Saturday, November 25, 2017

Book review: “The First Major –The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup”, by John Feinstein ☆☆☆☆ ½☆

A new book from New York Times bestselling author John Feinstein is always a treat. He is a sports journalist non pareil, as erudite and knowledgeable – across a wide spectrum of sports, not just golf – as he is prolific, and his latest “The First Major: The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup” is his 28th non-fiction sports book.

Feinstein has written about all the major sports that define America’s sporting life, from pro tennis to NFL football. Even if you don’t read sports books, you may know his work from his time at Sports Illustrated, or his current stints at the Washington Post and Golf Digest – or you may hear him on the radio on Sirius XM, or see him on television on the Golf Channel. In fact, if you are an American sports fan, of any stripe, this introductory paragraph is probably a waste of my time, because you already know his work.

The upshot of this recitation of Feinstein’s bona fides is that he is a sports journalist that professional athletes know and trust, and getting the best stories, the inside dope, requires the ability to get athletes to talk to you. John has that ability, and it certainly shows in his latest effort.

The 2016 Ryder Cup, which was played at the self-styled Hazeltine National Golf Club, near Chaska, Minnesota – a suburb of Minneapolis, was a watershed moment in the history of that storied event. It was the year that the United States stopped a European squad that had dominated the event with three wins in a row, from 2010 through 2014 – the third time in recent decades that the U.S. team had stopped a European run of victories at three. The first time was in 1991, after European victories in 1985, 1987, and 1989; then again in 2008, after the Euro squad took top honors in 2002, 2004, and 2006.

The 2016 event was notable for the wild swirl of events in the world of golf that led up to it, not the least of which was the rancorous atmosphere of the previous Ryder Cup, the 2014 event in which the venerable elder statesman Tom Watson was brought back to try and repeat his 1993 success as Ryder Cup skipper.

A clash of styles and a lack of communication – not to mention something of an uprising in the ranks, led by another respected figure in U.S. Ryder cup history, Phil Mickelson, doomed Watson’s leadership in 2014. The U.S. golf establishment – meaning the PGA of America, which runs the event for the red, white, and blue – wanted to wash away the bad taste that was left by the 2014 loss, and to that end they formed a Ryder Cup “task force” – a committee, widely derided by the European players and media – which was supposed to solve the Americans’ Ryder Cup problems.

Feinstein lays out the background, both recent and historical, that underpins the 2016 Ryder Cup, then digs into the personalities and near-term events which defined that contest, including the task force, and the selection of Davis Love III as U.S. captain, for a repeat performance after his stint as U.S. skipper in the agonizing 2012 loss at Medinah, which was controversial.

One headline-grabber was the social media clash between then-PGA President Ted Bishop and Euro Ryder Cup stalwart Ian Poulter, a schoolyard-worthy spat that resulted in Bishop’s unceremonious ouster for a series of childish remarks leveled at Poulter; another, coming much closer to the event, was the heated, and totally spontaneous, on-air spat between Golf Channel analysts Brandel Chamblee and David Duval over the relative importance of leadership and individual play.

During the event, one of the big stories was the play of Patrick Reed, both as a partner with his temperamentally polar opposite Jordan Spieth, and solo, as the man who took down the boisterous, and boastful, Rory McIlroy of the Euro squad in Sunday singles.

Another social-media-based dust-up occurring before and during  play was the attention-seeking U.S.-bashing promulgated by PJ Willett, the schoolteacher older brother of then-reigning Master champion Danny Willett. The elder Willett brother teed off on American fans in an article for a British sports publication, and in a series of posts on Twitter, guaranteeing a raucous reception by the bottom 10% of American fans.
The strength of Feinstein’s work, and this book is no exception, is the time and effort he puts into interviews, and the wealth of material he obtains by doing so. No sound bites or quickly tossed-off aphorisms are to be found here – everyone involved in the event talked to him, some at length (with one exception – U.S. vice captain Tiger Woods. No surprise there.)

I will admit that I am not a huge fan of the Ryder Cup. It has become, in my opinion, an overblown, over-amped biennial hype-fest, owing its notoriety more to rancor than to great golf – but Feinstein’s writing drew me in. His research is so thorough and his insights so telling and precise that even though he was writing about an event which I have come to dislike over the last few years, I couldn’t put the book down.

Reading closely with a critical eye will turn up errors and shortcomings in almost any book, especially one on a subject in which I have an interest, and a certain store of knowledge (if I say so myself…)

I could have done without quite so much background on the head pro and superintendent of Hazeltine. They deserve to be mentioned, of course, but the pages of background on these two men started to wear thin – and to feel, frankly, like word-count padding.

More seriously, it was a little bit disappointing to see some pretty shocking errors in the text. First and foremost was a rather egregious misquoting of Ben Crenshaw’s iconic, well-known, and oft-quoted conclusion to his Saturday-night press conference at the 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club, Brookline, Massachusetts: “I’m gonna leave y’all with one thought, them I’m gonna leave. I’m a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this. That’s all I’m gonna tell ya.” – which Feinstein styled as “I’m gonna leave y’all with this: I’m a big believer in fate. I have a feeling about this.”

In a section about Davis Love II, the well-liked father of 2012/2016 Ryder Cup skipper Davis Love III, Feinstein casually mentions that the elder Love had played with Harvey Penick, then dismissed Penick as the cowriter of what is considered one of the game’s holy texts, Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, a rather glaring mischaracterization of one of American golf’s most revered figures. 

These two errors, along with a host of lesser faux pas that should have been caught by a good copy editor, left a bit of tarnish on the otherwise gleaming aspect of the book, and took a half-star off of my assessment.

Regardless, if you love golf, and good golf writing, this book deserves a spot in your bookshelf. Buy it for yourself, or since the holidays are upon us as of this writing, put it on your Christmas list, golf lovers, and keep your fingers crossed.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Maverick McNealy makes strong start to pro career in first round of 2017 Safeway Open

Maverick McNealy, the former Stanford men’s golf standout who is making his first start as a professional golfer this week at the Safeway Open, at Napa’s Silverado Resort and Spa,  brings a unique background and point of view to a pro golf career. McNealy, who ended his amateur career ranked #2 in the world, after a stint at #1, is not your typical highly ranked college golfer using college golf as a springboard to a pro career.
Former Stanford men’s golf star Maverick McNealy lines up his birdie putt on the par three 15th hole at Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa, California during the first round of the 2017 Safeway Open. (photo by author)

The 21-year-old graduated from Stanford with a degree in Management Science and Engineering—not a more typical future-Tour-pro soft option such as Communications or Sports Management—and for the first couple of years of his college career had looked forward to following college golf with a career in business.

There’s precedent for his early direction—McNealy’s father is Scott McNealy, co-founder and former CEO of Sun Microsystems, a well-known (if not legendary) figure in Silicon Valley. With a Stanford degree in a rigorous dual-business/engineering discipline, and his father’s example to follow, the younger McNealy anticipated following his college golf career with a career in business.

In a statement he posted on the Stanford’s collegiate sports website, McNealy explained his decision to pursue a professional golf career. “It wasn’t until after my sophomore year that it even crossed my mind that I might be good enough to give it a shot …my top priorities in college lay with my team and my studies. I wouldn't have traded one day with my teammates wearing the Cardinal red for anything.”

A former junior hockey player as well as a golfer, McNealy signed with Stanford in November 2012, and through his sophomore and junior years he stood out even on the traditionally strong Stanford squad. Winning six times in his sophomore season, and four more times as a junior, McNealy won the 2015 Fred Haskins Award as the top male college golfer.

McNealy struggled with his game starting in the spring of his junior year, the result of equipment changes he made in the wake of Nike Golf’s exit from the golf hard goods market. A tough playing schedule combined with a rigorous school schedule saw him stepping away from golf for a rest in the summer before his senior year. He won only once as a senior, which left him in a three-way tie for the school wins record with Patrick Rodgers and another familiar name in Stanford men’s golf, Tiger Woods (who did it in two years, as an Econ major.)

With a frankly privileged Silicon Valley upbringing—wealthy parents, and an education from the Harker School and Stanford—McNealy could coast through life, but that’s not his way. Using the example of his father, whom he calls his “hero”, McNealy wants to use the opportunities afforded him by a pro golf career to grow the game of golf and “…be a role model and an inspiration to young golfers and athletes.” The elder McNealy employed 235,000 people worldwide during his tenure at Sun Microsystems, and his son would like to have a similar positive impact on the world.

Of his father, McNealy says, “If I could work half as hard as he did, and accomplish a fraction of the things he did, I could make the world a better place.”

McNealy brings a certain level of experience in professional golf to his first start as a pro, having played in nine professional tournaments as an amateur, five on the PGA Tour – making the cut in all five of those events. He has also brought a high level of business acumen to bear on his transition into the pro ranks. Working with his management team at P3SportsReps, McNealy has secured endorsement deals with UnderArmour for apparel, financial services company KPMG for hat space, and Callaway for equipment.

The Callaway decision springs from his struggles with the transition when Nike pulled out of the business, and his education in engineering. “I’m an engineer by training, and I love the way they (Callaway) nitpick and try to make the best possible golf clubs.”

The Safeway Open is the first of seven PGA Tour events for which McNealy has secured sponsors’ exemptions, a list which includes the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am (where his father will be his pro-am partner), the Farmers Insurance Open, AT&T Byron Nelson, and Dean & DeLuca Invitational.

The Safeway event is a comfortable start for Bay Area native McNealy, with familiar climate, conditions and course—Stanford played the Gifford Collegiate event at Silverado last fall.

McNealy had a strong showing in his first round as a pro, carding a 4-under 68 to finish the round T-8.

Going out in 1-under 35, McNealy was a little wobbly on the greens on the front nine, taking 17 putts, with a three-putt bogey on the par-three 2nd hole, and a handful of just-missed birdie opportunities. He closed out the front side on a rising note with birdies at holes 8 and 9.

A bogey on the 10th hole opened his second nine, but it was the last over-par number he posted on the day. His tee shot at the over-water par-three 11th hole settled 15 feet from the hole, and he slid the putt right into the throat of the hole for a birdie to go 2-under for the round. McNealy then made a run of three pars on holes 12 through 14.

The pressure didn’t seem to phase the the youngster, but after he made a tougher-than-it-looked downhill/sidehill 4-1/2-foot par putt on #12, his father, who had been following Maverick all day, was heard to say, “This is hard, it’s really hard.”

The younger McNealy seemed to get his game dialed in on the back nine, with closer approaches that contributed to a lower putt-count—14 vs the 17 he took on the front side. Firing up just when it counted, McNealy then put together a string of three straight birdies on holes 15 through 17.

On 15, a 189-yard par-three with water in play right, McNealy played a gutsy shot to the tucked right-front flag. His tee shot hit in the 4-foot gap between the flagstick and the edge of the green, carried past the flag, then rolled back, leaving a 7-foot putt for birdie that he dropped with conviction.

A scrambling birdie from the left greenside rough at 16, and another birdie on 17, after stuffing his approach to the elevated green to 2-1/2 feet, saw McNealy move to 4-under, where he finished after closing the round with a par at the par-five 18th hole for a back-nine 33 and a 4-under 68 final score.

McNealy showed his strength in his Strokes Gained: Tee-To-Green and Strokes Gained: Approach The Green stats, where he posted numbers of 4.426 and 3.095, respectively; 3rd and 4th on the day. His Strokes Gained total was 3.965, tied for 8th for the field.

Even a low-key early-season event like the Safeway Open represents a tough transition when making the jump from amateur to professional competition, and if the youngster from Stanford carries on as he began today, it seems a pretty good bet that he will make the kind of mark on the PGA Tour that he did in his Stanford career.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Bernhard Langer extends Schwab Cup lead with PURE Championship win

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that to win at Pebble Beach one must make a move in the first seven holes, then hang on for dear life for the rest of the round (my apologies to Jane Austen.)  Jerry Kelly, the goateed Everyman of the senior circuit, came out of the blocks in just that fashion in the final round of the 2017 PURE Insurance Championship, opening his round birdie-birdie, and adding an eagle three on the par five 6th hole to pull into a tie with Saturday’s leader, Bernhard Langer, at the turn.

Tour points leader Langer, who started the day at 12-under and leading by one over Kenny Perry, found himself locked into a head-to-head struggle with Kelly, while Saturday’s pursuer, Perry, faded out of contention.
Annika Borrelli, 17, of Alamo, California, holds her finish after her second shot on hole #18 in the third round of the 2017 PURE Insurance Championship at Pebble Beach Golf Links. Paired with six-time major winner Sir Nick Faldo, and representing The First Tee of the Tri-Valley, Borrelli, a senior at Carondelet High School in Concord, finished fifth in the pro/junior competition at the tournament. (Photo by author)
The rest of the field were playing for third as Langer and Kelly separated themselves from the pack over the opening nine, putting a three-to-four-stroke gap between themselves and the 51 players behind them.

Playing one group ahead of Langer, Kelly, who started the round three strokes out of the lead, made up the gap with his fast start, but Langer clung to his lead through the front nine despite a choppy run that saw two of his three birdies negated by a pair of bogeys.

Kelly’s play went a little flat after the turn, with pars and a lone birdie through fourteen, while Langer appeared to hit his stride (and put the lie to the aphorism I hauled out in the first paragraph) by putting up three more birdies, including back-to-back birdies at 13 and 14, to go two-up on Kelly with four holes left to play.

A lawn dart approach to two feet at #15 made Langer’s birdie run a triple, further opening the gap between himself and Kelly, who was playing solid golf but couldn’t buy a birdie putt.

Knowing that Kelly was hot on his heels through the turn, Langer said, “…it made me keep the pedal down and keep trying to make birdies and not just protect par, because that might not have been good enough.”

Langer coasted to victory with routine pars at 16, 17, and the spectacularly beautiful—but difficult—par-five 18th hole, to notch his thirty-fourth Champions Tour win with rounds of 64-67-67–198. The three-shot win is Langer’s fifth of the year, and his all-time best finish at Pebble Beach Golf Links.

Langer last played Pebble Beach in 2001, for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, where he missed the cut. Previous to that, he played the Bing Crosby/AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am for a six-year stretch from 1985 to 1990, missing the cut in 1990, with best finishes of T3 and T4 in 1987 and 1988.

Despite falling short of the win, Jerry Kelly established a Champions Tour record this week. His rounds of 68, 66, and 67 put him at 14 consecutive rounds in the 60s, breaking the record of 13 set by Hale Irwin in 1999—and almost certainly locking up the PGA Tour Champions Rookie of the Year award (not an oxymoron…) for the 50-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin.

In junior results, two Junior Tour of Northern California players—Annika Borrelli of Alamo, representing The First Tee of the Tri-Valley; and Katie Harris, representing The First Tee of Greater Sacramento, finished 5th and T-6, respectively.

Borrelli, a 17-year-old senior at Carondelet High School in Concord, was paired with six-time major winner and World Golf Hall of Fame member Sir Nick Faldo. Asked about that experience she said, “It was awesome to be in the presence of a legend. When I was first paired with him I was in shock. My dad had always talked about him or I had watched him on TV, so to see his swing in person and right next to him—it was an incredible experience.”

Playing with pro tournament winner Bernhard Langer, Justin Potwora, representing The First Tee of Greater Portland, carded rounds of (net) 62, 67, and 65 to claim the Junior tournament victory.

The Langer/Potwora win marks only the third time in the tournament’s 13-year history that the pro winner was part of the winning pro/junior team; previous pro/pro-junior doubles were recorded by Craig Stadler in 2004, and Kirk Triplett, in 2014.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

“Oh, Canada!” First All-Canadian USGA Final Comes in 2017 Senior Women’s Amateur Championship

13 September, 2017 – It was an historic day today for our neighbors to the north, at least in golf terms. For the first time in USGA history there will be two Canadian players – Judith Kyrinis and Terrill Samuel – battling it out in the final round of a USGA championship.

Judith Kyrinis and Terrill Samuel celebrate their all-Canadian final after Samuel, left, won in 19 holes during semifinal round of match play of the 2017 U.S. Senior Women's Amateur at Waverley Country Club in Portland, Ore. on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. (Copyright USGA/Steven Gibbons)

The quarterfinal pairings made it mathematically possible, with four Americans and four Canadians in the mix – but with each pairing being USA vs Canada, guaranteeing that no player could eliminate a countrywoman.

The pairings split evenly, with eventual finalist Judith Kyrinis defeating Lisa McGill of Philadelphia, 2 and 1; Tara Fleming of Jersey City prevailing over Mary Ann Hayward of Canada, 3 and 2; the other eventual finalist Terrill Samuel eliminating Olympic Club member Patricia Cornett of Mill Valley, California, 5 and 3; and Honolulu’s Patricia Schremmer defeating Canadian Jackie Little, 2 and 1.

With a pair of international matches set up in the semifinals, it was again possible for a single-nation final to come about, and that’s exactly what happened.

Judith Kyrinis, of Toronto, went down to her American opponent early in the match, falling three behind Tara Fleming, a former LPGA Tour player who is now a reinstated amateur, by the fourth hole. Three wins late in the round allowed Kyrinis, 53, a registered nurse with three children, to square the match at the tenth hole before falling back at the eleventh with a bogey-4 to Fleming’s birdie. A win two holes later, and another pair of wins at the 16th and 17th holes gave the win to the Canadian

Toronto’s Terrill Samuel, 56, who had her 80-year-old mother on the bag, went four down to Patricia Schremmer, 51, of Honolulu – another former LPGA Tour player and reinstated amateur – after Schremmer won four holes straight, starting with #4. After splitting the last two holes of the front nine birdie-par, Samuel got one hole back at #10, and three holes later won a string of three straight, squaring the match at the fifteenth hole. Three more holes saw the pair finish regulation still square, Samuel winning on the first extra hole with a birdie to Schremmer’s par, clinching the pairing for the historic final.

Samuel had to get past Salinas, California, native Dr Patricia Cornett, 63, who now lives in Mill Valley, to advance out of the quarterfinal round. Cornett, a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who specializes in the field of non-malignant hematology, is an accomplished amateur golfer with a long history of USGA competition. Cornett has played in 60 USGA championships, beginning with the 1971 Girls’ Junior, at age 17, and was on two U.S. Curtis Cup squads – 1978 and 1988 – before taking the helm as captain in 2012.

One of the two finalists will join countrywomen Marlene Stewart Streit and Gayle Borthwick as Canadian champions of the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur. Streit, the most recent Canadian to win the championship, in 2003, also won in 1985 and 1994; Borthwick is a two-time champion, winning the championship in 1996 and 1998.