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Friday, June 24, 2016

Strengthening the Olympic Golf Field

Yesterday I wrote about some of the Olympic concerns affecting golfers and why so many seem to be saying "no, thanks" to the Games. It was late at night when I finished the post and my mind was tired, so I didn't always go into depth about the effects of these concerns. But you can already see how they are shaping a lot of the dialogue:
  • For example, when Graeme McDowell withdrew Thursday with Zika concerns over his pregnant wife. How could the unknown future cost of Zika exposure affect your child's or your spouse's future?
  • Or when traditional Olympic athletes say they don't want athletes at the Games who don't want to be there. What do you expect from athletes whose careers are defined by the Olympics? Tiger Woods is currently suffering the effects of winning at any cost. What risks might he have been willing to take if he only got one chance every four years at a major, and that one chance might be his only chance?
  • The concern over an overcrowded schedule is the flipside of the 'get one chance' Olympic athlete. If I'm going to risk my health to get one big prize, is the Olympic gold really the best prize for a golfer? As things stand, I honestly don't think it is.
I'd like to address that last one. Yesterday I questioned how valuable an Olympic gold would be when valued against a major. Today I'd like to look at some potential ways to narrow that gap by improving the strength of the field.

As things are structured right now, there are 60 golfers in each gender's field. These represent, on average, somewhere between 25 and 35 countries. The International Golf Federation website describes their eligibility this way:
The IOC has restricted the IGF to an Olympic field of 60 players for each of the men’s and women’s competition. The IGF will utilise the official world golf rankings to create the Olympic golf rankings as a method of determining eligibility. The top-15 world-ranked players will be eligible for the Olympics, with a limit of four players from a given country. Beyond the top-15, players will be eligible based on the world rankings, with a maximum of two eligible players from each country that does not already have two or more players among the top-15.
In addition, the host country gets one male and one female participant if they are otherwise ineligible.

I understand that the IGF wants to keep any one nation from having a disproportionate number of players in the Games, but in doing so they completely ignored field strength. Olympic athletes are, by definition, supposed to be the best in the world. But since the IGF criteria for participation eliminates the majority of the best players in the world rankings, there is no way the Olympic gold medalist can possibly lay claim to being 'the best in the world'.

Can you say 'just an exhibition'?

So how do we fix this?

1) At the very least, the Olympic fields MUST allow the Top15 in the world rankings to play, regardless of what country they come from. That is the minimum you can do. Otherwise your field isn't even as strong as the Hero World Challenge.

If one of those Top15 players is unavailable -- for example, #3 Inbee Park might not be able to play because of her hand injury -- then #16 automatically qualifies, and it doesn't matter what countries they represent. In this case, Gerina Piller would be her replacement -- an American replacing a South Korean. That is irrelevant -- we want the 15 best players available to ensure the strongest possible field.

What if that means one country has ten players in the Games? Then so be it. If one country dominates the game that much, then that country must be beaten in order to claim the 'best in the world' title. Again, as things now stand, South Korea would have seven in the women's field, the US would have six in the men's field. But now you have the truly dominant players in these fields, and you MUST beat the best to get the gold.

Please note that these Top15 make up only a quarter of the entire field. You could still have just as many countries represented as in the current eligibility requirements, but the fields are substantially stronger.

2) Go to a match play format. I know this was rejected because it was considered too cumbersome. But team match play might be the best way to ensure a real competition and build excitement for the event.

I'd go to two-player teams, and I'd expand the Top15 to a Top16. Every player in the Top16 would play, and the teams would be constructed this way:
  • If a country has only one player in the Top16, that player would team up with the next highest player from their country outside the Top16.
  • If a country has two players in the Top16, they form a team.
Now it gets interesting:
  • If a country has three or more players in the Top16, you divide the number in half and round up. For example, three players means you get two teams and the top two players from that country head up the teams. In the examples I gave above, South Korea would have four female teams and the US would have three male teams. You get the extra player for the final team from outside the Top16.
But the second member of those teams is a matter of choice. Let's say you have three players in the Top16, so you get two teams. The two top players must be on separate teams, but the top player can decide to team up with the lowest-ranked player on the team if he (or she) so desires. This allows for a little choice in chemistry.

I really like the idea of making the match play event solely alternate shot (or foursomes, if you prefer that term) so the team aspect REALLY stands out. And bear in mind that such a two-player team match play event could include twice the number of individual golfers without seriously affecting pace of play. It would also be much more exciting.

You would start with either 32 teams (64 total players) or 64 teams (128 players) -- the first would take five days of play, the second would take six days. You divide into groups of four teams for pool play. Here's how it would work:
  • For 32 teams:
    Eight groups of four teams for three days of pool play. Top two teams from each group go to single elimination. Day four has 36 holes, cutting the 16 to 8 (morning) and then the 8 to 4 (evening). Day five also has 36 holes, cutting the 4 to 2 (morning) and then having the Gold medal and Bronze medal matches that afternoon.
  • For 64 teams:
    Sixteen groups of four teams for three days of pool play. Top team from each group goes to single elimination. Day four cuts 32 to 16. Day five has 36 holes, cutting the 16 to 8 (morning) and then the 8 to 4 (evening). Day six also has 36 holes, cutting the 4 to 2 (morning) and then having the Gold medal and Bronze medal matches that afternoon.
Yes, these are longer than the four-day medal play that we'll be playing this time. But this is the Olympics, it's supposed to be a challenge. 'Best in the world', remember?

3) Eliminate the world rankings entirely and institute national tryouts, the way other sports do it. Yes, this is a radical solution but I think it's probably the best for the Olympic Games. It certainly fits the spirit of the Games.

Let's find the best for this event with an open competition. Let's have local and regional qualifiers, culminating in a national qualifier. Open it to the pros and amateurs alike. If you want to get players who WANT to go to the Olympics, this is the way.

And just imagine the potential teams for a match play Olympics event. Suppose pro Dustin Johnson has been playing some rounds with amateur Maverick McNealy and the two really like their chemistry, so they enter the qualifiers as a team. You're NEVER going to get a team like that with the current system!

There are any number of ways that the luster of the Olympic gold medal can be enhanced among golfers, but it has to start with a stronger field. When you have four major events every year with stronger fields than a single Olympic event, there really is no competition.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Is Rory's Olympic Withdrawal a Symptom of Something Deeper?

Brian Wacker did an article for Golf Digest about Rory's withdrawal from Olympic consideration and how it might affect things going forward. It does a good job of touching on some of the effects his decision may have on other golfers, especially when added to those who have already withdrawn and who sound less certain than they did a few months ago.

Wacker also lists some of the reasons golfers may be cooling toward Rio itself. I had already been thinking about all of these things, and I have a few thoughts of my own to add -- things which may or may not have been considered by those in charge.

Olympic rings

First, I do think the Zika virus is a larger concern than many of the Olympic supporters realize. For example, History Channel did a special on the Black Plague, and the last ten minutes or so were devoted to explaining how some unknown virus could rapidly spread around our modern world. This sort of documentary isn't unusual, and the dangers of a 'killer virus' are common movie themes. For Pete's sake, many zombie movies assume that a virus is the cause of the zombies!

Such things are firmly in the back of the public's mind, and the fact that virtually no one had even heard of Zika two years ago -- along with its rapid appearance in the US and the lack of knowledge about its long-term risks going forward -- make it one more uncertainty to be dealt with.

Wacker mentions Rory's recent statement that he “...had this argument with someone last week talking about golf being in the Olympics and how it can grow the game, but fencing is in the Olympics, and how many people watch that?” I wonder if that isn't a symptom of a much larger issue that hasn't been considered.

You see, the majority of Olympic sports don't have the professional power base that golf has. True, basketball, hockey, tennis, baseball and soccer are sports that do. Other sports like cricket and rugby have followings, although they aren't on the level of, say, basketball. But other sports like track and field, or swimming, or table tennis are sports that primarily gear toward the Olympics. The system of meets and competitions that exists for these events is aimed toward Olympic qualification. They happen only rarely during the year, and they pit the best in each country against each other. Most of these athletes know each other when they finally reach the Olympics, and are used to competing against each other.

And that raises the question of the value of an Olympic medal to a golfer. This one has been seriously underestimated. The criteria for Olympic qualification in most sports is considerably different than the golf qualification... and this raises valid questions that have been ignored.

In swimming, for example, most of the Top30 or Top40 in the world will make it to their next Olympics. If you win the gold medal in a swimming event, you have legitimately beaten the best in the world.

But will most of the Top50 in the world be competing in the golf competitions? Not hardly. Let's look at the women's teams, using these Olympic qualification charts for June 20 in this golf.com article and compare them with the Rolex World Rankings for the same week, since none of the women have as yet withdrawn. As things stand currently:
  • Ha-Na Jang at #8 in the Rolex doesn't qualify at all, due to the four-player limit in the Top15, nor does So Yeon Ryu at #11. In fact, seven Koreans in the Top25 will not be allowed to play.
  • Four Americans in the Top25, beginning with Gerina Piller at #16, will not be at the Olympics.
So 11 of the Top25 in the Rolex aren't even allowed to play. Going further down:
  • Catriona Matthew, #67 in the Rolex, is #27 in the Olympic list.
  • Nicole Broch Larsen, #88 in the Rolex, is #30 in the Olympic list.
  • Laetitia Beck, #220 in the Rolex, is #41 in the Olympic list.
So 40 of the Top67 in the Rolex aren't allowed to play. And 58 of the Top88 aren't allowed to play. And 179 of the Top220 aren't allowed to play.

Now I understand that the field has to be limited and you can't very well have only ten nations participating in an Olympic event, so don't misunderstand me. I'm not arguing that all these other players should be in the Olympics.

What I AM saying is that this event won't even have the strength of a 'regular' LPGA event. If Rolex #1 Lydia Ko wins the gold medal, how can you legitimately compare it to winning a major?

For the men, the disparity is not quite as great but it's still troubling. Victor Dubuisson, #71 in the OWGR, is #30 in the Olympic list. Graham DeLaet is #136 in the OWGR but #41 in the Olympic list. You could make a fair argument that the limited field of the Hero World Challenge is stronger than the Olympic field... and yet purists complain because the Hero gets world ranking points!

And we already have a number of players -- like Rory -- who have withdrawn from the event. How much will Olympic gold weigh against a major in the years to come?

It's possible that Olympic exposure might help grow the game in parts of the world where it currently receives very little support. But not even the Jamaican bobsled team, popular enough to have a movie made about it, caused serious growth in that event among the nations that weren't already involved. And building a golf infrastructure in nations that don't have one will not be cheap. It will certainly cost more than a couple of competitive bobsled designs and a few trips to a bobsled track.

I don't mean this to be a damper on all the Olympic enthusiasm. I hope golf succeeds beyond its wildest dreams. But golf has been left out of the Olympics for over a century while table tennis and curling held on to their spots (and yes, I enjoy the curling competitions), and it has a seriously bourgeois reputation to boot. That's a lot to overcome under any circumstance, let alone an Olympics troubled with security and health concerns.

So is it any wonder that Rory's concerns over Zika finally won out? I don't think so. Perhaps Rio, with all its problems, was the wrong Olympics for golf to enter. Hopefully we get more than one chance before the Olympic Committee pulls the plug on this experiment.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Putting Drill from Ian Baker-Finch

I'm sure many of you know that Ian Baker-Finch has become something of a putting and short game guru among PGA and LPGA players. (So Yeon Ryu is one of his students who immediately comes to mind.) I found this short video he did for Odyssey Golf that details one of his putting drills, in case you'd like to see what he teaches.



What I like about this drill is his emphasis on touch and feel, on getting the speed of your putts right. While you want to get your putts on line, more putts miss because they're hit too hard (or too soft) than are missed with a poor line. If your speed is wrong, the right line won't necessarily help you!

Ian's approach is a bit more mechanical than I would teach, but there are so many different teachers simply because not everybody learns the same way -- and of course, you don't have to be mechanical when you practice if you don't want to be. If you're looking for a new putting drill to try, I think this is a very good one. Any time you avoid just hitting the same putt over and over, that's a good thing.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Of Golf Balls and Footballs

The controversy over DJ's one-stroke penalty continues. Today I'd like to clarify what I believe are the three major questions that the golf community -- and the USGA in particular -- have to answer if they want to prevent these kinds of problems in the future.

DJ over the controversial putt

1) Why put a rules official with each group if that official's ruling isn't binding?
This is the most obvious question that needs to be asked. DJ's official ruled that there was no infraction, to play on. The ball was NOT replaced, which an infraction demanded. Therefore DJ couldn't possibly avoid a penalty if the decision of the official APPOINTED BY THE USGA wasn't binding.

I'm reminded of the LifeLock commercials. For those of you, especially overseas, who may not have heard of LifeLock, they're a company that claims they monitor and prevent credit problems. Here's a typical commercial:



At least this guy is upfront about it -- unlike the USGA, he doesn't claim that his presence means anything. The USGA will have to address this problem if they don't want potential golfers to see golf as a game with impossible rules.

2) How can you demand the ball remain still when you want greens where the ball 'trickles' 30, 40, even 50 feet after it should have stopped?
This goes back to a post I did where I mentioned Phil Mickelson's misgivings about the speeds of classic green complexes. (The specifics about greens are near the end of that post. Geoff Shackelford has voiced similar concerns on many occasions.) Classic courses designed with more slope on the greens assumed much slower green speeds, perhaps 8-10 on the stimpmeter. But the USGA insists on speeding these greens up to 12-13, speeds where the ball can't be expected to stay still.

And even though the USGA said that Oakmont has faster greenspeeds "in its DNA", the fact remains that they estimated that the greens were only about 70% of the firmness and speed they desired. What would have happened if they had gotten the green speeds they wanted? Such disregard for simple physics is simply begging for rules violations like this.

3) Are we expecting too much from video replay in our rulings?
This is where football enters the picture. In case you don't watch NFL football, one of the most contentious areas of the rules there has become a real embarrassment for the game. And what is that problem?

Ironically, no one can say for sure what constitutes a 'catch' anymore. Before video replay, it was pretty easy to say when someone had caught a pass and when they hadn't. But now, with the ability to make extreme digital close-ups in ultra-slow motion, referees are forced to try and determine whether a diving catch was actually touching the ground a thousandth of a second before it was 'caught'.

In other words, the question used to be "Did they hold on to the ball when they hit the ground?" Now they can't even determine when the ball was actually caught, or even how much a ball might move in a player's hands when a catch is made and still be considered a 'catch'. And this confusion has already changed the outcome of games.

Take a look at this catch by the Dallas Cowboys' Dez Bryant in a 2015 Divisional Playoff game. Ten years ago this would have been ruled a catch; it's pretty clear that Dez is holding the ball in one hand when he hits the ground, and the ball stays firmly in his hand when he lays out on the ground. (He hit the ground hard enough for the ball to bounce loose at impact if his grip wasn't good.) But extreme slo-mo shows tiny wiggles that happen too fast for the naked eye to see -- and therefore wouldn't affect the ruling at regular speed. (And it's not that I'm a Cowboys fan -- I'm a Panthers fan. But this kind of thing is happening too often, and this is one play that I remember well enough to find easily.)

The answer to football's catch riddle -- and to golf's moving ball question -- is to create some simple criteria that are easily seen and verified in real time. In Dez's catch, the fact that he had the ball in one hand and it remained in that hand after he hit the ground should have been enough to say that was a catch. Instead, the Cowboys' run to the Super Bowl was ended.

The USGA should make a simple test for moving balls. Did the player ground his or her club behind the ball? That should be sufficient in most cases. If they need more, tell players not to make practice strokes within one putterhead length of the ball to either side. These are objective criteria, not "more likely than not" subjective criteria.

Here's MY rule for rules questions: If the test can't be a simple one, then the problem in question shouldn't be a rules infraction. If you can't KNOW FOR SURE that a rule was broken, then you don't need a rule in the first place.

These are the issues that the USGA needs to face concerning the Rules of Golf. If they don't, things are only going to get trickier going forward.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Limerick Summary: 2016 US Open

Winner: Dustin Johnson

Around the wider world of golf: Sei Young Kim won the Meijer LPGA Classic on the LPGA; Jackie Stoelting won the Four Winds Invitational on the Symetra Tour; Nanna Koerstz Madsen won the Tipsport Golf Masters on the LET; Scott Hend won the Queen’s Cup on the Asian Tour; James Driscoll won the Nashville Golf Open on the Web.com Tour; Scott Gregory won The 121st Amateur Championship; and Jiyai Shin three-peated at the Nichirei Ladies on the JLPGA (bangkokbobby has details).

And although it wasn't golf, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers became the first team ever to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Playoffs. They broke a 52-year win drought for the city; the last team to win had been the Cleveland Browns, their NFL team, way back in 1964. Congrats, all you Clevelanites!

Dustin Johnson with US Open trophy

When I picked DJ to win last week, I didn't expect it to go down this way. Not with another rules controversy. But perhaps this is the best way it could have happened, since it just proved how tough Dustin Johnson has become as a player.

DJ's problems winning his first major have been well-documented, perhaps the most famous being the club he grounded in a bunker at the 2010 PGA Championship -- a bunker that most players didn't even think should have been a bunker. The penalty knocked him out of a playoff. But you could argue he should have known better that time -- after all, the local rules sheet (which DJ admitted he didn't look at) said EVERY sandy area on the course was a bunker.

But this one... When DJ called for a ruling on the 5th green after his ball moved, he was told there was no penalty and to play on. (If he had been deemed to move the ball, he would have had to replace it.) Then, on the 12th tee, USGA officials told him the incident was under review, but couldn't tell him if it was a rules infraction or not. He -- and the rest of the field -- finished the tournament without even knowing what score was leading the tournament.

Fortunately for DJ, he stepped up to the plate and made one of the only two birdies posted on the 18th hole all day. He drilled a drive, tucked his second a mere three feet from the hole and drained the putt. Even with the penalty he eventually received, he still won by three shots.

DJ got the monkey off his back -- and joked about doing so with the media -- but the USGA probably won't be so lucky. The player response on social media was quick and merciless, uniformly condemning the USGA for a "ridiculous" (McIlroy) decision that was "a joke" (Spieth). According to Tim Rosaforte on GC's Live from... afterward, even the legends of the game blasted them. Like this quote from the ESPN article that I took the photo above from:
Jack Nicklaus, who was on site as an honorary chairman of the U.S. Open, congratulated Johnson as he walked off the green, telling ESPN.com later that "I told [him] what you did with all that crap that they threw at you was pretty good."
I don't think this is going to go away. After all, when you are the arbiter of rules and you not only reverse a decision mid-round but refuse to give a definitive decision at all, especially when it means nobody knows what the lead is, you cause people to question your right to be an authority at all!

For DJ, however, this is all water under the bridge. (Or is it balls moving on the green?) At any rate, DJ gets his first major championship and ends much of the debate over his ability to close the big ones. And it also gives him a major Limerick Summary to add to his running total of regular ones.
Was he leading by two or by one?
DJ said, “Either way, this gets done!
Let the USGA
Try to mess up my day—
Soon they’ll KNOW I’ve got this major won!”
The photo came from this page at espn.com.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

US Open Coverage Begins at 7am ET

Just a quick note this morning:

FOXSports1 will be broadcasting the rest of Round 3 starting at 7am ET Sunday morning. There are 25 players who still have to finish their rounds, and the final pairing has five holes left.

At some point during the day -- I don't know exactly when -- the coverage will move from FOXSports1 to the regular FOX Network. I suspect it will be around 10am or so, as that's been the routine so far.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Putting Tip from Bobby Locke

Continuing my attempt to make shorter posts this weekend because there's so much US Open coverage (and other golf) on TV, I offer this short quote from Gary Player's book Don't Choke: A Champion's Guide to Winning Under Pressure.
Bobby Locke was one of the finest putters the game has ever seen. Locke's philosophy on putting was that it is always better to leave a putt a little bit short than run it past the hole.

It is completely contrary to what you always hear. As golfers, we are taught from an early age to never leave a putt short. Sayings such as "Never up, never in" or "The hole won't come to you" are drilled into us. It's almost as if it's shameful to leave a putt short of the hole. But I've never seen one that goes past the hole go in either. And frankly, I'd rather be a few inches short of the hole than three feet past it.

Locke's reasoning was that if you hit a putt at just the right speed, it can drop in anywhere in the front of the hole, on the side or even at the back. But if you hit a putt hard, there's only one place it can go in, and that's in the center of the hole.

Throughout my career I've discovered that for every putt you charge at the hole, you sink ten putts with the right speed. (p110)
As Gary Player says, this goes against what we're taught. And to be honest, it's embarrassing and heartbreaking when you leave the ball just on the lip. But unless you're willing to take the risk, you may never learn to putt consistently.

This philosophy is how I like to putt also. Still, I'm willing to admit there are times when a "stronger" putt seems reasonable. On occasion, stroking the ball a bit harder to take out some of the break may make sense. But just remember that such a play is risky and may cost you more shots than you would have lost if you had just accepted a two-putt. Locke's philosophy is the best play, most of the time.

If you're interested in looking at the book, here's a link to its page at Amazon. And no, I don't profit from any sales. However, there's an older edition for sale as well, and this link takes you to the new edition. The new edition is the one I used for this post.