Friday, June 12, 2015

US Open- Preview

This week’s United State Open might turn out to be the most interesting and unique major championship of the 2015 season. Chambers Bay, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., is located on the Puget Sound in University Place, Washington. Golf fans will find the viewing to be spectacular and like nothing they are used to seeing in the U.S.

In preparation for this story I reached out to Michael Bamberger, my good friend and noted writer for Sports Illustrated. What can you tell me that I need to know about Chambers Bay?
“Phil (Mickelson) told me he is going to Chambers Bay looking to win his second British Open- that says it all,” said Bamberger.

The terrain at Chambers Bay is rugged and wind-blown. Mickelson’s analogy is spot on because this U.S. Open venue takes on the characteristics of many of the courses in the British Open rotation. Players will be required to bump and run, but at the same time deal with obstacles such as Hell’s Acre which abuts an old quarry wall.

Several holes are extremely narrow and an errant tee shot will find a waste bunker in the sand dunes or thick and gnarly fescue areas. The 17th Hole is a long par three with the winds of the Puget Sound likely staring players in the face. To add that element of quirkiness, freight trains will pass along the back edge of the green.

This will be the second major championship played at Chambers Bay. The 2010 U.S. Amateur Championship was held here and during the competition twelve spectators suffered broken ankles. This is one of those major championship sites where you have to seriously ask, “Why would you attend this when you can sit in the comfort of your living room and watch others- players and spectators- battle the elements?”

From the time the USGA announced that it would be taking the U.S. Open to Chambers Bay it has been a controversial site. If need be, this par 70 course can stretch to 7,795 yards. The Front Nine can measure 4,019 yards from the tips. Factor the wind, firmness of the ground and the roll out that balls with the uneven terrain and this could be more entertaining that anything golf fans have witnessed in years. 

Golfers are somewhat sadistic by nature and they love watching other golfers suffer. Back in April, USGA Executive Director Mike Davis threw gasoline on the fire when he said, “The idea of coming in and playing two practice rounds and having your caddie just walk it and using your yardage book, that person’s done, will not win the U.S. Open.”

Webb Simpson scoffed and said he would be playing for second place. Ian Poulter said that other players told him the course was “a complete farce.” Rory McIlroy asked about Davis’ handicap when questioning the Exec’s predictions on player preparation. Most experts on course setup fear that windy, dry conditions could cause the USGA to lose control of the course, similar to what happened at Shinnecock Hills in ’04. 

Tiger Woods evidently took heed to Davis’ warnings as he reportedly spent seven hours playing his first 18-hole practice round at Chambers Bay. Mickelson also added, “The first time you play, it’s like St. Andrews. You don’t know where to go. The more you play it, the more you like it.”
The problem the players had in preparing for Chambers Bay was getting there. The PGA Tour schedule was tight and being played in the Southeast. A trek across country to University Place was not easy. So, despite Davis’ warnings many will show up, do their two practice rounds and head to the tee on Thursday.        

I applaud the USGA for its selection of another unique U.S. Open venue. Critics said Merion was too short for a national championship in 2013. Davis proved otherwise. His brilliance in course setup demonstrated that the USGA had found a formula for transforming courses which were once considered obsolete due to a lack of length.

Without question the most prepared individual at Chambers Bay this week will be Davis. His neck is on the line for a couple of reasons. The obvious we just covered. The other will be the debut of FOX Sports and its coverage of U.S. Open. Not only will it be FOX’s debut, but the challenges inherit with a site as rugged as Chambers Bay will test the network’s lack of production experience. 

Finding much of the U.S. Open coverage will be a challenge for golf’s TV viewers. FOX Sports 1 will do much of the telecast this week and it’s still not a “regular channel” in many households. As a service to the USGA here is the schedule for the week. All times are EST.
Thursday, June 18- First Round Noon-8 pm FOX Sports 1 8-11 pm FOX
Friday, June 19- Second Round Noon-8 pm FOX Sports 1 8-11 pm FOX
Saturday, June 20- Third Round 2-10 pm FOX 
Sunday, June 21- Final Round 2-10:30 pm FOX
Monday, June 22- Playoff Noon-4 pm (if needed)

 “I’d love to see Phil complete the career Grand Slam. He’s been great for golf and deserves it, but I don’t see it. He’ll be 45 and Opens are hard to win. They’re 72 holes of sheer grinding and I don’t think that is Phil’s specialty. Majors are a young man’s game,” concludes Bamberger who favors McIlroy to win.

This U.S. Open is far too difficult to handicap. My only prediction is that it will be the most entertaining major of the 2015 golf season and the USGA gets all of the credit for that. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Jack Nicklaus

Fifty years ago in 1965 Jack Nicklaus won five tournaments on the PGA Tour, more than any professional golfer in that season. He was the leading money winner on the PGA Tour with earnings of $140,752. The 1965 season consisted of 40 official money events starting on January 11 with the Los Angeles Open and ending on November 28 with the Cajun Classic. 

Nicklaus’ five victories came at The Masters where he won $20,000; the Memphis Open which had a winner’s share of $9,000, the Thunderbird Classic where he pocketed $20,000; the Philadelphia Golf Classic where he won $24,300 and the Portland Open which gave the Golden Bear a check for $6,600 after he won. 

Besides the $20k that Nicklaus won at The Masters, the winners of the other 1965 major championships received the following. U.S. Open Champion Gary Player won $26,000. British Open winner Peter Thompson got the equivalent of paltry $4,600 in American currency and Dave Marr received a $25,000 check for winning the PGA Championship. Tony Lema received the biggest winner’s paycheck in 1965- $35,000 at the Carling World Open.  

The Top Ten money winners on the PGA Tour in 1965 were:

1. Jack Nicklaus $140,752
2. Tony Lema $101,816
3. Billy Casper $99,931 
4. Doug Sanders $72,182 
5. Gary Player $69,964 
6. Bruce Devlin $67,657 
7. Dave Marr $63,375  
8. Al Geiberger $59,699 
9. Gene Littler $58,898 
10. Arnold Palmer $57,770

Nicklaus played in 20 tournaments that season. He did not miss a cut and had 17 Top-10 finishes. In addition to his five victories, Nicklaus was runner-up five times in 1965. His Masters’ victory was by nine shots and his 72-hole score of 17 under par were both records at the time. 

Amazingly, Nicklaus finished as runner-up in the Player of the Year Award to the gregarious Marr. Over the years Nicklaus has transformed his image. At an early age he was the overweight, abrasive kid that overthrew “The King” Arnold Palmer from golf’s throne. But, how could Jack not be the Player of the Year in ’65? 

Dan Jenkins was covering golf for Sports Illustrated at the time. His recollections were interesting.

“I didn’t realize that. I’ve always that it was a PGA vote and for its champion. Your organization did that quite often. I was very much around then and do not recall Jack being hated by us writing slaves. We still favored Arnold. He was taking the game to a new level of popularity, but we recognized that Jack was younger and longer and unstoppable. Wish I could be more help at this stage of my development,” said the 85-year old Jenkins. 

Next week Nicklaus will host the PGA Tour at The Memorial Tournament at Muirfield GC in Dublin, Ohio. This is a course that Jack built and owns. Fifty years after he was the most dominating player in the game Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara, will serve as gracious hosts to most of the world’s top players. Barbara will personally supply her own chocolate chip cookies and homemade milk shakes to any player that is obliged to consume them. For most of the world’s best players it will be like spending a week with your favorite grandparents.

This will be the 40th edition of Jack’s Memorial Tournament. The purse will be $6.2 million. Defending Champion Hideki Matsuyama won $1.116 million in 2014. 10th place paid $167,400- more than Nicklaus won in 1965. 

Several years ago I was in a meeting with Nicklaus and Ian Baker-Finch. The subject of career earnings came up and Jack told Baker-Finch and me that the biggest winning paychecks he ever had were $150,000 when he won The Tradition in 1995 and ’96. 

Golf has changed a lot in the last 50 years. The PGA TOUR is now run by the players and not the PGA of America. The players took over in 1968 and the TOUR is better for that. But, it’s refreshing to see the most dominant player of the modern era still involved as Nicklaus is. The Memorial is more than one of the top TOUR events. It’s a celebration of Jack’s great career.