Leadership can be a thankless job

By Randall MellOctober 27, 2014, 6:05 pm

Somebody hand Derek Sprague a Kevlar vest.

The next president of the PGA of America should be properly equipped for the changing nature of leadership.

Actually, check that, he should be prepared for the changing nature of followership.

You want to lead in the game today? You better be a black belt in spiritual Aikido, or some higher form of self-defense. We’re seeing leadership more aggressively challenged than ever before. With social media giving more voices to criticism and discontent, with players and fans more emboldened to speak their minds than ever before, leadership has never been more difficult, or more vital.

Welcome to the foxhole that is sports governance, Mr. Sprague, keep your head down for incoming criticism and cover your ears. The noise can be deafening.   

And, oh yeah, Mr. Sprague, remember that golf holds itself to a higher standard as “the gentleman’s game.” You have to be better than Roger Goodell. As the leader of a sports organization, you have to be more agile than an NFL commissioner. You have to be prepared for issues that would not register in other sports becoming a crisis in your sport.  

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We saw how dramatically the rules are changing just last month, when Phil Mickelson turned a post-Ryder Cup news conference into a post-mortem, shattering all the old rules of decorum by publicly challenging the leadership style of his American captain, Tom Watson. The notion that discontent is better delivered on a public stage than within locker-room walls is becoming par for the course in and out of golf.

With Twitter, Facebook, with public commentary at the bottom of web-based stories, every action and every word you utter, Mr. Sprague, will be sliced open and examined in autopsy-like fashion, a process that turns so many ideas into corpses.

Ten years ago, your predecessor would still have his job. There was no Twitter, and Facebook was only a few months old. Dinner companions and close colleagues would likely have been the only ones to hear his disparagement of Ian Poulter as a "squealing little girl." If the ex-PGA president was lucky, a friend would have pointed out the troubling way his depiction of Poulter undermines the work of his membership on the front lines.

If you look around the game today, Mr. Sprague, you will see some highly skilled leaders in golf, but the threat of crisis is a constant companion, poised to break out when some weakness or flaw is revealed.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem is a marvel, a master of the measured word and a genius at navigating safe passages through mine fields, but he isn’t exempt from scrutiny. Vijay Singh’s lawsuit, his challenge of the PGA Tour’s drug-testing policy, looms as a threat to blow up into a P.R. crisis at any moment. If it does, the commissioner may need that Kevlar vest.

R&A executive director Peter Dawson has skillfully juggled political hot potatoes for 15 years, but he narrowly avoids a blistering assessment of his reign when he retires next year, thanks to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews’ recent vote to end its exclusionary all-male membership policy.

USGA executive director Mike Davis is an articulate, master strategist on and off the course, but a private internal political struggle for control of the governing body, and a public stance in the banning of anchored strokes have tested his leadership agility.

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan is showing a golden touch, rebuilding and strengthening his tour while garnering the trust of players and sponsors alike, but defense of his women always comes with backlash from certain old-guard sensibilities.

Just under a year into the job, PGA CEO Pete Bevacqua didn't have to wait long for the sternest test of his career.  

In today’s golf circles, a green jacket may be even better protection than a Kevlar one.

More than any other leader, Augusta National chairman Billy Payne is able to take stances with less fear of reprisal than any other leader. The walls of the club seem impenetrable to outside pressure, much less social media pressure. The outside demands on the club to admit women as members didn’t force Payne’s hand, though his fingerprints were clearly all over the ultimate decision to admit women. The club just waited until it was good and ready.

With scrutiny and challenges building on golf’s leadership in uncomfortable ways, there has to be temptation for leaders to say less publicly, to button up the Kevlar vest and keep their heads down. There’s a strategy in politics that says the fewer strong stands a candidate for office can make, the better off he or she will be. Fewer voters are alienated that way. But that isn’t leadership.

The more scrutiny grows, the more unchecked criticism becomes and the noisier challenges grow, the more the game needs smart, strong voices to cut through it all. You may have to be smarter than ever to lead today, and you certainly have to be braver.

It probably isn’t as much fun to be in a leadership position in the game now, but it’s never been more important.

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Mickelson starts fast, fades to 70 at La Quinta

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:07 pm

Phil Mickelson got off to a fast start in his first competitive round of 2018 - for six holes, at least.

The 47-year-old is making his first start since the WGC-HSBC Champions this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, and only his third competitive appearance since the BMW Championship in September. Four birdies over his first six holes indicated that a strong opener might be in the cards, but Mickelson played his subsequent holes in 2 over.

It added up to a 2-under 70 at La Quinta Country Club, typically the easiest of the three courses in rotation this week, and left Mickelson eight shots behind Jon Rahm.

"It was fun to get back out and be competitive," Mickelson told reporters. "I for some reason am stuck on 70 here at La Quinta, whether I get off to a good start or a bad one, I end up shooting the same score."

Mickelson stunted his momentum with a tee shot out of bounds on the par-4 eighth hole, but he managed to save bogey and otherwise drove the ball relatively well. Instead, he pointed to his normally reliable iron play as the culprit for his back-nine backslide on a day when more than 120 players in the 156-man field broke par.

Mickelson will now head to the Nicklaus Tournament Course with the Stadium Course on tap for Saturday's third round. While there were several low scores Thursday at La Quinta, Mickelson remains bullish about the birdie opportunities that still lie ahead.

"This isn't the course where I go low on," Mickelson said. "I feel more comfortable on Stadium and Nicklaus. Neither of them are nearly as tight and I tend to score a lot lower on those other two than I do here, historically."

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Rahm (62) shoots career low round at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 10:33 pm

After a banner year in 2017, Jon Rahm found a way to add yet another accolade to his growing list of accomplishments during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Rahm got off to a fast start at La Quinta Country Club, playing his first seven holes in 6 under en route to a 10-under 62. The score marked his career low on the PGA Tour by two shots and gave him an early lead in an event that utilizes a three-course rotation.

La Quinta was the site of Adam Hadwin's 59 during last year's event, and Rahm knew full well that a quick start opened the door to a memorably low score.

"Any time you have that going for you, you get thoughts come in your head, 60, maybe 59," Rahm told reporters. "I knew that if I kept playing good I was going to have more birdie opportunities, and I tried not to get ahead of myself and I was able to do it."

Rahm birdied his first two holes before an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole sparked him to an outward 30. He added four more birdies on the inward half without dropping a shot.

The Spaniard is the highest-ranked player in the field this week, and while many players opted for a two-week stint in Hawaii he instead came home for some practice after opening the new year with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. That decision appears to have paid some early dividends as Rahm gets set to defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Low scores were plentiful on all three courses during the opening round, and Rahm remained pleased with his effort even though he fell short of matching Hadwin's sub-60 score from a year ago.

"That's golf. You're not going to make every single putt, you're not going to hit every shot perfect," he said. "Overall, you've got to look at the bigger picture. I birdied the last hole, had a couple of great sand saves coming in, shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for."

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''