Sunday, 23 July 2017

Spieth Doesn't Know the Meaning of the Word

I know I am prone to constantly referring back to Bobby Jones whenever I talk golf. I'm not sure whether others find it annoying or not. Certainly, my buddy Steve didn't find reading Bobby's books as illuminating, or as easy to read, as I did. 

But writing style aside, Bobby Jones, as much as any other player in history, understood what was most important in playing golf, and just how much the game of golf mirrors life. Bobby's most important lesson came from Harry Vardon, who said, "No matter what happens, keep on hitting the ball." This, Bobby learned to do as well as any player who ever lived. He used that approach to golf to do what was, and continues to be, almost the unthinkable in winning the Grand Slam.

It's perhaps easy to get carried away in the wake of a performance like we saw from Jordan Spieth on this Open Sunday. It was a performance for the ages. And what did Spieth do best on this magic Sunday? He didn't drive it well. He didn't strike his irons as well as he can. He didn't even putt very well, at least for the first dozen holes. But what he did as well as anyone ever has is keep on hitting the ball in the face of great adversity. 

If you want to succeed at this game you can't be a quitter. And golf is the sort of game that often tempts you to just quit. It can be the most infuriating game in the world. You can be at the top of your game one minute, and suddenly have absolutely no idea what you are doing, and vice versa. Golf is like that proverbial box of chocolates. You just never know what you're going to get from one day to the next, from one hole to the next, even from one shot to the next. 

Golf cannot be subjected to control. You cannot make the putts drop by sheer force of will--although the great champions sometimes make it look that way. You have to accept the vagaries of the game. Look at Spieth's opening tee shot today. He striped it. He hit it as he wanted to, and on the line he wanted to. It should have bounded off the bank into the fairway. Instead it hung in the deep fescue. 

Spieth was clearly upset with his bad luck. A good shot had been punished. He was visibly distressed. But he did all that any golfer can do in the face of good luck or bad; he kept on hitting the ball. Today that patience and persistance was rewarded. And in that victory, I think, is a message for all of us. Good things can happen if we just refuse to give up. And believe me, sometimes even really good players give up, or let up. But if we have learned anything at all, in watching Jordan Spieth in action, we have surely learned that there is no quit in him. He doesn't know the meaning of the word.

Jordan Spieth: Desire and Determination Personified

Once again, Jordan Spieth helped remove any doubt, if in fact there were still any doubters, that he is a very special player, the likes of which we have rarely seen. I could brag that I picked him to win this week at Royal Birkdale, but it's really nothing to brag about. This young man is going to be a favourite to win at every Major he enters for years to come.

The inevitable comparisons will be made to Jack and Tiger. And the fact that we are legitimately comparing Spieth's record to date with those two giants of the game just tells you how special a player he is. He is rewriting the record books in an age where most of us probably thought we had seen the best players we were ever going to see. For me, it was Jack. For many others it was Tiger. But Spieth has accomplished things even they hadn't managed to accomplish at the same age. That's just how good Spieth is.

To think, especially after last year's phenomenal Open championship, that Johnny Miller, a guy who knows a little something about historic final rounds in Majors, would state that this was the greatest finish to a Major championship he's ever seen. Some may not necessarily agree with Johnny. He does have his detractors. But you have to admit that we have probably never been taken on the quite the ride we were taken on today by Spieth. After losing his lead, and looking like anything but a champion, Spieth stood up on the next tee and almost holed a six iron from 201 yards. 

I won't bother recounting his incredible finish. Others will do that. All I think you need to try to imagine is how it must have felt to relinquish the lead at that stage in the championship; how psychologically deflating that would have been for any normal person. Few final round leaders in Majors are able to lose their lead and then come charging back to reclaim it. I'm not a good enough historian to tell you when, or how often, it has happened before. But I am certain it is a rare achievement.

I am constantly reminded of Bobby Jones and his assessment of how he was able to win the Grand Slam. He didn't have his best stuff in any if those four victories, but he said that he was able to win because he was willing to take more punishment and tried harder than everyone else. Royal Birkdale was not there for the taking, and she administered some severe punishment to Spieth in the early going. But Spieth simply refused to give up. It was his determination to just keep on hitting it when just about anyone else would have given up that is the reason he is the champion golfer of the year, and why he is already headed for the Hall of Fame at 23 years of age.

We can now, as we always do, look forward to the PGA championship. And I certainly won't be betting against Jordan Spieth to win that one as well. The level of competition in professional golf has never been so high. But there just aren't very many players out there who have the desire and the determination of Jordan Spieth. In fact, I don't think there are any. And that desire and determination, as much as his skill, is what sets Jordan Spieth apart from the rest of the field.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Nae Wind Nae Rain

It was a very unusual day at Royal Birkdale. The conditions were balmy. The course was green and relatively soft, and birdies abounded. It was an easy day for many of the players. But, as any Scot worth his salt would say, "It was nae golf!"

That's one of the things I really appreciate about Open championships; they let the conditions dictate the score. There is no effort by the R&A to shave the greens, or trick things up by silly pin placements, to protect par. If the sun shines, and the wind lays down, Old Man Par takes a beating. And, once in a while, it's not such a bad thing.

I also like the fact that the boys continue to play the same iconic courses in the Open. This seems to be something the US Open is moving away from. And I don't think it's a particularly good thing. I like a bit of tradition when it comes to golf. 

We shall see what the golfing gods have in store for the players tomorrow. It's looking like it could be another two man race like it was last year, with Spieth being chased by Kuchar. There are a few others that could find themselves in the mix should those two stumble a bit; particularly if it's another soft day from a weather perspective. But it rather looks like I should have put some money where my mouth was at the start of the week, because it looks like my man Spieth just might be the champion golfer of the year come tomorrow evening. 

Let's hope for some wind and some rain tomorrow. Because, nae wind, nae rain, nae golf!

Shooting Your Age

Generally speaking, to shoot your age in golf is an accomplishment that few amateurs get to experience. For one, you had better be a pretty good player. And you had better live to be a decent age, and stay reasonably healthy, to even have the chance to do it. Today, Carl the Grinder did it again. 

Carl and I ended up playing with Toller and Stan today. They were visiting our course and I invited them to join us in order to make up a foursome. As a result, they became, willingly or otherwise, witnesses to  Carl the Grinder at his best; playing for two dollars like it was the Open championship. 

Carl and I pretty much always have a match. I think playing a match helps you enjoy the game more, even if it may not always necessarily make you play better. The great putter of Bobby Jones' era, Walter Travis, once said that you should always play for something, "even if it's only a ten-cent cigar." And I think he was right. If you aren't playing for something, you're really just practising. 

After a near-perfect opening drive, I yanked my wedge shot into the pond on the left side of the green and promptly made a six. My back had been telling me to stay home; and when I did that to give Carl the first hole, I thought I probably should have listened. On the par three second hole, Carl hit it to about four feet and made birdie. I hit my tee shot in the bunker, blasted the ball out of the bunker and across the green, and then chipped in for a three. It was a wasted chip-in, given that I'd lost the hole anyway, but it helped lift my spirits a bit.

On three, after a reasonably good drive, I hit my second shot long and right of the green and eventually found myself three down after three when Carl made an easy par. By now I was really wishing I'd listened to my back and bloody well stayed home. It seemed inevitable that I was going to get thoroughly trounced by Carl, who was obviously in good form.  Sometime, early in the proceedings, I had told Toller and Stan about the fact that Carl had already shot his age or better four times this year. I don't mind bragging him up a bit, because I think it's pretty damned impressive. I mean, I'm not exactly holding my breath waiting for me to start shooting my age. 

Anyway, we played on and I managed to eventually fight my way back in the match and even go one up after I chipped in for birdie on sixteen. On seventeen, I hit a solid drive only to have Carl knock it twenty odd yards by me right in the middle of the fairway. It's really rather annoying to have a 74 year old consistently knock it by you. But, as a wise man once said, "it is what it is." 

After this terrific drive, Carl mentioned that he needed another birdie if he was going to shoot his age again today. I hadn't really been paying attention to what he was shooting. I knew he had gone out in 36, but he had made a double bogey on ten and a bogey on eleven, so I had sort of counted him out as far as shooting his age was concerned. But he had kept it together, making a nice birdie on twelve, just missing a birdie on thirteen, and then, after bogeying fourteen when his tee shot kicked left of the green leaving him short-sided in thick rough, just missing another birdie on fifteen and making an easy par on sixteen. Sure enough, Carl was three over par standing in the middle of the fairway at the hundred yard marker on seventeen. He needed one more birdie and a par to shoot 74. 

Now I've noticed that it is generally not a good idea to be thinking about your score; especially thinking about shooting your lowest score ever, or about shooting your age. More often than not, bad things happen when you get ahead of yourself and start thinking about what you might shoot. But, sure enough, Carl hit it pin high and about twelve feet left of the pin on seventeen and then drained the putt to get it back to two over and to square the match heading to eighteen. 

On eighteen, Carl hit a perfect tee shot to the centre of the green, leaving himself about a fifteen footer to actually shoot one better than his age. I, meanwhile, missed the green on the right and was again sitting in the thick rough that encircles most of our greens.  I knew I really needed to chip it in for a chance to win. Unfortunately, I tugged my chip and left myself about a five footer for par.

Carl, with a chance to finish birdie, birdie, and actually better his age, then hit a rather wishy-washy putt to about a foot and a half short of the hole. I let him mark it and think about it for a minute or two while I set about holing my five footer for par. I picked my ball out of the hole and then tossed Carl his marker, conceding his putt for the half. I was grateful to have managed to square the match, particularly since I didn't have the two bucks in my pocket to pay him had I lost. I find it rather stressful to play for money when I don't have any cash on me. I think Lee Trevino spoke about that; saying that real pressure was having to make a putt when it's for ten bucks and you only have two bucks on you. 

So, Carl shot his age again today. Okay, it wasn't an official result, since it was match play and I'd given Carl a couple of short putts during the round. But it was close enough.

I can only hope to live long enough to someday shoot my age. I'm 60, and my best score is 65. So, I don't see it happening for me any time soon. Carl, on the other hand, is starting to make a regular habit of it. In fact, he recently shot 70 at Timber Ridge, near Brighton, Ontario. As for Toller and Stan; I don't know what they shot, but they were good fun to play with. I just hope they enjoyed their day as much as Carl and I did.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Who Knows?

The biggest week in golf is underway. The men haven't teed it up yet, but the excitement is palpable at the Open. It's strange how just a year ago we thought we had a Big Three, or maybe four, in men's golf, with Spieth, McIlroy and Day looking like they were ready to separate themselves from the rest of the field. Then we had DJ, until he literally took his tumble at the Masters, looking about as bullet-proof as they come. Then Matsuyama looked like he was going to be the first Japanese player to get to number one. 

But the golf scene has seemingly changed. Suddenly, we have a Spanish resurgence, with a Masters champion named Sergio, another Spaniard as the Irish Open champion in Jon Rahm, and another Spaniard as the Scottish Open champion in Cabrera Bello. You surely wouldn't put it past any of those guys to win again this week. 

The golf scene has definitely changed. It's about as wide open an Open as we've seen in years. McIlroy has been missing cuts and dealing with injury. Day seems to be day to day, and DJ has been quiet. But Spieth looks really good and should definitely challenge this week. He really needs to win another Major and take another step towards the career slam. Fowler is in pretty good form, despite a disappointing weekend at the Scottish Open. But you have to wonder whether we might be entering a time when there is such parity in the game that we will no longer have strong favourites to win the big ones. 

There are simply too many guys, especially Europeans, that now believe they can win these big events. They've seen Danny Willett win at Augusta, followed by Sergio, and they know that it can happen for them. So, while I like Spieth if I had to pick a winner, I wouldn't be surprised to see another first-time Major winner this week. In fact, I have a sneaking feeling that we could see a Brit win this year. Perhaps Justin Rose can find some magic again at Royal Birkdale. Or maybe it's time for Andy Sullivan to break through. Or perhaps Ian Poulter will decide to play like he's done in the Ryder Cup and wins one for all of the guys who came out of a pro shop with big dreams. Who knows? Well, I guess no one does, other than perhaps the golfing gods. After all, no one wins the Open without a bit of luck.

However, after watching the replay of the 1976 Open at Birkdale, with Seve and Johnny Miller, wouldn't it be something to see Rahm and Spieth battle it out? All I know is I can hardly wait for the competition to begin.


Monday, 17 July 2017

Sam Snead on Hitting the Long Irons

It's funny how quickly golfers tend to blame their swing for any issues with their ball-striking. I played today with Gary, who asked me on the first tee if I would try and watch him swing when he was playing his longer irons. He complained that he was having an awful time with them.

I watched him hit a couple and couldn't see that his swing was any different when hitting the five iron than any other club. So, I suggested that he consider Sam Snead's advice regarding the long irons. Sam, of course, was famous for talking about holding the club like you were holding a baby bird. And, I suppose, if you had hands like Sam Snead you could get away with holding the club lightly. But most of us don't have hands like Sam Snead. Jackie Burke once mused that the baby bird Sam was referring to was probably a baby eagle.

With respect to the long irons, Sam said it was important to have a firm grip on the club when playing the long irons because of the  tendency for the clubface to twist at impact. So, I suggested to Gary that he simply take a firmer than normal grip with those irons and focus on making a solid strike, hitting the ball in the sweet spot. Gary tried this and, while he wasn't hitting long irons like the Slammer, he was hitting them solidly and on target, something he said was a significant improvement.

At the end of the round Gary thanked me for my help. I told him not to thank me; instead I suggested that he "thank the Slammer."

Saturday, 15 July 2017

You Never Know If You Don't Give Up

You just never know in this game if you don't give up. That was perhaps, according to Bobby Jones, Harry Vardon's greatest strength. He just kept on hitting the ball; no matter what. Bobby Jones eventually learned to do the same. Patience and persistence are vital in golf, and in life. You just never know, if you don't give up.

I had another good match with Steve and Spiro yesterday. Playing their best ball, I got off to a good start and got to two up fairly early in the proceedings. But the boys ham-and-egged it, and fought their way back.

By seventeen the boys were dormie, after I somehow managed to take a seven on the par five sixteenth. I say, "somehow," because I was nicely positioned in the fairway, a hundred yards from the green in two, when I managed to pull my wedge left of the green and into some tree roots. From there, I stick-handled my way to a seven. It was the old, "one shot begets another," story.

Needless to say, the boys were feeling pretty good on seventeen. They pretty much figured they had the match in the bag after Steve stood up and hit a perfect drive, probably his best of the day. But I matched him, and there we were "side by each," as the Quebec folk would say, about 140 yards from the pin. I hit an eight iron and pushed it shirt and right of the green. Steve hit a nine iron that looked to be perfect, but kicked right when it landed and just trickled off the edge of the green into the thick collar. Spiro was short and left of the green in two after hitting a good shot over the trees from about 200 yards. 

At this point, I was figuring on having to hole my pitch from the right rough in order to stay alive. I figured a par wasn't going to cut it. I focussed with all my might and hit what looked to be a perfect pitch. The ball landed on my spot, but bounced slightly to the right and ended up about a foot from the hole for a gimmee four. Spiro and Steve then both failed to get their balls up and down for the win. I went to eighteen still alive, but down one.

On eighteen, I've generally been using my old 28 degree Taylormade wood or a six iron, depending on the pin and the wind. Although the wind was hurting a bit and across from left to right, I chose the six iron, knowing I'd need to hit a solid draw to hold it against the wind and get to the left middle pin. I somehow managed to hit the exact shot I'd envisioned--which obviously doesn't happen all that often--and ended up about five feet short and left of the pin. 

Perhaps a bit shaken by my tee shot, Spiro pushed his tee shot out of bounds on the right, and Steve missed the green short and left, leaving himself a tough pitch if he hoped to make par. He chunked it, missed the next pitch long, and I was able to calmly roll in my putt for a birdie and another halved match--or as Spiro would say, "No blood."

It was another fun match that came down to the eighteenth hole. Those are the best matches; the ones that come down to the end and force you to really grind. Steve and Spiro played pretty well. And, other than making two sevens on par fives today, I figured I played pretty well also. Clearly, however, Steve and Spiro are either getting better, or I'm getting worse; because there was a time, not all that long ago, when I had to give them strokes as well as play their best ball. They certainly didn't need any strokes today.

And what did I learn today? I learned, once again, that I'm not very good from 100 yards. I learned that I really hate making sevens on par fives. And I learned, once again, that it pays never to give up. After the double on sixteen to go two down with two to play, and then the disappointing pushed eight iron on seventeen, I could have easily given up. But I scrambled a par and then made a nice birdie on eighteen to halve the match. Sometimes it pays to hang in there, even when things look awfully bleak. You just never know in this game. It ain't over 'til it's over--at least it ain't over if you don't give up.