Friday, August 14, 2009

The PGA: The major for everyman

The PGA Championship is the last of the year's four major men's professional golf championships. But some believe it's also the least of the four majors, and it's not too hard to see why.
In the 90 previous PGA Championship tournaments, roughly a third (31) were won by pros who captured no other major title. Two PGA winners, Shaun Micheel (2003) and club pro Tom Creavy (1931), won no other PGA Tour event, period.
TNT and CBS this week are promoting the PGA as "golf's last chance for glory," but while true, it's mostly hype to attract viewers. The PGA is to the Masters and U.S. and British Opens as the Australian Open is to tennis' majors, the other three (Wimbledon and French and U.S. Opens) held in more prestigious locales (London, Paris, New York) and at better times of the year.
In April comes the Masters, which is beloved because of its rich history, which is weird, really, since it's the youngest of the four majors. But big names win this thing (Jack Nicklaus, 6 times; Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods, 4 each; Nick Faldo and Sam Snead, 3 each). Plus, it's held at lush Augusta National, the only major that uses the same venue every year.
In June we have the U.S. Open, ending on Father's Day and almost universally accepted as the toughest of the four majors, thanks to the sadists at the United States Golf Association, who generally go looking for a difficult golf course and then turn it into a monster. Again, big names win this one (Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, the great amateur Bobby Jones and turn-of-the-century Scottish legend Willie Anderson, 4 titles each; Woods and Hale Irwin, 3 apiece).
July brings the British Open, or "The Open Championship," as it's known across the Atlantic. Played at courses rich with history. Again, big-name winners (Harry Vardon, 6; Tom Watson and Aussie Peter Thomson, 5 each; Walter Hagen, 4).
While the PGA also has its share of marquee champions (Nicklaus and Hagen, 5 each; Woods, 4), it's also just as likely to see a no-name hoisting the 44-pound Wanamaker Trophy. Hold your applause, folks, but guys named Rich Beem, Mark Brooks, Wayne Grady, Jeff Sluman and Bob Tway all won the PGA in the past 23 years.
The winners-from-nowhere pattern at the PGA also comes in waves. Micheel's victory capped a three-year run (Beem in 2002, David Toms in 2001) of one-time major champions. It also happened in 1995 (Steve Elkington), 1996 (Brooks) and 1997 (Davis Love III). In the mid-1960s, Bobby Nichols (1964), Dave Marr (1965), Al Geiberger (1966) and Don January (1967) made it four straight for PGA winners who won no other major.
The record, though, was set in 1957-1961, when Lionel Hebert, Dow Finsterwald, Bob Rosburg, Jay Hebert (older brother of Lionel) and Jerry Barber won the PGA for their only major titles.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bringing competition back into golf

Win or lose, Tom Watson is good for golf, seemingly as good at 59 as he was at 25, when he won his first major, the 1975 British Open at Carnoustie.
He was even better two years later. In 1977, Watson edged out Jack Nicklaus in two majors, by two strokes in the Masters and by a single shot in the British Open at Turnberry, site of perhaps the greatest victory of his 38-year professional career and, after last week, also the site of likely his most heartbreaking near-miss.
In 1977, Watson shot 65-65 the final two rounds at Turnberry to turn back Nicklaus, his playing partner over the final two days, who shot 65-66. Last week, when he made a oh-he's-human-after-all bogey on the 72nd hole at Turnberry, dropping him into a four-hole playoff with Stewart Cink that resulted in an anti-climactic rout in Cink's favor, Watson's timing could not have been worse.
Back in the mid-1970s, though, Watson's timing could not have been better. Nicklaus, the Golden Bear who burst on the scene in the early 1960s, was threatening to dominate the game. From 1970-1980, Nicklaus won 10 majors, finished second eight times and was in the top 10 in 38 of 44 majors, a ridiculous batting average not even matched by Tiger Woods in any 44 consecutive majors since he turned pro in 1997 (the closest Woods gets is 30 of 44 top 10s from 1998-2009).
Watson, a gap-toothed kid from Kansas City, Mo., who, like Woods, attended Stanford University, won four majors between 1975 and 1980, and four more between 1981 and 1983. He won five British Opens on a record five different golf courses (Carnoustie, 1975; Turnberry, 1977; Muirfield, 1980; Royal Troon, 1982; Royal Birkdale, 1983).
Much is made of the fact that Woods, with 14 major victories, is within sight of Nicklaus's record 18 major wins. Wouldn't the Golden Bear's numbers look a little more intimidating if he hadn't been a runner-up to Watson in four majors?
What Watson did in the 1970s is bring competition back into the pro game. The other challengers were formidable but not Nicklaus's equal over the long haul. Arnold Palmer, a seven-time major winner from 1958-1964, was fading as Nicklaus was reaching his peak. South African Gary Player won seven of his nine majors during Nicklaus's pro career but only three after 1972. Lee Trevino, who like Watson made Nicklaus a runner-up four times in major championships, won six majors from 1968 to 1984 but only one after 1974.
The intimidation factor with Woods today is legendary. He won his first major, the 1997 Masters, by 12 shots at the age of 21. He's won the PGA Championship by five shots, the British Open by eight and the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links by a ridiculous 15 strokes.
But the facts say Nicklaus was at least as intimidating in his day. And he won eight of his 18 majors after trailing going into the final round, something Tiger has yet to do once.
Two of Watson's major wins show he wasn't fazed by Nicklaus's status as the man to beat. The first was "The Duel in the Sun" at Turnberry in 1977. The second came in 1982 at Pebble Beach, where Nicklaus had won the 1961 U.S. Amateur, the 1972 U.S. Open and three Bing Crosby National Pro-Am titles.
In the 1982 U.S. Open, Nicklaus, two years removed from his last major victory but not yet done winning them, was playing just ahead of Watson and had finished at 4 under. Watson faced a delicate chip from the rough at the par-3 17th, needing two pars to match Nicklaus. Watson's caddy, the late Bruce Edwards, told his pro to "get it close." Watson had other ideas, and told Edwards he intended to hole the shot. Improbably, he did just that for a birdie, then birdied 18 to win by two shots.
Given a similar scenario today, with Tiger Woods in the clubhouse, can you think of any pro on the tour who could do the same?
I would say it's doubtful. And that's why pro golf needs someone like a Tom Watson, someone who can keep competition, and suspense, in the game.
Don't get me wrong. I think Tiger Woods has been and will continue to be great for golf. Some golf fans, many of whom have no clue about the nature of the sport, wonder what's wrong with Tiger if he doesn't win every event he plays. I think golf would be worse off if he did win every event he played.

Friday, July 17, 2009

3 keys to winning a major championship

What does it take to win a major championship? It can vary from major to major, but three things stand out in assessing the British Open, the oldest of the game's four elite events.
You can't talk about wizardry with a golf club without mentioning Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, a three-time British Open and two-time Masters champion.
Ballesteros turned pro as a 17-year-old in 1974 and in 1976 was runner-up in the British Open at 19. He won his first British Open at 22 in 1979, becoming the youngest golfer in the 20th Century to capture that coveted crown. His victory in the 1980 Masters made him the first European to win at Augusta National Country Club, and the youngest winner of a Green Jacket until Tiger surpassed him in 1997.
Ballesteros also won the Masters in 1983 and the British Open in 1984 and 1988. In four of his five major championship wins, he trailed heading into the final round.
It was his first British Open triumph, in 1979 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, that cemented Seve's reputation as a Houdini on the golf course. In his second round, he didn't have a tee shot in the fairway until the 14th hole and yet shot 65. In his final round, he found the fairway once and played the final seven holes 1 under par, including a birdie at the 16th after hitting his drive into an area used for parking cars.
"I don't aim for the rough; it just goes there," he said following the 1979 British Open. He also knew he could get away with wayward tee shots on a links-style course. In the United States, where "target golf" puts a greater premium on accuracy, Seve seldom fared as well, especially in the U.S. Open. He did not often play and was rarely in the hunt in the states (only six of his 91 wins worldwide came on Amerian soil), although he did finish third in the 1987 U.S. Open at San Francisco's Olympic Club, and probably would have won if his opponents had to play from some of the spots Ballesteros put himself off the tee.
A combination of a bad back and erratic driving eventually shortened Seve's career. But none could deny that in his heyday, he was magic personified.

Tom Watson, a winner of five British Opens, two Masters and one U.S. Open, gets high marks here. It's probably why he's still competitive at 59 and came within a whisker of winning this year's British Open. In his prime, he held his own against the biggest names in the game, especially Jack Nicklaus. It was no doubt his calm that contributed to Watson's famous chip-in from the rough at 17 at Pebble Beach in the final round of the 1982 U.S. Open that helped him beat Nicklaus for what would be his only U.S. Open victory.
But the person that comes to mind for me in Zen-like mentality is England's Nick Faldo. He has has achieved an inner calm that is evident on his golf analysis for CBS.
This wasn't always the case. Faldo was once nicknamed "Foldo" for having blown chances to win the 1983 British Open and 1984 Masters. But he remade his game and came back stronger than ever for about a 10-year span, winning the British Open in 1987, 1990 and 1992 and the Masters in 1989, 1990 and 1996.
There are any number of examples of Faldo's serenity. His overcoming deficits in four of his six major titles, including playoff wins over Scott Hoch and Raymond Floyd, the latter a legendary steely eyed competitor, in consecutive years in the Masters.
Faldo's most steady turn in a major, though, came in winning his first major, the 1987 British Open at Muirfield in Scotland. In the final round, Faldo, a day after his 30th birthday, parred all 18 holes to win. Paul Azinger, meanwhile, bogeyed the final two holes to lose the tournament. It's funny now to see the two of them together in the broadcast booth on occasion.

Where to begin here. There's any number of professionals who qualify for this category.
Ireland's Padraig Harrington, who at one time trained to become an accountant, played 36 consecutive majors without much distinction until winning the 2007 British Open and the British Open and PGA Championship in 2008. He overcame deficits to start the final round in all three wins, including a six-shot margin at the 2007 British Open.
Mark O'Meara, after a stellar amateur career that included winning the 1979 U.S. Amateur, won about a dozen tour events, including the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am five times. But he had competed in 58 majors - missing the cut in 19 - before finally breaking through at the 1998 Masters at age 41. Four months later, he won the British Open.
But my vote here goes to Tom Lehman. Like Harrington and O'Meara, it took Lehman a while to break through in a major. He won the British Open in 1996 at age 37, following near misses in the 1993 and 1994 Masters and the U.S. Open in 1995 and 1996.
Lehman, unlike Harrington and O'Meara, had a much more difficult road getting to compete regularly on the PGA Tour. He struggled on the tour from 1983-85, lost his card, then competed the next six years on the Asia and South Africa tours and the second-tier Ben Hogan tour in the U.S. before regaining his PGA Tour privileges.
He was the PGA Tour Player of the Year in 1996, the year before Tiger Woods arrived full-time and began rewriting the record books. Lehman was a three-time Ryder Cup player and captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 2006.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Don't just watch . . . get out and play

Third green at the Links at Bodega Harbour

There's nothing like the start of a major championship to get you motivated to hit the links yourself. And that's just what I did Thursday after watching Tom Watson, two months shy of his 60th birthday, turn back time by posting a 5-under-par 65 for the early lead in the British Open at Turnberry.
Watson was later eclipsed by Miguel Angel Jimenez for the first-round lead. Nonetheless, it was good to see one of golf's elder statesmen on his game, so I tried to do my best Tom Watson impression at one of my all-time favorite courses, the Links at Bodega Harbour on the beautiful Sonoma County coast.
I first played Bodega Harbour back when it was just a nine-hole track. It opened in 1978, added a second nine in 1987 and has been a favorite of mine ever since. I've never played my best golf there (too many beautiful distractions, maybe?), but I've always enjoyed the experience.
Today was no different. Great fun, not-so-great golf. Actually, it wasn't all bad. I played holes 2-10 in even par. It's just that the other nine holes included four double-bogeys en route to a 13-over 83.
A bit about the course. The first four holes go uphill and away from the ocean, and to be honest the view isn't spectacular - not yet, anyway. But it's four solid holes and they all make you work. The first is an uphill, dogleg-right par-4 that shouldn't be that difficult but for some reason always seems to perplex me. The second is a short, well-bunkered par-4 that can be easily handled if you leave the driver in the bag. The third is an uphill par-3 with a big green, sloping downhill quickly from the back.
The par-4 fourth, though, can be treacherous, requiring a well-placed drive to a split-level fairway, followed by a blind shot uphill to an undulating green. Toughest hole on the course.
Your reward for the first four is the par-5 5th, a Z-shaped, downhill hole that 30 years have taught me is best played with two 5-irons and a wedge. A drive too far and straight ends up in a cow pasture left of the fairway, too far right is lost or out of bounds. From the upper fairway, the view of the Pacific Ocean - on a clear day - is magnificent.
Back-to-back par-3s at Nos. 6-7 are not too difficult if you hit the green, but you could end up with longish putts. The par-5 eighth is relatively short but not as easy as it looks because the green is sloped dramatically downward from back to front, and good luck if you end up in one of the bunkers behind the green. The ninth is a benign par-4 that, much like the second hole, is best played without a driver.
There is more room to spray the ball around on the back nine, except for the final three holes. The 10th is like the first, an uphill, dogleg-right par-4, only much shorter, followed by the longer, straightaway, par-4 11th and uphill, par-3 12th. (A bit of advice on 12, whatever club you've got in your hand, take one club more. This hole always plays longer than it looks.)
Yet another dogleg-right par-4 at No. 13, but forget about trying to cut the corner. The hole's short enough that it doesn't matter which side of the fairway you're on. You better get the big lumber out for the par-4 No. 14, then have fun at 15, a fairly wide-open par-5.
The last three holes are tricky and come as close to the beach as you can get without putting your feet in the Pacific Ocean. The 16th, a ridiculously short par-4, requires a decent carry over a marsh, and the closer you aim toward the green, the more of the marsh you must clear. Don't get greedy. Same goes for the par-3 17th; just hit enough club to reach the green. At the par-4 18th, it's all about the drive, because if you're not in the fairway, the approach shot, straight downhill and toward the ocean, can be extra scary.
All in all, a marvelous piece of real estate. It's not Pebble Beach, but it doesn't set you back $300-$400, either.
If you'd like to check out more about the Links at Bodega Harbour, check out their Web site at

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Turning back time at Turnberry

Thirty-two years ago, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus staged one of the greatest duels in golf history in the British Open at Turnberry in Scotland. The third of the year's major golf championships, referred to simply as The Open Championship outside the U.S., returns to Turnberry this week, so it's a good time to reflect on one of the most stunning events in the game.
Why is the 1977 British Open so special? For starters, the field was spectacular, as star-studded as any before or since. In addition to Nicklaus and Watson, the master and the apprentice, also among the top 10 at the end were Hubert Green, Lee Trevino, Ben Crenshaw, Arnold Palmer, Raymond Floyd and Johnny Miller, all of whom had won or would go on to win multiple major championships. Palmer, the 1961-62 British Open champ in a sterling career that included a U.S. Open crown and four Masters titles, wound up seventh, his final top-10 in a major.
Also in the field were five-time British Open champ Peter Thomson, four-time winner Bobby Locke and three-time titlist Sir Henry Cotton, then 70 years old,  plus former major winners Roberto de Vicenzo, Tony Jacklin, Bob Charles, Tom Weiskopf, Gary Player and Jerry Pate. Greg Norman, who would go on to win two British Opens and, sadly, become even more famous for several majors he narrowly lost (8 runner-up finishes), was 22 and playing in his first major championship. Making their second appearance in a major were 19-year-olds Sandy Lyle and Nick Faldo. Lyle would later win the British Open and the Masters once each; Faldo, now a respected golf commentator, would go on to win three British and three Masters crowns.
Australian David Graham was entered, too. He hadn't done much up to then but would soon go on to post comeback victories in the U.S. Open and PGA.
The most talked-about, budding young star in 1977 was Spain's Seve Ballesteros. Though just 20, he had already been a runner-up in the British Open as a teenager the year before. He would go on to win three British Open trophies and a pair of Masters green jackets.
In all, the field at Turnberry that year included 23 players who wound up winning a combined 98 major championships.
At the top of the pack, though, were Watson and Nicklaus, two pros who grew up in the Midwest and were about to give the savvy British Open fans reasons to cheer. Tied at the halfway point, Watson, 27, and Nicklaus, 37, were paired together for the third round, when each player shot 65, and again were paired together in the final round.
While the rest of the field was quickly falling out of contention, Watson, who had won the 1975 British Open for his first major and nudged Nicklaus by two strokes earlier in 1977 at the Masters, and Nicklaus, seeking his 15th major victory, were tearing up the course. They matched each other nearly stroke for stroke, the difference coming when Watson two-putted for birdie at the par-five 17th hole and Nicklaus missed a short putt for birdie. At 18, Watson split the fairway, while Nicklaus drove in the rough.
After Watson's approach settled within three feet of the flagstick and seemed to settle matters once and for all, Nicklaus took a mighty swing from the gorse and was fortunate just to reach the edge of the green, leaving him 40 feet from the cup. But Nicklaus holed the putt for birdie, forcing Watson to make his short putt for birdie, which he did to post the second of his five British Open championships.
Nicklaus shot 65-66 on the weekend, only to fall one shot shy of Watson, who posted 65-65. At 268 and 269 for 72 holes, they were 10 shots clear of the field.
Hubert Green, whose closing 67 left him alone in third at 279, jokingly said afterward: "I won the tournament. I don't know what course Tom and Jack were playing."
For more on the 1977 British Open, read Mike Corcoran's "Duel in the Sun: Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in the Battle of Turnberry," or check out the youtube links to the left of this column.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Golf isn't for everyone ... but it's worth the effort

Some people are fortunate enough to play golf well. That's great, but I think it's better to play golf right.
By that I mean, getting the most you can out of the game. Some people are naturally gifted and can play golf well ... shoot a low score. Others work hard at it and also achieve a certain level of skill. But if you play it "right," golf will give you much greater rewards than a low score.
Golf is not for everyone, I've come to understand. It forces us to slow down, has considerable down time between swings and can sometimes seem cruel, like the nicely struck recovery shot that catches the smallest branch of a tree.
"A good walk spoiled," is how Mark Twain referred to golf.
Twain wrote some great stories, and in a sort of Zelig-like link, he and I both had bylined stories from what was once the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi. But I'll bet he didn't have the patience for golf. If he had, he might have thought differently.
Golf is a game that values calm over chaos, serenity over sound and peace if not always prosperity. Done right, it can teach patience. You cannot swing a stick at a little round ball that doesn't move, that almost never does the same thing twice when struck, and invariably doesn't do what you want it to do, without either pulling out your hair or at least wanting to.
If you can find the humor in it, the understanding that it's the journey and not the destination that matters, you are that much closer to the Zen of golf. And, unlike many other athletic endeavors, it's a game you can enjoy into your old age.
In my youth, I was much less patient with bad shots, and my game in general. As I've gotten older, and played less often, I have come to appreciate the game more, to focus on the things I'm doing right and worry less about what I'm doing wrong.
I'm also not afraid to tinker more with my game. If something isn't working, try a different approach. What's the worst that could happen? A higher score? A lost ball? And that's bad because ... ?
It's not. There's no mantra. I don't chant between shots.
Take a breath. So you've hit that dreaded duck-hook into the trees, and now you've got a tricky shot back into civilization. What's the problem?
No one is expecting you to pull off that miracle recovery, but if you do ... what a sensation. Anyone can play this game from the middle of the fairway. It's the clever fellow who can find his way home without a map.

Why Tigers Woods is not (yet) the greatest golfer of all time

This is not hedging my bets. Tiger Woods will one day be the greatest golfer of all time. Using strictly empirical evidence, that will come when he wins his 19th major championship to move past Jack Nicklaus, who has 18.
Until that day, though, Nicklaus must still be considered the greatest golfer of all time.
There is no question that Woods has had the most profound effect on golf since Arnold Palmer made it a game for the masses in the early 1960s with his U.S. Open victory at Cherry Hills, his resurrection of a then-moribund British Open by winning in 1961 and his four Masters titles in even-numbered years between 1958 and 1964.
I would go further to suggest that Woods has had a greater impact on the game of golf than any single athlete has ever had in elevating his or her sport. Babe Ruth? Jackie Robinson? Baseball remains the "National Pastime," and nothing or any one player will change that. Michael Jordan? The NBA has had phenomenal athletes before and since Jordan and will continue to long after Lebron James retires. The NFL? Even less likely to produce that one athlete who stands above the crowd in a way that makes non-fans come onboard. Roger Federer? Tennis has its heroes of many eras (Laver, Borg, Sampras, et al), and though Roger's numbers are impressive, he also has no real peer (except Rafael Nadal, on clay) that can help elevate him to a singular pedestal. Wayne Gretzky? Perhaps in Canada. In America, the NHL has few casual fans outside the die-hards.
Mark Spitz? Michael Phelps? Sorry, swimming, like all other sports propped up by the Olympics (track, gymnastics, etc.), is really thought about only every four years.
In the case of Tiger Woods, no single player has so drastically altered the landscape like he has with golf. There are people who don't play - or even understand - golf who consider themselves fans since Tiger turned pro in 1996 and won the Masters by a whopping 12 shots in 1997. The whole "you the man" or "in the hole" shouts may have started with John Daly's improbable win in the 1991 PGA Championship, but the ballpark mentally that has taken over tour events is almost directly related to Tiger, for better or worse. He has the talent to do remarkable things with a golf ball, and the charisma to make it look exciting.
TV ratings soar when Tiger plays, dwindle when he doesn't. In short, no one cares when he's not there. And when he's not, it's the proverbial tree-falls-in-an-empty-forest. Did it really happen? Does anyone care? Padraig Harrington won the British Open and PGA in 2008 when Tiger was recuperating from reconstructive knee surgery, but does anyone really think he would have won both those majors - or either of them - if a fully healthy Tiger had been in the field?
But here is where it gets tricky for those who think Tiger already is the greatest golfer ever. For one, he is still four major victories behind Nicklaus. At 33, he seems fully capable of reaching that total. But he's not there yet. (Nicklaus, by the way, won seven majors after he turned 33.)
The other, more telling fact about Tiger is that he has never won a major championship when he did not at least share the lead going into the final day. Nicklaus, by contrast, won eight of his 18 majors by making up deficits to start the final round, including his first one, in 1962. That was when a 22-year-old, tubby, chain-smoking, toe-headed guy from Ohio beat the charismatic Arnold Palmer (also a smoker ... hey, it was more common back then) in a playoff at Oakmont Country Club, in Palmer's backyard, no less.
A lot is made of the intimidation factor with Tiger, whose highlight reels would keep ESPN in business for months. He won his first major, the 1997 Masters, by a dozen shots. He claimed the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2000 by a ridiculous 15 strokes. He won the British Open at St. Andrews, also in 2000, by eight shots.
As a frontrunner, he is phenomenal. But until he shows he can erase a deficit to start the final round of a major, that intimidation factor only goes so far. Let's see Tiger really make up some ground. Maybe he can this week in the British Open at Turnberry.
Nicklaus, meanwhile, won each of the four majors (Masters, U.S., British, PGA) at least once after trailing going into the final round. The largest deficit, 4 strokes, came in his final major win, the 1986 Masters, when a 46-year-old Nicklaus shot 30 on back the nine at Augusta to grab his sixth green jacket.
Will Tiger be playing at Augusta when he's 46? Will he still be competitive at 46?