USGA Shoots Themselves in the Foot…Again

USGA has again taken a position that gives the impression they like embarrassing themselves and enforcing the feeling of many the organization is irrelevant to golf in the real world.

The latest is the announcement by the USGA (and R&A) citing they “are proposing regulations regarding the use of green-reading materials, reaffirming the need for a player to read greens based on their own judgment, skill and ability. Continue reading

An Early Ryder Cup Call

At this writing it’s still two months until the Ryder Cup will be played at Le Golf National outside Paris. Italian star Francesco Molinari’s British Open win over two likely European Team and two possible American team members plus a final day push from Tiger Woods was the impetus for many to start speculating on team makeup and which squad will triumph in France.

Well, I enjoy speculating as much as the next guy and felt it might be worth the exercise to look at teamed picked based on the respective current Ryder Cup points list with Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR) and PGA Tour putting rank used to select the captain’s picks. Obviously, this isn’t perfect but then no method is without flaws. What is true though is the OWGR shows how players have done against every other ranked player and because the Ryder Cup usually comes down to putting, the relative prowess of the two teams is relevant.

For all its shortcomings the OWGR is a way to compare players over the world’s professional events not just those on the European and PGA Tours but I have always taken them with a healthy dose of skepticism. Without belaboring the point, Rickie Fowler earned 48 ranking points for wining the Hero World Challenge against a field of just 18 players. If I was one of the world top 25 and didn’t get an invitation from the host who happened to be Tiger Woods that would really have upset me.

It’s hard to make a case for including limited field events in the OWGR calculations and the fact is two weeks later Justin Rose won the Indonesian Masters but due to the strength of the field earned just 24 OWGR points. Still it was a full field event not a just a dozen and a half however, they didn’t ask me if this is fair nor do I expect they will.

The other indicator for Ryder Cup performance is putting performance ranking and these statistics are fairly straightforward.

Team USA will be made up of the top eight in Ryder Cup points through the PGA Championship with Captain Jim Furyk having four picks. European Captain Thomas Bjørn will have the first four players on the Ryder Cup points list plus the top four on the World Points list and four captain’s picks. Since many of the European stars play much of the season on the U.S. tour the qualifications were modified. Team lists presume those qualifying on points will stay the same and the only leeway is in those tapped by the captains.

Two caveats. First is the information used was current as of the British Open and second my crystal ball broke in 1983. Here is my list of who will be on each team.

Team USA
Qualifying on Points: Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Webb Simpson
Captain’s Picks: Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Tiger Woods, Xander Schauffele

Team Europe
Qualifying on Points: Francesco Molinari, Justin Rose, Tyrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Alex Noren, Paul Casey
Captain’s Picks: Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Thorbjorn Olesen, Matthew Fitzpatrick

Some comments and rationalization about the captain’s picks. Furyk will pick Lefty and Tiger almost regardless of how they are playing and since Woods is already one of the team’s vice captains it will save a set of uniforms. DeChambeau and Schauffele are the best of the young talent but its tough to leave veterans Matt Kuchar or Kevin Kisner out unless of course one of them wins the PGA.

The European Team’s first big question is can Molinari continue to be the world beater he has been the past six weeks? Chances are the answer is no…the same answer as to whether McIlroy’s putter will show up and whether Rahm can control his emotions. Poulter is a pick for the same reason as Sergio. Bjørn needs them and though Sergio is playing poorly Poulter won the Houston Open the week before the Masters. In any event you can’t imagine a Euro team without them.

With Ryder Cup experience an important factor the European team appears to have a disadvantage with five rookies (Hatton, Fleetwood, Rahm, Olesen and Fitzpatrick) versus three for the USA (Thomas, DeChambeau and Schauffele) and this might be a big difference. Team USA has an average OWGR of 15.5 to 19.1 which again may be an indicator of performance. In putting, which is often the difference in winning and losing, American’s have a definite edge with an average rank in total putting of 58.9 versus 69.3 for the Europeans. This could help to make up for the European fans who are expected to be a loud and partisan.

After all this that passes for analysis my guess is Team USA retains Samuel Ryder’s cup 16 to 12.

Monday After Carnoustie

Truth time. My favorite majors are the Masters and the British Open and that’s not saying anything against the PGA Championship or the U.S. Open, just my view. This past week at Carnoustie, the most northern course on the Open rota, we got to see the 147th playing of the world’s oldest major and Francesco Molinari was certainly a worthy Champion Golfer of the Year.

We also had the chance for a few observations, hopefully cogent and worth reading.

The Course
The R&A found the time to test the face rebound of 30 drivers used by contestants and all of them passed muster…not too much trampoline effect. They were able to engage in this equipment certification exercise because they didn’t spend endless hours attempting to trick up the layout, trick the players or otherwise mess around with an already immensely difficult course. On Wednesday Carnoustie’s fairways were tested by the Golf Channel and had a Stimpmeter reading of 9.2; less than the greens but not by a lot which probably averaged 10 for the week.

The British Open is played au naturel and unlike our national golf association the R&A doesn’t seem to have an agenda to “preserve par” or push the greens to the edge of extinction. Even Tiger Woods agrees the R&A has the right idea saying after his round on Thursday, “…this is how the game should be played. It should be creative.”

Difficult for sure and unfair at times applies to every Open and especially the 2018 Car-nasty event. But who cares. It is compelling to watch.

Tiger
If you are Woods fan his performance for the week was encouraging and if you’re not it was confirmation his struggles to close out a tournament once in position to win. Since his return from back surgery and other personal problems his pattern has been reasonable play in the first two rounds then almost lights out in the third round where he has the best scoring average on the PGA Tour. We saw this clearly at Carnoustie and to win on Tour, much less another major, he must relearn how to close.

Woods T-6 performance in Scotland did achieve one thing. He advanced from 71st in world to 50th giving him a spot in the WGC Bridgestone Invitational starting on Aug. 2nd which is played over Firestone CC (South) in Akron where he has won eight times.

Long Ball
Molinari’s win should again point out the fallacy of the argument the golf ball goes too far. The Champion Golfer of the Year is ranks 53rd in driving distance on Tour and 79th in driving accuracy. It’s likely however advocates of “rolling back the ball” will either ignore these facts or put it down to a never to be repeated Carnoustie fluke.

Television Coverage
How anybody could have serious complaints about the 50 hours of live Golf Channel/NBC Sports coverage says reams about the critic’s lack of knowledge about the massive effort televising an outdoor sports event requires. And while we are on the subject, special kudos goes to the producers. For the third year at least one shot of each of the 156 players was shown on television. “If you’re good enough to qualify for The Open, you deserve to be seen on TV.”

PGA Tour Schedule “These Guys Are Busy”

It was interesting the revamped PGA Tour schedule for the 2018-2019 season received so little play by the press and social media due no doubt to the buzz concerning the prospect of a head to head match between Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. After all they are the “needle movers” for sports fans and certainly for diehard golf fans but at this writing no deal has been firmed up.

During the week we also were treated to coverage and comment, in and out of the legitimate press, of Lefty’s two-shot penalty at the Greenbrier plus the USGA ruling Bryson DeChambeau’s drawing compass was out of bounds.

However, should you define golf news by the impact on fans the PGA Tour announcement of a shortened 2018-2019 tournament schedule was the most important. As PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan put it in the press release, “It’s been our stated objective for several years to create better sequencing of our tournaments that golf fans around the world can engage in from start to finish. And by concluding at the end of August, the FedExCup Playoffs no longer have the challenge of sharing the stage with college and professional football. This will enhance the visibility of the FedExCup Playoffs and overall fan engagement with the PGA TOUR and the game as a whole.”

How fewer tournaments help “the game as a whole” is not clear but the I’m sure quibbling is beneath us.

The first eight tournaments of the split schedule take place prior to the hiatus from Thanksgiving to New Years as they did this season, but the significant fact is these events are now a bigger part of the year. With the new schedule having three fewer tournaments you can expect more of the big names more of time rather than just the WGC-HSBC in Shanghai and one of the other two in the Asian swing. This could be good news particularly for two well thought of event, one in Las Vegas (Shriners Hospitals for Children) and the other in Georgia (RSM Classic).

Accomplishing the goal of having the Tour Championship before Labor Day when football takes over meant one of the year-end FedExCup playoff events would have to go. Sacrificed for the good of the game (or at least to beat out the NFL) was the Dell Technologies Championship at the TPC Boston which has fans in New England more than a little unhappy.

Previously we knew about The Players Championship (Ponte Vedra Beach) moving from May to March and in 2019 the date is preceded by the Arnold Palmer Invitational (Bay Hill) followed by the Valspar Championship in Tampa. Combined with the Honda Classic the week before Arnie’s tournament there’s a reborn Florida swing.

The other major move was also by a major, the PGA Championship, which went from being the final major of the year in August to being put in The Player Championship’s old slot in May. The season’s majors then will be spread from the Masters April 11 – 14 to the PGA May 16 – 19 to the U.S. Open June 13 – 16 and finishing with the British Open July 18 – 21. That’s five weeks between the Masters and the PGA, four weeks from the PGA to the U.S. Open and four from the U.S. Open to the British Open.

Add in The Players, three WGC championships from January to July and “must-play” events such as the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the Memorial, the AT&T Byron Nelson and the…well you get the idea. Many if not most players rarely play more than three tournaments in a row, so the new Tour schedule could result in two situations. First, they may find it difficult to fit in some time off and secondly some very good tournaments may have a problem attracting players in the top 50. The Valspar tucked in between The Players and the WGC-Dell Technology Match Play is obviously on that list as is the RBC Canadian falling the week between the Memorial and the U.S. Open.

It’s ironic the Tour’s slogan was changed because if it was still “These guys are good” it might be more appropriate to say, “These guys are busy.”

Titleist AVX – Five Things You Should Know

We took the Titleist AVX to the course and had golfers try it, giving each two sleeves so they could put it in play for several rounds. They were a mixture of handicaps, female and male, ranging from single digits to low 20s. All were first asked if they had ever tried “soft-feel” golf balls and if they liked them and then, assuming they liked the AVX, if they would be averse to its $48 per dozen price.

The AVX is the first premium category ball from Titleist since the Pro V1x in 2003 and is meant to compliment it and the Pro V1 not pirate sales from the two flagship models.

Next the AVX has a lower compression core to help achieve a softer feel contrasting with the Pro V1 and the firmer Pro V1x. The mantle has lots of flex contributing to both ball speed for distance and to control spin making it the lowest spinning of the three.

The cover is a new as well, a proprietary thermoset cast urethane elastomer of something called GRN42 formulation.

Put altogether the AVX with approximately an 80 compression goes slightly farther with both the driver and irons so even though its trajectory is lower club for club you are often will be hitting a 9-iron where before it might have been an 8-iron or even a seven. Thus, the descent angle is steep enough to mitigate the lower spin of the AVX versus the Pro V1 which has a compression of approximately 90 and certainly the Pro V1x at around 100 compression.

On course results reflected the differences in construction with favorable comments about its playability similar to: “I personally liked the way ball felt when I made solid contact off the tee. It seemed to add 5 yards or more than the Callaway SuperSoft ball I previously used. I also noticed a very soft feel to the ball when putting. Good ball with a good feel even for an 18-hcp type golfer.”

A 14-handicap female said, “Distance is no contest. Longer and will play it.”

Around the green especially the softer feel was evident and a former senior professional with a 2-handicap remarked, “The added distance from the tee is important but what I like more is the way it reacts on scoring shots and chips. It is going to replace the Pro V1x I have been playing.”

There were a few negatives. One 15-handicap male did not see any more distance and another, who plays Bridgestone, saying the AVX was a good ball but he was probably not going to change though he didn’t state a reason.

Overall and from my experience testing and playing soft-feel golf balls since they first came on the market the Titlesit AVX is a strong choice for those wanting a lower trajectory, lower spinning ball that still has a soft feel. Priced the same as the Pro V1 and Pro V1x at $48 per dozen and for those who prefer it, the cover chemistry allows Titleist to make a yellow version.

10 Rounds with Rogue

For the 2017 season Callaway Golf hit the market with the Great Big Bertha Epic featuring the unique Jailbreak technology and it quickly took over the number one spot in sales. Building on that success in 2018 Callaway’s new Rogue model shares—Callaway says improves—Epic’s technical breakthrough.

For the first time in Epic a driver was constructed with rods linking the sole and crown. Called Jailbreak technology, the rods reduce flexing of the crown when the club meets the ball and the energy usually lost is redirected to the face to produce more ball speed and more distance.

The Rogue driver ($500) has Jailbreak rods but now they are hourglass shaped, thinner and lighter saving weight which was relocated to decrease shot dispersion. Callaway points out there’s also more distance potential with increased forgiveness and the Rogue has their variable thickness face design called X-Face. Completing the package is a lightweight carbon fiber crown with the Speed Step configuration developed in conjunction with Boeing to reduce aerodynamic drag on the downswing for more clubhead speed.

The adjustable-hosel Rogue driver comes in three variations: Standard, Draw and Sub Zero. The Draw model has weight moved closer to the heel to compensate for the typical outside-to-in swing shape of those who slice and the Sub Zero is targeted for players needing a driver delivering lower spin…as much as 300 rpm lower than the Standard.

Rogue fairway woods ($300) are similar in construction and significantly Jailbreak rods have been added with the cup face construction Callaway has used in the past and as a side note, Callaway also figured out how to put the rods into Rogue hybrids. The fairway woods make use of a carbon fiber crown with a Speed Step to improve air flow. In addition to the standard Rogue fairway wood there’s also a Sub Zero model which has a 5-gram weight screw that moves the center of gravity forward to produce a more penetrating ball flight.

The purpose of taking the Rogue Sub Zero driver and Rogue Sub Zero fairway woods to the course was to find how they did with the variety of conditions encountered over ten rounds on different courses, certainly a different approach than simply standing on the range and banging out ball after ball.

On the course it was easy to see why both have been so quickly accepted by touring professionals and recreational players alike. Over the ten rounds playing the Callaway Chrome Soft X ball plus, at times, two other premium category balls there was no question the Rogue Sub Zero driver distance was longer compared with last year’s GBB Epic but what was also apparent was the lower amount of dispersion. My “good” swings produce a medium trajectory draw that can become a pull-hook or a block to the right if I’m not paying attention. The ball flight of the Rogue Sub-Zero was just where I like it, but the amount of right to left movement was less and the ball often went straight, both shots being very playable.

However, the Rogue Sub Zero fairway wood (15-degrees loft) unquestionably produced more yardage than my two-year old 3-wood from another manufacturer as measured both by a GPS app on my smartphone and by judging locations from previous times playing the course. My approximation was the Rogue Sub Zero easily produced 10 yards of additional carry…and maybe even more than that, with about the same amount curvature but a higher launch.

During the year many of the new drivers and fairway woods will be reviewed with some becoming part of this series “Ten Rounds With…” There is no question any player ready for a new driver or fairway wood should put the Rogues from Callaway on their short list for testing with a professional fitter. They are that good.

On the Clock

The idea of doing something to hasten the sloth-like pace of professional and college golf, not to mention that four-ball ahead of you last Saturday, has been kicked around for some time. Golf’s pace of play has been criticized for as long as I have been playing but no one has really done anything practical at the elite level until the European Tour’s commissioner Keith Pelley decided enough was enough.

Thus, was born the Shot Clock Masters which until this year was known as the Austrian Open. Let’s not discuss how the name of Bobby Jones’s major was usurped again but look at the results of this experiment in rationality.

First the background. Commissioner Pelley (who also inaugurated the innovative GolfSixes event) made the decision to attack slow-play head-on by placing every player on the clock every shot. Unfortunately, because it took place the week before the U.S. Open and it was in Austria, this unique and revolutionary event gained only passing notice. After all there was all the hype leading up to Shinnecock and then Dustin Johnson’s impressive six stroke win in Memphis capped by a walk-off eagle on the 72nd hole.

Each group in the Shot Clock Masters for each round was accompanied by a golf cart on which a large digital shot clock was mounted. Players had 50 seconds to hit if they were first to play an approach shot and for par-3s or putts. That was shortened to 40 seconds for par-4 and par-5 tee shots plus when they were second (or third) to play on putts and approaches. If the player went over the allotted time there was no grace period, appeal or looking the other way. What he got was a one stroke added to his score.

The digital display was easy to see and the operator (the Euro Tour called them “referees”) said “time” when the clock started so everyone knew what was happening.

The question of course is what were the results?

Average time for the four rounds of the Austrian Open in 2017 was 4 hours and 40 minutes and for the Shot Clock Masters it was 25 minutes less. The average time for the final round on the European Tour is 3 hours and 57 minutes but at the Shot Clock Masters it was 3 hours and 26 minutes.

Do you see a trend?

Shot Clock players interviewed were enthusiastic (there were only four penalties meted out in four days), event officials were happy as were European Tour officials but so far, I have seen no comment from the PGA Tour nor the USGA.

Lost in all the noise though was something that turns the tables on those who say the pros play slowly because it’s their livelihood and they are playing for a lot of money. The average score for the entire Shot Clock Masters was more than one stroke less than the average for the past eight years of the Austrian Open on the same course.

It’s true the top players were missing from the Shot Clock Masters, either playing in Memphis or preparing for the U.S. Open but even so to cut off one-half hour from the previous average time AND have the field score lower is significant.

No…it’s amazing.

The PGA Tour has a pace problem with some of its players and the Tour seems to be stonewalling—a lot of discussion and few penalties. The USGA has conveniently avoided the issue resorting to inane PSAs such as the laughable “While We’re Young,” figuring out how to set up courses for the U.S. Open to embarrass contestants and rationalizing not disqualifying Phil Mickelson when lesser names would have been shown the path to the parking lot.

The problem with slow play, whether on the tours or at your club, is we don’t shine the spotlight on the offenders to embarrass them and then impose consequences.

Tackling the cause of slow play is recognizing it is not so much a problem inherent in the game but the lack of respect with players having a “me-only” attitude.

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?”

Wanna Bet?

So, let’s say you’ve found the time, endured the travel and spent the money to go a U.S. Open or Ryder Cup or Masters or for that matter any PGA Tour event. It’s the 72nd hole and Jordan Spieth is lining up an 8-footer. And, as long as we are supposing, it isn’t just any 8-footer but to win the U.S. Open or Ryder Cup or Masters, etc.

Just as Spieth starts his stroke someone tosses a cup of beer on to the green, the young Texan flinches and the ball doesn’t even touch the cup. Terrible right? Throw him or her out—preferably not gently. Or perhaps it’s just another example of why event security should be increased to curb such boorish and probably intoxicated behavior.

But what if it isn’t. What if it is someone wanting to influence the outcome of the tournament?

It is not beyond reason we may see examples such as this or worse when wagering on golf comes out of the back alleys and cross-continent Internet connections. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Congress does not have the right to legislate against sports gambling and only the individual states may allow or disallow wagering of that type.

Our society no longer considers gambling a moral issue…certainly it goes on legally and illegally and arguments against sports gambling on that basis are nonstarters.

Unquestionably at least some of the individual states will approve sports wagering in some form and the PGA Tour has already said it will enhance the fan experience and attract more interest to their events and golf in general.

Golf is one of the few sports where the gallery is literally part of the action, not confined in bleachers nor behind barriers or steel mesh. There is just a piece of rope delineating the playing ground. This is one of golf’s charms and attractions putting it in a special category but also offers lots of opportunities for those wagering large sums of money to be a factor in the outcome of a tournament.

For fans this is not a pleasant prospect and though my crystal ball hasn’t worked in years, it’s not hard to imagine even a whiff of someone influencing play for reasons having to do with large amounts of wagered money will work to our game’s detriment. Why hasn’t it happened until now with some legal and lots of illegal wagering? I don’t know but a reasonable guess would be the amount of money wasn’t worth the risk. Also, our English friends have been golf gambling for years with even kiosks onsite to place your bets.

Let’s be very clear. It’s about the money. In search of added revenue without raising taxes some states will approve wagering on golf and the lessons of 50 years of state sponsored lotteries is about to be replayed The PGA Tour has been candid about the potential of a new income stream. One can only hope golf will avoid a scandal.

Presidents Cup Needs More Help

The buildup to September’s Ryder Cup has begun and over the summer as it always does will grow in intensity. However, in news of the other international competition between touring professionals a few changes have been instituted in an attempt to achieve at least a semblance of competitiveness. The Presidents Cup has been not so much a battle between the International Team and Team USA as a glorified exhibition lacking both the intensity and excitement of the biannual Ryder Cup.

It’s not the Internationals haven’t tried just that strong U.S. teams have dominated the matches which began in 1994 under then PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem. The record shows 10 wins, one loss and one tie for Team USA and last September Captain Steve Stricker’s Americans beat up on Nick Price’s Internationals 19-11. After the first two days the margin was so lopsided all the Americans needed for the win in the Sunday singles matches was one-half point.

At the time I wrote, “…continued U.S. dominance has made it essentially an exhibition masquerading as a real competition. This needs to be fixed before the Presidents Cup becomes totally irrelevant to players and fans, if it hasn’t already.”

The runup to 2019 started with naming two media-attractive captains, Tiger Woods for the United State and Ernie Els for the Internationals. Who the captains are by itself won’t make the Presidents Cup more competitive nor more exciting for fans, but with Woods involvement it does attract media attention.

Secondly, the rules now say every team member must have played at least once on Friday or Saturday before the Sunday singles matches. We will just have to wait and see if this helps the Internationals which of course is the reason rules are being modified at all.

More significantly, captain’s picks will be made closer to when matches begin and each captain will have four selections rather than two as at present. This could be a big deal allowing selection of “hot” players just before the start of matches. But again, presuming the rule was put in place to help the Internationals the question arises if it will at all. Presidents Cup play starts December 13, 2019 at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Melbourne, Australia. This is well after the finish of the 2018-2019 PGA Tour season where the best of the Internationals play and if the 2019-2020 schedule has similar timing three weeks into the holiday hiatus.

How “hot” a player can be with these gaps is open to question, so it is another instance of “wait and see.” Best guess is there will be no impact except serving to perhaps mollify the perennial naysayers criticizing the picks by any captain.

The real issue, competitive parity, needs something drastic to keep fans, the players and the media interested. Another U.S. rout in Melbourne could just about finish the Presidents Cup…”an exhibition masquerading as a real competition,” and it’s a shame since there is the potential for it to be a real “guns blazing in the middle of main street” confrontation.

Until 1979 the Ryder Cup had a similar problem when the European team was solely players from Great Britain and Ireland, but after the continental European competitors were added the Americans have had their hands full to say the least.

What then could be done to enliven and invigorate the endangered Presidents Cup?

Following last fall’s debacle, I suggested teams should be expanded to include female professionals which in the case of the International Team’s roster would include the LPGA Tour’s Asian superstars. Imagine pairings like Dustin Johnson and Lexi Thompson teeing it up against Jason Day and Lydia Ko. Or how about Jordan Spieth and Michelle Wie fighting it out with Adam Scott and Ariya Jutanugarn?

Whew! You think anyone would watch?

The Presidents Cup has the potential to be the golf world’s premier international competition and from many aspects bigger than the Olympics. Bringing women and men together would be good for its future and golf’s future.

Anyone have the PGA Tour commissioner’s phone number?

Dad’s Day Golf Gifts

Every father who plays golf appreciates a golf-related gift on his special day. Here a few that attracted our attention and may be just what you are looking for to put a smile on Dad’s face June 17.
For years Chase 54 has been a staple in my wardrobe and the latest Unit polo is right at the top of my wish list. It is made from a breathable pinhole mesh material and Chase 54’s DryFuze fabric that pulls moisture away from the skin. Bottom line, Dad will stay dry and comfortable even in the heat of summer with a fashionable look he will love. Priced at $69, you can see the Unit polo and all the other Chase 54 apparel at Chase54.com.
Purchasing any golf club for Dad is a wonderful idea but ensuring that club is the right one to fit his swing is a difficult if not impossible task without some help. That help is readily available, and the problem easily solved with a gift certificate from the premier club fitters Club Champion. Certificates in different amounts are available online at ClubChampionGolf.com in different amounts and there are 32 locations nationwide with five more opening soon.
A round of golf can be loads of fun or excruciating because of a poor golf swing and particularly if Dad’s shoes aren’t comfortable. ECCO is big on solving at least the second problem and their latest is the BIOM Hybrid 3 golf shoe, a great combination of fit, comfort and performance. The outsole is the new three zone Tri-Fi-Grip design and the Hybrid 3 has the famous GOR-TEX waterproofing. The uppers are Yak leather for breathability and there lots of color combinations with BOA lacing as an option. Retailing for $200 at ECCOUSA.com.
Galvin Green always offers a spectrum of practical and fashionable apparel and added to their line for 2018 is the Interface-1 hybrid shell layer collection. Contrary to what some Dads will tell you, it does rain on the golf course and these latest Galvin Green pieces are soft and lightweight for durable weather protection. Each is windproof, water repellant and extremely breathable plus they look good. See all the styles and colors at GalvinGreen.com.
The gift of golf balls to Dad beats another tie—after all who wears ties any more—and TaylorMade has just the ones for Dad, their Project (a) ball for recreational players. When you order two dozen ($34.99 each) they throw in a free 6-pack with classic sayings or “Dad-isms,” the things most every father has said more than once. “Go Ask Your Mother,” “Back in My Day” and “Put Your Phone Down.” All the details are on TaylorMadeGolf.com.
Probably the piece of on-course equipment every Dad will appreciate is a laser rangefinder and the TecTecTec VPRO500 is a great choice. It has all the features he needs at an unbeatable price of $149.99 for the standard model or $179.99 for the slope model. Lightweight and water resistant there are three scanning modes that provide an accurate yardage in most any situation. The carrying case is included and details of both models plus a hassle-free online purchase are at US.TecTecTec.com

Monday After the Players

The PLAYERS championship reiterated some facts about this game and as with many other things in life it is useful to identify these facts so that when they pop up again we don’t act totally surprised. Here they are in no particular order along with what passes for analysis but could just as well be labelled as opinion:

Number #1: Banning of the anchored stroke in 2016 was not as many opined the kiss of death for broomstick and belly putter devotees nor did it provoke millions to leave the game. Webb Simpson used a long putter to win the 2012 United States Open and was one of the prominent players who had to find a new way to putt. Now the method he employs is to brace the putter shaft along his left forearm with his right hand in a so-called claw grip and at The PLAYERS he found a way to get the ball in the hole with over nine strokes gained on the field for the week. At one point two years ago, Simpson had fallen to 177th in putting but has fought back with grit and determination.

Number #2: Even a penal golf course such as the TPC Sawgrass Stadium course becomes manageable—not easy by any stretch of the imagination but manageable–if the wind doesn’t blow and the greens are at least marginally receptive. Simpson won by four after rounds of 66, 63, 68 and a cautious 73. If you need proof, the most talked about 63 over the years probably has been Johnny Miller’s at Oakmont in final round of the 1973 U.S. Open. It is often overlook though that rain the night before plus uncontrolled sprinklers after lightning hit the control box turned Oakmont’s infamously rock-hard greens into the consistency of damp washcloths. Last week the Stadium course was manageable simply because the greens “sort of” held and the wind most of the time was less than 10 mph.

Number #3: The long ball is not a surefire answer to scoring so those who keep beating the drum that the ball goes too far are again missing the point…the object of the game is to get the ball in the hole not how far you can hit it with your driver. Webb Simpson’s distance for the week, an average of 280.6 yards, put him in dead last place in the field. He won because his driving accuracy and putting not to mention a mental discipline were so much better than everyone else…but then you knew that already.

Number #4: Next year The PLAYERS will be played in March when conditions in North Florida will be drastically different. Expect the TPC Sawgrass Stadium course to play longer because it will be softer and the ball won’t run out plus the temperatures will be lower, so the ball won’t fly as far. The largest change though will be in the wind which at that time of year typically is more from the north and stronger, so the players will face a test much closer to what designer Pete Dye envisioned. FYI number 16 plays to the southeast and 17 and 18 to the northwest.

Number #5: Tiger Woods may or may not win another major championship but at times he is playing some scintillating golf which at Sawgrass included a 65 on Saturday to make the cut on the number, 11 shots behind Simpson. Some took his performance as a sign “he’s back.” That would be nice, but The PLAYERS showed Woods has yet to prove he has exorcised all the mental and physical demons that will allow him to be in the hunt for his fifteenth major title. Though he managed ten under par over the weekend he couldn’t play better than middle-of-the-pack golf for the last six holes both days. He has a long way to go for his 15th major.

Image courtesy of the PGA TOUR

Criticism of Driving Distance is a Nonstarter

Television commentators often talk about how far players hit the golf ball and this prompted the thought that by looking the results of PGA Tour players who have the highest driver swing speeds we could gain some insight into the current criticism of ball distance. So, here are the “fast five” as of the Arnold Palmer Invitational–statistics provided by the PGA Tour:

Keith Mitchell 123.97 mph
Rory McIlroy 122.34 mph
Tiger Woods 121.90 mph
Tony Finau 121.90 mph
Gary Woodland 121.84 mph

The “elites,” touring professionals and top caliber amateurs, unquestionably hit the ball farther than in the past however that’s not the issue. We need to know if added distance is a detriment to the game.

By analyzing the results of those with the highest swing speeds we should see a correlation with driving distance, scoring and money won and taking the elite of the elites, average driving distance is:

Keith Mitchell 312.1 yards
Rory McIlroy  314.1 yards
Tiger Woods 304.2 yards
Tony Finau 322.7 yards
Gary Woodland 312.2 yards

But that’s not the whole story. Mitchell is only number 10 in driving distance, McIlroy is 6, Woods 36, Finau first and Woodland 9.

More interesting, in fact very interesting, is how swing speed translates into scoring average: Mitchell is number 143, McIlroy 16, Woods 5, Finau 13 and Woodland 29. To put this in perspective, this year’s scoring average leader is Dustin Johnson at 68.843 strokes per round and in 1999, prior to introduction of the “game-changing” Titleist Pro V1, the leader was Tiger Woods with an average of 68.432.

Statisticians would call that amount of difference over 19 years “noise.”

How about a correlation between swing speed and money won? Mitchell is number 170 in official money after 10 events, McIlroy number 19 and 5 events, Woods 32/5 events, Finau 10/10 events and Woodland 15/11 events. In money won per event played Mitchell is number 215, McIlroy 8, Woods 15, Finau 19 and Woodland 25.

Then there’s an oft voiced concern courses are being turned into “driver-wedge” layouts, but the percentage of greens hit in regulation should tell the story. Mitchell is number 113 hitting 64.93% GIR, McIlroy 182/60.78%, Woods 174/61.42%, Finau 32/69.29% and Woodland 3/72.76%. Again, comparing with 1999, David Duval was first with a 73.57% GIR while today Kevin Streelman the 2018 leader is at 72.83%…more statistical noise.

We could go on, but the conclusion is obvious, though the elites are swinging faster and hitting the ball farther it does not translate into results.

But then you knew that.

The question is why don’t the solons of rules at the USGA and the R&A?

There have been unsupported statements about several topics among them ball distance causing slow play, forcing layouts to add length and of course, the great old shibboleth, traditional classic tracks are unable to host Tour events. All these opinions are nonstarters and their proponents have yet to present facts in support.

We all know slow play has everything to do with the individual players not the distance they hit the ball. The problems and costs of maintaining all golf courses, not just the ones beefed up in the belief longer is better, have been addressed by greens superintendents already much to their credit. Finally, the old classic courses (usually spoken of in mystical terms) is that many don’t have the acreage for parking, corporate hospitality, television production and tens of thousands of fans. Ball distance has nothing to do with it, they just aren’t capable of holding a big-time event.

Those who want to either “roll back the ball” or split the rules into us-and-them, so-called bifurcation, seem bent on convincing themselves tee ball distance needs to be fixed and equally convinced to do so in the face of a mountain of contrary facts. Every the USGA’s own 2017 Driving Distance Report doesn’t make a case for the ball going too far. The PGA Tour and the PGA of America have stated there isn’t any problem as have Acushnet, makers of the Titleist Pro V1, and TaylorMade Golf whose drivers are the most played by professionals worldwide. The PGA Tour clearly understands they are in the entertainment business and knows Hank Haney has it right saying people don’t go a ballgame to see a bunch of bunt singles, they go to see homeruns.

What we are facing is not a problem of the ball going too far but the perception of a problem simply because a few respected industry members have beat the drum long enough that the USGA and R&A finally have said they agree.

That’s no way to decide any issue.

The ball distance discussion isn’t over. Not as long as Tour players are bigger, stronger, better trained elites playing clubs computer-fitted to their swing, hitting low-spin solid core balls onto firm, fast fairways.

The USGA and R&A have said there is a problem evidently so then they can justify imposing a solution and more importantly and more tragically is how they are clearly out of touch with the overwhelming majority of golfers.

PGA TOUR Superstore – Managed Growth in a Difficult Market

PGA TOUR Superstore hasn’t bought into all the doom and gloom used by some to describe the golf equipment industry. For them the glass isn’t half empty and in fact the Atlanta-based chain has been following a controlled plan of expansion to manage growth for the long term.

The opportunity for additional insight to this golf retailing success story came in an interview with Randy Peitsch, PGA TOUR Superstore’s Senior Vice President of Operations. Peitsch has been in the top spot guiding day-to-day operations for the past two years after a five-year stint as vice president in charge of hard goods prior to which he was in divisional management at Sports Authority.

We questioned Peitsch about how PGATSS can accomplish growth in an unfavorable golf retail environment.

“It begins with hiring really good people, training them and then backing them,” Peitsch responded. “We can then focus on the consumer experience. We are not in the transaction business. We are in the relationship business.”

Well said but it should be pointed out that for the past several years the golf equipment business has euphemistically been called a “difficult market” with several events adversely affecting both the makers and sellers of equipment.

Golf retailers of all sizes have closed including the 463-store Sports Authority plus Golfsmith shuttered most of their locations after being purchased by Dick’s Sporting Goods. Dick’s, the sports retailing behemoth with over 700 locations, has reduced store floor space allocated to golf though recent statements by top management indicate they may be encouraged with the prospects for increases in golf equipment and accessories, particularly their private brands such as Top-Flite.

Manufacturers too have struggled with the largest, Acushnet Holding Corp (NYSE: GOLF), making a tepidly received public stock offering in late 2016. The former Fila Korea subsidiary, maker of several of golf’s top brands including Titleist and FootJoy, reported flat sales in 2017 but an increase in net income of $47 million.

In May 2017 TaylorMade Golf, the third largest equipment maker, was sold by Adidas (OTCMKTS: ADDY) for a bargain-basement price to an investment company and in third quarter 2016 Nike closed its golf equipment division. Niche manufacturer Ben Hogan Golf filed for bankruptcy and during its recovery has opted for a consumer-direct strategy.

On the positive side the second largest equipment manufacturer Callaway Golf (NYSE: ELY) finished 2017 with 20% higher sales than the previous year mostly on the strength of its Great Big Bertha Epic line of metalwoods. Midsize manufacturers such as Tour Edge Golf, Bridgestone Golf and Cobra Golf also have said they did appreciably better last year and are looking forward to even more gains in 2018.

Many are saying we are seeing the first signs of some stability in golf retailing and certainly PGA TOUR Superstore is well positioned to take advantage. The company opened three new locations in 2017 for a total of 31 and number 32 opened in February with number 33 set for the Houston, Texas market.

Same store sales last year had a healthy increase of 15 percent plus overall sales increased 23 percent. Digging a little deeper there are even more signs of their expanding market presence:
-Black Friday 2017 same store sales up 20 percent and for the three-day Thanksgiving weekend up 15 percent
-Online sales for Cyber Monday increased an eye-popping 62 percent
-Customer club fittings topped 110,000 in 2017 and lessons hit almost 50,000
-Instore practice bays saw 100,000 participants during the year

Impressive, in fact very impressive, for a year when the number of U.S. golfers continued to decline. Golfer consumers are responding to PGATSS’s extensive inventory, competitive pricing and perhaps even more to the service they receive whether online or in-store.

A trip to PGATSS has been compared with a visit to Home Depot and it should be since the private-held PGATSS is part of the AMB Group one of the Blank family endeavors along with the Atlanta Falcons (NFL), Atlanta United (MLS) and Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Family head Arthur Blank was one of the founders of Home Depot, retiring in 2001 as co-chairman.

Blank said of the success his stores have had in an uncertain retail environment, “At PGA TOUR Superstore we’re using the same philosophy that drove the Home Depot’s success and revolutionized the home improvement industry.  We offer a variety of products at value prices, incredible services and employ the best associates to provide a level of customer service that keeps visitors coming back because they love the experience.”

Most consumers acknowledge a visit to a PGATSS has a different feeling from the usual big box retailer. Employees invariably greet you and then thank you when you leave, an everyday example of customer relationship building. 

Peitsch pointed out, “We focus on the consumer experience. If we do everything the right way, we win out over the competitors.”

True certainly but beating the other guy also takes the proper pricing, inventory and profit margins.

According to Peitsch, “Margins have to be in the first sentence of any discussion and the partnerships with manufacturers are very important.” Then as if anticipating my next question, “The trend in our margins has continued upwards.”

Funds to pay for expansion must come from either borrowing or consistent profitability. Without the proper margins profits soon are nonexistent and discussing the entire business of PGATSS Peitsch made a critical observation, “Pay attention to the process and the results will come.”

Questioned about expansion plans Peitsch then said, “The cost of retail space drives the selection of new locations.” So, in addition to golfer demographics, brick and mortar economics dictate whether a site is viable or if even an entire market is suitable.

Peitsch commented that though they may be “under penetrated in the market we are the fastest growing and expect to open a store every other month, so we will have 50 by 2020.” That would be a 50 percent increase in just three years and average store size at the end of 2017 was 40,000 square feet making them the largest off-course retailer in golf in terms of average space.

It’s plain there is no “secret” to PGATSS success or maybe their secret is the relentless application of good business principles matched to an understanding of their customers.

Refreshing to say the least.

“Going to Take a Little Time”

 

A five-over 76 in the second round put Tiger Woods comfortably outside the cutline Friday at the Genesis Open by four shots at Riviera Country Club after Thursday’s round of 72.

This is his 25th missed cut since turning professional in 1996 and 330 career starts.

There are two takeaways, both important for Woods, the PGA Tour and golf fans.

First, his game needs lots of work starting off the tee. Over an admittedly difficult driving course Woods managed just 13 of 28 fairways or 46 percent while the leaders were hitting two-thirds or better. Less than half the fairways would be fine on some layouts but at Riviera the kikuyu rough makes it often impossible to control the line of a shot much less the distance.

So, for two rounds he hit just 16 of 36 greens and was 10 for 18 scrambling…not exactly numbers that bring fear into the eyes of a fellow competitor.

Then there’s his putting which was mediocre at best. Fifty-seven putts for the two rounds put him almost exactly in the middle of the pack and not nearly good enough to compensate for his driving problems.

For any other 42-year old who hadn’t played a full schedule since 2103 this could be expected but its Tiger Woods and normal expectations don’t apply.

Afterwards he said, “I haven’t played golf in years and I’m just starting to come back so it’s going to take a little time. I am progressing, I’m starting to get a feel for tournament golf again. I just need to clean up my rounds.”

“I’m both pleased and also not very happy with some parts of it. It’s nice to be back competing again and to be able to go out there and play, practice after each round. That’s been nice, something I haven’t done in years. So, you know, keep building.”

Optimistically these words aren’t another example of the Woods answering questions with non-answers but truly a reflection of his thoughts and feelings.

Next week is the Honda Classic near his home in South Florida and we will see if he can be competitive at the highest level. The PGA Tour and golf fans need him to be and most of all Woods for himself needs to be.