Sights and sounds from Wednesday at Augusta

By Randall MellApril 10, 2013, 9:33 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Follow me.

It’s Wednesday afternoon at the Masters, and it’s time to take a stroll around Augusta National.

If you’ve never been here, I’ll be your eyes and ears. If you have been here, well, I’ll help you remember what it’s like.

Our first stop is “The Tree,” the famous towering oak behind the clubhouse, a tree reported to be more than 200 years old. If this tree could talk, the stories would captivate us. It’s planted between the locker room and the first tee. Everyone who is anyone in golf has wandered under this tree through the years – from Bobby Jones to Ben Hogan to Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods. More than that, the movers and shakers all find their way here – from PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem to Acushnet CEO Wally Uihlein to USGA executive director Mike Davis and agent Mark Steinberg.

The Masters

There are other extraordinary people who you might not have heard about who find their way here, too.

David Meador, 64, was here Wednesday to receive the Golf Writers Association of America’s Ben Hogan Award. The honor has been presented annually since 1954 to an individual who has continued to be active in golf despite a physical handicap or serious illness. Meador was 18 when a car accident robbed him of his eyesight with his optic nerve crushed in the violent crash. He is the Hogan Award winner for the way he persevered through blindness, through two bouts of cancer and through all the surgeries required to overcome complications his cancers caused. He’s a three-time winner of the U.S. Blind Golf Association national championship.

Wednesday was a day Meador will never forget with Phil Mickelson, Gary Player and so many other big names in the game stopping to congratulate him out here under the tree.

Meador says golf helped draw him out of his despair and rediscover himself.

“The first shot I hit [after being blinded], that was the real me,” Meador said. “I was reconnecting with the real me.”

Here, just beyond the tree, there’s outdoor dining for those with the right badge. It’s a beautiful little setting with tables under umbrella canopies. You’re told the colossal lump-crab and shrimp cocktail is popular. So is a drink called the Azalea, a pinkish concoction that is made up of one part lemon juice, one part pineapple juice, three parts gin and grenadine.

You’re told just a day before, U.S. Amateur champ Steven Fox introduced himself to Jack Nicklaus out here. Fox was just hoping he could say hello, but Nicklaus gave him so much more to remember. He invited Fox under one of the umbrellas and they chatted for 45 minutes.

Walking past here now, we see Jack’s wife, Barbara, talking with Annika Sorenstam, Annika’s husband Mike McGee and Honda Classic executive director Ken Kennerly. We also see Keegan Bradley returning from the Par 3 Contest, and so we head over there to watch.

It’s a spectacular day with a sapphire sky glowing over an emerald carpet of grass.

There, over at the ninth tee, there’s Ernie Els. He hasn’t played the Par 3 Contest in six years, but after failing to qualify for the Masters last year, he returns here determined to soak up the little joys of Masters week more completely. He is here today with his 14-year-old daughter, Samantha, as his caddie. She had never done this before, and she told her father she wanted to tote his clubs. So Ernie, who has endured his share of heartache in failing to win this major championship, made a run at winning the Par 3 Contest. He steered his final tee shot to a foot and tapped in the birdie to go to 4 under, which tied him for the lead as he walked off the course.

Ernie Els

“I probably needed a year off, to be honest,” Els told me a couple weeks ago. “I think it was a good thing I missed it, in how it has given me a kind of new, fresh start.”

After tapping in for that last birdie Wednesday, Els marches over to Samantha, and they wrap arms around each other. It was a special day, you can see that.

Els doesn’t want to leave Augusta National feeling like a jilted lover again, even if things don’t go right for him again. He’s tired of trying too hard here, wanting it too badly. He wants peace with this course.

“Augusta is that kind of place, where the dream and the story, it’s all almost written for some players,” Els said when we spoke back at Bay Hill. “Maybe mine was there [in the ’04 loss to Mickelson], and I didn’t quite take the opportunity. Who knows? If I never win the Masters, it will be disappointing. I’m obviously on the wrong end of it now. It’s a course and a place that has given me a lot of hope of winning it, but it is definitely bittersweet memories.”

The Par 3 Contest is a lot like games at a family picnic. Robert Garrigus’ 9-month-old son, R.J., stole the show hiking alongside his dad with his little jumbo driver. Rory McIlroy played alongside his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, as his caddie.

It’s time to go down to see Amen Corner now, to check out the state of the azaleas and dogwoods there. We’ll hear later that Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player made a late afternoon appearance in the Par 3 Contest. We’ll hear that Tom Watson got Arnold Palmer to autograph a Masters flag. We’ll wish we saw that, but any walk down to Amen Corner is worth the trip. We see something special on the way. We see a family of four stopped in the crosswalk in the middle of the 15th fairway, posing for a photo that they plan to use as their Christmas card.

As trilogies go, Amen Corner is an epic tale of wonder and woe. The most famous trio of holes in golf is as beautiful as it is unsettling. The azaleas are sprawling like fire right now at the feet of all the towering pines down here. The dogwoods are aglow in splintered rays of sunshine piercing the treetops. There is beauty and trouble here for players.

Augusta National 12 green

Nobody is playing through down here now, but it doesn’t matter, Amen Corner is star and stage. There are folks snapping shots of the 13th green with nobody on it.

It’s time to head back to the media center, and we notice how many people are carrying those hard, plastic Masters beer cups in big stacks. It’s Wednesday. It’s visitors day, and apparently nobody is throwing away their beer cups. They’re souvenirs, something to make the beer taste better at home. We also notice how many folks are carrying cameras, posing with Augusta National’s famed holes as backdrops.

As good walks go, this one wasn’t spoiled.

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.

Love's hip surgery a success; eyes Florida swing return

By Rex HoggardNovember 22, 2017, 3:31 pm

Within hours of having hip replacement surgery on Tuesday Davis Love III was back doing what he does best – keeping busy.

“I’ve been up and walking, cheated in the night and stood up by the bed, but I’m cruising around my room,” he laughed early Wednesday from Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center in Birmingham, Ala., where he underwent surgery to replace his left hip. “[Dr. James Flanagan, who performed the surgery] wants me up. They don’t want me sitting for more than an hour.”

Love, 53, planned to begin more intensive therapy and rehabilitation on Wednesday and is scheduled to be released from the hospital later this afternoon.

According to Love’s doctors, there were no complications during the surgery and his recovery time is estimated around three to four months.

Love, who was initially hesitant to have the surgery, said he can start putting almost immediately and should be able to start hitting wedges in a few weeks.

Dr. Tom Boers – a physical therapist at the Hughston Orthopedic Clinic in Columbus, Ga., who has treated Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman and Brad Faxon – will oversee Love’s recovery and ultimately decide when he’s ready to resume normal golf activity.

“He understands motion and gait and swing speeds that people really don’t understand. He’s had all of us in there studying us,” Love said. “So we’ll see him in a couple of weeks and slowly get into the swing part of it.”

Although Love said he plans to temper his expectations for this most recent recovery, his goal is to be ready to play by the Florida swing next March.

Vegas lists Woods at 20-1 to win a major in 2018

By Will GrayNovember 22, 2017, 12:53 pm

He hasn't hit a competitive shot in nearly a year, but that hasn't stopped one Las Vegas outlet from listing Tiger Woods among the favorites to win a major in 2018.

The Westgate Las Vegas Superbook published betting odds this week on dozens of players to win any of the four majors next year. Leading the pack were Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth at 3/2, with Rory McIlroy next. But not far behind was Woods, who has been sidelined since February because of a back injury but was listed at 20/1.

Woods will make his much-anticipated return next week at the Hero World Challenge, and next month he will turn 42. Next summer will mark the 10-year anniversary of his last major championship victory, a sudden-death playoff win over Rocco Mediate at the 2008 U.S. Open.

Here's a look at the odds for several marquee players on winning any of the four biggest events in golf next year:

3/2: Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth

5/2: Rory McIlroy

7/2: Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day

9/2: Justin Rose

5/1: Brooks Koepka

15/2: Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Paul Casey

10/1: Adam Scott

12/1: Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Matt Kuchar, Phil Mickelson, Marc Leishman, Thomas Pieters, Patrick Reed

15/1: Daniel Berger, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Patrick Cantlay, Branden Grace, Kevin Kisner, Alex Noren, Louis Oosthuizen, Xander Schauffele, Charl Schwartzel, Brandt Snedeker, Bubba Watson

20/1: Tiger Woods, Francesco Molinari, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Tony Finau, Martin Kaymer

25/1: Ryan Moore, Zach Johnson, Webb Simpson, Lee Westwood, Jimmy Walker, Kevin Chappell, Bryson DeChambeau, Bill Haas, Jason Dufner, Charley Hoffman

30/1: Pat Perez, Gary Woodland, Bernd Wiesberger, Brian Harman, Padraig Harrington, Emiliano Grillo, Ross Fisher, Si Woo Kim, J.B. Holmes