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Why the 2012 PGA Championship and Ryder Cup Will Be More Important to Me

The following was written in Aug 2012 for Mississippi Sports Magazine and is re-printed here at blog.lipouts.com
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Why the 2012 PGA Championship and Ryder Cup Will  Be More Important to Me  |  By: Nathan Crace

In my life, I’ve written a few articles about the Ryder Cup every couple of years.  I have tried to avoid the mundane statistics or “inside baseball” angle and instead tried to focus on the peculiarities of the long-standing rivalry of the matches between America’s best and the best of the Eurozone golfers, the fervor that seems to wind the Euros together tighter than a Camilo Villegas polo, or—speaking of clothing—the poor choice of uniforms the Americans insist on making more often than not.  While I’m on the topic, please tell me that Corey Pavin’s wife is NOT designing the team uniforms this year.  With all due respect, it was bad enough that our guys had to buy rain gear from the souvenir tent in Wales in 2010 because our team’s gear leaked; but to have our rain suits look like the Globetrotter’s basketball warm-up suits from the 1950’s?  Between you and me, I still suspect that’s the real reason our guys said they needed new rain gear—not that they actually leaked. But I digress…

This year the Ryder Cup is special to me not because of who is playing or where the matches are being played, but instead because of where the matches are not being held.  The Americans will host the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club in suburban Chicago the month after the PGA Championship will have been decided at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island—hard against the Atlantic Ocean (as the name indicates) in South Carolina—where the infamous “War on the Shore” took place twenty-one years ago.

The 1991 matches at Kiawah were contentious for a number of reasons ranging from alleged trash talking between a particular pair of Spaniards and Paul Azinger to Corey Paving showing up in a camo hat in support of our troops in the first Gulf War to Steve Pate’s pre-match limo accident.  The tension came to a head in the last match on Sunday afternoon in a nearly made-for-TV showdown between Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer that featured a questionable bounce off a volunteer’s spinal cord for Irwin’s tee shot on the 17th hole and a missed near gimme for Langer on the 18th that would have halved the matches and retained the cup for the Europeans.

Flash forward to the spring of 1993.  I had the good fortune to play the Ocean Course during spring break that year on a golf road trip with my best friend.  We left Mississippi State in the late afternoon after our last Friday class and drove through the night to Charlotte, North Carolina for a pit stop at his home before continuing the next morning to Myrtle Beach.  We played golf at The Witch (a fun Dan Maples layout), Tidewater (and excellent track between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intercoastal Waterway), and a couple of other courses I cannot remember (it has been nearly twenty years ago after all) before topping off the trip on the last day with a drive south to Kiawah Island for the icing on the cake.

When we arrived, it had been raining off and on already that day and the ocean looked angry and grey like the North Sea rolling into the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland on an early spring day.  In fact, it rained off and on for about 12 holes during our round; but we couldn’t care less.  We knew the Ryder Cup had just been there just eighteen months earlier and we were ready to tackle the course head-on.  Or so we thought.  I assumed we’d probably never get a chance to play the course again, so we decided to play the course as far back as we could and since the course wasn’t busy we spent a considerable amount of time searching for hidden back tees on many of the holes that probably had not been used since the Ryder Cup.  I would speculate that Pete Dye never intended for all of the holes to be played from the back tees on the same day anyway because the course goes out and back in a clockwise loop to the north and back south along the dunes on the front nine and counterclockwise to the south and back north along the ocean returning home on the back nine—ten holes adjacent to the ocean.  I assume that the extra tees were to allow flexibility to lengthen the downwind holes and shorten the holes playing into the wind on any given day, but I’ve never asked Pete.  (story continues below)

Bear in mind this was before Google Maps and smartphones (we didn’t even have cell phones because it was still the stone age) so we had to walk-off the yardages from the hidden back tees because none of them had yardages that we could find.  To the best of our rain-soaked abilities, we calculated that the course played in excess of 7,800 yards when totaled up from all the way back on every hole: a monster.  The official yardage published for the 2012 PGA Championship is a mere 7,676 yards.  At the time, we also calculated that keeping score would be an exercise in futility so we stopped somewhere on the back nine to protect our respective egos.  Besides, I was too busy taking pictures with a disposable panoramic camera for my collection of photos of favorite golf courses to worry about keeping score.  Yeah, that’s a good excuse….

The highlight of my round came on the par-3 17th hole.  The rain had stopped momentarily but the wind was howling off of the Atlantic from our right to left.  The wind was helping a little (quartering from behind us a bit) and I remember hitting a three-iron (it was all I had short of a 3-wood and that would have landed me back on the mainland if it got up into the gale force wind and headed left).  As I went through my pre-shot routine and set up over the ball, Scott reminded me that this was the same hole where Mark Calcavecchia had choked during the Ryder Cup and shanked the ball into the water hazard—forcing the Cup to come down to the last match.  I smiled, took an extra waggle, and hit a soaring tee shot that seemed to start so far right that it might boomerang back to the southeast and come back toward the tee.  But I was counting on the wind that had my pant legs flapping like a pair of hurricane flags to turn the ball back toward the green…it did.  The ball cleared the hazard by what appeared from the tee to be millimeters and rolled to a stop just inside three feet from the cup.  After holding the obligatory I-just-hit-the-best-shot-of-the-day-scratch-that-the-best-shot-of-my-life follow through pose for what seemed like an hour, I simply turned and said “He’d have killed for that one in the Ryder Cup.”  We both laughed and proceeded to the green where I left what I recall as my only legitimate birdie putt that day about one-half inch short, dead in the jaws of the cup for a smooth tap-in par.  Routine.  That ball now resides in the bottom of the water hazard on 17.

So when this year’s PGA Championship is played at Kiawah Island in August I will have fond memories of that day in the rain nearly twenty years ago.  And when the Ryder Cup is played the following month at Medinah, it will be hard for me to watch without thinking back to the day we played Kiawah eighteen months after the historic Ryder Cup at Kiawah.  However, what will make it most difficult is the fact that the numerous text messages and phone calls my best friend and I typically make during the majors will have to go unmade this time.  Tragically, Scott was killed in a one car accident in Jacksonville the week of the Masters this year, leaving behind a wife and a young son.  After being asked to speak at his funeral service that week, I haven’t written about it because it seems too unreal even to this day.  Even now, four months later, I find it hard to accept.  But Scott and I played a lot of golf together in four years at Mississippi State and even a few times since going our separate ways after college.  We always managed to keep in touch over the years.  He was in my wedding and I was in his and two of the best courses I’ve ever played (Kiawah Island and TPC Sawgrass, both Pete Dye courses) I played with him.  That’s why this year’s Ryder Cup and the PGA Championship will be different for me.  Not because of some rivalry between professional golf’s greats or the story of the “War by the Shore,” but because of a day spent playing golf in the rain on one of the best courses I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing, not caring about the score—and doing so in good company.

 

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An Eye for An Eye

I spent Sunday afternoon with members of the high school golf team I coach playing a practice round and preparing for the South State golf championship to be held a week from Monday. A lot of things have changed in the 20+ years since I’ve played high school golf. In addition to the obvious changes in technology and the way junior golfers these days know how to use these advances to their benefit, there’s a new piece of equipment that I see more and more at each tournament we play.

Not to date myself, but when I was in high school, the big advance in technology for golf clubs was the Taylor Made Burner Plus metal wood. It looks like a hybrid compared to today’s monster 460 cc drivers, but compared to the persimmon that we were playing at the time it might as well have been the space shuttle. Then came lightweight carry bags to replace the old leather bags we used to lug around and for those who could afford it, there was the balata-covered Titleist Professional ball and the then-new Maxfli HT.

But for today’s junior golfers, the hot new piece of equipment is neither a club nor a ball. It doesn’t even have anything to do with the act of actually hitting the ball or playing a shot. Today every aspiring young junior golfer seems to have a laser rangefinder in his or her bag.

At first, I thought it was humorous to see four golfers walking down the fairway, approaching their balls, and dropping their stand bags to the ground to reach in and pull out the rangefinders. They would then spend a good 10 to 15 seconds bracing their elbows to their chest and holding the rangefinder in front of their face like a birdwatcher spotting some rare yellow-breasted-duck-billed-triple-toed Siamese warbler in order to shoot the yardage to the flag. It was almost like it had become a part of the pre-shot routine. They never gave a thought to a sprinkler head or yardage marker. They didn’t need to–it was all in the palm of their hands.

You would literally see nearly every top junior golfer at some of these events standing there next to their bag like they were spotting for a Navy SEAL sniper–getting the yardage to the target and adjusting for wind. Unfortunately, most of these kids aren’t remotely as accurate as our nation’s finest and this target doesn’t even move or duck for cover.

After watching one of my players routinely fly the green with his approach shots for three holes in a row, I walked up to his bag while he was putting and removed the rangefinder. When he asked me why I was taking it, I told him that I didn’t think he knew how to use it. Turns out I was right.

A little questioning revealed that he wasn’t looking for a yardage marker or a sprinkler head, getting his yardage, and then using the rangefinder to zero in on the target. He was depending solely on the rangefinder and instead of shooting the flag, he was shooting the trees behind the green.

When I was playing high school golf, my goal was just to get the ball in the middle of the green. If I happened to miss it a little bit and it got closer to the pin, I just acted like that’s what I was trying to do. But like so many amateurs who insist on a pin sheet for a normal round of golf with their friends, some of these juniors think they can dial it in like Rory or Phil.

Don’t get me wrong, I want people to hit it is close to the pin as they can. It makes the game more enjoyable and speeds up play. I just don’t think most amateurs are as proficient in their shotmaking skills as they think they are just because they have a rangefinder. They still have to hit the shot and for most people who play the game, walking a yardage from a sprinkler head to their ball to get the distance to the center of the green is just as helpful/accurate as spending the time to use the rangefinder and hopefully picking up the right target.

To test my theory during Sunday’s practice round, I would routinely guess yardages by what I call “ocular engineering” (eyeballing it) and/or using a sprinkler head and my own two legs and then ask my players what yardage they found with the rangefinders. I was always within five yards but that didn’t seem to matter to them and their technology.

This is a sample of but one of many exchanges:
“164 yards,” I said.
“Nope,” was one reply. “161.”

Finally I explained to them that the difference of 3 yards was barely more than the height of the flag stick and if nine feet made that much difference in the way they were going to play the shot from 161 yards out, then they didn’t need to be playing high school golf. It was time to pack away the books and head off to Q school.

Of course I doubt if any of these kids will pack away the rangefinders. And I don’t mind that they use them when the rules permit. I just want them to realize it is a tool to supplement their talent and it shouldn’t become a crutch. They need to use it to verify a yardage and not become dependent on it. And of course if the battery runs out during a round, it’s always nice to know how big a stride in your step equals one yard.

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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