour standings – well within the magical Top 25 group that will graduate to the PGA Tour next season. Moving up the ladder to the main tour is every professional golfer’s dream, a life-changing step that they all strive to take.

Before the reality of his win, and all it entailed, had time to sink in, Hahn boarded a 7:45 PM flight out of Raleigh, changed planes in Atlanta, GA (de rigeur for air travel to and from the Southeast, it seems…), and arrived at San Francisco International airport at 12:30 AM Monday – for a 7:00 AM tee time. 2,500 air miles and a scant 3 hours of sleep after his first professional win, Hahn teed off at Lake Merced Golf Club and set in motion another potentially life-changing series of events.

Carding a bogey-free round of 66 in wet, blustery conditions, albeit on a course he knows as well as any other he has ever played, Hahn followed up his sterling performance in the morning round with a two-bogey round of 70 at nearby Harding Park. His combined score of 136, was the best – by one stroke – carded by any of the 130 players who competed here for a spot in the Open.

Just a few hours after achieving one major professional milestone, Hahn had notched up another, under the best of circumstances: playing on his home course, literally within sight of the world-famous venue where one of the top four (and arguably one of the top two…) golf tournaments in the world would be held just a week and a half later, he had secured a spot in the field at the 2012 United States Open at the Olympic Club.

Michael Allen is another golfer with local ties who emerged from a wet and wild day of golf with a spot in the field at the 2012 U.S. Open. Allen, 53, shares James Hahn’s affinity for the Bay Area golf courses where the 2012 Open and it’s local prelude would take place, but his roots in the Bay Area, and his connection to the courses involved, go deeper.

Allen is a native of San Mateo who grew up playing the Bay Area’s great golf venues, including the Olympic Club, where has been a member of since he was 14 years old. His professional golf career has encompassed two of the four previous times in which the Olympic Club has hosted the U.S. Open – 1987 and 1998. He didn’t make it into the field on either of those occasions, though he came tantalizingly close in 1998, when he was first alternate.

Allen’s varied professional career has seen him moving back and forth between the PGA Tour, the European Tour and the Nationwide Tour over the years, toting up some high finishes but never a win. A surprise invitation to the 2009 Senior PGA Championship, based on career earnings, just months after turning 50 and thus becoming eligible for the “Senior Tour”, set the stage for Allen’s first professional victory. Allen defeated Larry Mize at Beachwood, Ohio’s Canterbury Golf Club to become the 2009 Senior PGA champion. He has won twice more on the Champions Tour since then, both victories coming in April 2012 – in fact, in consecutive weeks.

With six Top 5 finishes out of nine events played on the Champions Tour this season, including the two wins in April, it seemed that Allen’s game was peaking at the right time for the 2012 U.S. Open. Indeed, the third time was the charm for Allen, as he carded a bogey-free round of 67 in a rainy early-morning round at Lake Merced Golf Club, and a two-bogey 70 at Harding Park in drier but still windy conditions in the afternoon round, for a combined score of 137. It was a kind of fairytale scenario: 25 years after his first attempt, in his last shot at playing in the United States Open at the storied Olympic Club*, his home course since his teenage years, Michael Allen served up two sterling rounds of golf, in weather that was dismal even by foggy San Francisco standards, and nailed it – earning himself a chance to play for the national title on his home course.

At the other end of the spectrum from journeyman pro Michael Allen lies 16-year-old Sebastian Crampton, of Pacific Grove, a talented junior golfer who first picked up the game at age 12. Crampton, who just completed his sophomore year at Robert Louis Stevenson High School in Pebble Beach, emerged from a local qualifier at Pasatiempo Golf Club, in Santa Cruz, last month as 1st alternate. His score of 71 on the Alister Mackenzie-designed course left him one stroke away from advancing to sectional qualifying, and tied with three other players for the last two spots.

Failing to advance from the four-for-two playoff at Pasatiempo, Crampton was not expecting to be playing in the sectional qualifying tournament on June 4th, and he and his parents didn’t make plans to drive up to the Bay Area from their home on the Monterey Peninsula. Then, on Sunday evening before the sectional qualifier, Crampton received word that his friend William Buchanan, of Los Altos, who had outscored Crampton by one stroke at Pasatiempo, had injured an elbow playing basketball – Sebastian was in.

Late notice, early tee time, two-hour drive and all, Crampton carded a one-bogey 66 at Harding Park to emerge as an early co-leader, then came to Lake Merced Golf Club – a course he had never played before – to try and complete his journey to the U. S. Open. Teeing off on #10, the tall, lanky youngster played very cleanly from tee to green in the first half of his round. He birdied the par-5 14th hole, only to give the shot back on the par-3 15th when his par putt slid by the hole, narrowly missing.

Crampton birdied the next of the course’s three par-5s, the 503-yard 6th, but a failed up-and-down from a bunkered approach shot at the par-4 7th hole resulted in a double-bogey six that set him back. After a couple of near misses on the closing holes he came in with a final score of 139, one shot out of a potential playoff for the final qualifying spot.

Even with the near-misses and bunker mishaps in the inward nine of his second round of the day, the young man from the posh private high school in Pebble Beach never seemed impatient or upset. He kept his cool and planned his next shot as he waited on his fellow competitors, taking the game one shot at a time – just as the “swing doctors” and mental-game coaches tell us we all should. Though he ended the day as second alternate – a long shot for a spot in the Open – his combination of a smooth but deceptively powerful swing, and a cool, calm disposition under the pressure of competition bodes well for a long and successful career in golf.

Three area golfers, three different stories: James Hahn came back to golf after quitting for a year – and collected a win and a ticket to the United States Open in the space of less than a week; Michael Allen tried and failed twice in the span of eleven years to win a spot in the field of a U.S. Open when it was being contested on his home course, then finally made it a quarter-century after his first attempt; Sebastian Crampton, a youngster with the demeanor of a seasoned professional, but who has only been playing the game for four years, came tantalizingly close to a spot in the big show in his first try. Crampton may well end up being the biggest story of the three, eventually; if all goes well he may be hitting his full stride as a seasoned competitor when the Open returns to Northern California again in 2019 – at his home course: Pebble Beach.

* [The tournament rotates among a variety of top courses all across the United States, and is not scheduled to return to the Olympic Club until  – possibly – the 2022 to 2025 time frame.]

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Memorable Memorial as Woods overtakes Nicklaus record

Tiger Woods is still pursuing Jack Nicklaus’s record of eighteen major tournament victories, but at the 2012 Memorial Tournament – Jack’s tournament on Jack’s golf course, Muirfield Village – he stepped up onto the same line on the all-time-wins leaderboard as Jack.

Nicklaus has long stood alone on the second-place step of the all-time-wins victory stand with 73 wins, nine behind Sam Snead’s record of 82, but now he has company. In the final round of the tournament, Tiger Woods came from four strokes back of the 54-hole leader, Spencer Levin, of Sacramento, CA, to post his fifth win at the Memorial Tournament, and his seventy-third professional tournament victory, equaling Nicklaus’ mark.

This was the second time this year that Spencer Levin has failed to capitalize on a third-round lead; in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, in February, Levin blew up in the last round, throwing away a six-stroke lead to eventual victor Kyle Stanley. His final-round fall from grace in the 2012 Memorial was not as dramatic as his collapse in Phoenix, but it was just as untimely, and has reinforced Levin’s reputation as a “twitchy” player who can’t close the deal on Sunday.

Levin opened strong with a tournament-leading 5-under 67 on Thursday, fell back to tenth place on the leaderboard on Friday with an even-par 72, then rebounded with a 69 on Saturday to retake the lead. Levin opened the final round with a clean, though unspectacular, 1-under opening nine – a birdie on the first hole followed by eight pars. His putter, which had been behaving more like a magic wand than a golf club all week, started to let him down on the back nine in the final round, but it might have had to have been a magic wand to get him out of the trouble he was getting himself into from tee to green over the closing holes of the tournament.

A poor – but lucky – shot out of a fairway bunker on the tenth hole set up his first bogey of the round when a poor club choice resulted in a blast into the steep face of the deep bunker. Ricocheting off the face, the ball traveled only 45 yards, but it could as easily have plugged and put him an even more difficult situation. Waylaid by more trips into the bunkers – on the 11th, 12th, 13th, 16th, and 17th holes – Levin’s endgame just was not up to the task of holding off a hard-charging Tiger Woods. He only put up one more birdie in the round, on the par-4 14th hole, against the bogey on 10, two more bogies on 12 and 17, and a double-bogey on 13.

A similar, though less dramatic, roller-coaster ride was experienced by South African Rory Sabbatini. His scores of 69-69-71-72 saw him in the third-, eleventh-, and second-place spots on the leaderboard through Saturday. It doesn’t look like a bad run of scores, but the final round 72 wasn’t enough to hold off Woods. A couple of wayward tee shots and a missed putt or two were all it took to rack up the three bogeys that spelled the difference between victory and his eventual T-2 finish.

Wearing his customary red-over-black Sunday colors, Woods came out of the gate strong in the final round, posting one bogey – on the 8th hole – against four birdies for an opening 33. Another bogey, on the 10th hole, backed him up a shot, but he gathered himself up with a run of four straight pars before putting his foot down and racing to the finish with three birdies over the last four holes.

Woods had appeared to be under the weather early in the tournament, affected by allergies or a cold, and is reported to have been running a fever of 102 degrees during Saturday’s round. All illness and infirmity was behind him on Sunday, however, and a combination of clean tee shots, spectacular iron play, and a zeroed-in putter spelled doom for his stumbling competitors.

The highlight shot of Woods’ back nine, and the tournament, was a Mickelson-esque flop shot to the 16th green. After his tee shot to the 201-yard par-3 skipped off the green, carrying past and coming to rest in the lush rough behind the putting surface, Woods lofted a spectacular, one-in-a-thousand flop shot out of the rough that landed softly on the green, rolled down toward the flagstick and dropped into the hole for a birdie two. It was a shot that could easily have gone very badly wrong in less-skilled hands – hit fat and landed short, the shot would have left a tricky downhill putt to a flagstick hard by the water; hit thin, the ball would have skittered across the putting surface and into the water fronting the green, with double-bogey the likely result. Nicklaus himself praised the shot, both from the broadcast booth and later, when he greeted Tiger as he came off of the 18th green, saying that it was the best shot he’d ever seen on this course.

The holed-out flop shot was the most dramatic of Woods’ iron shots on the back nine, but consistent, deadly accurate iron play was the key to his final-round comeback. Tight approach shots from good fairway positions set up the chances for birdies – his play on the 18th hole was a sterling example.

Standing 174 yards out after a 265-yard tee shot, Woods’ caddie, Joe La Cava, told his boss, “One more great iron, buddy”, before stepping away with the bag. Woods delivered, flying a 176-yard 8-iron shot to 8 feet, 10 inches above the hole in a demonstration of the kind of precision shot-making that we used to take for granted from him. He sank the putt, a far-from-easy downhill slider with just a bit of left-hand break in the middle, and all but wrapped up the trophy while his only viable pursuer, Sabbatini, was still on the course.

At that point a Sabbatini comeback was the longest of longshots, as the South African would have had to hole out his second shot to tie Woods’ 281 final score and force a playoff. Sabbatini swung with everything he had off the tee, trying to clear the bunker complex guarding the inside corner of the slight dogleg right fairway. He came up a scant two yards short of the required 315-yard carry, his ball landing in the rough on the upslope on the far side of the last bunker, just short of the fairway.

With 117 yards to the hole, Sabbatini’s second shot flew high and on line, but skipped off the putting surface, giving Woods the victory. A too-short chip and five-and-a-half foot putt later, Sabbatini’s round was over. He ended the day tied for second with Argentina’s Andres Romero, who had moved up from T-6 to T-2 on the strength of a final round 67.

The consistency of Woods’ tee shots, iron play, and putting this weekend at the Memorial bode well for his chances at the U.S. Open, which is only two weeks away. Returning to San Francisco’s Olympic Club for the first time since 1997, the 2012 Open will be played on Olympic’s tight, demanding Lake Course, where the rewards awaiting accurate shotmaking are more than matched by the penalties visited on poor shots.