On Ryder Cup Friday, nothing like No. 1 tee

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 28, 2012, 2:15 pm

MEDINAH, Ill. – The first tee on Ryder Cup Friday is one of the most pressurized scenes in all of sports. It’s Game 7 of the World Series, a do-or-die game in the NBA Finals, the final moments of the Super Bowl . . . all on a swath of closely mown grass some 10 yards wide.

Who cares that so many European players now live in the U.S., that they have become fixtures on the PGA Tour? These biennial matches haven’t lost any of their intensity, at least not among fans. They still wrapped themselves in their country’s flags like blankets. They stomped and sang songs even with the competitors still warming up on the range, nowhere in sight.

They arrived early, too. It was 6:39 a.m. local time when this correspondent arrived. The air smelled of hot coffee, hamburgers were already on the grill, and fans jammed eight rows deep along the sides of the first tee. Everyone could see their breath. It's 51 degrees.

The setup around No. 1 tee is such that players must walk from the practice green over scaffolding to arrive at the tee – gladiators entering their arena, only this venue had lush green grass, bunkers and a MetLife blimp hovering overhead.

It’s 6:58. The Euros’ “Ole, ole, ole!” chant suddenly was met by screams of “U-S-A!” – a minute-long clash of vibrant and impassioned noise, like a fight between teenaged siblings.

It wouldn’t be long before U.S. assistant captains Jeff Sluman and Fred Couples arrived on the first tee, sparking another “U-S-A!” chant. Freddie lifted both arms in exultation, then was reduced to a gray-haired, cool-kid mascot, clapping and flipping hats to the fans.

It’s 7:15. Team Europe – well, a few of the team members who weren’t playing (Martin Kaymer, Nicolas Colsaerts) on Friday morning – made their way to the back of the first tee, for moral support. Not far behind was U.S. captain Davis Love III, who extended his left fist into the air. The crowd roared.

Soon, Love and the rest of the assistant captains gathered on the teeing ground for a group picture – this year’s Christmas card.

The first player in the first group to arrive was Jim Furyk, and he wore a snow cap. Walking toward the tee, he held his left hand to his ear – I can’t hear you! His partner, Brandt Snedeker, a Ryder Cup rookie, was next, and he clapped and high-fived and smiled wide – hey, the guy just won $11.4 mill.

It’s 7:19. Furyk walked over and kissed his wife, Tabitha, and Sneds smooched his bride, too. Photogs rushed to grab their cameras.

As Europe’s Graeme McDowell was introduced, the Golf Gods hit the mute button on the universal remote – the crowd fell silent, immediately. And the first tee shot of the 39th Ryder Cup sailed way left, clipping a tree some 75 yards ahead, and fans scrambled to get a proper view of the ball. Furyk then pegged it, the crowd cheered, he set up right, and then overcooked it left, too. Nerves.

It’s 7:25. On the tee, Love conducted a TV interview, the equivalent of an NFL coach being asked his thoughts after the first media timeout in the first quarter. A few fans sang “Old MacDonald” as Luke Donald’s wife, Diane, slipped to the left side of the tee.

It’s 7:28. Here came Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley – frequent practice-round partners, gambling buddies, mentor and mentee. Lefty flashed a few thumbs-up, as is his wont, and not far behind came Sergio Garcia and hometown favorite Luke Donald. Luuuuuuuuke. They took an awkward photo – U.S. team on the left, match official in the middle, Europe on the right – that could feature the caption, “House divided!”

The moments before this star-studded match were tense, and the players exchanged pleasantries. Fortunately, a few clever fans provided the levity, chanting, “Ma-jor win-ners!” referring to this Euro duo’s oft-discussed oh-fer in golf’s biggest events.

It’s 7:33. Donald stuck his tee in the ground and waited for the go-ahead. Silence, again. His tee shot with a 3-wood faded down the right side, but received a favorable kick into the fairway.

Bradley, another rookie, played first for the Americans. He’s a big hitter, with a nervy pre-shot routine, but in a few short moments he would select driver, visualize his shot and hammer one down the center. He walked toward the front of the tee, turned back and high-fived Mickelson.

It’s 7:46. After a 10-minute intermission, Zach Johnson and the laconic Jason Dufner walked across the bridge. Zach waved his arms; there were unconfirmed reports that Duf smiled.

As he waited to play, Dufner squatted and stretched, swung and spat, but his only acknowledgement of the crowd was a tip of his cap, like in those Comcast commercials.

It’s 7:50. Lee Westwood smashed a drive down the middle, and Dufner, after seven waggles, pulled his tee shot into the bunker. Advantage, Europe.

About 10 minutes later, Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan ambled over to the tee, awaiting the final group. Before long, Europe vice captain Miguel Angel Jimenez – Golf’s Most Interesting Man – greeted Jordan, and they chatted for a few moments. Discussing their love of cigars, perhaps?

It’s 8:02. The final group made its way toward the tee, the crowd now thinning a bit, only five rows deep along the sides.

Justin Rose and Ian Poulter were first to arrive, and then came Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods, the latter playing his first home Ryder Cup since 2004. His left hand stuffed in his pants pocket – surely the first time he’s worn blue plaid pants in competition – Woods doffed his hat to the crowd.

“Fourteen majors in this group!” a fan yelled.

Poulter found the first fairway, per usual in the Ryder Cup, but it was a different story for Woods. Setting up to hit a fade, he hit an ominous, ghastly, double-crossed snap-hook that nearly hit the tree and eventually came to rest near a fence – the worst tee ball of any of the eight competitors. Stricker walked ahead, eager to see the lie.

Now it was 8:07, and everyone in the morning foursomes was out on the course. A warm morning sun had lifted the temperature to 58 degrees, fans scrambled to find their next-best viewing area, and the day’s possibilities seemed limitless. 

Getty Images

Watch: Kid Rock makes 40-footer in front of Nicklaus

By Grill Room TeamApril 24, 2018, 1:51 pm

For the second consecutive year, rock star Kid Rock (Bob Ritchie) teamed with Jack Nicklaus in the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf Celebrity Shootout, last week at Big Cedar Lodge.

And while they didn't defend their title - the team of Johnny Miller and Larry the Cable Guy won - the Kid did show golf's ultimate legend how he rolls on the greens.

The Golden Bear and the American Bad A**. What a team.

Getty Images

The next big thing: Xiong 'wasn’t born to be ordinary'

By Ryan LavnerApril 24, 2018, 1:45 pm

The details are etched in Casey Martin’s memory, the rare where-were-you-when moment in college recruiting.

In the summer of 2014, Oregon was coming off another successful season, but Martin couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for the next wave of juniors. No one dazzled him. It was a similarly frustrating start to the AJGA event at Mayacama, as he watched a highly regarded prospect labor through a painful pre-shot routine and then smother-hook his opening tee ball. No, that’s not it, Martin thought. That’s a meltdown.

But then they announced Norman Xiong – a 14-year-old man-child, decked head-to-toe in Nike gear, pushing 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds. In the span of a few seconds, he nonchalantly pegged it, waggled his club and then smoked a 330-yard drive, center cut.

“When you evaluate, you’re looking for a moment of clarity, like, Wow,” Martin says, “and I had that from the very first shot.”

That euphoria continued throughout the round, as Xiong [pronounced Zhong] hammered drives, sauntered down fairways and brushed in 6-footers without even marking his ball. Smitten, Martin texted his assistant: Dude, I’m going for this. He canceled his plans and devoted the next few years to recruiting Xiong.

“For his age, it was just so massively different – like that’s the real deal, right there,” Martin says. “I didn’t leave his side. It was selfish, but I just loved watching him play. There was a joy about him, and it was easy. I couldn’t stop watching.”

And so Martin has watched that man-child blossom into the top recruit in the country, the NCAA Freshman of the Year, the frontrunner for all of this year’s major college awards, and now the envy of talent agencies and equipment reps everywhere.

Xiong’s play during his sophomore season has been so awe-inspiring that college coaches and players are whispering that they’re competing against a future world No. 1. Blessed with a unique combination of power and touch, humbleness and swagger, he’s the most tantalizing 19-year-old prospect in golf since … well, that’s up for debate.

Few understand college hype better than Martin – after all, he played alongside Tiger Woods at Stanford – so he doesn’t make this statement recklessly. He knows that future success is not guaranteed. He knows that Jordan Spieth won a PGA Tour event as a teenager, and that Jon Rahm rapidly climbed the world rankings after college, and that they’re special talents on a Tour that has chewed up and spit out can’t-miss phenoms like sunflower seeds. He knows that simply invoking Woods’ name in any age comparison is blasphemous, but he also knows what he’s seen, firsthand.

He genuinely believes this: “At 19 years old, I think Tiger is the only guy I would defer to as being better than Norman. I haven’t seen much better than him at that age. He’s really that good.”


THE TROPICAL ISLAND OF Guam, in the Western Pacific, is an unusual starting point for a prodigy, but that’s where Xiong learned the game, as a chunky 4-year-old with supernatural hand-eye coordination. His uncle, James, bought a pitching wedge off the rack, dumped him on the range and told him to swing as hard as he could at a target for a half-hour. Before long, Norman could keep up with his uncle and a family friend at the Navy’s Admiral Nimitz Golf Course.

“Even then he was always a step ahead of me,” says Devin Hua, one of Xiong’s best friends growing up. “We’d compete in everything, and I’d always be mad that he was beating me.”

Granted, it wasn’t a fair fight. As a youngster, Xiong scarfed down everything in sight, especially sushi rolls at his family’s Chinese restaurant, Joy Food, and was “enormous” for his age. But in many ways he also won the genetic lottery – his father, Jackie, was a talented athlete, and his mother, Jing, competed on the Chinese Olympic developmental sharpshooting team, her only son inheriting her focus and precision.

Despite his pudgy physique, Xiong proved such a natural that his parents flew him to San Diego to compete in the 6-and-under division at Junior Worlds. He finished second, but more importantly that’s where he met Rick Johnson, who was fresh out of Cal State San Marcos. Working in the First Tee of San Diego program at the Pro Kids Golf and Learning Center, Johnson camped out at the 125-yard sixth hole. Most players ran up driver or 3-wood; Xiong flew his 6-iron into the middle of the green, his ball taking one hop and stopping.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” Johnson says.

That auspicious performance convinced the family that Norman might have a future in the sport. A few months later, Jing sold her restaurant and returned the family to Southern California, cramming into a one-bedroom apartment. Raising Norman was a group effort: Jing waited tables five nights a week at a local Chinese restaurant, while James served as a father figure and Johnson the protective older brother.

“Looking back, it was a struggle,” Xiong says. “We didn’t know where my golf game was going to lead. My uncle believed in it, and I was just hoping it was going to work out for us.”

After the initial culture shock, Xiong thrived under Johnson’s guidance at Pro Kids. It became his second home, a safe haven in a hardscrabble community. After school and on weekends, he played as many as 100 holes a day at the par-3 course, Colina Park, with his best friend and now Oregon teammate, Donald Kay. (Little wonder Xiong now has 26 holes-in-one.) During the day he learned how to score, but at night he smashed drivers at Stadium Golf Center, unwittingly training his body to be explosive.

The unorthodox regimen worked, because the tales from Xiong’s junior career are legendary – and not just how he’d inhale two Double-Doubles, two sides of Animal Style Fries and a shake while at In-N-Out Burger.

He routinely won nine-hole tournaments by double digits. He once shot 29 – with a water ball. Tired of blowing away his competition, he intentionally tried to drop into a playoff by five-putting the final green, except he miscounted and still won by one, leading to a tearful trophy presentation. In such command of his self-made swing, he could pull off shots even when they called out the shape (“Low draw! High cut!”) at the top of his backswing.



“It was like a freak show,” Johnson says. “Hey, here’s this chubby kid: What do you want him to do with the golf ball?”

But that baby fat melted away once Xiong hit his early teens, once he discovered the gym and stuck to a stricter diet, once he graduated to big-boy courses, thanks to a citywide, $5-a-round junior special. By the time he played that AJGA event at Mayacama, in 2014, he was an imposing physical specimen, no longer fighting with Johnson over the final helping of twice-cooked pork.

“I was quite impressed when I came back to see him at events,” Hua says. “I couldn’t even recognize him.”

Still a man amongst boys, Xiong became a Junior World champion, a first-team AJGA All-American, the top prospect in California and the winner of the Junior PGA Championship, which earned him a spot on the Junior Ryder Cup team.

A constant presence throughout has been Johnson, now 39, who serves many roles: golf pro and travel planner, confidant and matchmaker, dinner companion and hype man, gatekeeper and adviser. He traveled to several of Xiong’s junior tournaments, making contact with coaches, and then naturally handled his college recruitment.

It was an overwhelming process, because he could have gone anywhere, but Xiong surprised some by signing with Oregon. He listed three reasons: Growing up in San Diego, he already knew how to win when it’s 78 and sunny; Martin played the Tour, and now he’s arguably the best coach in college golf; and he wanted to make history, delivering Oregon its first NCAA title. (He was a year too late – the Ducks won on their home course in 2016, after he committed.)

“Norman likes to do things his own way,” Johnson says. “He was trying to create his own legacy.”

After graduating from high school a semester early, he enrolled at Oregon in January 2017. Martin had raved to colleagues and players that Xiong was a game-changer, and in blustery conditions he fired the lowest score in his first practice at SandPines, earning his teammates’ respect and validating his coach’s hype.

“When you build someone up, typically they don’t live up to expectations,” says Wyndham Clark, a senior on last year’s squad, “but I can honestly say that Norman is one of the very few who did. He’s the rawest player I’ve ever seen. He can step out of bed, a car, an airplane, use someone else’s clubs and still shoot under par. He’s just really impressive.”


SO IMPRESSIVE THAT XIONG won in his second college start. So impressive that he earned the Phil Mickelson Award as the nation’s top freshman despite playing just one semester. So impressive that he helped lead Oregon to the brink of consecutive NCAA titles, before losing to Oklahoma in the finals.

The transition to college was seamless, and he continued to roll into the summer. His biggest goal was to make the U.S. Walker Cup team – at 18, he’d be the second-youngest in history – but the selection process is notoriously secretive. Asked what Xiong needed to do to be considered, captain Spider Miller coyly replied: “Something special.”

Xiong got the message. At the Western Amateur, the summer’s most grueling event, he earned medalist honors after 72 holes of stroke play and then beat all four of his match-play opponents to take the title. Two weeks later, he breezed to a 64 at Riviera and finished second in the U.S. Amateur’s stroke-play qualifying.

“Is that something special?” he asked, smiling.

In one of his first showcases on national TV, Xiong went unbeaten (3-0-1) at Los Angeles Country Club, earned the clinching point during an American rout and left a lasting impression on his teammates.

“He’s a really quiet, reserved kid, the last person you’d label as over-confident or cocky,” says Walker Cup teammate Maverick McNealy. “But seeing him stand up and smash driver gives the complete opposite impression.”

It’d become abundantly clear that Xiong wouldn’t be eligible for the next Walker Cup match in two years. Ranked fourth in the world, Xiong and his uncle always had a vision for the future, and it didn’t involve an extended stay in the amateur ranks. Last fall was filled with important meetings and decisions, and the daily distractions began to affect his performance. Even his “B-minus game” resulted in two early-season victories – supreme talent usually prevails – but some of the joy with which he played had disappeared. “I felt like I was going 100 mph every single week,” he says.

So Xiong shelved his clubs for a month, the longest break of his career, and traveled overseas with his girlfriend, Erica Wang, the captain of the women’s team at California Baptist. Rusty to start the new year, he missed the cut in his PGA Tour debut at Torrey Pines, then returned to Eugene to fine-tune his game.

His uncle remains the only swing coach he has ever had, but for the past four years, with James spending most of his time with his family in China, Xiong has essentially managed it alone. His brisk pace of play and powerful swing is uniquely his own, but there’s an old-school feel, with a bowed left wrist, minimal shift off the ball and raised left heel. Martin doesn’t tinker with Xiong’s action – “I ain’t touchin’ that” – and his only formal lesson was three months ago, with instructor Jeff Smith, to tidy up his wedge play. 

“I always tell him: ‘If you’re great from 100 yards and in, there’s no telling what’ll happen,’” Martin says.

But today’s elite players aren’t renowned for their wedge play – it’s for their otherworldly driving distance that puts them in position to attack. Xiong fits the modern prototype, as well. Over the winter, while showing off for teammates, he consistently registered a 133-mph swing speed, 194-mph ball speed, carry distance of 340 yards and spin axis less than 1.

Translation: “Full-pummel rips, dead straight,” Martin says.

Even on a demanding home track like Eugene Country Club, Xiong’s scoring average is 68, the lowest in Martin’s 12 years as coach. (He estimates Xiong’s handicap there would be a plus-9.) The team’s statistician recently asked if Xiong’s numbers were a mistake, if it was possible to average 330 off the tee and also find 85 percent of the fairways. “From what I see from him,” Martin said, “yeah, it’s certainly possible.”

During his current three-tournament win streak, Xiong closed with 64 to take the Duck Invitational, then shot a combined 25 under par to top strong fields at The Goodwin and Western Intercollegiate. That prompted one coach who competed against Xiong to describe him as a “runaway freight train.”

“It’s not like he’s just getting in the zone for tournaments, either,” Martin says. “This is who he is.”

With an NCAA-best five wins entering this week's Pac-12 Championship, Xiong is among the leading contenders for Player of the Year. Claiming the award would be an honor, of course, but he doesn’t need the validation – anyone has seen him play knows that, talent-wise, he’s in a league all his own, that he’s ready for the Tour at 19.

“He just has so many tools and can literally make birdie from anywhere,” says one Pac-12 coach. “He’s a fearless kid who believes he can accomplish anything.”

In fact, Martin’s only concern is how Xiong will handle adversity, because, frankly, there hasn’t been much throughout his charmed career. He’s won prolifically at every age, while seemingly impervious to pressure.

“There are three things that I think you need to be on Tour,” Xiong says. “The talent and the skill. The mental game. And the experience. The only thing I’m lacking now is the experience, because I haven’t been out there. But I think I’m ready.”


A FEW WEEKS AGO, while on the 13th hole at Eugene Country Club, Xiong started talking with Johnson about the future. About how he’d love to have a normal life. To get married. Have a couple of kids. Cook them dinner each night.

Then he stopped himself.

“But I wasn’t born to be ordinary,” he said, “and I’m OK with that.”

It’s fair to wonder if Xiong’s boundless joy will fade in the pressure cooker of pro golf, if another 19-year-old is ready for Tour life, for fame and fortune and scrutiny. Those closest to him have brushed off concerns. He doesn’t drink or smoke. He doesn’t party or swear. He’s smart and unmotivated by money. He’s soft-spoken but self-assured – “an absolute gem of a human being,” Martin says.

“What’s impressed me most is that he hasn’t changed who he is,” says Kay, his longtime pal and roommate. “Most players, when they get to his level, they become a different person than they were. But he’s still the same. He’s still just Norman.”

In college, away from his family, Xiong is becoming his own man, with his own interests and values and dreams, but he’s also wise to assume that nothing in his immediate future will be ordinary. Conversations over the past few months have confirmed as much.

The CEO of a prominent club manufacturer told him that he’d heard from others that he was the best player of this generation.

“And they’re right,” Xiong replied matter-of-factly.

The CEO of a top apparel company pressed him on how good he thinks he’ll be.

“The No. 1 player in the world,” he said.

“And how long do you think it’ll take?”

“That part I don’t know,” he said, grinning.

Even in the most cutthroat and unpredictable of professions, there’s a growing inevitability about Xiong among those who have seen him play.

After the six-shot victory at TPC Harding Park, a coach approached him after the round, offered his congratulations and then asked for a small favor.

An autograph.

“Part of me felt like I should get this now,” he said, “before it’s too late.”

Getty Images

Mets star attributes poor play to 'golf deficiency'

By Will GrayApril 24, 2018, 1:18 pm

New York Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes is off to a slow start this season, and he has a theory as to why he's struggling at the plate: a lack of golf.

Cespedes, a two-time all-star, has been an avid golfer since defecting from Cuba in 2011. But this year, he cut out his time on the links as part of an overhauled training regimen and according to the New York Times hasn't played since June. But Cespedes is struggling, hitting just .195 with four home runs through the first month of the season.

And according to Cespedes, his work in the two sports is related, as he has reportedly diagnosed himself with a "golf deficiency."

"In previous seasons, one of the things I did when I wasn't going well was to play golf," Cespedes said. "This year, I'm not playing golf."

Cespedes' relationship with his newfound hobby is well-documented. He played a round of golf the same day the Mets clinched the National League pennant back in 2015, and the following year he raised eyebrows by playing a round at Medinah only hours before he left a night game because of injury.

Despite a slow start from one of their top players, the Mets have gotten off to a 14-6 start to lead the National League East division. But they'll likely need Cespedes to start shouldering his load soon, and the solution just might be a quick trip to the course.

"With golf, I had to keep my hands inside and keep watching the ball in order to hit it well," Cespedes said. "I think that helped me."

Getty Images

Stock Watch: Ko-Leadbetter feud getting juicy

By Ryan LavnerApril 24, 2018, 12:40 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Moriya Jutanugarn (+9%): The older Jutanugarn couldn’t be more different than her free-wheeling, big-hitting, wide-smiling and more famous sister, but Mo has plenty of game, too. She held off a strong leaderboard on a historic course to win for the first time in 156 starts.

Andrew Landry (+7%): Nothing has come easily to this gritty, undersized Texan, so his breakthrough Tour victory perfectly encapsulated his career.

Alexander Levy (+6%): The happiest person watching the Trophee Hassan II? Thomas Bjorn, who has to be salivating at the prospect of having an in-form Frenchman teeing it up in a home Ryder Cup.

Joaquin Niemann (+5%): Any questions about how his skills would translate to the Tour level were erased with weekend 67s in his pro debut. The 19-year-old was the top-ranked amateur for 48 weeks, so results like these are just another reflection of how strong amateur golf is these days.

Kirk Triplett (+2%): Doesn’t matter how old you are – holing out from the bunker is a baller way to win.


FALLING

Shanshan Feng (-1%): Three top-5 finishes this season, and she still lost her No. 1 ranking to Inbee Park. It’s competitive out there.

Beau Hossler (-2%): It was another Sunday to forget, as his closing 79 sent him tumbling down the Valero board. He’s had a solid rookie season despite ranking 178th in final-round scoring average (72.9).

Sergio (-3%): Seems like this new dad could use some rest. Garcia made a 13 at the Masters, clapped back at jokesters on Twitter and then had a temper tantrum in San Antonio, hurling his driver into the wilderness en route to his second MC in a row. Oy.

TPC Louisiana (-4%): If this year’s field is any indication (10 of the top 14), the Zurich is close to a must-play for today’s stars. The only piece missing is a venue change, to Bayou Oaks at City Park, because another forgettable TPC away from downtown New Orleans excites exactly no one.

Lydia Ko-David Leadbetter feud (-6%): Unhappy with how he was portrayed in a recent magazine article regarding Ko’s struggles, Leadbetter is now firing back, citing Ko’s father and fatigue as the key issues in her year-long slump. This is getting juicy.