Els prepares for (maybe) his last Masters

By Will GrayApril 3, 2017, 12:15 pm

Ernie Els plans to have a few extra friends with him this week in Augusta.

Sure, the usual collection of family and support staff will be present amidst the azaleas. But as he gets set to make his 23rd Masters appearance – and the last of the five-year exemption afforded to him for winning The Open in 2012 – Els has also rented out an extra house.

There he’ll host a cadre of old buddies and long-established acquaintances, those who haven’t tagged along in Augusta since his prime more than a decade ago.

“Basically the ‘oldies,’” Els said with a grin. “They’re all coming in, and we’re just going to have one last look around.”

When it comes to Els and Augusta National Golf Club, there was never supposed to be a “last look around.” Long off the tee with a deft touch around the greens, the “Big Easy” seemed destined to join the storied winners’ circle in short order. It was not a question of whether he’d ever enjoy the lifetime exemption of a past champion, but rather how many jackets would ultimately hang in his locker at the club.

When he made his Masters debut in 1994 at age 24, months before the first of his four major titles, Els shot a third-round 67 while paired with former champ Ben Crenshaw.


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“He’s kind of an Augusta specialist, and he was excited for me,” Els recalled. “We chatted afterwards, and he said how many times I was going to win it, and how my putting touch was so perfect that day.”

Crenshaw donned his second green jacket the very next year. More than two decades later, Els is still waiting for his invite into the Champions Locker Room.

“As it happened, you know, it just never kind of blossomed,” he said.

There’s a cruel bit of symmetry, a yin and yang, to the history books at Augusta National. For every Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods, players to whom the course almost seemed to whisper words of inspiration, there was a Tom Weiskopf or a Greg Norman, those whose remarkable talent brought them within inches of the finish line but never quite across it.

Els, of course, always appeared headed for the former group but has somehow ended up in the latter.

“I think it’s sad to see him not having a jacket,” said Louis Oosthuizen, who played junior golf as a member of the Ernie Els Foundation in South Africa. “I think as someone who’s won majors, you sort of really want the green jacket if you’ve won more than one.”

Following that stellar debut, when he finished T-8, Els made the annual spring pilgrimage to Augusta each of the next 17 years. The prime portion of that run came from 2000-04, when he never finished worse than T-6 and was twice a runner-up.

It was in 2004 that he came closest, edged by Phil Mickelson on the final putt of what turned out to be one of the most memorable Masters ever. Els began the final round three shots off the lead but made a pair of eagles down the stretch to surge up the leaderboard.

“He’s got the green jacket by the collar,” proclaimed TV analyst David Feherty after Els birdied the par-5 15th to take a two-shot lead over Mickelson.

But it’s Mickelson, not Els, who now wears clothing with a logo commemorating the conclusion of that particular tournament. Els could only sit idly by on the putting green, preparing for a playoff that would never come, while Mickelson rolled in the most iconic putt of his career to win by a shot.

“The ’04 Masters is one that I was really disappointed about for a long time, but looking back now, I’m proud to have been involved in that battle. It’s really one of the great battles of my career,” Els said. “It’s kind of like, when I didn’t get that one, the writing was kind of on the wall, I think.”

As Mickelson prepares to return to a course where he has won twice more since then, he can barely square the notion that Els might be making his final appearance.

“It’s hard to believe that may be the case,” Mickelson said. “He’s such a good player. I have a hard time believing it will be his last.”

Like Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel grew up in Els’ shadow in South Africa. But he has since earned a seat at the annual champions’ dinner that may have once been reserved for Els, having surged to victory in 2011, and he points to 2004 as the fork in the road for his one-time idol.

“That one really hurt him,” Schwartzel said. “I think it’s one of those where, if you don’t do it early enough, it becomes a ‘thing.’ And once it becomes a ‘thing’ in this game – man, you’re fighting elements that you don’t even want to be fighting.”

True to Schwartzel’s words, Els hasn’t come close to winning the Masters since that duel with Mickelson. His consecutive appearance streak came to an end when he missed the 2012 edition of the tournament, only to be granted a five-year extension with his surprise win at Royal Lytham later that summer.

But the first four of those return trips haven’t yielded a top-10 result, leading Els to reflect on where things went wrong on a course he so dearly loves.

“I just think I always put a bit too much pressure on myself around Augusta,” he said. “Growing up in South Africa, seeing it on TV, starting to live it. And I think I was impatient a lot of times. Not taking my medicine, not playing the proper shot and then going from there. So I think that cost me.”

This time around, Els returns to Augusta a shell of his former self. He is ranked No. 409 in the world, having cracked the top 50 just once in 17 worldwide starts since last year’s Open. Once a fresh-faced newcomer, Els is now 47 with his best years admittedly well behind him.

“I feel sorry for him. I do,” Schwartzel said. “I just really feel sorry because I can see his mind is still thinking and he believes – and he practices now harder than he used to – that he’s still as good as he was 10 years ago. Somehow he’s just not able to do it now. Maybe the simple answer is age. I don’t know. I’ve heard him talk about it; I can see it almost hurts him. It’s frustrating, and I think humiliating for him, too.”

If the close call in 2004 was Els’ most heartbreaking chapter, last year served as his most cringe-worthy. After experimenting with a new putting technique early in the week, Els suffered what he now terms a “blip” that led to a six-putt from close range on the very first hole of the tournament.

It’s a replay that struck fear into the heart of anyone who has ever picked up a club, but it’s a memory that Els is able to laugh off one year later.

“It’s so embarrassing that people still don’t even want to go there, even my friends who have really helped me,” he said. “You play this game long enough, you’re going to embarrass yourself a couple of times. So that was one of them.”

It’s the type of disaster that might shake a player to his core, but Els continued with his round and eventually shot an 80. The next day he rebounded with 73, nearly making the cut, and went on to finish third in strokes gained putting the very next week at the RBC Heritage.

“I think there would have been a lot of guys walking off the golf course, or at least playing 18 holes and withdrawing,” Oosthuizen said. “He’s got too much respect for golf in general, and especially the Masters. But that was a tough event for him.”

“I think the membership liked it because I think if I would have walked off, it might have set a different tone to the thing,” Els said. “You’ve got to set an example. You’re not always going to be a winner. You’re going to be a loser sometimes, and you’ve got to handle it.”

It’s a phenomenon with which Els has more than his fair share of experience around the famed fairways and greens of Augusta National. Time and again, try as he might, the prize that always seemed like it would eventually end up on his doorstep found a way to remain just outside his grasp.

Yes, Els could one day earn another invite – contend next week, perhaps win for the 20th time on the PGA Tour, or crack the top 4 at one of the other major championships. But he instead intends to focus on the most likely scenario: that this will be his last, languid stroll down Magnolia Lane, flanked this time by those who mean the most to him.

Now in the twilight of a career filled with plenty of highlights, Els has come to terms with the fact that, for him, the Masters will always be a matter of “what could have been.”

“It is what it is,” he said. “If you don’t win it in 20-whatever starts, 23 starts, how many starts do you need to win a golf tournament?”

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PGA Tour suspends Hensby for anti-doping violation

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 11, 2017, 8:02 pm

Mark Hensby has been suspended for one year by the PGA Tour for violating the Tour’s anti-doping policy by failing to provide a sample after notification.

The Tour made the announcement Monday, reporting that Hensby will be eligible to return on Oct. 26, 2018.

The statement reads:

The PGA Tour announced today that Mark Hensby has violated the Tour Anti-Doping Policy for failing to provide a drug testing sample after notification and has been suspended for a period of one year. He will be eligible to return on Oct. 26, 2018.

Hensby, 46, won the John Deere Classic in 2004. He played the Web.com Tour this past year, playing just 14 events. He finished 142nd on the money list. He once ranked among the top 30 in the Official World Golf Ranking but ranks No. 1,623 today.

The Sunshine Tour recently suspended player Etienne Bond for one year for failing a drug test. Players previously suspended by the PGA Tour for violating the anti-doping policy include Scott Stallings and Doug Barron.

The PGA Tour implemented revisions to its anti-doping program with the start of the 2017-18 season. The revisions include blood testing and the supplementation of the Tour’s prohibited list to include all of the substances and methods on the World Anti-Doping Agency prohibited list. As part of this season’s revisions, the Tour announced it would also begin reporting suspensions due to recreational drug use.

The Tour said it would not issue further comment on Hensby's suspension.

Good time to hang up on viewer call-ins

By Randall MellDecember 11, 2017, 7:40 pm

Golf announced the most massive layoff in the industry’s history on Monday morning.

Armchair referees around the world were given their pink slips.

It’s a glorious jettisoning of unsolicited help.

Goodbye and good riddance.

The USGA and R&A’s announcement of a new set of protocols Monday will end the practice of viewer call-ins and emails in the reporting of rules infractions.

“What we have heard from players and committees is ‘Let’s leave the rules and administration of the event to the players and those responsible for running the tournament,’” said Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of rules and amateur status.

Amen.

The protocols, formed by a working group that included the PGA Tour, LPGA, European Tour, Ladies European Tour and the PGA of America, also establish the use of rules officials to monitor the televised broadcasts of events.

Additionally, the protocols will eliminate the two-shot penalty when a player signs an incorrect scorecard because the player was unaware of a violation.



Yes, I can hear you folks saying armchair rules officials help make sure every meaningful infraction comes to light. I hear you saying they make the game better, more honest, by helping reduce the possibility somebody violates the rules to win.

But at what cost?

The chaos and mayhem armchair referees create can ruin the spirit of fair play every bit as much as an unreported violation. The chaos and mayhem armchair rules officials create can be as much a threat to fair play as the violations themselves.

The Rules of Golf are devised to protect the integrity of the game, but perfectly good rules can be undermined by the manner and timeliness of their enforcement.

We have seen the intervention of armchair referees go beyond the ruin of fair play in how a tournament should be conducted. We have seen it threaten the credibility of the game in the eyes of fans who can’t fathom the stupidity of a sport that cannot separate common-sense enforcement from absolute devotion to the letter of the law.

In other sports, video review’s timely use helps officials get it right. In golf, video review too often makes it feel like the sport is getting it wrong, because timeliness matters in the spirit of fair play, because the retroactive nature of some punishments are as egregious as the violations themselves.  

We saw that with Lexi Thompson at the ANA Inspiration this year.

Yes, she deserved a two-shot penalty for improperly marking her ball, but she didn’t deserve the two-shot penalty for signing an incorrect scorecard. She had no idea she was signing an incorrect scorecard.

We nearly saw the ruin of the U.S. Open at Oakmont last year, with Dustin Johnson’s victory clouded by the timing of a video review that left us all uncertain if the tournament was playing out under an incorrect scoreboard.

“What these protocols are put in place for, really, is to make sure there are measures to identify the facts as soon as possible, in real time, so if there is an issue to be dealt with, that it can be handled quickly and decisively,” Pagel said.

Amen again.

We have pounded the USGA for making the game more complicated and less enjoyable than it ought to be, for creating controversy where common sense should prevail, so let’s applaud executive director Mike Davis, as well as the R&A, for putting common sense in play.

Yes, this isn’t a perfect answer to handling rules violations.

There are trap doors in the protocols that we are bound to see the game stumble into, because the game is so complex, but this is more than a good faith effort to make the game better.

This is good governance.

And compared to the glacial pace of major rules change of the past, this is swift.

This is the USGA and R&A leading a charge.

We’re seeing that with the radical modernization of the Rules of Golf scheduled to take effect in 2019. We saw it with the release of Decision 34/3-10 three weeks after Thompson’s loss at the ANA, with the decision limiting video review to “reasonable judgment” and “naked eye” standards. We’re hearing it with Davis’ recent comments about the “horrible” impact distance is having on the game, leading us to wonder if the USGA is in some way gearing up to take on the golf ball.

Yes, the new video review protocols aren’t a panacea. Rules officials will still miss violations that should have been caught. There will be questions about level playing fields, about the fairness of stars getting more video review scrutiny than the rank and file. There will be questions about whether viewer complaints were relayed to rules officials.

Golf, they say, isn’t a game of perfect, and neither is rules enforcement, though these protocols make too much sense to be pilloried. They should be applauded. They should solve a lot more problems than they create.

Lexi 'applaud's USGA, R&A for rules change

By Randall MellDecember 11, 2017, 5:15 pm

Lexi Thompson’s pain may prove to be the rest of golf’s gain.

David Rickman, the R&A’s executive director of governance, acknowledged on Golf Channel’s "Morning Drive" Monday that the new protocols that will eliminate the use of TV viewer call-ins and emails to apply penalties was hastened by the controversy following Thompson’s four-shot penalty at the ANA Inspiration in early April. The new protocols also set up rules officials to monitor TV broadcasts beginning next year.

“Clearly, that case has been something of a focus point for us,” Rickman said.

Thompson reacted to the new protocols in an Instagram post.

“I applaud the USGA and the R&A for their willingness to revise the Rules of Golf to address certain unfortunate situations that have arisen several times in the game of golf,” Thompson wrote. “In my case, I am thankful no one else will have to deal with an outcome such as mine in the future.”

Thompson was penalized two shots for improperly returning her ball to its mark on a green during Saturday’s round after a viewer emailed LPGA officials during Sunday’s broadcast. She was penalized two more shots for signing an incorrect scorecard for her Saturday round. Thompson ultimately lost in a playoff to So Yeon Ryu.

The new protocols will also eliminate the additional two-shot penalty a player receives for failing to include a penalty when a player was unaware of the penalty.

Shortly after the ANA Inspiration, the USGA and R&A led the formation of a video review working group, which included the PGA Tour, LPGA, European Tour, Ladies European Tour and PGA of America.

Also, just three weeks after Thompson was hit with the four-shot penalty, the USGA and R&A released a new Rules of Golf decision decision (34-3/10) limiting video evidence in two ways:

1. If an infraction can’t be seen with the naked eye, there’s no penalty, even if video shows otherwise.

2. If a tournament committee determines that a player does “all that can be reasonably expected to make an accurate estimation or measurement” in determining a line or position to play from or to spot a ball, then there will be no penalty even if video replay later shows that to be wrong.

While the USGA and R&A said the new decision wasn’t based on Thompson’s ANA incident, LPGA players immediately began calling it the “Lexi Rule.”

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PGA Tour, LPGA react to video review rules changes

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 11, 2017, 1:32 pm

The USGA and R&A announced on Monday updates to the Rules of Golf, including no longer accepting call-ins relating to violations. The PGA Tour and LPGA, which were both part of a working group of entities who voted on the changes, issued the following statements:

PGA Tour:

The PGA Tour has worked closely with the USGA and R&A on this issue in recent years, and today's announcement is another positive step to ensure the Rules of Golf align with how the game is presented and viewed globally. The PGA Tour will adopt the new Local Rule beginning January 1, 2018 and evolve our protocols for reviewing video evidence as outlined.

LPGA:

We are encouraged by the willingness of the governing bodies to fully vet the issues and implement real change at a pace much quicker than the sport has seen previously. These new adaptations, coupled with changes announced earlier this year, are true and meaningful advances for the game. The LPGA plans to adopt fully the protocols and new Local Rule as outlined.