Monday after Shinnecock

In 2004, the last time our national open was played at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club at the extreme eastern end of Long Island, the wailing and gnashing of teeth by players could be heard 90 miles away in Manhattan. At issue was the course setup and particularly the par-3 7th hole where in the final round the first four contestants made a triple bogey, a triple bogey, a triple bogey and a bogey. The putting surface was so fast the ball would not stop much less stop anywhere near the hole.

On that Sunday fourteen years ago, the USGA rather than suffer further embarrassment, opted to water the 7th and a few other greens allowing the leaders including champion Retief Goosen to be able to play the hole without undue mishap.

Now that the 118th U.S. Open is in the record books with Brooks Koepka putting on a memorable performance for in second Championship in as many years here are five takeaways.

Course setup – Thursday proved that wind, 4-inch rough and thigh-high fescue can make any course into an extremely tough test even though fairway widths were generous averaging 41 yards compared with less than 30 yards in some recent Opens. The course Thursday and Friday was extremely difficult but playable. Moderate green speeds and shaved false fronts along with shaved false sides and shaved false backs meant controlling approaches was diabolically critical. Saturday afternoon however the course was unplayable to even well struck approaches and putts. A non-apology from the USGA did nothing to mitigate the fact they really messed up. They compensated by putting lots of water on the course in preparation for Sunday so that fourth round scores averaged an astonishing 3.2 strokes lower than Saturday. The USGA continues to believe they should push course setups to the point that when weather conditions don’t match weather predictions the result is a disaster.

Woods Performance – It’s 10 years since Tiger Woods last won a major and before start of play Thursday some who should know better announced he was ready to win his 15th major. From the first hole however, it was plain Woods game is not ready to take on a course of U.S. Open difficulty. Poor iron play paired with mediocre driving put too much pressure on his short game. His scrambling was passable, but he just didn’t hit enough greens and combined with a bottom third of the field in putting he had no chance to make the cut much less contend. U.S. Open’s aren’t won with three double bogeys and a triple bogey. Put another way, the 42-year old Woods has a long way to go before we see the Tiger of old not simply an old Tiger.

Traffic Was Awful –  Before the Championship began USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said Shinnecock Hills would be in the consideration for another Open in years to come. Let’s face it, one of the biggest reasons old traditional courses are not played by the Tour any longer is the lack of acreage to hold thousands of fans, parking, concessions, the TV compound and multiple corporate hospitality locations. Should an efficient way to get players and fans to the course be part of the consideration or is this another case where the USGA does what they want because they can? And besides did anyone notice Shinnecock Hills is at the end of an island with one main road? Oh well, at least the Open won’t be back here until 2026.

Lefty’s Brain Cramp: Rarely do you see a professional do something as inane as Phil Mickelson hitting a moving ball on the 13th hole during Saturday’s third round. The whole episode was ridiculous regardless of his excuse, rationalization, justification or reasoning if indeed any reasoning even existed at the time. Phil called USGA Executive Director Davis offering to withdraw if he had crossed the line of acceptable behavior but the USGA had already ruled he would not be disqualified. This however didn’t stop the postings on social media and Olympian pronouncements by certain analysts. Might Lefty’s real problem been his frustration trying to win his career grand slam U.S. Open on a course that had become unplayable…we’ll probably never know.

Two-hole Playoff: Thanks to Koepka we didn’t have to experience the new two-hole playoff which hardly anyone has a good word about. The USGA made the decision to drop the 18-hole format citing, “…everyone wanted to see a Sunday finish.” Would it be unreasonable to suggest that Fox, who have the broadcast rights, heads the list of “everyone?”

The Presidents Cup Exhibition

It was fun. Fans saw a lot of quality shots hit by a couple dozen of really good golfers…some even deserving the often loosely applied label of world-class. Even the weather cooperated the final day of the Presidents Cup, an exhibition masquerading as intense competition.

It was clear even before the teams were named this was going to be a rout. The International squad just didn’t have the horsepower of Team USA. But of course, they haven’t had it for any of the twelve Presidents Cups with the exception of 1998 when a Peter Thompson led squad beat up on Jack Nicklaus’ twelve and oh yes, I almost forget, there was a tie in 2003

The U.S “Dream Team” so dominated this year it was just one-half point short of clinching the trophy at the close of play on Saturday. Had that happened, Nick Price’s Internationals would have been even more embarrassed but it also would have put the PGA Tour in an uncomfortable position with sponsors and fans.

As it was the twelve Sunday matches were almost pointless, a mere half point from being totally pointless and analyzing the Presidents Cup over its entire 23 year run leads to an inescapable conclusion.

It is just an exhibition. It is not a true competition with the gut wrenching drama of the Ryder Cup, though of course the PGA Tour would like it to be.

Things have been modified over the years starting with going from three to four days in 2000 but the basic format has been fourball and foursomes play capped the last day mano a mano single matches, just like the Ryder Cup.

Potentially thrilling except it isn’t when, as happened this year, a team’s only hope to salvage some semblance of pride is to win the majority of the last day singles matches. The International Team did but it’s hard to believe the U.S. players were really fired up with such an immense lead after day three.

So what’s the remedy or do we relegate the Presidents Cup exhibition to silly season status? There aren’t any options for improvement by expanding the inventory of eligible players as was done in the Ryder Cup when Europe was added to the team composed of Great Britain and Ireland. Frankly there aren’t many golfers outside the U.S. and Europe who are ready for prime time so creating an All-South America Team or All Africa Team and even an All Western Pacific Rim Team would seem to be futile. Additionally any plan impinging on perceived Ryder Cup prerogatives would be impossible to implement, after it is the Holy Grail of international team competition,.

My proposal some will call ridiculous or even ludicrous but change is needed to give the Presidents Cup relevance, to make it a true competitive tussle and save it from the oblivion of just another golf exhibition. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

The idea would be to expand both teams by adding female professionals from the United States and around the world, including obviously Japan and Asia to both squads. How many? I don’t know, but the inherent attractiveness of male/female mixed pairings would be unique if not downright compelling for advertisers and fans.

Spice things up by awarding points (definitely not dollars) to participants, i.e., Race to the CME Globe for LPGA players on both teams, FedExCup points for PGA Tour members and even Race To Dubai points if an international is on the European Tour. Points could be allotted just for getting picked with more for each match won and more for winning the Cup.

Players couldn’t help but be enthusiastic plus and a couple of badly needed things would be accomplished. First the Presidents Cup would be rescued by giving fans something exciting and different to watch but more significantly female professionals would be showcased holding their own playing with and against the men.

The time is now for stirring the pot to fix the Presidents Cup…anybody have email addresses for Jay Monahan and Michael Whan?

Finally, I want to take a swipe at all the critics, naysayers and so-called experts who criticized Steve Stricker for selecting Phil Mickelson as a captain’s pick. The eminent philosopher and mangler of the English language Yogi Berra put it well, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Two years ago when Captain Jay Haas tapped Lefty it was the same discordant chorus but at the age of 45 he accounted for 3 ½ points tieing for the most on the team. Mickelson this year played four matches and finished with 3 ½ points only one point behind point leader Dustin Johnson.

At an age when most players, if they even still have their Tour card, are cruising to the magic five-oh and the PGA Tour Champions, Mickelson stepped up and again silenced the know-it-alls who criticized his inclusion on the team. He was ranked fifteenth in FedExCup points with the top ten being automatically getting a spot. By comparison the other captain’s pick eleventh ranked Charley Hoffman had a record of 1-2-0…not exactly stellar.

As a friend of mine said referring to Lefty’s invigorated play the last month of the regular season and his record in the Presidents Cup, “There’s a reason he’s in the Hall of Fame.”

Where Have You Gone Tiger Woods?

Woods_2015_Wyndham

Let’s be realistic. The game of golf and the PGA Tour need Tiger Woods. Even with the travails of his private life reported on and viewed on every television and computer screen, we still need him.

Call it charisma, cache or whatever but the excitement Woods generates moves the needle unlike anyone in our sport since the heady days of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Sure today’s young guns (described by somebody as a “golf’s boy band”) draw attention but Woods was and is a winner and a unparalleled cultural phenomenon. Just ask Phil Mickelson who has a record matched by few with the ninth most wins all-time but he’s 9 majors and 37 wins behind Tiger. And in case you don’t think this separates Tiger and Lefty from the rest of the pack, the next highest winning total by players under the age of 50 is Ernie Els with 19.

The expectations of the so-called “Tiger Bubble,” where millions of new participants would take of the game because Woods made golf “cool,” didn’t result in a large number of committed players. For all the optimism of how a non-Caucasian star would “change the face of golf,” it didn’t happen.

Golf today reflects our society, its strengths and weakness and on the whole is a positive for the roughly 25 million who play, at least occasionally. Of that number an estimated 20 million tee it up several times per year making golf a significant part of their lives.

Having said that, we know the number of rounds of golf played is the primary determinant for course revenues, equipment sales, travel and all the other parts of the industry.

A healthy, competing Woods draws attention like no other athlete and that encourages players to play more and possibly even attracts new participants. There probably is no other single event that would trigger as much interest in the game as his return and golf industry companies would have to capitalize on it.

It could be a big deal. Say if somehow a Tiger return leveraged by smart course management (not simply price cuts but creating real value for customers) could translate into rounds played going up a modest ten percent. That’s about 40 million rounds and a simple multiplication assuming a $40 average greens fee and the result is $1.6 billion which doesn’t include the sales of equipment and apparel, travel, food and beverage…Well, you get the idea.

The industry needs a catalyst such as a healthy Tiger Woods.

From a fan’s perspective how great would it be to have Tiger tee it up this week at Oakmont against Day and Spieth and McIlroy and Scott and the other younger players. Or as long as we are dreaming.

Can you image the TV ratings if Lefty and Tiger were tied going in to the final round, battling it out on Father’s Day? The companies funding the telecast with their advertising would have a bonanza of viewership for their products and services.

Yes, golf needs Tiger and let’s hope all the speculation of “if he will return” becomes meaningless when he does.