Monday, April 30, 2007

Byron Who?

Scott Verplank’s win at the Byron Nelson was heartwarming to see given that he is a Dallas native who developed a friendship with Lord Byron as a young amateur. It’s a nice story. What’s less of a nice story are the large number of top tour players who stayed away from the tournament in droves. Pardon me for my cynicism, but I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the stars figured that once Nelson had passed away, they no long felt any obligation to play at his tournament. Give Phil Mickelsen credit for showing up and making a point to greet Nelson’s widow, Peggy, after his round on Sunday. Yes, the pros grumble about the courses used for the event and yes, the greens were not really up to tournament standards. But the young money grubbers who in previous years made it a big deal to greet Byron Nelson at his tournament were conspicuous by their absence. Wonder if they will be so callous as to skip the Bay Hill Invitational and the Memorial when Palmer and Nicklaus leave the world.

Hitting range balls while wonder whatever happened to Don January.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Hold 'Em Golf

I received an interesting tournament invitation in the mail the other day for an event that combines golf and poker. It’s billed as the “Texas Hold 'Em of Golf” and is designed to entice medium to high handicappers to compete for a $750,000 pot. The buy-in is only $10,000 with a field limited to 180 players. According to an outline of the rules, players will have to ante up before teeing off on a hole and after the tee shots, they can raise, call, check or fold on each and every shot. When a player loses all of his chips he is eliminated. First prize is $250,000. The fun starts May 14 at The Mirage in Las Vegas (where else) and will be televised by NBC. My guess is that this will be the biggest collection of sandbaggers since Lawrence of Arabia. In case you’re wondering, Mr. Fairway has a prior commitment and will not be able to enter. But his winning strategy would be to go all-in on hitting a driver into the final fairway, of course.

Hitting range balls while wondering whatever happened to Bo Wininger.

Phil and Butch

So Phil Mickelson is going to work with Butch Harmon. Interesting. Maybe Butch can do for Phil what he did for Tiger. As my buddy the managing editor said, the first thing Butch needs to do is remind Phil not to take the club past parallel on his backswing. For my money, it sounds like Phil is lost and wandering in the wilderness of blown majors. Maybe Butch can fix his head as well as his swing. Until Mickelson changes his mentality, he can forget about adding another major to his portfolio. I’m waiting for his new instructional series that is sure to be entitled “Swing Thoughts of Our Lives.” Good luck to you, Phil. By the way, did you ask Butch to sign a pre-nuptial agreement?

Hitting range balls while wondering whatever happened to George Burns.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Strange Yes, Green No

Curtis Strange and Hubert Green will inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Strange, who won back-to-back U.S. Opens in 1988 and 1989 along with 17 other PGA Tour wins, was elected outright. He also played on five Ryder Cup teams and was captain of the 2002 team. Certainly Strange’s credentials make him worthy of the honor.

Green, however, is a different story. Green was selected in the veteran’s category, which like the baseball Hall of Fame, is reserved for players who can’t make it on their own. Green won one U.S. Open in 1977 and a PGA championship in 1985. He also compiled 19 PGA Tour titles and played on three Ryder Cup teams. Green also is remembered for playing the final round of the 1977 U.S. Open after a death threat had been called in against him. I don't think that qualifies you for the Hall of Fame.

Strange dominated the golf world when he at the peak of his game. He should have won a Masters. Strange was voted Player of the Year three times by the Golf Writers Association of America and he won at least one tournament seven consecutive years. He was the first player to win consecutive U.S. Opens since Ben Hogan in 1950 and 1951. That’s Hall of Fame material. Green, on the other hand, was never a dominant player, although he did win three tour events in 1974 and 1976 (four if you count the Disney team championship). Strange won 70 percent of the vote while Green garnered only 52 percent. Strange earned his spot, but Green belongs in the Hall of the Very Good.

Hitting range balls while wondering whatever happened to Kermit Zarley.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Boo to Masters

Boo Weekley chipped in for pars on the 17th and 18th holes in Monday’s delayed final round of the Verizon Heritage to win his first PGA Tour event and earn a trip to the 2008 Masters. Weekley, who missed a short putt last month at the Honda Classic and lost in a Monday playoff to Mark Wilson, came out of the pack to shoot a three under par 68 to beat Ernie Els by one stroke. High winds at Harbor Town on Sunday forced cancellation of the final round on Sunday. Els, who bogeyed the 17th hole when he hit is tee shot in a hazard, hit a miracle shot on the 18th hole that nearly forced a playoff. Els was 150 yards from the final green and needed to hole out to tie Weekley. With strong winds blowing off the sound, Els hit a shot that covered the flag and stopped one foot away from the hole. Weekley, the tobacco chewing redneck from the Florida panhandle, becomes the first beneficiary of the new rule imposed by the Masters to invite all PGA Tour tournament winners to prestigious tournament. The question will be whether Boo dares spit his chewing tobacco on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National.

Hitting range balls while wondering whatever happened to Kenny Knox.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Super Grip Rip-Off

As a Wisconsin native who competed against Andy North in high school, I have always had the ultimate respect for the two-time U.S. Open Champion. Because he only won one other PGA Tour event in his career, North’s U.S. Open victories are often viewed as some kind of flukes. The reality is that North suffered numerous injuries during his career that affected his performance. I also believe North is an excellent, if understated, golf broadcaster and was disappointed that neither CBS or NBC picked him up when ABC gave up televised golf.

So as much as I like Andy North, I was disturbed to see him hosting an infommercial on the Golf Channel for a product called the SuperStroke, which is an oversized putter grip that claims it will cure yips, shave four strokes off your game, add 100 yards to your drives and improve your sex life. Okay, I exaggerated on the last two claims.

But here is Andy, along with noted golf instructors Randy Smith and Rick Tock praising the SuperStroke as the end all cure to your putting woes. Come on, it’s just a grip for crying out loud. In one of the more laughable infommercials I have ever seen, proponents of the SuperStroke claim (with straight faces) that “the large surface area brings more of the grip into contact with the hands, inhibiting breakdown of the wrists and encouraging use of the preferred arm-and-shoulders putting motion. Scientific tests have shown that the SuperStroke requires up to 32% less grip tension and represents a significant improvement over conventional narrow putter grips. The SuperStroke’s size encourages use of a 'soft hands' technique and ensures a smooth and fluid putting stroke.”

This is almost as bad the golf glove that claims it will increase your driving distance because its patented design keeps your left wrist firm. Yep, and I have some land in Florida I’d like to sell you. I wonder how long it took to get footage of Andy North spouting this with a straight face.

Hitting range balls while wondering whatever happened to Don Iverson.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Cashing In

Masters champion Zach Johnson is well-positioned to cash in on his victory. Rick Horrow, chairman of the sports marketing and consulting company Horrow Sports Ventures, predicts that Johnson could parlay his win at Augusta into endorsements worth between $5 million and $10 million. The pro from Iowa already has five sponsors, including Titleist, Bayer, clothing manufacturer Dunning Golf, professional services firm RSM McGladrey, and Aegon USA, an international financial services company based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The possibilities for the fresh-faced Johnson might be limitless. For example, a recent article in GolfWeek indicated that former U.S. Open champ Jim Furyk earns an estimated $10 million a year from various endorsements. For example, Furyk commands $25 million over five years from his equipment company, Srixon, for his hat, bag, glove, irons and ball. He gets another $25,000 a year for wearing Ahead hats and $500,000 a year from Marquis Jet for wearing its logo on the side of the hat. Chiliwear Apparel pays him $500,000 a year plus royalties for his shirts; Johnny Walker Collection gives him $666,666 a year to put its logo on the back of his neck; and he gets $1.2 million a year from Exelon for wearing its logo on his chest and sleeve. Throw in $30,000 a year for his shoe deal with Adidas and the fees he receives as a spokesman for Aleve, American Express, Electronic Arts, Furyk Golf Design, and Golf Magazine and you have a walking, talking, golfing conglomerate. No wonder pro golfers look more and more like NASCAR drivers every week.

Hitting range balls while wondering whatever happened to R.H. Sikes.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Reflections on the Masters

The 2007 Masters is in the books and it will be remembered as a great tournament for a variety of reasons, including the high scores, the frigid, windy conditions, the victory by little-known Zach Johnson and the inability of Tiger Woods to claim victory after holding the lead during the final round.

I guarantee you that none of the experts picked Johnson, who won with the highest total score in 40-plus years, to win the green jacket. The 31-year-old Iowan has only one PGA Tour victory to his credit but he tore up the tour and earned a spot on the last Ryder Cup team. Give him credit for a gutsy performance.

As for Woods, he is kicking himself for making bogeys on No. 17 and No. 18 in the first and third rounds. But as my old uncle said, “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a very merry Christmas.” In other words, every player out there left shots on the golf course over the four days of play. Retief Goosen looked like he was going to win until he failed to make birdies on the two par fives on the back side. He might be kicking himself for not going for the greens in two. Rory Sabbatini made a phenomenal eagle at No. 8 and then faded down the stretch. Jerry Kelly missed a very makeable eagle putt and Justin Rose could not sustain his brief charge. Stuart Appleby, playing with Woods, hung tough until he rinsed his tee shot on the short par three and took a five. Finally, defending champion Phil Mickelson made triple bogey on the first hole and then blew an eight-foot birdie putt on No. 6 at least six feet past the hole to eliminate any chance he had.

Now it will be interesting to see how Zach Johnson responds to his victory. Will the win at Augusta propel him to greater heights or will he become the next Orville Moody, the unknown who won a major and then disappeared.

Hitting range balls while wondering whatever happened to Doug Ford.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Congressional To Host Tiger's Tournament

The votes are in and the membership at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. overwhelmingly approved a proposal to host the new Tiger Woods tournament July 5-8 as well as the 2008 tournament. That’s good news for Tiger and good news for Washington, D.C. golf fans who hoped the prestigious club would agree to be the site for the new AT&T National. Club members approved the request with 91 percent of the vote. The tour offered Congressional $2.5 million to stage the event.

Congressional was the site of the 1964 and 1997 U.S. Opens and is scheduled to host the 2009 U.S. Amateur and the 2011 U.S. Open. However, the PGA Tour will have to find a different tournament site after 2008, possibly the Robert Trent Jones Club in Gainesville, Va. (site of three previous Presidents Cup events) or the TPC at Avenel, which hosted previous tour events and will undergo extensive renovation this summer.

Hitting range balls while wondering whatever happened to Leonard Thompson.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Arnold Palmer, Honorary Starter

The Masters has some of the best traditions in golf. The winner receives a green jacket from last year’s victor. The reigning U.S. Amateur champion is always paired with the defending champion. Players who make eagles in the tournament receive crystal goblets and vases. The par-three tournament is a tradition all its own. Finally, there is the tradition of past champions and greats serving as honorary starters and hitting the ceremonial first drive to open the tournament on Thursday morning.

This week, Arnold Palmer agreed to be the tournament’s honorary starter. At 77, Palmer’s days of competitive golf are long gone. But the four-time winner of the Masters is much beloved by Augusta National’s patrons, who were out in force to see him hit a gentle draw down the left side of the first fairway.

It was heartwarming to see Palmer swinging a club at the Masters but it must have bittersweet for the man whose hard charging rounds at Augusta helped increase the popularity of the game. But there he was, basking in the adulation of his fans and golf fans everywhere. Here’s hoping it was not a one-time event.

Hitting range balls while wondering whatever happened to Bunky Henry.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Masters Picks

I have a standing bet on the Masters every year with a couple friends. We play for really big stakes – a sleeve of Titleist Pro V-1 golf balls. We each select 10 players in the Masters field and at the end of the tournament, the person whose team takes home the most prize money wins. What usually happens is that we each pick the same five or six top players such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and the outcome depends on our eighth, ninth and tenth selections. The strategy is to make sure you have the winner and then pick players who will make the cut and finish high in the money. Because the fairways are wide and the course is long, the premium is on putting. Johnny Miller once called the Masters the biggest putting contest in the world. Here is my lineup for the 2007 Masters:

Tiger Woods – Duh, he’s the best player in the world and has four green jackets.
Phil Mickelson – The defending champion who also won in 2004. Needs to avoid a U.S. Open blowup.
Vijay Singh – Has not won at Augusta since 2000 but was T-8 last year and has six top 10 finishes in 13 starts.
Davis Love – Long hitter who has the all-around game to win. Also has six top-10 finishes at Augusta and two top-10s on Tour this year.
Retief Goosen – Former U.S. Open champion was T-3 each of the last two years at Augusta. Ranks 21st in putting average and putts per round on tour this year.
Ernie Els – Great record – six top-10s – and fully recovered from knee surgery. He is first in putting average and first in putts per round on tour.
Arron Oberholser – Finished T-14 in first Masters last year. Could break out in 2007. Finished 9th at Houston last week.
Aaron Baddeley – Young gun has never made a cut at Augusta but his game is on the rise. Is 8th in putting average and 9th in putts per round. Won the FBR Open and has two other top ten finishes this year.
Adam Scott -- Won the Shell Houston Open last week and was T-27 and T-33 in last two Masters.
Steve Stricker – First appearance in five years. Played well in majors last year and one of the leading putters on the PGA Tour ranking 10th in putting average and fourth in putts per round. Also a sentimental favorite as a fellow Wisconsin native.

I had a hard time leaving Jose Maria Olazabal and Fred Couples off the list. Both aging vets always play well at Augusta but Freddy’s back is hurting and I think the young guns will supplant the Spaniard.

Hitting range balls while wondering whatever happened to Roberto de Vincenzo.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Congrats Morgan Pressel

Finally, an American woman wins an LPGA tournament. Congratulations to Morgan Pressel for her victory in the Kraft Nabisco Championship, one of the majors on the women’s tour. Nice to see the fresh-faced 18-year-old jumping into the greenside lake to celebrate the win. Too often, the LPGA leaderboard looks like a cross between the Seoul telephone directory and a Scandinavia Air passenger list. And what does it say about women’s golf when one of their biggest tournaments is sponsored by a cheese and crackers company? Can you imagine the men competing for the coveted Midas Muffler Jiffy Lube Championship? Oops, I forgot about the FedEx Cup. Never mind.

Hitting range balls while wondering whatever happened to Laura Baugh.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Champions Dinner

One of the endearing traditions at the Masters is that the defending champion picks out – and pays for – the menu at the Wednesday evening champions dinner. The tradition began in 1952 at a suggestion by Ben Hogan. Phil Mickelsen’s feast this week will include southern fried chicken, baby back ribs, beef brisket and smoked sausage. Dessert will be vanilla ice cream. Attendees also can order off the regular club menu, as many of them did when Sandy Lyle served haggis, mashed potatoes and mashed turnips in 1989. Ben Crenshaw replaces the late Byron Nelson as host of the dinner.

Hitting range balls while wondering whatever happened to Rex Baxter.

Masters Previews

I can never read too much about my favorite tournament of the year, the Masters. I subscribe to several golf publications and I always look forward to the Masters issues. For the past several years, Sports Illustrated has sent its Golf Plus subscribers a very nice, informative separate magazine devoted almost entirely to the Masters. This year’s edition includes the pick of an anonymous PGA Tour pro to win the tournament – Aaron Baddeley – and a profile on Billy Payne, the new chairman of Augusta National. There is a feature on sportswriter O.B. Keeler, who chronicled Bobby Jones, a trivia contest and a look at Masters rookies.

GolfWorld weighs in with a retrospective on Ben Hogan’s final Masters in 1967 as well as the requisite profile of Billy Payne. There is a nice little sidebar that speculates on the birth of the green jacket – Jones may have taken the idea from a novel by English writer G.K. Chesterton. The magazine also has its own Masters trivia section as well as a look at the town of Augusta outside the tournament grounds. Did you know that one of the city’s major businesses is golf cart manufacturer E-Z-Go?

Hitting range balls while wondering whatever happened to Billy Joe Patton.

Masters Week

The best week in golf starts tomorrow when the Masters becomes the center of the golf universe. I believe that the Masters is the most popular tournament among golf enthusiasts and non-golfers alike. First, the Masters marks the coming of spring. The blooming dogwoods and azaleas framing the rich green hues of the Augusta National course gives golfers in cold weather climes hope that spring is on its way. Second, the fact that the Masters is played on the same course every year gives it a familiarity to golf fans who know virtually every hole even if they have never attended the tournament in person. Finally, the Masters always seems to provide a sense of drama on Sunday afternoon. Whether it is Curtis Strange, Tom Weiskopf, Scott Hoch, Ed Sneed or Greg Norman imploding or Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Phil Mickelsen or Tiger Woods hitting miraculous shots that result in victory, golf fans can almost always count on an exciting finish. So, golf fans, get ready for the best week in golf.

Hitting range balls while wondering whatever happened to Bob Goalby.