Friday, September 29, 2006

You've Got To Like Sergio

After Tiger Woods fired an opening round, 8-under par 63 to lead the American Express Championship in Chandler’s Cross, England, he got a little defensive about his Ryder Cup performance. He pointed out that if the event had been individual stroke play for five rounds, he would have finished no worse the 15th.

WOW! Fifteenth out of, what, 24? For the world’s best golfer, competing against a field that was nowhere close to including the overall top 24 in the world, 15th would be dismal. But, he defended his performance.

“I only had one bad day, which was Saturday morning,” he said. “Other than that, I actually played pretty darn good. I’m only in control of five points, and I got three of five. I did the best I could. I could have holed more putts, certainly, but overall, I thought I played pretty solid.”

While I would never boot Tiger from my Ryder Cup team, his point total combined serious play and lots of grinding. His on-the-course personality is always stoic, unlike that of European cheerleader Sergio Garcia. While the latter’s fun-loving, have-a-good-time-demeanor is contagious, Woods’ staid approach to competition doesn’t encourage his partners to join in the fun of good play and winning. Even when he makes a spectacular putt and shows us his fist pump, he’s all business, and being all business seems to spread to his teammates. The only benefit I see to that is to the Euros because when Ryder Cup competition is all business and no play, the United States team gets tight and misses opportunities to take control and command.

To his credit, Woods wants for younger Americans to step up and qualify for the Ryder Cup in two years. He wants the same type of enthusiasm Garcia shows to be ingrained in the Americans. Unfortunately, what Tiger doesn’t get is that he, as the best player on the team, can be the catalyst for fun on the links, the example for his teammates, but that’s just not his style.

Speaking of Garcia, while some people do not like his smugness and temper tantrum style especially when he’s actually losing a hole in Ryder Cup competition, he does have an impressive record in the once-every-two-years event. He’s 14-4-2 overall, 13-1-2 in team events including 8-0 in alternate shot. If you do the math, (I’ll do it for you anyway), you’ll see he’s just 1-3 in singles matches.

And, he has never won a Major golf tournament, not a Masters, a US Open, a (British) Open, or a PGA Championship. This is most recently pointed out in a column by Bob Harig of the St. Petersburg (FL) Times, who asks the question, “Why is Garcia so good in the Ryder Cup and so shaky in the game’s biggest individual tournaments?”

Harig never answers the question, but he has an interesting quote from Garcia: “I can’t live without it (Ryder Cup). It makes for an unbelievable week. It is special because it is difficult to get into the team. Winning is definitely more satisfying than winning an individual event. The more fun I have, the better I play. My swing is looser. My thoughts are better.”

In his column, Harig comments: “Garcia’s infectious enthusiasm rubs off, although it still is a mystery why this kind of play does not translate into majors. As much as the Europeans like to indict American golf because of the Ryder Cup, the fact remains that they have not won a major since 1999. And golf, after all, is an individual sport, one that turns into a team affair on rare occasions.”

That last comment, Mr. Harig, is one with which I respectfully disagree. I’d say with the exception of the professional tours, most golfers play team, match-play competition 99% of the time. Member-Member tournaments; Member-Guest events; Superball/Captain’s Choice charity events; even the Saturday morning scrambles pitting one foursome against another; and, within the foursomes, there are various competitions two of which are six-six-six and Nassau. Every day, thousands and thousands of golfers compete in team competition, and usually it’s match-play. That’s why the regular-guy golfer out there gets upset when the United States professionals are just doing their job and stinking-up the Ryder Cup.

Let’s face it. Tiger Woods is an excellent player. And who am I to say something so obvious? But, he’s a grinder who enjoys the soft core team bets at Isleworth Country Club but is a better competitor when it’s just Tiger against the world over four straight days of individual, stroke play.

While I’m not a Sergio faithful, I do enjoy watching him play golf. He takes it just serious enough to compete at a high level despite his lack of a Major championship. However, in reality, it seems he’s always just enjoying a good walk, not one spoiled.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Time to change US Ryder Cup selection

Bottom line: the final result of the Ryder Cup matches is not all that important, even if you are an avid golfer and a flag waving American, which I am. It's just a game, and apparently, most of the members of Team USA (or whatever you want to call it) approached it just that way: not important. They might have looked serious and interested on the ridiculous tape delay coverage of the first two days and, the live broadcast of the final round singles competition on Sunday but the final results were laughable.

It's not a life or death situation to those millionaires citizens of the United States who made up the 2006 team. It's just a game. However, golfers like to watch good golf, and this year, for us to do that, we had to concentrate primarily on the European team. The final tally points to that, but, if you watched just a little of the matches held last Friday-Sunday, you saw the Euros with a little more bounce in their steps and a little more fun in their game.

I could hash and re-hash the matches but there's no need for that. What I'd like to propose is a new selection system for assembling the Yankee contingent, one that gives more of the selection process to the Captain and his assistants but requires the players to practice the format as part of the selection process.

Right off the bat, with the exception of Johnny Miller, there are few possible captains who would want to select all 12 members for fear of losing many friends along the way. Right now, the captain picks two from less than two handfuls of possibilities, and those not chosen probably understand why they were left off the team. Miller, I think, needs to be captain for life, because he knows more about the game and more about the players that anyone on this planet and all of the Universe. If you don't believe me, just ask Miller. He'll tell you the same. Unfortunately, I think, if Miller had his way, he would try to get dual citizenship for several Euros and Aussies and New Zealanders and Africans so he could complete the squad with his top choices.

Instead of having a two-year-points-earned-in-tournaments-qualifying system, I'd like to see a squad of 32 players selected right now. Over the next two years, any of the 32 could be dropped from active status and players from outside the original 32 could be added. But by six months to the day prior the competition, the 32 shall be chosen. From that point until two weeks prior to the Ryder Cup, those 32 players will have to practice as a team at least once every two weeks but only in Ryder Cup style practices, using the various competition methods in the actual Ryder Cup. Practice would include two days of four ball and two days of foursomes and four days of singles matches, at a minimum.

During the practice rounds, every player would be available to help another player, even if on the opposing practice team. They would be able to discuss strategy, putting, club selection, dinner reservations and family stuff. The captain and several assistants would watch, take notes, and give pointers when necessary. Each night, the captain and assistants would discuss each player in an effort to assemble the very best TEAM.

Now, if the PGA and the players want to have any automatic qualifiers, that's fine, but no more than four, maybe six, but if the captain has good reason to leave off one of the automatic qualifiers, the captain would make his case to a PGA Ryder Cup committee which would rule either in favor of the automatic qualifier or the captain.

The final results would be a team that's a team, one that knows how to compete in Ryder Cup competition. I contend that players such as Phil Mickelson is not a good match play competitor. He might have been at one time, but he's more of a stroke play, four-round grinding competitor. The final hole of the US Open is a prime example. His wild tee shot and subsequent attempts to get the ball in the hole is typical of stroke competition. If he had played that hole as if it were match play, knowing a four would win and a five would tie, he would have hit four-wood off the tee and played to the middle of the green. Phil, though, was trying to post a number, not win a hole. In the Ryder Cup, I would rather have had a poor playing Davis Love III than Mickelson.

In this year's Cup, Tiger Woods scored three points, more than any other US player. Stewart Cink, a captain's pick, had 2.5 points. All other Americans had less than 2.5 points. Seven Euros congtributed 2.5 points or more out of a possible five. No one contributed five points, but three Euros contributed all they could. For a review of the points earned by the US and the Euros, go to the
Ryder Cup web site.

My suggestion can use some tweaking, but if the Ryder Cup is important to the PGA, if it is important to the PGA to win, then the PGA needs to come up with a way to select a better team, and not to base the selection on the most recent playing abilities or a hot streak from a year earlier that stood during the second year of qualifying. Pros are known to get hot and rattle off a few hot rounds at just the right time, but that doesn't make them the best Ryder Cup players.

Bottom line: It's really not that important, but if you want a good team, let's get serious about the selection process.

JUST WONDERING: If the US broadcasts on Friday and Saturday were tape delay, then if an announcer, just before showing a shot or putt, said, "Just moments ago..." then were we watching a tape delay of a tape delay? Next time it's in Europe or Ireland or Great Britain, show the afternoon matches live, tell us what happened in the morning matches, and then show us highlights of the morning matches.

What do you think. Leave your comment here.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Gaston Country Club, Gastonia NC

If you read my review of Old Town, you know that one criteria I use for rating a golf course is the repeat play factor. During and following the round on any course, I present myself with this question: Is this a course I would play every day?"

The answer as related to the Gaston County Club in Gastonia NC is an emphatic "YES!"

About 40 members of the North Carolina Golf Panel accepted an invitation to play there Monday, and the Ellis Maples design, which was re-design/renovated in 2004 by Chris Spence of Greensboro NC, passed the initial litmus test, at least with me and I'm very sure by the others being overly pampered by the Club members and staff of Gaston.

We found a course in wonderful condition from tee through green on every hole. The A4 Bent grass greens (rebuilt as part of that 2004 renovation) were running at 11 on the Stimp meter. However, different from Old Town Club (see previous post) with its mounds in the middle of many greens, Maples and Spence gave Gaston two-tiered beauties which allow for a variety of pin positions which in turn can easily change the course from calm and simple to extremely challenging and very tough to score well.

In the dawn of his career as a course designer, Maples worked for Donald Ross and Spence is considered an expert on Ross renovation, so the combination of the two designers gives the course Ross-tendencies on the greens with false fronts and other areas around the greens where a slight mistake on your approach will result in your ball rolling off an edge into a closely mowed fringe. This also allows for use of your putter from well off the green. And, the false fronts are nothing like pure Ross greens where a shot hitting on the front of a green might roll as much as 50 yards back into the fairway. These fronts are slight and give the average golfer a chance to easily get up and down, if one is able to manage the speed of the green.

In our foursome, three of us regularly putted from up to 10 yards off the green while one player used a 52-degree wedge from as close as six inches from the green's edge. He was as accurate, probably more so, than the rest of us. The greens gave us some interesting and exciting moments throughout the round. After two holes, each of us had experienced approach putts that rolled four or five feet past the hole. Some made the return effort; some missed. On our third hole, the par-3, 11th, we all hit the green but no one was very close. One partner was standing over a five footer for par when I said, "It's apparent that making five foot putts will be very important today." About to start his stroke, that member stopped his effort, looked up, sort of laughed and said, "Thanks a lot." But he gathered himself quickly and stroked his par effort into the cup's center.

My score of 82 included three birdies and four double bogeys, three due to penalty shots from hitting into water hazards. I had 35 putts, hitting just 11 greens and only three 3-putts along with four 1-putt efforts. The greens were very true to the reading. But there were some interesting moments in the round.

I birdied the second toughest hole on the course, the 422-yard, par 4 15th hole which starts from an elevated tee, is a slight dogleg left down a hill and then back up a hill to an elevated green. My drive was well struck but caught the branch of tree along the left side. It stayed in the fairway but left me with an up-hill 8-iron to a front, left pin position. I landed the ball short of pin-high near the left edge of the green, and it stopped nearly immediately. I actually misread the putt, not seeing as much break, but I miss hit the attempt at birdie, sort of stabbing it left. The result was a roll that actually caught the right line and end up six-inches below the green's surface.

I also birdied the 395-yard, par 4 16th hole, but it only tied my buddy, Johnny Moore who made a putt from off the front of the green. The pin was about 15 feet onto the green, and I hit my approach shot two-feet under the hole. In making his birdie putt, Johnny's attempt actually rolled about 16 feet. He stroked it well but just left of the hole and about six-inches beyond the cup. It tried to stop, but just when everyone thought Johnny would have par, the ball started a reverse course and rolled back into the hole. Johnny had a very nice 77, five over par.

When you're playing a course with greens such as these, sometimes your thoughts of the course itself take a back seat, but at Gaston Country Club, which originally built in 1958, the routing of the holes, the variety of shots, the beautiful tall trees throughout, give you pause to enjoy the overall course while it offers a challenge for the day. The par-72 course has five sets of tees with the longest set listed at 7,042 yards with a course rating of 74.2 and a slope of 135. Our foursome played the 6,615 yard layout with its 72.1 rating and 131 slope. The fairways and tees are sewn with 419 Bermuda grass which offers terrific fairway lies and tough shots from thick rough.

What Spence did two years ago in his redesign was to change the greens complexes, specifically re-contouring the greens, taking out some of the surface slope and giving them more flat areas to allow for the speed of bent grass (originally, the greens were bermuda) and to give more pin placements, and the reshaping of the bunkers, softening the severity of the lips, bringing the fairway grass down into the edges. He also lengthened a couple of holes and made a few more interesting changes to a total of seven holes.

The course is fair. The long hitters have a chance to reach each of the four par 5s in two though two of those holes are guarded by creeks just a few yards in front of the greens. And, the four par 3s are not gimmicky with club selection from wedge to six iron for me. The par 4s call for accurate long drives or the use of a four-wood to avoid well placed creeks and other penalizing areas. The longest par 4 we played was the 439-yard, dogleg right 3rd-hole with a well placed creek along the right side. The shortest par 4s had lengths of 376, 373, 387, 367 and 362 yards.

The 18th hole is a wonderful par-5, 497 yard finishing hole, from an elevated tee with a lake along the entire right hand side. The green is well-bunkered to help prevent a two-shot assault. However, the most spectacular scene on the entire course, as far as I'm concerned, is the approach to the 17th hole, a short (362 yards) par four. The green is the highest point on the property and sits alone except for one tall oak tree at its back. Walking down the 17th fairway, you see the green in front of you and then the tree. However, beyond that, you see the beautiful white (painted) brick, sprawling clubhouse and the wonderfully green grass surrounding it. There's a hole and a half to go in your round, but to the casual visitor, no matter your score, there can't be but one thought:

"I've got to come back to Gaston Country Club. I could play here every day."

Friday, September 01, 2006

Old Town Club, Winston-Salem NC

As a member of the North Carolina Golf Panel, I rate North Carolina golf courses. Sounds like fun and easy work, but it takes a lot of thought. There are several golf panels around the United States and the world, and each seems to have a different way of rating courses. Who's to say which way is the best?

In North Carolina, we use the "Top 50" method. Each member of the 130+ member panel submits in December his/her list of top 50 courses in the Tar Heel State. Other than a panelist must have played the courses on his/her list, there is no set criteria. Pinehurst No. 2, site of two United States Open Championships, has always been at the top of the list since the group was formed a few years ago.

One of my criteria includes my desire to return. I usually ask myself, "Would I play the course every day?" In other words, would I return and return and return to play the course just as if it were my home course. (I'm a member of MacGregor Downs Country Club in Cary NC and have invested a lot of money and time in it which I wouldn't have done if I didn't want to play it nearly every day.) Wanting to play and replay a course means to me it's a good layout, calls for different shots from the tees and fairways, is fair without being too easy, is a challenge, is usually in good, playable shape or at least obviously has that characteristic most of the year, and other stuff related to appearance of the grounds and friendliness of the staff.

Old Town Club (Winston-Salem NC), which I was fortunate to play this week, is a course I'd play time and time again. It's a Perry Maxwell design, and this was the third time for me in two years I was fortunate enough to have the privilege of playing it.

Primary reasons I enjoyed it and will return is that the layout allows for long, free-swinging but accurate drivers to be hit from most of the tees, but it is a layout that calls for very accurate approach shots to small greens with unusual shapes and contours. Maxwell obviously moved little or no dirt in drawing and building this wonderful course. From the tips, it's a 6831-yard, par 70 with a course rating of 73.2 and a slope of 132. My friend, Johnny Moore, and I played it from the 6564-yard blue markers and each shot 82, not very good for a couple of five handicappers, but not bad considering the greens, especially since we only play the course about once a year and have a tough time remembering the unique flow of the greens. The more often one plays a course, the easier it is to play and that's primarily due to knowledge of the greens.

We're certain the original greens did not include one strand of bent grass. In all likelihood, Bermuda (or maybe sand) was the original choice which would have made approach shots and putting not as difficult as it is today. Quoting from the book, The Midwest Associate, The Life and Work of Perry Duke Maxwell, "When one takes a tour of the Old Town course many recurring themes appear," wrote author Christopher Clouser. "Proceeding backwards from green to tee you can easily see the strategic value that Maxwell placed on all of his holes at Old Town. The green complexes at Old Town are almost situated on areas of the course that are elevated on little knolls. The greens themselves contain several undulations, bumps, swales and dips."

Johnny likes to say that Maxwell buried his wives under several greens at Old Town, though we're not sure he had more than one wife if any. We didn't have the luxury of touring the course backwards to view the greens first though we tried to remember them from previous rounds there. We knew though that to be above the hole was to be in the wrong position, especially since they were running about 12 on the Stimp Meter. That's as fast or faster than most of the PGA tournament greens. As we drove up to the course that day around 12 noon, we noticed the greens were being cut. Not only were they fast, the usual mowing effort of early morning had been delayed that day just to give the NC Golf Panel the smoothest surfaces possible. I'm not sure how many putts my partner had, but I counted 41 on my scorecard, half of my strokes.

If you do not know Perry Maxwell, you might known a couple of his designs. He was the original course architect for Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth TX and Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa OK, two of the most notable golf courses in the United States. With all due respect to his abilities, Old Town reminded me of a typical Donald Ross design.

At Old Town, he used the lay of the land and a meandering creek to give the course a lot of character and careful shot making. The first hole is a 414-yard par 4 with a creek about 260 out at the bottom of the downward slope that starts at the tee area. Using my 4+ wood, I nearly drove it into the creek. The second shot is up-hill to a two level green.

I used my driver (without reservation) on 12 holes, though on two of the holes I could have used my 4+ again for accuracy. My approach shots needed anything from a six iron to a 56 degree wedge on the par fours. The par fives--526 yards and 590 yards--are not reachable in two at all due to that creek system. The par threes called for my nine iron, seven iron and five iron twice.

At its length, the a par 70 course doesn't seem too tough, but the greens make it so. According to the staff, the average size of the greens is only 5,000 square feet. At MacGregor Downs, I'm used to hitting to greens of 7,500 square feet, one and a half times the size at Old Town.

If one hole is a good indicator for the whole course, I think it's number 10, a 406 yard par four which is laid out straight away from the tee to a green considerably beyond the crest of a hill about halfway there. You cannot see the green from the tee. The drive, though must be hit along the left side of the fairway which slopes considerably to the right. I placed my drive where it should be, just on the edge of the left side of the fairway and only about 110 yards down the hill to the green. The pin was in the middle (front to back) of the green but on the right third of the surface. From my position, the green looked larger than it is, much less than the 5,000 square feet average green there. I remembered something funky about the green but not exactly what that funk is. I hit a nice shot which landed on the green about pin high and rolled about a foot left before it came to rest. Walking onto the green, I knew I was in trouble. Maxwell had buried one of his wives in the middle of the green, Johnny said. My putt had to travel up one side and down the other to get to the hole. I barely touched the ball and for a moment thought it would stop at the top of that wife, but it slowly continued toward the hole, picking up speed on that 12 Stimp Meter green. It waved at the hole as it passed by going at what seemed like a zillion miles an hour and eventually came to rest just off the right edge of the green about 10 feet beyond the hole. I missed coming back and gave kudos to Maxwell for his postage stamp design and the contour which required a much more accurate approach to the right side of the green.

That was just my third hole of the day because, with a shotgun start, we originated the round on number 8 tee. As I approached the tee on number 11, I knew it would be a long day on the greens, as it was. I made some return putts for par and missed a few as well. When all was said and done, I was looking for the invitation to return. If often invited, I'd play Old Town as often as possible.