Top Ten Golf Stories of 2016

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The King
The death of Arnold Palmer saddened the golf world and the millions outside golf he touched through his charities. The King wasn’t just a record setting golfer nor just another person, father, businessman and philanthropist. He was Arnold Palmer being Arnold Palmer with integrity, humor, intelligence and humility.

Tiger’s comeback
As U.S. Ryder Cup team vice-captain Tiger Woods didn’t have to put his game on display. That came in the Hero World Challenge with a limited field of 18 after being off the Tour for 16 months. Woods finished in 15
th place and said he was hoping to play a full schedule (as yet to be determined) in 2017.

Ryder Cup
The win by Team USA over Team Europe by the decisive score of 17 to 11 probably saved the Ryder Cup from a serious loss of interest by American fans and a marked decrease in player enthusiasm. Prior to this year the US had lost eight of the last ten contests and this win it was a not only a team effort (every U.S. player contributed at least one point) but a vindication for captain Davis Love III.

Olympic Golf
Justin Rose took the gold medal beating Henrik Stenson (silver) and Matt Kuchar (bronze) while In Bee Park easily won the ladies gold in golf’s much heralded return to the Olympics. Before the Games what was thought to be a bigger story was the list of top men players who declined to go to Rio: Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. Reasons cited included health concerns (zika virus) and potential security problems.

Anchored Stroke Ban
The impact of the USGA banning anchored putting strokes which took effect on Jan. 1 had absolutely no effect on recreational players. They either said, to heck with the USGA I’ll putt however I want to, or bought a shorter length putter. The anguished predictions by some (who should have known better) that the slamming of trunk lids and squealing of tires from club parking lots as players left the game in droves were emphatically wrong.

Finchem Retires
Tim Finchem’s 22 years as commissioner of the PGA Tour built on the foundation previous commissioner Deane Beman had laid. The Tour now can boast a 47 week event split season with $339 million prize money, the largest charitable giving of any sport, three events in Asia, assets of $2.2 billion and a $10 million season-ending prize. Add to that getting golf back in the Olympics, creation of the First Tee and World Golf Championship series he compiled a stellar record. Not bad for a button-down lawyer who at one time worked for President Jimmy Carter. Finchem leaves a prosperous and dynamic legacy for successor Jay Monahan.

USGA Double Bogey
The USGA had a wretched summer. First was the fiasco of Dustin Johnson’s U.S. Open final round when officials said he might have caused his ball to move on the green but wouldn’t make a decision until the round was completed leaving him, fans and fellow competitors in the dark. They of course gave him a one-stroke penalty but fortunately the phlegmatic South Carolinian had such a large margin he still won by three. That was followed at the U.S. Women’s Open when second-place finisher Ann Norqvist was shown on HDTV moving three grains of sand in a bunker with her club but officials neglected to inform her of the penalty until a hole later. In response to the did-he-or-didn’t-he cause the ball to move the USGA created the “Johnson Rule” so there will be no penalty should a player accidentally move his ball. This year won’t go down as the best summer the organization has ever had.

Spieth Didn’t–Willet Did
Jordan Spieth had a record setting 2015 season and seemed to have this year’s Masters in his pocket until he came to the par-3 12
th hole of the final round. He managed to take a seven after two balls the water which handed the title to Danny Willet. However, this collapse wasn’t “the most shocking in golf history” as an ESPN writer sadly lacking in perspective wrote. Spieth still had two victories for the year plus the Australian Open and he’s only 23 years old.

Turmoil in Equipment Business
This past year marked several significant changes with Nike Golf leaving the club and ball business, Acushnet (Titleist, FootJoy and Pinnacle) became publically traded and adidas attempting to sell TaylorMade Golf which continued to suffer with early year sales declines. Retailers Sports Authority and Golfsmith went bankrupt with Dicks Sports Goods buying up inventory and locations while Callaway Golf, Srixon, Wilson Staff, Ping and upstart Parsons Xtreme Golf pushed for added market share. The new year may see some additional upheaval especially if TMaG’s new owner decides to adopt a different product strategy…that is, if there is any deal at all.

One for the Ages
The British Open played at Troon saw Phil Mickelson finishing with a 65 and was 11 strokes in front of the next lowest score for 72 holes. Lefty’s problem was Henrik Stenson shot 63 in the final round beating Mickelson to win his first major by two. Both played some of the best golf ever, evoking memories of the Tom Watson/Jack Nicklaus final round 1977 match up aptly named the “Duel in the Sun.”

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Did Hazeltine Save the Ryder Cup?
By ED TRAVIS

Now that a few days have passed since the USA Ryder Cup victory a couple of points should be raised.

Forget the humiliation of four years ago at Medinah. Forget Phil Mickelson’s criticisms of Captain Tom Watson and the “Ryder Cup Task Force” formed after the Gleneagles loss in 2014. Forget Davis Love III was this year’s captain…it’s certainly tough to say anything against him since the team won. Forget Patrick Reed’s over the top enthusiasm matched by the likes of Rory McIlroy on the European team.

Disregard the pontificating by pundits with meaningless “in depth” analysis of the swings and psychology and personalities of players on the two teams.

And you can even remove from your memory the few boors among the 240,000 fans visiting Hazeltine from the practice rounds Tuesday through the finals on Sunday.

What made the difference and why Team USA won a decisive win is simple; they just out played (read that as out putted) the Euros.

The atmosphere of a Ryder Cup is dramatically different than any other golf event, be it a regular Tour event or even a major championship. No matter how exciting of how good the golf they just have don’t have the same energy and the same effect on fans.

However, if the U.S. had lost again at Hazeltine golf fans could have been saying, “To heck with it. I don’t need this.”

The reasoning is simple. Ask any baseball or football fan whose team never seems to win the big one. After a while, after the repeated emotional investment, the buildup in anticipation of a win then the heart break and dashing of hopes of yet another loss gets to people. They lose interest.

Case in point I was an avid Buffalo Bills fan until 1993 and the fourth Super Bowl defeat in a row. I never went to another game.

The potential was there for the same thing to have happened to the Ryder Cup if the US had lost again.

It was true back in 1979 as well when Jack Nicklaus suggested in order to make the Ryder Cup competitive, which it clearly was not, European professionals from the Continent be included rather than as it had been with a team solely from Great Britain and Ireland. That brought to the Ryder Cup a couple of the greatest ever. Seve Ballesteros started in 1979 and so did another young continental star in 1981, Bernhard Langer.

As they say, the rest is history. The U.S. before 1979 was 18-3-1 and since then is 8-10-1. How long would have golf fans in Europe supported their team if they continued to be trounced as Great Britain and Ireland were for 50 years?

The answer is they wouldn’t and neither would American fans if Team USA kept losing especially if Hazeltine had been the fourth loss in a row.

The frustration of the players and bad vibes from trying so often and not winning would be a major factor.

There was more than little of that in Mickelson’s famous (or infamous depending on your view) comments in 2014 but his words did help to change what needed changing.

The victory at Hazeltine may just have invigorated both U.S. players and fans and saved the Ryder Cup from suffering a monumental lack of interest.

 

A Fearless Ryder Cup Prediction

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OK, here it is right at the top…the USA will win the Ryder Cup going away thus restoring both team pride and the Cup to these shores after what, as my English friend says, has been “a very rough patch.”

We are all familiar with the history–American dominance ended in 1983 and since Europe has won 10 matches and USA 4 with one tie.

The American team still has to choose four members making it very early for predictions but there are some significant things which lead to the conclusion Team USA will do the job for Captain Davis Love III.

First the players. Team USA so far has one rookie (Bruce Koepka) and Team Europe has six, half of Captain Darren Clarke’s squad. Though in the past some first timers have risen to the occasion, having so many on the team multiplies the odds the intense pressure will be a problem for the Euros.

Next is the American players desire to win on top of all those losses and after what can only be called a humiliation in 2014. Only Phil Mickelson has been on winning U.S. teams, 1999 and 2008, meaning the six veterans on the 2016 team have never hoisted the Cup. As an aside, Jim Furyk (Mr. 58) was also on the 1999 and 2008 teams so he may be a possible pick this year.

Thirdly is home field advantage. Not only will the greatest number of fans be cheering for the Americans but Hazeltine National Golf Club, this year’s venue in Chaska, Minn., is a quintessential American parkland design by Robert Trent Jones in 1962 with updates beginning 1991 by Rees Jones. The Euros are used to playing on this style course so the home field advantage is not the site but the enthusiastic thousands outside the ropes.

Finally, the secret (which really is no secret) to winning a Ryder Cup is making putts and by any measure the eight Americans on the team so far are much better on the greens than the 12 Euros. Considering the most likely four players that could be added to the U.S. team—Bubba Watson, J.B. Holmes, Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar—Kuchar is 21st and Fowler 46th in strokes gained putting on Tour and both Watson and Holmes though ranked in the 130s have the reputation of being able to go low. So putting for a change will be a strength for Team USA.

We all know however, regardless of dressing it up with facts, predictions like this one are really from the heart not the head but like millions of other fans I will be glued to my television the end of September.

Jack Would Have Been Third

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Two years ago the PGA of America realizing how much interest there had been in the long drive competition formerly held before the PGA Championship so they reinstated it. Fans really love seeing their favorites who will be competing for the Wanamaker Trophy in two days put a peg in the ground and swing as hard as they could.

On Tuesday South Korean sensation Byeong-Hun An had the longest drive managing a very credible 347 yards, besting Rory McIlroy by two yards and Nicolas Colsaerts by six.

But wait, Jack Nicklaus at Dallas Athletic Club in 1963 using a persimmon headed driver and a wound balata cover ball took the long drive contest that year with a tee shot just inches under 342 yards.

A drive which would have put him third in this year contest.

And, if I’ve done the math correctly, it means in the intervening 53 years the winner gained an unspectacular five yards. So allowing for the difference in the price of drivers then and now that works out to just over $100 per yard.1963Clip

Rather than this being a knock on today’s improved technology compared to five decades ago it’s more a statement of how unimaginably hard the Golden Bear could hit the ball with vastly inferior equipment. Pictured is the money clip he still carries for the win all those years ago.

Images courtesy of Jack Nicklaus and PGA of America

Ode to a One Iron

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Last weekend a buddy invited me to play golf at a nearby course we both enjoy. It’s not especially long nor tight and has relatively few acres of sand and water but the main attraction without a doubt was spending time with a friend.

As we walked off the range following our pre-game warmup, he suddenly stopped saying, “Oh nuts!” Thinking he might have left something important like a club or his golf swing back in the car I was in for a surprise.

My friend said he had meant to hit a few with the club he had just purchased. I, curious and interested, asked, “Oh, what did ya get?”

His reply floored me, “A 1-iron.”

Now to explain so you don’t think my friend has completely lost his senses, he has been playing golf for several years, though at times finds it hard to get out…just like the rest of us. He is dedicated, wants to get better and has the advantage of having above average athletic ability.

However, having said all that, his chances of integrating a one iron into his game are between slim and none with the needle nudging the latter.

But in his mind’s eye he sees himself ripping it 220-yards into the wind with a slight draw that lands on the green, checks and rolls next to the pin. Really?

The story of how he came by the Ping Eye2 1-iron (a model which first saw the light of day in 1982) is worth the retelling. The week before my friend had been playing with a couple of guys, one of who wasn’t very good and had a bad case of the “Tommy Bolt’s,” or club tossing. Unbelievably this fellow was carrying a 1-iron in his bag and with a game even less accomplished than my friend’s had a particular affection for heaving it after nearly every swing.

By the way, Bolt was one of golf’s all time colorful characters. There are dozens of stories about his time on the PGA Tour but the quotation I like the best is, “Always throw your clubs ahead of you. That way you don’t have to waste energy going back to pick them up.”

Anyway back to the 1-iron saga, between tosses the fellow was ranting he was going to dump his 1-iron. Sell it. Good riddance.

My friend sensing an opportunity asked, “How much?” and the fellow said $20. Reaching into his pocket my friend came back with, “I’ve only got $12. How about that?”

“Done!” was the reply and my friend was the owner of a 1-iron. 

After my friend proudly related his tale I pointed out aside from the putter the 1-iron was probably the cause for more people giving up the game than anything but a spouse that doesn’t play. And that it was primary contributor to invention of hybrids. For crying out loud, not even PGA Tour players carry them.

HistoHogan_Merion_72hole_USGArically there are a number of famous 1-iron shots. Ben Hogan’s MacGregor 1-iron to the 72nd green of the 1950 U.S. Open setting up a par to put him a playoff the next day which he won. This all coming after being almost killed in a head on crash with a bus 16 months previously.

Jack Nicklaus in the U.S. Open back in 1972 at Pebble BeNicklaus_17th_PBeach_1972ach playing the par-3 17th on the final day. The 219-yards between the Golden Bear and the hole were dead into a strong wind coming off the local water hazard known as the Pacific Ocean. His 1-iron shot hit the pin and dropped next to the hole for an easy two. Even more incredible to my mind and showing Nicklaus’ immense talent was on the back swing he felt the club was too closed which would have produced a disastrous hook. However, he had so much control that week he adjusted on the way down holding off the release to compensate. The result was his second major championship of the year.

My own 1-iron story goes back to the middle 70’s when I was a lot younger and thought I could play this maddening game. Par-5, dogleg left and after a good drive to the corner a sweet 1-iron into the hole for a two—double eagle—albatross—whatever. The unfortunate part of the story is, because of the way the green-fronting bunker was situated, I couldn’t see it go in.

But back to the present. When we got out on the course my friend tried out his Ping Eye2 “butter knife” from the tee on two holes of the second nine. As you might expect the results weren’t pretty. But he has vowed to keep at it because he can still see that 220-yard shot into the wind with a slight draw.

Snead’s LPGA Win

Sam_Snead_PalmBeachPost_640x480Sam Snead—Slammin’ Sammy—golfing legend, multiple major winner, Hall of Fame member and holder of the record for most wins on the PGA Tour with 82. And there’s another little known distinction in Snead’s distinctive career.

Sam Snead is the only man to ever post a victory on the LPGA Tour.

Back in February 1962, for the second year in a row, Snead teed it up against 14 of the best female professional golfers in the Royal Poinciana Invitational, a sanctioned LPGA Tour event held on the Palm Beach Par 3 Golf Club.

Yes, that’s correct a par-3 course and an official stop on the 12-year-old LPGA Tour. The players competing included all-time greats Louise Suggs (who beat Snead for the title in 1961), Mickey Wright, Betsy Rawls and Kathy Whitworth. Wright finished second by five shots to Snead’s score of 211 (52, 53, 53, 53) for four rounds played over two days.

Said Snead, quoted in an article by Dick Taylor in the Palm Beach Post of February 8, 1962, “I decided to play just as steady as I could, and let the girls make the mistakes. You can’t ‘go to the whip’ with them as you can on the men’s tour.” Comments that obviously wouldn’t withstand today’s frantic politically correct scrutiny.

After losing the previous year’s event by two strokes to future Hall of Famer Suggs, Snead had to take a lot of teasing even though it was a 54 hole event and had 11 other male professionals in the field including Bobby Cruickshank, Gardner Dickinson and Lew Worsham. Typical of the times, press reports were vague as to the amount of the winner’s check Snead took home but it was “in the neighborhood of $1,500.”

The 18th Major – Jack Nicklaus 1986 Masters

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Thirty years is a long time and if you are old enough, 1986 may have some strong memories. There were the tragedies of the space shuttle Challenger explosion and the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in the Ukraine but also for some, the thrill of the Chicago Bears winning the Super Bowl in a blowout 46 to 10 and the New York Mets taking the World Series 4 games to 3. Both coincidentally beating Boston area teams, the Patriots and Red Sox.

In our game there were some interesting things going on as well. Future Hall of Fame member Pat Bradley won three majors on the LPGA Tour and on the men’s Tour the U.S. Open was won by 44-year old Raymond Floyd also a future inductee to the Hall of Fame. But who can forget the other win by an “old guy?” At the age of 46 without a Tour win in two years and major championship in six Jack Nicklaus gave us one for the ages.

His victory in that year’s Masters is still considered to be the greatest ever.

Fans watching the last nine holes that April Sunday could share the emotion the Golden Bear must have been feeling…and talk about performing under pressure! It’s been 30 years and still the nervousness, excitement and finally the elation when Nicklaus took his sixth Masters and 18th major championship is very real.

There are dozens of stories about what happening that day including the legend of Nicklaus’ putter, a Clay Long-designed MacGregor Response ZT 615, that compared with the then popular models looked like a kitchen utensil or maybe a garden tool. MacGregor took orders for 5,000 the Monday morning following.

My favorite story took place at the start of the week. As Nicklaus related it in his autobiography Jack Nicklaus: My Story written with Ken Bowden, he described a Tom McCollister column in the Atlanta Journal:

[McCollister was] announcing the demise of Jack Nicklaus, golfer. According to this piece I was finished, washed up, kaput, the clubs were rusted out, the Bear was off hibernating somewhere, it was all over and done with, forget it, hang ‘em up and go design golf courses or whatever.

Strong stuff and many agreed but the measure of Nicklaus the man was his reaction to this rather harsh opinion dismissing his ability. Again from his book:

[But] this one struck a nerve. “Finished, huh?” I said to myself. “All washed up, am I? Well, we’ll see about that this week.”

A clipping of the offending column stayed pasted to the rental house refrigerator courtesy of Nicklaus’ longtime friend John Montgomery and was undoubtedly a strong “I’ll-show-‘em” incentive each time Nicklaus passed.

His play on the back nine Sunday has taken on almost mythic status, written and talked about by commentators from Herbert Warren Wind (“nothing less than the most important accomplishment in golf since Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam in 1930”) to yours truly. However, Nicklaus himself points out the back nine charge of six under par wouldn’t have mattered if he hadn’t had some incredible luck on the eighth hole.

His drive on this steeply uphill par-5, known as Yellow Jasmine, was pushed slightly and wound up right of the fairway laying on pine needles with several trees blocking the route forward. The prudent play would have been to pitch back to the fairway, however at that point being even par for the round Nicklaus knew unless he started scoring better the tournament was out of reach.

Definitely a higher risk shot was called for.

There was a small opening that a perfectly struck shot might sneak through and with a slight fade the ball would miss the first two trees immediately in front of him and, if it stayed low enough long enough, others closer to the fairway. But he also could tell, if the ball wasn’t hit perfectly it was anybody’s guess where it would wind up and a bogey or worse a very real possibility.

With three wood in hand and taking his time he aligned the shot carefully. But when Nicklaus struck the ball though on the center of the clubface it started slightly right of the opening at which he was aiming, narrowly missed the first tree trunk and just barely passed through an even smaller gap in the branches. The ball did stay low though and curved further right to finish near the edge of the green, just the spot you want to be if you’re going to miss the putting surface,.

A pitch and two putts secured his par and gave Nicklaus the emotional boost from escaping potential disaster that set the stage for a seven under par run over the next ten holes for a final score of 65.

Thirty years ago it seemed fantastic…it still does today.

Diegeling-Anchored Putting into the Hall of Fame

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The first of January marks implementation of the modification to the Rules of Golf banning anchored putting strokes but though many think the anchored stroke with a “belly” or “broomstick” putter is something thought up by players in recent years, it in fact has a long history.

In the 1920Diegel_Trophys future Hall of Famer Leo Diegel came up with what was tagged as “Diegeling,” a stroke with a conventional length putter but with the end of the grip pressed into his navel. Though anchored putting was not unknown–there’s at least one report of players using an anchored putting stroke from around 1900–the pro from Detroit was the first nationally prominent player to use it in and win professional tournaments.

Beginning in 1920 he took home trophies 30 times on Tour including the PGA Championship twice. Diegel had the reputation for being among the best shotmakers of his era and having an intensity that elevated the game to an all-consuming passion combined with a coolness when the competition was the toughest. In 1928 on his way to winning his first PGA Championship (then contested at match play) he defeated the great Walter Hagen in the quarter-finals knocking out “the Haig” who had won the previous four PGAs. Then in 1929 before taking care of Johnny Farrell 6 & 4 in the finals, Diegel again beat Hagen in the semi-finals.

Even early in his career he showed promise tying for second in the 1920 U.S. Open one stroke behind Englishman Ted Ray. Diegel was selected to play for the United States in the first four Ryder Cup squads and won the Canadian Open four times though it was not yet an official event on the PGA Tour. He also played a role in one of the game’s most enduring events by finishing just two shots behind Bobby Jones in the British Open of 1930, the second leg of Jones’ epic Grand Slam.Diegel_1_300x200

Diegel had a career worthy of inclusion in the Hall of Fame, albeit while “Diegeling.”

Just to keep it all in perspective with all the attention given to current stars such as Adam Scott and Bernhard Langer, many A-list players have used a belly or broomstick putter at one time or another. Plus fans will remember Charlie Owens winning won twice on the then Senior Tour wielding a 51 inch putter he had tagged “Slim Jim” that he anchored to his chest due at least in part from injuries he received during his service in the U.S. Army as a parachutist. Another outlier with a broomstick in his bag at the time was Orville Moody (“The Sarge”) who won the 1989 U.S. Senior Open.

A flood of major winners using anchored strokes was responsible for the 2013 change in Rule 14-1b making them illegal thus relegating bellies and broomsticks to history: 2011 Keegan Bradley at the PGA Championship and though not a major Bill Haas in the Tour Championship; 2012 U.S. Open-Webb Simpson and Ernie Els the Open Championship; 2013 Adam Scott the Masters.

Images courtesy of the World Golf Hall of Fame