Friday, May 30, 2008

Going too far to protect par

Last weekend, Jay Haas won the Senior PGA Championship by shooting 7-over par at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y.

This week, the NCAA men’s golf championship is being played at the Kampen Course at Purdue University where the scores have tended to look like something from a couples-event at the local muni.

And, two weeks from now, we’ll see the best players in the world chopping their way around the cliffs at Torrey Pines in the U.S. Open, no doubt begging for mercy from a course set up to punish the occasionally off-line shot.

All in the name of protecting par, I suppose.

What’s wrong with seeing good players making birdies?

There’s a reason people have been talking about Phil Mickelson’s spectacular 18th hole birdie to win at Colonial on Sunday. It was bold, creative and dramatic. And it was a birdie.

That’s the way golf tournaments should be won.

For years, the Masters was beloved because of how dramatic it was. The weekend was filled with birdies and eagles and heroes. Recently, though, there’s been consternation about the lack of drama and hints that maybe the set-up will be softened slightly.

The U.S. Open has made its reputation on being difficult and it tends to produce quality champions. You know what you’re getting at the Open. A four-day grind that’s as hard mentally as it is physically.

It would be more entertaining if the winner shot, say, 5-under par rather than 5-over par, and the integrity of the event wouldn’t be compromised. It would probably be enhanced.

On the flip side, seeing someone shoot 27-under to win a tournament goes too far the other way.

Finding the balance between difficult and severe is the trick.

What’s the fun in watching everyone make bogeys?

We see enough of that when we play.

Some people say they like to see the pros suffer like the rest of us.


It’s OK if the U.S. Open is unforgiving. That’s one week a year.

That’s enough.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Woods ready, but not pain-free

Checking out the golf scene:

  • Tiger Woods said Tuesday that he expects to be ready for the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in two weeks. Woods said his rehab from knee surgery is progressing well and he’s playing golf again. He considered playing the Memorial this week but decided against it because he felt his game was too rusty. During a press conference to promote the PGA Tour event he hosts in Washington in July, Woods said he’s still not pain-free from the surgery but stiffness is the biggest issue he faces. Woods said he decided to have the surgery “two or three weeks before” the Masters and would have had the procedure done even if he’d won at Augusta.
  • With Phil Mickelson’s victory last weekend at the Colonial – and he could win at the Memorial this weekend – the run-up to the Open will be dominated by the game’s two most captivating characters. Between them, Woods and Mickelson have won nine times at Torrey Pines (Woods has six wins there) but they’re coming at this Open from different directions. Mickelson looks as if he’ll be primed to win his first Open while Woods will not have played since the Masters, a two-month break. For most guys, the two-month break would be reason to downgrade their chances. In Woods’ case, however, it seems less a concern.

  • In case you haven’t heard, this U.S. Open will go prime-time on the weekend, at least on the East Coast. The USGA has scheduled Saturday’s third round to conclude at 10 p.m. with the final round set to end Sunday at 9 p.m. Obviously, close attention will be paid to NBC’s ratings over those two days, which means the suits would love to see Tiger and Phil in contention. A prime-time finish doesn’t work when the Open is on the East Coast but if the numbers are good this year, expect a similar scenario in 2010 when the Open returns to Pebble Beach.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Balsam Mountain: Enjoy the view ...

Perhaps the most challenging question about the new Balsam Mountain Preserve golf course located six miles outside Sylva and about 4,000 feet above sea level is how best to describe it.

Spectacular comes to mind.

So does unique.

If you haven’t heard of the new Arnold Palmer design – and chances are you haven’t – you soon will.

It is sure to get plenty of national attention when the various best new course awards are being handed out at the end of this year.

And as more people get a look at it this summer, the word will spread.

After spending two days there this week, lamenting crooked tee shots and admiring the scenery, I can’t think of any golf course like it.

There is a thrill to playing it because the setting is so dramatic. It is perched atop and between mountain slopes, affording a collection of views that continually divert your attention from the course.

But only for a moment.

The course, designed primarily by the late Ed Seay, is relentlessly unforgiving though the landing areas are generous. There is room along the sides of most holes to miss, but there’s not much room. You can find a fade. You lose a slice.

If you go, take a camera and plenty of golf balls. The good news is the local rule plays everything lost off the fairway as a lateral hazard. Drop a ball, take a penalty stroke and keep going.

Several shots give you a thrill.

The par-3 third hole measured 209 yards Wednesday morning but the fall from tee to green meant it was only an 8-iron shot – and a nervous wait that felt like 30 seconds while the ball was in the air.

At the fifth hole, the green sits perched on a hillside you’d love to have as a homesite.

The half-mile ride from the fifth green to the sixth tee is as good as anything on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The par-5 14th hole is as naturally beautiful as any hole anywhere. Standing on the tee, it feels as if you’re hitting your drive into the sky. Then the hole turns left and plays along a mountain top, offering an unobstructed view of another set of mountains nearby.

The only thing missing from the 14th hole is an Adirondack chair and a cocktail.

It is not a golf course for the timid. It’s penalizing enough that will shatter your confidence in a hurry.

If that happens – and I speak from experience – you can still enjoy the view. There aren’t many like it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Tiger: Fittest man in America?

In case you’ve been busy doing ab crunches and haven’t heard, Tiger Woods has been named the fittest man in America by Men’s Fitness magazine.

Simply put, it is one of the most significant cultural developments in golf’s long history, ranking right up there with the Titleist ProV1, David Feherty and the beer cart.

A golfer has been named the fittest man in America.

Not the fattest.

The fittest.

Makes me proud enough to suck in my gut.

Among the many things Tiger has taught golfers is the difference between a six-pack and six-pack abs.

That’s why he can wear those shirts that fit tight and show off his biceps. I would too if I had guns like his.

Tiger has made working out part of a golfer’s regimen, though most golfers still keep going past the workout room when we’re on our way to or from the golf course.

For most of us, the only thing more intimidating than a 180-yard carry over water is the bench press.

He has made lifting weights – not the 12 ounce kind – part of his routine when he’s getting ready for a tournament. He also has a supermodel’s waist. I’m just guessing here but he probably doesn’t wear the pants with the expandable waistband.

Tiger has made golfers proud. He’s made the game athletic.

Check the bar at any course and I’m betting you can find a few golfers raising toasts to Tiger.

Or maybe they’re just raising their glasses.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Hensley deserving of N.C. Hall honor

When the new class of inductees into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame is introduced tonight in Raleigh, North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams and Harlem Globetrotter Curley Neal will be the biggest stars.

But Bill Hensley, who is among the inductees, is just as deserving of his place in the Hall he helped create years ago.

Hensley has been a long-time champion of golf in North Carolina, usually working behind the scenes in his role as a public relations man.

A recent magazine article ranked Hensley, a former sports information director at Wake Forest and N.C. State, as the third-most influential person in North Carolina golf circles.

He has been around the game for decades and understands what makes it part of the fabric of life in North Carolina. He has done national work, doing public relations work for six U.S Opens, but his work to enhance the game here has made him a part of the North Carolina golf scene.

Hensley is the man who created the North Carolina Golf Panel, which annually ranks the top 100 courses in the state and he has been a wonderful ambassador for the area. He does his work in North Carolina but his name is known across the country.

He belongs in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Two good things come out of TPC

Two very good things came out of The Players Championship Sunday even if all most of us got to watch was Doppler radar while the final holes were being played:

1. Sergio

It was a huge win for Sergio Garcia in many ways. It had been three years since he’d won and a significant portion of his sparkle had dulled in that time. He nearly won the British Open last year but didn’t and the longer he went without winning, the more the questions mounted.

It’s no secret that Sergio (above) doesn’t love the media because he’s been constantly reminded that he’s not been a good putter. He was a good putter when he arrived on tour but he watched too many putts miss and it worked on his head.

He came across as whiney last year after his British Open loss and got blasted for it. In fairness to him, he was bitterly disappointed and let his emotions show.

Asked Sunday evening if he still feels like a kid, Sergio said he plays his best when he plays like a kid but he feels like an old 28-year old.

At The Players, Sergio holed several key putts, including a huge one to get into the playoff. He’s begun working with short-game and putting guru Stan Utley and the results were apparent at Ponte Vedra Beach.

Garcia has what only a handful of players have – star power. He has the smile and the style to be more than a golfer. Sergio makes people watch. And, if we’re lucky, his best is yet to come.

2. Paul Goydos

Until you’re seriously into golf, you probably didn’t know who Paul Goydos was before this weekend. Even Goydos has joked, from time to time, that there’s no reason to know him because he’s never done anything.

In fact, he’s won twice on tour and is one of the most interesting guys on tour. He’s smart, sees the world beyond himself and appreciates what he has as a tour player.

Between the time Goydos won his two PGA Tour victories, Tiger Woods won 60 times, prompting Goydos to tell Tiger to hurry up and win his next 60 so he could win his third.

The win Sunday was important to Sergio’s career but a victory would have changed Goydos’ life in a professional sense. A divorced father who is raising two teen-aged daughters, Goydos almost became famous Sunday.

“I felt like Tiger Woods for a day,” Goydos said in his press conference.

He deserves it.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

O'Meara: Kim's swing better than Tiger's at 22

When new Wachovia champion Anthony Kim came to realize his approach to the PGA Tour wasn’t working – he admitted he didn’t work hard enough as a rookie last year and thought he was good enough to walk in and win – he sought the advice of veteran players.

One of those was Mark O’Meara, who served as Tiger Woods’ mentor more than a decade ago.

O’Meara was asked about Kim earlier this year at the Buick Invitational and here are some of the things he said:

  • “Everybody asks who’s the next young player to come along. I see a lot of talented young players. Nothing really jumped out at me until I played with this kid. I played three rounds with Anthony (late last year) in Naples and I was blown away. … I was like, whoa, this guy has got some game because he plays the little shots. He wants to win. He’s got a little bit of an attitude but he’s grown up a lot. I think he’s learned by some things that happened to him last year.”
  • “He knows he’s made some mistakes. He’s willing to change and become a better person and a better player…I just conveyed to Anthony that I’ve been around the game a long time. I’m not an expert but I’ve watched and seen a lot. But you’ve got as much talent or more than any other player I’ve ever seen besides Tiger and I believe that.”
  • “At 21, 22 Tiger had already won six tournaments. I think Tiger’s mental game was probably stronger. I think actual technique-wise, swing-wise, I reckon Anthony’s swing is better at 21, 22 than what Tiger’s was. But just because you have a good swing and hit the ball well doesn’t mean that you’re going to win tournaments. We’ve seen that.”

Monday, May 05, 2008

Another Kim first: Keeping blue jacket

Anthony Kim apparently likes the blue blazer he received for winning the Wachovia Championship Sunday at the Quail Hollow Club.

The 22-year became the first player in the six-year history of the event to keep the blue coat he was given at the trophy presentation on the 18th green.

Kim, who intended to leave Charlotte Sunday evening, instead spent the night here before heading off to The Players Championship in Florida.

After leaving Quail Hollow, Kim and some friends went to dinner at Del Frisco’s near Southpark and the champion arrived wearing his blue blazer.

When he entered the restaurant, Kim was greeted by a standing ovation from the diners and the staff.

Among those in the restaurant were Phil Mickelson and Fred Couples, who raised a toast to the new king of Quail Hollow.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Wachovia's winners, losers

While Anthony Kim celebrates, let’s look at the winners and losers from the 2008 Wachovia Championship.

- Anthony Kim. He set the tournament scoring record (16-under-par 282) and margin of victory record (five shots) while playing nearly flawless golf. He was under the radar before but he’s not anymore.

- Trevor Murphy. The Charlotte 49ers’ golfer qualified on Tuesday and had to skip the 49ers’ conference tournament, but it was worth it. He got to play against the world’s best and he found out he can do it. Murphy shot 71 on Thursday and was on the verge of making the cut until a bad stretch coming in cost him. Still, it was a terrific story.

-Ben Curtis. He slipped into second place quietly Sunday by shooting 65. There was a time when he was considered a fluke winner of the British Open, but he’s gradually grown into his game and is a nice person.

-Fred Couples. It was nice to see him back after five years. If he could putt, he could still win. But he’s still Freddie and he says he’ll be back next year.

-Tiger Woods. OK, not really a loser, but he had to sit out while he rehabs his knee. Maybe he watched Anthony Kim’s performance and took notice. And, yes, Tiger was missed here but he’s missed every week he doesn’t play.

-Bill Haas. He’s struggling with his confidence and it showed Thursday when he talked about considering a different career. That probably won’t go over well with Papa Jay.

-Trevor Immelman. He’s now 0-for-2 making cuts since winning the Masters. His game has gone on sabbatical, but Immelman smiled and enjoyed himself. His game will be fine.

-Vijay Singh. He was tied for eighth with two holes to play Sunday then dunked two in the lake at No. 17 to ruin his weekend. The good news is he chipped in for a no-putt six. For whatever that’s worth.

Ron Green Jr.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Kim's the leader, but it's not over yet

We’re 18 holes away from handing a blue jacket to someone at the Wachovia Championship - right now it looks like Anthony Kim, but don’t forget that Sergio Garcia brought a six-stroke lead into the final day four years ago and didn’t win - and there’s a shortage of juice.

That’s largely because the names at the top of the leader board are about as familiar as your second cousin.

You’ve heard of them, seen them around a few places but you really don’t know a whole lot about them.

This weekend was supposed to be about Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk and Vijay Singh and Adam Scott and all those guys who do commercials, endorse clubs and live just outside Tiger Woods’ orbit.

It may still be.

Stewart Cink and Pat Perez proved Saturday that there are low numbers to be posted at Quail Hollow and somebody is likely to throw something gaudy on the board early Sunday afternoon to get the attention of the players in front of him.

Golf gets tougher the later you play on Sunday.

For Kim, this a huge moment. He had a chance to win the Verizon Heritage two weeks ago but couldn’t keep his mind in the same place his body was. As he put it, he was on the first hole and thinking about the second hole.

You don’t have to be a sports psychologist to know that’s not the way you go about things.

But that’s what experience does for you and Kim got some valuable experience when he watched Boo Weekley beat him at Harbour Town.

Heath Slocum is part of the Milton, Fla., gang - with Weekley and Bubba Watson - but he doesn’t get the attention. He also, as far as I can tell, doesn’t chew tobacco on the course like Boo sometimes does.

Jason Bohn has just one win in his career but he’s been playing nicely for a while.

If somebody is going to run down Kim, it might be Cink who has been one of the tour’s best players this year but hasn’t won. He could have been down the road after Friday - he was 5 over after 12 holes in the first round - but he gave himself a lecture during the first round and he has a chance to win today.

Tournaments don’t end on Saturday.

That’s what Sundays are for.

Ron Green Jr.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

What's in store Friday at Wachovia Championship?

Now that the first round of the Wachovia Championship is done - as are David Duval, Steve Stricker and Mike Weir this week - we have a hint of how the story might unfold this weekend.

But just a hint.

Interesting questions hang over Friday’s second round. Among them:

How will David Toms play after his opening 67, which surprised even him?
Back problems have bothered Toms this year, but he’s a tough player who might find some good vibes here. He might not win - he acknowledged that - but I’m guessing he hangs in among the leaders for a while.

Is this Phil Mickelson’s year at the Wachovia?
A lot of people would like to think so. He has more top-10 finishes here than any player that hasn’t won a blue jacket and his opening 68 reinforced the sense that Phil is energized about a refreshed putting stroke.

The biggest question about Mickelson is did he really grow an inch over the past couple of years due to his stretching exercises? That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.

How about Trevor Murphy?
Even before the Charlotte 49ers senior shot 71 in the first round, he was a good story. Now he has a realistic chance to make the cut. Shows what confidence means to a golfer.

Will the course get tougher?
Probably. It will definitely get drier which means the greens will firm up. The fairways probably can’t get as fast as officials would like them but Quail Hollow showed some teeth Thursday afternoon when the wind started kicking around.

What will Friday afternoon be like?
You tell me. It’s going to be 80 degrees and sunny. Phil Mickelson and Fred Couples are going to be on the course. There will be cocktails, golf and sundresses.
There are worse places you could be.

Mickelson mingles with the masses

Phil Mickelson had finished the bulk of his day's work Thursday, signing for a 4-under par 68 that left him one stroke off the early first-round lead in the Wachovia Championship and he had handled a quick group of radio and television interviews outside the clubhouse.

Before lunch and before a visit to the media center, Mickelson grabbed a Sharpie from his back pocket and walked over to where a couple hundred fans had squeezed themselves close to an iron railing, hoping to get a moment and a signature from him.

He could have ducked inside, relaxed in the leather furniture inside the locker room and left the world outside. But Mickelson took the time to go sign as many caps and tickets and programs as he could. It's part of what Mickelson does and a big reason why he's popular in a different way than Tiger Woods is.

Mickelson smiled and chatted with the fans, including a man named Dee Hunt, who had found himself in the line of fire when Phil's tee shot went left off the fifth tee. The ball caught Hunt between the shoulders and fell down in the left rough.

"He had a good lie in the rough but it came off my shoulder," Hunt said.

Mickelson had already taken a moment to sign his white glove -- "Sorry, Phil Mickelson," it said -- and given it to Hunt.

For 10 minutes, Mickelson stood and signed for others, talking, bringing a few laughs, having a good time with his fans.

He was one shot off the lead, feeling good about his game again and happy to be Phil.