Sunday, June 29, 2008

Golf Match: Cink vs. Jones

As most of you golf fans know, Stewart Cink won last week’s Travelers Championship in Connecticut, closing with a solid 67 to win by one. Stewart and I are pretty good friends, not just through our interaction out on TOUR, but also because he is also a Georgia Tech grad and Atlanta resident.

Back in November, Stewart invited me and my wife to join him for a casual round at TPC Sugarloaf, his home course in Duluth, Georgia. Watching a TOUR pro play up close is borderline boring in that they are usually so consistent, you can’t even remember half of the shots they hit. Stewart split almost every fairway, hit most of the greens, and had easy two-putt pars hole after hole. Yawn (that’s an envious yawn).

However, on the few occasions where Stewart did miss a green or drilled one off line, he always came right back with a mind-blowing recovery shot. These are the shots I remember! He perfectly executed two impossible bunker shots (I couldn’t have duplicated either one with a large bucket of balls), and after he flared a three-wood into the right woods on #14, he threaded a waist-high four-iron through about twenty trees that then rose and faded down the fairway, hitting the green some 180 yards away. My jaw was on the ground.
“How did you do that?” I stammered. “Do you practice hitting punch-cut four-irons?”

“No…obviously I don’t practice that specific shot,” he replied. “But I picture the ball flight it in my mind and feel it in my hands, and then just hit it and hope. It helps to get lucky.”
Didn’t Tiger tell me the same thing about being lucky? Where do I buy some of this luck stuff?

We had a little match going, and Stewart was giving me five strokes per nine. My game ran hot and cold, but I made a bunch of pars and somehow hung in there until the last hole. The match was all square going into #18, and then Stewart showed why he’s a TOUR pro and I showed why I’m not. He hit that par five in two and easily made his birdie. I bladed a sand wedge from the middle of the fairway into the back greenside bunker, gouged it out and two-putted for a bogey. Cink over Jones 1-up, and I owed him a Moe’s Southwest Grill burrito for lunch.

Stewart is one of my favorite guys on TOUR. He is down-to-earth, generous with every one he meets, and just a pleasure to be around. Congrats on your fifth PGA TOUR win, Stewart! Who says nice guys finish last?

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Monday, June 23, 2008

U.S. Open Interviews

I sat in on some interviews at the U.S. Open, and heard some interesting things. Concerning Phil’s quadruple bogey on the par five thirteenth…all of the pros were raving about the stellar conditions of the kikuyu fairways, and how the stiff, bristly blades were shaved down tight and provided perfect lies for spinning the ball off the short grass. Phil claimed that his second and third chips to #13 on Saturday weren’t bad shots, but just mental miscues because he didn’t take into account how much they were going to spin. When asked if that was his highest score ever on that hole, he replied, “No, I’ve made a nine on thirteen before…I was only eight years old, but I have had a nine there.”

After Saturday’s round, Tiger confessed that he didn’t warm up well on the range, and that he had a “two-way miss” going. He said he tried to “organize” that into a one-way miss, so at least when he hit it way off-line, he could predict which direction. He wasn’t able to figure it out during the round, and consequently spent the day playing self-described “army golf”…right, left, right, left. On Sunday, when he roped his second shot into the ice plants on #13, Tiger said he was trying to play a high cut into the green. He admitted to hitting the dreaded “double-cross”, trying to hold off his swing through impact but instead completely flipping his wrists over for the hammer-hook. At this point, we all know that most of Tiger’s struggles were the result of a bad knee, a stress fracture in his left shin, and obviously a lot of rust due to lack of practice. But his comments reveal two important truths about the game of golf…

One, that hitting the golf ball like you want to every time is freakin’ impossible! Even Tiger Woods sometimes flails with his swing to the point of having “two-way misses” and “double-crosses” infecting his game! The second truth is that scoring well in golf is all about one thing…getting the ball into the hole as quickly as possible. Tiger proved that last week. Despite being outplayed tee to green all week by dozens of players (including Rocco), Tiger took home the Championship Cup because of his superior short game. He chips well, his scrambling is unmatched, he makes all of his crucial short putts, and he basically gives himself opportunities to recover from every wayward driver or approach. So take heart, all you hopeful hackers…don’t stress over your missed shots (everyone is going to have them). Quit pounding range balls and go practice your short game! That’s where you’re really going to save some strokes.

Since Tiger has made his announcement about more surgery and taking the rest of the year off, you have to wonder how the other TOUR pros are going to respond. We will finally get to see what the major championships would look like without the Tiger factor. Will the big names like Sergio and Phil take advantage of his absence? Can Tiger still win the Fed Ex Cup even if he misses the entire playoffs (just kidding, I think that’s impossible)? I’ll have some more thoughts on a Tiger-less PGA TOUR later, but I’d like to hear yours.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The U.S. Open Media Center

I just returned home from the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. The USGA hired me to handle the scoreboard graphics inside the media center. The media center at a major championship is impressive. It is usually a gigantic temporary structure (think mega-tent) decked out with a large dining hall, a photographers’ lounge, an interview room, and of course the workspace area. It’s located on site, this year being situated on the adjoining North Course at Torrey Pines. Hundreds of journalists and television/radio/internet representatives from around the world are lined up in row after row of desks, all facing my huge scoreboard and several jumbo screen televisions at the front of the room. All of the heavy hitters in golf reporting are there, from the top writers in the country to the famous on-air talent for the networks. If you’re a golf nut, it’s a very cool scene.

The weird thing about my job at the U.S. Open is that I travel all the way from Atlanta to San Diego, proceed inside the Torrey Pines gates, and then basically watch the tournament on TV. What you might find surprising is that most members of the media do the same thing. During the really dramatic moments, several reporters will obviously track down the on-course action so they can see it live, but for the most part, everyone is watching from the comforts of the media center, working on their stories and taking advantage of the resources provided there. That’s a lot of people going to a lot of trouble just to watch golf on TV!

Saturday afternoon in the media center was a blast. As Tiger was doing all the mind-boggling stuff on the back nine that Tiger usually does, all eyes inside the media center were glued to the large screen TVs. There was a two-second delay between the live action and the TV broadcast, so as we watched Tiger’s ball roll toward the hole, we could hear the enormous roar from outside on the course, and would know the result before we actually witnessed it. Nonetheless, all of us in the media center would echo the outdoor response with a huge roar of our own. It gives me goose-bumps just thinking about some of those moments. What Tiger did that afternoon was unbelievable, and will go down as one of the most amazing stretches of golf in championship history. I feel privileged to have been there to experience it (via television).

My next entry will have some post-round quotes from Tiger’s interviews. That’s a huge perk of working in the media center…I get to sit in on the Q and A’s with all of the tournament leaders.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Tiger Behind Closed Doors

Since most people only see Tiger Woods when he is either A) playing in a tournament, B) doing an interview, or C) in a commercial, they often ask me “What is he really like, you know, behind closed doors?” I’ve had the good fortune of dealing with Tiger on a number of occasions during my job on the TOUR, and my answer to this question is…he’s really a normal guy! I’m not trying to sound cliche, because Tiger is anything but normal, but seriously, for someone who is mega-rich, mega-famous and mega-talented, he seems like a very well-adjusted, likeable person. He’s always friendly to the walking scorers and other volunteers in the scoring area (but he won’t sign a golf ball…that’s a steadfast rule). He has a sharp sense of humor, and never seems to put on airs. I’m sure many golf fans have been irritated by a stone-faced, blinders-on Tiger as he strides past hundreds of screaming well-wishers, but please understand, this is what he has to do just to make it out of public situations in one piece. Just ask anyone who is out on TOUR regularly, and they will tell you it’s a completely different atmosphere around Tiger…absolute chaos. To his fellow pros, even though he is very intimidating on the course, he is very approachable off of it and has an agreeable personality that meshes well with most everybody. Tiger is very humble, never overplaying his own success and often giving praise to those guys who gave chase (or sometimes beat him).

After the final round of the 2007 Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines, Tiger was sitting across from me in the scoring area, checking his card following a 66 and his fifth victory in that event. I asked him, “Tiger, just how in the world do you win this thing year after year?” He answered, “Honestly, Charles (Howell III) could’ve won, but I just got some good bounces. I don’t care who you are, you need some lucky breaks to win golf tournaments.” I replied, “Didn’t someone once say that the harder you practice the luckier you get?” To that, Tiger flashed his trademark smile, winked at me, and walked out of the trailer to face the throngs of media and fans. That story describes Tiger in a nutshell…he might be self-effacing, but deep down, he knows he’s the man to beat.

If I were to formulate an equation that summed up Tiger Woods’ golfing prowess, it would be GOD-GIVEN ABILITY + UNRIVALED WORK ETHIC + VAST UNDERSTANDING OF HIS SWING AND THE GAME = TOTAL WORLD DOMINANCE IN GOLF. Stay tuned for more stories about my personal interactions with Tiger and other players out on TOUR.

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