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.

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