Thursday, September 16, 2010

Bobby Jones' slam and the near-misses

This year marks the 80th anniversary of Bobby Jones winning golf’s grand slam. In 1930, Jones captured the U.S. and British Open tournaments, and the U.S. and British Amateur championships. Today, the two amateur championships are no longer considered golf majors, having been replaced by the Masters and the PGA Championship.

In 1930, though, there was no Masters (it started in 1934, after Jones, a Georgia native, helped build Augusta National), and the PGA Championship was then a lesser-known, 14-year-old event involving mostly club professionals at a time when pro golfers were considered second-class citizens to the great amateurs of the day.

Whatever you may think of Jones’ accomplishment, it’s worth noting that no golfer since 1930 has won the four majors (Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA) in a single year. But who were some of the other golfers who came close?

Tiger Woods’ name immediately jumps to the fore, no pun intended. His 2000 season is considered by some the greatest single season in modern golf. That year, he won the U.S. Open by 15 shots at Pebble Beach Golf Links. Ernie Els of South Africa and Miguel-Angel Jimenez of Spain were a distant second.

Woods then won the British Open at St. Andrews in Scotland by eight strokes, with Els again sharing second, this time with Thomas Bjorn of Denmark. Woods closed out his stellar season by winning the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Kentucky in a three-hole playoff with Bob May. In the first major in 2000, Woods was fifth at the Masters, six shots behind winner Vijay Singh.

Woods’ remarkable 2000 campaign drew extra attention after he won the 2001 Masters to simultaneously hold all four majors, although not in a single year. It has become known as the Tiger Slam.

Here are some of other notable near-misses:

1945: Byron Nelson won 18 tournaments that year, including 11 in a row, both tour records. However, due to World War II, there was only one major championship held that year, the PGA, and not surprisingly, Nelson won it. Plus, Ben Hogan, his chief competition, was away at war for the first six months of the year.

1953: Ben Hogan put together arguably the greatest single season between Jones’ in 1930 until Woods’ in 2000. The Texas native played only six events that year but won five, including three majors, the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. He was unable to compete in the PGA because it was held at the same time as the British Open. And, oh yeah, he was 40 years old that year.

1960: Arnold Palmer, as Hogan did in 1953, won the Masters (his second of four Green Jackets) and the U.S. Open (his only win in that event), but wound up second at the British Open, one shot behind Kel Nagle. He also tied for seventh in the PGA, the only major he failed to win in his illustrious career.

1974: Gary Player, like Hogan a man of modest stature with fierce determination, won the Masters and British Open that year, tied for eighth in the U.S. Open and finished seventh in the PGA.

1975: Jack Nicklaus, who finished in the top 10 in a remarkable 35 out of 40 appearances in the majors in the 1970s, won the first and last majors that year, the Masters and PGA, and finished seventh in the U.S. Open, two shots back of Lou Graham, and tied for third in the British Open, one stroke behind Tom Watson. Nicklaus also won the Masters and U.S. Open in 1972, finished second in the British Open and tied for 13th in the PGA.

1977: Tom Watson, the gap-toothed boy wonder often hailed as the man who would dethrone Nicklaus, fulfilled a great deal of his promise with four top-10 finishes in the majors. He won the Masters and the second of his five British Open titles. He tied for seventh in the U.S. Open and tied for sixth in the PGA.

1982: Watson again caught fire, winning two majors and placing in the top 10 in the other two. He captured the U.S. Open with a master stroke by holing out a delicate chip for birdie on the next-to-last hole at Pebble Beach, then birdying 18 to beat Nicklaus by two shots. He also won the British Open a fourth time, tied for fifth in the Masters and tied for ninth in the PGA.

2005: Woods’ season was nearly as remarkable as his 2000 assault. He won the Masters and British Open, tied for second in the U.S. Open, two shots behind Michael Campbell, and tied for fourth in the PGA, two strokes behind Phil Mickelson.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ryder Cup teams finalized

It's been assumed that Team Europe captain Colin Montgomerie took the risky route and Team USA captain Corey Pavin played it safe with their respective captain's picks for the Ryder Cup.

The truth is, Monty's choices aren't as daring as it might seem, and Pavin's aren't as predictable, either.

Each team for the Ryder Cup, set for Oct. 1-3 at Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales, consists of a dozen players. However, inconsistent selection criteria left Monty with three wild cards and Pavin with four.

First, a look at the automatic qualifiers for each team:

Team Europe: Englishmen Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher; Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland; Martin Kaymer of Germany; Francesco Molinari of Italy; Peter Hanson of Sweden; and Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain.

Team USA: Phil Mickelson, Hunter Mahan, Bubba Watson, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson, Jeff Overton and Matt Kuchar.

Monty made his wild-card choices on Aug. 29, selecting Padraig Harrington of Ireland, Edoardo Molinari of Italy and Luke Donald of England. Pavin's picks, made Tuesday, were Tiger Woods, Stewart Cink, Zach Johnson and Rickie Fowler.

Scotland's Montgomerie was derided in some circles for bypassing a pair of high-ranking Brits, Paul Casey and Justin Rose. Casey is ranked No. 9 in the world, and Rose has already won twice this season on the PGA Tour. However, Harrington has something neither of those two have, a major championship. In fact, he has three, having won the British Open in 2007 and 2008 and the PGA Championship in 2008.

Molinari, the older brother of Francesco, is arguably one of the hottest players on the European Tour (he was en route to winning a tournament the day Monty made his picks). Donald, meanwhile, is ranked 10th in the world, just behind Casey, and has a 5-1-1 record in two previous Ryder Cups.

Although Harrington has not won on the PGA Tour since his PGA crown in 2008, he is a no-brainer for Monty's team, half of which will be playing in the Ryder Cup for the first time. Harrington is a veteran of match play, having competed in three Walker Cup competitions (the amateur equivalent of the Ryder Cup) and now six consecutive Ryder Cup squads.

The lesser-known Molinari gets the nod over Casey and Rose, in my book, for two reasons. First, he has shown greater support for the European Tour than Casey and Rose, who divide their time fairly equally between the PGA and European tours. Second, it will be impossible for Monty to resist pairing the Molinari brothers together in the foursome and four ball competition.

Unlike Montgomerie, who was saddled with an embarrassment of riches in making his three captain's picks, Pavin probably would have relished making just three wild cards, or perhaps even just two. As silly as it sounds, the Euro team is easily as deep as the U.S. with Ryder Cup talent. I'm not sure how Team USA can win the Ryder Cup. Team Europe has always wanted it more; now they have the talent to back up their desire.

You could say the U.S. Ryder Cup team has never been so weak.

When Tiger Woods returned to pro golf this spring following a five-month layoff and didn't immediately start winning, and then continued to look lost in subsequent tournaments, there was a low-level buzz that he would be left off the Ryder Cup squad. The fact that most of these people wouldn't know a sand wedge from a sandwich is beside the point.

As long as Tiger Woods had a pulse, Pavin was going to pick him, as well he should. It's not like there's a long line of Americans pushing him out of the spotlight. Tiger Woods at 80 percent of his potential is still better - and, sorry to say, way more marketable - than nearly all other U.S. tour players.

The only other obvious choice for Pavin was Zach Johnson. He is a former Masters champ and has played well this year, showing himself to be a true warrior by overcoming a lack of length off the tee to finish tied for third - one shot out of the playoff between Kaymer and Watson - in last month's PGA Championship at overly long Whistling Straits.

After Woods and Johnson, Pavin could have picked anybody and no one would have a right to complain. Cink won last year's British Open but has done little since, and probably got the nod over Lucas Glover, last year's U.S. Open champ, only because Glover has played even worse since then.

As for Fowler, he's a prime example of the meager pickins' for Pavin. Fowler is 21, played in the Walker Cup just last year and has not even been a pro for a full year. He and Overton are the first U.S. Ryder Cup rookies ever without a PGA Tour victory.

It's not just because the Ryder Cup is in Wales that Team Europe will be favored. Pavin will have his hands full between now and Oct. 1 coming up with a lineup that can compete.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What's wrong with golf?

It's a singular question, but there's no shortage of answers.

We're only 10 days removed from assessing the PGA of America's blunder in the Dustin Johnson is-it-a-sand-trap-or-isn't-it embarrassment at the PGA Championship, and already the LPGA Tour and PGA Tour have found ways to hog the stupidity spotlight.

I suppose Dustin Johnson should at least be grateful the dimwit tour officials didn't disqualify him at the PGA for failing to realize that the sandy waste area where his ball came to rest on the final hole of the final day was in fact a bunker, and that he wasn't allowed to ground his club before striking the ball. I wonder where he got the idea it wasn't a bunker? You think maybe it was the hundred or so spectators standing in said sand trap?

I don't know about you, but where I come from (reality), spectators aren't allowed to stand in a sand trap. And if they are, all bets are off.

All Johnson got was a two-stroke penalty, but that was enough to knock him out of a potential three-man playoff at the year's final major. Long after people have forgotten who won (German Martin Kaymer, and much praise to him), golf fans and even casual observers will remember what morons the PGA of America officials were for blindly adhering to a particularly specious judgment call.

Juli Inkster and Jim Furyk, who between them have 45 years of professional golf experience and more than 60 tournament wins, weren't as lucky as Johnson. In the past week, both were DQ'd for violations that can only charitably be described as insane. The disqualifications cost both players dearly, revealing yet another problem with golf: Quite often, punishments far exceed the crime. In golf, jaywalkers get life without parole.

Inkster's DQ from the Safeway Classic in Oregon last week would be comical if not for the fact that the 50-year-old "grande dame" of the LPGA Tour had just shot a second-round 67 that moved her to within three shots of the lead. Her crime? While waiting out a delay midway through her round, Inkster tried to stay loose by taking practice swings with a swing weight attached to her 9-iron.

This is a violation of the United States Golf Association's Rule 14-3 in the USGA's "Rules of Golf," which prohibits the use of practice devices during play. I'm not going to argue that this is a stupid rule. I get that the USGA is concerned with giving any player an unfair advantage.

But let's set the rule aside for a moment. How did LPGA Tour officials know Inkster had violated Rule 14-3? Had a fellow touring pro observed her doing this and informed tournament officials? Nope. Did a tournament official see it for themselves? Nope. A spectator at the golf course? Wrong again.

None of these scenarios happened, I'll bet because none of them were aware of Rule 14-3's prohibition against using a swing weight during play. Inkster certainly wasn't aware of it; if she were, she wouldn't have done it. Let's add this context: Juli Inkster has won 39 tournaments as a pro, 31 on the LPGA Tour since joining in 1983, including majors Kraft Nabisco Championship, LPGA Championship and U.S. Women's Open twice each, and the du Maurier (Canada's top event) in 1984 when that event was still considered a major. She's a member of both the World Golf Hall of Fame and the LPGA Hall of Fame, and she won the U.S. Women's Amateur (an event, like the Women's Open, run by the USGA) three straight years before turning pro.

It's a safe assumption that Juli Inkster has a pretty good understanding of the rules of golf. However, my guess is she can't quote the "Rules of Golf" chapter and verse. I imagine there are no more than five people in America who know the USGA rules by heart, and all five have a 5-iron up their butt. It was Inkster's misfortune that one of those anal-retentives spied her on the Golf Channel's coverage of the Safeway Classic, then (continued cranial-rectal thinking here), e-mailed the tour event to call Inkster on her egregious error.

It was at this point that the LPGA Tour folks could have, should have taken this information and said, "Thank you, but get a life." Instead, they viewed footage of the Golf Channel coverage with, one imagines, the seriousness of Congress poring over the Zapruder film of Kennedy's assassination. Satisfied that Inkster "cheated," they DQ'd her.

And isn't upholding the integrity of golf what it's all about? No sport but golf allows Joe Blow at home to affect the outcome of a sporting event. A know-it-all who felt obligated to share his "vast" knowledge was rewarded. These kind of people should be ignored, and whoever had to tell Inkster in person that she was DQ'd should be ashamed.

Furyk, meanwhile, was DQ'd from the Barclays Championship, this week's PGA Tour event in New Jersey, for doing nothing on the golf course. All he did was oversleep and show up late for his tee time in the Wednesday pro-am that precedes the event scheduled to start Thursday. He relied on his cell phone alarm to wake up, and was delayed when the phone's battery died. I'm hoping that's the last time he does that.

Again, that's not really the point. It's the subsequent DQ, why the PGA Tour felt it was necessary, and why it's so stupid. In an effort to cut down on tour pros begging off pro-ams with questionable illnesses or injuries, the PGA Tour a few years ago decreed that anyone who fails to show for a pro-am would also be DQ'd from that week's tour event.

Now we're talking about something not even addressed in the rules of golf. This is a corporate entity doing what it can to protect itself financially. The ams in pro-ams are mostly CEOs of companies that sponsor VIP tents and tournaments themselves. What tour officials could have, should have done was to fine Furyk, but let him finish the pro-am and compete in the Barclays this week.

That Furyk made every effort to get to the golf course and probably would have missed, at most, one hole of the pro-am, was rejected. Rules are rules, and, by golly, we gotta have rules.

Furyk's a big boy, he makes good money and probably won't suffer lasting harm from this episode. Heck, he might even get an alarm-clock endorsement contract.

But the PGA Tour will suffer for shooting itself in the foot. It's not a smart thing to do, especially since the tour is already suffering from investing so much time and effort (too much time, if you ask me) in continued promotion of its one-time golden boy, Tiger Woods.

Corporations, though, are not real good at big-picture perspective. Witness the blunders of BP following the Gulf oil spill.

And the PGA of America, the LPGA Tour and PGA Tour are corporations. They'd like to think they enhance the game, but the truth is they just as often muck it up.

To them, golf is a business. To me, it's a game.

I went golfing on my birthday this week. On a day in which the mercury reached 106, it seemed like I had turned back the clock 25-30 years, to when I could really play. I was 3 under par on my first nine holes and still 3 under with four holes left, but bogeyed three of the final four to finish at even-par 72. Despite the obvious disappointment over my collapse, which I attribute in no small part to the heat, I was excited by the way I played.

Good play will keep me coming back, just as it does for most golfers. It's the search for the great drive, the well-struck iron, the perfect putt.

There's not much wrong with golf. Sometimes, there is something wrong with the folks that claim to administer the game.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sad end to a great major

I should feel pretty good about the fact that one of my 12 pre-tournament picks - young German Martin Kaymer - won the PGA Championship, the year's final major.

I should feel pretty good that, coupled with Phil Mickelson's victory in the year's first major, the Masters, I had correctly predicted two of the four major champions this year.

I should feel pretty good that my 12 picks for the PGA included three of the top seven, four of the top 12 and six of the top 23 finishers.

All I really feel is sad.

Sad for Kaymer, a 25-year-old who won his first major championship and became only the second German to win a major, behind his icon, two-time Masters champ Bernhard Langer. Sad because Kaymer's incredible play down the stretch (just two bogeys in the final 55 holes, more than offset by 13 birdies), will forever be overshadowed by the way the tournament ended.

Sad for American Bubba Watson, whose daring play on the final day produced three birdies in a four-hole stretch of the back nine, an all-or-nothing approach in the subsequent three-hole playoff with Kaymer that ultimately cost him big-time, and an 11-under 277 total in regulation that, were it not for Kaymer calmly holing a 15-foot par-saving putt at 18, would have produced big-hitting Bubba's first major championship.

Sad, also for American Zach Johnson and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, both of whom finished tied for third at 10 under, a stroke out of the playoff. Johnson, who won the Masters in 2007, is a short-hitting pro who somehow managed to string together rounds of 69-70-69-70 on the ridiculously long layout. McIlroy, who turned 21 in May, showed a youthful bravado with 21 birdies during the four days but couldn't come up with the one shot or putt he needed most.

But sad, mostly, for American Dustin Johnson. In a scenario a bit reminiscent of Australian Greg Norman's in 1986, when the Great White Shark led after three rounds of all four majors but won just the British Open that year, Johnson played in the final group of two majors in 2010, the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and last week's PGA at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis.

At Pebble Beach, Johnson led by three shots after three rounds, but he blew up with a disastrous final-round 82. At the PGA, he wasn't the leader after 54 holes; Nick Watney had that distinction. Dustin Johnson, though, stood at the 72nd hole at Whistling Straits, alone at 12 under and needing only a par to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy.

In a sequence of events that can only be described as a perfect storm, disaster struck Dustin. His tee shot on the par-4 was well right, the ball coming to rest in a sandy waste area where hundreds of spectators had been standing. Johnson surveyed the scene, then hit a shot left and beyond the green that was not spectacular but, considering what he had to work with, not bad, either. His pitch from high grass left him with less than 10 feet to save par, but he missed the putt to the right, falling back into a tie with Watson and Kaymer.

For the briefest of moments, it seemed the fans at Whistling Straits and those of us at home watching on TV would be treated to a fascinating, three-man, three-hole playoff between an unflappable German and two long-hitting Americans. It looked for all the world like a tantalizing glimpse ahead to October's Ryder Cup. Watson, 31, and Johnson, 26, will be representing Team USA; Kaymer will line up for Team Europe. These three are among a new crop of pros that are the fearless future of men's golf. Watson, for that matter, may one day replace Mickelson as the best Lefty on tour.

But even before Watney and Dustin Johnson left the 18th green Sunday at Whistling Straits, a rules official for the PGA approached the pair, telling Johnson there may be a problem with him grounding his club in a bunker and thus incurring a two-shot penalty.

Johnson's reaction? "What bunker?" he says he told the rules official.

It seems that the waste area well right of the 18th fairway was, in fact, a bunker, one of the more than 1,000 sand traps at Whistling Straits, set along the western shore of Lake Michigan. Johnson was in shock. He says it never occurred to him that the waste area where he struck his second shot was a sand trap. People were standing there when his ball landed; many were still standing in the "bunker" when he hit his second shot.

You can bet the folks who run the Masters would never allow such behavior by fans at Augusta National; one would assume the stuffed-shirts at the United States Golf Association wouldn't put up with that at the U.S. Open; and heaven help any lad cheeky enough to try that at the British Open. Royal and Ancient Golf Club officials would boot them faster than you can say Macbeth.
Yet the penalty for Dustin Johnson stood, and the ashen-faced pro flipped his pencil around, erasing his final-hole 5 and replacing it with a 7 that dropped him into a tie for fifth at 9 under. And just like that, what was shaping up to be one of the most exciting majors in history took on the bitter taste of bad meat.

The three-hole playoff was anticlimactic, although Watson and Kaymer did their best to reinvigorate the proceedings. Watson birdied the first hole, the short par-4 10th, and Kaymer drew even with birdie at the second playoff hole, the par-3 17th. Back at the sadistically tough 18th, Watson hit into the water with his second shot and wound up with double-bogey, allowing Kaymer to win with a simple two-putt bogey.

Dustin Johnson was gone long before the playoff. He took questions from the press before exiting and handled himself with remarkable calm. I'm guessing he was still in shock, but, admirably, he didn't try to shift blame.

There was plenty of blame to go around, starting with Johnson himself, and his caddie. The responsibility falls to them to determine where they are at all times on the golf course. And if there was a question about whether or not Johnson's ball was in a bunker, they only had to ask for a ruling. The bigger blame, in my opinion, goes to the PGA of America, which took the coward's route by hiding behind a rules sheet posted in the locker room before the tournament alerting the players that all of the more than 1,000 bunkers would be treated as such, meaning no grounding of your golf club before hitting the ball.

That rule only works if the people running the tournament also treat all of the bunkers as such. Here's a simple, common-sense rule: if you want to call them bunkers, you don't let fans stand in them, walk through them, roll their strollers through them, essentially obliterating them to the point where they no longer resemble bunkers.

It was alternately amusing and irritating to hear the TV talking heads' reaction to Johnson's predicament. The make-no-waves CBS team mostly swallowed PGA officials' explanation without question, although David Feherty, to his credit, later stood among a throng of spectators in the area where Johnson struck his second shot, dumbfounded as to how the area could be described as a bunker. Over on the Golf Channel, a couple of former touring pros, Frank Nobilo and Brandel Chamblee, came down on opposite sides of the discussion. Nobilo, like Feherty, was perplexed by the explanation that the waste area still qualified as a bunker after fans were allowed to stand in it; Chamblee played the PGA apologist, saying blame began and ended with Dustin Johnson.

Johnson paid a high price for his mistake, but the PGA suffered, too.

Mopping up my 12 pre-tournament picks: In addition to picking Kaymer, McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, I also had Mickelson, who tied for 12th at 6 under; Steve Stricker and Ernie Els, tied for 18th at 4 under; Retief Goosen, tied for 55th at 2 over; and Rickie Fowler, tied for 58th at 3 over. My four others, Padraig Harrington, Lucas Glover, Ryo Ishikawa and Sean O'Hair, all missed the cut.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Looking good for final day at the PGA

My pre-tournament picks for the PGA Championship didn't look great at the halfway point, but entering the final round of the year's final major, some of them are looking really good.

I had eight of my 12 make the cut at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., not bad. Even better, two of them, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, were tied for second, three shots behind surprise leader Nick Watney.

Johnson is the tall, long-hitting American who self-destructed at the U.S. Open this year by taking 82 in the final round at Pebble Beach. McIlroy is the 21-year-old phenom from Northern Ireland who followed a scorching 63 in the opening round of this year's British Open at St. Andrews with a second-round 80. Through three rounds at Whistling Straits, they had matching cards of 71-68-67 for 10-under 206 totals.

Another of my picks, German Martin Kaymer, was in a three-way tie for fourth after rounds of 72-68-67.

My other five picks: Ernie Els, a three-time major champion from South Africa, tied for 16th at 211 on rounds of 68-74-69; American Steve Stricker, tied for 19th at 212 after carding 72-72-68; another Amerian, Rickie Fowler, tied for 41st at 214 after shooting 73-71-70; four--time major champion Phil Mickelson, tied for 48th at 215 after rounds of 73-69-73; and Retief Goosen, a two-time U.S. Open champ from South Africa who had inconsistent rounds of 76-68-74 to stand at 218.

It's a new world, Tiger

Those anxious for Tiger Woods to win another major championship better pack a lunch for that wait.

And anyone who thinks Woods will ever dominate pro golf again is seriously deluded. It's over, folks, just like that. He may yet win another major (I personally don't see it happening; maybe I'm a glass-half-empty kind of guy), but his days of dominance are done.

And it's not (just) because his personal life came unraveled last November when he cracked up his car in a late-night decision to go for a drive in his pajamas.

The first real sign of weakness in Team Tiger came last August, when a South Korean named Y.E. Yang stared down the world's No. 1 player for 18 holes and won the PGA Championship. Even that, however, was not the beginning of the end.

If you really want to know, it came in July 2003, and probably no one knew it at the time. Ben Curtis, an unheralded tour pro born in Columbus, Ohio (Jack Nicklaus' birthplace, by the way, and there's a certain symmetry to that), captured the British Open at Royal St. George's in Sandwich, England.

It was significant for a lot of reasons. British bookies gave 300-1 odds on Curtis. Also, he became the first golfer in 90 years to win in his first appearance at a major, when Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open at Brookline, Mass. In hindsight, though, the most significant number is 26, Curtis' age at the time. That made him the first person younger than Woods to win a major since Woods joined the PGA Tour in 1996. (Curtis' DOB: May 26, 1977; Woods' DOB: Dec. 30, 1975.)

Tiger mastered the Masters at 21, winning by a dozen shots in 1997, his first full year on the PGA Tour. In the next 25 majors, a span of more than six years, Tiger would win seven more majors, and the other 18 were all won by players older than Woods. At 24, he throttled the field in the U.S. Open by 15 strokes and the British Open by eight shots. He also won five other majors before Curtis' 2003 British Open victory.

Since 2003, though, seven different golfers younger than Woods (now 34) have won majors, including four of the past six: Lucas Glover (30) at the 2009 U.S. Open, Graeme McDowell (31) at this year's U.S. Open, Louis Oosthuizen (27) at this year's British Open and Martin Kaymer (25) at this year's PGA Championship.

Kaymer's victory Sunday in a playoff over Bubba Watson at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin came while Woods was basically running in place for four days, as other players (mostly younger, and, a few older) were moving past him up the leaderboard. Sunday's play at the PGA completes the changing of the guard on the PGA Tour.

Tiger will be 35 in December. Nicklaus won the Masters and the PGA the year he turned 35, plus four more majors after that, including a record sixth and final Masters at 46 in 1986.

Woods has 14 majors, four behind Nicklaus' 18. That Tiger would eventually catch and surpass the Golden Bear once seemed a slam-dunk. Now, it's not so certain. The fact that Tiger won six more majors after Curtis' British Open win in 2003 is testament to how strong a golfer Woods once was. But that's past tense. The present, for Tiger at least, is not pretty.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Halfway through the PGA

The beauty of the PGA Championship this year is that fresh faces abound on the leaderboard. At one point early in Saturday's third round at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., 20 of the top 23 players were golfers who had never won a major championship.

Also, there were more than a dozen players within three shots of the lead. Ten players were tied for fifth at 5 under par, just three shots behind Matt Kuchar, the 36-hole leader at 8 under. Among that logjam were two of my 12 pre-tournament picks, long-hitting American Dustin Johnson and Northern Ireland's young phenom, 21-year-old Rory McIlroy. Both opened the year's final major with identical scores of 71-68.

Next among my choices was Martin Kaymer. The German, who led early in Thursday's first round before falling back with a 72, rebounded with a 68 to stand at 4 under.

Two of my players, with a combined seven major championships between them, were knotted at 2 under, but they arrived at that number heading in different directions. South African Ernie Els, who won the U.S. Open in 1994 and 1997 and the British Open in 2002, followed his opening 68 with a miserable day on the greens for a second-round 74. Phil Mickelson, Masters champion in 2004, 2006 and again this April and winner of the PGA in 2005, fought back from an opening 73 with a 69.

Three of my players reached the halfway point at even par. Rickie Fowler followed an opening 73 with a 71. Retief Goosen, another South African who like his countryman Els has a pair of U.S. Open crowns, raced back from a disastrous 76 with a second-round 68. American Steve Stricker held true to his steady persona with two rounds of even-par 72.

That gave me eight out of 12 players who made the cut, not a bad batting average. It might have been better, though, if Padraig Harrington of Ireland, a three-time major champion, had not taken double bogey on his final hole to shoot 75-71 and miss the cut by a single shot.

Also out after two rounds were Lucas Glover, last year's U.S. Open champion who never got anything going at 74-73, 18-year-old Japanese sensation Ryo Ishikawa (76-74) and American Sean O'Hair (75-75).

Because of Whistling Straits' length (7,500 yards, with wind conditions adding to that), I like Dustin Johnson's chances.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Off and running at the PGA Championship

One round down at the PGA Championship, and two story lines emerge:

The rumors of Tiger Woods' demise are a bit premature. The same guy who couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat last week in Akron, Ohio, birdied three of the first four holes to quickly get on the leaderboard and finished with a 1-under-par 71. It could have been better, no question, but he looked a little more comfortable than the guy who shot over par all four rounds in Akron.

The year's final major, which sets aside about 20 spots for club professionals - the guys who give us hackers lessons on the practice tee - also has taken on an international look. American Matt Kuchar led at 5-under 67 in a first round completed Friday, and 16 other Americans were also under par, but those who bettered Whistling Straits' par of 72 included pros from 15 other countries. Overall, the field of 156 included players representing 22 nations, from South Africa to South Korea, Canada to Colombia, Australia to Argentina, France to Fiji.

Thanks to fog along Lake Michigan that delayed the start of play Thursday and Friday, just under half of the golfers didn't finish their first round until Friday morning. But already there's been a lot of solid golf. A total of 42 players broke par, almost a third of the field.

Behind Kuchar, the foursome at 4-under 68 included an American (long-hitting Bubba Watson), a South African (Ernie Els), a South Korean (Seung Yul Noh) and an Italian (Francesco Molinari, the younger of two Molinari brothers playing in the PGA).

Els, by the way, leads my team of 12 players to beat this week. Only two others I picked broke par in the first round, American Dustin Johnson and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, both at 1-under 71.

I also had German Martin Kaymer, who got off to a hot start with birdies on three of his first four holes, but cooled off considerably after that and wound up at even-par 72. Also at that figure was one of my six Americans, Steve Stricker.

My other seven players were all over par. Phil Mickelson, looking to add a second major this year after taking the Masters in April, and fellow American Rickie Fowler shot 73; another U.S. pro, 2009 U.S. Open champ Lucas Glover, shot 74; three-time major champion Padraig Harrington of Ireland and American Sean O'Hair carded 75s; at 76 were Japanese teen sensation Ryo Ishikawa and South African Retief Goosen, a two-time U.S. Open champ who birdied two of the first three holes and promptly double-bogeyed the next two holes.
My guys at par or better need to pick it up a bit in the second round. Those several shots over par likely will need a round in the 60s in order to make the cut for the final two rounds.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

12 players to beat at the PGA Championship

Who will win the final major championship on the men's tour this year? Will it be someone with a history of winning majors, like Phil Mickelson, who added to his trophy case by taking the Masters in April? Or will it be a third straight first-timer, following U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland and British Open champ Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa?

Experience counts for something, but probably not as much as you'd think. Newcomers winning a major is almost a 50-50 proposition. Every year since 2001, at least one of the majors has been won by a golfer who had not won a major before.

In 2003, all four majors were won by first-timers: Canadian Mike Weir at the Masters and Americans Jim Furyk at the U.S. Open, Ben Curtis at the British Open and Shaun Micheel at the PGA. By the way, none of those four has won a major since then. Likewise for other 21st century major champs David Duval (2001 British), David Toms (2001 PGA), Rich Beem (2002 PGA), Todd Hamilton (2004 British), Michael Campbell (2005 U.S. Open), Geoff Ogilvy (2006 U.S. Open), Zach Johnson (2007 Masters), Trevor Immelman (2008 Masters), Lucas Glover (2009 U.S. Open), Stewart Cink (2009 British) and Y.E. Yang (2009 PGA).

Since 1991, roughly half (40 of 79) of the majors were won by first-timers. Thirty of those 40 winners have won no other major.

So the key to predicting a winner seems to be picking the right mix of players who have been to the winner's circle before, players on the cusp of greatness and players likely to catch lightning in a bottle.

With that in mind, I am approaching the PGA Championship, which starts Thursday at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., with four players from each of these three categories.

The multiple-major winners: Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Padraig Harrington.

The up-and-comers: Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Lucas Glover, Ryo Ishikawa.

The one-timers: Dustin Johnson, Martin Kaymer, Sean O'Hair, Steve Stricker.

Mickelson, who didn't win his first major until 2004 (his 13th year on tour,, when he was almost 34), seems to be making up for lost time. A win this week would be the 40-year-old Lefty's fifth major title in seven years. Els, also 40, hasn't won a major since the 2002 British Open, but he's playing some of the most inspired golf of his career this year, and he tied for fourth in the 2004 PGA when it was last held at Whistling Straits.

Goosen, 41, a two-time U.S. Open champion, has 12 top-10 finishes in majors this decade, and a win this week would not be a major surprise. Harrington, who will be 39 on Aug. 31, is seeking his fourth major title in the past three years, and he's the only player in the past 12 years other than Tiger Woods to win more than one major in a single year.

Among the up-and-comers, Glover barely fits. For one, he's 30, nine years older than McIlroy and Fowler, 12 years older than Ishikawa. Also, he's already won a major, last year's U.S. Open when everyone else seemed to find ways to lose. But I'm not sure he's done winning majors; he has a great temperament and enough game to pull off another.

McIlroy, currently ranked No. 8 in the world, could be either the next Tiger Woods, and win a bunch of majors, or the next Sergio Garcia, all promise and no major victories. I'd like to believe he's going to win at least one major, and probably several. The only problem is, it seems that every year the talent pool gets so deep that it's harder and harder to stand out.

Fowler is a bit of a wild card here. He's only been a pro a short time, has no tour wins and the PGA is just his fourth major championship appearance. But he also has the ability to put up low numbers, and I like his approach to the game ... fearless.

Ishikawa is a prodigy, pure and simple. He won't turn 19 until September, and he won on the Japan tour before his 16th birthday. He's already got eight pro wins, seven on the Japan tour, and shot a 58, lower than anyone has ever gone on the PGA Tour, in winning a Japan tour event in May.

The one-timer label is kind of a backhanded compliment, guys I believe good enough to win a major, but not two. When he grabbed the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open in June at Pebble Beach, I thought Dustin Johnson might be one of those up-and-comers, but he blew his chances in a big way on the second and third holes of the final round. At the second hole, the right-handed Johnson ridiculously tried to hit a recovery shot left-handed and nearly whiffed; at the third hole, he hit his tee shot so badly the ball was lost in a grove of trees as he and a couple hundred spectators couldn't locate the ball.

Now, I think Johnson may be in the one-timer class. He's still an impressive player, with the length to tackle any course (Tiger says Johnson is "stupid long" off the tee). John Daly was once known for being mostly a bomber, but even he won two majors, so I think Johnson is good for one. Whether it's this week or not is speculation.

Stricker, meanwhile, would be fortunate to qualify for the one-timer category. He's a veteran, has 17 pro wins, nine top-10 finishes in majors and currently is ranked No. 4 in the world, behind Woods, Mickelson and Lee Westwood. Also, he might be a crowd favorite this week since he grew up in Edgerton, Wis., 130 miles away from Kohler where the PGA will be contested. That's the upside. The downside is that he's never won a major, and he's 43. Tom Kite won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 1992 at 42, and Julius Boros was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA, but Stricker's opportunities may be running out.

Kaymer, 25, grew up in Dusseldorf, Germany, mostly plays the European Tour and is little known in the U.S. However, he's finished in the top 10 in three of the past four majors and has exceptional talent. He won a pro tournament as a 19-year-old amateur and once shot a 58 in another event, playing the final 16 holes 14 under par.

O'Hair, 28, could also be considered a darkhorse. He has just three PGA Tour wins, but one came in 2005 when he was named the tour's rookie of the year. That's an encouraging sign, though, since eight of the past 19 rookies of the year have won majors.

That's my dozen picks for the PGA this week. Will one of them win? Who knows, but the process of selecting them has been an exquisite challenge.

Stop blaming Tiger

It's time to stop blaming Tiger Woods.

Not for the mess that has become of his life and golf game ... for that, he gets full blame. His soon-to-be-ex-wife, Elin Nordegren, is reportedly in line to get at least $100 million in a divorce settlement. And anyone who saw Tiger play at Firestone Country Club in Akron last week got a glimpse of something equally ugly, the No. 1 player in the world sleep-walking around the golf course, taking little time between shots and probably wishing he were somewhere else, anywhere else.

He seemed to take more care on Sunday signing an autograph on a golf glove for the fan he struck in the face with an errant shot. His 72 holes at Firestone included 10 birdies, 22 bogeys and three double bogeys. He did not match par any day and finished at 18 over par, beat one pro in the 80-player field and wound up 30 shots behind Hunter Mahan.

Tiger enters the year's final major, the PGA Championship starting Thursday at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., still the No. 1 player in the world (technically), but far from the best player in the field right now. Blame him for all of that.

But stop blaming Tiger for all the attention lavished on him in the nine months since he cracked up his Escalade at the end of his driveway in Florida last November. No, the blame must be shared: by anyone who has continued to care what a so-so golfer is doing week in and week out; TV networks that continue to waste air time on a guy who looks a lot like me when I'm hacking my way around the local muni; lazy reporters and columnists with so little initiative that they ignore real news in the world of golf; people who don't immediately turn off the TV and do something more meaningful with their lives, like mow the lawn; and folks who buy those tabloid rags at the supermarket check-out stand looking for the latest juicy gossip on a fallen hero.

I hate to say it, but that means the blame falls on almost all of us.

We need to get beyond Tiger Woods. Until he becomes a world-beater again on the golf course, he's yesterday's news.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Ryder Cup and sportsmanship

Until about 20-25 years ago, the Ryder Cup was a biennial walkover for the United States against teams from the United Kingdom (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales). Every two years, the U.S. and U.K. sides would square off, but the U.K. contingent usually didn't put up much of a fight. Two-ball, four-ball, better-ball, singles matches ... it really didn't matter. The Americans were better, pure and simple.

Still, it was civilized. You had gentlemen golfers like Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin. Their deciding singles match in 1969 was a prime example of the beautiful symbiosis of competition and sportsmanship.

In 1969, the U.S. squad came to Royal Birkdale in Southport, England, having won 14 of the previous 18 Ryder Cup matches. But Jacklin did something few expected; he fought Nicklaus to a standoff. Furthermore, Jacklin might have won that match, and, with it, return the Ryder Cup to the U.K. But Nicklaus holed a nailbiting 5-foot par putt on the final hole to ensure at least a tie with Jacklin and no worse than a 16-16 draw that, by Ryder Cup rules, would keep the cup in U.S. hands.

Jacklin was no slouch. The most accomplished English golfer of his generation, he had won the British Open earlier in 1969 and would win the U.S. Open in 1970, the only European to do so from 1926 until Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell won this year at Pebble Beach. Still, Jacklin faced a 2-foot par putt of his own at 18. Had he missed, Nicklaus would have won the singles match and given the U.S. a 16-1/2 to 15-1/2 victory over the U.K.

Nicklaus, who by that time had already won seven major championships and would go on to win 11 more, didn't need to watch Jacklin sweat over a 24-inch putt with the outright Ryder Cup title hanging in the balance. He conceded the putt to England's favored son, on British soil, and the two men walked off the 18th green at Birkdale, foes but more importantly friends.

Jacklin played on six straight Ryder Cup teams (1967, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977), and that draw in 1969 was the closest he would come to winning as a player, although he eventually succeeded as Ryder Cup captain after the format was expanded in 1979 to include European players on the U.K. side. In 1985, captain Jacklin's Team Europe won at The Belfry in Warwickshire, England, the first time in 28 years the U.S. had lost. Proving it was no fluke, the Euros repeated as champions in 1987 at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, the first time the Americans had ever lost the Ryder Cup on U.S. soil.

The Ryder Cup has been competitive ever since, thanks in large part to the expansion of the U.K. to include the rest of Europe. Spaniards such as Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal were among the first to both benefit from the rules change and also boost their side's talent pool.

However, the increased competition has also come at a cost. The sportsmanship has been replaced at times by gamesmanship, and without pointing fingers, players from both sides have occasionally been at fault. The fans have gotten into it as well, with nationalistic fervor in golf seeming at times to rival the hooliganism of World Cup soccer fans.

Nothing prepared me, though, for the events of the past couple months involving the most recent former captains of the European and U.S. squads, Nick Faldo and Paul Azinger.

Both are exceedingly proud men who were warriors during their playing days. Faldo, an Englishman who at 20 was a Ryder Cup teammate of Jacklin's in 1977, won the Masters and British Open three times each. Azinger, a native of Massachusetts who now makes his home in Florida, captured the 1993 PGA. Their paths crossed memorably in 1987 at the British Open, held at Muirfield in Scotland. In brutal weather that took down one contender after another, Faldo incredibly posted 18 consecutive pars on the final day to win by one shot over Azinger, who bogeyed the final two holes.

It was the first of Faldo's six major titles. He was No. 1 in the world for almost two years, while Azinger would have to wait another six years for his first major victory. It surely must have killed Zinger, and the fact that the two men for quite a while shared a booth on CBS golf telecasts is testament to their ability to put aside any past bitterness.

But if Faldo and Azinger can get along (though something tells me they're not exactly BFFs), it doesn't seem as if their successors as Ryder Cup captains are feeling much love these days. Corey Pavin, the 1995 U.S. Open champ and a three-time Ryder Cup competitor (1991, 1993, 1995), was named in December 2008 to succeed Azinger as U.S. captain.

Zinger lobbied publicly to retain the job, although repeat captaincy is more the exception these days than the rule. It seems that he didn't take it too well, though, and he's been equally vocal in his criticism of Pavin, who hasn't yet made his four captain's picks for the 12-man U.S. squad that will compete in the Ryder Cup on Oct. 1-3 at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales.

And what was Pavin's crime? He hasn't consulted with Azinger about strategy for the Ryder Cup.

Faldo is similarly miffed at Colin Montgomerie, the great Scot who as an eight-time Ryder Cup player never lost in singles play. Montgomerie, named in January 2009 to captain Team Europe, has also not consulted with the previous captain, although in his case there is probably some bad blood. In 2008, Faldo passed over Monty for his two captain's picks, naming instead Paul Casey and Ian Poulter.

Faldo and Azinger need to get over themselves. These are a couple of 50-year-olds who are acting like petulant children. Yes, it would have been nice if Pavin and Montgomerie had reached out for advice, but it's not mandated. They get to line up their teams, just as Faldo and Azinger before them were entrusted with that duty.

Let's hope better behavior prevails once the Ryder Cup starts in October.

Friday, July 30, 2010

British Open review

Three majors down, one to go ... and how have we done on our picks so far?

Well, as I did in the U.S. Open, I didn't have the winner, but I'm guessing almost no one predicted Louis Oosthuizen would not only win at Scotland's venerated St. Andrews, but that the South African would run away with it by seven shots.

If you had said before the year's third major that a South African would hold the claret jug on the Sunday evening at St. Andrews, you might have found some takers. But they likely would have suggested that the South African would be Ernie Els, a two-time U.S. and British Open champion, or Retief Goosen, a two-time U.S. Open winner who's seemingly always right there in the British Open (eight top-10s), or perhaps the talented Tim Clark, a steady player still looking for his first major. Or maybe Trevor Immelman, a former Masters champ, or Charl Schwartzel, Oosthuizen's best friend from their days playing junior golf together. Schwartzel has made the cut in all three majors this year but hasn't had that breakout round that could make him a threat.

So Oosthuizen it is, and 10 points if you can properly pronounce his name.

As for my guys? Well, the good news was that nine of the 12 I picked before the British Open made the cut, a shade better than my picks for the Masters (8 of 12) but a bit below my record at the U.S. Open (11 or 12).

For what it's worth, one of my 12 for St. Andrews was runner-up Lee Westwood of England. He and Oosthuizen were the only players in the field to break par all four days. But Westwood was a distant second at 9 under par to Oosthuizen's 16 under.

I also had two others who finished in the top six: Paul Casey, another Brit, who tied for third at 8 under, and Goosen, sixth alone at 7 under.

Sentimental pick Sergio Garcia, the Spaniard written off by almost everyone these days after his early promise a decade ago, might have surprised a few people. He strung together steady if unspectacular rounds of 71-71-70-72 to tie for 14th, and I'm picking him to do well in the year's final major at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin next month.

My other selections who got to play all four rounds:

Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell, this year's U.S. Open champion (much like Oosthuizen, a surprise winner), tied for 23rd at 3 under.

Australia's Robert Allenby, tied for 27th at 2 under.

American Ricky Barnes, a contender after two rounds who faded on the weekend and tied for 44th at even par.

Phil Mickelson, tied for 48th at 1 over. He was never really in the hunt, which shouldn't be surprising since, despite his success in the other three majors (three Masters titles, including this year, a PGA crown and five runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open), Lefty has a terrible track record in the oldest of the four majors. He's had only one top-10 finish and three missed cuts in 17 attempts at the British Open.

Britain's Ian Poulter, who put a target on his back before the British Open even began by suggesting in the English tabloids that there was a talent vacuum in the U.S., and that Europeans were poised to fill that empty space. His countrymen, Westwood and Casey, did their part, but Poulter was all-talk, no-action after winding up in a tie for 60th at 3 over.

My other three pre-tournament picks at the British Open (Els, England's Justin Rose and South Korea's K.J. Choi) all missed the cut.

Expect some jockeying, and some liberal substituting, of my picks for the PGA Championship.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

How my guys are doing at St. Andrews

There are different and sometimes creative ways of feeling snakebit when your predictions are a bit off.
Among my dozen players picked prior to the U.S. Open last month at Pebble Beach was a guy from Northern Ireland, young phenom Rory McIlroy. And, a guy from Northern Ireland won the tournament, Graeme McDowell.

A similar thing has been happening to me in the British Open at St. Andrews. Among my 12 pre-tournament picks for the British Open were three players from South Africa, one from Spain, three more from England and another from South Korea, among other places. And a South African was leading after three rounds, with a Englishman in second, a Spaniard tied for fourth and a South Korean tied for 12th.

None of them, however, were my picks. South African Louis Oosthuizen led, while my three picks from that country were Retief Goosen, Ernie Els and Tim Clark. Goosen wasn't far off after three rounds, but Els and Clark had brutal second rounds and missed the cut.

The Brit in second was Paul Casey, while the three Brits I selected were Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Justin Rose. Westwood was still in the hunt heading into the final round, tied for fourth although eight shots behind Oosthuizen. Poulter, after making waves in the British newspapers by declaring American's pro golf dynasty over, finished well back, and Rose failed to qualify for the weekend rounds.

The Spaniard tied for fourth? Alejandro Canizares. My matador? Sergio Garcia, a sucker pick considering his bitter history in majors, especially the British Open. To his credit, El NiƱo didn't blow away and was tied for 12th entering the final round.

The South Korean tied for 12th was amateur Jin Jeong. My South Korean, K.J. Choi, didn't make the cut.

Overall, though, I was fairly fortunate with my selections, with eight of 12 making the cut. Two rounds and out were Els, Clark, Rose and Choi. But Westwood, Goosen and American Ricky Barnes were in the top 10 after 54 holes, followed by Garcia, McDowell (tied for 18th), Phil Mickelson (tied for 33rd), Australian Robert Allenby (tied for 48th) and Poulter.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Summer in St. Andrews ... brrr!

Golf in Scotland is a little like a baseball game in San Francisco, especially back when the Giants still played at Candlestick Park. You might bask in brilliant sunshine, but you're just as likely to endure gray skies, even howling wind and perhaps rain.

You dress in layers, because you never know which season you're going to get. Often, you'll experience a bit of all four seasons.

They got mostly nice weather for Thursday's opening round of the British Open at St. Andrews, Scotland, but there were gusts of wind, short-lasting showers and bits of bitter cold. It may be summer in the Northern Hemisphere right now, but bear in mind, St. Andrews is further north than 49 of the 50 United States. It's even further north than Ketchikan, Alaska.

The weather was most fortunate for those who teed off early on Thursday. Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, who turned 21 in May, teed off in the 11th threesome in benign conditions and led with a 9-under-par 63, tying the record for low round in a major championship.

Others high on the leaderboard also got an early start. John Daly, the 1995 British Open champ, and Andrew Coltart, both in the sixth group off the first tee, toured in 6-under 66.

A total of 20 of the 45 players who shot in the 60s played in the first 15 groups out of 52 in the 156-man field. That included two of the 12 players I picked on Wednesday to have a chance to win the 150th Open Championship, Australian Robert Allenby and 2002 Open champ Ernie Els of South Africa, both at 69.

Overall, my dozen players did OK, with 10 breaking par of 72 and only South Korea's K.J. Choi really well out of it. Choi shot 4-over 76, 13 strokes off the lead and needing a very good round on Friday in order to qualify for the weekend.

My low man was Britain's Lee Westwood, hobbled by a calf muscle tear but able to put together a 5-under 67 that included five straight birdies on the front nine. American Ricky Barnes had five birdies in the first 12 holes en route to a 4-under 68. Allenby and Els each had no bogeys in their 3-under 69s, while South African Retief Goosen also shot 69 in more of a rollercoaster round that included only one par in the first seven holes.

My other picks: England's Justin Rose at 2-under 70, with Tim Clark of South Africa, Ian Poulter of England, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland and Sergio Garcia of Spain all at 1-under 71. Phil Mickelson, whose record in the British Open is spotty at best (only one top-10 finish in 15 attempts), had 16 pars and a double-bogey before finally making birdie at 18 to finish at 1-over 73.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Return to the home of golf

Central to the American love of baseball, basketball and football is the fact that, by and large, Americans still reign supreme in those sports. Plus, we invented them.

Golf, on the other hand, is as American as haggis with neeps and tatties. If steak and potatoes are considered comfort food in the U.S., haggis (sheep's offal, encased in sheep intestine, then boiled), neeps (turnips) and tatties (mashed potatoes) are the equivalent in Scotland.

OK, so the thought of eating a balloon full of mystery meat isn't so appealing. But the Scots also get credit for inventing golf, and for that we'll give them a pass on their peculiar cuisine.

Starting Thursday, the best golfers in the world return to the cradle of golf, St. Andrews on the east coast of Scotland, for the 150th British Open. Since 1754, St. Andrews has been the home of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, which along with the United States Golf Association sets the standards for the sport. If you're counting, that's 22 years before a single-minded band of men of mostly European descent signed the Declaration of Independence.

Scots have been playing golf since around 1400, about as long as they've had the University of St. Andrews, Scotland's oldest higher institution, founded in 1413. That's about 75 years before an Italian (Columbus) sailing under the Spanish flag made land in what is now the Bahamas.

In short, it's got some history. The Scots are serious about their golf; to them, the sport is akin to religion. And you don't raise your voice in church, meaning that if you watch any of the British Open coverage this week, you shouldn't expect to hear the drunken fan's howl ("You da man!") that demeans the game and has become so prevalent in America. Add that bit of bloviation to the USA's UAS (Ugly American Syndrome).

The Scots, to their credit, have not only supported their lads, they've also embraced great golfers from other countries. Especially the great Americans.

They cheered for Arnold Palmer in 1960, when he came to St. Andrews after winning the year's first two major championships, the Masters and U.S. Open, but fell a shot short of Kel Nagle in the British Open. Palmer would return to Royal Birkdale in 1961 and Royal Troon in 1962, and win both years.

They cheered for Jack Nicklaus, who won the British Open in 1966, 1970 and 1978, the last two at St. Andrews, and for Lee Trevino when he won the British Open in 1971 and 1972.

They cheered for Tom Watson, the gap-toothed "wee mon" (he's 5-foot-9), who won the British Open five times on five different golf courses, four of them in Scotland. Alas, none at St. Andrews.

And they cheered for Tiger Woods when he won the British Open in 2000, 2005 and 2006, the first two times at St. Andrews.

Great golfers have been coming to Scotland and the British Isles for a century and a half. The first British Open, which in most places outside the U.S. is just called The Open, predates by a year the start of the U.S. Civil War.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Parenting and pro sports

I've never been a professional athlete, but I do have some experience on the subject of athletes and parenting. Pro sports can add a special complexity to family life, and, as with anything involving children, it takes love, patience and commitment to make it work.
In July 1986, my first child, a beautiful girl, was born. The following June, I was in San Francisco - 100 miles from home - reporting on the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club.

As anyone with more than a passing interest in golf knows, the U.S. Open always finishes on the third Sunday in June - Father's Day. This meant that when I awoke that Sunday morning, I was not at home with my wife and almost 1-year-old daughter. I was in danger of missing an opportunity to be with my daughter, and her mom, on my very first Father's Day.

I'm not going to suggest that that thought hounded me on that Sunday. I was, after all, at work, doing a job I loved, and getting paid for it. It's a rare occasion to get to go to a U.S. Open, and rarer still to be reporting on it. I've done that at three men's U.S. Opens, along with a women's U.S. Open.

Thankfully, the tournament ended without need of a playoff, which would have been held the next day, and when I was done filing my story, I made a beeline for home and a chance to spend what was left of that Father's Day with my wife and daughter.

I relate this story to bring up pro golf and parenting, specifically the case of Tiger Woods. He and wife Elin are going through what hopefully will not be a nasty divorce. (Reports today show Elin receiving upwards of $750 million, plus custody of their two children, in exchange for her discretion regarding Tiger's former (?) girlfriends.)
By anyone's estimation, even his own, Tiger has been a horrible husband. But no one has suggested he's been a bad father. However, it was recently reported that he showed up late to an already belated third birthday party for his daughter, Sam Alexis.

Her birthday is June 18. That date will almost certainly fall during the U.S. Open each year, and maybe you can see where I'm going with this. As long as he plays major professional golf, Tiger (at 34, he has quite a few years left) will likely miss other birthdays.

As a pro athlete, Tiger's place is to be competing at the highest level, and at the biggest tournaments. As a parent, his place is to be with his family, especially with his children, on those special occasions.

Tiger will always be torn by these decisions. All he can do is what he feels is best for himself and his family, and explain the compromises that have to be made.

That's part of being a parent.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Before there was Tiger, there was Seve

Much is made of Tiger Woods' chase of the record 18 major championships held by Jack Nicklaus. But Tiger, with 14 majors, has less in common with the Golden Bear than with a third golfer who also had a track record of brilliance at a young age: Severiano Ballesteros.

Tiger is almost nothing like Nicklaus, on or off the golf course. One is a happily married family man with a stable home life; the other probably should never have gotten married. One dominated with relentless good play and little interaction with the crowd; the other more recently dominated with masterful shots while playing up to the audience.

In this respect, Tiger is the modern-day version of Seve Ballesteros. Like Tiger, Seve was an imposing force, intimidating with his ability to make magic on a golf course. Like Tiger, a showman who didn't hide his emotions. And, like Tiger, prone to bouts of wildness off the tee, with an ad-libber's talent to recover spectacularly.

Until fairly recently, Tiger was thought of as intimidating on a golf course. Seve was no less fearsome. In Ryder Cup play, his record was 20-12-5. Backing down from a challenge was not in his DNA. An oft-repeated quote of his: "I look into their eyes, shake their hand, pat their back, and wish them luck, but I am thinking, 'I am going to bury you.'"

Seve could - to some extent, Tiger still can - do things beyond the skill of other players. Two examples of their genius: En route to winning the British Open in 1979, then 22-year-old Seve, trying to maintain a two-shot cushion, drove into a parking lot on the next-to-last hole, somehow found the green with his next shot and holed the putt for birdie when bogey, or worse, seemed likely. In his 2005 Masters win, Tiger faced a tricky chip from the back of the green at the par-3 16th. Analyzing the surface as if it were a billiard table, he hit a delicate attempt that initially went away from the hole, then tracked slowly downhill, hung on the lip of the cup for what seemed an eternity, then fell into the hole for birdie.

Seve Ballesteros, now only 53 but retired and long-removed from his prime, even bettered Tiger in some respects. He turned pro at 16 in 1974, was second at the British Open in 1976 at just 19, won his first PGA Tour event (Greater Greensboro Open) at 20 in 1978 and his first major, the 1979 British Open, at 22. He won a total of five majors, but he's almost as well known for the tournament he never won: the U.S. Open.

Ballesteros probably knew he was never going to win the U.S. Open when he finished his final round of the 1987 Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

Ballesteros, the dashing Spaniard who by the age of 27 had already won the Masters (1980, 1983) and British Open (1979, 1984) twice each, came to San Francisco as a 30-year-old with plenty of game, but no answer for the riddle that is the U.S. Open. The tournament set up by the United States Golf Association has always rewarded patient, almost plodding play, putting a premium on accuracy and making those who stray pay dearly.

Not exactly Seve's strengths. His magician's ability to recover from strange places worked perfectly in the British Open, where creativity is always a valuable skill. His deft touch with a putter fit the Masters and Augusta National's wickedly slick putting surfaces.
At a U.S. Open venue, though, even Houdini couldn't escape from the arm-wrenching rough. Somehow, Seve always found himself in trouble. He would go on to win the British Open a third time, in 1988, and had a total of seven top-10 finishes in that event, along with eight top-10s at the Masters. In 18 tries at the U.S. Open, he had no wins, missed the cut five times, was disqualified once, and finished in the top 10 just three times.

At the Olympic Club in 1987, he wound up third, five shots behind winner Scott Simpson. Not bad, but, unlike most players touring the ridiculously short, brutally penalizing course, he gave away too many shots in the trees and thick rough.

He even offered some sarcastic advice for the sadists at the USGA. "I'd like to see the fairways more narrow. Then everyone would have to play from the rough, not just me."

U.S. Open review

Well, my picks for the U.S. Open weren't as successful as those for the Masters, but really, you can't always expect to get the winner when you project a dozen out of a field of 156.
At the Masters, I had the top three picks (winner Phil Mickelson, runner-up Lee Westwood, third-place Anthony Kim), along with Tiger Woods, who tied for fourth, and a total of eight players out of 12 (67% batting average) who made the cut.
While I had more players make the cut at the U.S. Open (11 of 12), I didn't get the winner, and my best finish was Mickelson again. He tied for fourth with Woods, who wasn't among my pre-tournament favorites this time. The winner at Pebble Beach Golf Links was Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell; I picked a countryman of his, Rory McIlroy, but I guess I just got the wrong chap from Northern Ireland.
McIlroy didn't even qualify for the weekend rounds, but he was the only one I missed in that regard. The others:
Dustin Johnson, the 54-hole leader, who looked like a prescient pick for 55 holes, until he played the 500-yard, par-4 second hole on Sunday's final round. That's when he hallucinated that he was an extra in "Tin Cup" and went Kevin Costner stupid, hitting a ball left-handed near a greenside bunker and nearly whiffing the next shot before taking a triple-bogey 7. His drive on the next hole was well left into the trees and, with several thousand spectators all around, never found the ball and embarrassingly had to return to the tee box for his third shot. He never found his game again, ballooned to an 82 (after a 66 the previous day) and wound up tied for eighth at 289.
England's Westwood and American Jim Furyk, who matched even-par 71s on Sunday and wound up tied for 16th at 292.
American Ricky Barnes, who never was really out of it (but also never broke or even matched par any day), finished tied for 27th at 294.
Australian Robert Allenby, tied for 29th at 295.
Japanese teen Ryo Ishikawa, a contender for three days until a fat 80 on Sunday left him tied for 33rd at 296.
South Korea's K.J. Choi and England's Ian Poulter. Not only did they tie for 47th at 298, they had identical rounds of 70-73-77-78. Weird, huh?
Americans Steve Stricker and Nick Watney, who never really got out second gear. Stricker tied for 58th at 299, Watney 76th at 305.