Whiffle: verb – to blow lightly in puffs or gusts; noun – something light or insignificant.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Half-Decades of Dominance

     In 2009, as Tiger looked poised to draw ever nearer to Jack's all-time record of 18 professional majors, the "Who's the Greatest?" question rightly also drew to the fore. Tiger has certainly earned a spot in that discussion already, and in the opinion of many already wears the crown.
     What I find interesting, however, is how the question is generally framed: Usually, it's from a "full career" standpoint; occasionally it gets asked as, "Who was better at their respective peaks?" With the full career option, Jack and Tiger generally stand head and shoulders above the crowd – particularly if you look primarily, or exclusively, at number of majors won, as many commentators do. The problem, as I see it, is that longevity becomes too large of a factor.
     For instance ... let's say Tiger Woods decides to retire from professional golf tomorrow to enter a monastery. He will still be four major wins short of Jack's career record. But everyone would say, "Yeah, but if that scandal thing hadn't have happened ...."
     Should that matter? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on how you approach things.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My Jim Thorpe Secret

I see that three-time PGA Tour winner Jim Thorpe has been sentenced to a year in prison for tax evasion. A sad story, to be sure. One which reminds me of another story – a confession of sorts, something I've never told a soul ...

Years ago I used to volunteer as a marshal at the Greater Milwaukee Open (GMO, R.I.P.). It was a small tournament even then, but early on a Thursday or Friday morning, the course was all but deserted. That was the scene one morning as Thorpe and his powerful forearms strode onto the tee at the 12th, a short par-4 in the outer reaches of Brown Deer Golf Course, and into the presence of Marshal Zim and maybe a half-dozen spectators. We privileged few then watched in amazement as the graphite shaft (no doubt somewhat primitive by today's standards) on Thorpe's driver splintered on his downswing. The clubhead made glancing contact and the ball squirted about 45 degrees to the right, traveling perhaps 50 yards into a grove of trees. If there had been any kind of a crowd there, it surely would have struck someone. (Photo: Some other guy named Jim Thorpe, who also appears to have had powerful forearms. Wikimedia Commons.)
     While the players and caddies scratched their heads and tried to figure out what happened, I in my stylish marshal shirt and matching cap, along with a couple enthusiastic fans, scurried over to see where the ball ended up. As we scanned this forgotten area of the course – surely only some weekend hacker had ever hit a ball there before – one of my helpers gave a quiet shout: "Here it is!" I looked up, in horror, to see him proudly holding the ball, apparently assuming Thorpe would be entitled to some sort of equipment-malfunction do-over.
     "Don't pick it up!" I whisper-yelled, prompting the perp to drop the ball immediately. Clearly, he respected my authority – or sensed and feared my rising panic.
     As a deputized marshal, I was the law in those parts. I had sworn an oath (well ... not really, but I vaguely recall signing some forms). Yet the last thing I ever wanted was to actually have to do something, especially if it could affect the course of play. Sure, holding up the little QUIET PLEASE sign gives one a feeling of power, but as Spider-Man says: "With great power comes great responsibility." And responsibility is something I've always shied away from (ask anyone!). Yet there I was with a situation on my hands.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Far and True, Old Tom

(Photo: Chris Condon/PGA Tour)
 A few weeks ago I happened upon a re-run on the Golf Channel of a Shell's Wonderful World of Golf program featuring Tom Watson vs. Freddie Couples. At the time I wasn't sure of the vintage*, but it looked to me that Couples was in his prime, while Watson, 10 years his senior, was clearly on the back 9 of his career. Not fair, I thought as Couples defeated Old Tom with relative ease. Both players reacted to the result with grace, of course. Couples said it was an honor to beat such a fine player, Watson asked for a rematch.
     Well, he got it over the weekend, in Freddie's Champions Tour debut at the Mistubishi Electric Championship in Hawaii. Heading into Sunday's final round, the 60-year-old Watson held a two-shot lead over Couples, with whom he was paired. Couples knotted things up with a birdie at 8, and added a stroke with an eagle at the par-5 10th, to Watson's birdie. The sense was that Freddie would roll from there, but Old Tom wasn't done. Birdies continued to fly as Couples held onto a one-shot lead heading to 17. But Watson stuck two approaches, made two clutch birdie putts, and claimed his 13th Champions Tour victory by a stroke.
     It's not uncommon for a newly-50 player to enter the Champions Tour and start winning right away, but Couples's inevitable first victory will have to wait at least another week. Watson showed today that he's not ready to go quietly into the night. Anybody hoping to make a splash this year on the senior circuit is still going to have to get past the old guard.
     Well played, Old Tom – and welcome to the Whiffling Straits favorite active golfers list.

*It turned out to be 1997, when Couples was 37 and Watson 47.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Late Night Whiffle (Updated)

So NBC has made a glorious mess of the whole Conan O'Leno thing, agreeing to buy out the gangly redhead and his staff for a cool $45 million. No wonder he's smiling! Let's just hope they don't take it out of the golf budget. The last thing we need is one more thing for Johnny Miller to go off on. But now that the "Tonight Show: Conan O'Brien Edition" has aired its last episode, it occurs to the Whiffler that the time is right for the Golf Channel to enter the late-night fray. I mean, why not – what have they got to lose, a few telephone sales of the Zolex Hammer Driver? The only question is, who should fill the hosting chair? (Photo: AP file, from NBC)
     To help push Golf Channel executives in the direction of launching a ground-breaking, golfer-hosted late-night show, Whiffling Straits has graciously put together this thorough talent analysis. Complete with pros, cons, suggested sidekicks, and possible signature bits or running gags, along with who we'd like to see as the first guest for each subject, it sizes up 10 possible player-hosts who might best give the returning Leno a run for his money in the 11:35 (10:35 Central) time slot.
     As always, please feel free to weigh in with your own analysis and suggestions via the comments section.

Rickie Fowler
Pros: Young, good-looking, charismatic; attractive to young female audience.
Cons: Young, good-looking, charismatic; threatening to young male audience.
Signature Bit: Makes "big entrance" into studio each night by jumping a dirt bike over Gary McCord.
Sidekick: Andy Richter (we hear he's available!).
First Guest: Rory McIlroy

Sergio Garcia
Pros: Suave, debonair, plays a James Bond-type version of himself in beer commercials.
Cons: Occasionally surly; still bumming about losing the opportunity to play father-son tournaments with Greg Norman.
Running Gag: Repeatedly loses to Padraig Harrington at rock-paper-scissors.
Sidekick: Holographic image of the 19-year-old Sergio, the one with all the charm and potential.
First Guest: Sean Connery
(Photo: Alan Light, via Wikimedia Commons)

Lee Trevino
Pros: Talkative, gregarious, quick-witted, appeals to growing U.S. Hispanic market.
Cons: Something of a lightning rod.
Signature Bit: Breaks tension with nervous guests by taunting them with rubber reptiles.
Sidekick: None; he got here by himself and got-dangit if he's going to share the spotlight now.
First Guest: Hootie Johnson

Steve Stricker
(Disqualified from consideration due to extreme bias of evaluation committee.)

Tom Watson
Pros: Classy, well-spoken, adored by international audience, the Scots in particular.
Cons: Frustrating tendency for show to get better and better and better each night only to leave the audience heartbroken at week's end.
Signature Bit: Balances five Claret Jugs on his forehead while missing four-foot putts.
Sidekick: None; leaves sidekick chair empty in memory of beloved caddy Bruce Edwards.
First Guest: Ghost of Harry Vardon

Walter Hagen
Pros: Charming, flamboyant, winner of 11 major championships; fought to make "professional golfer" a respected occupation.
Cons: Deceased
Signature Bit: Enters studio by stepping out of a limo, drink in hand, wearing a rumpled red Nike golf shirt.
Sidekick: Dean Martin
First Guest: Ben Hogan (hey, as long as we're time-traveling ...)
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Happy Birthday, Jack!*

What to say about the Golden Bear, on the occasion of his 70th birthday? So, so much that could be said ... so few words to adequately express it.
     Regular readers have probably figured out by now that the Whiffler is a particular fan of golfers, past and present, who exemplify the ideals of class, grace, dignity, and sportsmanship. Add "magnitude of accomplishment" to this mix and clearly no one stands taller than Jack Nicklaus. (Photo: Jack Nicklaus in 1959, John G. Zimmerman (no relation) for Sports Illustrated)
     It's easy to forget that when he first burst onto the national scene, Nicklaus was not well-liked by the golfing public. This was partly because he immediately threatened to knock the King, Arnold Palmer, off his throne. But it was also because the young Jack often came off as something less than humble. Understandably so! He was quick to speak his mind (as he is to this day), which, when coupled with his supreme self-confidence, often made an unfavorable impression on the public. As he writes in his autobiography, My Story:
When I think of myself back in those peak amateur days ... I still cringe at how cockily I must have come across to a lot of people. For instance, before leaving Columbus for that U.S. Open I remember telling my college coach, Bob Kepler, "Kep, I'm playing so well I might just win this thing." You might think such things – you should think such things – but you should never say them to anyone, or at least not to anyone who isn't extremely close to you like a parent or spouse. I did it all the time, and it embarrasses me now just to remember it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Nice Guy Finishes Third

Some interesting comments from the boys at Golf.com on Monday, in the weekly "PGA Tour Confidential," regarding Whiffling Straits favorite Steve Stricker and the closing holes of the Sony Open in Hawaii, won by Ryan Palmer:
[Alan] Shipnuck: Stricker can still be shaky down the stretch. At No. 3 in the world, he should [be] owning guys like Ryan Palmer.
[Jim] Gorant: Interesting post-round interview, where he said he was overthinking on the greens, getting caught up reading the grain, etc. You'd think he's beyond that by now.
[Rick] Lipsey: Strange that Stricker still talks like he's no. 142 in the world, humble and unassuming, like he was in the interview today on TV.
Seems they feel he needs to start playing and acting more like a truly elite player, rather than somebody who's just happy to be there. Being "humble and unassuming" is great; it's one of the reasons I like him so much. But I can't help but wonder sometimes if that character trait prevents him from turning up the intensity when he needs it on the course. Does he lack the "killer instinct" necessary to rise any higher than he already has? (Photo: usopen.com)
     At the other extreme is Tiger Woods, whom Cameron Morfit described earlier in the same piece as "a bit bloodless." No question, Tiger has stepped on more than a few necks on his way to becoming arguably the best player in history (please note I said arguably). And we now know that his devotion to his family is not quite what we thought it was. But I'd like to think it's possible to be great and still have ample amounts of warm blood flowing through your veins.
     There are plenty of examples in history of great gentlemen achieving best-in-the-game status. Palmer and Nicklaus come readily to mind, but both men were incredibly intense on the course. Nicklaus had unmatched focus (and could be a bit prickly as a young man), while Palmer displayed fire and

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Windy Winter Whiffle*

For those of you waiting out a long winter's golfing hiatus, here's a reason not to feel any more sorry for yourself than you have to. As it turns out, the wind chill factor blows (kinda like this blog). Here's the gist of it: the science behind the measurement is flawed and outdated; it doesn't mean some of the things people often think it means; and it's often used simply to sensationalize a cold spell and make it seem worse than it really is. Writes Daniel Engber, a senior editor at the online Slate magazine:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Who is Geoff Ogilvy? Let's Ask an Aussie ...

In the wake of his second consecutive win at the season-opening SBS (nee Mercedes) Championship, Geoff Ogilvy is once again being hailed as a golfer to watch. In 2009, he won twice early on, adding an impressive conquest at the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship to his Mercedes victory. But after that ... we didn't hear a whole lot from him.
     So who is the real Geoff Ogilvy? Is he a true up-and-comer on the verge of greatness or just another golfer who gets hot here and there, now and then? And what's he like away from the course? Is he a good guy? He strikes me as the kind of golfer I could really get behind, but before jumping on the Ogilvy bandwagon, I want to know more. And it feels like there's a lot we Americans don't know about the lanky lunker from Down Under.
     His official PGA Tour profile tells us this much:
Was given a cut-down club by his dad at age 7 [good idea, Dad!] and progressed to a scratch handicap by age 16...Talented junior athlete in many sports, winning numerous athletics medals at state and national level...Interested in history of golf [excellent!]...Avid guitar enthusiast who has several Gibson guitars at home [good, good]...Ogilvy Family Foundation benefits children's hospitals and other organizations that assist children [wonderful].
All good stuff. But there must be more! So to dig a little deeper I went to Australia – in a "magic of the internet" kind of way – and asked former touring pro, current wine aficionado and writer for the Australian Golf Digest Grant Dodd to share a few insights from Ogilvy's native land (a Whiffling Straits exclusive!) ...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Update: Gary Player

Fellow blogger Phil Capelle (Capelle on Golf) weighed in with an insightful comment on my previous post about Gary Player, whom he calls "one of the most underrated golfers of all time." He wrote in part:
He won nine [majors], as you said, but Player swears that he won 10 because he felt he was robbed of the 1969 PGA, which he lost by one shot due to hecklers in the crowd.
Player was the target of local protesters (remember, it was 1969!) who came to the Dayton, Ohio, tournament to object to, among other things, the hated apartheid government of Player's native South Africa. As legendary scribe Dan Jenkins recounted in his Sports Illustrated write-up:
What happened was, Gary Player got a rolled-up program thrown at him, a cup of ice tossed at him and a golf ball hurled out onto the green by a girl while he lined up a putt. Jack Nicklaus, meanwhile, had a big guy come out of the crowd and onto a green and start toward his ball, which in turn made Jack draw back the putter as if he were offering a new tip—always hold the club high when swinging at a demonstrator. And everybody went crazy for a moment or two with shouts of "Club 'em, kill the pigs," meaning the hecklers. It was not what anyone particularly wanted to have happen in a championship, of course, since Player and Nicklaus were at the time trying very hard to catch Raymond Floyd [the eventual champion].
Did this cost Player the championship? It's impossible to say for sure, of course. I'm of the mind that it's always very difficult to say that one thing would or would not have changed the outcome of a sporting event, because you just don't know what else might change as a result. Though I have no doubt Player feels it did. And it's clear from Jenkins's story that both players were rattled by the events:

Saturday, January 9, 2010

My One True Love (a disclaimer)

My wife used to tease me sometimes about being in love with Tiger Woods (though not so much lately). "No," I would reply, "I am merely in awe of his golfing ability. I am in love with Steve Stricker!"
     But only in an innocent man-crush kind of a way. Mrs. Whiffler has nothing to worry about – unless, of course, he were to ask me to be his caddy, in which case all bets are off. (Photo: Stan Badz/PGA TOUR/WireImage via PGA.com)
     And I have an excuse – a couple actually, maybe even three or four – for being so smitten. I've been a big fan of his ever since we were classmates (in a very loose sense of the word) at the University of Illinois. We never had any classes together, though I did see the three-time Big Ten champ at the pool hall in the Illini Union once.
     He only just popped his head in the door, but I'm pretty sure he smiled at me.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Legend that is Gary Player

In my first official post on Whiffling Straits, in the context of making some 2010 predictions, I pointed readers to Gary Player's website; specifically, the page dedicated to his 1970 musical release, "Gary Player Sings." This was a bit of a cop-out. The item I originally wrote for him went something like this:
Gary Player, the Jack LaLanne of professional golf, will celebrate his 75th birthday on November 1 by pulling a dump truck full of self-esteem across the Nelson Mandela Bridge – with his teeth.
The link on "self-esteem" goes to the biography page on his official website, which begins: "Gary Player is a legend in his own time." The rest of the site is sprinkled liberally with similar bombast about his status as a near-mythical figure. But I changed the entry because I didn't want to misrepresent how I feel about the man who claims to have hit more golf balls than anyone in history.
     I find Player absolutely fascinating. He has an inspiring backstory, having grown up dirt poor in South Africa, where his father was a miner. His mother died when he was 8. He's gotten where he is today by working harder than anybody in the history of the game (even Hogan, by my estimation), both on and off the course. The winner of nine (yes, nine!) major championships, he was an amazing player, even as he labored in the shadow of Palmer and Nicklaus. Because of the "golden era" in which he played, I think he sometimes doesn't get enough credit today for what he accomplished on the course. Who knows how many majors he would have won had he peaked in, say, the 1980s?

Player also seems to be a fine man, well-respected in the game, and extremely respectful of the game in return. In 2006 he received the PGA Tour's Payne Stewart Award. After he played his final Masters in 2009, it was very moving to see other South African golfers waiting to pay their respects as he came off the 18th green for the last time. He greeted each one warmly and sincerely, as though each small, private encounter meant the world to him -- as no doubt it did. (Photo: Michael O'Brien, Golf Magazine/Golf.com)
     He's relentlessly optimistic, a whirlwind of positive energy that never seems to wane. I love a story Dr. Bob Rotella tells about him in his book, "Golf is Not a Game of Perfect," to illustrate the value of positive thinking. As recounted by a fellow competitor he was rooming with at the time, the story goes that Player would return to the room one week just raving about how much he loves putting on fast greens. Then, the very next week, he would come home raving about how much he loves putting on that week's relatively slow greens. The point was, Player didn't really love both fast and slow greens, but convincing himself that he did helped his confidence tremendously. It's an attitude worth emulating, in many aspects of life.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Coming Year

On the eve of a new season on the PGA Tour, it seems appropriate – or, depending on your perspective, completely cliche and expected – to break out the crystal whiffle ball and do a little prognosticating. Some of what follows is serious, some is silly, but in every instance you're getting what you paid for. (Hey, if you can think of a better way to start a new golf blog, the comments section is open for business!)
In 2010 ...
     Phil Mickelson will win the Masters, and possibly another major to go with it. With family health issues under control, a new old putting stroke, and Tiger most likely not quite himself (or absent), look for a brief but exciting "Era of Phil" to begin. His weight will continue to fluctuate.
     Tiger Woods will miss the Masters as he struggles to get his personal life back on track. Not to go all Brit Hume or anything, but I think Tiger has to get right with himself before he can get back to being the golfer he was. This will take time. Some commentators seem to feel that if there's a divorce, Tiger's comeback will happen sooner rather than later -- with no marriage there's nothing to fix, right? But I'm of the mind that if he's serious about changing himself, which I hope he is, extended time away will be necessary regardless of his marital situation. It's not inconceivable to me that he could miss 2010 in its entirety as he works to get his priorities in order. Take your time, Tiger – then hurry back.
     Tom Watson will NOT become the oldest player to ever win a major. But look for Old Tom to become the youngest sexagenarian ever to miss the cut at the Dubai Desert Classic.
     Greg Norman will vow to never again seek marriage advice from Tiger Woods.
     Rory McIlroy will be the most exciting young golfer to watch. He will contend in at least one major, but will not win one in 2010. He will, however, win multiple times around the world, and by year's end will be regarded as the favorite to unseat Tiger (or possibly Phil) as the #1 player in the world.