Musings from My Mind
The Importance of Being Ernest
I guess we could say Ernie Els was ahead of his time; a pioneer in what has become a recent popular trend in making bold statements regarding Tiger Woods (see: Rory Sabatini, Jason Day, Ian Poulter), when at the end of 2006 the South African declared he had a three-year plan to overtake Tiger as World No. 1. Of course, we know he hasnt even come close to that goal, nor will he, even with his victory at The Honda. To be fair, Im in the second year of MY three-year plan to own (and rule with an iron-fist!) the GOLF CHANNEL and look where I am still getting coffee for Kraig Kann when he gives me the signal ' one sugar, no cream; yes, sir. So, I really have no room to criticize. Even with his rise to No. 3 in the world, Ernest simply needs to re-adjust his goals. In summary kids: stay earnest and have aspirations (just not unattainable ones).
Its all fun and games in Harding Park paradise until Robin Williams publicist denies you any remote possibility that his client will be available for your amusement. Turns out, Fred Couples thoughts of Williams entertaining the golf troops at the Presidents Cup in 09 -- a whole 19 months out (who plans comedy that far ahead?) -- were ix-nayed the same day Freddie joked about it at his captain's press conference. And thankfully so! Of all the possible comedians, Boom-Boom, your go-to was Patch Adams? Has Williams even been funny since Good Morning, Vietnam? And moreover, how alien is he going to be for young guns on the team like DJ Trahan, who hadn't even been born when Mork and Mindy hit the airwaves.
Who does 47-year-old Mark Calcavecchia think he is?... Julio Franco? His Italian surname translates to old crowd, but this guy has been playing like hes a spry spring chicken since, well, last spring when he captured his first PGA TOUR win in two years. With three top-20 finishes in 08 and 11 top-25 finishes in 07, including the event where hes defending this week, the PODS, Calc is STILL GETTING IT DONE! And as Vince Cellini pointed out in our production meeting on Monday, Marks not the only Methuselah on the PGA TOUR whos recently breathed a second (and/or third) life into his respective career. Fred Funk, Woody Austin, and Steve Stricker have all put together impressive resurgences, inspiring all nilla-wafer-eating, Matlock-watching codgers in hearing-aid-assisted distance.
Ah, but back to baseball (and lets be honest, it really should always come back to our nations past-time). Incidentally, Calc turned professional in 1982 '- the same year that 49-year-old Julio Franco -- now with his ninth major league team; YOUR Atlanta Braves!-- also made his debut in the big leagues. Hmm. Franco had his most productive streak of seasons when he hit over .300 in every season from 1986 to 1989. Guess when Calc put together his most dominant consecutive years? Oh, in that same span: 1986 to 1989! (cue the Twilight zone music). Calc won at least one PGA TOUR event in each of those years, including his sole major victory in 89 at the British Open. What does this all mean? Absolutely nothing. Except that age is just a silly number and Brett Favre really is a pansy if hes quitting professional sports at the age of 38.
March to Augusta
Its almost Madness time, which means Gus Johnson is back in our lives. Eeeek! I cant think of anything more exciting in the world of sports broadcasting right now than his return to the national limelight. (unless you were to pit Digger Phelps against Lou Holtz in a televised pep talk duel-to-the-death? Why do we have to endure those, ESPN? ) Yeah, no singular voice rings in those ides of March and the NCAA hoops fever with more passion ' or with more authority! (sorry, Raftery) than the frenetic, hysterical screams of one Gus Johnson. Sadly, however, we only get a shot clock-like ephemeral time with this man of extraordinary vocal dexterity, as CBS utilizes him for only a few rounds of The Dance. But thats where golf should come in and take the lead. Golf needs Gus in the broadcast booth immediately. Set him up on the 18th -- simply on Sundays, if you like, but particularly in your Tiger-less tourneys, and let the mans voice-box explode. Guaranteed ratings-spike! Imagine Gus at Augusta in April! Suddenly, Nantzs Welcome Friends, seems lame and antiquated. Too outlandish a notion, you say? Hey, its not like Im suggesting something as ludicrous as a network hiring Bob Knight to provide tactful, tasteful broadcast-able commentary and analysis on college basketball every night.
The Tiger Woods' Effect
No, not THAT effect! Id like to know what has happened to all those poor souls who have been bonked, bruised, and banged-up by the sheer brute might of El Tigre over the years? While watching the WGC-Accenture Match Play a few weeks ago, I watched a marshal get drilled by an errant Woods drive on 13, and pondered out loud the amount of people Tiger has inadvertently injured over the years. Where are they? And how did that singular (and seemingly minor) event affect their life, if at all? At the Gallery of Dove Mountain that day, all the marshal received was a bloody gaping head-wound, a used Nike golf glove, and a worthless (not really! just kidding!) handshake from Tiger Woods. So where are these people? Did any of them sustain any lasting side-effects? Do they have battle scars about which they brag about to friends and family? And good heavens, how many times do they tell that dang story? [If youve taken a Woods Nike ball to the noggin, or just have a meaningful Tiger encounter you want to share, email me.]
And finally, onto the programming notes for the week ....
Inside the Ropes: Swingin and Rasslin
Our endearing British reporter Tom Abbott ambled into my office late afternoon Monday with hands wringing and a face full of worry. The poor chap was practically stricken with panic. And as it turns out, his anxiety was not completely unwarranted. You see, the bloke from Surrey, England had just received his newest journalistic assignment: play 18 holes with the WWEs Big Show: a 7-foot 2-inch (um, 470 lb.) wrestler whose signature move is, from what I understand, aChoke Slam. Now, I'm not terribly familiar with wrestling, but I can venture a solid guess as to what that procedure might entail. And one doesn't have to utilize the imagination too much, to further envision what could happen to our spindly, sprite Tom Abbott if he were to inadvertently provoke the Big Show (also known as 'The Giant') to anger -- or elicit even mild levels of annoyance. His finishing maneuver is called the 'Final Cut', after all. Oh, poor Tom. (Once the feature is shot -- and provided Mr. Abbott actually survives the ordeal -- it will air at the end of March on Golf Central. Stay tuned...)
DJs Rhythm Has Inspirational Beat
For a guy who was practically sentenced to a wheelchair due to his cerebral palsy, DJ Gregory walks with quite a determined stride. I caught a glimpse of him at Riviera a few weeks ago as I was scurrying about the course for an interview. You see, hes somewhat a celebrity now -- which is the way it should be.
DJ has no abductor muscles in his legs and has to lock his knees every step, creating a unique rhythm as he walks. But as hard as it is on his body, youd never know from his smiling face. Hes living every golfers dream this year: attending all 37 tournaments on the FedExCup schedule on the PGA TOUR. So far, hes walked 195 miles, that's 691 holes. And a total of 13,293 miles traveled. What started out as a dream has evolved into something so much more profound and far-reaching. Our Rich Lerner spent some time with D.J. recently and found out more about this courageous young man in our Golf Central spotlight this Saturday and Sunday. We hope you catch D.J.!
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Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty
Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.
Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.
This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):
While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:
Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.
McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.
Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.
“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”
McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.
“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”
He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.
Height of irony: Phil putts in front of 'rules' sign
A picture is worth 1,000 words and potentially two strokes for playing a moving ball under Rule 14-5 but not Rule 1-2.
Phil Mickelson has been having some fun during his Open prep at Carnoustie hitting flop shots over human beings, but the irony of this photo below is too obvious to go over anyone's head.
Mickelson also tried tapping down fescue two weeks ago at The Greenbrier, incurring another two-shot penalty.
And so we're left to wonder about what Phil asked himself back at Shinnecock Hills: "The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’”
Rory looking for that carefree inner-child
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Eleven years later, Rory McIlroy cringes at the photo: the yellow sweater with the deep V-neck, the chubby cheeks and the messy mop that curled under his cap.
“You live and you learn,” he said Wednesday, offering a wry smile.
The last time McIlroy played at a Carnoustie Open, in 2007, he earned the Silver Medal as the low amateur. He tied for 42nd, but the final result had mattered little. Grateful just to have a spot in the field, courtesy of his European Amateur title, he bounced along the fairways, soaking up every moment, and lingered behind the 18th green as one of his local heroes, Padraig Harrington, battled one of his favorite players, Sergio Garcia. Waiting for the trophy presentation, he passed the time playing with Padraig’s young son, Paddy. On Wednesday, McIlroy spotted Paddy, now 15, walking around Carnoustie with his three-time-major-winning father.
“He’s massive now – he towers over me,” he said. “It’s so funny thinking back on that day.”
But it’s also instructive. If there’s a lesson to be learned from ’07, it’s how carefree McIlroy approached and played that week. He was reminded again of that untroubled attitude while playing a practice round here with 23-year-old Jon Rahm, who stepped onto each tee, unsheathed his driver and bombed away with little regard for the wind or the bounce or the fescue. McIlroy smiled, because he remembers a time, not too long ago, that he’d attack a course with similar reckless abandon.
“I just think, as you get older, you get a little more cautious in life,” said McIlroy, 29. “I think it’s only natural. There’s something nice about being young and being oblivious to some stuff. The more I can get into that mindset, the better I’ll play golf.”
And so on the eve of this Open, as he approaches the four-year anniversary of his last major title, McIlroy finds himself searching for a way to channel that happy-go-lucky 18-year-old who was about to take the world by storm, to tap into the easygoing excellence that once defined his dominance.
It’s been a year since he first hinted at what he’s been missing. Last year’s Open at Royal Birkdale was the final event of his long run with caddie J.P. Fitzgerald. The chief reason for the split, he said, had nothing to do with some of the questionable on-course decisions, but rather a desire to take ownership of him game, to be freed up alongside one of his best friends, Harry Diamond.
That partnership has produced only one victory so far, and over the past few months, McIlroy has at times looked unsettled between the ropes. It’s difficult to compute, how someone with seemingly so much – a résumé with four majors, a robust bank account, a beautiful wife – can also appear disinterested and unmotivated.
“I think sometimes I need to get back to that attitude where I play carefree and just happy to be here,” he said. “A golf tournament is where I feel the most comfortable. It’s where I feel like I can 100 percent be myself and express myself. Sometimes the pressure that’s put on the top guys to perform at such a level every week, it starts to weigh on you a little bit. The more I can be like that kid, the better.”
It’s a decidedly different landscape from when the erstwhile Boy Wonder last won a major, in summer 2014. Jordan Spieth had won just a single Tour event, not three majors. Dustin Johnson wasn’t world No. 1 but merely a tantalizing tease, a long-hitting, fast-living physical freak who was just beginning a six-month break to address "personal challenges." Two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka hadn’t even started playing in the States.
McIlroy’s greatest asset, both then and now, was his driving – he put on clinics at Congressional and Kiawah, Hoylake and Valhalla. He was a mainstay at or near the top of the strokes gained: tee to green rankings, but over the past few years, because of better technology, fitness and coaching, the gap between him and the rest of the field has shrunk.
“I think at this stage players have caught up,” Harrington said. “There’s many players who drive the ball comparable and have certainly eaten into that advantage. Rory is well on pace to get into double digits with majors, but it has got harder. There’s no doubt there’s more players out there who are capable of having a big week and a big game for a major. It makes it tough.”
It’s not as though McIlroy hasn’t had opportunities to add to his major haul; they’ve just been less frequent and against stronger competition. In the 13 majors since he last won, he’s either finished in the top 10 or missed the cut in 11 of them. This year, he played in the final group at the Masters, and was on the verge of completing the career Grand Slam, before a soul-crushing 74 on the last day. His U.S. Open bid was over after nine holes, after an opening 80 and a missed cut during which he declined to speak to reporters after both frustrating rounds.
“I’m trying,” he said Wednesday. “I’m trying my best every time I tee it up, and it just hasn’t happened.”
A year after saying that majors are the only events that will define the rest of his career, he recently shrugged off the doom and gloom surrounding his Grand Slam drought: “It doesn’t keep me up at night, thinking, If I never won another major, I can’t live with myself.”
Eleven years ago, McIlroy never would have troubled himself with such trivial questions about his legacy. But perhaps a return to Carnoustie, to where his major career started, is just what he needs to unlock his greatness once again.