Hawk's Nest: The decline of the AT&T National

By John HawkinsJune 24, 2013, 5:05 pm

So I’m lying on the couch Sunday afternoon, half-asleep and basking in the role of aging sloth, when I hear Verne Lundquist tick off a few names of those playing in this week’s AT&T National. CBS has the telecast at Congressional, so this is just a harmless little promo as the fellas enter the homestretch at the Travelers Championship. No reason to terminate my partnership with horizontal splendor and grab my shotgun.

Nick Watney, Vijay Singh, Brandt Snedeker,” Lundquist says.

“Great field,” replies boothmate Ian Baker Finch.

God bless IBF. He could find something nice to say about the clutter in my garage. Before Tiger Woods bailed on the AT&T with an elbow strain, the field was substandard. Without Tiger, it’s a great reason to wash your car: just eight of the top 50 in the world ranking, only two of them in the top 15.

Jim Nantz may ask to take another week off. It’s pretty amazing, what has happened at both the Travelers, which was on life support seven years ago, and the AT&T, which earmarks its charity dough to Tiger’s foundation and appeared destined to become golf’s seventh major (after the four real ones, The Players and Quail Hollow).

Great field? We’ll get back to insurance and telecommunications in a moment. Gotta go see if my next-door neighbor has a spare can of Turtle Wax.

ERNIE ELS HAS been a very good player for a very long time. His first and fourth major titles came 18 years apart, and there were many big triumphs in between, adding up to a Hall of Fame career by one of the most likeable superstars you’ll ever meet in this game. Els has always been quick with a smile and a kind word, a man whose sincerity and self-deprecation skills go over well with the media and his tour brethren.

For those who might have missed it, Els won the European Tour event in Germany this past weekend. When you’re 43, every victory is a big one, but after Adam Scott’s late collapse dropped the claret jug in Els’ lap at last summer’s British Open, it’s hard to say this latest W amounts to a career revitalization or improves his chances of winning another British at Muirfield next month.

It does offer a chance to share some of my favorite Big Easy yarns over the years. By his own admission, Els was a bit of a rube when he arrived in the U.S. to play full-time in 1994. He and his wife, Liezl, were having trouble getting around at the old Buick Classic just north of New York City that spring. One wrong turn led to another, and it wasn’t long before the two young South Africans were treated to a dose of old-fashioned, northeast hospitality.

“We accidentally cut some guy off, and he gives us the middle finger,” Els recalled. “Both of us burst out laughing. It was like, ‘OK, you’re in America now.’ It was our official welcome.”

He would win the U.S. Open a week later and lose some big tournaments he probably should have won—no top-tier player seemed more affected by Woods’ dominance in the early-2000s than Els. After claiming his first British Open Championship at Muirfield in ’02, Els was being shepherded around by a pack of R&A officials when he saw a small group of print journalists waiting to get a few minutes with him.

As he began walking toward us, one of the Ancients tried to stop him. “I’m gonna talk to these guys now,” he said in a rather clear tone, and for the next half hour, he gave us everything we wanted and more. When Ernie Els insists, it’s a good idea not to attempt resistance. He is a big man, listed at 6 feet 3 inches and perhaps 220 pounds, but when you stand next to him, those numbers seem laughable.

At the 2004 Masters, I was heading from the media center to the 18th green, where Phil Mickelson had just holed a birdie putt to win his first major. This was maybe 90 seconds after Phil’s historic 4-inch leap, and Els, who had stuck around by the green to watch, was now walking to the clubhouse. Our paths would cross; Els thought I was approaching to talk to him.

He jumped me something fierce, and it shook me up. Twenty minutes later, I was talking to someone on the porch in front of the clubhouse when I felt a large paw come to rest on my shoulder. Els would apologize for the outburst with an expression and voice that I will never forget – a look quite similar to the one on his face after Scott handed him the British Open.

At the end of 2011, Els was in serious danger of losing his Tour card. Next month, he’ll return to Muirfield as a dual defending champion. Since journalists aren’t supposed to root for any competitor, let’s just say a third British Open crown wouldn’t exactly send me into a funk.

THE ONE THING that struck me during my time at this year’s Travelers Championship was the difference in the atmosphere. Perfect weather helps, especially when it comes to drawing decent crowds, but TPC River Highlands also possessed a buzz I hadn’t felt there in a while.

I remember covering the tournament for Golf World when J.J. Henry, a local guy who grew up in the same town I live in now, won in 2006. To say there was a smattering of fans on the hill right of the 18th green would be an overstatement – the place was dead. And the event itself was a few inches from extinction when Travelers jumped in as a title sponsor in ’07.

Things have gotten better each year, the fields a bit stronger, the galleries a lot thicker. “It’s perfect for the week after the U.S. Open, which is such a grind,” Hunter Mahan told me on the practice green last Wednesday. “They really go out of their way to make you feel like they’re happy you’re here.”

Very few Tour events revive themselves to a degree evident at the old Greater Hartford Open. The tournament used to draw huge crowds when Greg Norman was showing up in the mid-1990s, but it remains one of numerous Tour stops at which Woods has never played. In this part of the country, a lack of premium star power translates to a very difficult sale.

The Travelers did have 15 of the top 50 in attendance, six more than this week’s gathering at Congressional, which sort of blows my mind. You would think an exceptionally strong golf course and the Tiger connection would have the AT&T looking like Quail Hollow-mid-Atlantic, but that’s definitely not the case. If I wasn’t such a dunce, I’d swear some players go out of their way not to show up – a veiled response to Woods snubbing so many lesser tournaments over the years.

You can’t blame the latest lousy turnout on Fourth of July weekend, as was attempted in the past. Besides, the old Western Open consistently drew a bunch of big names on the holiday. For all the appreciation Tour pros have expressed in regard to Tiger’s impact on purse sizes and interest levels – for all the times players have told me the quality of the golf course absolutely does matter – none of that is registering at the AT&T.

Simply put, something’s wrong here.

MY MAN BUBBA Watson had a little meltdown Sunday afternoon. That triple bogey at River Highlands’ par-3 16th sent him from likely winner to sole possession of fourth place, the irony being that the blowup came on the same hole where he won his first Tour event – in a playoff over Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank in 2010.

Are you shocked to learn that it was Watson’s first top-10 finish at a full-field, stroke-play event in 2013? It hasn’t been a very good year for a guy many expected to join the game’s elite after winning the 2012 Masters. I exercised caution after Bubba’s victory at Augusta National, theorizing that you can’t become great if you regularly finish outside the top 100 in putting, which has been the case five times in Watson’s seven full seasons.

Still, I expected Bubba to get in the Sunday hunt far more often than he has. His short game has been dreadful, perhaps because he doesn’t make enough putts, a trait that obviously negates the advantage he gains from his enormous distance off the tee. River Highlands favors long hitters as much as any course on the schedule, and if power is an asset at many venues, the ability to get up and down never fails to travel.

Wish we could say the same about Tour pros to suburban D.C.

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First Look: WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play groups

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 2:20 am

AUSTIN, Texas – Although professional golf’s version of March Madness is considered just plain maddening in some circles following the switch to round-robin play three years ago, it’s still one of the game’s most compelling weeks after a steady diet of stroke play.

With this week’s lineup having been set Monday night via a blind draw, we take a deep dive into WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play bracketology (current world golf rankings in parentheses):

Pool play will begin Wednesday, with the winner from each of the 16 groups advancing to knockout play beginning Saturday:

Group 1: (1) Dustin Johnson, (32) Kevin Kisner, (38) Adam Hadwin, (52) Bernd Wiesberger

Teeing off: This sounds like the beginning of a joke that’s made the rounds at the United Nations, but what do you get when a pair of South Carolinians, a Canadian and an Austrian walk onto the first tee? Group 1 and what, on paper, looks like it could be the week’s most lopsided pod with the world No. 1, who never trailed on his way to victory last year, poised to pick up where he left off.

Group 2: (2) Justin Thomas, (21) Francesco Molinari, (48) Patton Kizzire, (60) Luke List

Teeing off: This isn’t exactly an Iron Bowl rematch, but having Thomas (Alabama) and Kizzire (Auburn) in the same group seems to be pandering to the Southeastern Conference crowd.

Group 3: (3) Jon Rahm, (28) Kiradech Aphibarnrat, (43) Chez Reavie, (63) Keegan Bradley

Teeing off: The Asian John Daly (aka Aphibarnrat) will have his hands full with Rahm, who lost the championship match to Johnson last year; while Bradley may be this group’s Cinderella after making a late push to qualify for the Match Play.

Group 4: (4) Jordan Spieth, (19) Patrick Reed, (34) Haotong Li, (49) Charl Schwartzel

Teeing off: This may be the week’s most awkward pairing, with Spieth and Reed turning what has been one of the United States' most successful tandems (they are 7-2-2 as partners in Presidents and Ryder Cup play) into an early-week highlight. It will be “shhh” vs. “Go Get that.”

Group 5: (5) Hideki Matsuyama, (30) Patrick Cantlay, (46) Cameron Smith, (53) Yusaku Miyazato

Teeing off: Cantlay could be the Tour’s most reserved player, Smith isn’t much more outspoken and Matsuyama and Miyazato speak limited English. This will be the quietest pod, and it’ll have nothing to do with gamesmanship.

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Group 6: (6) Rory McIlroy, (18) Brian Harman, (44) Jhonattan Vegas, (51) Peter Uihlein

Teeing off: We're going to declare this the “group of death,” with McIlroy coming off a commanding victory last week at Bay Hill and Harman being one of the Tour’s most gritty competitors.

Group 7: (7) Sergio Garcia, (20) Xander Schauffele, (41) Dylan Frittelli, (62) Shubankhar Sharma

Teeing off: Three weeks ago, Phil Mickelson confused Sharma for a member of the media when he tried to introduce himself at the WGC-Mexico Championship. As a public service announcement: it’s SHAR-ma. You may be hearing it a lot this week.

Group 8: (8) Jason Day, (25) Louis Oosthuizen, (42) Jason Dufner, (56) James Hahn

Teeing off: This pod has a Presidents Cup flair to it, but Day and Oosthuizen should hope for a better outcome considering the International side’s awful record in the biennial bout.

Group 9: (9) Tommy Fleetwood, (26) Daniel Berger, (33) Kevin Chappell, (58) Ian Poulter

Teeing off: We showed up in Austin and a Ryder Cup broke out. Fleetwood is all but a lock to make this year’s European team, and fellow Englishman Poulter (23-14) has forged a career on his match-play prowess. For Berger and Chappell, who both played last year’s Presidents Cup, it’s a chance to impress U.S. captain Jim Furyk.

Group 10: (10) Paul Casey, (31) Matthew Fitzpatrick, (45) Kyle Stanley, (51) Russell Henley

Teeing off: Casey has a stellar record at the Match Play (23-13-1) and having finally ended his victory drought two weeks ago at the Valspar Championship the Englishman could likely seal his Ryder Cup fate with a solid week at Austin Country Club.

Group 11: (11) Marc Leishman, (23) Branden Grace, (35) Bubba Watson, (64) Suri

Teeing off: The best part of March Madness is the potential upsets, and while Suri, the last man in the field, isn’t exactly UMBC over Virginia, don’t be surprised if the little-known player from St. Augustine, Fla., stuns some big names this week.

Group 12: (12) Tyrrell Hatton, (22) Charley Hoffman, (36) Brendan Steele, (55) Alexander Levy

Teeing off: If Levy hopes to make the European Ryder Cup team he should consider this his audition. That is if captain Thomas Bjorn is watching.

Group 13: (13) Alex Noren, (29) Tony Finau, (39) Thomas Pieters, (61) Kevin Na

Teeing off:  Finau and Pieters have the firepower to play with anyone in the field and Noren’s record the last few months has been impressive, but Na looks like one of those Princeton teams who can wear down anyone.

Group 14: (14) Phil Mickelson, (17) Rafael Cabrera-Bello, (40) Sotashi Kodaira, (59) Charles Howell III

Teeing off: Mickelson has been rejuvenated by his victory at the last World Golf Championship, Cabrera Bello is poised to earn a spot on this year’s European Ryder Cup team and Howell is playing some of the best golf of his career. Note to Kodaira, don’t try to introduce yourself to Lefty before your match. 

Group 15: (15) Pat Perez, (24) Gary Woodland, (37) Webb Simpson, (50) Si Woo Kim

Teeing off: Perez explained that during a practice round on Monday he was talking trash with Branden Grace. Not sure Kim will be down for some trash talking, but it would certainly be entertaining and probably a little confusing for him.

Group 16: (16) Matt Kuchar, (27) Ross Fisher, (47) Yuta Ikeda, (54) Zach Johnson

Teeing off: If any of these matches comes down to a tie, may we suggest officials go to a sudden-death ping-pong match. No one can compete with Kuchar on a table, but it would be must-see TV nonetheless.

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Randall's Rant: Hey, loudmouth, you're not funny

By Randall MellMarch 19, 2018, 10:30 pm

Dear misguided soul:

You know who you are.

You’re “that guy.”

You’re that guy following around Rory McIloy and yelling “Erica” at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

There was something creepy in the nature of your bid to get in McIlroy’s head, in the way you hid in the shadows all day. Bringing a guy’s wife into the fray that way, it’s as funny as heavy breathing on the other end of a phone call.

You’re that guy telling Justin Thomas you hope he hits it in the water at the Honda Classic.

There are a million folks invested in seeing if Thomas can muster all the skills he has honed devoting himself to being the best in the world, and you’re wanting to dictate the tournament’s outcome. Yeah, that’s what we all came out to see, if the angry guy living in his mother’s basement can make a difference in the world. Can’t-miss TV.

You’re that guy who is still screaming “Mashed Potatoes” at the crack of a tee shot or “Get in the Hole” with the stroke of a putt.

Amusing to you, maybe, but as funny as a fart in an elevator to the rest of us.

As a growing fraternity of golf fans, you “guys” need a shirt. It could say, “I’m that guy” on one side and “Phi Kappa Baba Booey” on the other.

I know, from outside of golf, this sounds like a stodgy old geezer screaming “Get off my lawn.” That’s not right, though. It’s more like “Stop puking on my lawn.”

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Because McIlroy is right, in the growing number of incidents players seem to be dealing with now, it’s probably the liquor talking.

The Phoenix Open is golf’s drunken uncle, but he isn’t just visiting on the holiday now. He’s moving in.

What’s a sport to do?

McIlroy suggested limiting liquor sales at tournaments, restricting alcohol consumption to beer.

I don’t know, when the beer’s talking, it sounds a lot like the liquor talking to me, just a different dialect.

From the outside, this push-back from players makes them sound like spoiled country club kids who can’t handle the rough-and-tumble playgrounds outside their prim little bailiwick. This isn’t really about social traditions, though. It’s about competition.

It’s been said here before, and it’s worth repeating, golf isn’t like baseball, basketball or football. Screaming in a player’s backswing isn’t like screaming at a pitcher, free-throw shooter or field-goal kicker. A singular comment breaking the silence in golf is more like a football fan sneaking onto the sidelines and tripping a receiver racing toward the end zone.

Imagine the outrage if that happened in an NFL game.

So, really, what is golf to do?

Equip marshals with tasers? Muzzle folks leaving the beer tent? Prohibit alcohol sales at tournaments?

While the first proposition would make for good TV, it probably wouldn’t be good for growing the sport.

So, it’s a tough question, but golf’s governing bodies should know by now that drunken fans can’t read those “Quiet Please!” signs that marshals wave. There will have to be better enforcement (short of tasers and muzzles).

There’s another thing about all of this, too. Tiger Woods is bringing such a broader fan base to the game again, with his resurgence. Some of today’s younger players, they didn’t experience all that came with his ascendance his first time around. Or they didn’t get the full dose of Tigermania when they were coming up.

This is no knock on Tigermania. It’s great for the game, but there are challenges bringing new fans into the sport and keeping them in the sport.

So if you’re “that guy,” welcome to our lawn, just don’t leave your lunch on it, please.


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How Faxon became 'The Putting Stroke Whisperer'

By Rex HoggardMarch 19, 2018, 9:39 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – During a charity event a few years ago Brad Faxon was asked what he’s thinking about when he putts. A hush fell across the green as everyone within earshot eagerly awaited the answer.

Imagine having the chance to quiz Leonardo da Vinci about the creative process, or Ben Hogan on the finer points of ball-striking. Arguably the best putter of his generation, if anyone could crack the complicated code of speed, line and pace, it would be Faxon.

Faxon mulled the question for a moment, shrugged and finally said, “Rhythm and tempo.”

If Faxon’s take seems a tad underwhelming, and it did that day to everyone in his group, the genius of his simplicity was on display last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Before arriving at Bay Hill, Rory McIlroy ranked 124th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained: putting, losing .1 strokes per round to the field. In fact, he’d missed the cut a week earlier at the Valspar Championship when he needed 58 putts for two days and made just a single attempt over 10 feet.

It’s one of those competitive ironies that having the weekend off turned out to be just what McIlroy needed. He went home to South Florida to work on his game and ran across Faxon at The Bear’s Club.

Although Faxon’s take on the art of putting was probably more involved than it had been a few years earlier, he seemed to have touched on all the right points.

“Freed up my head more than my stroke,” McIlroy explained. “I sort of felt like maybe complicating things a bit and thinking a little bit too much about it and maybe a little bogged down by technical or mechanical thoughts.”

Earlier in the week McIlroy had a slightly different take on his putting turnaround at Bay Hill, where he led the field in strokes gained: putting, picking up 10 shots for the week, and rolled in 49 feet of putts over his last five holes to end a victory drought that had stretched back to the 2016 Tour Championship.

“Just playing around with it. Seeing balls go in in the front edge, trying to hit them in the left edge, the right edge, hit them off the back of the cup,” he said on Thursday. “Just trying to get a little bit more feel into it and a little more flow.”

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If that doesn’t exactly sound like an exact science, welcome to the Faxon way. In recent years, he’s become something of the game's "Putting Stroke Whisperer," which is no huge surprise considering his status as one of the game’s best on the greens.

Between 1991, the year he won the first of eight Tour titles, through 2005, the year he won his last, Faxon ranked outside the top 20 in putting average just four times, and he led the circuit in that category three of those years. But in recent years he’s come into his own as a putting guru.

“The first clinic I attended that a Tour player gave, it was Hale Irwin, and he talked about rhythm and tempo, I was disappointed because I wanted to hear more than that,” Faxon explained. “I thought there would be more technical stuff. I thought it was the default phrase to take pressure off the player, but the more I’ve learned about teaching the best players in the world don’t have many complicated thoughts.”

Faxon’s career has been nothing short of impressive, his eight Tour titles spanning two decades; but it’s his work with players like McIlroy and Gary Woodland that has inspired him in recent years.

A man who has spent his life studying the nuances of the golf swing and putting stroke has created a teaching philosophy as simple, or complicated depending on the player, as rhythm and tempo.

“He teaches me, which is a good thing. He doesn’t have a philosophy,” Woodland said. “I was around him a lot in 2011, 2010, it’s unbelievable how well he can relay it now. He has video of a million guys putting and he’s one of the best to do it, but he can show you that you don’t have to do it one certain way and that was good for me.”

For Woodland, Faxon keyed in on his background as a college basketball player and compared the putting stroke to how he shoots free-throws. For McIlroy, it was a different sport but the concept remained the same.

“We were talking about other sports where you have to create your own motion, a free-throw shooter, a baseball pitcher, but what related to him was a free-kicker in soccer, he mentioned Wayne Rooney,” Faxon said. “You have to have something to kick start your motion, maybe it’s a trigger, some might use a forward press, or tapping the putter like Steve Stricker, sometimes it’s finding the trigger like that for a player.”

Faxon spent “a good two hours” with McIlroy last weekend at The Bear’s Club, not talking technique or method, but instead tapping into the intuitive nature of what makes someone a good putter. Midway through that session Faxon said he didn’t need to say another word.

The duo ended the session with a putting contest. Putting 30-footers to different holes, the goal was to make five “aces.” Leading the contest 4-2, Faxon couldn’t resist.

“Hey Rory, after you win Bay Hill this week you’ll have to tell the world you lost to Brad Faxon in a putting contest,” Faxon joked.

McIlroy proceeded to hole three of his next four attempts to win the contest. “I’m going to tell everyone I beat Brad Faxon in a putting contest,” McIlroy laughed.

Maybe it’s the way he’s able to so easily simplify an exceedingly complicated game, maybe it’s a resume filled with more clutch putts than one could count. Whatever it is, Faxon is good at teaching. More importantly, he’s having fun and doing something he loves.

“I have a hard time being called a teacher or a coach, it was more of a conversation with Rory, being able to work with someone like Rory is as excited as I’ve ever been in my career,” Faxon said. “It meant much more to me than it did Rory.”

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Frittelli fulfilled promise by making Match Play field

By Rex HoggardMarch 19, 2018, 8:40 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Dylan Frittelli attended the University of Texas and still maintains a residence in Austin, so in an odd way this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is a home game for the South African who plays the European Tour.

Frittelli actually attended the event last year as a spectator, when he watched the quarterfinal matches on Saturday afternoon, and made a promise to himself.

“I told a lot of people, I was running into them. I said, ‘I'll be here next year, I'll be playing in this tournament,’” said Frittelli, who climbed to 45th in the world ranking after two victories last year in Europe. “People looked at me, you're 190 in the world, that's hard to get to 64. It was a goal I set myself.”

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Frittelli’s next goal may be a little payback for a loss he suffered in college when he was a teammate of Jordan Spieth’s. Frittelli is making his first start at the Match Play and could face his old Longhorn stable mate this week depending on how the brackets work out and his play.

“We had the UT inter-team championship. Coach switched it to match play my senior year, and Jordan beat me in the final at UT Golf Club. It was 3 and 2,” Frittelli said. “So I'm not too keen to face him again.