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The day the Babes brought the house down

By Al TaysNovember 8, 2017, 1:05 pm

As Henrik Stenson attempts to recover from his ill-fated turn as a superhero, we are approaching the 80th anniversary of another golf "stunt" that featured two of the most genuinely colorful characters ever to tee it up.

On Nov. 14, 1937, Babe Ruth and Babe Didrikson (soon to become Babe Didrikson Zaharias) took part in one of the most bizarre charity events ever staged. The venue was Fresh Meadow Country Club in Flushing, New York, which in the previous seven years had hosted a PGA Championship (1930) and a U.S. Open (1932). But there was no resemblance between the seriousness of those two majors and the craziness that ensued in 1937.

The exhibition match, which was put on by the New York Journal-American, pitted the two Babes, Ruth and Didrikson, against golf hustler John Montague and a top local amateur, Sylvia Annenberg. According to The Associated Press report on the proceedings, 10,000 tickets were sold, costing a dollar apiece.

The New York Times compared the crowd to the one that witnessed Bobby Jones complete the Grand Slam at Merion in 1930, although its composition was entirely different; to quote the Journal-American, "Sixty percent of those present didn't know a bunker from a bung-hole."

The spectators did know stars when they saw them, though. None was bigger than Ruth, even though he was 42 and two years into retirement. He still held the records for home runs in a single season (60) and a career (714), as well as career marks for runs batted in (2,213) and slugging percentage (.690). In 1936 he had been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as one of its "first five" inaugural members, along with Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner.


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Beyond his athletic feats, Ruth was simply larger than life, with stories of his prodigious consumption of food and drink rivaling those of his tape-measure home runs.

It was a similar story with Didrikson. Then 26, she had won two gold medals and one silver for track and field in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. She didn't even take up golf until 1935. And like Ruth, her personality kept her in the spotlight even when she wasn't accomplishing amazing feats. Never lacking confidence, she was as quotable as she was talented. "The Babe is here," she once said upon arriving at a tournament. "Who's coming in second?" "It's not just enough to swing at the ball," she said on another occasion. "You've got to loosen your girdle and really let the ball have it."

Also an attraction that November day, though not quite at the level of Ruth and Didrikson, was John Montague. Born in New York, he migrated to California, where he fell in with the Hollywood crowd and became club champion at Lakeside. Powerfully built, he could belt 300-yard drives and execute trick shots with shovels and rakes with equal facility. After playing with Montague, legendary sportswriter (and Lakeside member) Grantland Rice called Montague "the world's greatest golfer."

Though Montague's on-course exploits were known, he kept the details of his past to himself. That all blew up, however, when he was arrested in 1937 in connection with an armed robbery in New York in 1930. Extradicted to New York in August, Montague admitted his real name was LaVerne Moore. Released on a $25,000 bond, he rented 17 rooms at a local inn for himself, family and friends during the trial. In the courtroom he was provided with alibis by his mother and two sisters, as well as one of the four robbers. Eventually he was acquitted. The November competition at Fresh Meadow was to be his first public exhibition match.

With no gallery ropes, the Fresh Meadow crowd was free to, well, crowd the fairways and greens. "This is worse than any World Series," said Ruth, who was knocked down on the sixth hole. "At least at the ballpark, the crowd has to stay in the stands." Balls had to be replaced after more than one shot as spectators, perhaps ignorant of the rules or perhaps just uncaring, picked them up and pocketed them. One of the spectators was former heavyweight champion James J. Braddock, who found the crowd too unruly for even his taste. "I'm getting away from here," he said after watching two holes, "before I get a foot in my face."

The match ended prematurely. Again, from the AP report: "At the end of nine holes, when everybody concerned, including the 10,000 spectators had enough, Montague and his blonde partner, Sylvia Annenberg, were approximately two down to Babe Ruth and Babe Disrikson. Approximately is the word, for Montague was unable to play out two holes and none of the quartet managed to hit the short ninth green after having hit their tee shots."

The headline: Stampeding Golf Crowd Stops Charity Contest in New York.

The end was a particular relief to Didrikson. "I don't mind sugar daddies in their proper place," she said, "but I hope I don't ever have to play chip shots again while sitting on their knees."

Her aversion to such indignities aside, Didrikson took to golf in a big way. In January 1938 she entered - there was no qualifying - the Los Angeles Open, the first woman to play in a national men's PGA event. She shot 81-84 and missed the cut, but she did come away with a significant prize. It was there that she met promoter and professional wrestler George Zaharias, and they were married 11 months later.

Didrikson regained her amateur status in 1942; four years later she won the U.S. Women's Amateur, then followed in 1947 by becoming the first American to win the British Ladies Amateur. She turned pro later that year and won the U.S. Women's Open in 1948. She would go on to compile a total of 41 wins in the LPGA, which she helped found in 1950, including 10 majors. Her last major win came in the U.S. Women's Open in 1954, the year after she had been diagnosed with colon cancer. She had undergone surgery just a month before, and played in the championship while wearing a colosomy bag.

Cancer finally claimed her in 1956, when she died at the age of 45.

Ruth openly sought a baseball manager's job, but there were no takers. His history of self-indulgence was not seen as a desirable attribute in someone responsible for managing others.

In 1938 the Brooklyn Dodgers hired his as first-base coach, but it was strictly a publicity stunt; he wasn't even asked to relay signs from the dugout. At the end of the season, Ruth resigned. It would be his last job in baseball. He continued to play recreational golf, and in 1941 he returned to the Fresh Meadow course as part of a series of exhibition matches against Ty Cobb to raise money for the USO. (At Fresh Meadow, Ruth won, 1 up, in front of only about 100 spectators.) In 1948 Ruth succumbed to cancer. He was 53.

Montague, who was 34 at the time of the Fresh Meadow match, returned to Hollywood, but had limited success trying to revive his career in golf. His health deteriorated, and in 1972 he died of a heart attack. He was 68.

The Fresh Meadow golf course, an A.W. Tillinghast design that had opened in 1923, was sold in 1946, when the members relocated to a defunct course on Long Island. Today the area is a residential neighborhood, 80 years removed from the events that put it in a brief, but bright spotlight.

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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.


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That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.


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Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.


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The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”