Friday, December 23, 2011

What a Year for Texas Golf

I’m not big on New Year resolutions … or any kind of resolutions for that matter. Most are empty promises. Either to yourself or others. Regardless, I am trying to better myself in many areas. One of which is writing.

Writing shorter in particular.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you probably have noticed that sometimes I can get a little long-winded and write some really long sentences and long paragraphs and long stories and that might drive you crazy and make you click off the page, curse my name or both.

Sorry about that.

In an effort to be more efficient, here are my top-10 Texas golf moments for 2011. There are only five of them.

Shorter, see?

Lefty’s Redstone Romp: Who can forget Phil Mickelson’s course recording-setting 63 in the third round of the Shell Houston Open? With his wife’s and mother’s oncologist, Dr. Tom Buchholz, on hand again in April at the pristine Tournament Course at Redstone Golf Club, Mickelson was inspired.

Phil Mickelson dazzled the crowds
at Redstone Golf Club with a victory
a week before the Masters.
He went low on the weekend with 63-65 to post 20-under par and won by three shots.

In the past 10 years, the SHO has had plenty of quality winners—Freddy Couples, Vijay Singh (three times), Adam Scott, Stuart Appleby, Anthony Kim—but last year was extra special. Mickelson loves Houston—Dr. Buchholz and M.D. Anderson especially—and the throngs of fans following Lefty at Redstone as he dueled Dallas native Scott Verplank in the final round will remember that show for a long, long time.

It might a while before we see that kind of excitement at the SHO again.

Unless Mickelson repeats in 2012.

History in the Making: In July, Jordan Spieth took another step toward cementing his legacy as one of the most decorated amateur golfers of all time. By winning his second U.S. Junior Amateur—this one at Gold Mountain outside of Seattle—the Dallas native joined Tiger Woods as the only golfers to win the national championship twice. (Woods won it three straight times from 1991-93).

Spieth won his first U.S. Junior Am in 2009. He was the heavy favorite this year and rallied in three early matches to claim nail-biting, 2-and-1 victories. Then the ball-striking savant wasted Chelso Barrett 6-and-5 in the 36-hole final match.

The second USGA title was a glimpse into the future. It won’t be long before Spieth is winning professional major championships—yes, plural—and becomes a worldwide sensation.

Make no mistake: still just a teenager, Spieth already is a star. He’s made the cut twice in PGA Tour events. He was the only American to post an undefeated record at the Walker Cup in September. The college freshman won his first tournament for the University of Texas in his third start. He has the game, support system, maturity, personality and poise to become mega-star on the professional level.

If he continues on the path he’s on now, it’s going to happen. This is not news to those who have been paying attention.

Catching The Spirit: One of the most unique golf events in the world takes place every two years in Trinity, Texas. Whispering Pines Golf Club, the No. 1-ranked course in the state six years running, plays host to The Spirit International, a co-ed amateur championship unlike anything else you’ve seen.

The two best male and female amateurs from the top-20 golfing countries in the world comprise the teams. They all live together for a week in a camp-like setting and compete for gold, silver and bronze medals in five categories.

Nathan Smith (left) and Kelly Kraft
had a memorable final round
walk to the 18th green.
This year, Americans Kelly Kraft (the reigning U.S. Amateur champ), Nathan Smith (a three-time U.S. Mid-Am champ), Austin Ernst (reigning NCAA champion) and Emily Tubert (2010 U.S. Public Links champ) pulled away from Mexico for an epic 10-shot win.
Smith’s final round eagle-two on the 392-yard par-4 14th started the U.S. party early.

Tiger’s Late Prowl: From the Obvious Department, it was a joy to see Tiger Woods’ game come around at the end of the year. He looked great at the Presidents Cup—even if his record didn’t reflect it—and he capped the season with his first victory in two years at the Chevron World Classic.

I’m giving a heap of the credit to Fred Couples. Many jumped on Freddy’s case when he made Woods a captain’s pick two months before the Presidents Cup. But that early decision put a ton of pressure on Woods to get his game in order. Once fully healthy again, he started practicing six, seven even eight hours a day. Woods wasn’t going to make himself—or Couples—look foolish after the captain bypassed PGA Champion Keegan Bradley, who deserved to be on the U.S. team.

When Woods wins a few tournaments next year, including a major championship, hopefully we’ll remember that it was Fred Couples who helped jump-start the comeback.

What’s the Texas connection here? Don’t worry about that right now. (Couples played college golf at the University of Houston and Tiger won the 1997 Byron Nelson Championship in Dallas, so there.)

Junior golfers will
love this book.
Ti Ming & Tem Po: Can I be self-serving for a moment? Of course I can. This is my blog, after all. One of the biggest moments of the year (of my life, really) came in late November. That’s when my children’s book was released.

By now, I’ve surely bored you to tears about it via Twitter and Facebook. So I won’t beat you over the head here. This blog already is too long.

I’ll just mention that “Finding Ti Ming & Tem Po, Legend of the golf gods” is a magical story full of character-building morals and lessons. It’s a great read for any junior golfer—or any parent, aunt or uncle of little linksters.

Go buy a few copies and give them as gifts. The golf gods will thank you with fortuitous bounces off trees and putts that fall in the cup instead of lipping out of it.

Happy Holidays and thanks for reading.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Tiger Woods is NOT Back

First of all, in the essence of transparency, some full disclosure. I am a Tiger Woods fan. Always have been. Probably always will be. I’m guessing some people just stopped reading and clicked off my blog. That’s fine.

Tiger Woods won Sunday for the first time in
two years at the Chevron World Challenge in California.
(Photo US Presswire)
Like him or not, Tiger is the most gifted, exciting golfer of his (and my) generation. He’s also the most important person we have in the game. He drives ratings, sponsorships, public interest and he inspires people to support local golf courses. Because of Woods, millions of people invest their money and time into playing golf. As someone who makes a living writing about the sport, I’m well aware of how badly we need him to be successful again.

So there weren’t too many people more excited to see Woods birdie the final two holes of the Chevron World Challenge to win his first tournament in two years by a single shot. He came through in the clutch like the old days, and it was joyous to watch. The upside of Woods’ victory is obvious: Golf just became more interesting—dare I say “relevant again”—to the masses.

Here’s the downside: Since that final putt dropped, scores of media-types and fans have fallen all over themselves to say the precious words that all of us who understand what is at stake have longed to proclaim: “He’s baaaaack.”

Give me a break. That’s ridiculous. Just because he won an exhibition event in a field of 18 players does not mean Tiger is back to being the dominant player who has won 71 PGA Tour events (Sunday’s win didn’t count toward that total) and 14 major championships.

Anyone who thinks Tiger is “back” to being the Tiger Woods we knew pre-sex scandal is disrespecting his standard of excellence. It’s also a sign of how quickly people can forget how great he was. Remember the year 2000? He’s a recap: Tiger Woods won NINE TIMES, including the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. He also finished second five times that year.

Yes, Woods is swinging the club better than he has in a long, long time. He’s compressing the ball again, creating a sound at impact that only he can create. His trademark “stinger” shot seems to be back, too. And he’s making more putts (though not as many as he’d like) in crucial situations. He poured in the 15-foot birdie putt Sunday on No. 17 at Sherwood Country Club to draw even with the gritty Zach Johnson. Then he slammed home the 12-footer on the final hole to win for the first time since the Australian Masters in September 2009.

But he’s not back. Not yet.

Once Tiger wins three or four (or five) times—including a major championship—in a single season, he’ll be back. That’s when Tiger Woods will once again be the Tiger Woods I remember.

I’m guessing that happens next year, by the way.