Longer golf balls making Old Course obsolete

By Joe PosnanskiJuly 18, 2015, 8:24 pm

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — For years now, Jack Nicklaus has been sounding the clarion call on the golf ball. Again and again (and again) he has warned that newly engineered golf balls fly too far and that they are hurting the game on a dozen different levels.

Is slow play keeping people from playing golf? Jack blames the golf ball. “"The main culprit [in] slow play, to me, is the golf ball and the distance the golf ball goes,” he said. “Golf, it used to take three hours, three and a half hours. Today they take close to five hours.”

Lack of strategy in the pro game? Jack blames the golf ball. “I like the old game of moving the ball both ways and using strategy with angles and hitting all the clubs in the bag,” he told Golf Digest. “My greatest concern, because I believe it has the most effect on the most parts of the game, is the golf ball.”

The seeming lack of great players on the PGA Tour? Jack blames the golf ball. “I think they will change the golf ball eventually,” he says. “I think they have to if they are ever going to get back to separating the players a little bit.”

There are really not many problems in this world that Jack Nicklaus does not pin on the ever-improving technology that makes golf balls fly. In truth, it got to the point where people would see Nicklaus and warn each other not to say the words “golf” or “ball” so as not to set him off.

But here’s the thing: Nicklaus is right. If the powers that be do not stop the golf ball arms race — the technological scramble to get a few more yards and a touch more control out of the ball — you can say goodbye to the glory that is the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Full-field scores: 144th Open Championship

Let’s start with this: There is no golf course in the world right now that is long enough for the big hitters on the PGA Tour. As Sports Illustrated’s Alan Shipnuck says, if you wanted a golf course that really tested PGA Tour players — one that made them hit three shots on par 5s and long irons into par 4s and par 3s — it would have to be something like 9,000 yards.

The point is hard to argue with. At the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, the 18th hole was 604 yards. Dustin Johnson, trailing by one shot, bombed a drive and a 5-iron to 12 feet. A 5-iron.

True, he three-putted from there — on dead greens that were more dirt than grass — but that only intensifies the point: The green was the only defense for the golf course. A 600-yard hole was not even close to long enough to make that a three-shot hole. There are holes on the PGA Tour now that are 660-plus yards, and they are sometimes reached in two. The 700-yard par 5 will happen someday soon.

What chance does a historic beauty like St. Andrews have against the march of progress? Saturday, for the second time at St. Andrews in the last two tournaments, the Royal & Ancient was forced to delay the Open Championship because of wind. Yes, wind! Scottish golf is built on the wind, it is powered by the wind — heck the word “wind” is the second word in what is basically Scotland’s national motto: “Nae wind, nae rain, nae golf.”

Yes, it was unusually high wind, even for Scotland, with gusts blowing 40 mph and more. But it was hardly unprecedented. The wind did not stop people from playing at the nearby Crail Golfing Society or Kingsbarns. At other Open Championships, play would have gone on.

The difference here seemed to be the speed and lightness of the greens at St. Andrews. Saturday morning the wind was rolling balls all over the greens. Louis Oosthuizen put his ball down, and it rolled away from him like a playful puppy. Dustin Johnson tried to chip up a hill, saw his ball stop, went to mark it, and watched it roll away from him. It was mass hysteria. “It was kind of funny,” Johnson said.

The R&A didn’t really see the humor and quickly stopped the action — they regretted sending the players out in the first place. The real question was: Why were balls rolling in the wind at Andrews when they don’t do that at other Scottish courses?

The answer seems to be that the greens are cut unnaturally low so that the balls will roll between 10 and 11 feet on the Stimpmeter. That is unnaturally fast for links courses, and certainly not the way anyone intended for St. Andrews to play in the early years. But, if you’re being honest about it, the R&A doesn’t have a choice. They seem to understand (even if they don’t admit it) that these players will pulverize St. Andrews if the greens aren’t rolling fast.

This is all that’s left at the home of golf: Make the greens so fast the players won’t just be able to run in an endless stream of birdies. The R&A has stretched and pulled this ancient marvel to make it as long as it can be made. They just can’t make it long enough.  In benign conditions — like it was early Thursday —  the golf course is almost laughably easy. David Lingmerth shot a 29 on the front nine. A dozen other players shot 30 or 31. On the right day and with slower greens, the thinking goes, someone might shoot a 59 out here.

True, as Tom Watson will tell you, when the wind howls (as it often does) the course can still bare its teeth. “Just wait until the wind comes,” Watson said early in the week. And it was true, once the wind started to blow the players were all but helpless. Trouble was, the golf course as it was set up was also helpless against the wind — and the R&A had to shut things down for 10 hours until the wind settled down.

It is not only St. Andrews that deals with this, of course. America’s grand old course, Merion, held the U.S. Open in 2013. And for that one, the U.S. Golf Association had to hide pins, grow some kind of new golf-ball eating rough and lengthen holes until the golf course was almost bursting. There was no room for fans, the holes were so long. Zach Johnson publicly grumbled that the golf course was manipulated; many others echoed his sentiments privately. But there was no choice. If you want Merion in the age of near limitless golf balls, you have to find some way to make it a challenge. More and more historic courses are finding themselves on the brink of extinction as possible major championship sites.

The R&A laughs off any notion that St. Andrews ever could become obsolete. Here was the exchange with R&A Chief Executive Peter Dawson.

Question: Do you think it’s conceivable that at some point in the future the Old Course could be inadequate to challenge professional golfers?

Dawson: No.

Question: Could you elaborate?

Dawson: No.

After that, Dawson did talk about the wonderful and universally beloved history of St. Andrews, the subtleties of the Old Course terrain and weather and the fact that the R&A and USGA have both made a commitment to act if golf balls begin to fly even longer than they are now. And that’s fine but: Golf balls will fly longer. Companies fully understand that there are too many people out there willing to pay for longer golf balls. They will find ways to cut drag, to enhance lift, to defy gravity — or whatever else they can do to get a little bit more golf ball air.

And it will be up to the R&A and USGA to act and not just talk. Conditions are expected to be pretty mild on Sunday, which could mean it will be a shootout. Dustin Johnson and Jason Day and other long hitters will be hitting little wedges into holes. Guys will be driving par 4s. We could watch player after player overwhelm a defenseless St. Andrews.

And it comes back to Jack Nicklaus again. He has been warning about this possibility for years. Maybe St. Andrews can hold up now, but what about in five years? What about in 10? Everyone wants to see the Open Championship at St. Andrews. Everyone also wants to hit their drives farther. And, for the people who run golf, a choice will have to be made.

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Teenager Im wins Web.com season opener

By Will GrayJanuary 16, 2018, 10:23 pm

South Korea's Sungjae Im cruised to a four-shot victory at The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic, becoming just the second teenager to win an event on the Web.com Tour.

Im started the final day of the season-opening event in a share of the lead but still with six holes left in his third round. He was one shot behind Carlos Ortiz when the final round began, but moved ahead of the former Web.com Player of the Year thanks to a 7-under 65 in rainy and windy conditions. Im's 13-under total left him four clear of Ortiz and five shots ahead of a quartet of players in third.

Still more than two months shy of his 20th birthday, Im joins Jason Day as the only two teens to win on the developmental circuit. Day was 19 years, 7 months and 26 days old when he captured the 2007 Legend Financial Group Classic.

Recent PGA Tour winners Si Woo Kim and Patrick Cantlay and former NCAA champ Aaron Wise all won their first Web.com Tour event at age 20.

Other notable finishes in the event included Max Homa (T-7), Erik Compton (T-13), Curtis Luck (T-13) and Lee McCoy (T-13). The Web.com Tour will remain in the Bahamas for another week, with opening round of The Bahamas Great Abaco Classic set to begin Sunday.

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Mickelson grouped with Z. Johnson at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 16, 2018, 8:28 pm

He's not the highest-ranked player in this week's field, but Phil Mickelson will likely draw the biggest crowd at the CareerBuilder Challenge as he makes his first start of 2018. Here are a few early-round, marquee groupings to watch as players battle the three-course rotation in the Californian desert (all times ET):

12:10 p.m. Thursday, 11:40 a.m. Friday, 1:20 p.m. Saturday: Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson

Mickelson is making his fourth straight trip to Palm Springs, having cracked the top 25 each of the last three times. In addition to their respective amateur partners, he'll play the first three rounds alongside a fellow Masters champ in Johnson, who tied for 14th last week in Hawaii and finished third in this event in 2014.

11:40 a.m. Thursday, 1:20 p.m. Friday, 12:50 p.m. Saturday: Jon Rahm, Bubba Watson

At No. 3 in the world, Rahm is the highest-ranked player teeing it up this week and the Spaniard returns to an event where he finished T-34 last year in his tournament debut. He'll play the first two rounds alongside Watson, who is looking to bounce back from a difficult 2016-17 season and failed to crack the top 50 in two starts in the fall.

11:40 a.m. Thursday, 1:20 p.m. Friday, 12:50 p.m. Saturday: Patrick Reed, Brandt Snedeker

Reed made the first big splash of his career at this event in 2014, shooting three straight rounds of 63 en route to his maiden victory. He'll be joined by Snedeker, whose bid for a Masters bid via the top 50 of the world rankings came up short last month and who hasn't played this event since a missed cut in 2015.

1:10 p.m. Thursday, 12:40 p.m. Friday, 12:10 p.m. Saturday: Patton Kizzire, Bill Haas

Kizzire heads east after a whirlwind Sunday ended with his second win of the season in a six-hole playoff over James Hahn in Honolulu. He'll play alongside Haas, who won this event in both 2010 and 2015 to go with a runner-up finish in 2011 and remains the tournament's all-time leading money winner.

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Mackay still a caddie at heart, even with a microphone

By Doug FergusonJanuary 16, 2018, 7:34 pm

HONOLULU – All it took was one week back on the bag to remind Jim ''Bones'' Mackay what he always loved about being a caddie.

It just wasn't enough for this to be the ultimate mic drop.

Mackay traded in his TV microphone at the Sony Open for the 40-pound bag belonging to Justin Thomas.

It was his first time caddying since he split with Phil Mickelson six months ago. Mackay was only a temporary replacement at Waialae for Jimmy Johnson, a good friend and Thomas' regular caddie who has a nasty case of plantar fasciitis that will keep him in a walking boot for the next month.

''The toughest thing about not caddying is missing the competition, not having a dog in the fight,'' Mackay said before the final round. ''There's nothing more rewarding as a caddie, in general terms, when you say, 'I don't like 6-iron, I like 7,' and being right. I miss that part of it.''

The reward now?

''Not stumbling over my words,'' he said. ''And being better than I was the previous week.''

He has done remarkably well since he started his new job at the British Open last summer, except for that time he momentarily forgot his role. Parts of that famous caddie adage – ''Show up, keep up, shut up'' – apparently can apply to golf analysts on the ground.

During the early hours of the telecast, before Johnny Miller came on, Justin Leonard was in the booth.

''It's my job to report on what I see. It's not my job to ask questions,'' Mackay said. ''I forgot that for a minute.''

Leonard was part of a booth discussion on how a comfortable pairing can help players trying to win a major. That prompted Mackay to ask Leonard if he found it helpful at the 1997 British Open when he was trying to win his first major and was paired with Fred Couples in the final round at Royal Troon.

''What I didn't know is we were going to commercial in six seconds,'' Mackay said. ''I would have no way of knowing that, but I completely hung Justin out to dry. He's now got four seconds to answer my long-winded question.''

During the commercial break, the next voice Mackay heard belonged to Tommy Roy, the executive golf producer at NBC.

''Bones, don't ever do that again.''

It was Roy who recognized the value experienced caddies could bring to a telecast. That's why he invited Mackay and John Wood, the caddie for Matt Kuchar, into the control room at the 2015 Houston Open so they could see how it all worked and how uncomfortable it can be to hear directions coming through an earpiece.

Both worked as on-course reporters at Sea Island that fall.

And when Mickelson and Mackay parted ways after 25 years, Roy scooped up the longtime caddie for TV.

It's common for players to move into broadcasting. Far more unusual is for a caddie to be part of the mix. Mackay loves his new job. Mostly, he loves how it has helped elevate his profession after so many years of caddies being looked upon more unfavorably than they are now.

''I want to be a caddie that's doing TV,'' he said. ''That's what I hope to come across as. The guys think this is good for caddies. And if it's good for caddies, that makes me happy. Because I'm a caddie. I'll always be a caddie.''

Not next week at Torrey Pines, where Mickelson won three times. Not a week later in Phoenix, where Mackay lives. Both events belong to CBS.

And not the Masters.

He hasn't missed Augusta since 1994, when Mickelson broke his leg skiing that winter.

''That killed me,'' he said, ''but not nearly as much as it's going to kill me this year. I'll wake up on Thursday of the Masters and I'll be really grumpy. I'll probably avoid television at all costs until the 10th tee Sunday. And I'll watch. But it will be, within reason, the hardest day of my life.''

There are too many memories, dating to when he was in the gallery right of the 11th green in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman. He caddied for Mize for two years, and then Scott Simpson in 1992, and Mickelson the rest of the way. He was on the bag for Lefty's three green jackets.

Mackay still doesn't talk much about what led them to part ways, except to say that a player-caddie relationship runs its course.

''If you lose that positive dynamic, there's no point in continuing,'' he said. ''It can be gone in six months or a year or five years. In our case, it took 25 years.''

He says a dozen or so players called when they split up, and the phone call most intriguing was from Roy at NBC.

''I thought I'd caddie until I dropped,'' Mackay said.

He never imagined getting yardages and lining up putts for anyone except the golfer whose bag he was carrying. Now it's for an audience that measures in the millions. Mackay doesn't look at it as a second career. And he won't rule out caddying again.

''It will always be tempting,'' he said. ''I'll always consider myself a caddie. Right now, I'm very lucky and grateful to have the job I do.''

Except for that first week in April.

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The Social: The end was nigh, then it wasn't

By Jason CrookJanuary 16, 2018, 7:00 pm

The star power at the Sony Open may have been overshadowed by a missile scare, but there were plenty of other social media stories that kept the golf world on its toes this week, including some insight on Tiger Woods from a round with President Obama and some failed trick shots.

All that and more in this week's edition of The Social.

By now you've undoubtedly heard about the false alarm in Hawaii on Saturday, where just about everyone, including most Sony Open participants, woke up to an emergency cell phone alert that there was a ballistic missile heading toward the islands.

Hawaiian emergency management officials eventually admitted the original message was mistakenly sent out, but before they did, people (understandably) freaked out.

As the situation unfolded, some Tour pros took to social media to express their confusion and to let the Twittersphere know how they planned on riding out this threat:

While I would've been in that bathtub under the mattress with John Peterson, his wife, baby and in-laws (wait, how big is this tub?), here's how Justin Thomas reacted to the threat of impending doom:

Yeah, you heard that right.

“I was like ‘there’s nothing I can do,'” Thomas said. ”I sat on my couch and opened up the sliding door and watched TV and listened to music. I was like, if it’s my time, it’s my time.”

Hmmm ... can we just go ahead and award him all the 2018 majors right now? Because if Thomas is staring down death in mid-January, you gotta like the kid's chances on the back nine Sunday at Augusta and beyond.

Before the Hawaiian Missile Crisis of 2018, things were going about as well as they could at Waialae Country Club, starting with the Wednesday pro-am.

Jordan Spieth might have been the third-biggest star in his own group, after getting paired with superstar singer/songwriter/actor Nick Jonas and model/actress Kelly Rohrbach.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more photogenic group out on the course, and the "Baywatch" star has a gorgeous swing as well, which makes sense, considering she was a former collegiate golfer at Georgetown.

As impressive as that group was, they were somehow outshined by an amateur in another group, former NFL coach June Jones.

Jones, who now coaches the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats, played his round in bare feet and putted with his 5-iron, a remedy he came up with to battle the yips.

Former NFL and current CFL coach June Jones: A master of 5-iron putting?

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Considering he made back-to-back birdies at one point during the day, it's safe to say he's won that battle.

With Tiger Woods' return to the PGA Tour about a week away, that sound you hear is the hype train motoring full speed down the tracks.

First, his ex-girlfriend Lindsey Vonn told Sports Illustrated that she hopes this comeback works out for him.

“I loved him and we’re still friends. Sometimes, I wish he would have listened to me a little more, but he’s very stubborn and he likes to go his own way," the Olympic skiier said. "I hope this latest comeback sticks. I hope he goes back to winning tournaments.”

Vonn also mentioned she thinks Woods is very stubborn and that he didn't listen to her enough. That really shouldn't shock anyone who watched him win the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg. Don't think there were a lot of people in his ear telling him that was a great idea at the time.

We also have this report from Golf Channel Insider Tim Rosaforte, stating that the 14-time major champ recently played a round with former president Barack Obama at The Floridian in Palm City, Fla., where he received rave reviews from instructor Claude Harmon.

The Farmers Insurance Open is sure to be must-see TV, but until then, I'm here for all of the rampant speculation and guesses as to how things will go. The more takes the better. Make them extra spicy, please and thanks.

These poor New Orleans Saints fans. Guess the only thing you can do is throw your 65-inch TV off the balcony and get 'em next year.

Here's two more just for good measure.

Farts ... will they ever not be funny?

Perhaps someday, but that day was not early last week, when Tommy Fleetwood let one rip on his European teammates during EurAsia Cup team photos.

Fleetwood went 3-0-0 in the event, helping Europe to a victory over Asia, perhaps by distracting his opponents with the aid of his secret weapon.

Also, how about the diabolical question, "Did you get that?"

Yeah Tommy, we all got that.

Ahhh ... golf trick shot videos. You were fun while you lasted.

But now we’ve officially come to the point in their existence where an unsuccessful attempt is much more entertaining than a properly executed shot, and right on cue, a couple of pros delivered some epic fails.

We start with Sony Open runner-up James Hahn’s preparation for the event, where for some reason he thought he needed to practice a running, jumping, Happy Gilmore-esque shot from the lip of a bunker. It didn’t exactly work out.

Not to be outdone, Ladies European Tour pro Carly Booth attempted the juggling-drive-it-out-of-midair shot made famous by the Bryan Bros, and from the looks of things she might have caught it a little close to the hosel.

PSA to trick-shot artists everywhere: For the sake of the viewing public, if you feel a miss coming on, please make sure the camera is rolling.

Seriously, though, who cares? Definitely not these guys and gals, who took the time to comment, "who cares?" They definitely do not care.