Rich Lerner QA Billy at His Best
Rich: You first played the Hope in 1989. What do you remember?
Billy: I had a blistering 82 at El Dorado, I remember that.
Rich: Amazing how those rounds tend to linger.
Billy: This one was special. I had Gypsy Joe Grillo on my bag. First tee ball of a brand new season went OB, into someone’s swimming pool. By the 12th my drive was stuck in a palm tree. It got so bad in that first round that one of my amateur partners tipped Gypsy Joe $100 and said, “You’re really going to need this because your man’s got no chance.”
Rich: How long did it take Gypsy to spend the hundo?
Billy: Probably already had it spent. He was a legend. Caddied for Curtis (Strange) at the Masters when he almost won it after shooting 80 in the first round. Also caddied for Elk (Steve Elkington).
Rich: Needless to say you weren’t sniffing the lead after 82.
Billy: I was last after the first day. Arnold Palmer shot 81.
Rich: Anything to keep the Wake Forest connection.
Billy: Yeah, I was actually thinking when I read the paper here I am trying to be a PGA pro and successful and Arnie at age 59 is beating me so I have a lot of work to do.
Rich: This used to be the first event of the year, right?
Billy: Exactly. You knew even if you missed the cut you were going to play four rounds of competitive golf. The desert was a great place to come to work on your game and get the kinks out from the winter break and get the year started.
Rich: They had some great fields, too.
Billy: I remember some years the winner of the Q-School didn’t even get in because so many of the top players were here.
Rich: Did you have a favorite celebrity through the years?
Billy: Joe Pesci was the best.
Rich: Was he like his character in ‘Good Fellas?’
Billy: I knew he wasn’t going to shoot me, but not far off. We actually became really good friends playing here and at Pebble. You wouldn’t believe how we met.
Rich: Try me.
Billy: We met at the ’91 Shark Shootout at Sherwood. Friend of mine was going to drive me to LAX after the tournament and came to my hotel room. I was in the bathroom. Little did I know he’d set up the surprise of my life. The next thing I know my door comes flying open and standing there looking at me is Joe Pesci. And I kid you not he looks at me with a stogie in his mouth and a black leather coat and says, “So I hear you been looking for me kid. Well here I am.” I’m sitting on the thrown and he throws me a cigar. Unreal.
Rich: I remember him smoking giant stogies, bigger than a Callaway driver.
Billy: Cohibas. Never without ‘em. Hit half his shots with the Cohiba in his mouth.
Rich: Always loved a guy who could play really well with a heater hanging from his mouth.
Billy: I’m not saying he played really well. If I took a puff I probably wouldn’t be able to play I’d be so dizzy. He’d smoke four or five a round and be fine.
Rich: I’ll bet dinners were fun.
Billy: The best. No matter where we went for dinner it was usually Italian and it was always very good.
Rich: Nice to see Yogi Berra as the tournament ambassador this year.
Billy: I had a memorable round in ’04 with Yogi at the Palmer Course. We were paired and I needed a good round to make the cut. I shot 30 on the front, 63 for the day to make the cut and more. And after every birdie Yogi would give me a hug. He reminded me so much of my grandfather that he was like family to me. Every time I see him I get that hug and I think of that time at PGA West.
Rich: What would bring this event back to its glory days?
Billy: Having three courses at PGA West is a good start and a nice convenience for the players. Maybe going from five rounds to four would help. Look, it’s difficult. It’s a numbers game. With the amount of tournaments we play and the amount of money we play for, the top players are going to skip somewhere and that’s too bad for tournaments like this one. When you see the tradition – this is the 51st year – and you see the pictures from the old days, the fun and excitement they were having, that would be great if that could continue.
Rich: How important is it for pros to play once or twice a year in this kind of format with celebrities and amateurs?
Billy: It’s important especially in these economic times that we’re supportive of all the sponsors and the amateurs that are footing the bill.
Rich: Do players get it?
Billy: I think most do, or they wouldn’t be here.
Rich: But a lot of the top guys are not here.
Billy: There wasn’t an Abu Dhabi 20 years ago. There are just more opportunities than ever from around the world.
Rich: Interesting, Joe Ogilve thought Freddy Couples would be an ideal host. Who’s going to say no to Freddy?
Billy: Not me. I think that’s a great idea. That would be fabulous. He’s won here, been a big supporter of the tournament. Freddy should have his own tournament.
Rich: Bo Jackson, Emmitt Smith, Greg Maddux and Bruce Jenner are some of the ex-athletes playing this year. Who’s the best athlete golfer you’ve ever played with?
Billy: Mario Lemieux. He Came to Rhode Island and played in our charity event and my mouth was open in amazement. His swing was effortless, with power; he’s just a fabulous player. Two others who could bring it were John Smoltz and Mark McGwire. I played a bunch with Mark at Pebble.
Rich: I know you’re friendly with Mark. What’s your reaction to his recent admission that he’d taken steroids?
Billy: Great. I’m happy that he’s happy. It was a big burden lifted off his chest. Now he can try to be the best hitting coach he can be.
Rich: Any feelings on McGwire and the Hall of Fame?
Billy: How are they going to judge this whole era? (Roger) Clemens, (Barry) Bonds, those guys don’t get in and that’s a shame. Gaylord Perry’s in the Hall of Fame. End of story. It’ll be interesting to see as time goes on how it plays out.
Rich: What kind of commentator do you hope to be?
Billy: I hope to bring a young, witty, and creative point of view.
Rich: Based on this conversation, you’re off to a good start.
Billy: Thanks Rich, I’m really looking forward to the opportunity. It’s going to be fun.
Rich: Dinner at Pesci’s favorite joint tonight?
Billy: Which one, there are a dozen of ‘em? I’ll call him and try to get him to buy.
Lyle going through 'scary' period in cancer recovery
MELBOURNE, Australia – Jarrod Lyle's wife says the Australian golfer is struggling through a ''really scary'' period in his third battle with cancer.
Lyle, 36, underwent a bone marrow transplant last December following a recurrence of acute myeloid leukemia.
''It's been 190 days since Jarrod's stem-cell transplant and we are going through a really rough patch at the moment,'' Briony Lyle wrote on jarrodlylegolf.com. ''I'm typing this blog on his behalf because he's not able to do it. Jarrod's not able to drive, struggles to prepare any food for himself, can't read stories to the girls and is not able to offer much help at all around the house.
''He is also starting to look like a very frail, sick person.''
Briony Lyle added: ''We are both very aware of the amount of drugs and medication that has gone into Jarrod's body over the years but things are starting to get really scary at the moment. It looks as if this recovery is going to be the longest and hardest one so far.''
Lyle has twice beaten acute myeloid leukemia, in 1998 and 2012, and was able to return to play professional golf.
He made an emotional comeback to the golf course during the 2013 Australian Masters in Melbourne before using a medical exemption to play on the PGA Tour in 2015. He played four seasons on Tour, where he earned $1.875 million in 121 tournaments.
Lyle has since returned to Australia permanently to be with Briony and daughters Lusi and Jemma.
Vermeer wins PGA Professional; 20 make PGA Championship
SEASIDE, Calif. – Ryan Vermeer won the PGA Professional Championship on Wednesday, overcoming front-nine problems to top the 20 qualifiers for the PGA Championship.
The 40-year-old Vermeer, the director of instruction at Happy Hollow Club in Omaha, Nebraska, closed with a 1-over 73 on the Bayonet Course for a two-stroke victory over Sean McCarty and Bob Sowards.
The PGA Championship is in August at Bellerive in St. Louis.
Three strokes ahead entering the day, Vermeer played the front in 4 over with a double bogey on the par-4 second and bogeys on the par-4 seventh and par-4 eighth. He rebounded with birdies on the par-5 10th and par-4 11th and also birdied the par-5 18th.
Vermeer finished at 5-under 283. The former University of Kansas player earned $55,000. He won the 2017 Mizuno Pro/Assistant Championship and finished ninth last year in the PGA Professional to qualify for PGA at Quail Hollow.
McCarty had a 68, and Sowards shot 69. Sowards won the 2004 title.
David Muttitt and Jason Schmuhl tied for fourth at 1 under, and 2012 and 2015 champion Matt Dobyns, Jaysen Hansen, and Johan Kok followed at even par.
Marty Jertson, Brian Smock and Ben Kern were 1 over, and Zach Johnson, Craig Hocknull, Matt Borchert and 2016 winner Rich Berberian Jr. were 2 over. Nine players tied at 3 over, with Shawn Warren, 2017 champion Omar Uresti, 2014 winner Michael Block, Craig Bowden and Danny Balin getting the last five spots at Bellerive in a playoff. Balin got the final spot, beating Brian Norman with a par on the seventh extra hole after Norman lost a ball in a tree.
Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers
CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.
Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.
While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.
“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”
Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.
“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”
Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close
CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.
McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.
“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”
The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.
“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”
He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.
“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”