Sunday, July 31, 2005

Ernie Els is out

Blog Post that could become a column #3: Ernie Els, the #3 golfer in the world, is out for the rest of the year after injuring his knee. So much for the Big 4.
"On the recommendation of his medical adviser, Els has withdrawn from his tournament schedule to ensure a prompt and full recovery from the injury," said a statement from Mark Bell, Els's agent at International Sports Management.
You can read the whole story here.
Maybe it was fortuitous that Els can shut it down. His year has been a bit off, and he hasn't really challenged Tiger or Vijay Singh. He started the year with a shot at winning the Mercedes, but it never came together. Here are his stats to date. While $1.6-million hardly sounds like a write-off, Els plays to win majors, and he was never a factor in them this year.

Friday, July 29, 2005

When being very good just isn't good enough:
The other side of the professional golfer's world
National Post Friday, July 29, 2005
Byline: Rob Thompson Column: On Golf in THUNDER BAY
On a blustery, sunny day in Northern Ontario, Alan McLean steps up to the second tee at Whitewater Golf Club and pounds his drive more than 300 yards down the fairway.
It will be the first of many mammoth tee balls McLean will hit during his round. One will travel more than 350 yards. Every par five is within reach in two and he'll even overshoot a 340-yard hole with his tee shot.
Over the course of his round, he'll chip in an eagle from 60 yards and make three other birdies on his round. He'll finish the terrific Tom McBroom-designed course in even par from 7,300 yards.
Sound like PGA Tour material? McLean still might be. But right at the moment, he's proof of just how hard it is to make a living playing golf.
McLean, a stocky, powerful golfer with a game built for the wind, is among the leaders on the Nationwide Tour in driving, averaging 308 yards off the tee. He has a deft, creative touch with his wedges and likes to play boldly.
The only problem is that McLean, with all his length and power, has yet to make a single cut this year on golf's top minor league.
He may be only one year younger than his fellow South African countryman, Ernie Els, but he's a world apart in terms of golf results. He's missed playing on the weekend 12 straight times. And you thought Mike Weir was having a tough year.
Despite that, McLean is among the top 500 golfers in the world.
If you teed it up with him, he'd likely be the most impressive golfer you would ever get the chance to play with. He could be one good week away from playing his way onto the PGA Tour, home of courtesy cars and private planes.
There are two types of golfers on the Nationwide Tour. There are those on the rise, like Belleville's Jon Mills, who won last week's Canadian PGA Championship event in Cambridge.
Or there are those guys struggling to return to form, like Aurora's David Morland, who played a couple of years on the PGA Tour.
McLean feels he is in the first group, seeing as this is his first year on the Nationwide Tour, but he's aware that at 34, he could also be nearing the end of his time as a pro golfer.
These days, making cuts isn't his only struggle. Finding sponsors willing to ante up for a struggling pro is tough. McLean is aware part of his problem is his location.
While a number of golf writers have been flown to Thunder Bay to test out Whitewater, McLean is there by choice, having married a local. The difficulty is that the city is a long way from the corporations that might bestow a lucrative sponsorship deal on an up-and-coming golfer.
To keep chasing his dream, McLean has racked up the credit cards and exhausted his savings.
"I've cashed in everything and sold everything just to keep going this year," he says, noting it has been a struggle, with his wife on maternity leave with their daughter.
McLean needs to make cuts in places like Omaha and Wichita just to support his family and help slow his growing debt load. He needs to make some putts. He may be 10th in driving distance, but he's back at 106th in putting.
"If I made 12 more putts a tournament, I'd make some money," he says, before blasting another tee shot into the ether.
It might yet happen for McLean.
In the meantime, he's not that different from every weekend hacker who tees it up praying this will be the round when it all comes together. McLean is hoping against hope that his game will hold together just long enough to make his struggles a thing of the past.
But if McLean doesn't make some money soon, he won't even be able to afford a trip this fall to the PGA Tour's qualifying school.
That would likely spell the end to his dream, he admits.
How can someone so clearly talented be so close, yet so far, from finding success?
That's the difficult part for every golfer, McLean says.
"People watch me hit the ball and say, 'Man, you hit it beautifully,' " he says on the phone a few days after our round in Thunder Bay.
"But that only adds to the frustration."

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

McBroom's Whitewater; McLay Kidd's St. Andrews; Canada's toughest holes

  • Had the opportunity on Tuesday to fly to Thunder Bay and play Tom McBroom's interesting new layout, called Whitewater. I've got to catch up on writing some course reviews at some point, but I'll say this for Whitewater -- it continues McBroom's progression of recent quality work. The standouts, to me, were the holes that played down toward the water -- specifically the 4th and 5th on the Forest nine, and the fine fourth on the River nine. Everything else was perfectly fine -- there are no clunkers out there -- but some of his was pretty standard parkland golf. Still, McBroom mixes it up with a short four, some long fours and a nice mix of threes. It would be interesting to see Tom get a bit more extreme with his greens, which are occasionally subtle to the point of being bland these days, but then he'd have to revisit his early years when he claims to have built wild, drug-induced greens. Still, Whitewater is a strong course in the same league as Peterborough's Wildfire and better than McBroom's work at Glencairn. Now if anyone gets to Thunder Bay to see it....
  • Canadian golf writer John Gordon has a list of Canada's toughest holes appearing on Sportsnet's website. You can find it here. Like any list, it is open to debate, but it isn't a bad one.
  • SI's Gary Vansickle writes an interesting take on the new course at St. Andrews, being designed by David McLay Kidd, who was responsible for Bandon Dunes. Best quote from the story: Everything else I've done, there wasn't much pressure. Bandon Dunes, who the hell knew who I was? After that, it's been relatively no pressure. Maybe developers wondered, 'Is he a one-hit wonder and am I going to have to fire him halfway through and hire Tom Fazio?' You can find the entire story here.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Canadian Jon Mills wins; Watson takes it at windy Aberdeen

  • A collection of golf odds and sods this morning.
  • Canadian Jon Mills managed a strong Sunday to win the Nationwide Tour event at Whistlebear Golf Club in Cambridge, Ont. He follows in the steps of David Hearn, who won the Nationwide Event in Alberta last year. The win assures Mills a spot in the Top 20 on the Nationwide and a chance to play on the big show, the PGA Tour, next year. Mills might just be the real deal. While Hearn has struggled for much of his rookie year, Mills hits the ball a ton and could be one of those long hitters who excels on the PGA Tour. We'll see....
  • At a windy, nasty Royal Aberdeen, Tom Watson managed to hold off a charging Shark and an Irishman to take the British Senior title. Nice to see Watson play so well on a links, the type of golf course where he made his reputation. Des Smyth lost to Watson in a playoff. Interesting that Aberdeen, which is not a long golf course, played so tough. Too bad the British Open hasn't seen the kind of wind that hit this eastern Scottish course during almost every round.
  • The Battle of the Bridges, apparently the last for a while, will be played this evening. Ho-hum. I never found this made-for-TV event to be compelling enough to watch in the first place. John Daly plays with Tiger Woods. Yawn. Retief Goosen? My god. Phil Mickelson? Who tunes in to watch this?
  • Golfweek magazine is reporting that the Oct. 13-16 LPGA Samsung World Championship in California is going to be Michelle Wie's professional debut. The magazine also said Wie was in line to sign a multiyear deal with Nike in the neighborhood of $10-million dollars. Maybe then we'll actually find out who pays all of Wie's expenses -- cause her dad is paying for a private jet to France on a professor's salary.
  • Speaking of Wie, Frank Hannigan at has an interesting column that suggests maybe Wie will skip the US Amateur because her father is worried that her value will decline if she loses again. Might be something to this. Wie is playing in the Women's British Open this week, and will find it tough to make a starting time at the amateur, without the aid of -- you guessed it -- a private jet.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Carlsbad Confidential goes official

Some time ago, Carlsbad Confidential, once an insider blog of the eMarketing manager at TaylorMade, became an "official" blog called TMaginsider.
I'm not really sure of the value of an "official" blog and I don't really see much on Carlsbad that is really different from what was there before. But they aren't really taking any shots at their competitors, something the site used to do a fair bit.
And, of course, they've dropped their links, so other golf blogs are completely ignored. All of which suggests to me that the company simply doesn't have much of a sense of how the blogsphere works.

Friday, July 22, 2005

TV deal signals crunch time for Canadian Open

This is my National Post golf column from today's paper. It only ran in the national edition.

TV deal signals crunch time for Canadian Open: Change of dates vital to regaining lost prestige
National Post Friday, July 22, 2005
Page: B12 Section: Sports Byline:
Robert Thompson Column: On Golf
Last week, as the Open Championship played out at the legendary Old Course in St. Andrews, another battle was brewing behind the scenes.
While Tiger Woods was waltzing with the Claret Jug, according to reports, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was furiously working the backrooms as part of preliminary negotiations for a new television deal.
Finchem is under a tremendous amount of pressure to come up with a deal that rivals the US$900-million arrangement he was able to lock up four years ago. A new deal is proving difficult to nail down, even with a resurgent Woods bringing casual sports fans back to the game.
The problem is those same fans aren't interested in watching any event that doesn't have Nike's favourite son, or maybe teen superstar Michelle Wie, in prominent view. That means events like this week's US Bank Championship in Milwaukee fly completely under the radar. Sponsors aren't happy and TV ratings for these events are poor. It's not exactly a situation conducive to selling a big TV deal.
The lack of superstars, who often play no more than 20 events a year, is a significant issue for a great majority of PGA Tour events. This week, for example, Kenny Perry is the only golfer of any note teeing it up. Phil Mickelson, Woods, Ernie Els and even Vijay Singh, who plays very often, have all skipped the tournament.
With this in mind, reports have said Finchem is considering slashing the number of events the tour plays and closing the year at the end of September.
Sources have apparently leaked word Finchem wants the rainy Players Championship moved to May and the Tour Championship to follow the Deutsche Bank Championship in early September.
Interestingly, there was no mention of the Canadian Open in reports, but speculation places the Deutsche Bank event in the spot currently held by Canada's top pro golf outing.
It has been 15 years since the Canadian Open had a strong date on the PGA Tour schedule. For some time the event was moved between May, June and July, allowing the Royal Canadian Golf Association to rotate the event around many of Canada's great courses depending on weather conditions. When the even was moved to a permanent September date in 1990, it also limited the ability of the RCGA to take the tournament outside of Toronto or Montreal, largely because of weather concerns.
So where does the Canadian Open fit in a reconfigured PGA Tour schedule? Given its poor fields in recent years, is it potentially a tournament that could be dropped?
RCGA tournament director Bill Paul said there is no way the Canadian Open will disappear from the PGA Tour's list of events. He's been told that much by Finchem.
"We are definitely in their plans," Paul said. "It is no surprise that Tim is looking at a whole series of scenarios for this. But it is all very preliminary."
It is no secret the RCGA has been lobbying to move the date of the Canadian Open in an attempt to regain lost prestige. Though it was never considered in the same realm as the majors, the Canadian Open did draw outstanding fields for most of its history. Then it was moved to September and found a near-permanent location at Toronto's Glen Abbey and those fields quietly disappeared.
Paul said Finchem is probably considering all options when it comes to securing a new TV deal.
"I'm sure he's just discussing this at a preliminary level with a number of networks. But TV is the tour's biggest source of income and I'm sure he's looking at a bunch of ways to improve the product."
Paul won't let on whether improving the product includes a new date for the Canadian Open that would enable it to move to Calgary, Winnipeg and the East Coast. Arranging the tour's schedule is a difficult, political matter and must be handled with some delicacy. But there is a good chance the Canadian Open could be better off as part of a new TV deal, Paul said.
"We need a couple of other dominos to fall before we'll know anything for certain," he said.
Let's hope the dominos tumble in the direction that allows the Canadian Open to regain some of its lost glory.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Greg Norman at Royal Aberdeen

Greg Norman will tee it up this week at Royal Aberdeen as part of the Senior British Open. It should be interesting to watch as Aberdeen is a truly great links, situated right next to Murcar, a course I played in 2003.
Also worth noting that when I interviewed Norman last year, he didn't seem very keen on playing much senior tour golf. Apparently he's changed his mind.

Here's my story on Greg from last summer:

Norman extends career designs beyond leaderboard: Thriving golf-related businesses keep him quite busyNational Post Wednesday, June 2, 2004 Page: S10 Section: Sports Byline: Robert Thompson Column: On Golf Source: National Post
Though it may not be obvious to the average golf fan, Greg Norman is every bit as busy these days as he was when he carried the title of No. 1 player on the PGA Tour.
It is just that Norman's focus is less on driving golf balls and more about driving his businesses: clothing, residential development and even wine.
But a big portion of that business is golf architecture. The two- time British Open champion was in Canada last week to scout a site in Fernie, B.C., a project that will see him design a public golf course called Blackstone as part of a real estate development. It is the third Canadian project to which Norman has attached his name (the other two are in Fort Erie, Ont., and Vancouver.)
"It is a magnificent site, one that doesn't come along all that often," he said in an interview. "It is a mixture of tough topography with dark timber and valleys. A site like this is few and far between."
Norman walked the site for the first time last week after flying up from Florida. While some PGA Tour players use golf course design as a marketing arrangement, for Norman it is a labour of love. Though he is contracted to be on site a certain number of times, Norman says he can show up more than 20 times on some jobs.
"I dedicate a lot of my time to it and I spend a lot of my time talking about different routings with my guys. But I'm very hands-on and the most important part to me is seeing a virgin site. You get so much more out of it than simply looking at a map."
While it is unusual to see a PGA Tour player venture away from traditional tour stops to see classic courses, Norman has toured remote sites to witness the best golf has to offer. That means he has taken days out of his busy schedule to see rustic gems such as Scotland's Machrihanish and Royal Dornoch.
That has led Norman to take a more natural approach to designing golf courses, something he expects to employ at Blackstone.
"It is a huge turn off to me when I hear about some guy moving two million yards of land to create a course. I want to work with the least disturbance."
The Shark has tried the minimal approach at Doonbeg, an Irish course that has seen its share of controversy.
"I like to see what was on the minds of classic designers and use some of that in my projects.
"Technology hasn't made a lot of classic courses obsolete because of the factors that made them great in the first place."
While his playing schedule has been cut significantly, Norman, 49, likes to remain competitive. That means he will play some events to get in shape for the British Open. It also means he's considering coming to Oakville, Ont., in September to play the Canadian Open, an event he has won twice.
"That's one of the things I'm trying to work out at the moment."
Norman doesn't understand why people think he should be playing more, specifically teeing it up on the Senior PGA Tour.
He admits the idea doesn't hold a lot of attraction for him.
"Golf is not everything for me now, the way it was in my 20s or 30s. Now I like working with my businesses and growing them. It is a different challenge. But I set a plan together in 1993 and I'm following it."

News: Who pays Wie's expenses; PGA Tour to change TV schedule?

  • There's an interesting piece in USA Today about how Michelle Wie's expenses work. Interesting in that the story doesn't really present many specific examples of how her father, a professor, pays for her $100,000+ in yearly expenses so she can tour all over the world playing golf as a pseudo-amateur. You can read the story here. Wie's father, B.J., says: "I pay all expenses, except those we are allowed to take. Sometimes we stay in a host family house. Sometimes we get courtesy cars." The question is, where does he get the cash. Wie's mother is in real estate, so maybe that's where it comes from. The story doesn't ask whether B.J. has been made a "consultant" to one of the big sports agencies, like IMG, which is how Earl Woods paid for Tiger's amateur career. Apparently the USGA is so concerned about the situation that David Fay has sit downs with the family to discuss what amateur status means. I wonder how many people get to have dinner with the head of the USGA just so they are clear on who they can and can't take money from?
  • Apparently Tim Finchem is seriously considering shortening the PGA Tour season, according to ESPN. Wonder where this will leave the Canadian Open? There's no mention of it in the story, but there is talk of ending the tour in September and having the Tour Championship follow Tiger's Deutsche Bank event in Boston, which is where the Canadian Open currently sits. This could be good for the Open, especially if it got a summer date that allowed the tournament to be moved around Canada more easily.

British Open heading to Turnberry, back to the Old Course

The R&A, in their wisdom, have named all the courses to hold the Open Championship for the next five years.
As previously announced, Royal Liverpool will hold next year's event, followed by Carnoustie. Then back to Birkdale.
Interestingly, it now appears Turnberry, surely one of the prettiest golf courses in the world, will now hold the 2009 event, assuming they can do something about improving the roads leading to the course. I actually find it a bit surprising that this is such an issue -- especially since St. Andrews itself isn't the easiest place in the world to get to. Turnberry does have some narrow roads leading to it, but its location, 45 minutes from Glasgow, should help when it comes to accommodations.
Will Turnberry be up to the task? It isn't a long golf course, but its location typically has more wind than other British Open sites, which could provide some defense. In four years, pro golfers will probably be averaging 350 yards off the tee, so there will be a lot of flip wedges at Turnberry.
The 2010 event, according to R&A head Peter Dawson, will be played at the Old Course. No surprise there, I suppose. Despite the low winning total, the course was a fair test of golf. But in five years, I assume we'll have tees set up all over the other courses that surround TOC. Otherwise, how will they find the distance needed?

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Tiger Woods wins a yawner

So Tiger Woods wins at the Old Course again. Don't hate me just because I found today's round so dull. So dull, in fact, that I went out and hit some balls at a nearby range.
I like watching Tiger, and I love the Old Course, but can't someone -- anyone really -- set up and challenge him? He wasn't even playing that well and this championship became a cakewalk. Colin Montgomerie played very well, but let's admit it -- Monty ain't major championship material. He's a very good player who is in over his head when it comes to the majors. Jose Maria Olazabal was pathetic -- now he's someone I expected more from. Despite all the talk from the TV commentators about his "world class short game," Ollie is a streaky putter at best and fumbled around all of Sunday with his erratic driving putting even more pressure on his fabled chipping ability.
So who is going to step up? An aging Fred Couples with his gimpy back? Where was all of the other so-called "Big Four?" Way down the leaderboard, that's where. And Retief Goosen is quickly becoming unable to put together even a marginal final round.
On the plus side, Michael Campbell and Ian Poulter had fine final rounds. But they were so far back, it hardly mattered.
See the entire leaderboard

Here's my National Post golf column that appeared on Friday. Given Tiger's win at well below par, I still think this commentary is bang on:

Robert Thompson

On Golf

It may be heresy, but golf’s most famed course appears to be nearing its end as a challenging championship venue. That’s right, St. Andrews’ historic Old Course is on the verge of being overwhelmed, even after the Royal and Ancient made considerable changes to toughen it for pros that continue to hit the ball farther and farther.

The problem of distance is out of hand. Hank Kuehne, on his way to a second place finish last week at the John Deere Classic, hit his last two tee shots over 350 yards. And he doesn’t even lead the tour in driving distance this year. The course was not a pushover yesterday, but it was not the challenge it once was. The 14th hole, which now plays into the Eden Course, lengthening the par five to a total of 618 yards, was reachable by most of the field. Several other holes, including the 18th, offered little in the way of risk for players trying for the green.

Interestingly, for much of its history the Old Course sat largely untouched when it came to distance. After being lengthened to slightly more than 6,800 yards in the 1930s, the course was considered a strong challenge for anyone willing to chance hitting it into bunkers with names like Hell or any of the other 111 sand hazards that dot the fairways. It was lengthened a few times in more recent years in an attempt to keep it relevant as golf balls started travelling farther. But in 2000, Tiger Woods simply took the course apart, something he appears on track to do again after an opening-round 66.

Five years ago, Woods didn’t once have to wander into the bunkers during his four rounds. And Tiger wasn’t playing the course in the fashion Bobby Jones had in 1930 when he won the British Open by playing his tee shots on the home holes to the left in order to avoid the bunkers. Woods just hit the ball over the trouble. On a course where subtly is the rule of the day, Woods managed to overpower it, not unlike John Daly’s win in St. Andrews five years earlier. To the R&A’s credit, the organization realizes the golfing public won’t put up with wholesale changes or bunker moves that would dramatically alter the configuration of the most famous course in the world.

After all, pros only fight for the Open on the Old Course twice in a decade; amateurs pay hundreds of dollars to play it almost every day. It is the seemingly random pattern of bunkers that provides the barricades for the amateurs. By moving some tees, the R&A hoped some of the bunkers would be brought back into play for the pros. But former British Open champion Peter Thomson followed Tiger Woods around in a practice round and was stunned by the distance the Masters champ was hitting the ball. “The results were astonishing,” Thomson wrote. Even at the 17th, once a monster at 455 yards, many players are hitting fairway woods or irons off the tee. Distance isn’t an issue when one can hit a 3-wood 290 yards. If the powers that control professional golf aren’t going to deal with the distance the ball travels, then they will probably have to give up their aim of protecting par. And recognize that the Old Course is another victim of golf technology.

That’s not the end of the world, like some at the USGA and R&A would like you to think — just a sign of continuing evolution, for better or worse, of the game of golf. National Post

Friday, July 15, 2005

Weir misses the cut; Tiger, Monty surge

I must admit to having enjoyed watching the Open today. It is always more interesting to watch a tournament on a course with which one is familiar. I don't know Old Course, but I do have a pretty good sense of it.
That said, Tiger continues to bomb it over everything and that's going to make him pretty hard to catch. Singh would be right there with him if he manage to make a putt or two. Interesting to see Colin Montgomerie playing so well. Now a win by Monty would be quite the story after all the incidents (re: divorce, bad drop) he's been through over the last two years. Still, it'll probably be Tiger in a walk. Unless the wind blows -- we can only hope.
That said, one player who won't be in the field come the weekend is Mike Weir. After another pathetic round, Canada's favourite son is heading on holiday and then back to Utah. On his website, Weir says every part of his game has issues these days. That saying a l0t. What's his swing coach, Mike Wilson, doing if there are so many problems? Weir says he may not play until the PGA Championship, which seems counterintuitive. Wouldn't it make more sense to work some of these problems out in a tournament before heading to another major?
Maybe Canadians will have to start owning up to the fact that Weir might not be as great as we think. He's had a good run, and at 35 could do it again, but he's had two straight off years.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

So Lorne Rubenstein offers a bit of a defense of Mike Weir in his column in the Globe and Mail today. I didn't know there were so many people down on Mike, as Rubenstein seems to suggest.
As I posted last week, Weir hasn't made any putts, and that's not good enough for a guy who isn't long off the tee to start with.
Weir said he's working very hard. I expect he is. But he only managed a 74 today and maybe it is time for him to consider shaking things up a touch. How many cuts can you miss before you admit there's a problem?

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

More on the Old Course and the Open Championship

  • Windsorite Jeff Mingay writes an interesting take on the Old Course for Jeff's a friend and an aspiring golf architect. Of course he's like one of a million architects to write on the Old Course, but so what? It is interesting nonetheless.
  • My collegues at the Globe and Mail go nuts on the Open. Mike Weir "writes" in his diary for the paper about playing a round with Nicklaus, Watson and Kenny Perry. Not particularly insightful though. Who writes this stuff for him? Mike Grange? Here's another story on Weir's round with the Bear.
  • The R&A were so worried that after 150 years the Old Course was becoming obsolete that they went ahead and made a bunch of changes. Now former Open champ Peter Thomson says the changes won't make any difference -- Tiger and the like will still bomb it over them. Ugh.

Farewell to a titan: Nicklaus retiring at open

Farewell to a titan: Nicklaus retiring at open
National Post Tuesday, July 12, 2005 Page: SR11 Section: Special Report: Post Golf Byline: Robert Thompson Source: National Post
Like Arnold Palmer before him, expect a huge ovation at this British Open when Jack Nicklaus crosses the fabled Swilcan Bridge for the last time, pausing only to dry his eyes and wave to the crowds.
For Nicklaus, who has won the Open Championship three times, it will be his final appearance at the tournament. Now 65, well past his prime and in his final year of eligibility as a past champion, Nicklaus' trips around St. Andrews are part of the end of a legendary career that many contend is the best in golf.
Nicklaus announced his intention to end his competitive golf career at St. Andrews a few months ago, during a visit to a golf course he was designing in the United Kingdom.
"From a tournament standpoint that will be it for me," Nicklaus said at the time. "I will play a few skins games and father-sons, but from any kind of tournament involvement, that's it."
The Royal and Ancient, the caretakers of the British Open, thought so much of Nicklaus that they apparently altered the rotation of British Open courses so that his final rounds would be at the Old Course, where he had won twice (his other win came at Muirfield).
Nicklaus has made some remarkable appearances at St. Andrews in the past. Six years after his first sighting of the Old Course, Nicklaus returned to St. Andrews in 1970 having gone without a major championship win in three years.
On the Old Course's difficult closing stretch, Nicklaus battled Doug Sanders in an 18-hole playoff. It was the scene of a rare outburst of emotion on The Golden Bear's part when, on the final hole of the playoff, he made birdie to beat Sanders and flung his putter high in the air.
After narrowly losing the "duel under the sun" to Tom Watson at Turnberry in 1977, Nicklaus returned to the Old Course to best Simon Owen and claim his third and final British Open title.
Nicklaus' final appearance at St. Andrews has also generated some negative publicity when the town council refused to give him the so-called "freedom of St. Andrews." The town had previously awarded the privilege to Bobby Jones and was criticized for not giving the same honour to Nicklaus.
Nicklaus expects his final competitive golf round to be a moving, difficult affair similar to his final U.S. Open round at Pebble Beach.
"I love St. Andrews. It's been a great part of my career. I expect I'll be just as emotional at St. Andrews,'' Nicklaus said, referring to his final Masters round this past spring. "I'm a sentimental old fool. I enjoy being part of history and what's going on, but I don't consider myself competitive any more. Hopefully, when I get to St. Andrews, I will have some kind of game. It won't be great, but I hope not to embarrass myself. I will enjoy it."
Nicklaus has admitted his fondness for the Old Course, though he still contends his favourite course in Scotland is Muirfield.
"I played the Old Course one time and loved it," Nicklaus recently wrote in Golf Digest. "It wasn't so much the architecture. There are only two holes I consider exceptional ... But what makes St. Andrews special is its unique feel. The way the Old Course begins in town and ends in the town."

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

More Open Championship

  • Padraig Harrington has withdrawn from the championship due to the death of his father.
  • There's a great story by Lawrence Donegan in the Guardian about the so-called "Nicklaus ball" and how much tougher it is to play with a ball that travels as far as the one Jack hit in 1985. The ball says: "RIP Distance" on one side and "This is the ball Jack wants you to hit" on the other. Donegan doesn't name the company that manufactured the ball, but I'd put my money on Titleist. Who else makes more money from golf ball sales? Either way, the story, which has Gary Orr playing the "old" ball against a Pro V1, is a fascinating read.
  • Geoff Shackelford has an interesting take on "Tigerball." In fact, Geoff's website has several interesting notes on the Open Championship, including the fact the R&A had to use parts of four St. Andrews golf courses to gain the length needed to keep the Old Course viable. This is stupid. Jack is right.

The Open Championship: Playing the Old Course

The Open Championship is my favourite of the majors. Perhaps not surprisingly given that, I've had a chance to play many of the venues. This story appeared in the National Post today -- largely written about my two experiences at the Old Course. It is an amazing site and a great golf course, regardless of what anyone says.

Playing on sacred soil: The historic Old Course at Scotland's St. Andrews is considered the birthplace of golfNational Post Tuesday, July 12, 2005 Page: SR6 Section: Special Report: Post Golf Byline: Robert Thompson Source: National Post
There is nothing more daunting than showing up on the first tee of the Old Course at St. Andrew's. It is the home of golf, the place where the game is said to have originated, but that is only one factor that contributes to the nerves of golfers.
The reality is the location, just on the outskirts of St. Andrews' busy downtown streets, and the resulting meandering tourists, are the real reason golfers get butterflies, even when hitting a tee shot into a fairway that is wider than a football field. No one wants to top a ball while playing golf. But topping a tee shot on one of the most famous courses in the world, in front of dozens of spectators, is simply more than the delicate psyches of most golfers can handle.
Perhaps because the opening tee shot looks so easy, the caddies of St. Andrews feel obliged to start telling tales of the disasters they've seen on the first hole at The Old Course.
The first time I had the chance to play St. Andrews was with my brother and two friends, three years ago. The tee time was 6:30 a.m. and there was a nip in the air, even though it was May. Without warming up, our group stepped up to the first tee, took the requisite photos that seem to be snapped by every foursome playing the course and waited to have our names announced by the starter.
Just before our opening shots, one of our caddies, in his heavy Scottish accent, felt the need to tell us how Ian Baker-Finch, the former British Open winner, managed the remarkable feat of hitting a ball out of bounds from the first tee and into one of St. Andrews' fabled streets during the 1995 tournament. Then he regaled us with a tale about the Japanese tourist who hit three out of bounds and then three more into the burn that fronts the first green. And then there was ... You get the picture.
On that biting day, I stood shivering in the howling wind coming from the Scottish coast, just an hour after sun-up. Strangely, given the conditions, I was about to become the envy of a large number of my friends.
After all, I had done the unthinkable: obtained a slot for four on The Old Course at St. Andrews, the most famous golf course in the world. St. Andrews is also famous for being one of the most difficult places to actually get a round. Players often book more than a year in advance or pay thousands for one of the package tours that take them to the fairways of the birthplace of golf.
In conditions that rival Canada in November, I hooked my first drive down the larger-than-life fairway. Ten minutes later, I had recorded my first par at The Old Course.
Because of the difficulty in getting a tee time at St. Andrews, players travel all over the world, line up at ungodly early hours and sometimes pay thousands to gain access to its legendary fairways. When my group went to St. Andrews, ostensibly a public golf course owned by the town of St. Andrews, we left Canada without a tee time, willing to try our hand at the ballot system that distributes half the rounds at The Old Course.
If that failed, we were willing to go to extreme lengths to get our round. One famed golf pro, now a prominent television announcer, told me the way on to St. Andrews was to bribe the starter.
How much should I offer? "It depends on how hungover the starter is," was the reply.
The thought I might offend someone at the home of golf dissuaded me from that plan.
While demand makes it extremely hard to play The Old Course, it is still a public facility. So available to the public, in fact, that cars drive across the first fairway and townspeople can regularly be seen walking dogs or pushing prams along its fairways. The Old Course, you see, is built on public land, which means it belongs to the town.
With this democratic notion in mind, the Old Course uses a ballot to give hopeful players the opportunity to hit a ball into the Sands of Nakajima, the bunker that sits next to the green at the 17th hole.
Luck was with us, as we were selected for the ballot on our first try.
Unlike most public courses, St. Andrews requires players to have a degree of skill and to carry a handicap card from a noted golf organization. Men must play to 24, meaning they will regularly shoot around 96, and women as high as 36, meaning they are not likely to break triple-digit scores. No handicap card, no golf -- that's the rule at St. Andrews.
After having your handicap card scrutinized, players must fork over a credit card and the equivalent of around $250. Once through, players can head to the first tee.
On the course, golfers experience an otherworldly take on the game. Sure, St. Andrews is a links, roughly translating to an out-and-back golf course played on sandy soil next to the sea. Beyond that, it is unlike any golf course most have played.
Many dislike The Old Course their first time. Bobby Jones struggled during his first rounds. Sam Snead thought it wildly overrated. But both came to appreciate the quirkiness and delight offered by the course.
What makes St. Andrews special? Certainly, the holes themselves are unique. Lined by gorse, a thorny bush, each hole at St. Andrews offers its own strange take on the game.
Take, for example, the second hole. Unlike most North American holes that clearly dictate the way a golfer should play them, the second at The Old Course has a blind tee shot to a bumpy fairway. Hit it far enough and you are left with an approach to a green with a small hill fronting it. It looks simple enough, but disaster lurks in the gorse and the difficult green.
Three holes later, the par-5 fifth offers a rolling, lumpy fairway and a massive green that is 100 yards deep. It is unlike anything you'll find in North America.
Given this strangeness, if you're tackling The Old Course for the first time, you should be prepared to ante up for caddies, which cost around $75, plus tip, which usually amounts to another $20 to $25. Without a caddy, you'll likely struggle to find your way around the course with its blind tee shots, massive double greens and convoluted routing.
The caddies will help you find your way around the particularly treacherous back nine, where the Hell Bunker on the par-5 14th, a hole lengthened for the Open, snatches balls up, often holding on to them for a couple of strokes.
Playing the final two holes at The Old Course, the famed 17th "Road Hole" and the short 18th, is something every dedicated golfer dreams about. The 17th, a 461-yard par 4, starts with an improbable blind tee shot that must fly over a maintenance shed and precariously close to the Old Course Hotel to find the fairway. Not surprisingly, shots regularly smash windows at the hotel.
If you survive "the sands of Nakajima," the famed Road Hole bunker where Tommy Nakajima required five shots to escape in 1978 and David Duval took four shots to make the green, then you face the crowds that form around the 18th, which plays right up to the edge of town. Locals and tourists sit on benches watching golfers hit shots from "the Valley of Sin" and attempt to not embarrass themselves in front of the throng.
I've had the chance to tackle the course twice and still haven't had time to take in all of the nuances and details of the world's most famous golf venue.
While the pros tee it up at St. Andrews for free, everyday players pay almost $350 for the privilege. That's $700 I've paid to play The Old Course, without taking into account travel and accommodation costs.
It was worth every penny.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Sean O'Hair say it ain't so

I like Sean O'Hair. He is a gutsy player who has gone through a lot, turned a corner and come out the other side. Yesterday he shot 65 to win the John Deere Classic. His round included a fine up-and-down on the 18th to take the title, while poor JL Lewis couldn't manage even a par after hitting it over the par five 17th in two. Ugh.
So why did I come away so disappointed with O'Hair's win? Well, mainly because of the post-round interview. When told his win qualifies him to play in the British Open this week, O'Hair said he'd have to think about whether he'd go over to play. What? What's to think about? He just won $1-million, so I think he can afford a first class flight to London. Bet you the Tour will even help him with a place to stay. And he'd get to play the Old Course! What could be better? Playing in the BC Open, a crap tournament no one cares about?
This should have been a feel good story, but O'Hair seems to be another golf pro with little understanding of the history of the game, the importance of the British Open and St. Andrews. When asked whether he was going to play at the home of golf, O'Hair should have said he was thrilled to have qualified and that he'd be on the first plane out. He didn't. That puts him in with the likes of Fred Funk, Scott Hoch and Rocco Mediate as players who qualified for the Open Championship, but chose to stay home. It is disgraceful.
Here's a story on O'Hair that makes a big deal about him qualifying for the British. Now let's hope he gets his head on straight and goes to play.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Weir's putter sputters -- Canada's best golfer enroute to mediocre year

Today's National Post golf column:

Once solid Weir now showing cracks: Former Masters champ's putter continues to sputter'
National Post Friday, July 8, 2005 Page: S7 Section: Sports Byline: Robert Thompson Column: On Golf Source: National Post
It is like a strange golf version of Where's Waldo? In this case, however, it is called 'Where's Weir?' or, more specifically, 'Where's Weir's game?' Can you spot it among the myriad mediocre PGA Tour pros? Probably not. Canada's favourite golfing star appears to have wilted in the summer heat, the lefty has been disappearing from leaderboards more often than any point since his rookie year.
Weir has missed six cuts this year, and has not played on the weekend in five of his last six tournaments. Last year, he missed only six cuts all year.
At the U.S. Open last month, Weir seemed to be blaming a neck problem stemming from an incident with a fan at the Canadian Open the previous September for some of his struggles.
His neck may be bothering him, but it is his putter -- he is ranked 160th on the greens -- and the six-inch space between his ears that are holding him back. Weir was 24th in putting last year, down from 11th in his breakthrough year of 2003 but still respectable enough to put him in the hunt at two majors and help him win at Riviera.
The wheels were hanging on, but they were pretty wobbly by the time September, and the Canadian Open, rolled around. Under the pressure of leading in the final round, Weir's putter faltered badly down the stretch. And during a playoff against Vijay Singh, with the opportunity to become the first Canadian to win since Pat Fletcher 50 years earlier, Weir's putter let him down again.
The Canadian Open may have been the tipping point for Weir. Though not a long hitter, he manages to find a lot of fairways, which has translated into a strong greens in regulation ratio. But so far this year the putter has been a disaster. And you're not going to win very often if you can't put the little white ball in the cup.
Weir admitted earlier this year that he was struggling with his game even as he took Singh into extra holes at Glen Abbey last September.
"Last year, I didn't feel like my golf game was in a very good place," he said on a conference call at the start of the year. "I was able to have stats and the money list and a win that all looked good, but deep down, I knew my game wasn't very good."
In order to be consistent, Weir decided he would have to play more regularly in 2005. It looked like a good strategy at the start, when he finished second at the AT&T at Pebble Beach and ground his way to a fifth-place result at the Masters, a nice return after missing the cut while defending his title in 2004.
Then nothing.
With the exception of a marginal showing at the U.S. Open, where he scrambled to make the cut, Weir has faltered badly. It all comes down to his putter, as he acknowledged last month at Pinehurst.
"When you are not making putts, the game plan just kind of goes out the window," Weir told reporters. "You play a smart shot and you three-putt then you say, 'What did I do that for, I ended up making bogey anyway?' "
Canadians always expect a lot out of their stars. Weir is no exception, and after winning the Masters in 2003, he was quickly heralded as the Tiger Woods of Canada.
The only problem is that Weir doesn't have the talent of Woods or Phil Mickelson. He doesn't hit it like Vijay Singh or have the grace of Ernie Els. Maybe the reality is that Mike Weir was destined to be a minor golfing star, a grinder whose time at the top of the leaderboard in a major championship is already behind him. That may well be the case, and he will always have his green jacket.
But there are a lot of people in this country counting on the fact the gritty little lefthander who plays with a will that overcomes any physical limitations can regain his putting stroke and prove that his dominating performance two years ago wasn't a fluke.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Impact of terrorist attacks on The Open; Thompson equals "Canada's golf god"

  • The terrorist attacks in London today were an awful reminder that these sorts of things can happen anywhere, anytime. The Sept. 11 attacks shut down the Ryder Cup. I wonder what sort of impact today's attacks could have on St. Andrews next week? The Scottish Open is being played at Loch Lomond this week and the attacks haven't led to a disruption. But the G8 summit is right down the road from St. Andrews at Gleneagles, and god knows what more might be coming.
  • Thomas Dunne, a writer I enjoy with T&L Golf has just published a story on golf in Holland. Worth a read. Check it out here.
  • More strangeness from, this one courtesy of tabloid writer Chris Baldwin (and I'm not joking about that). Anyway, he apparently wants to keep his position at, so he blogged an odd piece about me. The short of it is that he's a big fan of Tim McDonald. Oh, and he calls me Canada's Golf God, a title that is already held by Lorne Rubenstein. And he doesn't understand that I write a once-weekly column and can't get everything in I want every week. Read Baldwin's rant here. These guys don't blog much about golf lately -- I'm their favourite subject.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Want to caddy at the Open Championship? Try eBay

More eBay craziness, with an Aussie tour pro (the unheralded David Diaz) offering someone a chance to loop for him at the Open at the Old Course -- for a price. Right now it is $20,000 (Aus) and rising, so apparently there are some people out there willing to kick out the cash to caddy for two rounds in a major championship. I must admit it does sound pretty cool. If Diaz wins, which is about as likely as some guy named Ben Curtis winning, he'll even give you the standard 10% of his winnings, which would be a nice tidy sum. However, if he doesn't make the cut, which is more likely, then be prepared to cover your costs in getting to St. Andrews, as well as your accommodations.
See the listing here.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Rory Sabbatini was right -- here's why

My golf column from the National Post last week:

Time has come to lose the 'Ludes, dudes: Too many people playing golf at a tranquilized pace
National Post
Rory Sabbatini was right. Three weeks after it occurred,vthere's still plenty of talk about Sabbatini's supposed breach ofvetiquette at the Booz Allen Classic, where he was paired with Ben Crane.
Toward the end of the round at Congressional, the twosome had been warned about slow play. Now slow play is endemic on the PGA Tour, so to receive a warning, one has to play like a tortoise on Quaaludes -- which is exactly how Crane, a standout on the Nationwide Tour, plays the game of golf. Imagine Sergio Garcia at his waggle peak, and then accentuate the problem, and you'll get a pretty clear picture of Crane. His slow play, which even he acknowledges, drives his playing partners crazy.
According to the PGA Tour's rules, a golfer is first warned for slow play. If it happens twice during the same round, the player receives a one-shot penalty and a US$5,000 fine. On the third offence, he receives a two-shot penalty and a US$10,000 fine; the fourth offense brings disqualification.
For a faster golfer, which is Sabbatini's reputation, slow play can throw off his entire round, which appears to have been the case during his time with Crane.
With that in mind, Sabbatini decided to deal with the matter on his own. On the 17th hole, he hit his approach over the green. Instead of waiting for Crane for hit, the South African golfer went up to the green and chipped on. He then putted out and walked to the 18th hole, where he teed off. All of which happened while Crane, who was in the hunt to win the tournament, was still finishing the 17th hole.
The press and casual golfers have been all over Sabbatini since the incident. He's been called an egomaniac, and criticized for breaking golf's dearly held code of etiquette. The pundits say one is never supposed to play ahead of your partner regardless of how slow he is.
All of which is ridiculous. What Sabbatini really did was shine a light on a problem that is plaguing both professional and amateur golf: the slow round.
Even Crane realized he was the one to blame for the incident and said he is "working hard" to fix his slow play.
"Rory wanted to keep playing, and that's fine," Crane told reporters after the round. "I understand he's frustrated, and I feel bad. I can't change the situation, but I am the one who caused the problem."
Amateur golfers want to emulate professionals, lining up putts from every angle and listening to Golf Digest instructors who insist they have a lengthy pre-shot routine. Then they see Crane, a successful PGA Tour pro, or Bernhard Langer -- both of whom make time appear to stand still -- and figure that if it works for the pros, it must work for the hacker teeing it up at his local muni on Sunday morning.
All of this leads to golf played at a pace that is glacial (the five-hour round or worse) and is the antithesis of the game's origins in Scotland. Play some of Scotland's local courses and you'll regularly encounter signs on the first tee stating: "Golf is a game meant to be played in three and half hours." On some British courses that pace would actually be considered slow.
In North America, golfers have become accustomed to five-hour rounds. When you add in travel and time to warm up, a simple round of golf can take all day. The result of this is that many people are simply looking to other activities.
Maybe things will change.
Last week, Vijay Singh, a man known for his directness, blasted Barclays Classic officials at Westchester Country Club for not doing anything about slow play.
"It's slow. It's always slow here," Singh said after his opening round. It wasn't clear whether he meant is was slow just at Westchester or on all of the PGA Tour.
"It's ridiculous," he continued. "I mean you play a round of golf in five hours and wait on every shot. It's just like the officials are just blind. You don't see one out there. It ruins the rhythm of the play."
It isn't just Singh's game that's being ruined -- it is the golf experiences of the rest of us as well.
This is exactly why Rory Sabbatini shouldn't be derided for playing ahead of Ben Crane, but applauded.

GD's Ron Whitten on Eagles Nest, Bond Head

  • Golf Digest's Ron Whitten has posted a review of Eagles Nest and The Club at Bond Head, two new, and interesting clubs to open in the past year and a half in the Toronto area. It is an odd review for Whitten as it seems to have a lot to do with how the two courses beat him up, as opposed to the relative merits of the two properties. I came away uncertain of what Whitten thought of the two courses. I'd rather he hated both -- that would have made for an interesting (if indefensible) read. Instead, we get this milquetoast review that left me wondering what Whitten's opinion was. That makes for a bad review. My thoughts on the subject are more clear: Eagles Nest is a particularly stunning course, in my opinion, and in a recent feature I participated in on, we ranked in among the best courses in Canada.
  • In one of his last appearances in Canada (that won't include a ribbon cutting), Jack Nicklaus played some pretty good golf at IMG's Skins Game at Nicklaus North in Whistler, B.C. Though he was regularly well behind Vijay Singh, John Daly and token "Canadian" Stephen Ames off the tee, Nicklaus hit some good irons to get in strong positions on the green and then made some putts. Nice to see.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Oviinbyrd; sex and the LPGA; Jay Flemma departs from

  • I was busy playing the new, and hyper exclusive, Oviinbyrd yesterday. It is a Tom McBroom design (Tom was playing in the group behind us) in Muskoka owned by a partnership that includes former tech CEO Peter Schwartz, a friend whom I have known for several years. Decidedly (and rightly) proud of his golf course, Schwartz invited me up to check out the final product, as I had seen the course before it was complete last fall. I'll write a full review in coming days (when my daughter has allowed me more than 4 hours sleep!), but even eight months after I first saw it, I think Oviinbyrd's interesting fairway contours and wonderful bunkering rank it right alongside Bigwin Island as the best course in Northern Ontario. The final two holes are not the strongest on the course, but the other 16 are pretty damned impressive.
  • Apparently's Tim McDonald has given up bashing Jay Flemma (and me!) and has simply shut down his blog. Jay's regular blog is still up and running and he says there's a new affiliation coming soon. It appears the Travelgolf folks have stopped writing about blogs and have gone back to discussing golf. Interestingly, Travelgolf says it has ended Flemma's "blog career" at the site. Wow, that must have been a lucrative career. Who are these guys kidding?
  • Rick Arnett argues in SI that the LPGA needs some sex appeal to sell. It has been argued before, but there might be something to this. If they can't sell the tour with hot playing hot 20-somethings, the LPGA can never be sold. The tour has the best female player of all-time in Annika Sorenstam, and largely, the yawns can be heard far and wide. Something needs to change.
  • Lorne Rubenstein has gone back to Dornoch, site of his Season in Dornoch book from a few years back. I think the latest piece is a bit indulgent, but Rubenstein's love for Dornoch is obvious. And what's not to love about the place and the course? It is one of the most amazing golf experiences anywhere.

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