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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tiger's "Mental Practice"

Since some of Tiger's comments at his presser Tuesday have drawn some, shall we say, "skeptical" responses, I thought I'd look at a couple of them and see if there's anything a weekend player can learn from them.

When Tiger said he still didn't know if he would be able to play at the Open Championship in a couple of weeks, many people snickered and wondered why he just doesn't shut it down for the year and stop teasing us with the possibility that he'll be back soon. He's already said he's having to take this day-by-day, as opposed to past rehabs where he had definite time and performance goals, so why not just block out the time and be done with it?

On GC's Morning Drive Erik Kuselias (who says he's a very goal-oriented person himself) asked Tiger if this approach wasn't frustrating and how did he manage to deal with it. Tiger responded that he still had goals but they were day-by-day "feel" goals.

Now, to many of you this probably sounds like Tiger is playing mental games with himself... and in a sense he is. When you're a big goal setter and find that concrete goals are hard to come by, you have to find something else you can use for motivation. And no, a "feel" goal isn't the same as a "concrete" goal.

A goal is measurable. You can know with certainty when you reach it. If you can't measure it easily, it's not suitable as a goal. "I will be able to run 1 mile in 9 minutes by September 6" is a goal. It's measurable. If on September 6 you can run a mile in 9 minutes, you reached your goal; if you couldn't do it, you didn't reach your goal. That's clear and easy to understand. You can measure your progress and chart it if you like.

By comparison, Tiger's current goals are "fuzzy." It's what he has to work with right now because his leg isn't stable enough to say, "I can do this much right now, so doing that much by such-and-such a date is a reasonable goal." So how do you motivate yourself?

I think that's why Tiger hasn't just taken the year off. Since he doesn't know how soon his leg will be stable, he's using that uncertainty to set goals that motivate him. For example, as long as he can keep playing the Open as an option, it helps motivate him through the harder parts of his rehab. And when he finally has to say "I can't play the Open," he'll say "Then maybe I can make the PGA" and move his focus to making that tournament.

It's actually a pretty smart way of minimizing the demoralizing effects this injury can have on him. It's a proven scientific fact that a good mental attitude can help your body heal faster, and this is how Tiger is applying it.

But by far the most criticized comment he made concerned "mental practice." I first became aware of this concept around 20-25 years ago (no, this isn't a new idea) when some POWs came back from their imprisonment and found that they were better at sports they played before they were captured. Some researchers decided to study them and see if these men had anything in common.

Here's basically what they found: To keep from going insane during their captivity, the men had begun mentally playing their sports while in their cells. For example, one might "play" tennis with friends from home. He would imagine each and every action involved in playing a match, from tossing the ball up for his serve to judging how hard to hit a forehand return.

In other words, he mentally duplicated every physical and mental action he made during an actual tennis match with his friends.

The phenomenon became a focus for further research and was found to be scientifically verifiable. For those of you who are interested, here are two links to more information:
Essentially the process works on two levels. The first is simply strategic -- by imagining how an event plays out, athletes can work their way through various scenarios that might happen during a game and develop proper responses. This helps them make better decisions more quickly during the game.

The second is actually physical. Researchers have found that if you imagine in detail making the movements you make during the performance of any physical activity, your imaginary actions actually stimulate the same sort of responses in your nervous system that the physical actions themselves cause. And while this doesn't happen at the same level as actually playing your sport -- in other words, an imaginary game won't make you as good as actually playing -- it's better than not playing at all and can even multiply the effectiveness of real training.

So Tiger's not crazy, people. Since he can't actually play golf, he's doing the next best thing. And by doing this, he really can work on his new Sean Foley-inspired swing and get better with it despite being unable to hit real balls. For you weekend players who can't get out to the course very often, adding a little "mental practice" can help your game too.

Just remember to "practice" the correct moves. You'll learn to swing the way you practice, so make sure you mentally practice a good stroke!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Ruthless Golf World Rankings: July 2011

Because nobody not named Yani Tseng is dominating in the golf world right now, the RGWR has been overrun with one-time winners. To make matters worse, many of the multiple winners haven't played particularly well recently. (That means you, Martin Kaymer!) So the July rankings got shaken up more than I first thought.

Here are the RGWG criteria:
I focus on the last 12 months of play -- that's long enough to see some consistency but short enough to be current. Every player in the RGWR won at least once on either the PGA or European Tour. The OWGR rates consistency over the last 2 years, so I see no reason to rank that; my RGWR says if you're a top player, you've won somewhere recently. My priority list (based on quality of field) looks like this:
  1. majors, TPC (PGAT), BMW PGA (ET), and WGCs
  2. FedExCup playoffs and prestige events (like Bay Hill and Dubai)
  3. other PGA and ET events
I put extra emphasis on recent form, and I make some allowance if you're recovering from injury or serious sickness. Also, remember that I count Top5s as a separate category from wins; if you see a player has 3 Top5s, those are seconds through fifths only.

I assign points to tournaments this way:
  • Majors: 10 points
  • TPC & BMW PGA: 8 points (yes, I'm calling them equals!)
  • WGC: 7 points
  • Prestige events: 5 points
  • Regular wins: 3 points
  • Top 5 finishes: 2 points
I give full credit for wins on the "minor" tours like the Nationwide and Asian Tours provided the winner has a current win on the PGA or European Tour. These wins will count only as "regular" wins and not "prestige" wins, no matter how prestigious they may be for their tour, because they generally don't have the strength of field of a regular PGA or ET event.

And because of a strange quirk on the ET site, I've decided I have to specifically state that a tournament win can only count once. Therefore, to avoid possible confusion, I'm just telling you that the RGWR says you can only win a tournament once at a time.

As usual, the point total (and even the number of wins) a player has affects my rankings but doesn't override my personal opinions:
  1. Lee Westwood: 3 wins (1 prestige), 5 Top5, 21 points. Lee made it to the top of my heap last month... with reservations. I said I didn't think he was playing well enough to be there. However, with 2 wins in the last 3 months plus a Top5 at the U.S. Open, my reservations are gone.
  2. Martin Kaymer: 4 wins (1 major, 2 prestige), 2 Top5, 29 points. Kaymer remains here simply because he played too well during the early part of my rating period -- I can't ignore 4 wins and a major. But he hasn't played well recently, and if he doesn't get it together in a couple of months...
  3. Luke Donald: 2 wins (1 WGC, 1 BMW), 10 Top5, 35 points. Luke played badly at the U.S. Open, but he wasn't the only top player to do so. He's still #1 in the OWGR, he's still won recently, and he's still without a major.
  4. Charl Schwartzel: 2 wins (1 major, 1 prestige), 2 Top5, 17 points. His recent Masters win carries a lot of weight, he has two wins, he added a Top5 since the Masters, and he did manage a Top10 at the last major. That's good enough to rise in the rankings right now.
  5. Rory McIlroy: 1 win (1 major), 8 Top5, 26 points. The U.S. Open champ picked up his first major plus another Top5. Majors count for more when no one dominates the Tour, and his consistency is starting to rival Donald.
  6. Steve Stricker: 2 wins (1 prestige), 3 Top5, 14 points. If you have Jack's tournament in your pocket when we've got "Winner of the Week" going, that's a big deal.
  7. Matteo Manassero: 2 wins, 3 Top5, 12 points. The kid hasn't done much since he qualified for the U.S. Open, but he's still a recent winner -- something many multiple winners can't say right now.
  8. Ian Poulter: 2 wins (2 prestige), 1 Top5, 12 points. Again, a player who hasn't stood out in the last month but who has a recent win over the world #1.
  9. Louis Oosthuizen: 2 wins (1 major), 3 Top5, 19 points. In a world where the big boys are relatively quiet, his win in January coupled with a Top10 at the U.S. Open (coupled with his Open Championship trophy, of course) earned him a spot this month.
  10. Bubba Watson: 2 wins, 3 Top5, 14 points. Bubba has been a little quiet lately, but he's a multiple winner with a win in the last couple of months. I was really disappointed in his play at the last major, given how soft the course was... but I was disappointed with a lot of players, so don't guess I can hold it against him. All I can do is shake my head and say "oh oh oh..."
Players to watch:
  • After being up-and-down for most of the year, Fredrik Jacobson seems to have righted the boat. A decent U.S. Open finish followed by a win at the Travelers has him on the right track. Besides, he has two other kids who want trophies...
  • Matt Kuchar and Jason Day are both due. Day seems to have found his rhythm (I did say I expected good things from him at Congressional, though it was his first U.S. Open) and Kuchar just keeps getting into contention.
  • Sergio Garcia is back! I don't know what to expect from him this month, but you don't play the way he has lately (a 5-hole playoff is no small thing, especially after all the major qualifying and T7 at Congressional) unless something's burning inside again.
  • Rory McIlroy. Need I say anything more?
  • But my early favorite for the Open Championship this month is Lee Westwood. That final-round charge at Congressional was the kind of spirit I've been looking for from #2.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Has the Tseng Dynasty Arrived?

This is the question buzzing on many, if not most, of the golf blogs this week. Yani's repeat of Cristie Kerr's unbelievable -19 performance at the Wegmans LPGA Championship -- well, if you want to pick nits, Cristie won by 12 and Yani by only 10 -- and the resultant records she's set or tied have everybody wondering...

Yani's pic from LPGA.comIs Yani the next great woman player? Is she going to be the best ever?

I thought I'd take a slightly different look at the situation than most of the other blogs and TV commentators have. I'm going to ask your indulgence here, because I'm going to compare the men and the women together. Don't misunderstand me -- I'm not saying that Yani could compete with the men. (At least, not yet. If she keeps improving, all bets are off.) But I think it will help us better understand the magnitude of what Yani's doing much more clearly if we compare her to what we're used to seeing from the men. I'm looking at this from two angles:
  • How Yani compares to the other women, relative to how the top male players compare to the rest of the men, and
  • How Yani is doing relative to the top male players, relative to how other top females have compared.
For example, doing this post meant a delay updating the Ruthless Golf World Rankings, as I usually do each month. It's interesting to see how Yani would fare in them if I included her.

The RGWR puts a lot of emphasis on winning over the last 12 months, and currently Martin Kaymer has the most wins at 4, which includes 1 major, plus 2 other Top 5s. Yani would easily trump him with 8 -- 5 LPGA wins, including 2 majors, and 3 other wins on other tours. She also has 5 other Top 5s in that time (one of those is a 2nd in the first major of this year). Her major record in her last 4 majors is T10, 1, 2, 1. This is in Annika and Lorena territory. Not surprisingly, the male with the best record in majors is Rory McIlroy, with 3, 3, 15, 1.

The top male in the OWGR is Luke Donald. He moved from #9 (5.566 -- about 4.6 points behind #1 at 9.1) to #1 (9.14, .48 ahead of #2). Yani started the year at #5 in the Rolex Rankings (9.75, less than a point behind #1 at 10.6) and moved to #1 (14.43, 3.31 ahead of #2). Yani's gained 4.68 points versus Luke's 3.58 points. You can argue that the men are more competitive, but I'd argue that Yani had fewer tournaments she could play and she passed 4 players that had each held #1 recently... and sometimes repeatedly. More importantly, those women took the #1 position; they didn't just have it come to them because others didn't play well.

More interesting still is the scoring average for this year. Yani sits at 69.31, nearly a whole stroke ahead of #2, while Luke (the lead on the PGA) sits at 69.42, a mere .09 strokes ahead of #2. I realize the men are always more competitive and so I expect them to be bunched... but it's rare for a woman to beat the men. Because Tiger's figures are usually incredible (I'll put his in parentheses at the end), I'll compare the #2 male against the women in a few recent examples:
  • 2010: Matt Kuchar 69.61, Na Yeon Choi 69.87
  • 2009: Steve Stricker 69.29, Lorena Ochoa 70.16 (TW 68.05)
  • 2008: Sergio Garcia 69.12, Lorena Ochoa 69.70
  • 2007: Ernie Els 69.29, Lorena Ochoa 69.69 (TW 67.79)
  • 2006: Jim Furyk 68.86, Lorena Ochoa 69.24 (TW 68.11)
  • 2005: Vijay Singh 69.04, Annika Sorenstam 69.33 (TW 68.66)
  • 2004: Vijay Singh 68.84, Annika Sorenstam 68.70
The LPGA online stats don't go back any farther, but you can see how far back you have to go to find anything comparable... and Tiger didn't play enough that year to count. After Annika, they're not even close to the 2nd best male until Yani this year.

How does Yani compare in terms of overall play? Well, we don't have nearly the same amount of stats for the LPGA as we do for the PGA, but I was hoping for a few pertinent comparisons with the men. LPGA courses are shorter, but they're also narrower -- there was an 18-yard wide fairway at the major this weekend! So I chose the PGA's most accurate long hitter for comparison -- Bubba Watson.

That's not so crazy as it sounds. Bubba's #2 in Driving Distance and #104 in Driving Accuracy (60.46%) while Yani is #5 in Driving Distance and #83 in Driving Accuracy (70.6%). In other words, each is long and relatively inaccurate. (For comparison, the top PGA driver hits 74.81% versus 85.7% on the LPGA. That puts them at roughly the same level on their respective tours.) So here's what I found:
  • Wins: Bubba 2, Yani 3
  • Top 10s: Bubba 3/16, Yani 8/10
  • Missed Cuts: Bubba 1/16 plus one WD and one DNS, Yani 1/10
  • Finishes Outside Top 25: Bubba 8/16, Yani 1/10 (only once out of Top 10!)
  • GIR: Bubba 72.48% (he's #1), Yani 75.2% (also #1)
  • Scoring Average: Bubba 70.53, Yani 69.31
  • Birdie Average: Bubba 4.30 per round, Yani 5.09 per round
  • Total Eagles: Bubba 11 in 59 rounds, Yani 2 in 32 rounds (works out to almost 4 in 59 rounds)
  • Total Birdies: Bubba 228 in 59 rounds, Yani 163 in 32 rounds (works out to 300 in 59 rounds)
What stands out here is how consistently Yani is playing. Bubba is arguably the best American player right now, but he's either "on" or "off" with no in-between.

And that consistency is what's so amazing about Yani's rise to the top of the ladies' game. She's playing with the power and accuracy of Bubba Watson, the consistency of Luke Donald, and the scoring ability of Tiger Woods. (Remember, her scoring average this year is nearly a full stroke above her nearest female rival, just as Tiger's has been above his male rivals. For the moment, this is a fair comparison. And again, you have to go back to Annika to find a similar situation on the women's side.)

The real question in all of this is simply how long she can maintain this level of performance. Is it possible? Certainly -- we need only look at Tiger and Annika to know that this level of play can be sustained for several years. In both cases, it was injury that interrupted their dominance. Given that Annika seems to be mentoring Yani, it's possible that Yani may be able to avoid that problem. (One of the more humorous things Yani said this weekend came when Rich Lerner told her Suzanne Pettersen planned to go to the Broadmoor Course early to practice, and then asked how she planned to prepare. She simply smiled and said she would talk to Annika, who won the U.S. Women's Open when it was there in 1995.)

Yani has now won 4 majors at a younger age than any other player, male or female, in the modern era. That last bit gets added because Young Tom Morris won 4 of the first 8 Open Championships, his last at age 21. (He died at only 24, on Christmas Day 1875, in case you're interested. That's why you rarely hear more about him.) But Yani's wins represent more different styles of golf -- including Open-style -- which I think is more impressive.

And there was no career slam back then, which Yani looks poised to snag in a couple of weeks even though the U.S. Women's Open has been her weakest major. Her best finish was T10 last year.

Still, you've got to like her chances.

It's probably a bit early to say she's the best ever, but it seems pretty clear that the Tseng Dynasty now rules women's golf. The real question is whether "the rest of the best" on the LPGA Tour will accept it quietly...

I doubt it. And that's why I think the Tseng Dynasty is going to be FUN!

Pic from Yani's page at LPGA.com. Other facts from the Young Tom Morris page at Wikipedia and various LPGA.com and PGATOUR.com pages.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Limerick Summary: 2011 Travelers Championship

Winner: Fredrik Jacobson

Around the wider world of golf: There were so many feelgood stories and records -- where do we start? Two-time heart transplant recipient Erik Compton won the Mexico Open on the Nationwide Tour, almost guaranteeing his PGA Tour card for next year; Yani Tseng tied Cristie Kerr's record score of -19 at the Wegmans LPGA Championship and won her 4th major at the tender age of only 22; Pablo Larrazabal beat Sergio Garcia in a 5-hole playoff at the BMW International Open, but both played their way into the Open Championship and Sergio played his best golf in two years; John Huston won the Dick's Sporting Goods Open on the Champions Tour; and Stephanie Kim won the Island Resort Championship on the LPGA Futures Tour. WHEW!

Freddie Yac smacks another drive in the fairwaySometimes winning is more trouble than it's worth. Just ask Fredrik Jacobson, aka "Freddie Yac." (In case you didn't know, Freddie is Swedish. His last name is pronounced Yah'-kob-sun.)

See, Fredrik has 3 ET victories -- all in 2002 and 2003 -- and up until Sunday he had no PGA wins. This bugged his kids, especially his 5-year-old daughter Emmie. She decided she wanted Daddy to win a trophy just like all the other players on Tour. And according to Freddie, she asked and asked until he promised to get her one. This year.

So far, so good. It took him 188 tries, but he managed to get her one. Saturday he casually tossed out a 63 to gain a one-stroke lead. Then all he had to do was hold off two more guys throwing 63 at him on Sunday -- Ryan Moore and John Rollins -- and Michael Thompson added his own 62 to the mix. Freddie certainly did his part, hitting every fairway over the weekend, shooting a 66 in the final round, and posting only one bogey for the entire week. But even then he needed a bit of help. Fortunately Rollins started the day just a bit too far back, and Moore bogeyed the final hole; both men came up a single shot short, with Thompson a shot further back.

The things a dad does for his kids...

And in an added surprise, it looks like the win put Freddie into the Open Championship next month. So why do I say winning is more trouble than it's worth?

Actually, Freddie said as much. It seems he has 3 kids. "Alice is 7 and Max is 3. So they're probably going to want one each now, too."

Let's see... 188 starts to get your first PGA trophy...

Good luck, Freddie. This week's Limerick Summary salutes the travails of a Tour dad:
Dear Emmie, your daddy came through;
He won this event just for you.
But victory is fickle;
Now Fred's in a pickle—
Your siblings will each want one, too!
Photo from this ESPN.com article which explains the Open exemption. Quote about the kids from this PGATOUR.com wrap-up.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Low Scoring Continues

Earlier in the week I said it looked like Sergio was back. His play at both the U.S. Open qualifier to make the field and his play in the tournament itself (T7) seemed to point toward good things. The big problem, as most of you who follow him know, has been his inability to play well on the weekend after getting himself into contention and making the cut.

This week represents a huge breakthrough for El Niño. After shooting 69-71 in the first 2 rounds of the BMW International Open, Sergio blitzed the field Saturday with a 64, the lowest score of the day! It puts him in a tie for 2nd, 2 strokes behind leader Mark Foster.

But perhaps the best thing about it came during the after-round interview. Sergio was asked about how it felt to be back in contention, both this week and at the Open last week, and he simply said it felt good. He laughed about how no one could expect to win with Rory "playing out of his head." And he said he felt he let some shots get away early in the round... but he wasn't down about it.

Sergio clearly seems to have turned a corner, both in his play and in his mental approach. It's great to see. And if he should somehow manage to win Sunday (and you may be able to find out if he did by the time you read this), he'll play his way into the Open Championship next month.

I for one wish him good luck. Like I keep saying, golf is better when Sergio is in contention.

Another player also staged a bit of a runaway on Saturday. Yani Tseng was one stroke ahead of Pat Hurst after Friday's round at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, the LPGA's 2nd major of the year. Last year's winner, Cristie Kerr, had the flu earlier in the week and could only muster two par rounds until Saturday. She, like Sergio, struggled early in the round before posting a 67, the round of the day. It put her 4 or 5 strokes behind Yani at the time, but the wind was coming up and Cristie said she thought her 5-under would be good under the conditions.

She was right. It was good for Yani too.

Yani's 67 increased her lead from 1 to 5 strokes. Her closest competitors are rookie Cindy Lacrosse, who may not be used to the spotlight of playing with Yani, and Morgan Pressel, who really wanted to be in that last group but had to settle for playing one group ahead. Even if Yani falters in the final round, Cindy and Morgan are the only two players with a realistic chance of catching her.

I've made some comparisons between Rory and Yani in the last day or so, and here's another interesting one. Yani, like Rory, had a final-round collapse in her last major after having a substantial lead. If she wins today, it will be a "redemption story" not much different from Rory's.

Can she do it? Well, here's the interesting part. Rory's problem at the Masters was clearly a mental one. Yani seemed to stall in Friday's round, missing a couple of short putts that affected her confidence. Her coach Gary Gilchrist is at the tournament, and the two spent an hour on the putting green Friday night. Get this -- Yani didn't hit a single putt. They spent that hour talking about her mindset, about how she isn't expected to win every time she tees it up, and that she needs to stop trying so hard. Yani told GC that she had just learned this week that Jack Nicklaus finished 2nd in majors 19 times, so it was ok if she didn't always win.

Don't look for Yani to stumble in the final round, any more than Rory did. She still has to finish it off, of course, but if she does Yani will become the youngest player, male or female, to win 4 majors.

I guess 22 isn't as young as it used to be. And for Sergio, maybe 31 isn't as old as it used to be. Isn't golf a wonderful game?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Another Week of Records Looms

What does the future of golf hold? Last week Rory McIlroy set a few new scoring records and Jason Day showed he's a force to be reckoned with. This week some other players are stepping up to show their stuff.

Patrick Cantlay gained a little notoriety last week as well. His rounds of 75-67-70-72 put him at even par and made him low amateur at the U.S. Open. A lot of analysts predicted great things for him, although the 19-year-old says he intends to finish his final 3 years at UCLA before turning pro. Well, the kid added to his growing legend Friday by shooting a 10-under 60 at the rain-soaked Travelers Championship. That's the lowest round ever on Tour by an amateur. (BTW, the best comment of the week so far came from Kelly Tilghman, who noted that the Travelers umbrella was a fitting symbol for this tournament.)

The folks at the AT&T National had already given Cantlay the last available spot in next week's tournament. I think they're extremely happy with that decision now!

Meanwhile, the Wegmans LPGA Championship could be in line for a little history of its own. Yani Tseng, at the ripe old age of 22, is already the youngest golfer (male or female) to win 3 majors. Friday she took the lead in her fourth. Of course, she'd be the youngest golfer to win four as well.

Granted, Yani's still two days from the finish... and she was in this position back in March at the Kraft Nabisco Championship before Stacy Lewis took it from her in the last few holes. But Yani keeps putting herself in this position, and so far she's closed the deal 3 out of 4 times. How many players can even get in that position, let alone get the job done?

And if you want to look ahead a couple of weeks, should Yani somehow manage to win the U.S. Women's Open, she'll become the youngest golfer (male or female) ever to complete the career slam.

With all the hype surrounding the men's game -- and don't get me wrong, there's some great stuff happening -- it's a travesty that an accomplishment like Yani's is getting lost in the shuffle. Yani is the same age as Rory, yet has picked up 3 majors before Rory could snag just one! She's already made it to #1 in the Rolex Rankings, which she's held for 19 weeks so far, and she's done it against about 5 other women who shuttled it back-and-forth since Lorena Ochoa retired from the Tour. Add to that her total professional win record -- 7 LPGA wins, 8 others from around the world -- and consider that she's already won 5 times around the world this year, with 2 of those being LPGA wins.

This is pretty heady stuff, gang.

I mentioned in yesterday's post that Yani and Rory know each other from the Nick Faldo Series of youth golf tournaments. GC showed some pictures of Nick working with both of them "back in the day" and asked Nick if he remembered Yani... which he did. He joked that he had told them all his secrets, then said that both Yani and Rory had something in common. According to Nick, both were good listeners who soaked up everything they were taught -- and he added that this was a trait he often saw in the best young golfers.

Unless things change, this year's LPGA Championship won't be a blowout like it was last year, when Cristie Kerr lapped the field and won by 12 strokes. But we could see history of an equally significant kind. You might want to watch the ladies instead of the men this weekend.

Hmmmm... I wonder what the over/under is on Rory winning more majors than Yani?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Rory's LPGA Ties

In case you didn't realize it, this week the LPGA is playing their 2nd major of the year, the Wegmans LPGA Championship. We're in the midst of a six-week period where the last 3 majors of the year are being played. That's not quite as cramped as it sounds:
  • this week is the Wegmans;
  • the LPGA skips next week and plays the U.S. Women's Open the week after that (July 7-10);
  • then they skip another week before playing the Evian Masters (July 21-24) and the RICOH Women's British Open (July 26-31).
Although all those events are pretty close, at least it's not as bad as the Champions Tour. They play the Senior Open Championship and the U.S. Senior Open Championship back-to-back during that July 21-31 stretch (can you say jet lag?), then tack on the Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship just two weeks later (August 18-21).

Yet with all of this activity, what the ladies are buzzing about is last week's U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy. It seems the LPGA has a few connections to the new champ, and these connections emerged during GC's broadcast of the Wegman's on Thursday.

For example, on Monday Cristie Kerr played with Rory in a corporate outing for Audemars Piguet at Willowbrook Country Club in Cape Cod. (Audemars Piguet is a watch manufacturer that's been around since 1875. Apparently both Kerr and McIlroy are ambassadors for the company.) He hadn't slept Sunday night -- what a surprise! -- and she said he clearly looked tired. She also said she was impressed that he still kept his commitment and showed up; clearly no one would have faulted him if he hadn't. Having won the Wegman's last year in a 12-stroke blowout of her own, she certainly has some idea how it feels to win that way.

Perhaps a more interesting connection exists between Rory and Yani Tseng. Apparently the ladies' world #1 and the new U.S. Open champ know each other from the Nick Faldo Series. According to Sir Nick's website,
"Sir Nick Faldo created the Faldo Series (charity number 1102719) in 1996 to provide opportunities to young people through golf and to help identify and nurture the next generation of champions.

"35 tournaments now take place each year in 25 countries worldwide, covering the UK, Europe, South America, the Middle East and Asia. Boys and girls aged 12 to 21 are invited to take part."
If I heard correctly, Yani played the series in 2005 and Rory in 2006, and that's where they became acquainted. I guess we have to give Nick some points for "identifying and nurturing the next generation of champions."

But whatever connections may exist, one thing came through loud and clear during the broadcast: The women are just generally excited about seeing Rory play so well. As Jim Furyk said during the rain delay at the Travelers Championship, it's not so much about the score itself as it is about separating oneself from the field. It doesn't happen that often -- in the last 15 years, can you think of any besides Tiger at the Masters in 1997 and again at Pebble Beach in 2000, Cristie at the Wegman's and Louis Oosthuizen at the Open last year, and Rory last week?

Maybe it shouldn't, but it always surprises me how often the players from the different tours seem to mingle with each other... and especially the good players. That players from Northern Ireland, Arizona, and Taiwan -- and on different tours -- are connected in such varied ways sounds more like a game of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" than reality.

At any rate, it'll be interesting to see if any of the ladies can duplicate Rory's (or Cristie's) feat this week. The course in Rochester is playing soft right now and, unlike the men last week, several of the women are pressing their advantage. It's going to take some work to create any separation from the field.

Perhaps while they're all bunched up they can entertain themselves by playing "Six Degrees of Rory McIlroy." ;-)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What Makes Tiger So Good?

I can't give you a definitive answer to any of today's burning debates like "is Rory better than Tiger?" or "is Tiger better than Jack?" I won't even try.

But I think I can shed some light on other important questions, such as why the young golfers of 2011 don't dominate the way Tiger did in 2000 despite being longer than Tiger was. After all, didn't "Tiger-proofing" a course basically mean you made it three times longer the Texas panhandle? And why has Phil been the only player able to mount anything resembling a sustained challenge to the Big Cat?

In other words, what does it take to become the dominant golfer on Tour?

I spent a little time digging around PGATOUR.com's Player section comparing stats. If you call up any player's listing from this page, then choose "Complete Stats" from the choices in the right column, you can look at that player's statistics from any year they've been on Tour. Bear in mind that this information is limited as you go back; apparently the Tour didn't keep as complete a list of stats back in, say, 2000 as they do now. Because of this, it's harder to compare Tiger circa 2000 to his modern counterparts than I'd like.

Still, we can learn quite a bit. From mid-2005 until the end of 2006, Tiger won 3 majors and Phil 2. They were #1 and #2 on the OWGR during this time. In addition, we can compare these stats to the current stats of the "young guns" and other prominent players, so we can learn a lot about what it takes to become the big gun on Tour.

Rather than reprint all the relevant stats here (booooring), I'll just give you links to some relevant pages and summarize what I found.

I've been a big proponent of what I call Route 67 -- getting where you hit at least 67% each in Fairway Accuracy, GIR, and Scrambling. I still believe that's the best route to improvement for most weekend golfers, since it doesn't require a huge investment of time to get there. Route 67 is more about consistency in your ball striking, which is well within the reach of most of you. It's mostly about simplifying your swing -- eliminating unnecessary manipulations of the club that aren't natural to you anyway -- and hitting the ball more solidly.

But for the pros, the story is a bit different. Driving distance, driving accuracy, short game, putting prowess -- none of these seem to be the determining factor for attaining what we'll call "predator status." You can bust it like J.B. Holmes; you can hit fairways like Brian Gay; you can scramble like Mark Wilson; or you can putt light's-out like Greg Chalmers. These are the current leaders in these categories, and Luke Donald leads the scoring average stat. Some of these guys are in the Top 5 in more than one stat. But you certainly can't say any of them "dominate" on Tour.

GIR does matter, but not on its own. Bubba Watson is currently leading the GIR stat at 72.79%, and is 2nd in Driving Distance; most commentators seem to agree that he's the best American player right now. But Bubba doesn't dominate either.

The real key -- at least, the thing that Tiger and Phil (when he's been at his most dominant) have both had in common -- are that they were ranked highly in both GIR and a stat called "Proximity to the Hole" (I'll abbreviate it PTH). This stat measures how close your approach shot (the one that you hope also counts as GIR) is to the hole, and you can find it on this PTH stat page. It apparently wasn't tracked in 2000, but it was in 2006. Tiger was 1st in GIR (74.15%) and T1 in PTH (31' 7"). Yeah, I know he ranked high in a lot of stats, but think about this:
  • He was 1st in GIR. This means he didn't waste a lot of strokes on bad chips and pitches. He hit nearly 3 out of 4 greens, so he didn't put a lot of stress on his short game.
  • He was T1 in PTH. (Btw, he was tied with Steve Stricker.) Maybe I'm stating the obvious, but your best putters tend to be the folks with shorter putts.
One thing you may not have considered is how misleading the number of putts you take per round can be. If you miss a lot of greens, you spend a lot of shots chipping on and you need to one-putt a lot just to make par. For the guy who misses a lot of greens, 28 putts may translate to only 2-under while the guy who hits 100% of his GIR can shoot 4-under with a less impressive 32 putts.

Phil was ranked 21st in GIR (68.28%) and T49 in PTH (34' 8")in 2006. This may seem counter-intuitive; why should Phil have been so dominant during this year when so many others seem to have been better? Trot on over to Phil's stat page, choose the 2006 stat listing from the dropdown list, and skim down to "Distance Stats." Lo and behold, not all approach shots are created equal! Phil was 2nd in PTH from over 200 yards. (Yes, Tiger was 1st.) But if you go to Tiger's stat page and compare the stats, you'll see that Tiger outplayed Phil by quite a margin at the 150-175 and 175-200 yard distances. Since both were driving around 300 yards, this would put Tiger 5-6 feet closer on approaches to long par-4s.

But not all GIR are created equal either. This same section gives you the GIR from different distances, and you can see that while Phil wasn't bad, a quick comparision shows that Tiger decimated Phil (75.49% vs 48.70%) at the 175-200 yard distance. Tiger was hitting 3 out of 4 of the long par-4s in regulation, while Phil hit about 2 out of 4.

Putting both stats together, that means Tiger hit about 50% more of those GIRs, and was noticeably closer even if they both hit. That's why Phil could never grab the #1 spot. If the typical course had 4 long par-4s, between missing greens and having longer putts Phil was giving up at least 1-2 shots per round on them.

Now let's compare Bubba Watson circa 2011 against the 2006 Tiger. From Bubba's stat page we can see that his GIR of 72.79% compares pretty well with Tiger's, but he's ranked 108 (36' 11") in PTH. (Remember, this PTH stat comes from another page that I referenced earlier.) If you check Bubba's stats at the individual distances, you'll see that while his GIRs look good, his PTHs don't. Tiger was often 10 or more feet closer to the hole after an approach!

Is it any wonder no one seems to dominate the Tour the way Tiger has?

It seems that Tiger's real strength has been the quality of his approach shots -- not just his accuracy at hitting greens, but in terms of how close he puts those shots to the hole -- on the long par-4s.


Don't misunderstand me -- I'm NOT saying that none of the other stats matter. Driving Accuracy, Scrambling, and Putting are all important, and while Tiger often leads those, he's just as often fairly ordinary in them. What I was looking for was what made Tiger dominate the Tour, what gave him that edge that no one seemed to be able to overcome. And his ability to attack the pins on long par-4s often meant he was tapping in for par while others were scrambling for par. Over the course of a tournament, that could easily be 3 or 4 shots over the field.

But these stats aren't showy, and they're easily overshadowed when his competitors are trying to discover his edge. What drew everyone's attention were the long drives and dramatic recovery shots, and I think that's what most of today's young guns believe will make them the next Tiger. But they're wrong, and until they realize it we're going to be stuck in a period of "parity."

Let me answer one other obvious question: If this is how Tiger dominated the Tour, does that mean a short knocker can't dominate? No, but they'll have to play a different type of game to rise to the top. Luke Donald, as good as he is, doesn't hit nearly enough greens (66.18%) to separate himself from the pack. And to do that, he'll have to hit more fairways than he does (66.39%) so he doesn't waste distance in the rough. At the very least, the short knockers have to rank solidly in the traditional stats -- fairways, greens, and putts.

But the bombers better brush up on those long approaches. Otherwise Tiger just might have time to heal up, and there's this Northern Irish kid I'm sure is giving him all the motivation he needs...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Tiger VS Rory Debate

I've listened -- with some amusement, I might add -- to the unavoidable debate about who's better, Tiger or Rory. And I suspect those two may be amused as well, given some of the crazy things that have been said. Rory certainly seems so; if you saw his post-tournament press conference when he was told Padraig Harrington had announced that Rory would be the one to break Jack's 18-major record (and did so after the third round, before Rory even got his first one!), you know what I mean. The embarrassed laugh, the shake of his head, the sigh, the "Oh Paddy, Paddy, Paddy" remark that drew laughs from the press corps...

I thought I'd take a post and share my own thoughts about this budding "clash of titans," as unimportant as my opinion may be. Given the extreme views I've heard expressed by people who should know better, maybe I can bring a bit of sanity to this war of hyperbole.

Basically, here are the two sides:
  • Rory has supplanted Tiger. Not said in as many words, of course, but how else can you interpret the comments? Graeme McDowell said he'd never seen play at the level of what Rory did at Congressional, and Padraig Harrington insinuated (in the statement mentioned earlier) that Tiger with 14 majors had less chance of breaking Jack's record than Rory with (at that time) 0 majors.
  • Rory isn't even in Tiger's league. Again, not said in as many words but clearly intended. Typical here was Brandel Chamblee questioning whether Rory could catch even Tiger's major total because he wasn't "obsessed" like Tiger and was too nice of a kid to have that killer instinct, and Tim Rosaforte saying he thought (for the same reasons) that Rory might win a lot of tournaments but never win a large number of majors.
In case you hadn't guessed, I think both sides are ignoring simple facts. The closest thing I heard to a sane reaction came from, of all people, David Feherty. David said that had the Tiger of 2000 faced off against the Rory of Congressional, Tiger might have lost. Given how fond and proud David is of his fellow Northern Irishman, and given that he only said Tiger "might" have lost, I'd call that a fair assessment. It would certainly have been a good match!

Let's take a harder look at these comments and see what the truth might be.

Graeme's comment is almost understandable. It's colored by the closeness of his relationship with Rory, and Rory has said that Graeme is probably his closest friend on Tour. Given how close they live to each other, what they've accomplished as members of a small country that's never been considered a golf powerhouse, and also that Graeme was with Rory during the debacle at the Masters, can you fault his enthusiasm?

The fact is that Tiger never had to come back from a devastating collapse the way Rory has -- at least, not until he hit that fire hydrant. Given that Tiger -- who's always been viewed as able to handle anything -- hasn't handled his fall from grace particularly well, you could make a reasonable argument that Rory's good play so soon after the Masters demonstrates qualities that we haven't seen yet from Tiger. So while Tiger has probably played better than Rory, it's hard to say Rory's performance under the circumstances wasn't more impressive.

From a strictly technical view, however, there's no contest. Tiger's won under tougher circumstances than Rory.

As for Paddy's remark... well, I like Paddy but he'd had a few too many before he said that. Perhaps Paddy believes that this injury will end Tiger's career, but until we know that for sure, Tiger's still on pace to beat Jack's record. He may not have won a major for 3 years, but Tiger's only 35; Jack didn't win his 15th major until he was 38. In fact, Jack only won 4 majors after he turned 35. Tiger's far from running out of time.

Again, there's a bit of over-enthusiasm here. ;-) But the other side fares no better.

I would argue that Brandel's "obsession" argument is flawed, simply because that obsession may yet end Tiger's career. It was obsession that caused him to build a swing that has nearly destroyed his left knee. I think you could argue that most of Tiger's personal problems and current swing problems came from that obsessive nature. Obsessions are all-consuming, folks. They affect everything you do. Rory's less-obsessive nature may actually lengthen his career, and with more time comes more opportunities.

Does a lack of obsession -- and a threatening persona -- mean you don't have the "killer instinct" necessary to win majors? Hardly. Let's take a quick look at Rory's last four:
  • 2010 Open Championship: Rory fires a 63 the first day, giving him the first round lead. He's not used to it and the weather is bad the 2nd day, and he shoots 80. He comes back to shoot 69-68 and finish in 3rd, 8 off the lead. If he had shot par in that 2nd round, he'd have at least made a playoff.
  • 2010 PGA Championship: Rory shoots 71-68-67-72 and finishes T3. He misses a putt to make the playoff.
  • 2011 Masters: You know the story. It's Rory's first time leading a major wire-to-wire... or at least for 63 holes. He cracks under the pressure and shoots 80 in the last round. You can see the pressure build in the scores: 65-69-70-80. Had he shot just 70 in that last round, he'd have been in a playoff.
  • 2011 U.S. Open: Rory follows a plan he made after cracking in the Masters and wins running away, setting or tying 12 different records. He shoots 65-66-68-69.
Here's an inexperienced kid who "doesn't have that killer instinct" and is in contention at majors for the first time... and he's only two bad rounds and one missed putt from a slam. The facts say he's got plenty of killer instinct; all he needs is some experience winning, which he started acquiring this past week.

Based on what I see here, although I think Tiger can still break Jack's record, I'd agree with Paddy that Rory could potentially do it also.

As for Rosaforte's comment... I really respect Rosie, but he's ignoring the facts here. After 100 starts for each player, Tiger had around 27 wins (3 majors) while Rory has 3 wins (1 major). As I just pointed out, had he been more experienced, Rory might have 4 majors now. And when asked in his Sunday presser why he played so well in majors, he simply said he didn't know and that he supposed he just got up for them better.

The facts say that Rory gets into contention in majors far more often than in regular tournaments, and he clearly wants major wins more. So Rosie's wrong. I suspect Rory will win lots of majors but fewer tournaments overall.

And if you think about it, this makes a lot more sense. Rory isn't obsessive like Tiger. While you need an element of obsession to rack up a huge win total, you don't need it to dominate in majors. Majors take up a mere 4 weeks of the year. Rory has the kind of temperament to play well in regular tournaments, to keep his game in shape without injuring himself and keep his mind in balance to avoid the pitfalls of obsession. I heard somebody mention how fresh Rory looked after winning, as opposed to the weariness that most major winners show. Maybe some of it was adrenaline, but I suspect it's a byproduct of that "lack of obsession" that most think will hurt him.

In other words, Rory simply doesn't waste as much energy in a major as an obsessed player. His more balanced approach allows him to accept his limitations and simply play the best he can. He's already talking about how important it is to keep going lower, no matter what your opponents do, and it's only a matter of time before he learns how to do it. And once he does, he could become more intimidating than Tiger, simply because he appears to win so easily. It's incredibly demoralizing to work your butt off trying to score, only to have someone cruise by you with a friendly smile on his face.

If that Rory ever faces off against the Tiger of 2000, it'll be a pay-per-view event!

So I'm like everybody else. I want to see these two great players face off on a regular basis. But I suspect everybody's in for a few surprises. When it's all said and done, I suspect Tiger will have more total tournament wins than Sam Snead, and Rory will lag somewhere behind. I also suspect Tiger will beat Jack's major total...

And then Rory will beat Tiger's total.

That's just my opinion, of course. But I have a feeling it's going to be fun to watch, no matter what happens.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Swing That Tamed Congressional

Everybody and their brother (and I suppose some sisters are involved too, just to be politically correct) has been analyzing Rory McIlroy's swing, including Michael Breed on The Golf Fix Monday night. It's been covered pretty well, and most of them used footage from the U.S. Open while I'm stuck with older footage from YouTube.

For all these reasons, I'll keep this brief.

Part of the reason everybody's so interested in Rory's swing is because he's a "normal guy," by which I mean he's only 5'9" tall -- unlike the bombers who are typically at least 6' tall. Nevertheless, he moves it out there around 295 without any great difficulty.

Michael Breed covered the "secrets" of his swing pretty well, but I'd like to point out one of the things that I've pointed out so often in players' swings that it's almost become a running joke around here. I'm talking about the one-piece takeaway, where a player turns his or her shoulders very early in the swing. This results in the arms staying straight for a long time into the backswing, providing a lot of width and power.

The following video provides a great angle to see just how long Rory maintains those straight arms, which will give you an idea of just how much shoulder turn he gets. If you don't care for the soundtrack this uploader added -- I believe it's Evanescence -- just click the mute button (second from the left):



Rory's hands are well above his waist before his right elbow starts to bend.

You can also see how much he dips on his downswing -- see how much his head drops below the treeline? While this isn't necessarily a good thing, in Rory's case it helps him keep his wrist cock for a longer period of time on the way down. It could cause a lot of trouble if Rory wasn't so stable horizontally -- he doesn't move off the ball on the backswing, nor forward on the downswing until after the ball is gone. I would guess this move is natural to Rory, much like Jim Furyk's wild figure-8 backswing, and not something you would normally teach someone. You're going to move down a bit, but it shouldn't be this much.

The quickest way to add power and accuracy to your swing is to use a solid one-piece takeaway. I've written several posts about it -- you can search "one-piece takeaway" in the search box, and you can also check out the "Dexter's Coming Over the Top" series on my Some Useful Post Series page. It's a simple move that's easy to learn and gives good results quickly.

It certainly helped Rory.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Limerick Summary: 2011 U.S. Open

Winner: Rory McIlroy

Around the wider world of golf:
Not much was happening besides the U.S. Open this weekend. Ji-Hee Lee won the Nichirei Ladies on the JLPGA, and Diana Luna won the Deutsche Bank Ladies Swiss Open on the LET. You can read about Lee's victory at Mostly Harmless.

Rory hugs his dad
The photo came from this article in the UK's Telegraph.

Any similarities between Roy McAvoy in Tin Cup and Rory McIlroy at the Masters are purely history now. Maybe McAvoy couldn't finish a U.S. Open, but McIlroy proved he can.

OK, I'll spare you all the details about broken records... you've probably heard them a thousand times already. I'll just add that Rory's 268 total broke the Nicklaus record for low aggregate score in a U.S. Open by 4 strokes. And I'll spare you the speculations comparing Rory to Tiger... or Jack... or Seve. That's not because I'm tired of them, but rather because I plan to discuss how valid they are at a later time.

But this week's tournament has changed the face of golf a bit, and I'll just make a few notes before I drop my customary "dope rhyme."

Jason Day is clearly someone to be reckoned with. In my June RGWR post I said I felt good about his chances, although he hadn't played a U.S. Open before. Although he's only played 4 majors total, he has Top 10s in 3 of them and his last two are a T2 and a solo 2nd. I'll be watching him the rest of the year.

Sergio Garcia is back! No, he didn't compete for the lead (I said earlier I didn't expect him to) but he did post 4 rounds of par or less in a major. Not only that, commentators commented on how happy he seemed to be on the course, and he seemed truly happy that Rory was playing well. If his mind is better, then Sergio is back and we should start watching for some better play from him.

Unlike most of the Americans, both Kevin Chappell and Robert Garrigus showed up. Not only did they post T3s, they earned their way into more majors. Garrigus has already made a quantum jump in his play, but this is the sort of thing that can really kickstart a career. Way to go, boys!

The RGWR got shaken up badly this week. Play in the majors has clearly become something to be weighted more heavily, and the big names didn't play all that well. Westwood remains on top because he's played well recently (2 wins), rallied for a T3, and moved up close to #1 in the OWGR; Donald dropped out of the Top 5 because he played too poorly (if you can't even hit wet fairways, how can you remain near the top?); and Kaymer remained in 2nd place only because he had a major and 3 other wins coming in (an MC and T39 in the first 2 majors is baaaad). Schwartzel and Oosthuizen re-entered the Top 5 because they both have majors, recent wins, and they showed up with T9s. And Rory entered the rankings because he's played well lately and, but for a dozen strokes lost largely due to inexperience, he could have had all 4 majors.

Finally, I'd like to weigh in on something that seems to have perplexed all the commentators: Why have American crowds embraced Rory so quickly?

It's been suggested that America loves a comeback story and that Rory's just a good kid. Both certainly play a part, But I think it's that we also need a golf hero to root for, and Tiger let us down. It seemed that Tiger never failed, and we could all imagine that he was everything we wanted to be... until we found out that he was just as flawed as the rest of us. Suddenly he wasn't so attractive anymore.

And then Rory came along and failed. And failed again. And failed yet again. But unlike Tiger's failure, Rory's wasn't a moral one. Instead, it was a "Rocky" story all over again. America embraces that kind of story. And when Rory was asked if he would be playing here more since he won, he smiled and said "I guess I'll have to."

It was as if Rory embraced America right back... something we never felt that Tiger did.

I don't think you have to look much farther than that. When we look at Rory, we see what we'd like to be.

Can he live up to that image? Can he keep winning like Rocky? Can he just remain the approachable young man who won America's heart and trophy? This week's Limerick Summary ponders this question:
Forget coughing leads up like McAvoy;
The new Open hero is McIlroy!
On both course and Twitter
He's more gold than glitter—
We'll find out soon if he's the real McCoy.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Rorymania Spreads

It looks like today will be something special in the golf world.

Will it be Tigermania all over again? I don't know.

What I do know is that I heard thousands of people chanting "Let's go, Rory, let's go!" during his third round Saturday -- where, btw, he set a new record and broke one of the records he set Friday. In case you missed it, he set a new aggregate 54-hole score of 199, one better than Jim Furyk at the 2003 U.S. Open, and broke the all-time scoring record (relative to par) of -13 he set Friday by finishing Saturday's round at -14.

Will Rory win this tournament? Yeah, I think so. Saturday morning I heard several commentators guessing what he would score in his third round, and several said it would give us some idea how he might hold up Sunday. Rather than just holding his ground, Rory managed to increase his lead from 6 to 8 strokes. (For the record, I guessed he would score 67, one better than the 68 he actually posted.) So while he might have some trouble today, I don't expect a repeat of Masters Sunday.

One way or the other, we'll see a record-breaking performance. I suspect the worst Rory will do is -1 or maybe even par, which would give him a record-setting final score. That means unless he backs up -- and I'll be surprised if he does -- Lee Westwood, Robert Garrigus, or Jason Day will need a record-setting performance to catch him. (No, as much as I like Yang, I don't think he has that good a score in him this week.) It would take an even better score for Garcia, Kuchar, or Jacobson to catch him.

I think this U.S. Open belongs to Rory McIlroy... but is the world of golf part of his prize?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

So How Many Records Did YOU Set Friday?

We won't give him the win yet, but Rory McIlroy certainly made a case Friday that he's ready to claim a major. In case you didn't hear, his opening rounds of 65-66 allowed him to tie or set a few U.S. Open records:
  • He's the first player to post two opening rounds of 66 or better.
  • He's the fastest player ever to reach double digits. It took him only 26 holes to reach -10.
  • I think GC said he was also the fastest man to get to -11 (in 32 holes) and -12 (in 34 holes).
  • He's the only player ever to reach -13 at any point during a U.S. Open. (It only took him 35 holes.)
  • His 131 is the lowest 36-hole aggregate score ever, and his -11 is the lowest "relative to par" 36-hole score ever... and he did it with a double-bogey on his 36th hole, thank you very much.
  • His 6-shot lead over second-place Y.E. Yang ties Tiger for the largest 36-hole lead ever. (Tiger did it in the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.)
And if you look at the other majors, only Henry Cotton has had a larger lead after 36 holes -- 9 shots at the 1934 Open Championship.

That 6-shot lead isn't insurmountable, of course. When Y.E. Yang beat Tiger in the 2009 PGA, he was 6 shots back at the halfway point... and now Yang is 6 shots back of McIlroy.

But McIlroy isn't Tiger, and the kid knows what it feels like to have a big lead and lose it. Yang's task isn't going to be an easy one.

To put this all in perspective, a quick look at U.S. Open scoring records is in order. The record relative to par was set by Tiger in 2000 when he shot -12 and beat runner-up Ernie Els by 15 shots. That was an aggregate score of 272, a record jointly held by Tiger and Jack Nicklaus (-8 in 1980), Lee Janzen (-8 in 1993), and Jim Furyk (-8 in 2003).

With a par of 71, four par rounds at the Congressional of 2011 would total 284 -- the same par score Graeme McDowell won with at Pebble last year. If Rory just shoots two even-par rounds from here out, he'd finish at 273. But if he can just manage to get just a couple more under par, he'll beat Tiger's "relative to par" record and the aggregate score record as well.

We won't give Rory the win yet... but be aware that we may be witnessing the fall of several more U.S. Open records by Sunday night. And if he manages to pull it off...

Tiger will have all the motivation he needs to get well soon.

U.S. Open scoring info courtesy of GC and Wikipedia.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Mr. McIlroy Goes to Washington

His limo arrived without much fanfare. No couriers were sent to announce his arrival, and the press corp hardly noticed his entry among the other emissaries.

And then he stepped up to the podium and entered into the Congressional debate. Just how much did the last round at Augusta National scar him?

The representative from Northern Ireland began his presentation with an emphatic "not at all!"


Rory picGiven how Rory McIlroy played on Thursday, that's not too dramatic an introduction for this post. All he did was post a bogey-free 65 (that's 6 birdies) -- 3 strokes better than second place -- where he hit 17 of 18 greens and basically made U.S. Open golf look pretty ordinary. In fact, when asked about it he said it was a pretty easy round.

Nobody else felt that way. The Top 6 in the world looked like this:
1) Luke Donald -- +3
2) Lee Westwood -- +4
3) Martin Kaymer -- +3
4) Steve Stricker -- +4
5) Phil Mickelson -- +3 (on his birthday, no less!)
6) Matt Kuchar -- +1
Next is #7 Graeme McDowell with a -1 (hey, isn't he supposed to have lost his swing?) and then #8, our "scarred star" McIlroy.

Ok, I'll grant you that it's just the first round and McIlroy has had a habit of getting out of the blocks fast before fading down the stretch. I'll also grant you that the track was dampened a bit by some rain and was therefore easier to run. (Didn't help the favorites, did it?) But if he keeps taking the lead, eventually he's going to get a second wind and sprint to the finish. I'm not giving it to McIlroy until he actually wins, but this is four straight majors where he's displayed some impressive play -- the first round lead in three of them, and missing a playoff by one stroke at the PGA.

There's certainly something there worth watching.

Of the 21 players who broke par, GC noted that most of the recent major winners -- Mickelson and Kaymer notwithstanding -- made up a large percentage:
  • Charl Schwartzel (2011 Masters) and Y.E. Yang (2009 PGA) are tied for 2nd (-3).
  • Louis Oosthuizen (2010 Open) is in the group one stroke back at T4. Sergio is also in this group -- remember, he came in 2nd in both the 2008 Open and PGAs, won by Padraig Harrington.
  • Stewart Cink (2009 Open) and Graeme McDowell (2010 U.S. Open) are in the T10 (-1) group. If you allow a "classic," Davis Love III (1997 PGA) is here as well.
  • And if you go back to the group at even par, you'll find both Angel Cabrera (2007 U.S. Open, 2009 Masters), Zach Johnson (2007 Masters), and Padraig Harrington (2008 Open and PGA).
And I've already noted McIlroy's play in the last four majors.

As usual, we have some "regular" players in the mix, like Ryan Palmer, Robert Garrigus, Alvaro Quiros, Henrik Stenson, and Bubba Watson. (I love the fact that we're actually gonna have a "low Bubba" in this major -- 2001 U.S. Am champion Bubba Dickerson is currently a single stroke ahead of Bubba Watson.) And there are the "stories," like last week's Italian Open winner Robert Rock, who had visa problems and teed it up Thursday without a full night's sleep or a practice round... and posted a 1-under 70.

But the big story right now -- assuming Sergio doesn't give us a fairytale ending -- is that the U.S. Open trophy may be on its way back to Ireland for another year. Unless some American becomes a Congressional leader by Sunday night, this period of "golf détente" may stretch out indefinitely...

Photo from daylife.com.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Playing Off Pine Straw (In Case You're Not Phil)

One of the holes at Congressional that's receiving a lot of attention has the greenside slopes closely mown so the ball will roll down into pine straw. (I think it's the 16th.) This is the only raised green on the course, and the pine straw makes it difficult to get the chip close.

Of course, pine straw is an integral part of many golf courses. If you can play off of it, you can really show off to your playing partners. (Or win a Masters, if you're Phil Mickelson.) Fortunately it's not hard to learn how to play it, and I found a couple of videos that cover the shot.

The first one was shot at Pinehurst, which is only about 2 hours from where I live:



And this second one is more of a checklist of things to keep in mind when you have to play off pine straw:



The main points you need to remember are these:
  • You want to hit the ball before you hit the pine straw, so think of this as a chipping motion. Set up so you're sure you'll hit the ball first. Essentially you'll use your short game setup -- ball back in your stance, weight a bit more on your front foot.
  • Get a solid footing, but be careful not to move the ball when you do. You don't want a penalty shot added to your score.
  • Don't ground your club. Again, if the ball moves because you moved the pine needles, that's a penalty.
  • If you can, determine whether there are any roots or rocks hidden by the straw. You don't want to hurt yourself.
  • Did I mention that you don't want to accidentally move the ball? Be careful!
And remember that not all lies are the same. You may get a lie that lets you really go after the ball, or you may get a "buried lie" where the ball literally looks like an egg in a nest. If you don't have a good lie, don't try to imitate Phil -- just chip it back out and take your medicine.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Oh Oh Oh, Ben Is Back!

On the outside chance you missed it -- and perhaps you consider yourself lucky if you did -- Ben Crane is back. But this time he brought some friends, namely Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler, and Bubba Watson.

In the same vein as Jake Trout and the Flounders, meet the Golf Boys and their first hit(?), "Oh Oh Oh":



Ok, I get the Woodstock look Hunter's sporting (1960s) and Rickie's hiphop groove (1990s). I even understand Ben sticking with the daredevil outfit, although I really think he should have gone with that "Boogie Nights" look from his dance video (1970s). But I keep wanting to ask Bubba about that whole "Dexy's Midnight Runners" look he's got going (1980s)...



Anyway, you can download the video from iTunes and all the profits go to charity. I think they also said that one of the golf sponsors was donating money for every hit the video got, so at least consider clicking the little "YouTube" logo on the player above to make sure you register a hit.

The really frightening thing is that Ben suggested there are more to come...

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

My U.S. Open Picks

Well, it's time to post my guesses at who might subdue Congressional and walk away with the U.S. Open trophy. Since there are no clear-cut favorites this time out, and I could easily come up with a list of 15 or 20 realistic contenders, I've put together this list of 5 possibles I think could surprise everybody.
  1. Since I've been on Luke Donald's bandwagon all year, it's probably no surprise that he's my favorite to win it all. No one has played more consistently than Luke, what with 2 wins and an average of at least one Top 5 every month for the 12 months. In addition, I heard the guys at Congressional talking earlier today and they said the heat had made it difficult to get the rough the way they want it. That certainly should play into the occasionally wayward Donald's hands.
  2. My 2nd choice will probably surprise you, but I think Fred Funk is primed for a really good performance. He's finally getting over the physical problems that have plagued him for the last year or so. He made it through the Open qualifier last week, then played really well at the Greater Hickory Classic this past weekend where the weather was hot and the course was dry -- very much like conditions this week. He shot a 10-under 62 on Sunday, vaulting to the top of the leaderboard and barely missing out on the playoff. Plus I like the fact that he only had to play 3 days of competitive golf rather than 4 last week. Don't be surprised if the Funkster winds up in the hunt.
  3. Of course I have to include Phil Mickelson in the mix. No matter how he's playing, Phil always seems to get up for the majors, and he has 5 runner-up finishes at the Open. Given how well his experiment with the 2-iron went at Memorial, I think he can hit enough fairways to make a game of it.
  4. Although he's never won a major, Steve Stricker certainly seems ready to win an Open. His erratic driving caused me some concern earlier in the year, but he seems to have gotten things back under control. And now, coming off his biggest win ever at Jack's place, I think this may be his best-ever chance to pick up his first major. He's certainly proved he can play under this kind of pressure.
  5. Finally, my dark horse. This was tough. I have a feeling that Sergio will surprise everybody with a good showing, but I don't think he's back in winning form yet. And I really wanted to choose Matteo Manassero. His game is perfectly suited to a U.S. Open course... but unlike Stricker, he hasn't been handling final-round pressure very well lately. Instead, I'm putting my money on Manny's fellow countryman Francesco Molinari. He's played well in the big tournaments over the last few months, including that 2010 WGC win in China where he beat Westwood essentially head-to-head, and he's coming off a great showing in the BMW Italian Open this past week. He's a good driver and a good putter, both of which will stand him in good stead at Congressional.
And there they are -- my list of "most likely players to succeed at Congressional." With the exception of Mickelson, none are long hitters -- but that's a function of the shortness of the list rather than a preference for short knockers. Still, for all the talk about how long the course is, I think the hard fairways and the increased par (71 this time instead of 70) will eliminate some of the advantage the long hitters would otherwise enjoy. Even Graeme McDowell, who thought this course was a beast when he played it a month ago, has changed his tune and now says it's more enjoyable to play.

Of course, it won't be by Thursday. But that's why we all love the U.S. Open, isn't it? ;-)

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Limerick Summary: 2011 FedEx St. Jude Classic

Winner: Harrison Frazer

Around the wider world of golf: Mark Wiebe won the Greater Hickory Classic in a 3-hole playoff over James Mason on the Champions Tour; Kyle Thompson won the Rex Hospital Open on the Nationwide Tour (and, I should add, both of these events were played in NC where I live); Yani Tseng got her 2nd LPGA win and 5th worldwide win of 2011 at the LPGA State Farm Classic; Lisa Ferrero won the Teva Championship for her 2nd win in 2011 on the LPGA Futures Tour; Robert Rock got his first ET win at the BMW Italian Open; Becky Brewerton won the Tenerife Ladies Match Play on the LET; and Sun-Ju Ahn won the Suntory Ladies Open for her 2nd JLPGA win of 2011.

Frazer shakes hands with Karlsson after tournament
Photo from PGATOUR.com.

According to Wikipedia, St. Jude is "the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes." It also says that the item he is most often associated with is a club.

Harrison Frazer may have felt that all of these things applied to him over the last couple of years. After 13 years of wrist surgery, hip surgeries, shoulder surgery, and 354 starts without a win, he was feeling beat down and had begun to doubt he would ever win.

And then came Sunday at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. Paired with Robert Karlsson, who lost in a 3-way playoff in 2010, the two separated themselves from the rest of the field and began a battle to see who would make the fewest mistakes. You see, Karlsson -- despite having won 11 times on the ET -- has a reputation for faltering down the stretch, and Frazer's come in second often enough that he's heard the "Down goes Frazer!" line too many times to count. Stepping onto the 12th tee, both were tied at -14...

And neither could buy a birdie. Each scrambled for par until Karlsson bogeyed the 17th... and Frazer the 18th. Another playoff ensued as each man continued to scramble for par. Finally, on the third playoff hole, Frazer nailed a gap wedge over 150 yards -- perhaps a bit of adrenaline there -- leaving him a putt across the entire green.

He laid it stone dead for a tap-in par, while Karlsson bogeyed. Apparently St. Jude feels that 355 is the lucky number!

With only a couple of tournaments left on his medical extension, Frazer needed to make around $400,000 to keep his card. That's not a problem now. In fact, Frazer's outlook has improved considerably... and on those days when he struggles, he'll have a shiny medal trophy to remind him that there's always hope, even for lost causes.

Heck, he may even buy a St. Jude medal to wear after this win.

So here's a Limerick Summary for the man with the cause that didn't lose on Sunday:
He felt lost, a cause for St. Jude;
Now Frazer is one lucky dude.
His body is mended,
His Tour card extended—
The saint helped him find a new 'tude!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Remembering Payne... and His Swing

With U.S. Open week coming up, you'll be seeing a lot of "remembrances" of Payne Stewart since two of his three majors were U.S. Opens. I'm getting an early start, and I think you'll like this. Essentially, it's three videos featuring Payne.

First, here's an early but not-so-serious appearance of Payne and his swing coach Chuck Cook on GC's old Academy Live program that was hosted by Peter Kessler:



Of course, Payne's swing was legendary for its smoothness. Here's a clip of him hitting a tee shot, shown at several speeds. The two things you should really take from this are how upright his swing is (that's part of what makes his swing more "classic" than "modern") and how little effort it seems to require, despite the fact that Payne moved it out there pretty good:



And finally -- and I'll admit, I'm pretty stoked to have found this -- here's a 10-minute lesson given by Payne on how to hit long irons. Although most of us don't use long irons anymore, the lesson will help you hit both fairway woods and long hybrids. The lesson covers everything from setup to shaping shots to controlling the trajectory of the ball:



I hope to come back to this in a later post, but Payne's approach is so simple that it doesn't need a lot of explanation. Bear in mind that, because Payne's swing is a classic style and also a bit idiosyncratic, some of his instruction may sound a bit different from what you've heard. But you'll also hear a lot of stuff that's familiar, especially from my posts -- things like the one-piece takeaway and keeping your hands in front of you.

I hope you enjoy these clips. Modern golf might look a little different if we hadn't lost Payne so soon... and I'm not talking about "plus fours," either.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Twisting Pushup for Golfers

Since I've been answering questions about golf exercises and training, I thought I'd pass along this little gem I discovered while doing some personal research. And since I noticed that my series on doing 100 pushups was one of my most popular post series (a complete list is in the Fitness Guide on the Some Useful Post Series page), I guess a lot of you will be interested in this.

It's a funky twist on standard pushups that seems ideally suited to golf fitness. Here's the video -- note that there are two pushups demonstrated. The second one, which is the cool one, is based on the first. The cool one is called a "Screwing T":



Isn't that just the most twisted pushup you've ever seen? It'll certainly add some variety to your workouts, but here's how to make it even more suitable for a golf workout.

You probably noticed that Ryan completely turned his feet so his ankles pointed down at the ground when he formed the "T" with his shoulders. You don't have to do that. When I tried it, I found it was pretty easy to keep my toes on the ground in a normal pushup position. And you actually get some momentum from the rolling motion as you go up on your hands, so this "T" version is easier than some similar versions I've seen. As a result, this version really helps you get used to turning your shoulders more fully on your backswing while still giving you some shoulder and arm strengthening.

Work one side at a time like Ryan suggests. You might actually have fun with this part of your workout!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Searching for Golf-Specific Workouts?

Dexter left a comment on my post with the Gray Cook video on the proper way to lift heavy objects, asking about golf-specific workouts. I decided it was worth a short post, so here's a second post for Friday. (Hey, I could do it every week and call it Two4Fridays... not!)

It seems like every teacher has their own approach to this topic. Some focus on flexibility, others on building muscular strength, still others on core stability. You'll find recommendations that include Pilates, yoga, weight training, bodyweight exercises, and any number of other things. To get an idea, you can go to my Some Useful Post Series page and check out the posts under "The Weekend Golfer's Fitness Guide." I did that in early 2010, over the span of two or three months. There's a lot of posts, covering the basics of a whole lot of different aspects of golf fitness.

One of those posts is simply called Golf-Specific Training, which has a complete list of posts I did on representative exercises you'll run across.

If you go to YouTube, search for either "golf specific exercises" or "golf specific workouts" (no hyphens). This will give you more options than you ever thought existed! Obviously I can't vouch for the safety or effectiveness of any of them. The best bet is to sort through them for recognizable names -- people like Gray Cook or Katherine Roberts, for example.

To get you started, here are a couple I found by Mike Pedersen, who's well-respected as a golf fitness trainer. This first one uses resistance tubing:



and this second one focuses on dumbbells:



Pedersen has a lot of videos on YouTube, and you can link to many of them from the right column of the YouTube pages for these videos.

That should be enough to get you started. Don't get overwhelmed by all the options!

Denis Pugh on Greenside Play

The name Denis Pugh may not be familiar to you, but I bet these two are: Eduordo and Francesco Molinari. Denis Pugh is their coach, and I think you could say he's pretty good -- in the last couple of years, both have moved into the Top 50 in the world (as of this week, Edoardo is #35 and Francesco is #20).

Both men are considered pretty good at the short game, and since Dexter's been talking about different approaches to chipping at his site, I thought I'd include this short video by Pugh on some of the more unusual approaches the pros use when faced with tough chips:



Note the reasons for using these approaches:
  • The wood is used because the wide flat bottom doesn't hang up in the grass. The loft of the club gets the ball on top of the grass.
  • The toe of the putter is used when the grass is so thick and the ball sits down so deep that you need the smallest possible "club face" you can muster. The toe goes under the ball and pops it up out of the grass. Note also that the ball is closer to the green than it was with the wood shot; you don't get a lot of carry with this shot, so it needs to be close.
  • And the bellied wedge is used when the ball is up against the rough but you can get the club on the top half of the ball. The loft of the wedge plays no part in this shot, and you use the wedge instead of the putter because you want the heavy sole of the wedge to give this shot some power. If you used the putter, most of the putter weight would skim over the ball and you wouldn't get a solid hit.
Use these principles to help you decide what kind of shot will best help you get the ball out of the rough. Remember, even if the shot isn't great, you want to make sure your next shot is from the short grass.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Gray Cook on Deadlifting

The other major move Gray Cook talked about during Monday's Golf Fitness Academy on GC was the deadlift. Why is this move important?

Because any time you lift a heavy object, that's a deadlift. Too many people develop serious and chronic injuries because they deadlift improperly... and it's not just "normal" or "out-of-shape" people who suffer these injuries. Athletes get them frequently. One of the fittest athletes who ever lived was Bruce Lee, and he was laid up for months after doing an exercise called a "good morning," which is a special version of a deadlift.

I did jobs that involved heavy lifting of one sort or another -- and I mean heavy, like boxes of books at a bookstore -- for around 25 years. In all that time, I never hurt my back. The main reason is that I lifted items properly. This video demonstrates several different ways to lift heavy objects properly.



Gray Cook is a physical therapist, so he understands the mechanics of the human body. Take a little time to watch this video and try the moves. It could save your back. At the very least, it could make golf less painful for you.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Gray Cook on the Chop and Lift

Yesterday I wrote about the "Functional Movement" concept that was the subject of Monday's Golf Fitness Academy on GC, and I said I'd be covering two of the exercises they talked about in more detail.

The first is what Gray Cook calls the "chop and lift." It's a move that is especially relevant to golf.

Cook says much of what he does is "old school" -- that is, exercises that have been around for a long time, even centuries. The "chop and lift" uses either a cable machine at a gym or resistance bands at home. You might think resistance bands are a recent invention, but they aren't. I'm including a few photos from a mail order fitness course that was popular in the mid-1920s by Earle Liederman, a contemporary of Charles Atlas. (In fact, the two worked together for a while.) Liederman's course included a device he called a "progressive exerciser," which I'm certain you'll recognize. The point is that it's an elastic band device, the forerunner of today's resistance bands.

Liederman back exercise

Liederman arm exercise

Liederman shoulder exercise

Liederman arm exercise

If you're interested, you can look over the entire course by clicking this link. It's interesting, if for no other reason that it made Liederman a millionaire before the Great Depression took his fortune.

While I generally prefer exercises that don't use special equipment because I don't like to waste money on stuff that ends up just sitting around the house and taking up space, some useful exercises require equipment and that equipment doesn't cost much or take up much space. But I don't see how you could do this exercise without the bands, and since bands aren't that expensive and won't take up half the living room...

Anyway, here's a video of Gray Cook demonstrating how the "chop and lift" is done:



It looks like a fairly simple way to develop some core strength and stability that will benefit your golf swing. It even looks like it might help prevent some back problems. For that reason alone, you might consider adding to your workout. Since the Titleist Performance Institute sponsored the video, they apparently think it is.

I'll cover the other movement tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

About Functional Movement

I suppose some of you saw Golf Fitness Academy on GC Monday night. It featured a physical therapist named Gray Cook, who has some pretty impressive credentials including:
  • board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with the American Physical Therapy Association
  • certified strength and conditioning specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association
  • Level I coach with the U. S. Weight Lifting Federation
  • instructor with the North American Sports Medicine Institute
and several other things as well, like working with the Indianapolis Colts Mayo Clinic and the U.S. Military. He and another athletic trainer named Lee Burton started something called Functional Movement Systems, or FMS, which is a method of helping athletes eliminate movement problems that can cause injury.

Gray Cook caught my attention because he made a very noticeable improvement in the range of motion of one of the show's hosts in just a few minutes -- improvements in both balance and flexibility -- without even doing any strength training! In fact, his whole point was that these issues need to be dealt with before we start any major training program. Otherwise we face the possibility of injuring ourselves because we can't do the activities properly.

I've decided to do some research on the things he talked about. As I get older, I find it's much easy to hurt myself doing things that I know I'm strong enough to do, and I don't want to waste my time doing workouts that don't adequately address the problems. My initial research turned up a few resources that I thought I'd pass on to you, in case you want to explore them yourself.

First of all, Cook has written several books on the subject but one seems to be aimed more at athletes than at doctors... and the price is more affordable too. The book is called Athletic Body in Balance. It retails for $19.95 but I found it at Amazon for $11.35 and at BN.com for $11.33. (You can read several of the chapters for free at Amazon.) It's also available as an ebook at both places. I'm thinking I'll have to get a copy and check it out... but I'd like to check out some free info first.

This link will take you to Cook's personal website. There are quite a few free articles here, and you can download copies of them as well. Just click the "Articles" button at the top of the page. His newest articles are here, and there's a link to download the older articles from the FMS site listed earlier.

Strength Coach TV has a video featuring Cook talking about Indian clubs (which he demonstrated and mentioned briefly on Golf Fitness Academy last night.) And Strength Coach's podcast site has a list of downloadable podcasts, several of which feature Gray Cook. Just check the list in the right column.

Sports performance coach Patrick Ward attended one of Cook's training seminars last year and put up a couple of posts that condense some of what he said. Part 1 is located here and Part 2 is here. Here are a few I particularly liked:
  • For corrective exercise, put people in a position where they are making a lot of mistakes (this position needs to be a safe position though and not dangerous) and SHUT UP! Don’t over coach them. Let them work it out and learn to develop the pattern... THIS is motor learning! The baby didn’t need you to coach it on how to roll in the crib, crawl or stand. It figured it out on its own.
  • Tarzan, to me, is the epitome of fitness. The guy is strong, agile and quick. He can run, jump, climb and swing through trees. If we take a person who moves well and put them on a crossfit type of training program, we turn them into tarzan. If we take that same program and give it to the majority of people in society who move poorly, we turn them into a patient.
  • The FMS is species specific, not sport specific. The FMS is made up of basic patterns that everyone should be able to perform, regardless of sport. These patterns show themselves in everyday movements and sports movements because we are all human beings.
That last one especially should sound familiar to you. I'm real big on workouts that make your whole life better, rather than just your game. And since Cook does so much with golf-related training (he works with the Titleist Performance Institute, which is behind the Golf Fitness Academy show), that means a lot.

GC also has a couple of clips from Golf Fitness Academy on their site -- one on building body balance and another on doing a modified deadlift.

Finally, here's the start of a golf-oriented series on the "chop and lift" technique he discussed on the show last night. There are 5 articles, and this page links to all of them.

I also found a couple of longer videos on specific techniques Cook discussed on the show, but I'll post them in the next couple of days since I think they deserve a closer look. But if you're interested in exploring this approach to improving your golf in more detail, this post should give you enough material to get started.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Limerick Summary: 2011 Memorial Tournament

Winner: Steve Stricker

Around the wider world of golf: A week that featured some amazing play! Steve Wheatcroft set all kinds of records when he won the Nationwide's Melwood Prince George's County Open with a score of -29; Alexander Noren won his 2nd ET event at the Saab Wales Open (remember, this is the tournament that launched Graeme McDowell's yearlong run in 2010); Melissa Reid also got her 2nd win at the LET's Deloitte Dutch Ladies Open, making her a serious contender for the Solheim Cup later this year; Brittany Lincicome shot 64-66 over the weekend to take the ShopRite LPGA Classic; 21-year-old Sakura Yokomine won her 18th career victory -- imagine that, 18 wins and she's only 21! -- at the Resort Trust Ladies on the JLPGA (the Constructivist has the details); Kathleen Ekey won the Ladies Titan Tire Challenge on the LPGA Futures Tour; and Bob Gilder won the Principal Charity Classic on the Champions Tour. I probably missed somebody, but there were a lot of tournaments going on this weekend! UPDATE: The Constructivist tells me that Yokomine is actually 25 years old. That's still a pretty impressive record!

Jack greets Steve Stricker after win
I wanted a picture of Jack giving Steve a "Bear hug," but I couldn't find one. Darn. Click it to read the Deseret News summary.

After never posting a Top 10 finish at the Memorial, Steve Stricker got his 10th career win there. You just can't make this stuff up, folks!

And he had his hands full getting it. "The storylines were intriguing," as the media guys like to say:
  • Stricker after the biggest win of his career
  • Brandt Jobe coming back after nerve damage that prevents him from feeling the top of his backswing (he's lost feeling in the fingertips of his left hand after a serious injury two years ago, and had to completely rebuild his swing to work around it)
  • Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson trying to break through and win again
  • Rory McIlroy trying to prove that his Masters loss is behind him as he prepares for a UNICEF trip this week
  • Luke Donald trying to back up his big win at the BMW PGA last week, when he took #1 in the world rankings
And for the most part, these stories lived up to their billing. Donald, clearly tired after a long few weeks, still managed to post a T7 finish; McIlroy snagged 5th; DJ grabbed 4th, Jobe 3rd (probably enough to keep his card), and Kucher 2nd.

And all Stricker did was start hitting fairways again... but that was enough. He's been working on a slight swing change -- setting up with his hands a bit closer to him, to get his swing a bit more upright and on line at the top -- and it finally took. His iron play swung back and forth from brilliant to questionable, but IMO it's his driving that's been really holding him back. His iron play should catch up soon enough; as it is, he's improved enough to be added to my short list of U.S. Open favorites.

How erratic was his iron play? He was -20 on the front nine this week, but +4 on the back nine. No winner has ever played the two nines in such a dramatically different way. In fairness, the final 3 holes at Muirfield Village played the hardest of any 3-hole stretch all year, and Sunday's 2.5 hour rain delay for the last 4 holes didn't help any. As for that -20, it was 6 strokes better than anybody has ever played the front nine over 4 days, and "anybody" includes Tiger Woods. Erratic indeed.

After this tournament, the Top 3 players in the world -- Donald, Westwood, and Kaymer -- may be European, but the next 3 are American. Stricker, Mickelson, and Kuchar now hold numbers 4, 5, and 6 in the OWGR. With the exception of Mickelson, who shocked everyone by rediscovering the concept of hitting fairways -- the addition of a driving iron let him hit 69.6% of his fairways this week, including 79% on Sunday -- the Top 6 players in the world are consistent players. But don't think that mean's they're just "Top 10ers."

These players are actually winning tournaments -- in this calendar year Westwood and Donald each have 2 wins, Stricker and Mickelson 1 each -- and over the last 12 months these 6 players have a total of 15 wins with 1 major. (All of Kaymer's wins were in 2010.) No, these are not the kind of players we're used to seeing at the top of the rankings. But with the increased emphasis we're seeing now on hitting fairways (as Jack said, you can't just make the courses longer anymore) it's only a matter of time before these players, and others like them, start snagging the majors. Don't be surprised if Congressional starts the trend.

In the meantime, here's a limerical tribute to the new #4. Welcome back to the party, Steve!
So the rankings leave no room to bicker;
Yes, America's best is Steve Stricker.
I admit that I'm stunned
He's not yet #1…
I was sure he would make it there quicker!