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 Niño 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.