In college, I was led to believe the birth-control pill and electric guitar were mankind’s finest accomplishments. Now that I’m older and a few pounds wiser, neither seems more essential to my happiness than the polyester/lycra undershirt, known as a “base layer” by those in the fashion industry and popularized by Under Armour, which has turned stretchy fabric into a good reason to print money.
Such garments allow us to play golf, at least rather comfortably, well into December in the Northeast. Until not so long ago, cold-weather gear had a straitjacket-like effect on my swing – the last thing I need is another excuse to stink. Not only am I now able to strike the ball without wardrobe interference, I’ve found I can still slam an offensive club against my bag and break the shaft in my 3-wood, which ranked right behind my children on the list of Things I Absolutely Do Not Want to Screw Up.
Oh, well. The temporary greens might be in play by the time you read this, leaving me at least three months to get it fixed. Hey, things could be worse. I could be taking a long putter to the repair shop.
TOM WATSON IS an American legend. His popularity has proven timeless, his old-school virtues amplified by a career full of profound achievement and take-it-like-a-man heartbreak. When vicious fate cost him the 2009 British Open just two months before his 60th birthday, Watson’s grace and perspective afterward were as impressive as his performance at Turnberry throughout the week.
His 39 PGA Tour victories and eight major titles make him one of the finest players ever – an entire generation of U.S.-born golfers would come and go before anyone even approached those totals. Beyond the numbers, however, Watson was tougher than a chilly rain or a three-club breeze.
The harder the conditions, the better he played. Even after an avalanche of missed 4-footers kept him from winning more big tournaments, Watson continued to contend against men half his age, many of them 30 yards longer off the tee. Nobody has struck the ball more purely. And no one has been more candid in his assessment of matters both on and off the golf course.
Simply put, Tom Watson rarely misses the center of the clubface. With all due respect to the nine men who have captained the U.S. Ryder Cup team since Watson piloted the team to victory at The Belfry in 1993, his return to the helm in 2014 is more than a mere change in direction. It is a statement that doesn’t require much of an explanation. Loudly and clearly, the bugle has been blown.
At the risk of overstating the role of Ryder Cup captaincy or figuring Watson’s presence is worth a couple of points to the U.S. cause, reality speaks for itself. The Yanks have won just two of those last nine meetings against the Europeans. Changes to the formula during that stretch have been few and far between – perhaps it’s no coincidence that Paul Azinger’s demand for alterations in the qualifying format helped the Yanks triumph at Valhalla in 2008.
America’s latest loss was probably the hardest to stomach. As hypotheticals go, maybe David Toms would have gotten the nod in 2014 if the Yanks had won comfortably at Medinah instead of blowing a four-point lead on Sunday. Maybe Watson won’t make a difference at Gleneagles, but the fact that he was given the job is a healthy acknowledgement of failure, a proactive strike with absolutely no downside.
In baseball, a pitcher can give up six runs in five innings, all but one of the runs unearned, and you still bring in the reliever. At this juncture, it’s not so much that America has nothing to lose, but a whole lot to gain.
SOME LINGERING THOUGHTS on the anchored-putter ban – additional eyesight provided by a couple of in-the-know Tour pros:
Maybe the governing bodies were studying this issue for years, as USGA executive director Mike Davis said. A good and honest man Davis is, no question, but recent public outcry is what made a resolution of the matter such a high priority. After years of occasional rumblings about long putters, the dissent turned into one large roar in 2012.
With that in mind, things become a bit more complex. Those opposed to anchoring were vocal because it was having an increased effect on pro golf – you can’t tell me people were outraged because handicaps were getting lower. At the recreational level, it simply wasn’t an issue, but when some of the game’s best young players began winning major titles with extended-length utensils, well, now we’ve got a problem.
There’s just one hitch: The USGA doesn’t hold any jurisdiction over the PGA Tour. Davis couldn’t call Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and say, “Hey, your guys are no longer allowed to brace putters against their bodies.” Sure, Finchem was kept informed while the USGA and R&A dealt with the issue, but the simple fact that Camp Ponte Vedra issued a rather nebulous response to the ban tells me one thing: the Tour’s adherence to the new rule is no slam dunk.
We can speculate for months as to whether the Tour will adopt the measure, but there is one obvious precedent in terms of CPV ignoring the USGA mandate and doing its own thing: the lift, clean and place provision. This would be a much bigger deal for a number of reasons, and you don’t need a Ph.D. in common sense to see that Finchem is in a tough spot.
Does he go to the policy board and try to convince his constituency that anchored putters are a breach of competitive integrity? Or does he acknowledge the considerable impact the ban will have on the Champions Tour, where long putters rank immediately behind Viagra on the list of necessities, and decide that the goose and the gander are two very different entities?
When the PGA of America’s Connecticut Section convened for its year-end gathering, executive director Tom Hantke told the club pros that he’d recently been in the company of Finchem – and that the commish expressed disapproval over the USGA’s position on the matter.
“[Hantke] told our guys Finchem might not go along with it,” was how my local pro put it. Perhaps Finchem was guilty of nothing more than reasonable posturing. Sometimes, people hear what they want to hear, and the PGA of America has made it clear that it doesn’t agree with the anchoring ban. You don’t walk into a room full of club pros and tell them their opinion doesn’t matter.
That said, could you disallow anchoring on the PGA Tour but let the old guys continue doing it? What about potential lawsuits – how solid is the ground stood on by those who depend on a long putter to make a living? Basically, we’re talking about legislation ostensibly designed for one nation that was drawn up and enacted by another.
That’s not how the world works, and my sense is, this ain’t no can of worms. This is an industrial drum full of rattlesnakes.
YOU CAN’T WRITE something like this in mid-December without acknowledging the year that was. I don’t know if 2012 ranks among the best in golf history – I don’t know how anyone could even rank years, period – but it certainly was interesting. Better than 2010 or 2011, I suppose, if only because someone clearly established himself as the best in the game, and because the guy who had been the best for so long started bearing a slight resemblance to his former self.
Listed in chronological order below are my nine defining moments of 2012, known on the Chinese calendar as the Year of the Dragon. Given the dark nature of several of these indelible moments, perhaps we should identify it as the Year of the Demon.
Kyle Stanley, WM Phoenix Open. Nobody blows a three-stroke lead on the final hole and loses in a playoff, then rallies from eight back the very next week to win. Spencer Levin’s own Sunday collapse allowed Stanley to complete his amazing reversal at TPC Scottsdale. At the time, it looked like one of those gutsy victories that launches a career, but Stanley was merely preparing another astonishing U-turn – he didn’t have a single top-10 finish the rest of the year.
Tiger Woods, Bay Hill Invitational. This was the first real sign Woods was back, so to speak, and on Sunday, he was absolutely as good as he’s ever been. On a blustery afternoon of two-club breezes and gusts much stronger, Tiger hit 10 of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens. His closing 70 was more like a 65 – only two guys shot lower and neither was close to contention entering the final round. Woods’ 2012 was a mixed bag, but all things considered, I’d give him a solid B+.
Bubba Watson, Masters. He had surrendered a sizable 54-hole lead at Doral a month earlier, looking uncomfortable all day, which prompted questions about Watson’s ability to handle pressure in big tournaments. The doubts were debunked with authority at Augusta National. Bubba’s escape from the pine straw right of the 10th fairway on the second playoff hole was, without question, the shot of the year. And, as is often the case, the Masters was the golf season’s most riveting major.
Matt Kuchar, The Players Championship. For all the top 10s and fat paychecks on his return to prominence, Kuchar wasn’t winning tournaments at a rate befitting of a top-tier player. His performance at TPC Sawgrass wasn’t flashy, but at a ballpark where the guy who makes the fewest mistakes usually wins, Kooch got it done. When all is said and done, a career is measured primarily on Ws. It will be interesting to see where the guy goes from here.
Jim Furyk, U.S. Open. Not to pick on my friends at Olympic or anything, but this was a less-than-stellar major: hard to watch, even tougher to stomach as Furyk threw away the title on the final three holes. We’d never seen this guy look so fallible under heavy heat, and when he did it again at Firestone two months later, questions about his Ryder Cup worthiness became legitimate. Furyk struggled in the closing moments at Medinah, too, treating us to second-guessers galore.
Adam Scott, British Open. Anyone noticing a trend here? More than any year I can remember, established players squandered comfortable leads at big events. Scott’s was the most unsightly – a full-fledged meltdown on the final four holes that handed Ernie Els his fourth major. Scott is a true gentleman, the kind of guy you want your daughter to marry, but losses like that can be tough to overcome. Somebody get this man a pint of cold blood.
Rory McIlroy, BMW Championship. Yes, the PGA was a bigger win, an eight-stroke triumph that secured the Irish Lad’s standing as the world’s best player, but I picked this one for a couple of reasons. One, the course (Crooked Stick) was so soft and easy that anyone could have won – we really hadn’t seen McIlroy win a shootout. It was also his third victory in four starts, a roll reminiscent of Woods’ late-season tear in 1999, which became a prelude to his miracle season in 2000. This kid is gonna be real good for a real long time.
Justin Rose, Ryder Cup. His bomb for birdie on the 17th green Sunday was by far the biggest putt of the year; Rose basically stole a point from Phil Mickelson in a match that ultimately proved the most pivotal of the bunch. Rose quietly had a terrific year and is currently fourth in the world ranking, although I’m not real sure how Louis Oosthuizen sneaked his way all the way up to fifth. That formula could use a stack of dynamite, which is exactly what Rose’s clutch finish at Medinah did to the U.S. hopes.
Ian Poulter, Ryder Cup. You learn a lot about the world’s best golfers when you take them out of the individual, stroke-play format and throw them into a team, match-play competition. Poulter’s heroics all week, particularly his astounding play Saturday evening, added up to the finest performance in modern Ryder Cup history. I’ve never seen a player transform himself to such positive effect at such crucial moments as Poulter has done at least a couple of times against the Americans.
He personifies the difference between the two sides, merging passion and precision into unparalleled performance. Maybe U.S. captain Watson should have his lads spike their hair and wear battery-powered pants at Gleneagles in 2014.