Sunday, June 29, 2008

There Are None To Replace Tiger

The comment I've heard most often from golf fans in the last week is 'I can't get excited about watching pro golf without Tiger'. I admit I'm feeling the same way. There's no interest without Tiger Woods. Why is that?

I believe the biggest thing separating Tiger from the rest of the field is not his play. It's his desire to win. He has had an objective for most of his life to be the best golfer that ever lived, not to just make his fortune playing golf. Between those two approaches lies a tremendous gulf. These days you can make a nice life for yourself playing pro golf. You don't even have to win to be a millionaire. Just be in the top 10 or so in a number of tournaments and get a few endorsement contracts and you can be as well off as you would be working on wall street. And, you get to spend most of your time outside instead of cooped up in an office. Plus you'll have a multi-million dollar home on an exclusive golf course and you'll be practicing your putting instead of producing PowerPoint slides. Nice work if you can get it, and nothing wrong with it.

But without players who want more than the lifestyle, without guys who want to be in the record books not much is going to change. Every week it's going to be someone else who gets the win, while last month's winners fade out. That doesn't breed excitement for viewers. Even my mother-in-law who doesn't play golf, is an avid golf fan because of Tiger. She asks me every week the channels and times of tournament coverage. Since Tiger left she doesn't ask anymore. Without Tiger there is no story and story is what keeps viewers involved. Is there another golfer out there somewhere you will stand up and say 'I'm going to win every time I play' or maybe 'I want to have 10x majors before I retire'? If there ever was an opportunity for someone to make a run, now is the time while Tiger is recuperating.

I'm looking forward to the British Open because it is The Open. After that I probably won't be interested until the Ryder Cup - unless someone steps up. The PGA? I just can't get excited. FedEx Cup? who really truly cares. It's regular golf with a bigger purse. I guess it's supposed to be like a horse race, but without Tiger the format has not provided a storyline so far.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Tiger Wood's ACL Repair

Tiger Woods had his ACL repaired this past Tuesday in Park City, Utah. It is now known that he originally tore it in 2007 while jogging after the British Open. So what's in store for him and how long will it take?

I had my own ACL repaired in 1994 and have some experience with skiers ACL surgeries when I was involved in ski area risk management. ACL repair is common for skiers and that's why some of the best doctors in the world for this surgery are in Vail, Colorado and Park City, Utah. From what I know, here's what Tiger will go through. Immediately after surgery, Tiger's left leg will be hooked up to a machine that continually flexes the knee joint. In a matter of only a few days he will start physical therapy. Most likely he's already been fitted for a knee brace that he will begin to wear in a couple of weeks. In the beginning he will only be able to do exercises that are closed chain, meaning his knee can only move in one plane such as when you ride a bike. At this stage it is important that the knee is not allowed to move laterally, such as happens when you walk on uneven ground.

I can't say where they got the new ligament for Tiger's repair as different surgeons have different philosophies on this. Sometimes it comes from your own body, mine was a piece of my patella tendon, and other times it's from a cadaver. Perhaps in 2008 they have other options. The repair itself is done arthroscopicly. The operation is fairly straight forward and takes less than an hour if there are no complications.

The biggest issue with recovery is the fact that tendons have limited blood supply which translates into a long time before they get to full strength. As I recall this takes well over a year. I had to wear a brace while skiing - as a preventative measure - for two years and then was able to go without. The danger for most recoveries is that the knee will feel great even though the tendon is not at full strength, enticing athletes to over stress the tendon and tear it again. This happened to a good friend of mine who was a ski racer and soccer player.

You can actually ski normally without your ACL. I tore mine playing softball and decided to wait until after ski season to have it repaired. I skied with a brace and felt just fine. Normal skiing is basically a closed link activity and done with bent knees so the ACL doesn't come into play that much. Most skier injuries occur when they fall. I'm no expert on the motion of the knee during the golf swing, but I haven't heard that it's a normal injury for golfers to tear ACL's. More normally they mess up their cartilage.

Ernie Els has never regained his form after having his ACL repaired when it was torn during a water skiing accident. I'm not sure anyone knows if his problems have anything to do with his injury. His swing certainly looks good and he doesn't appear to be in any pain. In my limited experience the ACL either works or it doesn't. There's not really a middle ground. The bottom line for Tiger is that the longer he waits to return next year, the better his chances will be to not tear his ACL again. So which major will he wait for?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

What George Carlin Would Say About Golf

Most of you know that the famous comedian George Carlin just passed away. My wife and I were watching one of his old specials last night and I got to thinking what Mr. Carlin - The Great Observer of Life - would say about golf. Here goes..

Why are so many people fascinated with the game of golf? It's a miserable game and most golfers will tell you as much after they've played their first hole. I think golf is really a stand-in for the great questions of our time, like 'what does it all mean?' or 'where do we go after we die?'. You see, these are questions that can't be answered. They go beyond the knowledge that any human has, even an Albert Einstein or a Socrates. The problem is that these questions are downright scary to think about. It's much better to think about something less threatening but equally as unknowable, like why can I hit a great shot one moment and a god awful pull hook the next.

Let's think about that. What other thing, sport or otherwise, do you learn one moment and then have absolutely zero skill in the next. Once you learn to pearl knit, you don't start losing control of your knitting needles only to jab the dog. I personally like to snow ski. I can't remember ever going backward in what I could do with skis. I've never seen anyone be able to parallel ski their first run only to find out that a snowplow was all they could muster the rest of the day. On the other hand, I dare you to show me the golfer who hasn't played terrific shots on a hole and then proceeded to play the rest of the round as if they were using a broom and a grapefruit.

Something else I've noticed about golf that keeps it forever in the category of 'life's great mysteries'. When playing a sport and things don't go so well, usually the players blame the conditons or equipment. If you go out to ski and can't control your skis very well it's because of bad conditions. No one comes in and admits 'I've lost it, I can't ski anymore'. But every golfer is faced with passing that judgment on themselves at some point in almost every round. Even Tiger Woods has his bad days. But he never blames it on the course. He doesn't tell reporters that he's driving the ball great, the problem is with the fairways.

Bottom line: we continue to play golf and alternate between the ridiculous and the sublime. One hole a par is so easy we believe we've finally found IT - the key to golf in the kingdom. The next hole we're one yanked putt away from chucking the golf bag off the nearest bridge. When is the last time you asked someone 'how's the game?' only to hear them say 'couldn't be better, this is the easiest game in the world'. Show me that person and I'll show you the golf course at the local sanitarium!

If you have a weak heart, I urge you to skip the this part! I'm going to talk about putting. Yes the easiest, hardest most mind boggling thing to do on the planet. Golf is such a kind game. The stroke that golfers make the most of during any round is the simplest - the putting stroke. You've finally covered hundreds of yards, overcome all manor of hazards to reach the promised land - a nicely manicured green carpet with a nice cup and flag on it to mark the golfer's final objective. You'd be proud to have a carpet in your home as finally groomed and cared for. All you have to do is take a nice flat bladed club, move it a few inches and gently knock your ball into said cup. There's no water, trees, sand or rough to get in the way, just a few undulations. It's so easy that this is the part of the game that children usually learn first. It's so easy that a five year old can do it with little effort. Oh don't we wish! In golf, what should be easiest is in fact the hardest. It's what ends most pros' careers. Though they've played and won tournaments their entire lives and still drive a golf ball 300 yards, all of a sudden it's impossible to knock in a three foot putt. Once mighty princes of the sport are reduced to beaten down castoffs. Broadcasters are loath to mention their names, because just the memory of someone with the yips can destroy an audience's good mood for a long time.

Golf is a great game, a crazy game, even a bit perverse and sometimes self-destructive. But it's a whole lot better than having to come face to face with the real mysteries of the universe.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Golf Is Hard On Your Body

There probably isn't anyone out there who has played golf for more than a year who doesn't agree that golf is physically tough. It's not bone jarring tough like the NFL, it just slowly takes its toll swing after swing, day after day. Maybe this is just one more reason that the sport can't seem to increase rounds played year over year.

Is there something inherent in the swing itself that makes it physically dangerous? The back is one of the major trouble spots in golf, just look at the long line of pros that have had serious back issues over their careers. If you've had a back issue yourself, which means you're in the majority of people over 40, then you probably know that the worse thing for it is 'bending and twisting'. And that is exactly what a fundamentally sound swing requires. On the back swing you twist and then on the down swing, as you transfer weight and kick your left hip to start, you have to bend as well. As well as Rocco Mediate played in the Open, does his swing look classic? To me it looks more like 'the old man swing' that you see in your own foursome. You can see that Rocco is a player who has had serious back issues. He moves through the ball in a way to minimize the twisting and bending.

And backs are just the start these days. Knee issues seem to be cropping up more and more. I've even read more stories about PGA pros with stress fractures in their lower extremities due to all the walking. For many of us amateurs, we also have the issue of carrying a bag which adds weight as well as more twisting and bending.

Golf has a lot of issues facing it if it is to be a growing sport. The physical component may be one of the most important. Maybe we're all trying too hard, or swinging for the fences too often. Maybe teaching instructors should start with stretching and warm-up exercises before a student ever touches a club. Or just possibly, someone should figure out how to teach a swing like Rocco's to the amateurs over 40.

Here's to the continued growth of golf.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Stewart Cink Takes A Step Up

Stewart Cink finally proved he can hold on to a lead and close the deal by winning the Travelers Championship in Hartford this past week. Considering how he's played in the past, he's had a great year even if he stumbled in a few tournaments early on in the season.

He's been around the top in most every event he's played in '08. What really seemed different to me was his attitude at the Travelers. On the early holes on Sunday, he looked like he was going to win. He didn't appear to be a guy who was hoping he'd hang on. I don't know if this marks a turning point in his game, but it would be great to see someone besides Tiger try to be the best golfer in every tournament they play.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The "Other" Toski (and a FREE golf lesson)

Tom Toski is the brother of famed golf instructor Bobby Toski who has worked with countless pros throughout the years.

I mention this because I just had a lesson with the "other" Toski (Tommy)

He is an amazing individual. 80+ years young and looking fit as a fiddle. He gives lessons at a local golf facility here in Western Massachusetts (Hadley)

When I first called he was booked solid for 2 weeks which I thought was quite amazing. Although I previously attended a group seminar with him about a year ago or so. What i saw there was simply amazing. Here he is at 80 something and roping these unbelievable drives - I mean mouth-watering drives - long, straight and true. THEN he turned the driver around and was popping drives with the BACK of the driver - crazy stuff ;-)

I thought then and there I need to tap into this guys knowledge bank.

What he told me on the range the other day is not the "secret" or anything I have not heard or read about somewhere but a solid fundamental that we all need to be reminded of.

He mentioned how important it is to be "level" in your backswing - that is, your shoulder not dipping but maintaining a relatively even turn (think baseball swing) AND also to keep as STILL as possible. Kept telling me to keep "quiet" during the swing. Of course a big part of this is a quiet (and still) head. (we've heard that before, right?)

Additionally, the Toski's are big proponents of small muscles and not large ones. This goes against a lot of the Leadbetter style teaching of using the bigger muscles as a focus.

Said that is one of the biggest misconceptions in golf.

Talked a lot about holding the club like a feather and using arm speed.

I enjoyed the lesson tremendously and loved talking "shop" with a member of one of the legendary golf teaching families in the game.

And, if you're ever up in this neck of the woods - do yourself a favor and book a lesson with Mr. Toski.

You'll get lesson and a whole lot more.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Nick Faldo Versus Johnny Miller

If you watch professional golf on TV, you've had a lot of opportunities to hear Nick Faldo and Johnny Miller do color commentary. Both were top players in their day and both are extremely knowledgeable about the game, swing mechanics and their fellow pros. Having said that, I much prefer Nick Faldo and would have liked to have seen him work the U.S. Open.

Johnny Miller comes across as angry and exudes an air of superiority. I can just hear him telling someone that back in his day the holes all played uphill, the balls were lopsided and the wind always blew in your face. If a player doesn't hit the best shot possible, Miller intimates that the guy choked, while Faldo has a much more compassionate take. Nick comes across respecting that golf never has never been a game of perfection and never will be. He's Mr. Affable to Johnny's Mr. Caustic. I suspect there's a chip on someone's shoulder in there somewhere.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What Happens When Tiger Cuts Back On Play?

Without Tiger Woods, where would golf be? Consider that if you want a sobering thought! Rounds played haven't significantly increased over at least 20 years, and this during the reign of the best player the game has probably ever seen. Many private clubs, if not most, are seeing membership rolls continually erode.

With recession here, how is that situation going to improve. With gas over $4 who, but the very wealthy can afford to drive to the course let alone pay the greens fees? If Tiger's knee is as bad as is feared and his playing is reduced to majors and a few other tournaments, who's going to attract the TV viewers. Right now the future of golf doesn't look its brightest. I'd hate to see some of my favorite local tracks turned into housing developments - or maybe cornfields.

What about the cost of running and maintaining a golf course these days? The gas to run the mowers is just as expensive as ours. Fertilizer is going through the roof. And then there are all the environmental issues like using pesticides - or not. And let's not forget perhaps the biggest problem of all, the fact that modern U.S. course designs require one hell of a lot of water.

If you think your budget is eroding because of gas, wait until you see what water is going to run you. Forget the flush toilets in the clubhouse, it may have to be waterless porta-potties in the future.

Tiger Keeps US Open Alive

Anyone who watched the US Open on Saturday, Sunday and Monday surely had enough excitement. But it took a one-legged Tiger to do it. Poor Phil, the world's number 2 just disappeared as he is want to do a bit too often. That's not a knock on Phil, where are golfers 3 through 10 when you come to think about it?

I still think the US Open is too much about the USGA folks that set the course up and not enough about true risk and reward golf. In the US Open risk/reward is perfectly clear - don't hit the ball in the rough OR the sand traps. Consider this; when you think about great golfers and tournaments of yesteryear, don't spectacular recoveries come to mind. A great golfer is good at hitting accurate shots, but also at recovering from bad ones. The US Open all but eliminates great recovery shots. Every golfer is forced to hack the bad shots back onto the fairway. The difference between playable and nearly unplayable has been reduced to inches and not even the best golfers have that much control. Even Tiger didn't win this tournament tee to green, he won it because he is the best putter and green reader on tour.

Random Comments on the Open

There are always too many commercials, but as long as we have to have them make them interesting. The Harley Davidson commercial was by far and away the best. I actually looked forward to seeing it. To the pharmaceutical companies; find out who made the Harley commercial and beat a path to your door. If I have to hear that same music and story for your erection pills one more time I may be forced to stop watching golf on TV.

Rocco, you're an asset to the game. You played great, but I love your attitude even more. Enough of the professional player scowls and fist pumping. I want to see a human being, aware of the moment and having fun while keeping the whole thing in perspective. Rocco reminds me of what Lee Trevino did for golf audiences, namely bringing a smile to their faces. I hope your back holds up and we see a lot more of you. When you can't play anymore, maybe you can open a personality school for the playing pros. Brandt Snedeker could be your poster child. Do you think there might be some connection between having a good time and playing well? During Monday's round, Rocco's game soured as his attitude went south for a couple of holes. Then he remembered who he was and made 3 birdies on the back nine and nearly took out Tiger!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

US Open, Fair or Unfortunate?

By most of the players and commentators comments so far, this US Open is getting high praise for fairness. The tee and pin locations have been picked each day so that there is a mix of easy, intermediate and hard locations. As usual, straight hitting and excellent putting is rewarded, everything else punished - sometimes severely. Is this the best test of golf for our national tournament?

The USGA makes no bones about their goal of making the US Open the toughest test in professional golf. I don't think anyone disputes the notion that they have indeed achieved that. Is it the fairest test of golf? Does it test all aspects of the game equally or have they played up some while downplaying others? The USGA has put a lot of emphasis on precision. By the same token, they've eliminated the skills associated with recovery shots. Hit it in the rough and the only real option is to hack it out with a wedge, unless you're in the 2% of freak lies that offer recovery potential, like Tiger's shot yesterday from next to the cart path. Is the true test of a great golfer just precision, or should recovering from trouble get its due?

The height of the rough around the greens also puts a tremendous premium on accuracy. The rough is so penal that you're almost guaranteed to lose at least one stroke if you miss the green. Combine this with the rough by the fairways and most golfers don't go for the greens unless they are in the fairway. It's so much safer to play short and pitch up. On a couple of holes, some of the greenside rough has been shaved to peach fuzz causing most balls to roll into the canyon hazard. I saw Padraig Harrington hit a green on a long par three only to see his ball roll off and down the shaved bank and into a bush. That's not fair, that's bad luck.

I'd hate to see the US Open reduced to crowning the most accurate golfer for the week who was also the luckiest. Luck surely plays a part in the game, but should it be so important. I wonder whose prowess is really on display during US Opens, those of the pros or those of the USGA committee responsible for course setup. Unfortunately, it seems that the USGA has become a prisoner of it's own image. It's so enamored with being tough that it's afraid to try some new strategies. Maybe they should set-up an Open sometime that has long rough on some holes and shorter rough on others. Why should the rough have to be uniform hole to hole? Instead of 8 inch - luck of the draw - rough around the greens, perhaps they should let the greenside contours that the designer built in, challenge the players' short game skills more. No less an expert than Dave Pelz said Wednesday night that chipping out of the greenside rough is mostly about luck and not skill because of the type of grass and it's length.

One last question; if Tiger wasn't in this tournament and playing well, would you be as excited? Does a war of attrition make great theater? It seems to me that somewhere in the distant past you saw great charges during the Open, players making birdies on top of one another. But then again, maybe I'm thinking of someone else's tournament.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The U.S. Open Is The Peoples' Championship

Will this week's U.S. Open be about the course or about the players? You could argue that last years Open was too much about the golf course and it's ridiculous setup. Oakmont and it's membership's attitude that harder is always better is a unique venue in many ways. Torrey Pines is more representative of the U.S. Open's desire to play the annual national championship competition on public courses. And, that's as it should be.

Every amateur player should have the chance to play the courses that the Open uses, and that just isn't going to happen at the private courses representative of economic privilege that sometime slip into the rotation. Go ahead and play the Masters at Augusta and the PGA Championship where you will, but keep the Open as the peoples' championship. The U.S. Open, like the British Open, has unrestricted qualifying. You don't have to be from a special society or group or even country to qualify to play, you just have to be a great golfer. Let's hope that tradition never changes.

As for the competition itself, for me it's always about the golfers in the end because they all have to play the same conditions and course. However, as we've sometimes seen in the past, course setup can be too much of an unwanted factor. There seems to be an unwarranted amount of focus on the final score being around par. It's as if the USGA feels they've failed if the winning score is minus something. The focus should be exciting competition on challenging courses with the golfers having to make a lot of risk reward calculations. As many have commented, Augusta these days leaves little if any choices, every golfer plays it strategy-wise identically.

From what I've seen and read so far, it looks like Torrey Pines is a very fair setup. The rough is tiered a little more than in the past, while the fairways are wide by Open standards. There's been a lot written about how fast the greens will be, but they are generally very large greens and tend to be flatter. The putting challenge comes more from the 'pockets' built into the greens for pin placements rather than the spectacle of putting uphill to a cup placement only to have the ball roll past you and back into the fairway. Hard isn't always fair or even interesting to watch.

From a spectators' viewpoint, I think the test for Torrey Pines will be how many different ways an individual hole is played. If every golfer is forced into the same strategy then, in my book, it will be a big failure. A few years back, Tiger won the British Open by keeping his driver in the bag, while most of the field was using theirs. Not only was that Open championship about the golfers, it was also about the strategic beauty of the course design, something that hasn't been improved upon for a hundred years.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Leave Kenny Perry Alone

It seems to be the sport of the day to take Kenny Perry to task over not trying to qualify for the US Open. For my two cents worth I have to say 'Back Off'! By everyone's account he's a very nice human being. He's 48 and he wants to play on the Ryder Cup team, that's his dream. It's in his home state and on a course he knows. He put together a game plan for this year to make it happen and he's sticking to it. So far it's paying off. Watch him talk about his goal and you can see he starts to get choked up.

For all the other wanna be pros out there, go put your own professional career and game together and do with it what you will. If you want to spend a career trying to win U.S. Opens, then I say more power to you. If it keeps you from trying to tell us how to judge an honest man, then it's even better. Pro golfers work for themselves. They each run their personal business in a different way. The variety of personalities and approaches to the game are what make it fun to watch. Ian Poulter has added color, Freddy Couples is ultra cool, Tiger takes focus to the max and VJ is Mr. Work Ethic. It's all good. Kenny Perry is a 48 year old with a decent career who wants to add the Ryder Cup to what he's accomplished. I love that.

Thanks to 'artful golfer' for the comment on the Ryder Cup blog. He mentioned it would be nice to see Perry make the team and I'm right in line with that sentiment, and it got me motivated to write today's comment. Who's played consistently better than Kenny over the last 5 weeks? Kenny has the game and, on top of that, I don't think Paul Azinger could find a more motivated or more team oriented player for his squad.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Take Some National Pride Out Of The Ryder Cup

I'm probably setting myself up for some scathing email, but the U.S. Ryder Cup team has been taking itself a little too seriously over the last 20 years, which may be the biggest reason for it's terrible performance during that time. Unfortunately, it looks like Paul Azinger has decided to tighten the screws even more this year rather than back them off. Don't get me wrong, it's great to represent your team in international competition, but the outcome doesn't determine the value of your country or how much you love it. This is athletic competition. It's friendly. It's great fun. It's a chance to see some of the best golfers in the world play formats we rarely get to see, like alternate shot. If your team doesn't win, don't feel you have to go home in shame or be pilloried in the public square for the next year.

Listening to Nick Faldo's comments in recent weeks in between coverage of tournaments, he seems to have the same mentality as Jack Nicklaus about Ryder Cup - relax, have fun and let the players put on a show, maybe even smoke a cigar or two and sign autographs with abandon during the practice rounds. I believe that Nick Faldo and Paul Azinger really like each other, but Nick has mentioned more than once that Paul is already putting way too much pressure on his players. Paul Azinger has decided to have two assistant captains to help his players compete. Jack Nicklaus chimed in on that idea during the Memorial by gently reminding Paul that these are the best players in the world and they don't need help playing the game. He even went so far as to say there isn't a lot for the captain to do once play begins, just get out of the way and let your players do what they do best.

It's hard to find a country more enamored with itself these days than the U.S. and that may be the biggest factor in our Ryder Cup blues for that last 20 years. As we get closer to tee time, you'll see more national pride stories and quotes about the honor of playing for one's country. It's only a game, right! I like the eastern philosophy of honoring one's opponent, even more so if they win. Without a great opponent there are no great matches. Without great matches there wouldn't even be a sports page.

Paul Azinger, as captain, your biggest contribution to the Ryder Cup competition is to get your team to relax and to do this you're going to have to play down the 'national pride' angle. You can do more for our nation's image by showing that we can keep things in perspective, honoring the game and our opponents. After all, it's only golf and not the beaches of Normandy. If the Europeans win again, it says nothing about the manhood of our players or how much they do or don't love their country. It's all about how you act, win or lose. In the land where exploding Little League managers too often have to be removed from the playing field by police, it's about time grownups show children what competition is all about.