Thursday, August 25, 2011

Keegan over Tiger for Prez Cup?

Note: Three hours after this post, the AP reported that Fred Couples has told Tiger Woods that he will be on the U.S. Presidents Cup team. I guess Freddy doesn’t read my blog.

Phil Mickelson is a big Keegan Bradley fan. Who isn’t these days?

The big left-hander weighed in on U.S. Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples’ two captain picks for the international exhibition in Australia (Nov. 17-20).

Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship and
HP Byron Nelson Championship in playoffs.
Asked if he would like to see the struggling Tiger Woods on the team as a captain’s pick, Mickelson said yes ... but not before his new buddy Bradley, winner of this year’s PGA Championship and HP Byron Nelson Championship.

“I would like to make sure Keegan Bradley gets on the team,” Mickelson said. “He was not part of the tour last year and wasn’t able to accrue points like many of the other players. Being a two-time winner and a major champion, he needs to be on the team.”

Mickelson, who has played several practice rounds with Bradley this year, said he’d be OK with Bradley and Woods being on the team, as long as Bradley is picked first and Woods adds at least one more event to his schedule before the Australian Open, which is a week before the Presidents Cup.

Only it looks like Woods isn’t adding another event before Australia.

Should Woods be on the team?

For years, my friend Andy in Kansas City used this hypothetical when it came to these kinds of questions:

If an alien life force came to earth and challenged us to 18 holes of golf to determine whether or not they would destroy the planet, Andy always chose Tiger Woods to represent earth in the hypothetical. The thinking was clear: For the past 20 years, Woods has been the best golfer on the planet.

If the future of the human race depended on one golfer, Woods was Andy’s guy.

He was my guy, too.

Andy and I haven’t had that debate in a while. No wonder why.

The question remains. Should Tiger Woods be on the Presidents Cup team?

Rickie Fowler deserves a Presidents Cup
pick more than Tiger Woods does.
Probably not. He hasn’t played enough. He hasn’t been healthy (physically or mentally). When Woods has played, he hasn’t shown that he is anywhere close to the same player that was a no-brainer pick for Ryder Cup teams, Presidents Cup teams or Intergalactic Supremacy Matches.

Mickelson is right. Keegan Bradley needs to be on Couples’ U.S. squad. He’s playing as well as anyone right now. The skinny dude hits it forever and drops 30-foot bombs like they were tap-ins. He showed incredible guts down the stretch at Atlanta Athletic Club at the PGA Championship—bouncing back from a triple-bogey on No. 15 to birdie the next two holes and win in a playoff. 

That’s all the proof Couples needs to know how Bradley handles pressure. The kid is a gamer.

I’d love to see Couples use his picks on Bradley and Rickie Fowler, who birdied his final four holes in last year’s Ryder Cup in Wales to scrape out a half point against Edoardo Molinari. Fowler is ranked 12th in Presidents Cup standings, trailing only Jim Furyk for non-qualifiers.

As for Andy’s hypothetical, if aliens show up to challenge earth in a life-or-death match any time soon … I think we’re in big trouble.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Chasing Down Jordan Spieth

Note: This article appears in the August issues of DFW Links and Houston Links magazines.

A funny thing happened last month on the way to covering Jordan Spieth’s second national championship in the final match of the U.S. Junior Amateur in Bremerton, Wash.

Well, hold on. It was more than one thing. And it wasn’t funny at all. Not then. It was about as far from funny as you can get.

It started at exactly 10:30 a.m., Friday, July 22. That’s when Spieth’s quarterfinal match began. I was writing a few stories for the magazines with one eye focused on’s real-time scoring of the Junior Am. If Spieth won his quarterfinal match, my publisher would book me a (refundable) flight to Seattle to cover the 36-hole final match.

Ah, but nothing is simple.

The first catch: Spieth had to win in the quarterfinals and semis before I would step on the plane. Any loss pre-finals, and I was playing golf instead of covering it that weekend.

If he advanced to the finals, I would fly the red-eye to Seattle. Same routine as 2009, when Spieth won the U.S. Junior at Trump National in New Jersey. Good trip, there.

If Spieth advanced this time, I’d get to Seattle about 1 a.m., plenty of time to find the Jimi Hendrix statue, locate the apartment complex from the movie Singles, listen to some Pearl Jam and still make it to the golf course in Bremerton for the 8 a.m. start of the 36-hole final.

The perfect plan. Right? Well, let’s see...

10:40 a.m., Friday: Spieth goes 1 up through 2 holes in quarterfinals. Where’s my travel bag?

10:51 a.m.: Spieth birdies, now 2 up. Start packing.

11:03 a.m.: Spieth drops a hole, 1 up.

11:14 a.m.: He drops another, all square. Packing stopped.

It went on like that for the next 90 minutes. Four times Spieth went 1 up then back to all square. Drove me nuts. Start packing, stop packing.

1:28 p.m.: Spieth wins 16 with a bogey, 1 up with two to play. My publisher finds a 6:50 p.m. flight to Seattle. His finger hovers on the “buy now” button.

1:39 p.m.: Spieth wins 2 and 1. Publisher goes to buy flight. Sold out. Of course.

1:45 p.m.: We find a 7:11 p.m. flight to Seattle on United Air, non-refundable. We book and pray Spieth advances.

That afternoon, fully packed and watching the semis online, Spieth loses the first hole. Son of a … wait. He wins the third hole. And the fourth. Fifth. Sixth. Seventh. Count ’em up: Five straight birdies! I can taste the Starbucks now.

4:24 p.m.: Spieth is 5 up. Rental car? Booked. Hotel? Booked.

5:20 p.m.: Spieth wins 7 and 5. Downloading Nirvana’s Nevermind for the flight.

5:59 p.m.: Flight delayed till 8:30. These things happen. No big deal.

7:05 p.m.: Leave for airport.

7:35 p.m.: Staring at Departures Board. My flight was just canceled. Suddenly I was 8 years old again, finding out Santa isn’t real. Beyond deflated. United books me on a 6 a.m. flight the next morning via Chicago. Puts me in Seattle at noon PST, in Bremerton at 1 p.m. Maybe I’ll catch the second 18.

10:48 p.m.: Send Spieth text: “Flight canceled. Leaving at 6 a.m. Hope to get there by noon. Play well!”

10:49 p.m.: Receive text from Spieth: “What? Come on, you’re good luck. Hurry up and get here!”

4:00 a.m., Saturday: Alarm goes off. Hit snooze.

4:10 a.m.: Alarm again. Climb into shower.

6:02 a.m.: Board flight to Chicago. Sleepy.

8:41 a.m.: Plane lands. Grab iPhone to check progress of Spieth’s match. Two problems: 1) No wifi at O’Hare. 2) It’s only 6:41 a.m. in Bremerton. My brain is mushy.

Killing time at O'Hare.
8:42 a.m.: Check connection flight. Delayed till 11:22. Eight inches of rain in Chicago flooded the streets and put O’Hare at half-staff. Hopeless.

9:30 a.m.: Delay pushed to 11:35. Publisher says I can just fly back to Texas. Hell no. Made it this far, can’t stop now. Maybe I can make the awards ceremony.

10:50 a.m.: Delay pushed to 11:45. What’s the difference? Check on Spieth’s match. Oh yeah, no wifi. Helpless.

So I finally get on the plane and arrive in Seattle at 2:58 local time. Spieth was 6 up through 26 holes when I landed. He wins 6 and 5 a few minutes later. I text to tell him congrats and ask him not to leave the club till I get there. Like I have that kind of pull. Not even close.

After a 15-minute wait at Avis (only counter with a line), I get my car and floor it. Forty minutes later I’m in the course parking lot. Running up to the clubhouse.

Spieth is finishing up interviews.

“You missed it,” he says with an embrace. Then he sees what a travel-beaten wreck I am. “Geez, did you run here from Texas?”

So, yeah. Missed the golf. But spent the next two hours hanging with Spieth, his dad, caddy and a family friend. We had drinks. Spieth gave me shot-by-shot recounts of his day. I took some photos.

Flew back to Texas at 6 a.m. the next morning. Eighteen hours of travel time for the 14 hours in the Pacific Northwest. But I got my story.

It’s funny now.

- Mark Button, Texas Links Magazines

Monday, August 15, 2011

Teachable Moments

The marshal was just trying to do his job. It was how he did it that bothered me.

In the end, there were teachable moments for all of us.

Last weekend was my annual golf trip to the Rocky Mountains with my high school and college buddies. For the past four years, we’ve met in Denver and drove up to Summit County to play golf by day and poker by night. Beers and scotch are imbibed. Cigars are smoked. It’s guys being guys, a much-needed respite from our work lives.

The first hole at the Keystone River Course
drops 300 feet from tee box to fairway.
Our favorite track up there is the Keystone River Course, a quintessential mountain course with dramatic elevation changes and stunning views.

From the first tee shot (which drops three stories to the fairway) to the downhill-then-uphill 18th hole, the River Course offers more than enough “oohs and ahhs” to overcome any loose swings or balky putter action that may occur.

It’s a resort course, but it ain’t easy. Like all the tracks around Summit County, the River Course provides a stern test. It’s not terribly long, but the tree-lined fairways demand accuracy, and the myriad cross hazards, elevation changes and doglegs make club selection and sound judgment requisite for anyone hoping to stick close to par.

Designed by Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry – the same guys who conjured Erin Hills in Wisconsin, site of this month’s U.S. Amateur and the 2017 U.S. Open – the Keystone River Course also features firm, deceivingly fast greens. They’re bentgrass, but there’s poana in them, too, so reading grain is critical, especially around the holes. Our group struggled with lag putts that rolled out well past the hole, which led to plenty of attempts that came up woefully short.

In past years, we played one round at the River Course and another somewhere else, like the club’s second 18-hole course, the Ranch or the nearby Raven Course. This year we played both rounds at the River Course.

We like it that much.

Which made the incidents with a particular course marshal all the more frustrating at the time. He was a genuinely nice guy; he took our photo the first day. He was knowledgeable about the course and seemed happy to help us.

On the second day, however, the same marshal twice overstepped his boundaries – at least in my opinion. In my group, we had two single-digit handicappers and two others who don’t play as much as they used to but can break 90 most days.

Andy thunders another huge
 drive into a postcard backdrop.
We all play fast, and the pace of play was pretty good for a Saturday. The group in front of us struggled a bit to keep their balls in play, but it wasn’t excessive. It’s surely a common issue at the tricky course; missing a fairway there can lead to a couple minutes of tracking down the ball (if you find it at all).

Don’t misunderstand. We weren’t agitated by the pace. We never complained about waiting. It was noon on a Saturday at a public course in a Colorado resort town.

Everyone there was on vacation, happy to be outside in the crisp, cool air. We were playing our favorite game on a course we love.

So it was a bit odd when the marshal showed up out of the blue and pushed my buddy Brett to take a drop on the sixth hole instead of letting him take a quick look in the heather grass where he hit his tee ball.

He was pushy about it. There’s just no other way to describe it.

A typical stunning view at
the Keystone River Course.
The same thing happened on the 14th hole. We waited on the tee box five or so minutes for the fairway to clear while the group in front stocked up on drinks from the cart girl. They were almost certainly out of range for our drives, but as resort guests, we were happy to error on the side of caution. We waited for them to clear out before we smacked our drives.

I happened to be playing well – just 4-over through 13 holes – but I yanked my drive way left. I reloaded a provisional and pulled that one, too.

A minute later, we’re driving up the fairway. I jumped out of the cart and started walking up the hill, into the trees, hopefully to find my ball, punch out and save par.

That’s when the marshal drove over and said, “I think it’s time you declare that ball lost and take a drop.”

I thought he was kidding. I literally had been looking for about 45 seconds. I told him as much.

A heated exchange followed. He said we waited way too long to tee off and were slowing down play. I asked if he wanted us to hit into the cart girl and group in the fairway. He said they were out of range. How could we know that for sure? The ball carries 10-15 yards farther at 9,000 feet above sea level. Andy and Lance both hit drives well over 300 yards during the round. He wanted us to take that chance and possibly injure someone?

Blood boiling, I went on to make double bogey. Still fuming, I doubled the next hole, too. Thankfully, I righted the ship with a couple pars coming in.

The two incidents got me thinking. Golf is losing more players than its gaining. Participation on the national level has been flat at best over the past 10 years. In a down economy, we’re all trying to spend less money. Golf is expensive. Fifteen years ago, the game was healthy. Thanks to Tiger Woods, more people than ever were playing and new golf courses popped up everywhere.

Now it seems like for every new course that opens, two or three others shut down.

Jason stares down an iron shot.
Pace of play is important, but when customers feel forcibly pushed around (especially when waiting on the group ahead of them all day), it sends the wrong message. We felt like the marshal wanted us to hurry up and get off the course, rather than enjoy the glorious day and amazing, scenic golf course.

It must be mentioned here, however, that the staff at the River Course has been attentive, friendly and welcoming ever since we started playing there four years ago. They always take great care of us – from loading up our clubs upon arrival to asking how we played and cleaning them at the end of the day.

It compelled me to call Steve Corneiller, the course’s general manager, when I got back to Texas. Told he had the day off, I left a voice message. Within two hours, Steve called back. I detailed the situation from my perspective, and Steve couldn’t have been friendlier in response.

He explained the club had some new employees and that he would seek out the marshal in question to review proper procedures.

“We want to be diplomatic more than anything,” Steve said. “It’s about being sincere and helpful.”

Those are the two best words to describe Steve’s attitude. Sincere. Helpful. He heard me out in full and thanked me for the perspective.

“It’s always helpful for me and my staff to learn from these incidences so we can improve upon our services, and coach our employees,” Steve wrote in a follow-up email.

I wasn’t without blame, either. My teachable moment consisted of realizing – in the heat of the moment – that the marshal just wanted us to keep moving. He wasn’t picking on us. There was no need to get so defensive. I could have just taken the drop like he suggested. No big deal.

Talking with Steve left me optimistic about the people who work tirelessly to ensure quality golf experiences. Course operators like Steve (he called me back on his day off, remember) and countless others here in Texas understand that they are in the customer service business. Golfers need to feel welcomed and taken care of while spending their hard-earned money.

Those of us in the industry need more people playing golf. Our jobs depend on it. Most of all, we need the ones who are playing now to keep playing. We need them to return to the places they love most and support their favorite facilities. For my high school group, that’s the Keystone River Course.

We’ll be back there this time next year.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tiger Shows Class

During his Wednesday press conference at the PGA Championship in Georgia, Tiger was asked about the comments from his former caddy, Steve Williams.

Tiger took the high road.

“It was good to see Stevie and Adam win,” Tiger said. “Adam has been a friend of mine, and same with Stevie. I sent Stevie a nice text after completion of play, congratulating him on his win.”

Tiger was asked about the photos that were leaked Tuesday showing his agent speaking with Williams at Atlanta Athletic Club. Tiger, as usual, didn’t give details.

“You’re right,” Tiger said. “They did talk.”

The Williams comments had to light a fire under Woods. He’s not going to let us inside his head – he never has – but it had to tick him off. It had to motivate him, too.

Maybe there are fireworks in store for the PGA Championship. Personally, I don’t think Tiger is ready to win again yet.

But there’s no one in golf better at proving people wrong than Tiger Woods.

Best Apology of his Career

Steve Williams felt the heat.

After proclaiming Adam Scott's win last weekend at the WGC-Bridgestone was the "greatest week of his life," Williams on Wednesday apologized on his website:

"There has been considerable debate following the comments I made at the conclusion of Sunday's Bridgestone Invitational. It was a complete surprise to have CBS announcer, David Feherty ask for an interview following the completion of play. My emotions following Adam's victory were running very high and at the time I felt like my emotions poured out and got the better of me. I apologize to my fellow caddies and professionals for failing to mention Adam's outstanding performance. I would like to thank all those fans at Firestone who made this victory the most special of my career."

So he changed "greatest week of my life" to "most special" victory of his career.

I still don't buy it. Not even close.

Tiger Woods is about to go live with his PGA Championship press conference. This should be interesting.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Yin and Yang

When you’re passionate about something – like golf or anything else – there are going to be times when you’re disappointed. Hopefully, though, you can find enough reasons to remain excited to balance out the disappointment.

I went to bed Sunday night greatly disappointed about a few things … but I woke up Monday morning excited about some others:

Adam Scott's Sunday victory was
overshadowed by his caddy's ego.
Disappointed that caddy Steve Williams stole the spotlight from Adam Scott, the deserving winner of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, with his narcissistic, post-round remarks. Williams, the former caddy for Tiger Woods, Greg Norman and Raymond Floyd, carried the bag for Woods during 13 major championship victories, including the “Tiger Slam,” in which Tiger won all four majors in 2000-2001.

In his 33 years as a looper, Williams has been on the bag for 145 professional wins. He counts those as 145 victories, and I suppose that’s fair ... even though he’s never hit a single shot or made one putt. On Sunday, he took a shot at his most recent former boss minutes after Scott’s win at Firestone saying, “That was the best win I’ve ever had.”

Right. Winning the Masters by 12 shots in 1997 probably wasn’t very exciting for Williams. Pummeling the field at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by 15 shots when his player was the only one under par must have been boring.

Williams is an ass. Always has been. Sunday afternoon was just more proof.

Since the days of Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Jimmy Demaret, the job description for caddies has been simple: Show up. Keep up. Shut up.

Quite disappointing that Williams forgot that last one. But, on the exciting part, Williams’ shots at Woods probably are good for golf. People will be talking about this for weeks. I’d just rather the focus be on the players and the actual golf.

CBS deserves some of the blame here, too.

I’m disappointed in CBS for shoving a microphone in Williams’ face right after Scott finished a bogey-free final round 65 to beat Rickie Fowler and Luke Donald by four shots. CBS knew what it was doing: Since Woods, who finished T37 at 1-over par, wasn’t around for any late-tournament drama, the network went for the next best thing.

Williams’ catty comments made up for the lack of a late-Sunday Tiger Woods charge.


Williams should have said, “Adam Scott hit all the shots, made all the putts. He deserves all the attention. I’m just happy to have been a small part of it.”

What’s done is done, however. And like you, I’m excited to see what will happen next. Woods won’t let this pass. That much we know. Will Tiger and Adam Scott get paired together at the PGA Championship this week? How fun would that be? Can we possibly get a Presidents Cup singles match between Scott and Woods? That would be juicy.

On the amateur side of things, the USGA and U.S. Walker Cup captain Jim Holtgrieve late Sunday selected three more players for his 2011 team. I was disappointed that Dallas teenager Jordan Spieth wasn’t one of them.

Expect Jordan Spieth to be one of
the final players added to the
2011 U.S. Walker Cup Team.
Instead, three-time U.S. Mid-Am champion and 2009 Walker Cupper Nathan Smith, Western Am stroke play medalist Chris Williams and Porter Cup champ Patrick Rodgers were named to the team.  

They’re all deserving, no doubt. But in the case of Williams and Rodgers especially, they are no more deserving than Spieth, the two-time U.S. Junior Am champ and Western Am quarterfinalist.

Disappointed that Spieth hasn’t yet made the team. But I am excited to know that there are three spots remaining for the 2011 Walker Cup team. I fully expect Spieth, along with Fort Worth’s John Peterson, to grab two of them.

Lastly, to blanket and erase any and all disappointments, I am excited to report that I’ll be Chasing Birdies in the Rocky Mountains later this week.

I’m headed to Keystone Golf Club to play some golf with high school buddies Jason, Jeff, Brett and Andy along with a few other good friends from Denver.

Surely there will be some stories to share from mountains. Stay tuned.

- Mark

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Giving Putts

“That’s good.”

Are there two better words to hear on the golf course? It usually means you just stuffed an approach shot to three feet or better. Your opponent wants to reward you for the finely struck shot by giving you the short putt.

But when do you give putts to your opponents? What’s your cut-off length? Are you consistent with the length of putts you give?

Would you give this putt? I covered
a golfer last week who didn't.
I covered a major state amateur tournament last week for Houston Links and DFW Links magazines. After qualifying in stroke play, the tournament was decided by match play. The golfer who won wasn’t giving anything. I mean, the opponent’s ball had to be hanging on the lip of the cup for a concession.

Anything outside of 10 inches had to be cleaned up.

The first time I saw it in the final match, I didn’t think much of it. Then it happened again. And again. The golfer who had to keep putting out the one-footers clearly was rattled over the situation. Probably factored into the loss.

At the time it was happening, I felt like the golfer who wasn’t conceding one- and two-footers was somehow being disrespectful -- to the opponent and quite possibly to the Game of Golf. 

After a discussion with rules official from the event, I felt differently. The rules official set me straight: “It’s match play. When it comes to giving putts, you can do whatever you want.”

Fine. The Rules of Golf. I get it.

But was it wrong to not concede one-footers? Is it poor sportsmanship or superior strategy?

Part of me says it must not have been wrong to refuse conceding short putts. After all, the golfer used the stingy tactic all week and it led to victory (in a final match upset, I might add).

When I play with my buddies, I like to give as many putts as I can. If it’s questionable, I’ll error on the side of concession. “Pick it up,” I’ll say.

Of course, I have an agenda. I hope my opponents will give me the same-length putts, too.

This was the length that was given by
the winner of the event I covered last week.
Sometimes they do, but not always.

My good friend Scott in Brooklyn talks about his strategy of giving four- and five-footers early and often in his matches. But when it comes down the stretch on the final few holes, he won’t give three-footers or even two-footers. Just turns away and makes them putt it out.

His logic is that the opponent hasn’t had to make a short putt all day because of the concessions, so when the heat is on, they’re likely to miss.

I suppose that’s gamesmanship.

How do you handle giving putts in your standard games? What is acceptable?

The answer might be that it’s one thing to give putts when you’re playing with your buddies for $5, a soda or even $100. It’s another thing all together when you’re playing for a club championship, a state amateur title or even a USGA national championship.

I don’t blame the golfer I covered last week who wouldn’t concede the one-footers. It wasn’t disrespecting the opponent or the game. In fact, it was part of the game. In stroke play, you largely play against the golf course. In match play, you play against your opponent. Period. The non-conceding strategy rattled the opponent and led to a huge victory.

But it was painful to watch.

- Mark