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.