Just Win, Baby…

“No, no. It’s totally on me. I’ve been a professional almost seven years now and it’s unconscionable that I thought I could get away with that. Let’s face it; I should have been disqualified. And I would have been had the USGA not caved a year or so ago after some other rules-related “fiasco” that’s already been forgotten by everyone. I just hope that I can someday regain the trust of my fellow competitors…”

If the string theory crowd is correct, somewhere in the universe a few weeks ago a statuesque overhyped golfer uttered words to that effect after being caught blatantly cheating in one of the four biggest female golf tournaments of the year.

Perhaps somewhere, but certainly not in North America in the 21st century.

No, here, the Honorable Justice Scalia has won, unequivocally. The majority rules, and any virtue that exists only does so to the extent the majority deems it to. Yes, this is our reality, albeit one with a twist.

The first is that the majority is not deciding anything. It’s more like a perverse minority, those demented enough to spend their energy railing away milliseconds after an “incident” on whatever social media platform matters most at that particular point in time. “He who tweets the first, with the most venom, wins” is our undisputed guiding principle. The pen remains mightier than the sword, true, but your pen damn well better beat others to the draw and avoid anything approaching nuance.

Now, uninformed and ankle-deep knee-jerk reactions certainly aren’t new. Radio and television were both more revolutionary than the Internet on this score. But there’s no longer any governor. Authority has abdicated, powerless to the whims of the idiocracy. Everything is now decided by instant referendum.

Sadly, the currency of our time is public perception and even a whiff of controversy is fatal; there is no entity—certainly no corporation, nor even ostensible nonprofit organization as you’ll see below—able or willing to stand up to it. Perversely, the megaphone that is the Internet has actually stifled speech. Not to mention thought.

But I digress.

Back to that blond golfer, the one on this planet in 2017. My opening was unfair; the “c” word is golf’s scarlet letter; it would take an ubermensch to be able to choke out such a statement in our space and time. In fact, as apologies goes, Lexi Thompson’s wasn’t the worst. The “I don’t know why; I didn’t mean to” she mumbled a few weeks later at least acknowledged reality. It certainly beats the “no, I don’t see it; it didn’t happen that way at all” variety, which the best golfer of our time likes to cling to when confronted.

Lexi’s reaction to this brouhaha though is the least interesting of everyone involved. Well, aside from the “hells yeah we’re all still pissed off about it!” emanating from her American cohorts. Angry about a competitor coming a hairs breath from winning after being caught redhanded? Don’t be naive…

Mike Whan, by most accounts the best thing to happen to the women’s tour since Jan Stephenson, also followed formula, barking about the impact of this tiny tempest on the LPGA “brand.”

Even the USGA’s Mike Davis, as principled an individual there is in the game, wasn’t immune. The “optics”—a star, in tears, the unfairness of it all—were too much. A not-for-profit organization that went 100 + years without a rule change instituted one in two weeks.

Frankly, the only interesting reactions to this entire episode came from two aging male golfers.

The 47 year-old went first.

Phil Mickelson’s nickname, on the face of it, seems harsh, particularly given his profile as an affable everyman. But it is not unfair; he does think—no, he knows—that he’s the smartest guy in the room. And he loves nothing more than showing it off.

Phil, understandably exacerbated by coverage of l’affair Lexi, came into Augusta ready to blow the cover off the myth; golf, that singular game of honor, so different from all others, has it’s own ball scuffing problem.

Any high school golfer can tell you that every foursome includes at least one player who’ll move his or her ball on the green to get an edge. Or, even more common, in the rough to improve a lie. I’m sure the percentage drops in college, but not by much.

What Phil wanted the world to know is that the problem persists at the highest level, and not just among the Fijians on tour.

Years earlier, Jack Nicklaus had been adorned by a similarly jealous set of peers with the same nickname as Phil. Well, minus the vulgarity that has steeped into the culture, but the point was the same. Jack was, and is, a know it all.

Jack has hid this well though in his years as an elder statesman. Phil seems to have made some progress here too, showing remarkable self control when given the opening to tee off on Ms. Thompson. But no, he held off, and he even avoided laughing, spitting, or winking when parroting the party line, “she should be given the trophy.”

Jack said he was “confused” by Lexi’s explanation, but was not quite able or willing to drop the hammer on a 22 year old. He showed no hesitation in raising Phil in unmasking the problem, dropping a bombshell of his own regarding the President’s Cup (as an aside, how the name of that unfortunate player hasn’t yet gotten out in this environment I’ll never know.) Jack’s tone was the most instructive part of the press conference; no longer “the aww shucks, I’m just grateful people still are interested in hearing me” old pro, Jack had reverted to total teacher mode. Al Gore would have been proud.

So where are we now?

The USGA rule change, on one level, appears sensible. Anything limiting the role of technology in sport is an unequivocal step in the right direction, and the HD revolution has brought an absurd degree of precision to golf’s first commandment — to play the ball where it lies. If there’s reason to doubt that the naked eye would pick up some subtle movement—one with no impact on the outcome of a stroke—by all means wave off the 300 lbs basement-dwelling Calvinists watching with the network phone numbers at the ready.

The Davis change though does nothing to address Whan’s problem, the brand problem. Those pesky “optics” that mar one’s q score. Under the new rule, officials are given considerable leeway in deeming whether or not to wave away evidence of a misstep, and one would expect considerable pressure to be put on said referees to let someone of Lexi’s status slide, evidence be damned.

And this gets at the most disturbing aspect of this entire incident.

Only those hopeless enough to watch the LPGA on a regular basis would know this, but not too long ago that tour was confronted with the exact same situation. A golfer blatantly mis-marked and replaced her ball. Like Lexi (and all those other high school, college, and PGA Tour golfers) either to avoid an indentation or a spike mark. Or, if you want to be kind, suffering from a similar brain cramp.

Like Lexi too, the referendum was held, and the verdict was immediate and unequivocal. But unlike Lexi, she was deemed guilty. Her fate was straight out of a Shirley Jackson novella. She quickly withdrew and is whispered about to this day.

Why the difference?

Well she’s not American, for one. She probably doesn’t speak much English. She’s not tall, or blonde. She wasn’t deemed a star at age 12. If you’ve seen a golf channel promo centered on Chella Choi, you’d be the first.

Of course golf isn’t supposed to be fair, and life has never been thus. But there was a sense that the rules, in this game, were the same for all. Well, as long as you’re not named Tiger. Count ‘em up at the end and see who wins.

Alas, not anymore. What power, you have, at your fingertips now… Isn’t it grand?

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#Winning…

A few years back, perhaps two or three or ten, Rory McIlroy held off Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler to win his second PGA Championship in one of those muddled areas in the middle of the country. Research suggests it occurred in the center—although one cannot rule out the eastern or western half—of Kentucky.

The tournament, consistent with everything else this century, was immediately forgotten, but unlike most lost to time and space was resurrected recently on account of comments from both the winner and the primary loser.

Rory kicked things off, almost certainly with the knowledge that his words, mild for the playground, would be interpreted by the hypersensitive golf community as a direct shot at his competitors. Rory had the gall to claim that Phil’s joviality, and the bonhomie the Americans exhibited throughout the day, sparked in him a desperate urge to win, which of course he went on to do.

As for Phil, he took the familiar high road—during a recent podcast which, despite the hype, was memorable only for the new age nonsense he spewed about coffee—and said good for Rory, there’s nothing wrong with him, like all of us, deriving inspiration from whatever source necessary in order to play his best.

Those invested in the sport, as self-conscious as ever about its staying power, seized on the incident. While providing the requisite clicks and buzz, it also showed Rory, still heir to the throne, with an edge that even Tiger could admire. And the ever popular Phil again got to play the gracious loser, this time for the benefit of the next generation.

In retrospect, that particular PGA was striking for an altogether different reason, one almost entirely at odds from the conclusions being drawn from this recent dustup. In fact, the events that day directly contradict the image of a Tiger-esque Rory, hellbent on winning…

To refresh one’s memory, it got late early out there that Sunday at Valhalla. A Monday finish looked inevitable and the pooh-bahs of the PGA, having foolishly acquiesced to television’s request for a late afternoon start, were about to take it on the chin.

However, as golfers are wont to do when darkness descends, Rory, playing in the final group, picked it up a notch or three. As he arrived on the 18th tee Rory took no time hitting into the twosome ahead of him (Phil and Fowler) to save precious seconds. He then sprinted up to the ball and bunted a shot up the fairway, before eventually lagging a longish putt, in the dark, to the edge of the hole for a par and the win.

Let’s pause for a second here to consider the circumstances. On the 72nd hole of a major championship, nursing a one stroke lead, Rory rushed a drive, rushed the approach, and putted in the dark. That is, he flailed away like every other 14 handicapper “waved up” on an overcrowded public course in Kentucky that afternoon.

Except, Rory wasn’t even waved up. He barely asked for permission and hit while a visibly annoyed Mickelson was still barking at a rules official regarding the suitability of what was about to take place.

And most importantly for our purposes, Rory, without being able to see more than 3 feet in front of him on the green, elected to proceed with a 25 or so foot putt, the muffing of which could have cost him a major championship.

Now let’s not be naive. Professional golfers are independent contractors, aren’t paid by the hour, and are certainly not getting comped for spending an extra night in eastern, central, or even western Kentucky. Corporate commitments, family members, and assorted hangers-on were surely awaiting wherever it was that Rory was scheduled to fly to later that evening.

But these are also guys that have no trouble backing off just about any two-footer if, say, a bird should chirp at the wrong time.

So what was going on in Rory’s head during that “championship” Sunday?

It’s true his behavior betrayed that of someone with a chip on the shoulder. It’s also true that Rory wouldn’t be the only professional Mickelson turned off with an over exuberant celebration after, say, a mediocre chip to 8 feet. The fact that Rory raised the Phil/Rickie thing years later suggests something that day struck a nerve.

But even if Rory was motivated by the sanctimony endemic to this side of the pond, he betrayed something darker than a desire to win early that evening. His act instead was reminiscent of a spoiled kid intent on taking his ball and going home.

***********************************************************************

But does the episode at Valhalla actually put Rory at odds with the true Tiger?

One might recall Tiger a decade earlier rushing off the premises after finishing late on Sunday at a PGA, despite the very real possibility that he’d wind up in a playoff on Monday. Phil, this time, did what was necessary to render extra holes moot, but the spectacle of Tiger potentially ceding a tournament to a rival by way of a premature departure was too good a story for even the obsequious pre-Thanksgiving 2009 golf media.

At his next appearance, the media indeed mustered the courage to challenge Tiger on his haste to flee the hinterlands of, in this case not Kentucky but metropolitan New York. Tiger mumbled something about the odds of Phil, Thomas Bjorn, Davis Love, and Steve Elkington—all closers extraordinaire, evidently—blowing it in tandem being infinitesimal. The media quickly grunted their consent and that was that.

Tiger’s actions at Baltusrol were less perplexing to me at the time than the Rory incident years later. Getting to 80 PGA Tour wins with Tiger’s disposition required becoming a self-centered sore loser, and there was no way his ego could stomach bearing witness to a Phil coronation. To the extent that he was actually willing to risk the public relations tsunami that would have descended had he been AWOL for a major championship playoff.

Too cynical? Was it instead a corporate commitment, his harem, or something more substantial beckoning him back to Florida?

Frankly, it’s irrelevant and the point remains: winning was secondary to Tiger that day, as it was to Rory just a few turns around the sun later. There is no escaping that you, the loyal fan, more often than not want it more than even the most determined in the professional ranks.

Keep that in mind that next time you’re flooded with disappointment after your favorite player three putts from 20 feet to lose a major championship. Or chooses a 15 hour flight to Dubai and a guaranteed payday—mind you with 9 figures already in the bank—while nursing a career on the precipice after multiple back surgeries…

Dance with the one who brung ya…

The Golf Channel, or perhaps Hertz or Pennzoil or whatever equipment company was paying him at the time, ran a commercial awhile back in which Arnold Palmer urged us all to be true to our swing, while providing a reminder that his wasn’t exactly textbook. Stop worrying about how you look and go get it, the King commanded.

This may or may not be great advice for the hacker brigade, but one suspects it’s a rule to live by for those that have ascended to the major leagues of professional golf. And an absolute fatwa for the true elite in the game.

Pete Cowen, the best teacher no one knows, said as much in a recent Golf Digest interview:

“When a player has success, there’s always a voice that whispers they can be even better if they make this one change. It can be disastrous, but Louis (Oosthuizen) never heard that voice.”

World #1 Lydia Ko, unsatisfied with the 14 wins and 2 major championships her swing has brought her in the first 19 years of her life, apparently has heard said voice, however.

Per the Daily Mail, she made the following remark while discussing her work with her new coach, Gary Gilchrist:

‘I tried a few lessons with him (Gilchrist) and we ripped the swing apart. I think that was really important and it’s been good to see the changes we’ve made.’

Now, I’d like to blame the golf media’s elevation of the Faldo-Leadbetter (ironically Lydia’s last coach) partnership into myth for this scourge, but Cowen implies such swing changes are a siren to those seeking perfection, in a game in which it doesn’t exist.

At the end of the day, Lydia and Gilchrist certainly understand the swing and the game better than the arm chair quarterbacks on the Internet. And the quote itself may be a reach; Lydia later appears to walk back the drastic nature of the changes she is implementing.

Nevertheless, Lydia and co may do well to spend a moment mulling the wisdom of the Cowen interview. And perhaps keep in mind that for every Faldo-esque transformation — and it’s important to remember that the man had already won a British Open with that crappy swing of his and we’ll never know the counterfactual had he persisted with it — there are a dozen Ian Baker Finches out there stuck in limbo…

 

 

 

 

 

Everything would be his…

Most call it his best book, a few even the best on golf, but it still took me about 25 years to find Dan Jenkins’s The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate. What an odd title, I never could quite make it out, and the fact that it was based on a Bobby Jones quote only further muddled the plot. I guess I assumed the book, if not the quote, was about a bunch of half-drunk Texans betting their mortgages on who could clear the local saloon with a one-iron.

And, of course, there is a section in there on that.

But the book, it turns out, is really nothing more than a reiteration of the same stories Jenkins has been telling for 50 years now, a compilation of his best, pre-1970, hits.

Regardless, it’s still worth reading, if only for the last 4 or 5 pages. He ends by describing the final afternoon of the 1960 US Open, a story I’ve read so many times I could tell it verbatim, and the sole tale Jenkins uses in the eulogy he published immediately after the death of Arnold Palmer.

Somehow though the version Jenkins recounts in Dogged is far and away the best, and in less than 500 words he better explains the man than any of the other tomes written about him.

Now I’m not going to waste time setting up that particular Open. If you don’t know about the pre-round banter in the grill room, Arnold subsequently driving the first green, the front nine 30, Hogan rinsing a wedge on 17, and a pudgy 20-year-old amateur named Jack something or other 3-putting away the championship, well, you know now.

Two things come across in the account in Dogged of that day.

First, you can stuff your Masters revisionism in a sack. The King was crowned on that front nine outside Denver, and defined, later, by his losses at Oakmont and Olympic. Arnold Palmer probably played more than a thousand tournaments, but only 3 or 4, all United States Open Championships, really mattered. And 1960 mattered most. Sometime late on that back nine out West, far from a certain course on the Georgia – South Carolina border, Jenkins recognized: Everything would be his now.

This point is muffed by most of the obits floating around, with many continuing to propel the myth that a limited invitation-only event, on a wholly unnatural made-for-TV course, held a couple of months too early in the season is an arbiter of anything.

More interestingly, in Dogged you learn what drove Arnold Palmer on the golf course. Late that afternoon the man had all but ascended Everest — similar to Tiger at, yes, Augusta in 1997. The world was about to be handed to him, he was about to recognize his life’s dream, and yet he remained fixated on an ultimately irrelevant putt that lipped out and cost him a 29 on the front nine.

And this is the crux of being a fan. The human beings in the arena are infinitely more interesting than the results of these silly events. Does anyone with any depth really care how Arnold, or anyone else for that matter, got or gets the clubface back to square? The carnival barkers on the Golf Channel, apparently, but they can stuff their fatwas on Tiger’s swing in a sack too.

Lee Trevino said he would have bet his mortgage there wasn’t a soul with greater love for the game than his own, until he got to know Arnold Palmer. Jack confirms this, sadly observing that Arnold became a bit lost, a few years ago, after his body finally gave way and golf, of any kind, fell out of reach.

Michael Bamberger, recovering from a misguided, or perhaps obligatory, Masters genuflection in Sports Illustrated’s Arnold obit, gets to the heart of the matter by recounting a tale of the once great man, well past his prime, shaking his putter with glee after a birdie brought him back into a friendly match with a 15 handicapper.

Now, the rank-and-file professional golfer, even those that make it to the top of the game, hang on to the bitter end. The senior tour, the corporate circuit, and the very nature of golf, make this possible in a way that’s out of reach for any other athlete.

There’s a different dynamic at play though for the best of the best. Their biographies are remarkably consistent, and they all end the same. The alpha loses a step, then another. And, the thought of being proven diminished is too heavy a burden. The clubs are hung up. When you were number 1, number 30 is an embarrassment. Heck, number 2 is. Jack liked to say that he had no interest in becoming a “ceremonial golfer.” The lure of the dollar might be the only thing that keeps Tiger from all but joining Mickey Wright in seclusion.

Not Arnold. He didn’t care if he was shooting 60 or 80. He was just trying to hit the ball on the center of the club and ram home a birdie.

Well, that’s the myth anyway. And even if there are less appealing sides to Arnold, as there are to any human being, there is no reason to think it doesn’t approximate the truth.

DJ Rules

I’m just going to assume that you’ve read Bamberger and Diaz by now and get right to the point, because if I wait any longer London might go and tell, I don’t know, Canada to find its own Head of State already, sending the Internet into yet another tizzy and pushing an arcane rules debate in a little played or watched sport further into oblivion.

devicenzo

Now as good as these journalists are — and they’re certainly the only two left wasting their talents on this golf thing that understand nuance — they both leave out a critical point regarding the latest US Open at the once venerable, but now diminished, Oakmont Country Club. Or, are at least unable to come out and say what they want to directly, perhaps because of the personal and professional obligations that go along with working for esteemed, but similarly decimated, media conglomerates.

Before we get to that, let’s just accept that there’s really only one controversy here, and that’s over the timing of the penalty. Even the millennial crowd, which proved constitutionally unable to resist the urge to wail loudly and publicly about the injustice of it all, were more taken aback by the uncertainty of the matter than the possibility of Dustin Johnson losing a stroke. Actually, that sentence is a bit unfair to the hipster set, because the lauded (for not being Greg Norman) 50-somethings fronting Fox’s telecast too became increasingly cranky over the lingering indecision. For that matter, even Big Jack zeroed in on this point.

And at first blush, this reaction seems reasonable. This was no Kent Island Invitational; they were contesting the US freaking Open here. A tournament that has antagonized the greatest of players, regardless of their records. Ben (how did I not win more?) Arnold (how did I only win one??) and Sam (how did I not win any???) all brooded on the event to the end. In what other sport are referees, or their equivalents, paralyzed? Make a call. Penalize the leader for the ball’s rotation and move on. A stupid rule, perhaps, but no worse than a dozen others in the book. What’s all this nonsense about waiting to look at the video at the end of the round?

Well, there was a time when honor meant more than score.

Players have been ostracized, for life, for questionable rules incidents. Gary Player has won 9 majors (he’d be the first to tell you) but, among those in the know, he’s remembered more as a guy you had to watch like hawk lest he fluff up a ball in the rough. Vijay Singh is a legitimate Hall of Famer but will never shake the fact that he once put a 3 instead of a 4 (or whatever it was) on his card at an obscure Asian Tour event in the 1980s. Bob Toski is bitter to this day because of accusations that he better positioned his ball while re-marking it on the green. To some, Ernie Els’s first US Open will always have an asterisk. And Tiger lost the game’s elite not over infidelity but after he big-shotted his way to an entitled drop en route to his second Players Championship.

Now, as Bamberger says more directly than Diaz, the USGA, by issuing the penalty, would have been calling Johnson out. Golf is a game of honor, yes, but we don’t trust yours. You moved the ball. Or most likely did. We can’t let you get away with it. And, frankly, it’s disconcerting that you’re not coming to this conclusion on your own.

At the same time, the USGA knew very well the implications of overruling DJ and calling the penalty. It would have meant adding him to the list above. It would have meant writing the second line of his obituary. You scoff? It doesn’t take much to sully a guy’s honor in the absurd world of professional golf. God only knows whether Toski moved his ball forward or if Gary Player improved his lie a few times over the course of 10,000 rounds. It doesn’t matter. In golf, the accusation itself is the scarlet letter. You don’t overcome it. Guilt is secondary. Actually, it’s irrelevant.

Perhaps alone in knowing the gravity of the situation—DJ and the whingers fleeing western Pennsylvania in their private jets with their iPhones at the ready, certainly didn’t—the USGA was not going to contradict the dullard’s explanation and impose the penalty on the spot. No, they were going to give the honorable Mr. Johnson every opportunity to make the right call on his own. After the round, away from the heat of the moment. Ironically, the USGA was trying to protect him. How quaint of the blue coats to judge a competitor’s reputation to be more important, say, than playing a few holes of one round not knowing if you’re leading by two strokes or one.

In effect the USGA, by delaying the penalty, decided to put Johnson’s integrity over the integrity of the championship.

Well, that is, if you’re in the camp that finds it inconceivable to even consider playing a round of golf not knowing the exact score of the other 144 guys in the field at every moment. In fact, I think such a stipulation might be in the rules. Or at least the Hadith. Thou shalt knoweth the leader’s position in relation to par at ALL TIMES (emphasis added by Sam Snead.)

Is 14 > 18?

Some baseball player currently in Toronto — he hits 50 or so home runs a year and I couldn’t come up with his name if you gave me 100 guesses — recently complained that Major League Baseball neglects its current crop of stars in favor of lionizing its past. What kind of idiotic for profit organization, he was in effect saying, tells its customers the product they’re paying to see cannot possibly compare to its gilded age?

Well, golf — the Masters Tournament in particular — for one. Perhaps it’s a function of my age, but I no longer need to see the tournament commence with Arnold Palmer struggling to stand or Gary Player flexing in triumph after a drive a 15 handicapper might shrug at.

More disturbing though is the thought that media coverage in the lead up to every major golf tournament for at least the next seven years will center around… el Tigre. “Is he playing?” “Can he win?”

And, increasingly, “my god, how is he going to get through the rest of his life knowing that he threw away the chance to catch Jack Nicklaus?”

Implicit in all of this is the obvious understanding that 18 is greater than 14, ending any need for debate. Jack is the greatest, Babe Ruth and Cy Young rolled into one, his record being, the record. Worse, Tiger appears destined to be painted as the golf world’s Mickey Mantle, one whose appetites and insecurities kept him from surmounting Rushmore.

This is lazy thinking, touted even by those in and near the game that should know better — and that’s after putting aside the absurdity of trying to rank players from different eras, playing different opponents, with different equipment, on different courses, in what are, really, different games.

Yes, some events count more than others — “majors” certainly exist. This has always been thus, and is true for any game played. But the makeup of those tournaments has changed significantly over the years, and even among the now agreed upon “4” there is a distinct hierarchy.

For one thing, if you’re over the age of 50 there really only is one major. Sam Snead beat Ben Hogan repeatedly head-to-head, including at the Masters, has many more wins, and was a relevant player for a much greater period of time. Yet, he is never mentioned as an equal of Hogan’s, at best just a rival, and barely comes up in discussions of the greatest player. Why? Easy. He never won the US Open. And he took it to his grave.

Jack let his guard down once and after being asked for the thousandth time about Tiger muttered (to the astonishment, I’m sure, of the 25-year-old blogger set) that he went through much of his career not even knowing how many “majors” he’d won. Of course, he always knew his US Open record, and, for that matter, how many US Amateurs he’d won.

Bamberger’s book “Men in Green” recounts a recent conversation with Arnold, who laments that he lost his edge after winning the legendary 1960 US Open at Cherry Hills, failing to win a thing of note thereafter. Um, Arnold, you went on to win 43 times, not to mention twice apiece at the Masters and British Open…

They may as well be Andy Williams Invitationals to the King. Even at 87, I’m sure he gets sick whenever the USGA returns to Oakmont, and must still lie awake at times brooding about the final nine on Olympic. Augusta? I doubt he’d even remember his double on 18 there that gave the 1961 edition to Player if he wasn’t asked about it every year by a media more interested in myth than history.

Now, you might think the Union Jack or Boer War crowd would have their hackles up at this point, but even that is questionable. Yes, the British Open is storied and even Hogan and Snead, openly contemptuous of the tournament, felt compelled to sail over there on their own dime as a nod to its history. And yes, Bobby Jones, and Hogan later, were feted with ticker tape in lower Manhattan after winning it, an honor inconceivable for a golfer today.

But the tournament was not a particularly competitive affair for much of the last century; the world wars made sure of that. Tom Watson’s British Open record, now revered, was dismissed as an interesting footnote until he proved capable on higher ground, and the authoritative Peter Alliss has marveled at the marketing genius behind the recent rebranding of the event, calling it more or less irrelevant until Arnold swooped over to St. Andrews in 1960. Still, the British remained plagued by a weakened field at least until Seve and his friends re-jiggered the golfing universe in the 1980s.

I’m too fatigued to take on the PGA today, but let’s just accept it lost its considerable relevance soon after bowing to television and dropping its match play format. It’s also instructive that I can’t remember the last time I watched more than a few holes of the event. Probably that year Payne Stewart embarrassed himself on national TV outside Chicago.

***********************************************************************

Now the Masters is… much more complicated. Of course it is as prestigious as any tournament in the world today, and it has been for some time. Certainly for anyone under, say 40, this article has a discordant feel to it. The pressure on the players to win at Augusta is undoubtedly as high as anywhere. Jordan Spieth’s second shot at 12 on Sunday proved that for those who can’t remember 1996, let alone 1986.

The question is, should it be?

Well, my answer to that should be obvious by now, but the details will have to wait until next time.

Bandon Bound?

I doubt just about everything I read these days, but course reviews and rankings, in particular, should be at the top of everyone’s skepticism meter. Well, perhaps behind equipment reviews.

Regardless, it was with some trepidation that I shelled out the four figures necessary for a trip to Bandon Dunes despite the near universal glowing accounts of the place. As it is, most of the course reviewers/travel gurus in the industry come across as shills, at best, and even the good ones almost certainly are handcuffed to some extent by their corporate masters. Compounding the matter, growing up in Bethpage has made me a natural skeptic when judging other courses. I have a friend of sound mind who would genuinely choose the Yellow’s back nine to play his final holes on the planet. I might even have agreed, at least before the deforestation, courtesy of the USGA, took away much of the State Park’s charm, but we’ll leave that for another post.

But now, after four days at the resort, I can definitively report that the Bandon compound meets expectations, at least from the scenic perspective. The courses are stunning – I cannot imagine a more perfect setting – and you must trust that the many pictures online do little to reveal their grandeur.

Here then, in no particular order, are things you should know as you plan your trip:

Know who you are: Golf Digest, in a rare observation of merit, accompanying a typical unreadable article last month, outlined three types of golfers: those that play for the competition; those that play as a solitary pursuit, a test of their abilities; and those that view a round of golf as an opportunity to spend time with friends outside.

photo 2
and this guy is an overmatched golfer…

The courses at Bandon are made for those looking for bonhomie, and work for those of the competitive bent. I can’t think of a more painful experience though than Bandon if you see golf as a challenge to get better, unless, that is, your handicap hovers in the (very) low single digits.

Leave the umbrella at home: If it’s raining, there also are likely to be 20 plus mph winds, so the umbrella will do you no good.

Along with the ProV1s: You’re not stopping anything on these greens, so you might as well play a cheaper ball, that’ll perform just as well.

But bring the spikes: Spikeless shoes are all the rage, and maybe they even are more comfortable, but it’s likely to rain at least a bit during your time in Bandon, and the fescue gets awfully slippery. Spinning out on tee boxes is not much fun.

Ignore the weather apps: We may as well have been checking the weather in Peoria, given how dissimilar the forecasts were to the actual conditions.

caddy working hard to show the line, but his player is flawed...
caddy working hard to show the line, but his player is flawed…

Leave the caddies in the shack: Get in shape before you go and get a trolley. They weren’t all that tough to pull around these courses, and all I did was walk the stairs at work every day for a few months to prepare. Better yet, take a few irons out of your bag and carry yourself.

This isn’t to disparage the caddies; I’m sure the vast majority of the (300 plus) on the property are professional and capable. But for me, they slowed things down – carrying two bags, reading every putt, tending every pin; they viewed it as unprofessional not to do these things, even if not asked – and didn’t provide all that much help other than showing lines off the tee (that I was unable to hit anyway.)

Much more importantly, a fifth or sixth person in your group changes the dynamic, regardless of how great they are as a caddy or a person. So unless you’re in that “challenge thyself” group above, I’d recommend saving some money and going out with your friends as a true foursome. Particularly if you belong to the “miss ‘em quick” school.

Don’t sleep on Old Mac. I liked it the best of the bunch; the sight of the entire course laid out before you, in the grey of morning, was mystical. If Shivas Irons ever visited Bandon, this is the course he’d play.

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On top of Old Mac, seconds from meeting the creator (Keiser himself!)
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I think we were a bit on the cold side at this point on Pacific…

Don’t overrate Pacific. Sure, its got the ocean views, but so does Bandon, and it’s unclear to me why the architectural highbrows genuflect toward it over the others. In fact, it is virtually unplayable in the heavy winds, unless you like hitting drivers on 150 yard par 3s with no bailout areas (or, at least, no bailout areas that require anything less than a perfect chip to save bogey.)

this may have been a match 22 years ago...
this may have been a match on Bandon 22 years ago…

Bandon is just as breathtaking, with a more interesting (and beautiful) opening, and with seaside holes (4/5, 15/16) as stunning as anything on Pacific.

minutes from making triple from the fairway... put me in the time to redo the 14th green camp!
minutes from making triple from the fairway on Trails #14… put me in the camp arguing it’s time to redo the green!

Trails is a walk through the woods unlike any I’ve experienced, but it’d still be number 4 on my list – perhaps if only because it’s less unique than what the typical parkland golfer is used to than the others.

The Preserve has beautiful vistas, and certainly was a fun experience. I was very happy we were able to fit it in. But, go in knowing that it is significantly overpriced ($75 for an hour of golf?) and frankly resembles less a par 3 course than mini golf on steroids (see comment on greens, below.)

Practice hitting long irons off tight lies: You’re going to be hitting a bunch of them if there’s wind (which there will be.)

Up the bounce on your wedges: The sand is extremely soft, and it took me a full day to get accustomed. Not until I started borrowing my friend’s wedge with 12 degrees bounce (I usually play 8) was I able to blast out.

The ground game’s not a panacea: At least not on and around these greens. I felt like I was playing the bump and run pretty well all week, but hit it a little long or short and you’re rolling off into a bunker or swell, or winding up 50 feet away. Sure it’s easier to make solid contact bunting an 8 iron, but unless you gauge it exactly right you’re going to wind up in just as bad a spot as if you missed a wedge.

Seriously, what were Doak and Coore thinking with some of these green complexes? Who enjoys struggling to avoid 4-putts at least two or three times a round? If making a few double bogeys puts you in a bad mood, you’re going to hate yourself pretty quickly out there.

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Which leaves us all with an important lesson, one that the golfer in this country needs constant reminding, courtesy of the poison the PGA tour puts out week in and week out. And that is this: stroke play is for suckers.

Keep the scorecard in your pocket, play a match, and focus on enjoying the walk and the time with people you care about. Do that, and you’ll be mentally planning your next trip to Oregon before you even finish your first round.

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