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Path down the not-so straight and narrow

By Brandel ChambleeApril 24, 2018, 6:30 pm

Try as I might, I can’t remember a single one of my professors at the University of Texas asking me what we would like to be tested on. What I would have given if my freshman classical lit teacher, Miss Gross (really her name), had asked if we preferred Hemingway, the master of the short story, to the Russian novelist who apparently got paid by the word, Leo Tolstoy. The innate laziness of students, individual bias and consensus, runs counter to the academic goals of professors and Miss Gross had the temerity to think she knew better than her students what curriculum would be appropriate for a proper education.

She was right, of course, but “consensus” has become much more en vogue, as the world via social media bows to groupthink. This has become more evident in universities, politics and even golf, where the game has become almost unrecognizable from what it once was. 

The top-five players in the world (Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm and Justin Rose) rank 128th, 126th, 108th, 127th and 100th, respectively, in driving accuracy. The top-five players in the world are pitiful at what Ben Hogan called the single most important shot in golf. Hogan looked at his target through a scope, these players use a scattergun. Yes, I know we now have something called strokes gained: off the tee, but given the current status of the game that is just a metric to tell us who is the longest, straightest and most crooked. 

The hardest thing to do in golf is to hit the ball long AND straight. 



Hogan not only understood this, he obsessed over the idea and spent a lifetime building a golf swing that allowed him to hit the ball as far as he could and as straight as he possibly could. His only metric was the ribbon width fairway of a U.S. Open. The reason Hogan would be sick to his stomach if he walked up and down the ranges of PGA Tour events today is because many of the golf swings are built for half of this equation, to hit the ball long. In fairness this is not the player’s fault, at least not as far as they know. 

The most popular golf course architect remains Alister MacKenzie, a man who died over 80 years ago. MacKenzie’s guiding philosophy was to build courses that brought the greatest pleasure to the greatest number and his work, aesthetic gems like Cypress Point and Augusta National, built on ocean cliffs and on a former nursery farm, have gained immense and lasting fame. 

But perhaps more enduring, and I argue more damaging to the professional game, is his philosophy of design to appeal to the greatest number. 

Wanting to imitate links golf, MacKenzie favored little rough, few fairway bunkers, the imitation of nature for aesthetic appeal and rolling greens and surrounds. Testing professional golfers was never the primary objective. Understandable given that when MacKenzie was designing golf courses the game was, besides being much harder than it is now, relatively new in the United States. Making it more popular was the goal. 

Players, professional and amateur, loved the forgiving nature of his designs, and budding architects wanting to imitate MacKenzie’s work, adopted philosophies along similar lines. To this day when having a debate with a group of Tour players or golf course architect nerds, the consensus will be to have little or graduated rough off of the tee, “to allow for the recovery” many will say, followed by “to give the greatest pleasure to the greatest number.”

The year MacKenzie died, 1934, was notable: it was the year the Masters began, it was the first year the PGA Tour began recognizing the leading money winner and, far less widely known, it was the first year of a three-and-a-half decade reign for Joseph C. Dey as executive director of the USGA.

“From the moment I met him I could tell he was in charge of the game of golf,” Jack Nicklaus once said about Dey.

Dey shepherded golf in the United States and almost single-handedly instituted a uniform code of rules for the USGA and the R&A and helped start five USGA championships and four international team competitions. Beyond that, he was the man in charge of setting up the courses for the U.S. Open. 

His course setups were not built around consensus, they were driven by one simple overriding philosophy: to find the one player who was most in control of his emotions, mind and golf shots. U.S. Opens were often punishing to the best players and unforgiving, both off of the tee and around the green. There was no thought to the recovery, which is by definition bowing to the next shot. U.S. Opens were about great execution of the shot at hand, right here and now. The demands of precision were intimidating but they made the best players think. Hogan, in particular, thought longer and harder than anyone about the demands of a U.S. Open, and conquering them. 

Hogan had a Euclidean determination to build a golf swing that would withstand the greatest pressure in the game, U.S. Open pressure. What he built was an immaculate marriage of tenacity and technique, a swing that transfigured the game and remains the single most compelling example of beauty in golf. Now try to imagine what his swing would have looked like if driving the ball straight were of very little importance.

Sure Hogan gets credit for building the golf swing, but Dey should get the assist. If the executive director of the USGA had sought a consensus, it’s doubtful that his setups would have been as demanding. Necessity being the mother of invention though, Hogan invented something nobody had ever seen before or since. 



Which brings me back to the state of the game today, where players flail away with impunity off of the tee, claiming to be great drivers of the ball because of something called strokes gained: off of the tee. The implications here are far reaching, far more than just being able to scatter shots all over a course and still win. 

Because golf course setups have become far more forgiving – owing to the MacKenzie philosophy, complaints and suggestions of the players and to the social media chorus that we want more birdies ­– players seek to launch shots as high as they can, with as little spin as they can, with as long of a driver as they can handle. Distance has become a means to an end so much, that many are crying for a roll back of the ball when all that needs to happen is to roll back to an era when one man had the guts and the acuity to not listen to the players, or the pervading philosophy of fairness.

Imagine if the U.S. Open and other events returned to this demanding philosophy. Players out of necessity would choose balls that spin more, heads that were smaller so they could shape shots, shots that would start lower for more control and golf swings would evolve to find the balance of distance and accuracy. In time an athlete would come along who could solve the puzzle of how to hit the ball far and straight. 

Players are not hitting the ball so far today because that’s the way the game is going, they are doing so because the set ups of golf courses do not make them think. 

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Els eyeing potential Prez Cup players at CJ Cup

By Will GrayOctober 16, 2018, 6:55 pm

Ernie Els is teeing it up this week in South Korea as a player, but he's also retaining the perspective of a captain.

While the 2019 Presidents Cup in Australia is still more than a year away, Els has already begun the process of keeping tabs on potential players who could factor on his International squad that will face an American contingent captained by Tiger Woods. Els played in last week's CIMB Classic in Malaysia, and this week received one of eight sponsor exemptions into the limited-field CJ Cup on Jeju Island.

Els played a Tuesday practice round with Presidents Cup veteran and Branden Grace and India's Shubankhar Sharma, who held a share of the 54-hole lead last week in Malaysia.

"It's going to be a very diverse team the way things are shaping up already," Els told reporters. "We've got another year to go, so we're going to have an interesting new group of players that's going to probably make the team."

In addition to keeping tabs on Grace and Sharma, Els will play the first two rounds with Australia's Marc Leishman and South Korea's Si Woo Kim. Then there's Sungjae Im, a native of Jeju Island who led the Web.com Tour money list wire-to-wire last season.

"There's so many Korean youngsters here this week, so I'm going to really see how they perform," Els said. "Still a long way to go, but these guys, the young guys are going to be really the core of our team."

Els, who will turn 49 on Wednesday, made only five cuts in 15 PGA Tour starts last season, with his best result a T-30 finish at the Valero Texas Open. While it's increasingly likely that his unexpected triumph at the 2012 Open will end up being his final worldwide victory, he's eager to tackle a new challenge in the coming months by putting together the squad that he hopes can end the International losing skid in the biennial matches.

"The U.S. team is a well-oiled team. They play Ryder Cups together, they obviously play very well in the Presidents Cups against us, so they're a very mature team," Els said. "We are going to be a young team, inexperienced. But that doesn't scare me because I know the course very well down in Melbourne, I've played it many, many times. I feel I have a very good game plan to play the golf course strategy-wise and I'm going to share that with my players."

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CIMB champ Leishman hopes to improve on CJ runner-up

By Will GrayOctober 16, 2018, 6:29 pm

Marc Leishman is back in Korea with momentum on his side, hoping to fare a little better than a year ago.

Leishman nearly took home the trophy in the inaugural CJ Cup, making birdie on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Justin Thomas. But the Aussie put his approach into the water on the second extra hole, allowing Thomas to wrap up the win a few minutes later.

"Excited to be back in Korea. I have a lot of good memories here at this golf course," Leishman told reporters. "Hopefully I can play well again and go one better than last year."

Leishman's playoff loss kick-started a strong opening stretch to his wraparound season, but he closed it without a victory. That drought ended in emphatic fashion last week, as he cruised to a five-shot win at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia for his fourth career PGA Tour win and his third since March 2017.


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Leishman told reporters last week in Malaysia that before the week started, his driving was so crooked that he feared his equipment reps might need to add a few golf balls to his locker. Instead, he found his groove en route to shooting 26 under par at TPC Kuala Lumpur and leaving the field in his wake.

"Golf's a funny game. It can change very quickly from bad to good or from good to bad," Leishman said. "It was certainly a goal of mine to win this season, and to win my first event of the season is great. Also to be going back to Maui puts me in a different frame of mind for the whole year. For a lot of reasons, I'm really happy with what last week brought."

Leishman played on the Korean PGA Tour in 2006 while getting his pro career off the ground, but even with that experience he expects a learning curve while going from the steamy conditions of Malaysia to the cool and wet climate that has greeted players this week on Jeju Island.

"It's a big adjustment going from so hot and humid last week to fairly cold and hopefully not wet, but it was wet this morning," Leishman said. "The ball goes different distances, your body's not quite as loose as what it is when it's hot. Just little things like that that you have to adjust to."

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Bowditch eyes same fusion surgery as Tiger

By Will GrayOctober 16, 2018, 6:03 pm

After struggling through a couple lean years on the course, Steven Bowditch is ready to go under the knife.

Bowditch has won twice on the PGA Tour, and the Aussie was a member of the International Team at the 2015 Presidents Cup in South Korea. But his game fell apart shortly thereafter, as Bowditch has made just two cuts in his last 40 starts dating back to July 2016 while putting up some eye-popping scores.

Bowditch's exemption for his win at the 2015 AT&T Byron Nelson expired in August 2017, and he spent last season without full-time status on Tour for the first time since 2010. He made eight starts, notably finding a caddie via Twitter search before missing the cut at the John Deere Classic in July.

But the 35-year-old revealed Tuesday that his on-course struggles have been tied to some health concerns that have been difficult to pinpoint. Having finally received the appropriate diagnosis, he is preparing for a spinal fusion surgery next month between the L5 and S1 vertebrae - the same two that Tiger Woods successfully fused last year:

Bowditch's estimate of a "late 2019" return likely means he'll miss the entire 2018-19 season. When he returns he would do so with past champion status based on his wins, which also included the 2014 Valero Texas Open.

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Thomas, Koepka grouped as both vie for No. 1 in Korea

By Will GrayOctober 16, 2018, 1:44 pm

The PGA Tour remains in Asia this week, where another star-studded field is gathered for a no-cut event. Here's a look at some of the marquee, early-round groupings at the CJ Cup in South Korea, where Justin Thomas will look to retain his title as the tournament's lone champion with the action getting started Wednesday night for American viewers (all times ET):

7:15 p.m. Wednesday, 8:15 p.m. Thursday: Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Sungjae Im

Thomas won the inaugural edition of this event last year in a playoff, and he returns to defend his title with hopes of supplanting idle Dustin Johnson as world No. 1. He'll play the first two rounds alongside Koepka, who is making his first start since being named PGA Tour Player of the Year and, like Thomas, could move to world No. 1. Rounding out the group is Im, a Korean native who went wire-to-wire leading the Web.com Tour money list in 2018 and nearly won his first event as a PGA Tour member in Napa.


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8:15 p.m. Wednesday, 7:05 p.m. Thursday: Marc Leishman, Si Woo Kim, Ernie Els

Leishman lost to Thomas in overtime at this event last year, but he returns to Jeju Island with plenty of momentum after dusting the field last week en route to a five-shot win at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia. Joining him will be Kim, who won the 2017 Players Championship and will have plenty of support from the Korean fans, and Els, playing this week on a sponsor invite as he continues to keep an eye on potential stars for the Presidents Cup team he will captain next year.


8:25 p.m. Wednesday, 7:15 p.m. Thursday: Jason Day, Adam Scott, Hideki Matsuyama

They're two Aussies who teamed on plenty of Presidents Cup squads and have both reached the top of the world rankings, and now they'll play together for the first two rounds in Korea. Day is making his first start since East Lake, while Scott made a rare appearance at the Japan Open last week where he tied for 50th. Rounding out the trio will be Matsuyama, another Presidents Cup fixture who tied for fourth at the Tour Championship to end last season.


8:35 p.m. Wednesday, 7:25 p.m. Thursday: Kevin Tway, Austin Cook, Xander Schauffele

Tway finished T-27 last week in Malaysia in his first start as a PGA Tour winner, having taken the trophy two weeks ago in Napa. He'll be joined in Korea by Cook, who contended throughout last week en route to a T-13 finish, and Schauffele, the former Rookie of the Year who shot 65-68 over the weekend in Kuala Lumpur.