Monday, December 1, 2014

Ryder Cup Task Force

Sometime in the next few days eleven men who will meet concerning the future of the United States Ryder Cup fortunes will gather in an undisclosed location and start the process of trying to “fix” the biannual tradition of losing Samuel Ryder’s trophy to the Europeans. This will be the inaugural meeting of the PGA Ryder Cup Task Force.

Many would say that the infatuation existing around this international golf competition has grown out of proportion. Americans hate to lose in anything. Sports fans in this country are attracted to iconic franchises like the Yankees, Celtics and Packers because they win. Golf fans are no different, but when it comes to the Ryder Cup, Americans have no fan options besides Team USA. So, it’s no surprise that the most recent loss at Gleneagles- the 8th in the last ten Ryder Cups- drew the ire of so many U.S. golf fans.

No one expressed more dissatisfaction with the American fortunes than Phil Mickelson during his autopsy on Sunday night at Gleneagles. Phil is certainly entitled to his opinion, but his timing and the public criticism of Tom Watson was greeted with mixed reactions. Mickelson should not get the credit or the blame for the formation of the Ryder Cup Task Force.

The purpose of the Task Force has been well documented. It will examine the process of selecting a Captain. The Task Force will evaluate the timing of the announcement of the players who earn a spot on the U.S. team. Finally, it will take a look at the week of the Ryder Cup competition and suggest ways to put the players in a better position to be prepared to win.  

Former Captains- Davis Love III, Raymond Floyd and Tom Lehman have been named to the group. Love was a likeable and well-organized Captain who had his team in great position to win on Saturday night at Medinah when the U.S. held a 10-6 lead. Lehman, although his team was beaten badly in Ireland in 2006, was highly respected by his team. Floyd played on nine winning Ryder Cup teams, was later a Captain, and has been a vice captain twice under Paul Azinger and Watson.

All three were highly endorsed by players who join them on the Task Force. The missing Captain’s ingredient is Azinger, the last winning U.S. Captain in 2008. He is an intriguing guy. No one is more passionate than and he will be the first to tell you that he revolutionized the American fortunes with his ‘pod system’ which paired players with like personalities. However, many former Captains will argue they used a similar formula as did Azinger. He declined to join the Task Force last October.

The five players on the Task Force are Rickie Fowler, two-time Ryder Cupper who represents the generation in their Twenties. Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker are veterans who are liked by their peers and both are viewed to be pensive, methodical thinkers. No Ryder Cup Task Force would have credibility without Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Both have expressed enthusiasm and great interest at being involved. All five of these players could someday be a Ryder Cup Captain.

While this is a PGA of America Task Force, the former captains and players will set the course. In the end it will be the decision of the PGA to accept or reject the direction of the players and former Captains. The formation of the Task Force was a bold statement from the PGA in that it was willing to hear what other people think- most notably the players. 

In my opinion (and not Ryder Cup Task Force) the solutions to a winning Ryder Cup formula are obvious.
1. Develop a system where an individual should be a Vice Captain before they are named as a Ryder Cup Captain. Since 1990, only Love was a Vice Captain before being Captain. Paul McGinley was a Vice Captain four times before being picked to lead the Euros in 2014.  
As the President’s Cup Captain, Fred Couples never lost a match. He was a Ryder Cup staple as a player. Why not name Couples as the 2016 Ryder Cup Captain? He will need administrative help from his Vice Captains and that could come in the form of people such as David Toms, Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker. This trio could focus on what Couples won’t administratively. All are likely to be Captains someday.

2. In 2016 the PGA should not announce the “guaranteed” spots on the Ryder Cup team at the PGA Championship because the event will be played in late July due to the Olympics. It would be a catastrophe to announce a good portion of the team two months ahead of the Ryder Cup.
I would keep the Ryder Cup Points the same as they are now, but I recommend ten guaranteed spots in 2016. Those should be determined on Labor Day after the Deutsche Bank, which is in the second round of the FedEx Playoffs. The remaining two picks should be up to the Captain after the Tour Championship. Since the competition is a domestic Ryder Cup the PGA should be able to handle the “same week” logistics of clothing, travel, tickets for the final two players. This gives our Captain the strongest U.S. team possible.

3. Put the players in a better position to win the week of the Ryder Cup. They need more practice time and the schedule during the week limits that. Do some of the player interviews before the Ryder Cup week. Don’t make the players spend hours on a bus going to and from Milwaukee to the Gala Dinner.

Long-term we need to prepare U.S. players to compete in formats like Alternate Shot. The PGA should implement Alternate Shot into the State, National and Regional competitions of PGA Junior League. The PGA JL is 9-hole matches played in three-hole segments by kids 7-13 years old. Play 3-holes Alternate Shot, 3-holes Best Ball and 3-holes Scramble. Someday a U.S. Ryder Cup player will recall his first experience playing Alternate Shot and it will be in the PGA Junior League.  
Finally, some will say that this Task Force needs input from an “outside” entity like USA Basketball which transformed losers into winners at the Olympic level. I could argue that we never lose the President’s Cup so our players do know how “to win as a team.”

At Gleneagles the U.S. lost by thirty-some shots. A mad scientist could have concocted Azinger, Vince Lombardi, Joe Torre and Red Auerbach into a Ryder Captain and the results would not have changed.  I would use a little Bubba Watson logic to close this out. 

“I was 0-3 in the Ryder Cup because I didn’t make enough putts. That’s not the Captain’s fault,” said Watson at the PGA Grand Slam. Those are the truest words spoken since September 28.                              

Saturday, November 29, 2014

John McDermott, First American-Born U.S. Open Champion

Golf was born in the United States in the late 1880’s. Like virtually everything else in this country, golf’s roots can be traced to Europe and the early impact of the sport came from Scotland and England. The United States Golf Association was founded in 1894. The PGA of America did not exist until 1916. 
When I spoke at the Opening Ceremonies at the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, I pointed out that the PGA was founded by thirty-five golf professionals and fourteen of those were native born Scots. There were fewer than ten native born Americans among those 35 PGA charter members. Englishmen and Scots migrated to this country in the early part of the 20th Century and dominated the U.S. golf scene as professionals. The first sixteen U.S Opens had been won by British golfers. With an assist from Bill Fields, golf historian, here is the story of the birth of American competitive golf. 
In 1909, a teenager named John McDermott made his debut in the U.S. Open. The 17-year old shot a four round total of 322 and finished 49th. Much to the chagrin of his father who was a Philadelphia mailman, McDermott had dropped out of school his sophomore year to pursue his interest in golf under the tutelage of Walter Reynolds, the pro at Aronimink Golf Club.
McDermott improved his game dramatically over the next year and lost in an 18-hole playoff to Alex Smith in the 1910 U.S. Open, held at the Philadelphia Cricket Club. In 1911 McDermott became the first American to win the U.S. Open at the Chicago Golf Club where he outlasted two other golfers in a three-way playoff. At age 19 years, 10 months and 12 days he remains the youngest U.S. Open champion of all-time.
In 1912 he retained his title at the Country Club of Buffalo in New York when he shot 294 for four rounds on a par 74 course, a score of two under par, making him the first man to break par for 72 holes in a major championship. Following his second straight national championship McDermott’s finances blossomed with golf clubs being marketed under his name. He got endorsements for golf balls and there was a high demand for his presence in lucrative exhibition matches. At 21 years of age McDermott was on top of the world.
He continued to perform well on the course during the next couple of years, but McDermott lost heavily in the stock market. After a win at the Shawnee Open in 1913 he boasted excessively and was criticized heavily by his fellow players. The USGA actually considered denying his U.S. Open entry. In 1914 McDermott went to the British Open, but because of travel difficulties he arrived too late and missed the competition. On his way home his ship collided with a grain vessel in misty conditions on the English Channel.
Shortly afterward, upon his return to the U.S. he blacked out when entering the clubhouse at the Atlantic City Country Club where he was the club professional. On June 23, 1916 less than two months from his twenty-fifth birthday, McDermott’s mother committed him to the Norristown State Hospital for the insane. She was ordered to pay $1.75 per week “for support of said lunatic in said Hospital until further notice.”
The Norristown hospital opened in 1880 and was overpopulated with 3,000 residents when McDermott was committed. Patients could play baseball on Wednesdays and movies were shown once a week. Ice cream was served every two weeks and Easter eggs were given on Easter. The Red Cross provided packages for soldiers and cigars were available thanks to a local businessman. This is where John McDermott would spend the rest of his days for the next 55 years.
According to hospital reports McDermott was one of “the calmer patients” and was labeled as paranoid, delusional, catatonic, hallucinatory, incoherent, apathetic, silent, retarded, passive, preoccupied and reclusive. He received hydrotherapy which was wrapping him tightly in a sheet drenched in water so it would shrink and bind him even tighter.
In 1922, Norristown installed a makeshift six-hole course measuring 1,232 yards. Following a local fundraiser Walter Hagen came to the hospital and played golf with McDermott. On occasion McDermott would emerge from Norristown wearing a suit and tie with his golf shoes, playing with friends at local courses. Miraculously, he could still break 40 on a consistent basis. After these rounds his friends would take him back to the hospital.
With age McDermott looked scrawny because of his 5’8” and 130 pound frame. He didn’t know what year it was and would often make random statements like, “I saw Bobby Jones at Merion the other day. I think he is going to be pretty good.”    
On the 60th anniversary of his U.S. Open win McDermott attended the event at Merion and was kicked out of the golf shop because no one recognized him. In August that same summer, a day after he played nine holes, McDermott died. He was eleven days short of his 80th birthday and his funeral was sparsely attended. He was buried in the Holy Cross Cemetery and the inscription on his tombstone read: “First American Born Golf Champion 1911-1912”     
In 2011 Rory McIlroy, age 22, won his first U.S. Open at Congressional in record-setting fashion. Over a hundred years earlier John McDermott had won his two U.S. Opens before turning twenty-one. To this day McDermott remains the youngest champion in the history of the U.S. Open. 
Few modern day golf fans have ever heard of McDermott. He was portrayed in the 2005 golf film The Greatest Game Ever Played and appears prominently in one scene where dressed dashingly he is celebrating with a few drinks. He issues a loud, boastful challenge to a group of golfers in the clubhouse before the start of the 1913 U.S. Open won by Francis Ouimet. 

John McDermott has yet to take his place in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Granted his career was short, but the magnitude of his accomplishments before the age of twenty-one are unsurpassed in the annals of golf.