Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Long, short of winning a major

Sergio Garcia could have done more than just win the British Open Sunday had his eight-foot putt on the 72nd hole at Carnoustie tumbled into the cup.

He would have become the first player to win a major championship using a belly putter or a long putter.

Instead, those forced to desperate measures with a putter are still winless in golf’s most important events.

Vijay Singh, who goes back and forth with his putters, had gone back to a conventional-length putter when he won the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits three years ago.

Putting, as anyone who has ever tried it knows, is a hateful thing. It has ruined more men than wine and women.

That’s why players try all the things they do in an effort to roll the ball into that little hole. If a snow shovel worked, golfers would use it.

But there’s something about the long putter, or the shorter belly putter that you anchor to that spare tire around your waist, that runs contrary to the spirit of golf’s rules.

There may come a day when I’m forced to use the long putter, at which point my opinion will change 180 degrees but, for the time being, I’m glad no one has won a major using a long or belly putter.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sadly, a bitter ending for Sergio

Late Sunday evening, the sound of Irishmen singing – someone suggested they’d had a few pints – could still be heard at the Carnoustie Golf Links after Padraig Harrington won a British Open that had been a long time coming.

It was worth singing about.

Let’s take a moment here to appreciate Harrington. He’s an exceptional player who’s not spectacular at anything other than getting the ball in the hole. That’s a nice skill to have when you’re in the business of major championship golf.

He’s a tireless worker who’s come close enough times in majors to know how wickedly difficult it is to win one of these things.

Harrington is also immensely popular with players on both the PGA and European Tours because he’s a good guy who works hard, tells you what he’s thinking and goes about it the right way.

Even Sergio Garcia had to be happy Harrington won.

At least you hope so.

Garcia is a strange case. He’s a terrific player who has seemingly everything going for him except for a putter, that occasionally sticks needles in his eyes, and an attitude that works against him.

After his playoff loss to Harrington Sunday, Garcia played the woe is me card, citing all the ways the world is out to get him.

When he hits the flagstick, like he did on the second playoff hole, his ball always bounces away from the hole instead of landing beside the cup. He never gets any good breaks. The guy raking the bunkers at No. 18 took too long. Blah, blah, blah.

Come on, Sergio.

It’s easy to understand his frustration and that’s great. If he didn’t care he wouldn’t be where he is. Sergio’s passion is who he is.

He played terrific golf for three days and when he got wobbly, Sergio pulled it together in the pressure of Sunday afternoon and made you admire his toughness getting to a playoff.

When he lost, though, he started blaming fate. But fate didn’t shoot 38 on the front nine or plug his approach shot in the bunker on the first playoff hole.

It was a bitter way to go, for sure, after such a good week.

Maybe Garcia didn’t hear the Irishmen singing Sunday evening. He wouldn’t have liked the tune.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

It's there for Sergio's taking

The British Open couldn’t be set up any better for Sergio Garcia to win.

He has a three-stroke lead over Steve Stricker with 18 holes to play and he’s six clear of everyone else.

Best of all for Garcia, Tiger Woods is eight strokes behind.

This is Sergio’s moment. Now he has to seize it.

Garcia has grown justifiably weary of answering questions about why he hasn’t won a major championship so far. This is his 35th professional major and it’s time he finished one off.

He’s leading at Carnoustie because he’s played better than anyone else. Saturday was a fine example of managing himself around 18 holes, avoiding the costly mistake while taking advantage of the scoring chances he gets.

Garcia hit long irons off the tee on several par-4s to make sure he didn’t find the fairway bunkers that are, effectively, a one-stroke penalty.

He’s not making every putt but the difference this week is Garcia is putting with confidence. Having made the sensible move to the belly putter after the U.S. Open last month, Garcia feels good on the greens again. When he looks up, he sees the ball starting on line, something he wasn’t seeing often enough with a conventional putter.

There are plenty of doubters when it comes to Garcia but I feel like this is the one he wins. It’s important for him to get off to a good start in the final round and it would help Garcia if the conditions aren’t severe. He doesn’t look forward to playing in difficult conditions.

Just imagine the party Garcia might throw if he wins the claret jug on Sunday.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Shoot, it's fish and a barrel

The culinary offerings in Scotland are, at least by American tastes, different.

That’s not to say bad, just different.

They love their potatoes and black pudding and grilled tomatoes for breakfast.

They’re quick to throw a cucumber slice on a sandwich, too.

But when you go looking for a Scottish delicacy at the British Open, you just follow the smoke. When you find its source, you’ll find Iian Spinks’ original Arbroath smokies.

And you’ll also find a line of people waiting for them. At noon local time Friday, the line happened to include a substantial portion of the American media corps, each taking turns forking over four pounds ($8) for a headless, boneless golden brown haddock on a paper plate.

Spinks’ little tent is set up near the main spectator gate and beside it is half a whiskey barrel dug into the ground and covered with damp Hessian sacking or, what we’d call burlap.

The fish, which hang tied by their tail to a stick before being smoked, cook for about 40 minutes over oak and beech and when they emerge, they’re bronze on the outside and beautiful on the inside.

The bones are pulled out and the fish is handed to you on a white paper plate. You tip it over slightly to drain a little fish juice out and then go at it with a plastic fork.

Wonder if the guy has any interest in coming to the Wachovia Championship?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

British Open weather: Cold, rainy, perfect

This is the way the British Open is supposed to be – cold, gray and wet.

And the bad stuff is expected to arrive by Saturday.

A local joked that summer came to Scotland last Sunday and has left again for another year, and it feels like it.

Walking around Carnoustie today requires a rain suit (they’re called ‘waterproofs’ over here), a hat and a strong constitution.

It’s been a while since the Open has felt like this. Last year, sunscreen was in high demand, as was anything icy cold. This year, hot chocolate is the drink of choice.

It would be OK if it were just cold. It would feel like the Masters this year.

It would be OK if it were raining.

But put them together and you have a perfect day to sit in front of a fireplace, not play golf.

“If it had been windy, too, I might have been inside drinking something,” said Joe Durant, who was the first player out Thursday at what they call “half-six” in the morning here.

It’s not often you see Tiger Woods walking the course with his hands tucked into thick mittens, but it happened Thursday.

Puffs of steam sprouted from the mouths of players and fans who braved the elements.

It didn’t feel like a day for golf.

But it felt like a day at the British Open.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Clothes come off in Scotland

Don’t take this the wrong way but your clothes come on and off a lot when you’re in Scotland.

It’s a weather thing.

One minute it’s warm and sunny, the next minute it’s cold and breezy. Even if it’s not raining, it looks as if it could at almost any moment.

In the media center at the British Open, daily weather updates are distributed, offering reasonable guesses at what the conditions will be later in the day and later in the week.

As I write this, I’m reading a forecast that says there’s only a 20 percent chance of “heavier showers” today. The long shot came in because it’s raining so hard outside, it’s hard to hear inside the big media tent.

To their credit, weather forecasters here make no promises. Beside their forecast for Saturday (stormy and cold as Colin Montgomerie on a bad day) are the words “low-medium confidence.”

Beside the Sunday forecast (cloudy with a 50 percent chance Tiger Woods will win) are the words “low confidence.”

In other words, they’re not bragging about their Dopplers.

Because the weather never stays the same on this edge of the North Sea, dressing properly has more layers than a James Joyce novel. Beyond the obvious necessities, there’s a shirt, a sweater and a rain jacket. The Scots, by the way, don’t call them rain suits. They call them waterproofs.

Sometimes you wear all three. Sometimes two. Sometimes one. Sometimes you do all three during one walk around the golf course.

More later.

I need to go get my jacket.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Charisma, spellbinding play lasting memory of Ballesteros' career

If you ever saw Seve Ballesteros play golf in his prime, you haven’t forgotten it.

He played golf with a rare passion and imagination, unlike anyone in today’s game and like few others ever.

When Seve announced his retirement from competitive golf Monday at Carnoustie, his game had long ago faded away, leaving him to chase balls out of bad spots, unable to summon the magic that once marked his game.
But his impact was enormous.

At his best, Seve was spellbinding. He attacked the game and the course, winning five major championships in a career that can’t be judged solely by the trophies he won.

Seve reached beyond the scores he shot. His impact was in how he played and how he changed the sport.

Ballesteros was Europe’s Arnold Palmer.

He never seemed to grasp the notion that American fans and journalists admired his style while remarking about his ability to make pars and birdies from seemingly impossible places. Seve seemed offended by the remarks but he shouldn’t have been.

Perhaps that’s why he apologized to writers Monday for any times when he might have been rude or gruff and there were some of those.

He was brilliant around the greens and had a movie-star charisma about him as he marched around golf courses, his brow creased.

When he smiled, Seve could light the world.

His legacy may ultimately be his effect on the Ryder Cup. Before Seve, it had become an exhibition, neither competitive or emotional. He made it both.

Seve breathed fire into the Ryder Cup while inspiring a generation of European players who altered professional golf’s global landscape.

He called it a career Monday.

It was a great one.

Ron Green Jr.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A day at the Old Course

I had always imagined what it would feel like to stand on the first tee at the Old Course at St. Andrews with a driver in my hands and the eyes of the townspeople and golf’s ghosts watching me.

Now I know.

I felt nervous. Excited but nervous.

And, not wanting to miss what appears to be the widest fairway in the world, I hit a 3-wood just to be safe.

After years of anticipation, I finally played the Old Course last Thursday and, having already fallen under the spell of St. Andrews during the 2005 Open Championship there, my affection for the place was deepened after a day ‘round the auld sod.

It’s no great revelation that the Old Course is a quirky place, a relatively flat, tree-less piece of linksland that starts and ends close enough to town that it’s possible to fire a golf ball into someone’s apartment.

Some people don’t like or don’t get the Old Course. The story goes that when Sam Snead first passed the place on a train, he remarked, “It looks like there used to be a golf course there.”

I loved it.

The humps. The bumps. The double greens. The gorse. The pot bunkers. The views of the town.

I loved it all.

It didn’t hurt that we caught it on a beautiful day, partly cloudy, temperatures in the upper 60s and barely a breeze until late in our round.

Playing the Old Course, especially for the first time, is about more than making pars and bogeys and (one) birdie. It’s about hearing the whispers of time and knowing you’re walking the most historic ground in the game.

It’s not the kind of golf we’re used to playing. You play the Old Course on the ground, bouncing shots into greens, watching them twist and turn on their way.

The fairways are not perfect. There’s no special grass on the greens. It’s just grass and it’s mowed shorter on the greens.

When you play the 17th – the famous Road Hole – it’s unnerving when you’re told to aim your tee shot over the ‘H’ in the Old Course Hotel script painted on the shed directly in front of you. But it’s a thrill when you do it and find your ball one foot off the fairway and an equally bigger thrill when you rip a 4-iron onto the front of the green while the people watching from the Jigger Inn alongside the fairway applaud you.

They didn’t applaud the three-putt that followed.

When you walk over the Swilcan Bridge on No. 18 and to the final green, tucked beside a street, you remember seeing Jack Nicklaus birdie the last hole he ever played in major championship golf.

You remember that Bobby Jones and Sam Snead and Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods have won the Open at St. Andrews.

I will remember more than my 81. I will remember the feeling.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Ranking the top 10 N.C. golf courses

If you’ve ever seen the marvelous movie, ‘High Fidelity,’ starring John Cusack as a lovesick music buff, you know that guys love to rank things. Top 10 songs. Top 10 movies. Top 10 cheeseburgers.

The Golf Channel has a series of Top 10 shows running this summer and, seemingly every day, somebody has a list about something.

In that spirit, I’ve compiled my 10 favorite courses in North Carolina. It doesn’t mean they’re the best, though most are familiar, just that they’re courses I like to play when I get the chance.
Some familiar ones aren’t included because I’ve never seen or played them. Wade Hampton, the Country Club of North Carolina, Diamond Creek and Eagle Pointe are just a few of those. Everyone who’s been to Wade Hampton raves about it but it’s hard to include it if I’ve never seen it.

My top 10 is:

10. Cedarwood Country Club in Charlotte. OK, it’s my home course so I’m playing favorites here but it’s a terrific members’ course, originally designed by Ellis Maples then retouched a couple of years ago by Kris Spence. The last five holes are one of the best finishing stretches around.

9. Old North State Club in New London: Some lists have this course near the top in the state, though I can’t put it that high. It’s great fun to play, even if the par-4 ninth hole is harder than boot camp. The 16th, 17th and 18th holes play along Baden Lake and are as much fun to play as they are to look at. If anyone ever invites you to Old North State, go.

8. Elk River in Banner Elk: It’s a beautiful Jack Nicklaus design with two distinct nines. One plays through a meadow while the other climbs and twists along a hillside. It would be a great place to spend the summer.

7. Linville Golf Club in Linville: This is a classic, old-style mountain course that you could play every day without tiring of it. The par-4 third hole has been included on many best holes in the world lists and justifiably so. Linville doesn’t beat you up the way some courses can. It caresses you like a cashmere sweater.

6. Pinehurst No. 4: When this course was remade by Tom Fazio a few years ago, it went from good to excellent. It’s not unlike its sister, Pinehurst No. 2, in that it challenges you around the greens with its sweeping run-offs. The putting surfaces aren’t as contoured as No. 2 but reaching the greens asks a lot of players. There’s a reason the U.S. Amateur will use it next August.

5. Pine Needles in Southern Pines: Everything about Pine Needles oozes comfort. The lodge. The staff. The course. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy golf course. Pine Needles, as the Women’s Open showed, is a superb test that continually gives you fun shots to play.

4. Charlotte Country Club: It’s the old classic in Charlotte golf and figures to be even better when the current renovation is complete. With its huge trees and rolling layout, it has the feel of the clubs in the Northeast and it’s as good as anything you’re going to find. It tests every part of your game, charming you in the process.

3. Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte: There’s a reason the best players in the world play the Wachovia Championship every year - and it’s not the money nor the Mercedes they get to drive. It’s the golf course. Look at the list of winners in the five years of the Wachovia - David Toms, Vijay Singh, Joey Sindelar, Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods. It’s major championship worthy.

2. Grandfather Golf and Country Club in Linville: For sheer beauty, nothing matches Grandfather. It’s gorgeous. It’s always wickedly hard. Don’t hit it sideways because you’ll never find your ball in the rhododendrun and mountain laurel. Putting the always-slick greens is serious business, and the only bad thing about the stunning par-4 18th hole is it means the end of your round at Grandfather.

1. Pinehurst No. 2 (shown in photo): It’s golf at its purest. It’s not filled with dramatic beauty. It has just one small pond. But it’s where every great American golfer has played and it’s better now than ever. The genius in Donald Ross’ design is in forcing players to play the correct shots into the greens, which are small works of art. It’s the kind of course where you can hit every club in your bag and the more often you play it, the more you appreciate it.