Golf

Amateur Golf Jacksonville

Charity Golf In Town

If you’ve played any golf in North Florida you’ve probably played in a charity golf tournament. Big or small, golf tournaments raising money for charity are among the biggest fundraising sources for charities in our part of the country.

“Before Covid, we held as many as twenty fund-raising events every year,” Chet Stokes, General Manager at Marsh Landing Country Club in Ponte Vedra revealed. “We want to be a part of the community and give back when we can. This is a way we can do that.”

Golf clubs have to strike a balance between maintenance, member play and supporting charitable initiatives.

“Typically, the club industry is a key player in helping charities throughout the state of Florida,” Leon Crimmins the former President of the Florida Club Managers Association of America explained.

There are some big charity tournaments, like Tom Coughlin’s Jay Fund event at the TPC at Sawgrass that’s been around since 1996, and there are some small ones, like the one my friend Frank Hughes started last year on Amelia Island to benefit the local Set Free By The Sea ministry.

“We know people like to play golf and we have some great golf courses, so it just made sense,” Hughes explained. “It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to get people together, share some fellowship and have some fun. We raised a little money but more importantly we raised a lot of awareness of who we are.”

Last weekend I was invited again to play in the Funk-Zitiello, Champions for Hope golf tournament at the TPC Stadium Course. It includes a banquet Friday night and golf Saturday morning. In the past forty years, I’ve probably played in close to a thousand charity golf tournaments, but few have rivaled the Champions for Hope.

They raise a bunch of money; they create great fellowship and awareness, but it feels like nothing but pure fun while you’re there.

There are plenty of ways to raise money, but Champions for Hope picked a golf tournament. And not by accident.

“I thought about throwing an Italian wedding feast and making it a charity event,” Tommy Zitiello, the tournament’s founder explained this week. “Who doesn’t have a good time at an Italian wedding?”

They started out raising money for the J.T. Townsend Foundation with a few parties but then Zitiello’s wife Judy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer seven years ago

Zitiello, affectionately known as ‘Tommy Z’ wasn’t sure which way to turn. The survival rate for pancreatic cancer is the lowest among all cancers. Just around nine percent.

“I thought, everything we built together was gone,” Tommy added quietly. “I listened to all of the statistics about beating cancer and the research dollars needed and found that the survival rate for about every other cancer had grown by fifty per cent or more. Except this one.”

Zitiello decided to ‘go big’ and started a golf tournament to raise money for both the JT Townsend Foundation and for research into early detection for pancreatic cancer. It was an ambitious effort, but Tommy believes through faith, he was able to create something special.

“I made my money in sales,” he explained. “My only talent was speaking and selling. And I’m convinced that I made money because God knew I was going to give it back.”

Champions for Hope has raised millions of dollars in its five years, including $700,000 this year coming out of the pandemic. They’ve helped 672 families here in Jacksonville who have adaptive equipment needs. Judy has beaten the odds and is a seven-year cancer survivor.

“You can’t just sit back, you have to get involved,” Tommy added. “It’s grass roots, friends and family and every bodies fully invested. Not one person makes a nickel working at our event. Our CPA, lawyers, our restaurants, our liquor, our family, all of our volunteers, they’re there for nothing. If you’re not working at it and taking your time, it’s not really charity.”

I heard that over and over this week. Giving, of time and money on a grass roots level here in town, is the key.

“Champions for Hope is the message,” he concluded. “A doctor once told me ‘When you give someone love you give them hope.’ Giving people hope is the message.”

While Tommy’s tournament is one of the best I’ve ever played in, the first “Back to Camp” tournament is the craziest.

In the mid-80’s it was popular to bring former professional athletes to town to play and entertain, as well as entice fans to plunk down some money to play with their now-retired heroes. It followed the Miller Lite and the Bud Light promotions at the time, celebrating how much fun it would be to hang out with retired ballplayers.

That first year was a rousing success in the fun category, especially when one player was found asleep under a bench in the locker room, and another was able to make his plane heading out of town by leaving his rental car on the curb at arrivals at JIA. Running.

Because of the expense of bringing the former players to town and putting them up for three nights, the tournament didn’t raise much money, but it did bring the charity a lot of notoriety.

“We’re trying to get the message out,” Tommy Z added about the Champions for Hope golf event. “I see new people each year at our tournament who heard about it from a friend. We just need to get lucky with a big philanthropist or a big corporation to help get to the next level.”

For twenty-five years I was honored and flattered to have my name on charity golf tournaments here in town raising nearly $10 Million. The first was to raise money for housing downtown and then to help kids in life-threatening medical situations have a little fun.

“We went from not having a golf tournament to it being our number one fundraiser,” one of the chief administrators of the charity told me after we got started. “It’s such a natural here and with the generosity of people donating things to us, we’re able to put that money directly to benefit the kids.”

Yes, generosity. That’s a hallmark of what happens here in the golf community and the people and companies who get involved.

Whether you’re asking for a restaurant to donate lunch or a big golf retailer to provide some ‘hole prizes’ the answer is almost never ‘no.’ And they get hit up every week.

“The donation of the club’s facilities is what drives charity’s ability to raise significant funds,” Crimmins added, noting how most clubs help out. “Some clubs donate the golf course and charge for food and beverage at cost and absorb the cost of brining the staff in on a Monday. Different clubs do it different ways.”

There were over one-hundred twenty-five charity golf tournaments held every year in North Florida in the late nineties. That grew to over three hundred in the next ten years, following the golf boom. While that number has settled somewhat, all of those tournaments need prizes and oftentimes the golf courses themselves are helping out.

“Every week we get asked a few times to provide a four-some as a prize and we always say yes to that,” Stokes explained. “But we also try and play in tournaments around town to support the different causes. It’s important.”

Charity tournaments are not money-makers for local courses. The off-day revenue (most tournaments are played on Monday’s when courses are generally closed) comes from corporate outings.

“Clubs are very generous and charitable,” Crimmins added. “Club managers try to provide a balance of not sacrificing time for golf course maintenance while supporting charitable initiatives.”

And this doesn’t happen everywhere. I’ve got plenty of friends from around the country who are constantly amazed by the generosity and the money raised by golf tournaments here in North Florida. While the World Giving Index has listed the United States as the most generous country in the world for the last ten years, if there was a measure for golf giving, we’d rank near, if not at the top.

So, when you see one of those license plates that says “Florida, Golf Capital of the World,” which is debatable, add “Giving” to that phrase and smile, knowing that’s true.

The Masters

Masters Memories Last

Most of golf’s memories seem to come from The Masters. The other majors have had their drama. The Open Championship has the famous “Duel in the Sun” between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson and Van de Velde’s meltdown at Carnoustie. The U.S. Open has Ben Hogan’s one-iron at Merion, Arnold Palmer driving the green at Cherry Hills in 1960 and Watson’s chip in at seventeen at Pebble Beach. Golf aficionados all have their favorites.

But even the casual golf fan has their favorite Masters memories. Perhaps it’s because the tournament is the only Major played over the same venue for the past eighty-five editions, or maybe it’s the beautiful setting Augusta National presents for some of the toughest competition each year. No matter. Even non-sports fans can tell you something about The Masters.

“The azaleas’ in bloom,” my favorite non-sports fan said. “That shot on TV they show with the triple-arch bridge and the azaleas in the background. That’s really pretty.”

“Pimento cheese sandwiches,” was another favorite among the ‘non-golf’ crowd. That was a surprise. At what other event does something at the concession stand available for $1.50 make the ‘memories’ list? Hot Dogs at the Super Bowl? Beer at Daytona? Cracker Jack at the World Series? Hardly.

This weekend’s Masters’ broadcasts will be the highest rated golf telecasts of the year, by far. You could call it a rite of spring, especially for those who are in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and Mid-West where they’re more likely to see snow out the window than green grass.

“That’s for sure,” my friend ‘Keeter,’ who still lives up north told me. “When you see that green grass at Augusta, you know it’s the first week of April and The Masters.”

Among the sports crowd, and especially golf fans, there’s a definite split in their favorite Masters moment. For the plus fifty-five crowd, without exception they say, “Nicklaus in ’86.” Jack’s birdie putt on seventeen, punctuated by Verne Lundquist’s “Yes, sir!” call is a memory they can conjure up instantly.

For the under fifty-five crowd there’s a generational shift, as you might expect.

“Tiger in ’97,” is the answer my forty-nine-year-old friend ‘Pineapple’ instantly said when asked about his favorite Masters memory. “I was on my honeymoon in Hawaii with my first wife watching that. It really had a big effect on me. She wasn’t happy that I spent time watching TV.”

He mentioned later that might have been a hint why she was his first wife.

Checking with most of my over-55 friends, they can recite where they were when Jack made his charge and won in ’86. All had different moments that made a mark on their memory bank after that.

“I really liked it when Jordan Spieth won,” ‘Big Beef’ said recalling Spieth’s win in 2015 after a runner up finish the previous year. “Just the way he handled himself.”

Big Beef is a big sports fan and although he doesn’t play any longer, thoroughly enjoys watching golf. A player’s demeanor, winning or losing, makes a difference.

“He played the right way, did the right things,” he added. “He really confirmed to me what a gentleman I think he is. His dedication to his sister and his family, that really sticks in my mind.”

The “BQ” still plays a lot of golf, better than ever with a new knee. He quickly rattled off Jack’s victory in ’86 but followed that quickly with Larry Mize’s win in 1987.

“I happened to be at The Masters that year with you,” he recalled. “And the tension coming down the stretch with everybody there was amazing.”

Often forgotten about the ’87 finish is the fact that Mize had tied with Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros at -3 after seventy-two holes. Ballesteros missed a short putt on the first playoff hole to be eliminated in the sudden death playoff. Norman looked to have the advantage after he and Mize hit their approach shots on eleven. Then Mize famously chipped in from off the right of the green to take the Green Jacket.

“We didn’t walk down to ten or eleven for the playoff, so we saw Seve walking back up ten and knew he was out,” BQ explained. “We went over to the clubhouse and looked in the window to watch what happened on eleven. When Mize chipped in, the place erupted.”

Then he added, “But what was most memorable was that evening I got invited to play Augusta the next morning. And that’s a whole other story.”

My friend “Ghost of Chuck” and I also have attended The Masters a few times together. Ghost picked Tiger’s win in 1997 as his most memorable, but for a very different reason.

“April 14th is my wife’s birthday, and we were in Big Sur to celebrate that year,” he began. “We stopped in a little bar on the road to get something to eat and asked the bartender if we could watch The Masters. Turns out she was from England, moved to Haight-Ashbury in the sixties and was still a self-proclaimed ‘hippie’ now working in a bar. She said to us, “The Masters? What’s that?”

“I explained about the golf tournament and Tiger and she turned it on and really got into it. Then all of the sudden the power in the whole bar went out. And the bartender said, ‘We need to finish watching, come with me.’”

The three of them went outside, the bartender getting in, how Ghost described it, her ‘Magic Bus’ and said, ‘Follow me!’

“We started driving and my wife looked at me and asked, ‘What are we doing?’ I just said, ‘We’re going to watch The Masters!’ And we ended up at some guys’ house down the road and watched Tiger’s historic win. And that was different.”
I’ve been covering The Masters since 1979, missing only 1982 when my oldest daughter was born that weekend. Thirty-nine years ago, yesterday. I’ve got plenty of memories over those forty-two years and every one of them great. The most special are the times I’ve had the chance to take my family and friends to see Augusta National and The Masters as a place and a golf tournament. It’s a time, I hope, if they’re like me, they’ll never forget.

Past and Present on Display at The Masters

It was always former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman’s idea that The Players Championship would be the first “significant” golf tournament of the year. Playing the tournament in March in Florida would kick off the golf season and eventually The Players would be the “first major” on the calendar.

Although it is showcased as the first big test of the best players in the world, The Players hasn’t received “Major” status. The TPC Stadium Course at Sawgrass showed magnificently just three weeks ago with a fitting champion in Justin Thomas but it’s still not considered a Major.

The “First Major” title still belongs to The Masters.

Because of the pandemic, The Masters was the last Major played in 2020 and will be the first played in 2021. Less than five months separate last year’s tournament from this week’s competition at Augusta National. Dustin Johnson has reigned as the current Masters champion for the shortest period in the tournament’s history. Compare that to The (British) Open Championship, where Shane Lowry will have been known as the “Champion Golfer of the Year” for two full years because of last year’s cancellation.

Johnson and Lowry are among the ninety players invited for the Masters, although it’s unclear how many will actually tee it up on Thursday. Johnson won the tournament in November with a record 20-under finish. The conditions this week most likely won’t allow this year’s winner to approach that number.

“Yeah, I think it will be back to feeling like a normal Masters. Obviously last year, there was nothing normal about last year, for the whole year, really,” Johnson said. “I think this year in April, the Masters will feel like it’s back, and it will feel the same. I’m definitely looking forward to that.”

Fans will be back at The Masters in a limited capacity this year. The par-three tournament will be back on Wednesday with patrons. Masks required.

And while there are protests scheduled for outside the gates of Augusta National, eighty-six year old Lee Elder, the first Black man to play in The Masters will join former champions Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hitting a ceremonial initial shot at the first tee Thursday opening the tournament.

The 85th installment of The Masters will mark the 60th anniversary of Gary Player’s first Green Jacket in 1961. Player competed in fifty-two Masters, the most ever, finishing his competitive rounds at Augusta in 2009.

That’s why watching The Masters each April can be so interesting on two fronts. There aren’t any other sporting events where the prize is so coveted but the past is still on display.

Arnold Palmer played in fifty Masters, the most consecutive ever. Palmer had said he’d play Augusta National “As long as I can hit fifteen in two.” He stopped in 2004. Jack Nicklaus stopped the next year after forty-five appearances and six Green Jackets.

I remember walking with Sam Snead from the 18th green to the clubhouse in 1983 when he said, “I think that’s it for me.” And with that he was done after 44 appearances and three victories at Augusta National. I was dumbfounded.

Media coverage was very different then and especially for golf, pre-Tiger. No big announcement, Snead just said to three or four of us walking with him, “I’m done.”

“I can still play this golf course,” 1992 champion Fred Couples told me during a practice round with Tiger Woods and Adam Scott last November.

Standing on the tenth tee, Scott and Woods hit three-woods down the hill on the long, 495 yard, par four.
Couples, who’s length off the tee contributed to his “Boom Boom” nickname, hit driver.

“The key is to hit the right clubs into these greens,” he explained. “I’m long enough that I can still do that. Some guys can’t.”
Fred uses the 18th hole as a prime example of his ability to still play Augusta National. How he plays that hole will determine how long he’ll continue to compete at the Masters every April.

“I used to hit driver and a short iron in there,” he said of the 465-yard uphill par 4 known as “Holly.” “Even though it’s longer now, I can still hit a short iron in there with how long I still hit it,’ alluding to the distance gained through new equipment technology. “Once guys start having to hit hybrid into that green, they don’t have much of a chance.”

Adding length to the golf course has made a test for players in the modern game, but for others, it’s eliminated them as actual competitors. As an example, Augusta National played at 6,925 yards in 1994. This year it will be 550 yards longer.

And confounding that theory, Bernhard Langer made the cut last year at 63-years old, the oldest player to ever do so.
“I am hitting a lot of 2- and 3-hybrids on holes where the younger guys are hitting 8- and 9-irons into the greens,” Langer told Golf Digest. “So, it’s a big challenge for me.”

Langer admitted to hitting 3-wood into the par four fifth hole each day last November. No matter. Paired with Bryson DeChambeau, the longest hitter in the game, Langer bested him by two strokes in the final round.

“There’s a definite advantage from playing that course 100 times or more,” Langer explained. Sometimes it is better to be 20 yards short than three feet long. When I was paired with Bryson he missed in the wrong places. It often comes down to a matter of inches. He’d almost hit a good shot, but it wasn’t.”

Figuring out how to play Augusta National under tournament conditions is nothing new. Dustin Johnson carrying a 7-wood in his bag in November was much discussed as a key to his victory. Years earlier, Raymond Floyd famously carried a 5-wood during his 1976 victory, putting the club in play for that week to try and tame the par-5’s.

It’s one of the things that makes The Masters so compelling. The history of the game is often written there. Or is it because it happened at The Masters, it becomes part of history?

Tiger Woods’ famous chip in on sixteen in 2005 on his way to victory is one of the most celebrated golf shots ever. Barely anybody remembers Davis Love III making almost the exact same shot three years earlier on sixteen. Because he didn’t go on to win. And he’s not Tiger.

Is Gene Sarazen’s double-eagle in the 1935 Masters on fifteen bigger than Harris English’s same score on eleven at last year’s Players? We have only O.B. Keeler’s newspaper account of Sarazen’s feat, written in the daily paper while there’s very clear video of English and his two.

Of course it is. Sarazen went on to win.

And it happened at The Masters.

Justin Thomas

Do’s and Don’ts of The Players

There was a lot of talk this week about what you can and can’t do at The Players Championship.

First of all, you can get a ticket. Even with just about eight-thousand tickets sold there were enough floating around that if you wanted to see some golf, you could get out there. If you really wanted to go today, you can find one.

What you can’t do is walk around without a mask. There were a variety of “spectator ambassadors” on the grounds wearing very official looking vests and carrying those golf signs that used to say, “Quiet,” but now said, “Masks.” I suppose it was a polite way to nudge people to put their masks on despite the eating and drinking that usually goes on at The Players.

What you can do is marvel at how green the grass is all over the place. I don’t know what the rye grass seed bill was this year but whatever it was it was worth it. Every blade of grass was a green as could be, from tees to fairways to the putting surfaces and out to the rough, the spectator areas and even along the walkways to the parking lots.

If it looked manicured, it’s because it was. The Players agronomy staff used twenty-four, twenty-inch hand mowers to cut the rough on Tuesday and left it alone for the rest of the tournament. It took twenty-four workers walking behind the mowers, five hours to cut fifty acres of primary rough. And you thought your Saturday lawn duties were tough.

This is the fortieth Players Championship I’ve covered, all of them at the Stadium Course,t and it’s a far cry from when the tournament began there in 1982. There are places you can play from now where you wouldn’t even walk back then.

“We really didn’t have money for maintenance,” former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman explained. “We had enough to maintain the tees, fairway and greens and that was it. Even the goats were leased.”

Goats?

To the left of the thirteenth hole was a large island that had a lot of scrub brush that needed to be cleaned out, but the Tour didn’t have the money to get it done. So, they leased a trip of goats (yep, that’s what a bunch of goats are called) to clear the place out.

One night a valve that controls the water level on the course was left open and the goats crossed off the island and found a new thing to much on: the cedar shake roof shingles on the Stadium Course’s new clubhouse.

When the staff discovered what had happened, they were terrified at what Beman’s reaction might be. But in a stroke of genius, when he arrived to see the goats on the roof he said, “Where’s the cameras?” Beman realized it was a public relations bonanza to show the goats munching away.

As a player, crossing from the par three, thirteenth green to the fourteenth tee there used to be a giant corrugated pipe you drove your cart through, tunneling under the spectator mound that was built there. You never knew what you might encounter as you emerged from the pipe. Before the Sawgrass Marriott was built, all of that was swamp land and was ruled by wild things. More than once a twelve-foot gator was using the fourteenth tee as a sunning ground, only to walk off, clearly annoyed, when a foursome appeared.

This week the PGA Tour also told Bryson DeChambeau that he can’t just make up his own golf course along the way. After winning at Bay Hill, DeChambeau was asked how he might use his prodigious length to take advantage of the Stadium Course. A real “out of the fairway” thinker, Bryson said he might just hit his tee shot on eighteen over the pond to the left and come in from there. “It’s a better angle,” he said. Under the guise of “player and spectator safety,” the Tour quickly instituted an ‘internal out of bounds’ on that side of the lake, preventing DeChambeau and the rest of the bombers out there these days from straying from Pete Dye’s original plan.

There are a few other things you can’t do that are part of The Players history.

You used to be able to stand at the clubhouse and see what was going on at seventeen just calculating the size of the gallery there. No more. Hospitality chalets surrounding seventeen mean you can’t see down there from the clubhouse anymore.

Remember in 1987 when FSU student Hal Valdez jumped into the water on seventeen just as Jeff Sluman was lining up a six-foot birdie putt for a win in a playoff over Sandy Lyle? Valdez jumped in on a dare from his fraternity brothers. He wouldn’t be able to do that today. Fans aren’t allowed in that spot anymore. I guess he could get a running start and do a half gainer from the second story of the Michelob Ultra Lounge behind the green. But don’t get any ideas.

In 1988 as Mark McCumber was walking down the eighteenth fairway in the final round, some fans unfurled a banner saying something like, “Mark McCumber, Jacksonville’s Hometown Champion.” They’d have to find a new spot to do that this year. A very nice hospitality chalet spans the hill between nine and eighteen with great views of both holes.

The whole practice area-putting green-first tee-second green-third tee area is something you can appreciate as a sports fan. The revamped design there gives spectators a chance to see a half dozen different things going on with just a turn of the head or a twenty-step walk. And there’s beer, cocktails and snacks nearby. No wonder that’s a popular spot.

You can see the best players in the world competing for the best prize money against the best field in your own backyard just by flipping on your television. It’s fun to see a big focus of the sports world happening just down the street.

“We want this to be the best of everything we can offer,” The Players Executive Director Jared Rice said. “Our community is a huge part of what we do. It’s what makes us one of one. It’s important that we stay connected and engaged.”

You probably can’t throw the Commissioner in the water after you win any more either. When Jerry Pate was walking down the eighteenth getting ready to win the inaugural Players Championship at the Stadium Course in 1982, he had decided to throw course architect Pete Dye in the water next to the green. Deane Beman happened to be standing there, so he threw him in too. Then did a swan dive off the bulkhead himself.

Forty years later, might this year’s winner grab the Commissioner and throw him in? Probably not.

But, I don’t think as good of shape all of these guys are in, if one of them goes super low and decides to grab Jay Monahan and toss him in the lake, there wouldn’t be much Monahan could do about it.

But probably not.

Could be fun though.

The Players Championship

From GJO to TPC and Beyond

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what The Players Championship is because it’s actually so many things at once.

It’s a premier golf tournament that the best players in the world want to win. Adam Scott said so when he won in 2004. Rory McIlroy reiterated that saying, “I don’t think my career would be complete without winning The Players.”

For golf fans, especially those from North Florida, it might be the best party, and probably the best social opportunity of the year. Just ask anybody who’s been to the tournament on a sunny Friday afternoon.

If those fans are serious about watching golf, it’s the best venue to see live golf, and the best field of players assembled, just about anywhere in the world. The Stadium Course was built as just that, a ‘Stadium’ to provide the best sight lines for fans.

For corporations, local, national and international, it’s the best client entertainment opportunity anywhere. There aren’t many places where you can treat your clients to a breakfast on the beach and a surf lesson in the morning and head across the street to watch the best players in the world the same afternoon.

And for North Florida, Jacksonville, Ponte Vedra and just about everywhere else nearby, images sent all over the world of what we have here you just can’t buy. The St. Johns, the beaches, boating, golf courses, natural spaces and everything else are showcased like no other event can.

The Players is all of those things and strives to be the best at all of those at once. And usually succeeds.

“I didn’t envision all of those things at the very beginning,” former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman, who developed the concept of The Players Championship, said this week from his home in Ponte Vedra. “When I was a player on the policy board, (then-Commissioner) Joe Dey asked if I thought we should have a special tournament. I thought the Tour should have a very special event that represented the organization.”

Beman succeeded Dey as the PGA Tour Commissioner in 1974 and said creating the TPC became one of his ‘chores.’

“As of March 1st, the tournament had been scheduled for Atlanta, but the whole schedule hadn’t been made yet,” he explained. “We wanted to make it something that was more than ‘just another event in Atlanta.’”

“All we could do was make it the best of everything it could be,” he continued. “The best prize money, the best field, the best competition and the best community support. When it started, Joe’s concept was to move it around like the US Open and the PGA. But I became convinced after Ft. Worth (site of the second TPC) that the tournament needed to be in one place. It would have the best chance to be the best of what we could make it if it was played in the same place.”

Much has been written about Beman’s quest to find a home for The Players and the one dollar deal he made with the Fletcher brothers for the property as a home for the PGA Tour headquarters and the new Stadium Course. Originally, Beman contacted the owners of Bay Hill in Orlando, but Arnold Palmer was looking there as well and eventually acquired the club.

“We just happened on Sawgrass,” Beman said of Sawgrass Country Club, the tournament’s home from 1977-1981. “My son was out of school on spring vacation, and I took him with me when I visited a couple of events as Commissioner. I was at Deerwood at the GJO and asked if there was a place we could go play. They said, ‘Go to Sawgrass nobody plays there.’ After nine holes we quit because I told him we had found the place and we needed to play our tournament there.”

He didn’t waste any time making the decision.

“I drove right back to Deerwood and met with John Tucker and said, “How about we do a deal?” he said.

It didn’t take long for Tucker and the other Red Coats, the past volunteer chairmen of the Greater Jacksonville Open, to say yes. The Tour, through Beman, said they could increase the charity contributions to over $100,000 if the GJO expanded their scope and embraced he TPC as a national event.

“He was talking about an international event that would compete with the Majors,” Tucker recalled this week. “He was very expressive and wanted something beyond what anybody else had.”

Beman tried to buy Sawgrass for the Tour and even looked at property off of Hecksher Drive and on the Northside. But the deal with the Fletchers proved to be the right one to get things started.

“I don’t know of any other business enterprise that has gotten things going like that for nothing,” Beman said with a laugh. “And I mean for nothing.”

Tucker and company took what they had learned by running the GJO and expanded it for the new TPC.

“It’s the highest performance in the world by the best players in the world,” John explained. “We tried to match the people in attendance with the level of play. We raised the level of watching the tournament in interest and convenience. We had provided childcare for the players at the GJO and did the same at the TPC. We arranged shopping trips for the wives. The GJO gave the top 60 players a courtesy car. We gave all 144 players cars for the TPC.”

Tucker and Beman were on the same page when it came to their vision of the new Tournament Players Championship.

“How can we make this better,” they both told me on separate occasions.

“Every staff member at the time, and it was much smaller than now,” Beman said. “They were dedicated to make this the best event in the world. How it was run, the spectators, the charity money, how to accommodate the players, the commercial interests, all of it.”

“We put packages together. We had client entertainment, sky chalets, offered visitors to play golf at various courses around the area,” Tucker, who became the Tournament Director in 1983 said. “They looked at our tournament as a model of what all the other tournaments should be.”

John made a reference to the old GJO days that some of you will remember and sums up the growth of the tournament outside the ropes.

“As much funs as it was, we didn’t want a Swingers Tent any longer,” he said in between laughs. “There are a lot of companies that their first view of the Jacksonville was the golf tournament, so I got the chamber involved. We were looking to offer the entertainment level high enough and commensurate with the quality of the golf.”

“These assets in our community that we know so well are things we want to promote,” current Players Executive Director Jared Rice said this week. “They are big contributors to how we promote this championship nationally and internationally. For that week, we’re the concierge for everybody who comes to visit the tournament.”

Beman points to four things that pushed The Players forward during his tenure that are part of the historical lore of the tournament that couldn’t have been planned.

“The first Players Championship was won by Jack Nicklaus,” he said of the best player in the world reigning as The Players champion. “He was the super, world-class player at that moment, and he won the tournament. Then we went to Sawgrass, and we had horrendous weather the second year we played. That was disruptive but gave the tournament notoriety.”

When the tournament moved to Sawgrass Country Club in 1977, the windy weather in the second round that year led to a tournament record eleven over par as the cut for the first thirty-six holes. The next year, Nicklaus won for the third time in five years of the ‘TPC’ posting a one-over score after a 75 in the final round.

“When we came over to the Players Club,” he continued.” The fact that the golf course was too difficult gave it more notoriety. The greens were on the other side of unfair. There was a huge controversy about it.”

While the greens and the course have been softened a bit, the golf course itself and the ‘Stadium’ concept became a celebrity.

“Just the brand name of ‘Stadium Golf,” Beman added. “That was new to golf, nobody had ever even thought of that. And the public interest in the 17th hole was different. A simple hole, a little shot, just a wedge or a nine iron, and all the of the sudden this simple shot became the toughest shot in the world. All of that helped it become a unique and special tournament.”

“One of the greatest things was Deane’s concept that it would always be played on one course,” Tucker added. It’s was a course built just for spectator golf. It was a course that didn’t offer any relief for two or three holes for the players. It was a real championship golf course.”

Tucker continued, “What he said he wanted was, ‘A community that wants us, where our players feel at home and the GJO has all of those prerequisites. The players come here because they love how they’re treated here. They love coming here.’ And everybody admired what had been accomplished here. Plus the acceptance by the R and A and the USGA, they all admired what Deane had done.”

“It’s one of one,” Rice answered when I asked about the uniqueness of the current Players Championship. “Our guests and fans can be out here for business development or just to see friends. They can be sports fans and want to see a big sporting event.

Rice agreed when I said I thought The Players has separated itself in the pantheon of sporting events, not just golf tournaments.

“Our expectation is to deliver it for our players, fans and volunteers at the highest level, if not perfectly,” he said. “As we go forward, it’s the signature event within our community and in our sport. We want to use our event to showcase how great our community is to live work and play and show how Northeast Florida is supportive of this event. We want people from around the world to come here and see how great this community is.”

Noting that no other tournament has been played in one place longer than the Players except the Masters, Rice added, “Our community is a big part of what our tournament is about. We want to promote the tournament nationally and internationally to have people to see how great the restaurants are here, that there are great places to rent or buy on the beach. To see the active lifestyle we have. It’s all the things we know are great that we want to promote.”

When I asked Beman if The Players is now everything he envisioned, he said it would be impossible to have seen what it has become.

“It’s hard to answer whether this was my vision because nobody could think of all the things that were done to make it what it is today,” he explained. “From day one I was dedicated to make it the best tournament in the world. But I didn’t do it alone, the people around me did the work. Everybody on my staff, the volunteers, the tournament chairmen, they came up with the individual ideas that make it what it is today. I was personally dedicated to making this the finest tournament in the world, whatever the big and the small things were that needed to get done to do that. They all were dedicated to the same thing. And they’ve done it.”

A Walk at the Masters

I took a few walks this week. That’s not unusual, and this particular walk is one I’ve made perhaps two hundred times before. But this was a special version of that walk. Whenever I get to Augusta National for The Masters, I take part of each day I’m there to walk the back nine. And it’s the same walk every time. I usually make this walk with a friend or colleague but this week with no patrons and limited media, I took this walk alone.

The walk starts just behind the scoreboard to the right of the first fairway. That’s where the original pressroom used to be. A Quonset hut full of the legends of sports journalism before the explosion of media, that press room had a manual scoreboard at the front. It’s where the then PGA Tour Director of Information, Tom Place rescued a lost and bewildered 25-year-old version of me in 1979. It was replaced by the first permanent Press Building in the same place. And now, the golf cart shuttle from the magnificent new Press Building drops you in that same spot.

From there, the hill walking up next to the golf shop and skirting the famous oak tree by the clubhouse is usually worn with patron pedestrian traffic. But this week it was lush and green. And I was the only person there. The first fairway was open, no ropes, just small dark green dashes on the ground, a reminder of where to, and where not to walk. The walkway was marked by a couple of stakes on the ground but only a few maintenance cart tire tracks had passed that way.

Each time I walk by the golf shop, I have the same thought, about a story Jack Nicklaus told me. Chatting during construction of The King and The Bear course at World Golf Village, we were talking about the changes at Augusta in the era before they announced what they were doing to the golf course in the off season. Jack said after one of his wins, the following year he walked out of the golf shop, headed to the first tee. As with most courses of that era, the first tee was right outside the door. Jack’s play had made the game longer as Bobby Jones said, “he plays a game I’m not familiar with.” Nicklaus held his hands out in front of him, palms facing each other and in a very animated voice said, “But it wasn’t there, it was up there,” as he gestured and looked up the hill to his left. Going by the shop, I glanced to my right, looking for any hint of a former tee, but none to be found.

At the top of the hill, I was struck by how still it was. Just some security standing around, nothing going on under the oak tree, the first tee open without any restrictions.

I waited behind the ninth green on Tuesday as Fred Couples, Tiger Woods and Adam Scott finished the front nine, checking green speed and fairway slopes during their practice round.

I’ve known Fred since his win at the ’84 Players and he gestured for me to walk with him to the tenth tee. There were maybe four of us there, including the member assigned to the tee. I stood with Joey LaCava, Fred’s long time caddie who now works for Tiger just trying to blend in. As familiar as I was with the players and the setting, the situation was so different I was trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. Although they were working, it felt like a casual game among friends.

Fred mouthed “Wow,” to me as Tiger and Adam blasted three metals down the middle with a high draw, just like you’re supposed to there at ten. Fred hit driver, and the three walked to the clubhouse, leaving their shots in the fairway.

As the players walked away, the member in the green jacket asked me about the logo on my golf shirt. “I’ve played there and they let me buy a shirt,” I explained, somewhat sheepishly. . “I’m a member there,” he said. We spent the next ten minutes talking about golf in different parts of the country, a conversation that couldn’t have happened in any other year.
When Larry Mize won The Masters in 1987, he navigated around the golf course hitting fairways and greens en route to a spot in a playoff. He lead the tournament this year in driving accuracy through two rounds but a combination of lengthening the golf course and the shorter distance that comes with age, Mize, Langer and several other senior past champions oftentimes find themselves with a fairway metal or a hybrid in their hands on many of Augusta’s par four’s.

As I passed the eighteenth green on Friday, Mize had hit two solid shots but was still twenty yards short of the putting surface. I stopped as the only person nearby. I was in what normally is a high traffic area but alone, golf etiquette demanded I be still while Mize played. Trying to be very precise, chipping to a back left hole location, Mize’s shot caught the top of the bunker to the right of the green and rolled in. I didn’t dare move while Mize, obviously disappointed, still very professionally walked into the bunker and saved bogey with a beautiful, long sand wedge to two feet.

One of the things television can’t convey from Augusta National is the elevation changes on the golf course. Walking down next to the tenth and eleventh fairways, you could almost call it steep. Eleven is so directly downhill, that as a par four, it’s actually longer in yardage than the par five thirteenth. Halfway down the hill I had a bit of a wry smile, thinking I might not have been able to make this walk if the tournament was held as scheduled in April. Left hip replacement last November has been very successful but I’m still working on regaining the muscle strength in my left leg. I still struggle a bit downhill, but I’m not sure I’d have gotten even this far eight months ago.

By now on Tuesday, I was virtually alone.

I glanced to my right as a passed by the spot Bubba Watson hit that hook out of the woods to win in a playoff. A few hole monitors were just about to gather their things and finish their days work. We exchanged hellos and I stopped for a second when one asked me how I was doing. “Couldn’t be better,” I said. “I’m here.” “That’s true,” he answered, “Couldn’t be better.” I heard tee shots being hit in the distance on the fifteenth tee.

When I take this walk with somebody attending the Masters for the first time, at this point I usually take them around the back of ten and back up the little hill behind the eleventh tee. It’s a demanding tee shot out of that chute, especially since they added the trees to the right of the fairway. That’s one of my favorite spots in practice rounds or during the tournament. There aren’t many people back there, and the players walk right up and occasionally have to wait on their tee shots. Sometimes they’ll chat up the fans, it’s a little bit of a relaxed moment in an otherwise focused eighteen holes. In the era of persimmon head drivers, the echo through the tall pines of the crack of the club hitting the ball is the most unique, and satisfying golf sound I’ve ever heard.

When the TV station I worked for was the CBS affiliate, I used to scoot to the other side of the eleventh tee and take the short walk up the tree-lined, cinder roadway to the television compound. I knew most of the CBS production crew and the announcers, mainly thanks to my friendship with Pat Summerall. I’d spend time in Producer/Director Frank Chirkinian’s office listening to golf stories, mostly told by his “do everything” producer Chuck Will.

But not today.

Heading down right of the eleventh fairway on Tuesday I was very aware that I was alone. Nobody in sight. Nobody playing number eleven. Nobody on fifteen tee. Nobody on fourteen green. No players, no officials, no workers. I walked around the closed concession stand to Amen Corner, by myself, noticing there were no stands erected there, and still, nobody in sight.

During Friday and Saturday’s competition rounds, there were maybe twenty people at Amen Corner. I stood close, right behind the caddies on the 12th tee Friday as Yuxin Lin an amateur from China, in the field from Southern Cal, hit it to eight feet. In the quiet, I heard the ball hit and plug on the green.

On Tuesday, by myself, I heard a few birds were chirping. I could hear the soft whine of a water pump behind the eleventh green. The distant staccato of mowers cutting grass at Augusta Country Club behind the thirteenth tee was faint in the background. The occasional passenger and private jets executed their climb out just east of The National, only noticeable against the silence.

I thought about walking off a few times, but there, alone, I looked around in a circle, cataloguing and being grateful for some of my shared experiences in that spot. Spending time there each April with friends and co-workers in the past four decades was always fun for me, and especially gratifying to see the joy on their faces. A friend got down on one knee a few years ago and proposed to his now-wife right there. I smoked a cigar there with my Dad in 1979.

Walking up the right of the thirteenth fairway I paused to look at the green in the distance. Normally framed by a splash of azaleas, some of the deciduous trees in the background had begun to change color, adding a hint of autumn to the scene.

To the right is where my brother Gust and I waited for Fred Couples beside the fourteenth fairway before he hit his second shot in a practice round in 2015. I know Freddie pretty well, but he and my brother are actual friends. It was fun to see his face light up and come over to chat when he heard my brother’s voice.

Crossing the fourteenth fairway on an unused walkway, I stopped for a second in the middle to see the golfer’s perspective of that hole. I’ve been fortunate to play Augusta National a few times and I thought about the mix of emotions I’ve had every time I’ve teed it up there. Excitement and fear with a healthy dose of humility, knowing I can’t replicate the shots I’ve seen there by the best players in the world.

Up to the fifteenth fairway and still alone, I looked down at the amphitheater formed by the fifteenth green, the sixteenth, and the seventeenth tee.

With nobody there.

On Friday, still without a group in in sight, I crossed the seventeenth fairway and headed up the hill. I stopped in a grove of trees, remembering standing there on a Sunday looking toward the green when Sergio Garcia’s drive rolled up from my right and stopped at my feet.

Finally seeing some golfers, I stood with about ten officials, watching, Graeme McDowell, Si Woo Kim and Nate Lashley all hit it to inside five feet on number seven.

And not a sound.

“Sad,” one official said to me noting the lack of even a polite golf clap. “But at least we’re getting it in,” he said wistfully. “Maybe again in April,” I said as his eyes gave away the smile behind his mask. Only Kim made his putt.

Walking around the eighth tee and up left of the eighteenth fairway, a group of a hundred people or so were gathered around the ninth green. Easily the largest collection of people in one spot on the golf course.

“Must be Tiger,” I thought. Getting closer I heard a spontaneous golf clap coming from that group as Tiger two-putted from about forty-feet for par.

Only members and officials are allowed in the clubhouse this year, so one of my personal favorite Masters traditions will have to wait. At this point in the walk, I usually head into the clubhouse grill and walk to the end of the bar. For thirty years, “Coach” was on station there, and unfailingly would remember, “Vodka, lemonade?” when I’d ask how he’d been. When he retired, his son was there for a few years and we followed the same routine.

Lingering under the oak tree after the walk I’d renew old acquaintances each year, see some of the celebrities in attendance and generally watch the world go by.

Occasionally, I’d smoke a cigar, away from the crowd, people watching. About five years ago, a gentleman politely came and stood next to me, also a casual observer. I said hello, and he nodded, eyeing my cigar. I asked if he’d like one, (don’t ever smoke in public without an extra in your pocket) and realized quickly we had a bit of a language barrier. Looking at his badge, he was a representative of the Argentina Golf Federation and was here as a guest of the tournament. Miguel spoke no English and I only have a version of ‘restaurant Spanish’ I can muster but somehow, we figured out how to have a whole conversation, without saying much, around two cigars and golf.

The next year, I was standing in the same spot, not smoking, people watching, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Miguel was standing beside me, two cigars in hand, smiling.

Back down the hill by the golf shop, I passed a green-jacketed member coming the other way.

“How are you,” he said as he approached with a wave.

“Couldn’t’ be better,” I said. “I’m here.”

A Walk at The Masters

I took a walk today. That’s not unusual and this particular walk is one I’ve made perhaps two hundred times before. But this was a special version of that walk. Whenever I get to Augusta National, I take part of the first day I’m there to walk the back nine. And it’s the same walk every time.

Starting just behind the scoreboard to the right of the first fairway, I walk up the hill toward the first tee and just on the outskirts of the famous oak tree that sits behind the clubhouse. The walk starts here each year because that’s where the press room used to be. A Quonset hut full of the legends of sports journalism before the explosion of media, that press room had a manual scoreboard at the front. It was replaced by the first permanent Press Building, but on the same spot. And now, the golf cart shuttle from the magnificent new Press Building drops you in that same spot.

The hill walking up next to the golf shop is usually worn with patron pedestrian traffic. But on this walk it was lush and green. And I was the only person there. The first fairway was open, no ropes, just small dark green dashes on the ground, a reminder of where to, and where not to walk. The walkway was marked by a couple of stakes on the ground but only a few maintenance cart tire tracks had passed that way.

Each time I walk by the golf shop, I have the same thought, about a story Jack Nicklaus told me. Chatting during construction of The King and The Bear course at World Golf Village, we were talking about the changes at Augusta in the era before they announced what they were doing to the golf course in the off season. Jack said after one of his wins, the following year he walked out of the golf shop, headed to the first tee. As with most courses of that era, the first tee was right outside the door. Jack’s play had made the game longer as Bobby Jones said, “he plays a game I’m not familiar with.” Nicklaus held his hands out in front of him, palms facing each other and in a very animated voice said, “But it wasn’t there, it was up there,” as he gestured and looked to his left. Going by the shop, I glanced to my right, looking for any hint of a former tee, but none to be found.

At the top of the hill, I was struck by how still it was. Just some security standing around, nothing going on under the oak tree, the first tee open without any restrictions. I walked around the back of the tee and marveled at how close it was to the practice green that sits outside the clubhouse. That used to be a huge meeting place for patrons. The lengthening of the first hole has made that just a walkway.

This walk always turns right and heads down the right side of the tenth hole. The tenth tee was open, a few players were finishing on eighteen to my right. I stopped as one of them prepared to play a shot out of the right bunker on eighteen. It occurred to me that side of the hill is usually full of fans in a ‘sitting only’ area. Stopping during a practice round on this walk usually isn’t necessary. Patrons are usually streaming to and from the back nine. But I was the only spectator there. The only person not a part of the game. So, stopping just seemed the right golf etiquette. A nearly perfect bunker shot ensued, settling about two feet from the back-pin position.

One of the things television can’t convey from Augusta National is the elevation changes on the golf course. Walking down next to the tenth fairway, you could almost call it steep. Ten is so directly downhill, that as a par four, it’s actually longer in yardage than the par five thirteenth. Halfway down the hill I had a bit of a wry smile, thinking I might not have been able to make this walk if the tournament was held as scheduled in April. Left hip replacement last November has been very successful but I’m still working on regaining the muscle strength in my left leg. I still struggle a bit downhill, but I’m not sure I’d have gotten even this far eight months ago.

By now, I was virtually alone. I glanced to my right as a passed by the spot Bubba Watson hit that hook out of the woods to win in a playoff. A few hole monitors were just about to gather their things and finish their days work. We exchanged hellos and I stopped for a second when one asked me how I was doing. “Couldn’t be better,” I said. “I’m here.” “That’s true,” he answered, “Couldn’t be better.” I heard tee shots being hit in the distance on fifteen.

A couple of carts went by me as I crested the hill to the right of ten green and just to the side of the fifteenth tee. When I take this walk with somebody attending the Masters for the first time, at this point I usually take them around the back of ten and back up the little hill behind the eleventh tee. They’ve moved that tee back in the last ten years, adding yardage to the hole. It’s a demanding tee shot out of that chute, especially since they added the trees to the right of the fairway. That’s one of my favorite spots in practice rounds or during the tournament. There aren’t many people back there, and the players walk right up and occasionally have to wait on their tee shots. Sometimes they’ll chat up the fans, it’s a little bit of a relaxed moment in an otherwise focused eighteen holes. In the era of persimmon head drivers, the echo through the tall pines of the crack of the club hitting the ball is the most unique, and satisfying golf sound I’ve ever heard.

When the TV station I worked for was the CBS affiliate, I used to scoot to the other side of the eleventh tee and take the short walk up the tree-lined cinder roadway to the television compound. I knew most of the CBS production crew and the announcers, mainly thanks to my friendship with Pat Summerall. I’d spend time in Frank Chirkinian’s office listening to golf stories, mostly told by his “do everything” producer Chuck Will.

But not today.

Heading down right of the eleventh fairway I was very aware that I was alone. Nobody in sight. Nobody playing number eleven. Nobody on fifteen tee. Nobody on fourteen green. No players, no officials, no workers. I walked around the closed concession stand to Amen Corner, by myself, noticing there were no stands erected there, and still, nobody in sight.

Earlier in the week, Dottie Pepper, part of the CBS announce crew said she walked down to Amen Corner on Monday and was struck by how quiet it was. Jim Nantz takes that same walk every Wednesday afternoon when the Par 3 tournament is going on to immerse himself in the moment before his broadcast duties begin. Standing there, I thought about what Jim had said Monday, explaining the gratitude he feels every time he takes that walk.

In that setting, I’m not sure I can exactly describe what was running through my mind. A few birds were chirping. I could hear the soft whine of a water pump behind the eleventh green. The distant staccato of mowers cutting grass at Augusta Country Club behind the thirteenth tee was faint in the background. The occasional passenger and private jet executed their climb out just east of The National, only noticeable against the silence.

I thought about walking off a few times, but there, by myself, I looked around in a circle, cataloguing some of my experiences in that spot. Up the hill is where one of the first photographers I worked with, Ramon Hernandez and I watched a lot of golf early in my career. My wife Linda and I walked all eighteen holes a few years ago and I’m pretty sure right where I was standing was her favorite spot. Just down the hill a few steps is where my colleague Tom Wills and I watched action on the twelfth green at the 1985 tournament. Rob Kearney and I always position ourselves in front of the stands, as we’re just tall enough to see over the patrons and onto the twelfth tee. Matt Robinson and I had a head-shaking, eyebrow raising chuckle standing on the twelfth tee the year we played there together. One of those, “How’d we get here?” silent laughs.

Over toward the thirteenth fairway is where my friend Todd Galley got down on one knee and proposed to his now wife Dierdre. My long-time producer, photographer, friend and confidant Matt Kingston liked this spot the best. And I smiled thinking of all the times I stood in this spot with Kevin Talley, my most-often companion at Augusta National and the Masters. I met Kevin at the Masters while he was working with Warren Peper at Channel 5 in Charleston and hired him to come to Jacksonville in 1990. As a professional television producer and photographer, we traveled the US (and the UK), working together with a close friendship, but I never saw him happier than when we were standing in that spot at Augusta National. We’d get there, he’d pull out a cigarette and say, “It’s time for a smoke.” I’d tell him every year it was sacrilegious to smoke in that spot, until I realized it was one of his traditions at The Masters. And in my first trip to The Masters in 1979, I took my Dad as my photographer (there was no such person at the station I worked for that year in Charleston) and we smoked a cigar together in that spot. Still alone, the occasional light breeze going by, I felt that sense of gratitude that comes from remembering shared experiences with people you’re close to.

Walking up the right of the thirteenth fairway I paused to look at the green in the distance. Normally framed by a splash of azaleas, some of the deciduous trees in the background had begun to change color, adding a hint of autumn to the scene.

To the right is where my brother Gust and I waited for Fred Couples beside the fourteenth fairway before he hit his second shot in a practice round. I know Freddie pretty well, but he and my brother are actual friends. It was fun to see he and his then-caddie Joey LaCava light up and come over to chat when they heard my brother’s voice.

Crossing the fourteenth fairway on an unused walkway, I paused in the middle to see the golfer’s perspective of that hole. I’ve been fortunate to play Augusta National a few times and I thought about the mix of emotions I’ve had every time I’ve teed it up there. Excitement and fear with a healthy dose of humility, knowing I can’t replicate the shots I’ve seen there by the best players in the world.

Up to the fifteenth fairway and still alone, I looked down at the amphitheater formed by the fifteenth green, the sixteenth, and the seventeenth tee. With nobody there.

Around the seventh green, the eighth tee and behind the seventeenth green, I walked over to see the tee shot on eighteen. Intimidating to say the least, it would be hard to capture in any medium how narrow the chute is on the tee shot is trying to carve it up the hill on the finishing hole. Freddie always says, “Aim down the middle with a little cut on it and hit it hard.”

Back down to the right of the eighth tee, the walk up the left of eighteen doesn’t flatten out until you get to the clubhouse. I stood by the fairway bunkers in the eighteenth fairway and didn’t recognize the trees that were beyond the bunkers, left of the fairway. Were they new? They look like they’d been there a hundred years. Hitting it over or left of the bunkers now will be no picnic for the second shot.

By now there was a soft rain falling and a few umbrellas were opening at the top of the hill. A half-dozen greenskeepers were putting the finishing touches on the ninth green in the fading light

Back around the first tee, another feature of The Masters was still intact. As I passed each security guard, they greeted me with a polite hello or gesture of recognition. I’ve always liked that. . Call it Southern Hospitality if you like, but it always seems right to me.

Only members and officials are allowed in the clubhouse this year, so one of my personal favorite Masters traditions will have to wait. At this point in the walk, I usually head into the clubhouse grill and walk to the end of the bar. For thirty years, “Coach” was on station there, and unfailingly would remember, “Vodka, lemonade?” when I’d ask how he’d been. When he retired, his son was there for a few years and we followed the same routine.

Lingering under the oak tree after the walk I’d renew old acquaintances each year, see some of the celebrities in attendance and generally watch the world go by. Occasionally, I’d smoke a cigar, away from the crowd, people watching. About five years ago a gentleman politely came and stood next to me, also a casual observer. I said hello, and he nodded, eyeing my cigar. I asked if he’d like one, (don’t ever smoke in public without an extra in your pocket) and realized quickly we had a language barrier. Looking at his badge, he was a representative of the Argentina Golf Federation and was here as a guest of the tournament. Miguel spoke no English and I only have a version of ‘restaurant Spanish’ I can muster but somehow, we figured out how to have a whole conversation, without saying much, around two cigars and golf. The next year, I was standing in the same spot, not smoking, people watching, when I had a tap on my shoulder. Miguel was standing beside me, two cigars in hand, smiling.

Only at The Masters.

Augusta National

A Different Masters

This year’s Masters Tournament will be historic on many levels. It’ll be the first time the competition has been held in November and it’ll be contested with no patrons (fans) in attendance. The golf course will look different. The course won’t play the same. The Augusta ambience will be different. The Masters has always been the first major championship of the year. In 2020 it will be the last. Whether you’re watching on television or playing in the tournament, the 84th Masters will be different.

Generally, The Masters is scheduled to finish on the second Sunday of April. But that hasn’t always been the case. The first “Augusta Invitational” was held in late March of 1934. Four times the tournament has ended on the first Sunday of April and twice, 1979 and 1984, the third Sunday of the month hosted the final round.

For many golf fans, The Masters marks the start of spring and the beginning of the golf season. Tournament founders, Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, also placed the tournament on the spring calendar making it easy for sports writers, headed back north from baseball’s Spring Training in Florida, to make a stop in Augusta and cover the competition.

And with Augusta National built on the grounds of a former nursery, the flowering plants and beautiful azaleas are part of the experience of the Masters Tournament in April. The golf course will have a much different look this week than it does in the spring.

“Not knowing how the golf course is going to play in November, when people ask me ‘What’s it going to be like?’ ‘I have no idea’ is my answer,” said Ponte Vedra resident, Billy Kratzert, an eight-time Masters participant and a four-time winner on the PGA Tour.

Kratzert is now doing commentary and analysis for the Golf Chanel and for CBS Sports during Masters week. He says playing the tournament in November will be an added mystery for this year’s Masters.

“I do think if the longer hitter gets there and is in form, they might have an advantage,” he said.

A two-time winner on the PGA Tour, Jacksonville’s Len Mattiace is part of the Masters lore with his runner-up finish in a playoff in 2003; Len played at Augusta once as a amateur as the member of the Walker Cup team and twice as a professional. He says the whole atmosphere of playing The Masters at Augusta National is completely different than any other tournament.

“Like twenty times greater,” Mattiace said of the electricity in the air at Augusta. “There’s a great buzz on the golf course. Those big, John Daly, Tiger Woods, type of great crowds with a really electric atmosphere. When you have those crowds following you, there’s an electricity in the air.”

“The energy the players get at Augusta, that’s one of the special things about the Masters,” Kratzert agreed. “You hear what’s going on on the rest of the golf course.”

He should know. Kratzert finished fifth at Augusta in 1978 and an opening round 68 gave Kratzert a share of the lead after Thursday in 1986. That year’s Masters was eventually won for the sixth time by Jack Nicklaus.

“Without the patrons it’ll affect some players,” Kratzert said, reflecting on the different personalities of professional golfers. “There are players who love to know what’s happening all around the golf course. We talk about the roars at Augusta National. You immediately know if you’re standing on the tenth tee that somebody hit a great shot on Amen Corner. The roars define what players were doing. Then you can look on the leaderboard and actually see it. There are a lot of players who would build off those roars from the patrons.”

Both Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have said playing without a gallery in 2020 has been not only different but sometimes difficult.

“It is very different,” Tiger explained during the FedEx Cup playoffs in August. “You just don’t know where the ball lands sometimes. You’re expecting the roars and you don’t hear anything. … Obviously the energy is not anywhere near the same.”

McIlroy agreed and took it a step further saying he’s looking to the gallery to help get into another gear.

“I want to get an intensity and some sort of fire, but I just haven’t been able to,” Rory also said in August. “And look, that’s partly to do with the atmosphere and partly to do with how I’m playing. I’m not inspiring myself, and I’m trying to get inspiration from outside sources to get something going.”

“You hit good shots and you get on nice little runs. We don’t have the same energy, the same fan energy,” Tiger added.

No doubt it should be different this week with a Green Jacket on the line.

Mattiace is currently playing on the Champions Tour and at a recent event in South Dakota, fans were allowed on the course. But he sees the different situation that golfers are facing.

“The guys have experienced this already,” he explained. “It’s so quiet, there’s no buzz. At Augusta they’ll definitely notice it on the second shots. There won’t be people scattering or talking. You won’t know if it’s on or off the green.”

“If everybody was 100% truthful, the patrons at Augusta bring that special energy to it,” Kratzert said. “Tiger, (Phil) Mickelson, a DJ (Dustin Johnson) a Rory (McIlroy), they’ve all experienced that. I’d like to see (Bryson) DeChambeau react to that. He’s been able to win a major without fans.”

Besides the atmosphere, just playing Augusta National is always a challenge. The speed of the greens, the elevations, the precision necessary to play good shots all put special demands on the players. And without patrons, the golf course will have a very different look to the competitors “inside the ropes.”

“As a player, when you don’t have the patrons back there with no definition, it’ll be different,” Kratzert said. “When I played there as an amateur in ’74 over from the University of Georgia, I couldn’t believe how challenging it was from a size standpoint.”

“When you go there to play casually, the rolling hills, it’s all out in the open,” Mattiace said of the sheer size of Augusta National. “There’s nobody around, nothing defines the buffers of the holes. When there are fans there, it’s like a big block of color that defines the hole.”

Without galleries, often times ten-deep, outlining each hole, players will have a whole different challenge. Kratzert says playing practice rounds at Augusta National is one of the fun things during the week. But it could be different this year.

“It could be more serious. The course will demand very exacting sight lines and landing spots on the green. You’ll have to identify those during the week. There will be a lot of learning. It won’t change the quality of shots that need to be hit. Just the optics for the players.”

Listening to what the players have to say about the golf course this Monday through Wednesday will be a big part of Kratzert’s preparation for his broadcast role this week. He’s especially keen to talk with guys after practice rounds.

“A lot of times on Tour players are like, ‘I have to go play a practice round.’” Kratzert say of the week-to-week grind on the PGA Tour. “I think players at Augusta National get up in the morning wanting to play practice rounds! The difference this week is ‘I want to get out there and see how it is.’”

Both Kratzert and Mattiace thought certain shots will be particularly difficult at Augusta National without the galleries defining each hole.

“That second shot on eighteen, it’s hard to define the outline of the green,” Mattiace said of the elevation change when hitting the second shot on Augusta’s finishing hole. “Same on number one. You can’t see the definition of the green, maybe the top portion of the flag. You have to hit a big drive on fourteen and without people there, you won’t see what’s going on at the right of the green. And maybe even seventeen, any type of shot that’s uphill.”

“With eighteen and all of the patrons around it you get a sense ‘this is a big green’ but in actuality, it’s not that big,” Kratzert explained. “All of the Masters winners have played there without fans. But when you’re used to having the patrons behind the green, you can pick out ‘the gentlemen in the yellow shirt’ and use it as an aiming point. It’ll be more challenging to hit your spots, no question.”

Playing in November will be unique for the players and the tournament, and it’s a bit of a mystery how it will compare to playing in April. But one thing could be the same. The weather this week in Augusta is forecast to be mild with very little, if any, rain and temperatures in the upper ‘70’s and low 80’s.

Perfect golf weather.

Can Fun Save Golf

Can Fun Save Golf?

Driving down Ponte Vedra Boulevard you can see the Ocean Course at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club is starting to come back after being torn up for renovation. Same thing in town when you drive down San Jose. San Jose Country Club is re-doing their fairways and greens and changing one of their par threes nobody liked anyway. You can’t see it from the road but Pablo Creek off Butler Boulevard has also been taken down to the dirt and being rebuilt. And driving down A1A in Ponte Vedra you might notice the part of the Oak Bridge golf course you could see from the road is gone. Leveled to make way for an expansion of the Vicars Landing assisted living facility.

The Ocean Course, San Jose and Pablo Creek are going through the kind of renovation maintenance any golf course needs for long-term viability.

But at Oak Bridge, they’re doing something completely different.

“We’re looking to change the golf experience,” Oak Bridge Head Professional and General Manage Mike Miles said this week.

Miles is a former PGA Tour player who still has plenty of game, playing in the Senior PGA last year in Rochester. He shot 69 in the opening round at Oak Hill and played well enough to be paired with Bernhard Langer on Sunday. He hit it past Langer off the first tee but said he didn’t play well alongside the former Masters champion.

“He shot 67 and when I took my hat off to shake his hand on 18 I told him what an honor it was to play with him,” Miles recalled. “And I joked that I hoped my playing wouldn’t hinder his game in the future. He looked right at me and said, ‘I don’t think so.’”

Ponte Vedra resident David Miller is the developer of the project and brought Miles in to make it happen. They met through golf when they both lived in Southern California and have a big vision when it comes to what Oak Bridge will become when it’s opened under it’s new name, “The Yards.”

The “Front Yard” is an update of the front nine at Oak Bridge.

“It’ll be plenty of a challenge for what I like to call the ‘Big G’ golfer,” Miles explained. “But we’ll also have it set up so just about anybody can play here.”

Miles oversaw the re-construction and redesign of the new/old nine holes, with MacCurrach Golf giving it plenty of “playability” with only ten bunkers in the loop. He recreated the holes with a nod throughout to famed golf course architects like Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, Arnold Palmer and others.

“We want people to have fun while they’re here,” he said pointing to a spot on the ninth hole where there used to be a bunker that everybody seemed to hit into. “I want guys to come in and have a beer and a hamburger when they’re done. Not stomp over to their car, throw their clubs in the trunk and drive off.”

I heard the word “fun” a lot talking to Miles this week, especially when we moved to the “Backyard.” What used to be the back nine on the old golf course is now unrecognizable. A beautiful new lake, stately oaks, practice greens, a huge putting green and a walking three-hole short par three course called the “beer loop” fill your vision as soon as you clear the back of the clubhouse.

“We want people to have options,” Miles said. “You can come over here from the Front Yard and play 12, 15 or 18 holes. Or just come straight here sit on the patio with your friends, enjoy the view, laugh, walk the beer loop, whatever.”

That’s a far cry from the rules-laden, stiff upper lip image that golf has in a country club setting.

Is this where golf is going? Judge Smails probably would not approve.

“I call it ‘fun golf,’” golf course architect Erik Larsen said when I asked him about the concept. Larsen is a past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and was the Executive Vice President of Palmer Course Design in Ponte Vedra. He redesigned Selva Marina into today’s Atlantic Beach Country Club. He’s seen plenty of hidden entrances and stuffy locker rooms but thinks there’s a change in the game on the horizon.

“There will always be a demand for traditional 18-hole golf courses,” he explained. “But golf play has reduced because of the time it takes. Time is a valuable commodity. Want to play less? Just go play three, four, six and come back. No big deal. We don’t have to recreate the wheel, there’s a practicality to all of it.”

When Larsen’s former colleague and fellow golf course architect Harrison Minchew did the redesign at the Jacksonville Beach Golf Course he specifically was thinking about giving players a chance to play, but play in less time.

“There are some scenarios at Jax Beach where they could play six or nine or twelve holes,” he said noting that the operator of any golf course has to be willing to create that scenario “Part of the design philosophy is to allow clubs to have players play less than 18 holes. You bring them back to the clubhouse not just at nine and eighteen. There are ways to do that if that’s part of your market.”

The popularity of Top Golf facilities around the country (there’s one you can see from I-295 at the Town Center) has brought a lot of new people to the game, somewhat unexpectedly.

“More than 70% of the people who go to Top Golf have never touched a club before,” former TPC at Sawgrass General Manager Bill Hughes explained. Hughes is now the GM and CEO at the Country Club of the Rockies outside of Vail, Colorado but while in Ponte Vedra was an early advocate for a new kind of facility for Miles and Miller at Oak Bridge.

“You can’t just be another golf course,” he explained. “I love the ‘fun golf’ thing. Ponte Vedra already has world-class golf courses. You have to build something that fits the population. An aging community along with a lot of young people you want to bring to the game.”

Nobody is going from Top Golf to the first tee at the Stadium Course. But that’s where the new Yards and places like Jax Beach get involved.

“Top Golf is that kind of phenomenon,” Larsen added. “It’s fun, and that’s what a practice facility can be. Light it, put some targets out there, play some music, have a bar and make it fun. That experience is fun and successful, so some resorts are looking into that.”

“Fun golf has to be beautiful,” he continued. “Lighting and landscaping will be the key. It’s on top of what the game is built on. Will it bring people to the game? Maybe. But it’s an interim step to bring non-players eventually to the first tee of a golf course.”

“Oak Bridge is going to fill a void, introducing people to golf,” Minchew added. “They’re playing music at Jax Beach outside the clubhouse. There’s room for them to expand the putting green to a putting course. They’re covering the practice tee. There’s a Top Golf feel going on there. I think most places are going in that direction. Golf needs to be fun, if that’s part of it, they should have at it.”

And Minchew added an important part of the equation.

“They made money in their first year and that’s unheard of these days. That’s a success story, making it fun, playing music. Just being there is fun, that’s what it’s all about.”

Larsen agreed that the new Yards is a perfect fit for the shifting demographics in Ponte Vedra and golf in general.

“The location makes it popular because Oak Bridge is in a community with a young population. It fits what’s going on there. If they promote things for kids, evening play, take two clubs, walk a few holes, they’ll hit a home run.”

Hughes believes The Yards will be the start of a trend in the golf business.

“The game has to figure out how to get people over to the ‘green grass,’” he said. “Building a facility like this can become the epicenter of health and wellness, a hub of activity for an entire community.”

In addition to the golf, The Yards will have a state-of-the-art pickle ball facility starting with twelve courts. A new grill with an outdoor patio as an adjunct to the Three Palms restaurant that’s in there now and they’ve even planned a spot for weddings under the oaks and alongside the lake.

“That’s exactly what we’re looking for,” Miles said with a smile. “We’ll have members but we’ll be open to the public. We’ll make it affordable. We want people to come out and enjoy themselves. There’s no better place to do this than right here.”

Sam Kouvaris

We’ll Get Through This

We’ve been at this a while, you and me. About forty years actually. Mostly we’ve talked about sports, but you even embraced me when they asked me to anchor the news on television for a few years. Some of you laughed, and even said you were inspired when I used to do those silly pep talks on the radio.

So let’s talk about what’s going on. Right here, right now.

They cancelled The Players. Nobody liked that. I’m not a fan-boy for the PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan but he did the right things at the right time this week. Anybody critical of the decisions Monahan made isn’t paying attention. He made the calls about what to do in real time, and at each step did the right thing.

Monahan was talking about golf, but he was spot on about all sports when he said games “unify and inspire us.”

That doesn’t mean I like any of it. Or that I haven’t missed it.

I’ve missed seeing Rory play the weekend and try to defend his title. Like a lot of you, I like it when Rory plays well. He’s authentic, honest and without pretense when it comes to being a superstar on the world stage. He also has the swing I’d love to have, just once.

But mostly I’ve missed talking to Ferdinand, one of the security guards near the clubhouse. I only see him a few times a year, sometimes at Jaguars games, but every year at The Players. We don’t talk about much, but each time I see him, it brightens my day.

I’ve missed the small talk with the guys who volunteer behind the reception desk at the media center. I never see them outside of this week, but It’s a nice feeling to walk in there, talk about the long hours, who’s playing well, the weather, whatever comes to mind.

I’ve missed talking with John the ticket taker and Bekka, the bartender at the Greenside Lounge. Neither is from here, but they make the trip to North Florida every year to work The Players from points west and north. Neither will make the money they were counting on this week before they headed home. But both promised they’d be back next year.

And I’ve missed the time I usually spend with the former Chairmen of The Players, Buster Browning, Mike Hartley, Anne Nimnicht, Lynn Stoner and others. Just hanging out, talking about past Players and the tournament’s bright future. And I’ve missed the chats I have every year with the volunteers around the back of the 9th green.

So I’m sure you’ve missed some of the same things. The cocktails you’ve had with the same friends overlooking 17 year after year. Watching players trying to make birdie on number two, marveling at their short game. Or watching them bomb it off the 16th tee knowing an eagle could be waiting ahead.

And you know what? That’ll all come back. That’ll be there next year, and we’ll look back and marvel at how we came together and got through this tough time.

Because that’s what we do.

Not just as sports fans but as American’s and especially as people who live here in North Florida and South Georgia. We’re used to being picked on, overcoming adversity and getting things done. It’s nothing new to us.

We lean on our families, our friends and each other to get through things. I’ve seen it time and time again in our time together. Sometimes it’s when bad weather hits, other times its when we’re counted out of some competition, only to surprise everybody else.

So this is no different. The coronavirus will, we’re told, get worse before it gets better. But it will get better. We have the best minds in the world working on a solution. Politics shouldn’t have a role in this and we already know one thing: The person sitting at your kitchen table has a lot more to do with how you’re doing than some politician sitting behind a desk in Washington.

There won’t be any sports on television or live in arenas we can attend for a month, maybe longer. That’s inconvenient, and also a little weird. No March Madness? No Masters to signal the beginning of spring? No Spring Training games? It won’t be snowing anywhere on Opening Day if they start the baseball season in late April!

But all of that will be ok. We’ve got a bigger purpose that we’re working on right now. Sports have always been part of the fabric of our lives, but they don’t define us. You spend your money on cable or streaming to watch your favorite teams. Or you plunk down plenty of cash to cheer your club in person. You choose to do those things. You don’t have to do those things. You, hopefully for the short term, have more important things to do.

Like taking care of yourself and your family. Helping your neighbors. Washing your hands and doing all of the other recommended things to keep the coronavirus at bay.

I like what Tom Hanks said from quarantine with his wife in Australia after contracting the virus:

“Remember, despite all the current events, there is no crying in baseball.”

So there’s not a game on the TV in the background while you’re eating dinner? Use that time to talk with your spouse and your kids. Get closer to them. Go for a walk. I’d say go to a park but Mayor Lenny Curry closed all of the public parks. He didn’t think that one through. We know to practice “social distancing.” We can go to a park without being on top of one another.

Practice your guitar. Help your kids with a project they’re working on. Fix that fence in the backyard you’ve been avoiding. Or my favorite: Go out and play some catch.

Maybe say a prayer for safety and gratitude.

Be smart. Follow the best practices for staying healthy. Hug your family.

Perhaps the highest compliment I’ve ever gotten was at the summit of a grueling climb on my bicycle in Europe. One of the wives of my fellow cyclists, she reminded me several times she was German, was there at the top when I arrived, last in the group.

“I told them you’d finish,” she said. “I told them ‘He’s an American. American’s finish.”

And she was right. We’ll finish this. Together.

On The World Stage, THE PLAYERS Is Still Ours

This would seem to be a week all about golf here in North Florida. With The Players being contested at PGA Tour’s Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra, the best players in the world will be playing for the largest prize money total in golf, $15 million, with $2.7 million going to the winner.

This week involves a golf tournament. Most of the people who will go to the tournament, volunteer, or watch it on TV play golf. All of them know a lot about golf. But this week is not only all about golf.

You could call it the continuation of a love story.

Although the PGA Tour uses The Players as its signature event, The Players is still, on many levels, the Greater Jacksonville Open. Watching the golf on TV, there will be a few mentions of Jacksonville, but the focus will be, and rightly so, on the competition inside the ropes. But if you’re at the tournament, you can watch some golf, but the stories outside the ropes are more about community, giving, family, fellowship and charity.

Through years of promotion, the PGA Tour has successfully brought the tournament to the national and international stage. This year, fans outside of the local six county area will purchase more than fifty percent of the tickets sold for the week. For a while, the Tour disassociated The Players with the local fans, trying to make it a destination for golf fans from around the country and around the world. While a laudable goal, they realized that their ties with North Florida couldn’t be discounted or replaced. In the last few years, they’ve repaired their bond with North Florida. If half of the fans are from somewhere else, that means half of them are from here.

How else would an idea of bringing Arnold Palmer to town for a golf tournament that was an adjunct to a football game in the mid-1960’s lead to over $100 million donated to local charities in the next 60 years?

Most of the more than two thousand volunteers are from here. The idea of getting people together to volunteer and help run the golf tournament started here. The fact that the PGA Tour operates events to benefit charity has part of that idea rooted in the $19,000 the original GJO donated to the Junior League and their charities in 1965.

Golf brings people together.

In Jacksonville, golf brought the whole community together.

Wesley Paxson asked John Tucker, his regular golf partner at San Jose, to see if he couldn’t get a big name player for the Gator Bowl Pro-Am to raise the profile of the annual tournament. Paxson was going to be the President of the Gator Bowl and asked Tucker, only because John had free long distance calling as the District Manager of the phone company. That was a big deal at the time.

Through a series of events, and long-distance phone calls, Tucker secured a full-fledged professional golf event with an unheard-of $50,000 guaranteed prize money.

They didn’t have the money, a golf course or any idea of how to run a golf tournament.

Not a problem. They had friends.

Meeting at Silver’s Drug Store in Jacksonville Beach, Paxson, Tucker and a few friends asked a few more of their friends to get involved. They asked the Times-Union to put up the $50,000. Their friends donated everything, from courtesy cars, to rope to steel poles. They amassed a cadre of volunteers and the Greater Jacksonville Open, with a sense of community ownership, was born at Selva Marina.

Those things aren’t all supposed to happen together. But they did. If it seems like luck, the success of the GJO and now THE PLAYERS follow all of the notions about good fortune: The harder you work, the luckier you get. Add one more idea to that: love what you do and the people you’re doing it with.

With foresight unknown even to them, the GJO leadership invited everybody to get involved. They invited groups from Hidden Hills, Deerwood, Timiquana, and Ponte Vedra and all over the city.

Golf might have connected all of these people but it was a sense of community, a sense of ownership and fellowship that brought them all together. New chairmen brought new friends and new ideas. No turf guarding, no agendas except to get better every year.

The Swinger’s Tent was born. The hospitality tents grew. The gallery swelled. From $19,000 in the first year, money raised for charities in North Florida multiplied each spring.

The committees, the volunteers and eventually the Honorable Company of Redcoats, the leaders of the volunteer force, came to define what made this community special.

It became THE event of the year where the community came together to have some fun and raise money for charity.

And the PGA TOUR noticed.

Then-Commissioner Deane Beman took notice of the growing volunteer force, the interest in the tournament and the players enthusiasm for coming here and saw the perfect spot to grow the game of professional golf.

And again, the community, and not just the golf community, in Jacksonville and all over North Florida responded.

From a local event, Jacksonville’s community golf tournament cascaded into the Tournament Players Championship, the Senior TPC and eventually The PLAYERS, the signature event of the PGA TOUR. All thanks to the time, energy and commitment from the volunteers and their leadership. The sense of community and ownership of the tournament was unmatched anywhere else.

The Stadium Course was built. Beman, architect Pete Dye and champion Jerry Pate ended up in the water.
A sleepy stretch of beach called Ponte Vedra, framed by Butler Boulevard to the north and Sawgrass Country Club to the south, was transformed into a vibrant, growing community.

Want to know what Jacksonville and North Florida are about? Spend some time with the volunteers at THE PLAYERS. Listen to the Redcoats, who can recount, in detail, their years leading the tournament. They mostly talk about the other volunteers who make this all possible.

It’s best defined by the first Redcoat, John Tucker who called THE PLAYERS “a ‘WE’ undertaking.”

It’s a love story.

Author’s Note: This column, in large part, is contained in the foreword to the book “The Honorable Company of Past Chairmen” a look at each year of the GJO and The PLAYERS through the eyes of each of the leaders of the volunteers of the tournament, published by Hartley Press. It will be available in the volunteer areas of THE PLAYERS this week for $40 and at Redcoatfoundation.org. All proceeds will go to the Redcoats Foundation and their various local charities.

Stats Can Make You Better

Each September my brother Gust invites me to play in the fall Member-Guest golf tournament at his club in Detroit. It usually happens near the middle of the month and I’ve always been amused at the conversations we have with our competitors.

It’s one of their final tournaments of the year so much of the banter is about the hockey and bowling leagues that are forming that week. They’re lacing up their skates on Sunday following the final round to get ready for the winter season. Their golf clubs are going in the deep freeze for the cold weather.

Here, we’re on the opposite schedule. It might be the middle of the NFL and the College Football seasons, but most local golfers are also working on their golf games to enjoy the weather over the next nine to ten months

With a six to eight month golf season up north, ours can be year around, especially if you’re willing to play in the heat of July, August and September. They don’t have that option in the snow and cold of much of October through April.

My brother recently won the Senior Championship at his club. So how has he maintained his near scratch status when he has to quit playing half the year because of weather?

These days it’s simple. Technology has allowed us to take the game indoors to small spaces. Players up north can keep their games sharp through data and information.

Two companies, FlightScope and TRACKMAN have developed computer generated data that analyzes your swing, equipment and shot selection and can make you a better player.

“People love the technology,” says former professional golfer John Schroeder who’s the owner and an instructor/fitter at MasterFit Golf in Orange Park. “It makes it so easy for people to understand why the ball flies the way it does.”

Schroeder and MasterFit have been in business for 25 years both on Phillips Highway and in Orange Park. But nothing has accelerated his ability to do his job like the technology explosion. MasterFit was an early adopter of Flight Scope. Fifteen years ago they were the first practice range to have the technology in the state of Florida and have partnered with them ever since.
“There’s a fine line between the artistry of golf and the advancements in technology,” Sea Island Golf Performance Center Manger Craig Allan said from his teaching and fitting spot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. “We walk very carefully along that fence.”

Sea Island and Allan use TRACKMAN technology developed by a Dutch company that’s been in the swing data business from the beginning.
It used to be that an instructor told you to “keep your head down,” or “get to your left side.” With the modern technology how the equipment performs is part of the equations. Spin rates and launch angles are a big part of the conversation when it comes to the equipment they choose.
“I can push a player toward game improvement technology in clubs but the player has to like the club they’re looking at on good days and bad,” Allan explained.
“We can look at 28 different parameters of your swing and ball flight,” Schroeder, who played college golf at UNF, added. “Ball, flight and swing parameters. Launch, landing, smash factor, spin rate swing speed, angle of attack, club path, face to path they all are invaluable from a teaching standpoint.”

Instruction has come a long way even from the time when a video camera and a radar gun seemed advanced. While the technology can help instructors improve your golf game, it can also match your game with the right equipment.

“We’re building a shaft that matches your swing speed,” Schroeder said. “You want to get your driver from 50 feet to 80 feet in the air? We can measure the data, we know what different shafts can do so we match those two things up.”

With over 40,000 shafts to choose from onsite at their 8,000 square foot facility on Wells Road, Schroeder says the data from FlightScope and watching your swing allows him to improve your game almost instantly.

“We’re looking at launch, spin and landing angle when it comes to optimizing your ball flight. FlightScope measures the shaft how it’s loading and unloading. That helps me build a shaft for you.”

With the right equipment in your hands, you can be a better player. It also allows instructors to develop your game the way you play it.

“Much easier,” Schroeder said when asked if his job as an instructor has gotten easier or more complicated.

“We’re not going to focus on all 28 data points. We’ll focus on one or two and when people see that, they can understand it much easier. ‘Why did I slice it 30 yards to the right?’ It shows your clubface was 13 degrees open at impact. And that’s easy to understand.”
Allan said he and tries not to rely just on the equipment to make better players. The combination of the “hands-on” traditional instruction combined with the technology takes learning the game to a new level with the right equipment.
“Some great players have gotten away from the artistry of the game and relying on technology,” Allan said about the blend he tries to use in his work. “But it’ll always remain a game that relies on feel and athleticism. We’re just trying to enhance that.”

At 36 Vince Covello is Finally a Rookie

This week the PGA Tour season ends in Atlanta with the Tour Championship at East Lake. The payout this week is $45 million. That’s not a typo. The 30 players who made it to Atlanta will split $45 million with $15 million going to the winner. The eighth place finisher takes home $1.1 million. Finish last and you still get about $800,000. And that’s just part of the $70 million that made up the FedEx Cup winnings on Tour this year.

That’s why getting to the PGA Tour is a giant step for any professional golfer’s career. And that’s why Vince Covello’s story is so compelling.

Covello is 36 years old and has lived in North Florida for almost 20 years. He’s a Philadelphia native but after his family vacationed here a few times and came to watch The Players at TPC, they moved here. Vince was graduated from Nease High School in 2001 and went to UNF to play golf. He turned pro in 2004 and has been trying to make it to the PGA Tour ever since.

And this year, after 15 years of trying, he made it. He credits some of his Philadelphia upbringing for him being able to hang in there and keep trying.

“Being from there had a lot to do with my success,” he explained. “It’s a hard working town, people are hustling, trying to find a way to get it done. People don’t take no for an answer”

How big is it to get on the PGA Tour? Vince won once on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour this year and won about $165,000 playing 19 events. Justin Thomas also played 19 events on the PGA Tour this year and won once as well. He won just over $5 million.

In his profile of Covello after Vince’s win in March on the Web.com Tour in Louisiana, Times-Union golf writer Gary Smits compared him to Rocky or the NFL Eagles’ Vince Papale and even the 1985 Villanova basketball team. And he fits that mold: all underdogs who became champions.

“I never stopped smiling,” Covello said of August 11th, the day he got his card at Pumpkin Ridge in Portland. “It’s an elite list of guys 25 of the 180 or so who played the tour this year. I couldn’t get enough of it.”

He admitted it was a bit of a surreal experience to finally achieve his goal. Playing all over the world, gaining experience and trying to make some money as a professional golfer included stops in Australia, Chile, Mexico, Scotland, Austria, Turkey and Argentina among others.

You need to be resilient to continue that quest through the years and all of those stops, but Covello says there’s a bit of an art form to it as well.

“That’s always the battle,” he noted as he prepared for this week’s Korn Ferry Tour Championship at Victoria National in Indiana.

“It’s not the most lucrative business until you get to watch us on TV. It’s an art in itself just staying out there. Just knowing how to get around, save your money. Guys run out of cash and backing who can really play. You have to be fiscally aware. That’s an art in itself.”

Between 2012 and 2013 Vince went from missing getting his PGA Tour card by a shot at qualifying school (“I missed a putt on the last hole.”) to losing his status at 30 years old and had no place to play.

“It was a crushing moment. I went back to Monday qualifiers and played in Canada,” he explained. “It’s a downgrade in your life. It’s a tough walk. There are 300 guys trying to shoot 65 on Monday’s to play on the Korn Ferry Tour.”

Winning in March brought some new pressures that Covello didn’t fully expect. Some of it from inside his own head.

“There was more attention that I wasn’t used to,” he said as a first time winner. “I was the 4th ranked player out there for a minute. I knew my game was in a good spot but sometimes that makes it harder. You do things out of your comfort zone.”

After playing well the week after his win, he missed three straight cuts. That’s when he brought his coach and mentor, former PGA Tour player Anders Forsbrand, out on tour to caddy for him to see what was happening.

“It’s been my biggest help, working with him,” he said. “Almost a father figure since my dad passed away in 2009. “The golf knowledge of course, but also the mentoring. Especially since he’s walked that journey. He’s been able to talk about how to get from playing bad to playing better.”

After this week, Covello will be “zippered in” with the top 25 finishers at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship giving him status at minimum inside the top 175 players eligible to compete on the PGA Tour. He’s studied the schedule and expects to get into around 16 Tour stops with his status. The rest will depend on how he plays.

“The rookies get reshuffled every five weeks,” he said. “So there’s no time to slack off. You need to come out ready to play.”

Even though he’ll turn 37 this November, Covello isn’t the oldest rookie in his graduating class. Scott Harrington is 38 years old, a Portland native and played well in his hometown at the year’s final event to earn his card. Still, rookies are rookies in any sport.

“One piece of advice I was given,” Vince said with a laugh. “Don’t let the other guys in the field know your hotel room number if you’re staying at the resort. Guys will charge stuff to the rookies.”

Knowing how to travel, practice and rest are things Covello says he figured out early in his well-traveled career. But he says he’s learned a few things on the course about himself in just the past few seasons.

“The last few years I figured out how to keep a job,” he said. “I’ve learned you can keep the stress off, play freer. You have to figure out how to move forward past your good and bad moments. How to hit your best shot as your next shot.”

Covello has now been on both sides of that ceremony at the end of the regular season. While a few tears were shed with those close to him who helped him achieve his goal, it was mostly joy he felt standing on that green with his PGA Tour card.

“I’ve been on that green watching my friends graduating in the past,” he explained. “I told my self I wanted to be that guy toasting champagne. I never put my little card down. I walked around with it one hand in front of my chest and a glass of champagne in the other.”

“I’m looking forward to getting my feet wet,” Covello said. “But golf is still golf. We’re all trying to hit it down the middle and on the green and make a birdie putt.”

Here’s hoping he makes plenty of those.

World Golf Hall of Fame

This week the World Golf Hall of Fame will welcome five new members of the Class of 2019. In now what has become a bi-annual event, Peggy Kirk Bell, Jan Stephenson, Billy Payne, Retief Goosen and Dennis Walters will be inducted at Pebble Beach, site of this year’s U.S. Open. While they’ll be inducted in California, they’ll be enshrined at the World Golf Village just outside of St. Augustine.

The enshrinement ceremony used to take place at the Hall of Fame, similar to what other sports do in Canton, Springfield, Toronto and Cooperstown. But that’s never worked in St. Augustine. Despite convenient transportation from Ponte Vedra during The Players Championship, current competitors didn’t show up. So they took the induction ceremony on the road, coinciding with major golf events in St. Andrews and New York. But still, the current players didn’t attend.

Why the apathy toward the Hall? It’s concerning when looking at the bigger picture for the future of the Hall of Fame. The PGA Tour supports it here in North Florida. But the other organizations have their own things going on. The PGA of America is moving to Frisco, Texas. The USGA’s Golf House in New Jersey has its own exhibits. And the R&A in St. Andrews has their iconic clubhouse behind the first tee at the Old Course that has its own historical significance.

When the WGHOF was first proposed and built it was heralded as a destination on par with Cooperstown and Canton. There was already a Golf Hall of Fame at Pinehurst but this was going to supersede all other efforts. The project had a rocky beginning switching locations from Durbin Creek to St. Johns County when then-Commissioner Deane Beman had a dispute with Duval County.

Two significant golf courses, the Slammer and Squire and the King and the Bear, were supposed to help fill the Renaissance Hotel and the St. Johns County Convention Center. The IMAX theater is one of the best anywhere and was an adjunct to the retail space built around it. Bill Murray and his brothers opened their first restaurant on site to bring a certain cache and celebrity touch to the whole property.

The place is full of great ideas, beautiful buildings and wonderful infrastructure. What it’s not full of is people.

Nobody can quite put their finger on why it hasn’t taken off. Promotion, local support, player apathy have all been targeted, but despite all that’s been put into it, it just hasn’t happened.

Not for a lack of trying. Concerts, fireworks and special exhibits are all part of the World Golf Village’s history. Where else would you get a chance to see the six-iron Alan Shephard hit on the moon?

No matter what the future holds for the Hall in St. Augustine, those enshrined and this year’s class will have golfing immortality.

A charter member of the LPGA, Peggy Kirk Bell was a great advocate for women’s golf and a celebrated teacher. She’s the only member of the class to be inducted posthumously.

The four living members visited the Hall together this year and shared stories about their history in the game.

Dennis Walters had a promising golf career in front of him before he was paralyzed in a cart accident. Undeterred and motivated by his father, Walters became one of the premier attractions at golf clinics, performing from a specially made chair attached to a cart, with his father teeing up what he estimates was over a million golf balls.

“I always say it’s great golf and bad jokes,” Walters said of his shows. “I’ve traveled over three million miles telling people ‘Do something in this life.’”

I was asked to host several of Walter’s exhibitions at the TPC at Sawgrass when it first opened in the ‘80’s. When we talked after the announcement of his selection to the 2019 class, I mentioned that I often thought of him while playing golf since we met.

“How so?” he asked.

“I always refer to the thing you told me once about how you hit that squiggly club so well. You said, ‘You have to wait’ and I think about that when I’m trying to slow down.”

“I’ve done over 3,000 exhibitions,” Walters said with a smile. “And a friend once told me, ‘You never know who you leave in your wake.’ And he was right.”

Jan Stephenson said she was truly shocked when she got the call.

“I thought my time had passed,” she said.

Often remembered because of her looks (she once posed in a bathtub full of golf balls) Stephenson was a stylish and successful player. She won three majors and 16 times on the LPGA Tour. Her winning totals, like anybody in her era, were overshadowed by Nancy Lopez.

“I was tied with Nancy going into the final round of a tournament,” she said as she recalled facing Lopez on the course.

“She was hitting it all over the place on the range. My dad happened to be caddying for me and he said, ‘She can’t hit it at all, you’ll win easily.’ I knew better.”

On the first tee, Stephenson ripped a drive down the middle while Lopez smothered it into the left rough.

“She gouges three wood out to the front of the green while I hit five iron to ten feet. She rolls it up as a tap in and I miss for birdie. On the second hole, I stripe it down the middle, she knocks it in the rough again, muscles it onto the green and makes a 30-footer for birdie. I miss again from ten feet and I’m down by one. I’m hitting it great and I’m losing! That was the greatness of Nancy, she always thought her next shot would be her best. If I started like that, I’d have shot 85!”

Lopez went on to win the tournament by a shot over Stephenson. Perhaps it’s fitting that Nancy is the one who called Jan to tell her of her Hall of Fame selection.

Famously struck by lightning as a kid, Retief Goosen was known as expressionless and placid on the golf course. “He’s very quiet. I mean mentally,” Johnny Miller once said of Goosen.

But that wasn’t always the case.

The two-time U.S. Open winner said he had a “terrible temper” early on in his career. “It was holding me back, I’d hang on to bad shots and bad rounds.”

Goosen credits seeking help from sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout for changing his demeanor.

“Without that, I don’t win,” he said.

After bringing the Olympics to Atlanta, Billy Payne’s stint as the Chairman of Augusta National moved the Masters to the forefront on many levels. He ushered in the first women members at Augusta, pushed television and digital platforms to the cutting edge, help start the Latin American and Asia-Pacific Amateur Championships, partnered in starting the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship and opened the new Press Building and practice area at Augusta.

“From my first day, the members let it be known that our number one responsibility was to grown the game,” Payne said of the focus of his chairmanship.

At the Masters the price of food and drink on the golf course has held firm forever. “Affordable value” is the term most associated with buying a pimento cheese sandwich for $1.25.

“Hootie Johnson (his predecessor at Chairman) told me ‘You’ll be judged on how much you lose on concessions.’ And he was right.”

“We want to lead, but not lead alone,” he said of Augusta’s partnerships with golf’s other organizing bodies. “We needed to be the best. If there was a choice between good and great, we chose great.”

The adaptability he showed as Chairman was forged by his football career at Georgia.

“I went to one of those all-star games in the state and they had four quarterbacks,” Payne recalled. “The coach said ‘Only one of you can play quarterback, who wants to play somewhere else?’ I raised my hand and said I’d play anywhere.”

So at Georgia he played split end with some success until Vince Dooley talked with him after his junior year.

“Coach Dooley said to me ‘Billy, you know we have so and so coming up to the varsity next year and he’s better than you’,” Payne said with a big laugh. “So if you want to play, you’ll have to change positions.’”

“I said I’d play anywhere, so they put me on defense and everybody thinks I went to Georgia to play defensive end!”

Payne was All-SEC at that position in 1968.

While joking that he’s the “worst player” among the Class of 2019, Payne also spoke for the class when he talked about the game’s impact on his life.

“If I have 10,000 friends, 9,999 of them play golf,” he told the crowd at the World Golf Hall of Fame during a question and answer period. “That’s the kind of impact the game can have.”

Shoot Your Age 500 Times Former Cubs Manager Jim Frey Did That This Week

You never know who you might run into on the golf course. A few years ago I saw Jim Frey headed to the first tee at Marsh Landing. Sports fans know Jim as the manager of the Chicago Cubs in the mid-‘80’s. The Cubs were broadcast every day on WGN “Channel 9” on the cable out of Chicago. Same as the Braves were on the “Superstation WTBS” from Atlanta. The Cubs were a national team. Harry Cary was doing the play-by-play, drinking Budweiser in the left-field bleachers; Jim Frey was running the team from the dugout.

Growing up in Baltimore, I knew Jim from his fifteen year stint with the Orioles as a scout, coach, and the guy who was coaching first base or sitting next to Earl Weaver on the bench in their heyday of the 1970’s. That stint is part of a more than four decades career in baseball as a player, scout, coach, manager and general manager. So we’ve had a lot to talk about.

It’s not unusual to hear about professional athletes in other sports playing golf at a high level. Michael Jordan’s money matches are legendary. Steph Curry’s play at the Web.com event last year turned some heads. John Smoltz, Tony Romo and countless others have game.

The same can be said for Jim Frey. This week, the week of his 88th birthday, Frey shot “his age” carding an 80 at Marsh Landing.

It’s the 500th time he’s done that.

A baseball man through and through, the golfer they call “Coach” at Marsh Landing is used to keeping track of a game based on numbers and statistics, Frey has documented the 500 different times he’s shot his age, from the first time when he was 72 at Cave’s Valley in Baltimore to this week at Marsh Landing.

And it’s amazing he’s even still playing. Just last year Frey, who moved here in 2008 to be closer to his daughter, had a health scare that included chemo, radiation and double pneumonia. So serious that at one point, as he puts it, “I thought the party was over.”

Once with a handicap as low as six, Frey has never relied on length rather using accuracy to get the ball in the hole. “I’ve always hit it straight,” he said remembering golf games with Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer who consistently outdrove him. But much like his plus-.300 batting average in his 14-year minor league career (two of those in the South Atlantic League here in Jacksonville), Frey’s golf game relies on his hand-eye coordination and his ability to think through the game.

When his playing career was over, Frey served as a scout and a coach before managing in Kansas City and Chicago. He took the Royals to the World Series in 1980 after winning 97 games in the regular season, losing to the Phillies in six games.

In his first season as the Cubs manager, they won 96 games to win the division and held a 2-0 lead over the Padres for the National League Pennant. But San Diego won the last three behind Steve Garvey to go to the World Series.

Baseball is a game built on failure. Get a hit three out of ten times and they put you in the Hall of Fame. As fans, the ups and downs stick with us. But when you’re in it Frey says, the downs really sting.

“You get your heart broken in baseball,” he said as he recalled a few of the near misses. “We got to the 7th game of the World Series in Baltimore in ’79 and Willie Stargell beat us with a home run.”

“I still lay in bed at night and think about games in 1991 that didn’t go so well,” he said of his final year as GM of the Cubs.

Maybe that prepared him for the ups and downs on the golf course. He had a chance to shoot his age they day before he did it for the first time fifteen years ago.

“I didn’t tell anybody, but when we got to the 18th that day at Caves, a pretty strong par four up the hill, I had a 7-footer to shoot 72. And I missed it. The next day, I had a six-footer for 72 and I stepped away and told the guys I was playing with what was going on adding, ‘I’m making this putt!’ he said with a huge laugh. And he did.

Shooting your age is a big deal in golf. I’m sure Chris Kappas at Sawgrass did it all the time. John Tucker and Wesley Paxon notched that with regularity.

But 500 times?

“I played a lot of golf after I retired down in Estero in the winters and in Baltimore in the summers. When we moved here in 2008 I was still playing three, four times a week.”

Knowing Jim, it’s no surprise that friendship and relationships are at the core of the two games he’s been involved in his whole life.

He was the young scout in the Midwest who alerted the Orioles that the Reds were willing to trade Frank Robinson. It’s considered one of the greatest heists in Major League history.

“I had breakfast with and old scout from Cincinnati and he said, “I just came from a meeting and they want to trade Frank Robinson!’ I went to the phone and called Baltimore. I had just started scouting for the Orioles. I talked to my boss, and they brought me home.”

He met with the Orioles brass including Lee McPhail, Harry Dalton and Manager Hank Bauer.

“How good to you think Frank Robinson is?” Frey was asked. “A better offensive player than Brooks?” He didn’t hesitate, ‘”Yes I do.”

And shortly thereafter the Orioles traded pitcher Milt Pappas to the Reds and got Robinson who won the MVP, the Triple Crown and helped Baltimore win the World Series over the Dodgers in four straight in 1966.

“All of the sudden, I’m not a little scout in the Midwest,” Frey said with a chuckle.

Frey hedges a bit when asked who the best player he ever worked with was, but admitted, “When I was with Baltimore, Frank Robinson was clearly the best player. He never quite got his due. He was the best player for nearly 20 years.”

That trust, camaraderie, friendships and the relationships he found in baseball are the things Frey says are important to him now in his golf game.

“I belonged to three or four other clubs before I came to Jacksonville. I joined Marsh Landing and I’ve appreciated the membership there, they’ve really embraced me. The group of guys I play with there has been a lot of fun. At this point in my life I’m appreciative of how they’ve taken me in.”

Hey Jim, that was the easy part.

Tiger Misses Cut, Still Wins

Yes I said Tiger wouldn’t win again and reiterated that he certainly wouldn’t win a Major for the rest of his career. In the crow-eating category, several of my friends charitable endeavors were bolstered out of my bank account thanks to Tiger winning last year in Atlanta and again at Augusta. I joked with them, being completely facetious, that it was nice that he was able to play in those “small field, invitation only events.” Because he showed something I didn’t think he could summon ever again at that level at the Masters.

But my previous prediction was based on knowing only the “old” Tiger. The sullen, distant, arrogant, phenomenally, dominating Tiger. For as much as his swing changes, injuries, surgeries and personal life have been dissected and analyzed, it’s his transformation of personality that’s most impressive.

Even after missing the cut at this week’s PGA Championship at Bethpage, Tiger stopped off to talk with the media about his play over the first few days. “I just didn’t play well,” he explained with a smile. Even talking to the media after missing a cut was a rarity in the past. And he admitted players like Brooks Koepka, and Koepka in particular have an advantage over him these days.

“Relative to the field, yes,” Tiger said when asked if he had the same distance advantage when he was in his heyday. “He’s (Koepka) hitting nine-iron when the rest of us are hitting five-iron,” Tiger said, sounding just like everybody talking about competing with him fifteen years ago. “And when he misses, he misses in the right spots where he can still get it on the green.”

You can think, as some purists do, that that’s the problem with golf these days, but no one is more the cause of that than Tiger Woods. He brought athleticism to the game that very few players, Arnold Palmer and Greg Norman come to mind, brought to the professional ranks in the past.

And with payouts and winners checks increasing ten-fold, thanks to Tiger’s popularity and huge television contracts, great athletes that might have chosen other sports are choosing golf. If you met Brooks Koepka and didn’t know who he was and he said he played middle linebacker for the Jaguars, you’d believe him.

Tiger’s been famous since he can remember. His dad had him on the Mike Douglas Show when he was three years old. He played in the LA Open as a 14-year old. So he’s always been the center of attention but has been able to block out the noise and imagine and execute under circumstances where most people couldn’t even take it back.

His well-documented fall from grace in his personal life didn’t take a toll on his psyche on the golf course. He can compartmentalize and distill what’s important and what’s not when he steps between the ropes. The only difference now seems to be the gum chewing. “It curbs my appetite,” he explained.

Thus, 14 Major wins before this year’s Masters for the “old” Tiger. Going into the final round at Augusta this year though he said some things that were very much unlike the old Tiger. He talked about plodding around the course and “hanging in there.” And the way he won was classically “Nicklausonian.” Jack Nicklaus stayed around the leaders and when they would make a mistake, he wouldn’t be overly aggressive, but rather make the smart play to move, and stay, atop the leaderboard. This week, Koepka outlined the 35 or so players in the field of 156 at Bethpage he’d have to beat to win. Nicklaus said many times majors were in some way the easiest to win because so many guys played themselves out of contention.

When the other two guys in his group on Sunday at Augusta hit it in the water at the par three 12th, Tiger aimed over the bunker and hit it in the middle of the green. The only “old” Tiger move was when he walked over the Hogan Bridge to mark his ball and stand and watch while Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau walked over to the drop area. Woods stood on the back of the green with his arms folded, hammering home the idea “I’m here and your not.”

Woods made the expected birdies at 13 and 15 in the final round at the Masters, sandwiched around at par at 14. And the birdie at 16 was similar to what Nicklaus did in 1986. When he hit the shot, his son Jackie, caddying for him said, “Be the right club.” Jack picked up his tee while the ball was in the air (his eyesight was not good enough to follow the ball) and said, “It is.” Tiger watched the ball ‘till it stopped, mouthing “Come on” knowing he hit it just like he wanted. For comparison, Jack hit six iron, Tiger hit eight iron.

I ran into Tiger after a practice session recently away from the PGA Tour and any network coverage.

“Two ball, worst ball,” he said when asked what he was up to. His practice session consisted of playing three holes, hitting two shots from the tee, then picking the worst of the two, hitting two shots from there and repeating the process until the ball goes in the hole.

How’d he do? “Three birdies,” he said with an honest laugh.

We all know people who can have singular focus and get things done we couldn’t imagine. I had a cousin like that. He could lock himself in a room and study and study for hours on end. He was singularly focused on knowing the most he could. He had great grades. One of those guys who studied enough to get 1600 on the SAT’s.

While I still don’t think Tiger will win another Major, I’m impressed with what he’s done in this stage of his career and life. It’ll serve him well no matter how he hits a golf ball.

The Masters is Emotional

They played early at Augusta National in yesterday’s final round of The Masters because of weather.  But it didn’t make a difference. Early or late, it’s the same.

Because this is The Masters.

It was a leaderboard fitting of The Masters with Major Champions trying to add to their collection and others trying to make the Green Jacket their first Major Championship trophy. Brooks Koepka was looking for his fourth Major in the last two years and Francesco Molinari was playing well enough to add to his Open Championship win of 2018.  Tiger Woods was in position to win his 15th Major and his fifth Masters.

And that’s what happened.  Tiger outlasted the competition, played steady when others faltered and stood on the 18th green as The Masters Champion for a fifth time.

There was pure emotion coming from Tiger as he dropped the final putt to win by a shot.  From not knowing if he’d play golf again just 18 months ago, Woods completed an improbable comeback and said later he didn’t know what he did as the last putt dropped.  He just let it all out.  The emotions of the week and the last two years.

And The Masters is all about emotion.

Before the traditional Green Jacket ceremony in the Butler Cabin at Augusta National today, CBS ran a montage of players over the years reacting to a question about winning the Masters. The response is universal, a long exhale with a faraway look in their eyes. It’s enormous from a golf standpoint. A major championship, endorsements and a signature win.

“I never allowed myself to dream this big,” Bubba Watson said, choking back tears.

“It’s a week not like any other week,” Andy North a two-time US Open winner told me last Wednesday.

Winning the U.S. Open is an achievement. Much is made of the qualifying process and the USGA’s protection of “par.”  You’re the best player in America as the U.S. Open champion.

At The (British) Open Championship, they declare you the “Champion Golfer of the Year” and from an international standpoint, no title is more recognized. You beat all-comers.

The PGA is an accomplishment, winning among your peers, almost a throwback to the days when not every best player turned pro and played what became the PGA Tour.

But this is the Masters. And it’s different, it’s emotional.

It’s the only major that’s played on the same golf course every year. In fact, it might be the only significant sporting event that uses the same venue annually. The World Cup travels, so does the Super Bowl. The Daytona 500 is always at Daytona, obviously, but it’s stature and appeal outside of NASCAR fans is limited.

In the few minutes after sealing his victory, Tiger hugged his caddie, Joe Lacava, shook hands with his fellow competitors and caddies on the green and then went through a series of long, emotional hugs with his children, his mother, his girlfriend and other close associates.

It’s the kind of scene only found at the Masters.

When the Augusta Invitational started in 1934, it was an idea that Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones had to bring together the best players just as the weather began to break in northern Georgia. Writers traveling from baseball spring training in Florida would find it convenient to stop off in Augusta to cover the golf. Editors in the northeast weren’t put off by the stopover, as there was limited extra expense.

Horton Smith’s win in ’34 wasn’t overly celebrated. But as is widely know, Roberts and Jones understood that putting on a golf tournament and having people know about your tournament were two different things. Through the reporting of the iconic sportswriters of the time the Augusta Invitational became The Masters.

Employees of what is now CSX in Jacksonville stood on Washington Road in Augusta outside of “The National” selling tickets.  They operated the Butler Cabln as a hospitality venue for years.

Herbert Warren Wind dubbed the 11th, 12th and 13th at Augusta “Amen Corner” after a blues tune he knew from the ’30’s. Gene Sarazen’s double-eagle gave some mystery and verve to the tournament as eyewitness accounts were reported breathlessly by the major newspapers of the era. Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead playing and winning showed it was important.

But it wasn’t until Arnold Palmer showed up and started winning did it get emotional. That’s how Palmer played and he transferred that emotion to Augusta National and the Masters.

Although he won four times, it’s the near misses that are as easily remembered in Palmer’s career at Augusta and the emotion those evoked. As television emerged as a vehicle to bring golf to the masses, TV executives like Frank Chirkinian of CBS knew Arnold was telegenic and projected that emotion right through the screen and into our living rooms. (By the way, Chirkinian also invented the “under” or “over” par scoring for television we still use today.)

And it didn’t hurt that TV could bring beautiful pictures of a golf course to the millions still saddled by snow and bad weather throughout the country.

As Jack Nicklaus emerged as the best player, the emotions at the Masters still centered on Palmer as the crowd favorite. He brought a visceral connection among the fans at the Masters as he tried to hold off the then unemotional and methodical Golden Bear. Unlike previous golf “rivalries” where you had your favorite and were polite to their competitors, Palmer fans didn’t like Jack and let everybody know. Arnold evoked an emotional response even when he didn’t win.

I say Nicklaus was unemotional, but Jack burned with a competitive fire that centered on winning and beating Palmer. He didn’t show it much, that wasn’t his personality, but being around the two it was obvious they had a deep friendship but also a competitive nature that never abated.

Until recently, Jack was the most un-sentimental champion I had ever met. Even when he won his sixth Green Jacket in 1986, it wasn’t until 20 years later that Jack started to embrace the emotion of Augusta National publicly. Tom Watson is kind of the same way. Johnny Miller once said, “Golf champions aren’t chummy,” and maybe he’s right. It’s such an individual game that it breeds and inner strength among the best players.

Sometimes the emotions of nearly winning are equal to those of winning. It’s so demanding as a golf course and as a competition and it is such a big deal that the best players of their era sometimes just don’t win at Augusta. Ken Venturi, Tom Weiskopf, Greg Norman, Tom Kite, David Duval, Ernie Els and others are supposed to be Masters Champions. Their runner-up finishes are legendary.

Art Wall, Doug Ford, Gay Brewer, George Archer, Tommy Aaron, Charles Coody, Larry Mize, Mike Weir, Charl Schwartzel, Trevor Immelman and Danny Willet, distinguished players, but not household names, even in the golf world, have Green Jackets.

Winning the Masters brings an emotional response not seen anywhere else.

Ben Crenshaw cried both times he won. Phil Mickelson shed a tear in his wife Amy’s arms standing on 18 at Augusta. Sergio Garcia dropped his face in his hands after beating Justin Rose two years ago. That doesn’t happen at a regular tour event or even the other three majors.

But this is The Masters.  It’s emotional.

 

Masters Memories

Receiving an invitation to cover the Masters when I was at Channel 2 in Charleston in late 1978 was an unexpected and welcome surprise. I took my Dad as my cameraman since I was a one-man sports department at the time. We rented a room through the Augusta Housing Bureau and were both amazed the first time we walked on the grounds.

Beautiful and manicured beyond belief “The National” as locals know it, exceeded expectations.

This year I’m lucky enough to cover my 39th Masters. The southern hospitality there is no myth: Everybody is unfailingly polite.

I must have looked lost standing outside the Quonset hut that served as the pressroom because PGA Tour media director Tom Place walked out and asked, “Do you need help Sam?” Seeing so many titans of sports journalism in one place was a bit stunning for a young reporter.

After Fuzzy Zoeller’s playoff victory, an Augusta National member brought him up from the 11th green where he had made the winning putt. It was pretty dark but I was standing by the 18th green with my father holding the camera and the member brought Fuzzy right to me, much to my surprise.

“I don’t see him, I don’t see him,” I could hear my Dad saying behind me. While running a camera in those days was pretty simple, the viewfinder and the camera were separate, connected by a hinge. My Dad was looking straight ahead through the viewfinder but the camera had drooped off the front and was pointing at the ground. As Zoeller walked up to me, I reached back and grabbed the camera and pointed it at the new Masters champion. “There he is,” my Dad said as I told him to hit the “record” button.

I asked Fuzzy a question about winning with his wife expecting their first child and he gave a standard Fuzzy Zoeller answer that included a joke. As I brought the microphone back to my face to ask a second question, out of the darkness, what seemed to be a hundred microphones pointed at me in our little circle of light. The most prominent was from a network in Australia. My first thought was “Man, this is a big deal.”

We used to stand in the gravel parking lot under a sign that said “Media” to do our live shots during the Masters.

One year we took the satellite truck and Bob Maupin, our engineer, found a dogwood tree down Washington Road in a public park that was pretty accessible. We lit the tree and did a week’s worth of shows there, honestly saying “Live from Augusta.”

The media committee once wired a connection for local media from the parking lot to the edge of the ropes surrounding the famous oak tree outside the clubhouse and we went live from there. Greg Norman heckled me from the porch that year and we had a good laugh about it afterwards. Most recently our live broadcasts were from behind the big scoreboard along the first fairway, looking out on the expanse of green that makes up the golf course. Each time we’d pop up from there, Anchorman Tom Wills would say, “It’s just breathtaking.” (I took Tom to Augusta as my cameraman in 1983!)

I’ve created lifelong relationships at Augusta. My friendship with Pat Summerall grew there. I got to know Ken Venturi and Ben Wright. I did some golf commentary with Verne Lundquist in the infancy of cable television and we’ve stayed friends ever since. Every year I’d renew my friendship with Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer, (from my days as a bartender in DC) smoking a cigar and having a cocktail with them on the veranda at the back of the clubhouse.

I’ll miss Dan Jenkins at Augusta.  A lot of us will. “Your Dad made me laugh and think at the same time,” Tom Watson wrote Dan’s daughter, Columnist Sally Jenkins. No statement could be more true.

I got to know Dan when he lived in Ponte Vedra and we played golf together a half dozen times. A few of those rounds were in the Sawgrass Member-Guest with his son Marty.  We somehow always played to a tie.

He brought me into his inner circle at Augusta, introducing me as his “friend from Jacksonville.” Dan famously knew Ben Hogan, played golf with Hogan, and once gave me a book about Hogan that he signed, “From a guy who knew Hogan.” This would have been his 69th Masters.  Hopefully his usual table at the front of the media center, from where he sent pithy tweets in recent years, remains unoccupied.

There’s a picture of me in the 1981 Masters yearbook waiting to interview, Tom Watson, that year’s winner. When I see it I’m reminded of the intimacy that Augusta National had then for players, fans and media. And it still exists.

There’s always a reverence for the game, the course and the traditions. Smokers won’t even throw their cigarette butts on the ground. I’ve seen patrons put them out and stick them in their pocket.

Even with all of the changes that have happened in the last 40 years, that intimacy remains when you step on the grounds.

People remain unfailingly polite. There’s no running. No cell phones on the property. No selfies or other social media cataloging every second. Just a reunion or a rebirth of sorts every year.

It’s a lot more than just golf when you say the words, “The Masters.”

McIlroy Wins Players, Furyk Contends

On a tough weather day on a difficult golf course, Rory McIlroy used his new found “poise and patience” to win the 38th edition of The Players Championship contested at the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course. A missed birdie putt on two and an unheard of double-bogey six on number four could have derailed McIlroy’s day, but said he called on recent failures to get him to the finish, “One shot at a time.” Even he knew it was a cliché’.

With a real game plan and the ability to execute it, Jim Furyk put up a -15 score for everybody, including McIlroy to look at coming through “The Gauntlet” as the players call the final three finishing holes of Pete Dye’s design.

His 7-iron from 171-yards on 18 led to a short birdie putt that allowed him to post 15-under and wait. “I was just real comfortable over the ball on that shot,” Jim told me walking to the press room. “I usually hit 7-iron 172, I know that’s a weird number but I was trying to land it 167 and let it roll up. It was hard to judge how much the wind was hurting.”

McIlroy’s birdie on 15 was the decisive shot as it buoyed his confidence going to the final three holes. A two-putt birdie on 16 gave him a one shot lead and the thought “just three more good swings” would give him the title. He made those three swings and an easy two putt par on 18 made him the 2019 Players Champion.

Add Rory’s name among the best players of their eras to win in North Florida as this year’s tournament marked the 55th consecutive year of a big-time professional golf tournament in North Florida.

There’s a colorful history of professional golf in Jacksonville. In 1947 Ben Hogan made a famous 11 on the par 3 sixth hole at Hyde Park during the Jacksonville Open. Legend has it that’s when he uttered the now famous retort when asked how he made an eleven. “I missed a four footer for ten.”

That tournament took an eleven-year hiatus starting in 1954 before being resurrected in 1965 by “three or four guys sitting at Silvers Drug Store” according to two of the tournament founders, John Tucker and Wesley Paxon. Silvers Drug was at the corner of 3rd street and Atlantic Boulevard in Neptune Beach. “Mr. Silver would open up at 5AM and put on a pot of coffee for us to meet.”

At 95 years old, Paxon played nine holes last Sunday. Nowhere near the “two or three” he once was, but still enjoys playing and watching the game. It was his germ of an idea that created the momentum for what The Players is now, fifty-five years later.

“I called Tucker and tried to upgrade the Gator Bowl Pro Am,” Paxon said this week from his home in Ponte Vedra. “And the next thing you know, we had a tournament.”

If only it were that easy.

Tucker, who will be 90 in July, also played as “a three most of my life” and still plays nine holes once or twice a week.

“Wesley got me interested in the Gator Bowl,” Tucker started to explain. “They had started the Pro Am and it wasn’t going anywhere. In 1963, Wesley called me and said he was going to be president of the Gator Bowl and asked if I couldn’t get a big name, Palmer or Nicklaus to play in this thing.”

Running the operations in Jacksonville for Southern Bell, Tucker had an advantage for the early ‘60’s: free-long distance calling.

“People wouldn’t believe this today,” Tucker recalled, “But you only used long distance for emergencies. I’m the manager of the telephone company so Wesley says to me ‘You can call free, call around and see if you can get some players.’ So I started making some calls.”

When the first “super-agent” Mark McCormack gave Tucker the price for Palmer or Nicklaus, John knew he had to look elsewhere. He called Jim Gauqin from the PGA of America in New York and asked for help finding players. The PGA was running tournaments before the creation of the PGA Tour and Gaquin admitting he was having problems with the tournament in St. Petersburg.

“He was on his way to St. Pete,” Tucker remembered, and I invited him to stop off here and he came.”

Gaquin liked Tucker and Jacksonville, the new Deerwood course and Selva Marina. “I told him if that doesn’t work out in St. Pete, bring them up here.”

When things fell apart in St. Pete Gaquin called Tucker to ask if he really wanted the tournament. To do so, Gaquin explained, they’d have to offer a $50,000 purse, double the going rate. Undaunted, Tucker said yes.

“Where are we going to get $50,000? Tucker recalled thinking.

And that’s where the business owners, sports fans and golf enthusiasts came into play.

“Prime Osborn and Tom Rice ran the paper and they had just hired Bob Feagin as their VP from SWD,” Tucker explained. “I told him this was a chance to get this community behind the Times Union. They liked it and put up the money.”

But that was only the first step. Tucker and Paxon sat down with guys they played golf with from around the city to talk about organizing the tournament. They had a blueprint provided by the Pensacola pro tournament’s Sam Love, Tucker’s counterpart with the phone company from Pensacola.

“John Montgomery, Sonny Miller, Gene Cowan, Lester Varn from Timiquana, D.K. Brown from Selva all were guys we knew who could get their clubs involved. I knew Brown because he was head of the FBI here in Jacksonville. I knew him because when he wanted a wiretap, he had to talk to me. He got the tournament to Selva.”

They had meetings at the George Washington and Roosevelt hotels downtown. But at the meetings the lower your handicap, “The more influence you thought you should have.”

They hired Paul Warren from Toledo to do the nuts and bolts operation of the tournament. Then they started calling their friends.

“I called Jim Taylor the president of Capital Concrete and told him the kind of stakes I needed to rope the golf course. He made them and gave them to us. Everybody called on their best friends. Port-a-lets, rope, printing, all of it was donated. You give us this; we’ll give you tickets. A lot of people in town felt ownership. Billie Nimnicht gave us cars, there were150 different organizations involved and felt like they had ownership.”

“Brining in your friends was a new concept,” Paxon explained. “Getting the community involved. My electric company had the 18th hole for 20 years. We were proud of that. We had the newspaper, the banks, the railroad. They were all local people. Those people all helped us.”

If there was a missing piece, Tucker found it in Dick Stratton. Stratton, along with Virginia Atter Keys, was the first television star/celebrity/personality in Jacksonville. He reached across the whole city from his spot as a TV host and Master of Ceremonies nightly.

“All of us had a few friends,” Tucker explained. “Everybody thought they knew Dick Stratton and he knew everybody. The audience was magnified. He brought us an audience that none of us could have produced. He took our dreams and verbalized them where everybody had ownership and made it feel like they were a part of it. Without him, it would have taken years to get that out.”

The tournament re-started in 1965 with a volunteer force that caught the eye of the first PGA Tour commissioner Joe Dey. Dey called Tucker and wanted to come to Jacksonville to see why the players wanted to come here.

“We had shopping trips for the wives, free day care, free babysitting and the players loved it,” Tucker explained. “Deane Beman came down and saw the tournament organization when he was looking for a permanent home for the Tour. He liked how different people in town had ownership.”

After a stint as the general manager at the Times Union, Tucker was called back by Beman to run the tournament again in1983. And he might have had a hand in the corporate hospitality that’s prevalent, and a moneymaker, for golf tournaments worldwide.

“I ran into a group from England on a trip to New York who fed the players at Wimbledon and they told me what they could do. They put on a white tablecloth, silver service dinner in a tent. We always hosted all of the tournament directors during TPC and when I told Deane we were going to hold the dinner in a tent on the golf course he said, ‘Is this going to work?’ It did and we started selling corporate hospitality tents right away.

Admitting the tents they put up were pretty funny looking by today’s standards, Buick was the first to paly $20,000 for their own chalet, brining in clients from North and Central Florida and eventually from around the country.

“Pete Dye and Beman designed the course with spectator mounds for people to sit on,” Tucker said. “We just helped that along.”

And what will John Tucker see when he watches the final round on television today from his home in San Marco?

“Damon Olinto grew up in my backyard with my kids,” he said. “When he was chairman last year he took me out there. Everything was smooth and beautiful but the people to people communications is still the same. The fun they volunteers are having. Every hole, the marshals want to make their hole the best. That’s what makes it great, the people.”

In fifty-five years, the tournament has grown, the PGA Tour has spent tens of millions of dollars to make it their showcase, but Tucker and Paxon believe the people in North Florida are the cornerstone of the success of The Players.

“We were just three or four guys sitting in Silvers trying to find out what we’re going to do that day,” Tucker explained. The people now running the tournament know how to find the solutions. They can call on past tournaments and fix whatever problem they have. It’s beyond anything we ever dreamed of. But every year the volunteers and the new chairman want it to be the best ever. That really makes it special.”

“It’s on the same level as it was 60 years ago,” Paxon added of the volunteer enthusiasm. “It was the anchor of what it was and what it is today.”

“I think America comes to mind,” Paxon added. “Only in America could something like that happen. You start in a drugstore and now it’s worldwide. It’s because of the kind of people we are and the kind of people who live here.”

“It’s no longer a Model T,” Tucker said with a laugh. “It’s a magnificent machine. They call it the Gold Standard. I think that aptly names what it is.

THE PLAYERS a Blend of Then and Now

I’ve always said that most of the locals who attend THE PLAYERS think every PGA TOUR event is like this week in Ponte Vedra. The Players is like nothing else out there, taking the best from every PGA Tour stop all year and incorporating it into the TPC at Sawgrass for one week.

It’s not only the best run PGA Tour event, right with The Masters; it might be the best-run sporting event anywhere as well. It’s a sought after hospitality opportunity for corporations all over the world as well as businesses in Jacksonville and North Florida. It’s a nice blend of both.

With the old burden of achieving status as the “Fifth Major” gone, you knew it was only a matter of time before The Players moved back to March.

The Tour never could get the golf course to play they way they wanted in May, how Pete Dye designed it and more than a few players said the course was “tricked up” after the move on the schedule.  Both The Players and the PGA Championship, now contested in May, have a history of moving dates so it’s not that big of a deal.

When he took over as the PGA Tour Commissioner in 1994, Tim Finchem had many of the same thoughts about The Players as the tournament’s originator Deane Beman. What it was, what it should be and how it should be considered. And he had even more thoughts about its relationship with Jacksonville.

Under Finchem, the Tour tried to separate the tournament once known as the “GJO” from the city entirely, stressing to the assembled media, “the dateline is Ponte Vedra.” There was no reference to it being one of the beaches associated with Jacksonville in any of the promotional material regarding the tournament nor on the national telecast.

The dis-association with the city was strongest when Finchem and the Tour decided that The Players should be a national and international destination for fans and that the local flavor and support of the tournament was holding it back from it’s rightful place in the pantheon of professional golf competition.

They came to their senses a few years ago. Matt Rapp took over as the Executive Director and was given the directive to refocus on the local community; it’s support, fan base, and the tournament’s reputation as a “must attend” event (and party) in North Florida are part of what makes THE PLAYERS, THE PLAYERS. Current Players boss Jared Rice seems to have the same charge from new Commissioner Jay Monahan.

Monahan sees the right fit with the move back to March. Jay doesn’t seem to have a problem with the proximity to the Masters nor the concurrent time frame of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. On the golf schedule, it’s the first really big, significant tournament of the year.

He sees The Players as a stand-alone sporting event and now, in 2019, he’s right. The tournament has it’s own following, it’s own stature and maybe most importantly, it’s a very big deal to the modern day PGA Tour and International player. Adam Scott was the first champion to say, “This is the tournament I’ve dreamed of winning.” And that was in 2004.

Gone are the days that “Deane’s tournament” was vying for significant status ahead of “Arnold’s tournament” or “Jack’s tournament” on the PGA Tour. Beman’s drive to put the Tour in the club and course building business rankled more than a few of his contemporaries, so they weren’t all fired up about supporting the TPC, as it was originally called. Raymond Floyd made his feelings well known at a famous players meeting during the TPC in the ’80’s.

From a nuts and bolts standpoint, the move to March brings the golf course condition and the wind direction back to where the Stadium Course was originally designed. They can make the course play the way they want.

And it puts The Players back in the “Florida Swing” on the golf schedule where it belongs. While much of the country looks to the Masters as the start of spring and the beginning of the golf season, those of us in North Florida know, our games are already rounding into shape during some good weather days in February and March.

It’s the right call and a good fit. Nothing’s ever wrong with being 1st on the schedule.

The Players: Big Time, Hometown Fun

When to contest The Players has been a topic since the tournament was started in the ’70’s. Beginning in Atlanta on Labor Day in 1974 it moved to Ft. Worth the next year in August and then to Ft. Lauderdale the following February. When it moved to Ponte Vedra and Sawgrass Country Club it was played in mid-March before settling on the last week of March in 1983 the year after it moved to the Stadium Course.

The move to March has gotten different reactions from the contestants. Former champ Phil Mickelson, who won the first year the tournament was moved to May, says the course was designed to play in March weather.

“There’s a lot of holes like that where we’ve got to fly it on and stop it,” the 2007 champion said. “I think the way it played in March, I kind of preferred over the firm, fast. I don’t think when it was designed, it was designed to be firm, fast the way it has played the last few years.”

Three factors worked against The Players in March in the Tour’s quest to make it the Fifth Major.

Weather could always be a factor, but as anybody who lives in North Florida knows, we’re as likely to have a week of sunshine as anything else in March and many of the memories of the Players in March include perfect weather. There were a couple of Monday finishes, but for the most part, delays in the competition were minor.

In it’s quest for a spot on the overall sports calendar as a significant sporting event, the tournament switched from CBS to NBC once CBS made a commitment to the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Nobody’s going to forget about March Madness because the Players is happening, and at times that was a sticking point for the decision-makers at the Tour.

And finally, the last week of March also happens to be two weeks before the first full week of April and that’s always The Masters.

When contested in March, there wasn’t a year that went by without many of the storylines focused on the contestants preparing for Augusta. The Players creator, then-Commissioner Deane Beman, didn’t like any talk about the Masters, wanting his tournament to gain “Major” status as a true “players championship.”  Beman had one eye on what they were doing at Augusta National as he developed The Players. His competitive nature would not allow otherwise.

“This is our championship,” he was fond of saying. Deane had a prickly nature about him when it came to competing with Augusta and the Masters and didn’t like it when the NCAA basketball tournament was on television in the hospitality suites, the clubhouse and the media center.  When he could control what people were watching, he did. We couldn’t watch the basketball in the media center more than once.

Using how Louisville claims the Kentucky Derby as it’s own as a model, the PGA Tour now embraces local restaurants, fans and revelers for The Players. It’s a national event with a local feel.  At the same time The Players holds a place among the most significant tournaments in competitors’ minds.  Current Players boss Jared Rice is charged with keeping that balance and growing the tournament on all fronts.

A winner four years ago, Rickie Fowler says it’s about adapting.

“Luckily it’s still the same golf course, still the same look, but just make that adjustment as far as wind direction,” he explained. “I mean, I feel like we do that on a day-to-day basis when it comes to a place like the Open Championship overseas.”

Outside of the playing conditions, former PGA Champion Justin Thomas said the Players deserves more respect and will probably get it in March.

“Yeah, it’ll be exciting. It’ll be cool just because I think all of us on the Tour feel that this event can stand on its own,” he said. “It’s not like it’s another event, and it’s no disrespect to the other events, but this is our championship, this is The Players Championship. This has a very major-like field, has a very major-like feel, air to it. The roars are very similar. So it’ll be cool to kind of have a major tournament, one a month there, starting in March”

Is it a Major?  No.  Will it be? Probably not anytime soon.  For years the Tour made it a significant tournament by ensuring the payday was the biggest of the year.  The tournament itself though through the years has grown in stature in players’ minds, and that’s most important.  The media has some say, but not that much influence any longer.  There’s so much coverage of the sport, the tournament and the personalities on so many platforms that you’re going to get every opinion possible. In the past, Grantland Rice, Herbert Warren Wind and O.B. Keeler were able to shape what readers thought.  They were the only outlets.  Today, it’s a different story.

When Tom Kite won in 1989, before his US Open victory, I asked him if the TPC was a ‘major.”  “It is to me!” he said on 18 holding the trophy.  Jason Day said because he won in The Players in 2016, “Oh, I might be able to sneak my way into the Hall of Fame one day.”

Any PGA Tour event is two things in one: The competition on the course and everything around it.  Beman was right declaring it “our championship” for the players.  But with more than 2,000 volunteers and tens of thousands of spectators each day supporting the tournament, the rest belongs to them. It’s a seven-day showcase of the best of North Florida.

Enjoy it!

 

 

 

Social Media a Fact of Life in Pro Sports

Walk into the Jaguars locker room during the “media availability” time on any given day and there will be a smattering of players arrayed in front of their lockers in various positions of repose with one thing in common: They’re all on their phones. Not talking on their phones, not texting, but looking at their phones, perusing social media.

“Media availability” happens four times a week for about an hour in the middle of the day, between meetings and around lunch. So it might be the only time the players have to check their phones.

While social media has given fans perceived access to their sports heroes, it’s also given players some ownership over a part of their public image and branding.

“My social media is about who I am not about what I have,” said Defensive Lineman Malik Jackson. “I’m fashion forward, so I post some fashion, some things about the team and some stuff about my family. That’s about it. Instagram is visual and written, that’s why I’m on it.”
We used to joke in the sports department about what goes happens on social media. “I woke up this morning thinking maybe Twitter would be nice today,” my colleague Matt used to say. “But then I got on it and.. . . Nope!”
Since becoming the NBA commissioner in 2014, Adam Silver has encouraged the use of social media league wide. So much so that it’s become an indelible part of the league’s culture.

“Those guys in the NBA, they’ve got a lot of time on their hands,” Jaguars Defensive Lineman Abry Jones said regarding what seems like the constant stream of tweets and post coming from NBA players. “Two hours here, two more there. We don’t have that.”

In 2018, the NBA has already been tweeted about more than any other sports league. The league’s official Twitter account has 27 million followers, 3 million more than the NFL’s. On Instagram, the NBA has 31 million followers, more than the NFL, MLB and the NHL combined. In the NBA, there are 33 players with at least 2 million followers on Instagram. In the NFL, there are nine.

But NFL teams are using social media platforms to expand their reach. The Green Bay Packers have more Twitter followers than the entire population of the Green Bay metropolitan area.

Jalen Ramsey is the most active and followed player on the Jaguars roster. Ramsey has nearly a million social media followers, three-quarters of those on Instagram. He’s created some controversy and has experienced plenty of blowback on social media. So much so that he recently tweeted, “I’m gone from here, y’all gone miss me. I ain’t even trippin lol.”

When asked who that was directed at, Ramsey said, ““Whomever. You have something to say, you have some negativity, I guess the fake fans, the fake … Whoever. Whoever.”

While the Lakers’ LeBron James has 44.5 million followers on Instagram, more than the top 12 NFL players on that platform combined, Sixers Guard J.J. Reddick has none. He deleted all of his accounts recently. He believes he was an addict and it was taking away from his real life.

“It’s a dark place,” he told Bleacher Report. “It’s not a healthy place. It’s not real. It’s not a healthy place for ego. It’s just this cycle of anger and validation and tribalism. It’s scary, man.”

“I encourage players to use social to interact with fans and the community,” said Tad Dickman, the Jaguars Director of Public Relations. “If they’re looking for a restaurant, I’d rather them ask fans on Twitter than just go to Yelp looking for a place to eat.”

At the beginning of the season, Dickman, a 29-year old a social media participant himself, conducts a seminar on social media use, gives the players a handbook outlining the do’s and don’ts and how players can use it to their benefit. While the NFL has a broad social media policy, most of the specifics are set team by team.

No game footage can be used and live streaming is prohibited according to NFL policy. For the Jaguars the rules are pretty basic: No pictures or videos that could harm the team. No pictures from the training room or the locker room.

“Just like missing a meeting or being late, violating the rules could involve discipline,” Dickman responded without elaborating when asked if the players could find themselves in trouble posting on social media.

Like any organization with young employees, the Jaguars warn their players about putting out too much information.

“I don’t want people all up in my business,” Jones said, explaining why he limits his social media use to Instagram and even there, not much. “I like to stay in touch with some friends.”

Most Jaguars players have limited their social media to the Instagram platform. And as Jackson alluded to, it seems that everybody on there owns everything and has a fabulous life going on.

“It’s all fake,” fullback Tommy Bohanon, an Instagram participant said with a laugh. “I like to keep up with some friends. I don’t post much, but I scan through it to see what’s going on.”

Bohanon said the negativity on his accounts isn’t an issue. “I don’t care what anybody outside this (locker) room says. They don’t know what’s going on anyway.”

“I’m just on Instagram, I got rid of the rest,” Offensive Lineman Josh Wells explained.

Any trolls?

“Me, no, not me. But I know guys on the team who really get it all over social (media).”

Which is why some players have self-imposed rules.

Famously, James halted his social media posts during the 2015 NBA Playoffs calling it, “Zero Dark Thirty-23” mode.
“No phones, no social media, I don’t have anything,” James said at the time. “There’s too much nonsense out there. Not during this time. This is when I lock in right now, and I don’t need nothing creeping into my mind that don’t need to be there.”
Golden State’s Steph Curry recently stopped his usual ritual of looking at social media at halftime.

“When everybody is watching your game every night, if you let one ounce of negativity or one terrible comment creep in, especially right before a game or at halftime or something, it’s probably not the best bet,” Curry told the Mercury News.
I asked Head Coach Doug Marrone if he’d ever been on social media, he laughed as he headed to practice.
“Never. No Twitter, no Instagram, no Facebook, nothing. When I’m gone from here nobody will know how to find me!”
Probably a generational thing, but for sure, social media is a fact of life sports teams will have to continue to deal with in the future.

Koepka looks like golf’s future 2018

You might have heard Jim Nantz at the end of the CBS telecast of the PGA Championship mention Gary Player’s prediction that “athletes will eventually choose golf and we’ll have players hitting it 400 yards.  It’ll be a different game.”  Player has said that for a while, but it was especially poignant this week as Brooks Koepka won at Bellerive, the same place Player captured the US Open in 1965.  His 72-hole score was two-over.  Koepka won at sixteen under.

After his victory, Koepka revealed his secret.

“I try to eat pretty clean,” he told reporters.  “We had salmon last night, the chef from The Floridian works for me.  Plus I lift six or seven days a week.”

Wait. What?  “I lift six or seven days a week?” As a golfer? That was heresy as little as 10 years ago.

Remember when everybody blamed Johnny Miller’s fall from the top of the game on his working on his farm out West?  Lifting weights was strictly taboo for golfers. Player, Greg Norman and then Tiger Woods changed all that.  Plus the advances in athletic training brought golfers to a new level of fitness, flexibility and strength.  It’s not just doing bicep curls or bench press.  Golf specific exercises, increasing swing speed, “smash factor” and ball velocity have changed the game as Player predicted.

There’s lots of talk about 300+ yard drives.  But what about the nine-irons from 181?  And four-iron from 248?  I mean those are astounding numbers. They can bend the clubs all they want, but when you’re hitting pitching wedge from 150, that’s a different game.

I met Brooks Koepka at his club near his home in West Palm Beach in January of 2015.

“This kid can really play,” our host said as Brooks and I shook hands.

Sitting in the grillroom we had a few laughs and the subject of the Super Bowl came up.

“I’ll be at Phoenix that week,” Brooks told me about his plan to play the PGA TOUR event called the Waste Management Open at the TPC of Scottsdale. “Look me up, I’m going out there by myself.”

So when I got to Phoenix a little early to fulfill my duties as the Hall of Fame voter for Jacksonville, I did head out to the TPC at Scottsdale. It’s known for the massive crowds that attend every year and that week was no different.  Except it rained for most of the tournament.  I went to the pressroom to look for Brooks during one of the delays but the PGA Tour rep (Doug Milne from Jacksonville) said he had just left.

“Tell him I came by to say hi,” I said, a bit disappointed.  I knew I’d be working for most of the weekend and probably wouldn’t have a chance to catch up with Koepka.

Of course he went on to win the tournament.

Koepka has now won three majors and is only the fifth player ever to win the US Open and the PGA in the same year.  His wrist injury earlier this season kept him out of the Masters, but he’ll be among the favorites in April in Augusta.

Although he’s shown to be cool under pressure and dominant with his game, Koepka has been overshadowed each time he’s won a major.  First by the golf course at Erin Hills, then by it seemed everybody else at Shinnecock Hills and by Tiger’s resurgence at the PGA.  Brooks will use that as continued motivation going forward.  He’s that kind of competitor.

So beware.  If Tiger was the tip of the spear of great athletes changing golf, Koepka is the harbinger of what the game will look like from now on.

I don’t think Tiger will win again

Oh, he might take a trophy home from a PGA Tour event where say, 12 of the top 30 players in the world are in the field.  But even he won’t count that as a win.  He’ll say it feels good, and add it puts him on the right path to his goals.

And that’s winning a Major.  Which won’t happen.

My friend and colleague Tim Rosaforte recently quoted a playing partner on the Golf Channel saying of Tiger after watching him at The Open, “He can get there from here.”

Watching Tiger on Sunday at Carnoustie did give you that feeling. A bit of nostalgia and hope after taking the lead that we were seeing the biggest comeback in golf since Ben Hogan. A couple of missteps on the inward nine kept everybody else in the game, and Francesco Molinari became the Champion Golfer of the Year.

It’s not that Tiger’s not capable of winning again. You might remember he finished one shot behind Paul Casey at the Valspar Championships in March. His presence in the field and his name on the leaderboard put four times the number of fans on the golf course in Tampa. The next week at Bay Hill anticipation was soaring.

I asked him in Orlando if when he saw his name on the leaderboard the previous week if the feeling was the same as before.  “Yes” he said directly with that grin we’ve come to know as a sign of supreme self-confidence.

Even hitting it OB on 16 and a bogey-bogey-par finish for a tie for 5th left everybody expecting a Tiger-esque run and a win soon.  Rory McIlroy won that week instead with a Tiger-esque finish, a birdie on his final hole.

Just looking at those three tournaments where Tiger has played well and been in contention there’s a common thread as to why he didn’t win:  He just got beat.  And it’s his own fault.  Not that he didn’t play well, it’s just somebody played better.  There’s no defense in golf.

Name any of the top players in the world right now and they’ll say Tiger was their inspiration to become a golfer and play at the highest level.  And there are too many of those who can go low in the final round, come out of nowhere, and win.

The modern players work on their games for sure, and use Trackman and other devices to optimize their equipment, but fitness, specific to golf, has jumped the game to another level. There was a par 4 at the US Open that was 505 yards long.  Both Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson hit irons off the tee. Both of those guys look like they could have played any sport professionally, but they chose golf

Fitness in golf might have started with Gary Player and was refined through the years by players like Greg Norman, but Tiger was the start of great athletes choosing golf as their main sport.  Look at players all over the world and they all look about the same.  At the top everybody’s between 5-10 and 6-2 and weighs somewhere between 160 and 185 lbs. There are no more George Archer’s or Rod Curl’s in the game.  No self-taught swings, no Lee Trevino’s coming from some obscure place in West Texas to become a Hall of Famer.

And Tiger started all that.

He helped put enough money in the game where it was a viable alternative.  Winnings at every TOUR event jumped 40%.  Payouts for TV rights went through the roof.  And great athletes started choosing the game.

Which is why he’ll contend and play well enough to win but won’t.  Just because there are so many players in today’s game that can, and will.  They have the game, they’ve played top-flight amateur and college golf, and they’re not afraid.

I’ve followed the arc of many athletic careers from start to finish. Even the biggest sports celebrities’ start somewhere, so knowing Tim Tebow, as a high school sophomore is how I remember him best. But only two athletes in my career though have exceeded the hype: LeBron James and Tiger Woods.

Starting with his appearance at the LA Open in 1992, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods was a name that every sports journalist who covered golf knew. “Tiger” was a unique enough name; the story of how he got it was enough to make any profile pretty colorful.

I first met Tiger in 1994 when he played in the US Amateur at the TPC Stadium course as a skinny kid with a big hat and a bigger game. “These one-on-one interviews,” was his answer when I asked the 18-year-old if there was anything he didn’t like about how his life was going. As his fame grew, he stopped doing those “one-on-one” interviews and eventually only made news on his own web site.

There was an incident where Tiger told an off-color joke to a magazine reporter in New York who broke the “off the record” code, printed it, and Tiger felt betrayed. He really clammed up after that.

I’ve been critical of Woods’ demeanor throughout his career, His nickname early in his career on tour was “Erkel” after the sitcom character that had few social skills and was generally nerdy. Tiger approached being the most famous person on the planet, something few people know about. But his actions didn’t come close to Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer or others in that same situation.

Changing his body and the violence of his swing took a toll on his body and he eventually broke down. His off course issue was well documented and publicized. And his bout with prescription drugs seemed to be the bottom.

I ran into him in early 2017 at a retirement party at his club in Jupiter. I was asked to kind of “save” him from being pestered by everybody there since he knew me a little bit and might be comfortable talking with me. We spent some time together and for the first time I felt sorry for the guy. He was as awkward as I’d ever seen him. Could barely hold a conversation. Small talk was a chore. Ok, maybe it was me, but I really felt bad for him.

Fast-forward about six months; Tiger’s gone through a rehab after being pulled over for DUI. His body is healing and his golf game is returning. I ran into him at the same club as I was hitting some putts on the practice green.

“Hey Sam, you know Tiger,” my host said as I walked to put away my putter with Woods pulling up in his cart. “Of course,” I said as we shook hands.

Tiger said, “Jacksonville, right?” as he sat back in his cart. I smiled and said, “Yep” anticipating a quick exit as usual.

Instead, the three of us sat there for about 15 minutes talking about everything guys talk about, sharing laughs and jabs, just like it’s supposed to happen. He mentioned that he really liked The Players returning to March.

When he left, I turned to my host and said, “What happened to him? He’s like a different person.”

And that’s the same person we’ve seen in his return to the limelight. He tells jokes and smiles. Remember Tiger saying that “second was the first loser” early in his career?  He talked about that a couple of weeks ago with a whole different perspective after his finish at Carnoustie with his children in attendance.

“They saw their dad get into contention and end up leading the tournament. End up losing the tournament. But I tried until the very end,” Tiger said the week before teeing it up at the WGC in Akron.

“They saw how much I was grinding. They said, ‘Well, you weren’t going to win.’ I said, ‘I know I wasn’t going to win, but that doesn’t stop me from grinding.’ That is a teachable moment because they were there in present, in person. Sometimes you can’t always see that on TV.”

So whatever you attribute it to, being humbled, being a parent, being injured, whatever, I’m hoping Tiger keeps using that same personality.

There’s a steely determination necessary to win in sports at the highest level. Tiger has shown over and over that he has that. I suppose keeping it there, inside the ropes, will take an adjustment. But it’ll be worth it.

Authentic Duval shines as golf analyst

I’ve always liked David Duval. I know people have said he’s aloof and distant. He’s described himself as “quiet and reserved.” That might have been his personality as a golfer and it worked for him.

Not anymore.

Working for the Golf Channel, Duval is the best analyst on television. Not just the best golf analyst, the best analyst, period. John Smoltz is good on baseball. Eddie Olczyk is good on hockey. Troy Aikman is good on football. Duval is really good on golf.

Much like his heyday as a player, being No. 1 in the world and the only player who Tiger Woods admitted got his attention on the leaderboard, Duval is fearless as a broadcaster.

And that’s not easy to do.

As a player you can insulate yourself inside the ropes. You can be distant with fans and the media. You can wear Oakley wraparounds to help keep everybody out. And you can lose yourself in the game. (BTW, those glasses originally were used to cut down the pollen in his eyes when he wore hard contacts in college.)

If you want to be any good at television though, you have to be authentic, actually yourself, not acting like yourself.

We see it every day when we watch television. Some people have it, others don’t. Duval is fearless on TV in a way that’s rare: He’s prepared, has an opinion, and if you disagree with him, it’s OK. You’re not going to change his mind.

If you’re authentic on television, when you walk into a room full of people, only you know that all of those people in the room know the real you. And all of those people watching on TV know the real you. And without a certain level of confidence and preparedness, that can be terrifying. Duval never revealed that as a player. Now, he does it every time he appears on television.

While he still thinks of himself as a golfer and a player who can compete, Duval is a television analyst of the best kind.

“I think it’s the rare person who is 40 to 55 years old who doesn’t think of themselves as a golfer still. That’s how I view it,″ he said. “That’s how I go about it when I analyze something.”

Unlike with golf, he was good almost immediately on television. It took him two years to win his first tournament in college. It took him a while to get used to the week-to-week grind of professional golf. But once he did, he was dominant. We texted a few times when he started on the Golf Channel, exchanging some ideas and a few tips I had picked up over the years in front of the camera. But it was easy to see he was going to succeed.

“There is a difference in being critical and being mean. Critical is fine. Mean is not,” Duval told the Global Golf Post about being on television.

One thing Duval always seemed to have is perspective. Even at a young age he looked at things differently. Some of that came from the loss of his older brother Brent. That tragedy for the Duval family has been well-documented. But David has always seen things from a different angle.

As comfortable with Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” as he would be with a beer and a sports magazine in his playing days, Duval’s smarts go beyond golf. And that’s essential to be able to sit there and talk without a script (ad-lib is the TV term). A view from 30,000 feet as well as an intimate knowledge of the subject allows Duval to speak with authority. Not act like an authority, but be an authority.

“He’s good because he has good knowledge,” Nick Faldo a six-time major champion and now the lead analyst on CBS, has said about Duval. “Players who have really felt it, not just played it or walked the walk, the players who have really felt it – and he’s felt both the big climb to get to No. 1 and that story and that phenomenal run of wins and gets a major and then for whatever reason went on a different walk of life – he can add an awful lot of golf life experience to it.”

I first met David before he got to high school. His dad Bob was the pro at Plantation and invited me out to play with the two of them. Needless to say, even that young, David was an impressive player. Long, straight, great touch, it was clear he was going to be special.

He got to the top of the game and instead of enjoying it, he found it isolating.

“Some guy asked me about Bosnia,” he once said to me after a press conference. “Just because I’m ranked No. 1. They didn’t care what I thought when I was No. 2,” he said shaking his head.

Now 46 years old, he played in The Open Championship this week at Carnoustie as a past Champion Golfer of the Year. Once you win The Open, you can play there each year until you’re 60. He shot 80 in the first round on Thursday and withdrew.

I will admit David gave me the sporting thrill of a lifetime 10 years ago at the Masters.

“Who’s caddying for you in the Par 3 at Augusta,” I said to David one day at his house when he was near the top of his game.

“You are,” he answered with a laugh. And sure enough that year I was on the bag Wednesday of Masters week. (There’s a full accounting of that day on samsportsline.com)

We had two memorable exchanges that day; one was on the first tee.

“Two rules,” David said as he pulled a club from his bag. “Keep up and don’t lean on the putter.”

On the 8th tee David grabbed 9-iron out of the bag. “It’s wedge,” I said. “I don’t think so, the pin is all the way back,” he quickly responded. And promptly hit the ball in the water behind the green.

“I guess it was wedge,” he said with an easy laugh and a bow to the crowd. That gave everybody a glimpse of the David Duval we now see on golf broadcasts.

At some point Duval is going to move off the Golf Channel and into Johnny Miller’s chair as the lead analyst on NBC’s coverage of golf.

I’ve seen Duval first-hand play golf as the best player in the world. Now we all get to see him as the best analyst on television.

David Duval, Best Analyst On TV

I’ve always liked David Duval. I know people have said he’s aloof and distant. He’s described himself as “quiet and reserved.” That might have been his personality as a golfer and it worked for him.

Not anymore.

Working for the Golf Channel, Duval is the best analyst on television. Not just the best golf analyst, the best analyst, period. John Smoltz is good on baseball. Eddie Olczyk is good on hockey. Troy Aikman is good on football. Duval is really good on golf.

Much like his heyday as a player, being #1 in the world and the only player who Tiger Woods admitted got his attention on the leaderboard, David is fearless as a broadcaster.

And that’s not easy to do.

As a player you can insulate yourself inside the ropes. You can be distant with fans and the media. You can wear Oakley wraparounds to help keep everybody out. And you can lose yourself in the game. (BTW those glasses originally were used to cut down the pollen in his eyes when he wore hard contacts in college.)

If you want to be any good at television though you have to be willing to expose yourself. Unless you’re authentic, actually yourself, not acting like yourself, you look like an actor or a phony on TV.

We see it every day when we watch television. Some people have it, others don’t. Duval is fearless on TV in a way that’s rare: He’s prepared, he has an opinion, and if you disagree with him, it’s OK. You’re not going to change his mind.

If you’re authentic on television, when you walk into a room full of people, only you know that all of those people in the room know the real you. And all of those people watching on TV know the real you. And without a certain level of confidence and preparedness, that can be terrifying. Duval never revealed that as a player. Now, he does it every time he appears on television.

While he still thinks of himself as a golfer and a player who can compete, Duval is a television analyst of the best kind.

“I think it’s the rare person who is 40 to 55 years old who doesn’t think of themselves as a golfer still. That’s how I view it. That’s how I go about it when I analyze something.”

Unlike with golf, he was good almost immediately on television. It took him two years to win his first tournament in college, but then he was dominant. It took him a while to get used to the week-to-week grind of professional golf. But once he did, he was dominant. We texted a few times when he started on the Golf Channel, just exchanging some ideas and a few tips I had picked up over the years in front of the camera. But it was easy to see he was going to be great.

“There is a difference in being critical and being mean. Critical is fine. Mean is not,” Duval told Global Golf Post about being on television

One thing Duval has always seemed to have is perspective. Even at a young age he looked at things differently. Some of that came from the loss of his older brother Brett. That tragedy for the Duval family has been well documented. But David has always seen things from a different angle.

As comfortable with Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” as he would be with a beer and a sports magazine in his playing days, Duval’s smarts go beyond just golf. And that’s essential to be able to sit there and talk without a script (ad-lib is the term in TV). A view from 30,000 feet as well as an intimate knowledge of the subject allows David to speak with authority. Not act like an authority, but be an authority.

“He’s good because he has good knowledge,” Nick Faldo a six-time major champion and now the lead analyst on CBS has said about Duval. “Players who have really felt it, not just played it or walked the walk, the players who have really felt it – and he’s felt both the big climb to get to No. 1 and that story and that phenomenal run of wins and gets a major and then for whatever reason went on a different walk of life – he can add an awful lot of golf life experience to it.”

I first met David before he got to high school. His dad Bob was the pro at Plantation and invited me out to play with the two of them. Needless to say, even that young, David was an impressive player. Long, straight, great touch, it was clear he was going to be something special

He got to the top of the game and instead of enjoying it, he found it isolating.

“Some guy asked me about Bosnia,” he once said to me after a press conference. “Just because I’m ranked #1. They didn’t care what I thought when I was #2,” he said shaking his head.

Now 46-years old, he played in The Open Championship this week at Carnoustie as a past Champion Golfer of the Year. Once you win The Open, you can play there each year until you’re sixty.

I will admit David gave me the sporting thrill of a lifetime ten years ago at the Masters.

“Who’s caddying for you in the Par 3 at Augusta,” I said to David one day at his house when he was near the top of his game.

“You are,” he answered with a laugh. And sure enough that year I was on the bag Wednesday of Masters week.

(There’s a full accounting of that day on samsportsline.com)

We had two memorable exchanges that day; one was on the first tee.

“Two rules,” David said as he pulled a club from his bag. “Keep up and don’t lean on the putter.”

On the 8th tee David grabbed 9-iron out of the bag. “It’s wedge,” I said. “I don’t think so, the pin is all the way back,” he quickly responded. And promptly hit the ball in the water behind the green.

“I guess it was wedge,” he said with an easy laugh and a bow to the crowd. That gave everybody a glimpse of the David Duval we now see on golf broadcasts.

When he left Episcopal for Georgia Tech, it was a surprise move to play college golf where nobody expected him to go. “Where’d you want me to play?” he asked me when I wondered why he was going to Atlanta. He was a four-time All-American for the Yellow Jackets.

He made a splash as an amateur, leading the BellSouth Classic by a couple of shots at the 54-hole mark in 1992. But it took him a while to figure out how to be a pro. “You have to get used to it,” he said of the traveling circus the tour can be, week after week. “The travel, eating, sleeping, playing, you need to figure it out.”

And once he did, Duval fulfilled his awesome potential, ascending to number one in the world. He won 11 of 34 tournaments he played in just over a one-year period. He shot 59 in the last round at the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, making an eagle on the final hole for a come from behind win.

He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated behind his Oakley sunglasses. He contended in the Masters and the US Open, and he won The Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 2001. He was the #1 golfer in the world. He won in Japan later that year.

At some point Duval is going to move off the Golf Channel and into Johnny Miller’s chair as the lead analyst on NBC’s coverage of golf.

I’ve seen Duval first-hand play golf as the best player in the world. Now we all get to see David as the best analyst on television.

Bandon Dunes: A “Must Play” Golf Experience

Images Provided by Golfible.com

So I topped two off the first tee.

After weeks of anticipation and preparation for a trip to Bandon Dunes, that’s right, I topped two off the first tee in our first day of play at Bandon Trails.

That’s something I haven’t done in probably 30 years. And I hit them so bad I’m surprised they didn’t hit my left foot. I trundled down into the high grass and heather with our caddie, Cowboy, in tow in search of one or both. In the first 15 yards or so I found a half dozen balls and Jim, my playing partner said, “Just drop one out here by me.”

I walked over to where he had put his drive in the fairway and threw a ball down. Jim was 160 out and hit a nice shot to an elevated green to about ten feet. I stood over mine just trying to make contact and move it toward the green.

And I hit 7-iron in the hole.

Little did I know that 10-minute sequence would be a microcosm of my experience at Bandon Dunes. While I didn’t top two off of any other tees, Bandon Dunes can be humbling, hard, spectacular, beautiful, awe-inspiring and nearly perfect in any 10-minute stretch.

Traveling all the way to southwest Oregon, I didn’t expect to see anybody I knew. But on the massive range at the practice area, the guy taking swings just one spot away from me was a golf writer friend I’ve known for more than 35 years.

“Probably the best golf resort in the world,” he said when I said hi and he learned it was my first trip there.

And he’s probably right.

It’s a full day of travel from the east coast. We looked into flying to North Bend Airport but United only goes twice a week from Denver and San Francisco and if the flight doesn’t go, you’re stuck for a few days if you can’t make other arrangements. So we flew to Portland and rented a car for the 4-½ drive. Being from Florida, the approach to Portland featured a fly-by of Mt. Hood, something you don’t see every day, and the drive showcases some of the most spectacular scenery toward southwest Oregon.

We stopped in Eugene to take a look at the University of Oregon campus and have lunch, then drove straight to Bandon Dunes. It’s pretty remote, and it’s the only thing there. So if you like golf and want to get away, it’s the perfect spot. We drove the property to get a “lay of the land” then walked across the street for a nice snack at The Inn.

While the resort is remote, it doesn’t lack anything you’d want on a golf trip. Great courses, several nice restaurants, a spot for a cocktail and cigar to watch the sunset, a massage center and a whirlpool (co-ed) for sore (walking) muscles.

We played the four golf courses from south to north, in order, starting with Bandon Trails, a Coor/Crenshaw design cut into the hillside.

Spectacular holes seemed stacked one after another. Each more beautiful than the next. It’s not contrived at all, rather it looks like they cleared a few trees where the golf holes were already laid out. Soaring pines with rugged, rough edges that frame each hole.

Jim called it “a mature adult” adding Bandon Trails just says “Here I am, let’s see how you do.” Like every other course at the resort, “The Trails” shares some similar characteristics with the other three courses.

The holes change with the weather. Whichever way the wind is blowing, that effects how the hole plays. “No two steps are the same,” is how one guest described walking 72 holes along the Pacific Coast. Save for a couple of forced carries, you can play most along the ground. “It’s as good for a 22 handicap as it is for a two,” a friend explained.

“OK, get ready” Cowboy said as we walked off the 14th green. What we didn’t know was turning back toward the clubhouse, 15, 16, 17 and 18 played directly into about a 25 mph wind. Sixteen is a par 5, straight up a hill, a tough hole in any conditions. I hit driver, 5 iron, rescue, gap wedge and made a 15 footer downhill, downwind, left to right I had no business making for one of the best bogey sixes ever. During that stretch I had two putts blown off line. If you’ve never experienced that I had to lean into the wind and it absolutely changes your golf swing. As hard as it was, it was equally interesting. Apparently the wind blows there for most of the summer but starts to lay down in September. It wasn’t like that for the rest of our trip, although wind did play a factor on every shot, on every course, on every day.

Bring your walking shoes to Bandon Dunes and I’d suggest walking three or four miles a day before you get there.Trails is the toughest walk of the four, meandering up the mountain and then over it at 14. You go back down into it the valley and then straight back up and into the wind.

I’m wondering if as the golfing population gets older if carts won’t be a part of the experience at some point.

We played Bandon Dunes, the original course on our second day. The wind was still up but not quite as fierce. This course feels big and has some of the most beautiful vistas anywhere. The 4th hole goes out to the Pacific and is considered one of the most beautiful golf holes in the world.

Because it is.

As you play the holes along the ocean they are so spectacular, it’s hard to remember to concentrate and play golf. Wind is always a factor and the design and set up try to match that.

Our third day we made our way to Pacific Dunes. It’s big and beautiful and every hole has it’s own character. As the wind comes off the Pacific there are some natural edges that frame the course. But good shots are rewarded at Pacific Dunes. If you’re hitting it straight, you’ve got no problem. It features several holes along the ocean, some north/south, some south/north so depending on the season the wind will be either in your face or at your back.

I haven’t played everywhere but I have been a few places and it’s not hard to say eleven at Pacific Dunes is one of the most beautiful holes in the world. The back nine starts with two par three’s at and on the Pacific. Like the other courses at the resort, 17 and 18 are two very tough finishing holes.

On our last day we played the newest course, the links called Old Macdonald

Standing on the first tee it feels like you’re in Scotland. Absolutely authentic. That was the intent when Tom Doak designed the course, paying homage to features used by C.B. Macdonald in the past. Several holes have design features that look like they were transported to the Oregon coast from Scotland. You need to play the ball on the ground more often than you think. I probably hit five different shots that could be described as “bump and run” and I probably should have played a couple more. This would be a good course to play first if you’re planning a trip to get adjusted to the elements, tight lies, and green speeds. Like every other course at Bandon Dunes, it has some beautiful vistas.

And again, 18 is a tough finishing hole.

Going to Bandon Dunes to play all four courses should be planned as a “big” golf trip. Take your time getting there and getting home. Enjoy the scenery and make the travel part of the adventure. You don’t have to leave the resort, but if you must, a little six mile drive down the coast to Bandon-by-the-Sea is a nice diversion. We had dinner at Edgewaters and the food was great. Much like everywhere we went, the staff was very friendly. It’s also in a pretty interesting building that has a great history behind it. And has one of the best sunsets you’ll ever see if the clouds have lifted. Even the locals stop to take a picture.

Accommodations are set up generally for two players to share a room. Two nice queen beds, big rooms, two vanities, good size shower. My room looked like it needed some sprucing up, and perhaps it’s on the list for renovation. Nonetheless, a deer and fawn walked by the sliding glass door one morning, apparently just taking a stroll.

All of the things I’d heard about Bandon Dunes were true. If you’re interested in golf, it’s a “must play.”

Best “Feel Good” Win At THE PLAYERS

There’s nothing like a feel good story in sports. And in American sports, the comeback, feel good story is always the best.

We’ve had all kinds of winners at THE Players Championship. Household names like Jack and Tiger, hometown champions in Mark McCumber and David Duval, and unlikely names on the trophy like Stephen (Ames) and Tim (Clark).

But never a real “feel good” story like Webb Simpson. Nuts and bolts, he won at 18-under par, despite making double-bogey on the 72nd hole. He tied the course record of 63 looked in control the whole time. He’s now one of seven players to have held both The Players crystal and the US Open trophy in their career. He also completes an American sweep of the Majors and the Players, Not done since Tiger Woods held all five.

All from a guy who was about a half a step from quitting golf completely. Simpson had success in his professional career, winning on the PGA Tour and US Open. He found a way to get the ball in the hole and win, despite not being exceptionally long and using a “belly” putter. When that style form of putting was outlawed, his golfing fortunes began to sink.

“You know, I think I had been a pro for eight years, seven years, and you get used to playing at a level that you know you’re capable of, and then for — you go a year or two years playing below that capability, and it starts to get at you,” Simpson said Sunday. “And I actually think it’s easier to work hard when you’re playing well. So it made working hard and staying positive and present that much harder.”

Noting the support he had from his “team” Webb admitted there were nights at the dinner table with his wife that he’d be in tears, ready to give up golf completely. But her encouragement, as well as his relationship with his caddy Paul Tesori kepts him going. Ironically, it was a disagreement with Tesori on the course that convinced him what he needed to do to get better.

Yeah, the lowest point ended up being the turning point. It was 2016 at Barclays at Bethpage Black,” he explained. “I thought I missed the cut by one. I ended up making the cut. But Paul and I got in an argument on the golf course, and it was just frustration pent up in both of us. We go sit in my car for about an hour. I’m so frustrated, I’m over it, and he is, too, and he kind of encouraged me to really do something about it. So call certain guys who maybe have struggled, try out different putters. I was pretty stubborn. I wanted to go conventional as conventional can get, so I just started trying different things and became a lot more open minded.”

Talks with a numerous players about their putting styles and how they came to use them were instrumental in Simpson finding something that worked for him. That “open minded” attitude allowed him to take a lesson from Tim Clark a year ago at the 2017 Players and switch to the “claw grip” with a Matt Kuchar style putter-up-the-arm stroke.

He couldn’t go back to belly putting because it was illegal, and he couldn’t go back to that putter either since he broke it in half to stave off temptation.

“My wife is in the driveway pulling out with the kids,” as he tells the story. “And I tell her this, and I see my bag in the garage, and I see the belly putter, and for whatever reason I had an urge to just break it. And so I go over there and snap it over my knee, and I’m on the way to throw it in the trash can, and she tells me I’d better hang on to it, it’s been pretty good to me. So I put it in my trophy case, both pieces.”

Admitting he putted better in THE Players than he ever had, even Johnny Miller noted a “Tom Watson” like decision make and execution process on the greens. After talking it over with Tesori, looking it over, studying and stepping away, Simpson takes a practice stroke and hits it. No standing over it forever.

At this point, Simpson’s relationship with Tesori is well documented. Paul’s history in his hometown, his family’s story, his steadfast faith and faith in Simpson all are part of this feel good story. Webb even calls Tesori “The Mayor.”

“Paul has been just a great friend through all this, a great coworker,” Simpson said in the post match press conference. “(He) is such a great caddie with such a great resume that I never thought once that he would quit and go work for somebody else.

“But through that, I expected him to be frustrated at times, and he never was. He never got frustrated. He stayed positive on my worst days. He would try to give me a pep talk. I think to go through that, you need someone more than a caddie, you need a friend, and he definitely was that for me.”

Add to all that with final Players win on Mother’s Day, just six months after Simpson lost his father. Webb’s dad is the person who introduced him to the game, to a rare disease.

“I thought about him all day,” Simpson said when asked about his dad. “I think it’s been an emotional week for my mom and sisters and my brother. We miss him like crazy, but I really wanted to do this for my mom. She’s been praying for me a lot.”

Hard to get a better “feel good” story than that.

Simpson (with Tesori) In Command At THE PLAYERS

It’s a weird thing to talk to athletes about their top accomplishments. People who are motivated, ambitious and energetic have an easier time remembering their failures than whatever success they had. There’s a specific kind of memory that sits close to the surface, protecting them from ever making the same mistake twice.

On the other hand, there’s also a kind of memory that allows those same athletes to recall every single detail immediately after performing at the highest level. For golfers, it not just the club they hit and the yardage, it’s the blade of grass in front of the ball, the bee that was on the green, the puff of wind they felt in mid-swing and even the smell of, well, whatever they were smelling walking 18 holes.

That was Webb Simpson after the second round of this year’s PLAYERS Championship. And eagle on two and three other birdies on the front had him make the turn in thirty-one. A simple par on 10 seemed unremarkable, but then everything started to go on the hole.

“Obviously when you’re out there competing in a big tournament, you’re as focused as can be,” Simpson said after tying the course record with a 63 on Friday. “But then at a certain point, maybe on 13 today, you start just — like a kid, just kind of laughing. Everything is going in. You feel like no matter what, you’re going to make it,”

Anybody who plays golf knows it comes and goes, even at the highest level. Ben Hogan famously said, “If you think you’ve found it, don’t go to sleep.” One day everything is easy, the next, not so much. For Simpson, the challenge is to stay in the moment.

“I mean, yeah.,” he explained. “That’s the challenge is you’re hitting all your shots exactly where you’re looking, and so the temptation is to start aiming more at the flag. But I didn’t do that. I mean, every — you’ve got to isolate every shot and every putt and just ask yourself, what’s the objective here. Although I’m hitting it great, on 13, I aimed 30 feet right of the hole. 14, I have 9-iron in my hand, I’m aiming 15 feet right of the hole.”

There’s a lot of talk in golf these days by the players about, “us” and “we.” The entire team is part of the success of any player and the caddie is a big, big part of that. Simpson’s caddie is St. Augustine product Paul Tesori. Paul was an accomplished player himself, played at the University of Florida and qualified to play on the PGA Tour. But after not finding enough success as a player, he found a career carrying the bag and consulting with other players. Somehow he worked with Vijay Singh for a while and also caddied for Jerry Kelly and Sean O’Hair. But his success has come with his good friend Webb Simpson. Both men of tremendous faith, their bond goes way beyond player/caddie.

“I think it’s massive,” Webb said Friday. “:You know, to work with somebody every day for eight hours, nine hours a day, and you really like them, and you have a friendship outside of golf, I think it’s pretty special.”

Playing on the PGA Tour is an adjustment for anybody. It’s not just about the golf. The travel, the schedule, the grind, the food, all of it plays a part in a player’s success or lack thereof.

“You know, there’s a lot out here,” Simpson noted. “I get lonely because my family is at home, and there’s ups and downs of the year for performance, and so he knows — as a friend he knows me better than just a coworker, so he knows how to handle me if I’m in those bad places. So he’s been a huge, huge piece in my career.”

“Outside of the majors, this is his favorite tournament,” Webb said of Tesori, normal since he’s from here. “It doesn’t put pressure on me, but it’s always a place you think, like Charlotte for me, it’s a nice place to play well. He’s got so much support out there, more support than I do. It’s been fun the last couple days seeing all the people coming out for Paul.”

If not handled right, it could put a strain on their relationship. In reality, Simpson is the player, Paul is the “guy on the bag.” But in this case, Simpson rolls with it.

“Oh, yeah, I call him the mayor. He can’t get from the putting green to the range without getting stopped a few times. Everybody loves him.”

Easy? Hard? Round 1 Of The Players Was Both

As a two-time champion at The Players, Tiger Woods understands the role the Stadium Course plays as part of the championship.

“When you’re playing well, it seems easy,” Tiger said after playing last week in Charlotte and again after the first round of this year’s Players. “But if you’re a little off, there’s trouble on every shot. You never get comfortable.”

That was evident in the first round of this year’s Players as six players are tied for the lead at six under. Eighty-five players shot even par or better. Yet Phil Mickelson posted a 7 over 79. Jordan Spieth shot 77. That’s how unpredictable things can be at the Players and despite the star power put together by the pairings, the golf course came out as the celebrity.

“If it stays calm in the morning, you’ll see a bunch of guys go low,” Tiger said after an even par 72 in the opening round. “I think tomorrow’s supposed to be the hottest day of the week, and if that’s the case, again, the golf ball is going to be going forever. So this golf course won’t be playing very long.”

With more players tied for the lead than any other year The Players has been contested at the Stadium Course, there were birdies to be made. Webb Simpson made plenty of them and is one of the players on top of the leaderboard.

“Yeah, it’s perfect,” he said of the golf course. “Fairways are perfect, greens are perfect, and if we read these greens right, the ball should go in the hole. It’s fun to play golf courses that are this well-kept.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Dustin Johnson’s finish at six under. Johnson is the top ranked player in the world yet has never had a top ten finish at The Players. Going into the week, Johnson was aware of his lack of success on the Stadium Course but said he had a plan that would work if he stuck to it. “Yeah, I’m definitely surprised, but I think a lot of it has to do with putting,” he explained. “I don’t think I putted very well around here as a whole. I’ve had definitely rounds where I putted well, but for the most part I haven’t, that’s one thing I’ve struggled around here with and obviously today I rolled it nicely.”

There are plenty of up and down swings on the leaderboard with former champions Si Woo Kim, Matt Kuchar and Sergio Garcia all getting to seven under par at one point. All three fell back, with Sergio’s double-bogey, bogey finish the most dramatic drop. He hit a ball in the water on 17 on his way to a five, and missed an eight-footer on 18 to finish at four under.

“I don’t know that anybody’s overly comfortable here,” said Kuchar who was tied for the first round lead. “I think it’s such a good golf course, such a good test of golf, good shots are rewarded, bad shots are punished. You see a wide variety in scores out here. You see guys shoot 6-under and you see guys shoot 6-, 8-over. It’s just, it’s a great, great test of golf.”

As always, morning players on Thursday will tee of on Friday afternoon and afternoon players on Thursday play Friday morning. It was the morning players who seemed to have the best of the conditions on Thursday.

THE PLAYERS To March: A Good Move

I’ve always said that most of the locals who attend The Players think every PGA Tour event is like that. Of course the Players is like nothing else out there, taking the best from every PGA Tour stop all year and incorporating it into the Stadium Course. It’s not only the best run PGA Tour event, along with The Masters it might be the best run sporting event anywhere as well. It’s a sought after hospitality opportunity for corporations all over the world as well as businesses in Jacksonville and North Florida. It’s a nice blend of both.

Which brings us to current Commissioner Jay Monahan and the move back to March. Monahan said during last year’s Players that they were “considering all options” and they didn’t have any plans to move the tournament “at this time.” Jay doesn’t have a problem with the proximity to the Masters nor the concurrent time frame of the NCAA Tournament. It doesn’t need it’s own month on the calendar or separation from the majors to draw attention.

He sees the Players as a stand-alone sporting event and now, in 2017, he’s right. The tournament has it’s own following, it’s own stature and maybe most importantly, it’s a very big deal to the modern day PGA Tour player. Adam Scott was the first champion to say, “This is the tournament I’ve dreamed of winning.” And that was in 2004.

Gone are the days that “Deane’s tournament” was vying for significant status ahead of “Arnold’s tournament” or “Jack’s tournament” on the PGA Tour. Beman’s drive to put the Tour in the club and course building business rankled more than a few of his contemporaries, so they weren’t all fired up about supporting the TPC, as it was originally called. Raymond Floyd made his feelings well known at a famous Players meeting during the tournament in the ’80’s.

From a nuts and bolts standpoint, a move to March will bring the golf course condition and the wind direction back to where the Stadium Course was originally intended by designer Pete Dye. They can make the course as hard and fast as they want.

And it’ll put the Players back in the “Florida Swing” on the golf schedule where it belongs. While much of the country looks to the Masters as the start of spring and the beginning of the golf season, those of us in North Florida know, our games are already rounding into shape during some good weather days in February and March.

It’s the right call and a good fit. Nothing’s ever wrong with being 1st on the schedule.

Players Says “Adapt” To THE PLAYERS In March

Without the old burden of achieving status as the “Fifth Major” gone, you knew it was only a matter of time before The Players moved back to March. Earlier in the year, the PGA of America announced that the PGA Championship will be moving to May with the PGA Tour moving the Players back to it’s March timeframe. Moving the PGA Championship is not unprecedented and although there’s a concern that the early date on the golf calendar might eliminate some traditional northern courses as venues, May opens the door for courses in the Southeast, Florida, Texas and even Southern California.

Moving The Players has been a topic since the tournament was started in the ’70’s. It started in Atlanta on Labor Day in 1974, moved to Ft. Worth the next year in August and then to Ft. Lauderdale the following February. When it moved to Ponte Vedra and Sawgrass Country Club it was played in mid-March before settling on the last week of March in 1983.

Moving to March has gotten different reactions from the players involved. Former champ Phil Mickelson says the course was designed to play in March weather.

“There’s a lot of holes like that where we’ve got to fly it on and stop it,” Phil said on Tuesday. “I think the way it played in March, I kind of preferred over the firm, fast. I don’t think when it was designed, it was designed to be firm, fast the way it has played the last few years.”

Three factors worked against The Players in March in the Tour’s quest to make it the 5th Major. Weather could always be a factor, but as anybody who lives in North Florida knows, we’re as likely to have a week of perfect weather as anything else and much of the memories of the Players in March include perfect weather. There were a couple of Monday finishes, but for the most part, delays in the competition were minor. In it’s quest for a spot on the overall sports calendar as a significant sporting event, the tournament switched from CBS to NBC once CBS made a commitment to the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Nobody’s going to forget about March Madness because the Players is happening, and at times that was a sticking point for the decision-makers at the Tour. And finally, the last week of March also happens to be two weeks before the first full week of April and that’s always The Masters.

When contested in March, there wasn’t a tournament that went by without many of the storylines focused on the contestants preparing for Augusta. The Players creator, then-Commissioner Deane Beman, didn’t like any talk about the Masters, wanting his tournament to gain “Major” status as a true “players championship.” Despite his protests, Beman had one eye on what they were doing at Augusta National as he developed The Players. His competitive nature would not allow otherwise.

“This is our championship,” he was fond of saying. Deane had a prickly nature about him when it came to competing with Augusta and the Masters and didn’t like it when the basketball tournament was on television in the hospitality suites, the clubhouse and the media center. When he could control what people were watching, he did. (We couldn’t watch the basketball in the media center more than once.)

A winner two years ago, Rickie Fowler says it’s about adapting.

“Luckily it’s still the same golf course, still the same look, but just make that adjustment as far as wind direction,” he explained. “I mean, I feel like we do that on a day-to-day basis when it comes to a place like the Open Championship overseas.

When he took over as the PGA Tour Commissioner in 1994, Tim Finchem had many of the same thoughts about The Players and even more about it’s relationship with Jacksonville. Under Finchem, the Tour tried to separate the tournament once known as the “GJO” from the city entirely, stressing to the assembled media, “the dateline is Ponte Vedra.” There was no reference to it being one of the beaches associated with Jacksonville in any of the promotional material regarding the tournament nor on the national telecast. The dis-association with the city was strongest when Finchem and the Tour decided that The Players should be an international destination for fans and that the local flavor and support of the tournament was holding it back from it’s rightful place in the pantheon of professional golf competition.

They came to their senses a few years ago when Matt Rapp took over as the Executive Director and they refocused on the local community, it’s support, fan base, and the tournament’s reputation as a “must attend” event (and party) in North Florida. Current Players boss Jared Rice seems to have the same charge from new Commissioner Jay Monahan.

Outside of the playing conditions, PGA Champion Justin Thomas said the Players deserves more respect and will probably get it in March.

“Yeah, it’ll be exciting. It’ll be cool just because I think all of us on the TOUR feel that this event can stand on its own,” he said. “It’s not like it’s another event, and it’s no disrespect to the other events, but this is our championship, this is THE PLAYERS Championship. This has a very major-like field, has a very major-like feel, air to it. The roars are very similar. So it’ll be cool to kind of have a major tournament, one a month there, starting in March”

Masters Memories: Sam’s 40 Years At Augusta

Getting an invitation to cover the Masters when I was at Channel 2 in Charleston in late 1978 was an unexpected and welcome surprise. I took my Dad as my cameraman since it was a one-man sports department at the time. We rented a room through the Augusta Housing Bureau and were both amazed the first time we walked on the grounds.

Beautiful and manicured beyond belief “The National” as locals know it, exceeded expectations. The southern hospitality there is no myth: Everybody is unfailingly polite.

I must have looked lost standing outside the Quonset hut that served as the pressroom because PGA Tour media director Tom Place walked out and asked, “Do you need help Sam?” Seeing so many titans of sports journalism in one place was a bit stunning for a young reporter.

After Fuzzy Zoeller’s playoff win, an Augusta National member had him in a cart bringing him up from the 11th green. It was pretty dark but I was standing there by the 18th green with my father holding the camera and the member brought Fuzzy right to me, much to my surprise.

“I don’t see him, I don’t see him,” I could hear my Dad saying behind me. While running a camera in those days was pretty simple, the viewfinder and the camera were separate, connected by a hinge. My Dad was looking straight ahead through the viewfinder but the camera had drooped off the front and was pointing at the ground. As Zoeller walked up to me, I reached back and grabbed the camera and pointed it at the new Masters winner. “There he is,” my Dad said as I told him to hit the “record” button.

I asked Fuzzy a question about winning with his wife expecting their first child and he gave a standard Fuzzy Zoeller answer that included a joke. As I brought the microphone back to my face to ask a second question, out of the darkness what seemed to be a hundred microphones pointed at me in our little circle of light. The most prominent was from a network in Australia. My first thought was “Man, this is a big deal.”

We used to stand in the gravel parking lot under a sign that said “Media” to do our live shots during the Masters. One year we took the satellite truck and Bob Maupin, our engineer, found a dogwood tree down Washington Road in a public park that was pretty accessible. We lit the tree and did a week’s worth of shows there, honestly saying “Live from Augusta.” The media committee once wired a connection for local media from the parking lot to the edge of the ropes surrounding the famous oak tree outside the clubhouse and we went live from there. Greg Norman heckled me from the porch that year and we had a good laugh about it afterwards. Most recently our live broadcasts were from behind the big scoreboard along the first fairway, looking out on the expanse of green that makes up the golf course. Each time we’d pop up from there, Anchorman Tom Wills would say, “It’s just breathtaking.” (I took Tom to Augusta as my cameraman in 1983!)

I’ve created lifelong relationships at Augusta. My friendship with Pat Summerall grew there. I got to know Ken Venturi and Ben Wright. I did some golf with Verne Lundquist in the infancy of cable television and we’ve stayed friends ever since. Every year I’d renew my friendship with Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer, (from my days as a bartender in DC) smoking a cigar and having a cocktail with them on the veranda at the back of the clubhouse.

There’s a picture of me in the 1981 Masters yearbook waiting to interview, Tom Watson, that year’s winner. When I see it I’m reminded of the intimacy that Augusta National had then for players, fans and media. There’s always a reverence for the game, the course and the traditions. Smokers won’t even throw their cigarette butts on the ground. I’ve seen patrons put them out and stick them in their pocket.

Even with all of the changes that have happened in the last 40 years, that intimacy remains when you step on the grounds.

People remain unfailingly polite. There’s no running. No cell phones on the property. No selfies or other social media cataloging every second. Just a reunion or a rebirth of sorts every year.

A lot more than just golf when you say the words, “The Masters.”

At The Masters In Augusta, It’s Emotional

Before the traditional Green Jacket ceremony in the Butler Cabin at Augusta National, CBS ran a montage of players over the years reacting to a question about winning the Masters. The response was universal, a long exhale with a faraway look in their eyes. It’s enormous from a golf standpoint. A major championship, endorsements and a signature win.

But winning the Masters is much more than that.

When a player wins the U.S. Open, it’s an achievement. Much is made of the qualifying process and the USGA’s protection of “par” on the golf course. You’re the best player in America as the U.S. Open champion. At The Open, they declare you the “Champion Golfer of the Year” and from an international standpoint, no title is more recognized. You beat all-comers. The PGA is an accomplishment, winning among your peers, almost a throwback to the days when not every best player turned pro and played what became the PGA Tour.

At the Masters, it’s emotional.

It’s the only major that’s played on the same golf course every year. In fact, it might be the only significant sporting event that uses the same venue annually. The World Cup travels, so does the Super Bowl. The Daytona 500 is always at Daytona, obviously, but it’s stature and appeal outside of NASCAR fans is limited.

When the Augusta Invitational started in 1934, it was an idea that Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones had to bring together the best players just as the weather began to break in northern Georgia. Writers traveling from baseball spring training in Florida would find it convenient to stop off in Augusta to cover the golf. Editors in the northeast weren’t put off by the stopover, as there was limited extra expense. Horton Smith’s win in ’34 wasn’t overly celebrated. But as is widely know, Roberts and Jones understood that putting on a golf tournament and having people know about your tournament were two different things. Through the reporting of the iconic sportswriters of the time the Augusta Invitational became the Masters. Herbert Warren Wind dubbed the 11th, 12th and 13th at Augusta “Amen Corner” after a blues tune he knew from the ’30’s. Gene Sarazen’s double-eagle gave some mystery and verve to the tournament as eyewitness accounts were reported breathlessly by the major newspapers of the era. Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead playing and winning showed it was important.

But it wasn’t until Arnold Palmer showed up and started winning did it get emotional. That’s how Palmer played and he transferred that emotion to Augusta National and the Masters. Although he won four times, it’s the near misses that are as easily remembered in Palmer’s career at Augusta and the emotion those evoked. As television emerged as a vehicle to bring golf to the masses, TV executives like Frank Chirkinian knew Arnold was telegenic and projected that emotion right through the screen and into our living rooms. (By the way, Chirkinian also invented the “under” or “over” par scoring for television we still use today.) And it didn’t hurt that TV could bring beautiful pictures of a golf course to the millions still saddled by snow and bad weather throughout the country.

As Jack Nicklaus emerged as the best player, the emotions at the Masters still centered on Palmer as the crowd favorite. He brought a visceral connection among the fans at the Masters as he tried to hold off the then unemotional and methodical Golden Bear. Unlike previous golf “rivalries” where you had your favorite and were polite to their competitors, Palmer fans didn’t like Jack and let everybody know. Arnold evoked an emotional response even when he didn’t win.

I say Nicklaus was unemotional, but Jack burned with a competitive fire that centered on winning and beating Palmer. He didn’t show it much, that wasn’t his personality, but being around the two it was obvious they had a deep friendship but also a competitive nature that never abated. Until recently, Jack was the most un-sentimental champion I had ever met. Even when he won his sixth Green Jacket in 1986, it wasn’t until 20 years later that Jack started to embrace the emotion of Augusta National publicly. Tom Watson is kind of the same way. Johnny Miller once said, “Golf champions aren’t chummy,” and maybe he’s right. It’s such an individual game that it breeds and inner strength among the best players.

Sometimes the emotions of nearly winning are equal to those of winning. It’s so demanding as a golf course and as a competition and it is such a big deal that the best players of their era just don’t win at Augusta. Tom Weiskopf, Greg Norman, Tom Kite, David Duval, Ernie Els and others are supposed to be Masters Champions. Their runner-up finishes are legendary. Art Wall, Doug Ford, Gay Brewer, George Archer, Tommy Aaron, Charles Coody, Larry Mize, Mike Weir, Charl Schwartzel, Trevor Immelman and Danny Willet, distinguished players but not household names, even in the golf world, have Green Jackets.

Winning the Masters usually brings an emotional response not seen anywhere else.

Ben Crenshaw cried both times he won. Phil Mickelson’s amazement at winning could only happen on 18 at Augusta. Sergio Garcia dropped his face in his hands after beating Justin Rose last year. That doesn’t happen at a regular tour even or even the other three majors.

It only happens at Augusta.

Tiger Exceeds The Hype, Comes Back To Earth

Sometimes it’s funny, other times it’s strange, a celebration or even sad to follow an athlete’s career. In the 40 year’s I’ve been in sports journalism, I’ve experienced just about all of that. From watching Emmitt Smith and Chipper Jones in high school and seeing their careers take them to the Hall of Fame to knowing Brett Myers as a kid, seeing his pitching career take him to the majors as a World Series champion, and now a career as a singer. Even the biggest sports celebrities’ start somewhere, so knowing Tim Tebow, as a high school sophomore is how I remember him best. By the way, may people, including his dad, did think baseball was where he’d make his professional mark.

There’s always a lot of hype about the “best they’ve ever seen” when kids are young players. Marques Dupree, Marquette Smith and Robert Pollard are names that popped up when they were very young. Only two athletes in my career have exceeded the hype: LeBron James and Tiger Woods.

While I’ve seen LeBron play often on TV and occasionally in person while covering the Orlando Magic, I’d say the expectations of what he’d be coming out of high school underestimated not just the player he is but also the determination and will he has as a person.

Starting with his appearance at the LA Open in 1992, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods was a name that every sports journalist who covered golf knew. “Tiger” was a unique enough name; the story of how he got it was enough to make any profile pretty colorful. And his dad was omnipresent, telling anybody who would listen how his son was not only going to be the best golfer ever, but, well, here’s his quote: “Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity. … He is the Chosen One. He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations.” That’s what Earl Woods was saying about his son the golfing prodigy.

In 1994 Tiger played in the US Amateur at the TPC Stadium course as a skinny kid with a big hat and a bigger game. “These one-on-one interviews,” was his answer when I asked the 18 year old if there was anything he didn’t like about how his life was going. I thought I’d get an answer about travel, or weather or something like that. I laughed it off to youthful exuberance, cockiness necessary to be great or whatever. But Woods was serious, and as his career blossomed, he stopped doing any “one on one” interviews outside of the networks and now only makes news on his own website.

There was an incident where Tiger told an off-color joke to a magazine reporter in New York who broke the “off the record” code, printed it, and Tiger felt betrayed. He clammed up after that.

I’ve been critical of Woods’ demeanor throughout his career, I’ve written how he was rude and blew reporters off, was unnecessarily short and curt. Sometimes even mean-spirited. My brother was working for the PGA Tour at the time when Woods was a rookie and a young player and saw Tiger’s public persona develop first-hand. Tiger’s nickname early in his career was “Erkel” after the sitcom character that had few social skills and was generally nerdy. My brother confirmed my thought about Tiger. I didn’t think much of him as a guy. He approached being the most famous person on the planet, something few people know about. But his actions didn’t come close to Ali, Palmer or others in that same situation.

But his play was something completely different.

When he left Stanford, like a lot of professional observers, I thought Tiger was fit into the game at the highest level but would find the competition pretty stiff. That was until I went to Orlando to watch him play at Disney. Wow was I impressed. When somebody hits a golf ball it’s supposed to be at a certain height, at a certain speed at a certain time when you watch it. Tiger’s was higher, faster and better than everybody’s the first time he teed it up. And it only got better.

He was a great athlete who chose golf and reshaped his body to fit the modern game. Instead of a skinny kid, Tiger looked like the middleweight champion and then the light heavyweight of the world. He hit it harder and farther than anybody. And he putted the lights out.

Changing his body and the violence of his swing took a toll on his body and he eventually broke down. His off course issue was well documented and publicized. And his bout with prescription drugs seemed to be the bottom.

I ran into him in early 2017 at a retirement party at his club in Jupiter. I was asked to kind of “save” him from being pestered by everybody there. We spent some time together and for the first time I felt sorry for the guy. He was as awkward as I’d ever seen him. Could barely hold a conversation. Small talk was a chore. Ok, maybe it was me, but I really felt bad for him.

Fast-forward about six months; Tiger’s gone through a rehab after being pulled over for DUI. His body is healing and his golf game is returning. I ran into him at the same club as I was hitting some putts on the practice green.

“Hey Sam, you know Tiger,” my host said as I walked to put away my putter with Woods pulling up in his cart. “Of course,” I said as we shook hands.”

“Jacksonville, right?” Tiger said as he sat back in his cart. I smiled and said, “Yep” anticipating a quick exit as usual.

Instead, the three of us sat there for about 15 minutes talking about everything guys talk about, sharing laughs and jabs, just like it’s supposed to happen.

When he left, I turned to my host and said, “What happened to him? He’s like a different person.”

And that’s the same person we’ve seen in his return to the limelight. He’s agreeable in interviews. He listens to the questions. He tells jokes and smiles. Remember Tiger saying the “second was the first loser” early in his career? Last week walking up 18, Woods smiled and was appreciative of the crowd’s response, despite hitting it OB on 16, bogeying 17 and knowing he wasn’t going to win. That’s a complete turnaround from his former self.

So whatever you attribute it to, being humbled, being a parent, being injured, what ever, I’m hoping Tiger keeps using that same personality. It’s normal, and natural. It’s actually warm.

There’s a steely determination necessary to win in sports at the highest level. Tiger has shown over and over that he has that. I suppose keeping it there, inside the ropes, will take an adjustment. But it’ll be worth it.

Tiger’s Back At Bay Hill

Winning Arnold Palmer’s tournament in March seemed like a rite of spring during Tiger Woods’ PGA Tour heyday. An 8-time champion, Tiger tied Sam Snead for the most wins at any tournament in Tour history. Snead won in Greensboro eight times as well.

But even with that kind of success and familiarity, Tiger spend part of the late morning surveying the Bay Hill course by golf cart before spending some time on the putting green gauging the speed of the greens on Tuesday.

“It should be a fun week,” Woods said anticipating good weather for the tournament starting Thursday. “I used to live here (he moved to Jupiter Island), my kids were born here in Orlando, I know a lot of people here and I’ve won here.”

In Tampa, Tiger’s appearance and surge up the leaderboard through the weekend drove the Valspar Championship to record levels in attendance and television ratings. With Tiger in the field and in contention there were four times the number of people in the gallery and watching on NBC as compared to last year.

Known as the “Tiger effect,” just Woods’ presence creates a buzz around any tournament he plays. Bay Hill is already electric. Masters tickets are a hot item. And although it’s not until May, The Players is anticipating a jump in attendance with Tiger in the field.

“A sellout is tough because we have so much space here,” said The Players Executive Director Jared Rice this week. “But this being the fifth anniversary of Tiger’s last win here and what he’s done for golf and the kind player he is, you can’t help but be excited at the possibility he’ll be back.”

On the PGA Tour players don’t have to commit to a tournament until the Friday before, and that’s typically been Tiger’s routine. But if he’s healthy, he’ll be at The Players.

“Hanging around on the range just isn’t possible anymore,” Woods said of his practice routine. “I get my work done and get out of there. Lingering for three or four hours I just don’t do. Some of that is just being an older athlete.”

Part of the misconception of his injury was that he couldn’t swing a club. Woods said that wasn’t it at all. It was more about bending over to hold the putter or a wedge that caused his back the most pain.

“I’ve finally at a point where I can let my hands tell me what to do. My back is healthy enough to trust it and let my hands play,” Tiger explained. “I’ve gone back to a lot of the things I did with my Dad.”

Finishing one shot back last week in Tampa, Woods said he could tell he’s getting sharper in competition, able to hit shots he sees in his mind. A fade or a draw, his “stinger” or a bombing driver, Tiger knows he’ll need all of those shots to win on the Tour with today’s level of competition.

“Paul (Casey, the winner) just laid it to us,” Tiger said of being in the mix on Sunday. “I knew I’d have to play well because these young guys can play. They’ve done well and it’s no surprise.”

You could tell that playing at Bay Hill, Arnold’s tournament is special to Tiger and he’ll miss seeing him on the golf course. He talked about the times he’d played here with Palmer as a kid and as a professional in “The Shootout” 9 (the daily noon game at Bay Hill) and the times they shared on the green when he won and in the locker room afterwards.

“I can’t make that thing he did with hitching his pants on the side look cool,” Woods said when asked if he’s tried to emulate Palmer in any way.

In a bit of a surprise, Woods was named the American captain of the 2019 Presidents Cup team. He’s been an assistant on both the Presidents Cup and the Ryder Cup but still only 42 years old; Woods expects to be a “playing captain” and not having to use one of his at-large picks to put himself on the team.

“Have you thought about being a ‘playing captain?” was the first question of the presser.

“I have,” Woods said immediately with a smile to raucous laughter among the media.

Jeff Klauk Back On The Course

It was cool and dreary. A light rain fell all morning during the annual charity shootout during Media Day at The Players.

And none of that mattered to former PGA Tour player and North Florida resident Jeff Klauk. He was back on the golf course, thinking about yardages, the wind and the shot he needed to hit under pressure.

“Normally that would be a nice, smooth, easy wedge but the wind picked up and the cool temperatures with the rain, that was 125 yards,” he explained after winning the shootout, hitting it to one foot. “It was just as soft a 9-iron as I can hit because I didn’t want to hit it a hard wedge. So, that turned out to be the best shot in a long time.”

Success on the golf course is familiar to Klauk. At this point, just being on the golf course is a win. Klauk’s golf career was derailed by epilepsy six years ago. He’s undergone several lengthy procedures, most recently a potential “fix” at Emory in Atlanta.

“It went well,” he explained. “I’m still in the process of healing up and getting used to things. I am getting used to the word time. I have heard that word an awful lot, time of healing, so I am just trying to be as patient as I can.”

It’s the third time he’s won the shootout, but his time on the course has been severely curtailed.

“I haven’t played much golf to say the least,” he said after accepting a check for $10,000 for his charity, Athletes vs. Epilepsy. “I have hit a few shots with my son and that’s really about it. So it is good to be back out here at the course.”

“Especially today being out here with people watching, hitting shots with everybody around, having my parents here and everything. That’s what you feel in tournaments, feeling a little bit of pressure representing your charity and showing people you can still hit some good shots. It was great, a lot of fun.”

His golf tournament raises money for epilepsy research and is coming up next month.

“April 9th, the Monday after The Masters is my tournament at Palencia,” Jeff explained. “I need people to come out and play so they can go register at athletesvsepilepsygolf.com. I would love to get everybody out there, it will be a lot of fun and we will have a good time.”

And as a competitor who’s been on the course and in the field with Tiger Woods, Klauk is as impressed as anybody with what Tiger has been able to do in his latest comeback.

“It is impressive. He is going to do it (win) soon. Obviously his short game is back, that’s the most impressive, and that putting, making all of those up and downs. I know he was saying he was between yardages yesterday but he will get those wedges dialed in. I wouldn’t be surprised if he shocks everybody at the Masters.”

The PLAYERS In March Is The Right Fit

Without the old burden of achieving status as the “Fifth Major” you knew it was only a matter of time before The Players moved back to March. Tuesday the PGA of America will announce that the PGA Championship will be moving to May with the PGA Tour moving the Players back to it’s March timeframe. Moving the PGA Championship is not unprecedented and although there’s a concern that the early date on the golf calendar might eliminate some traditional northern courses as venues, May opens the door for courses in the Southeast, Florida, Texas and even Southern California.

Moving The Players has been a topic since the tournament was started in the ’70’s. It started in Atlanta on Labor Day in 1974, moved to Ft. Worth the next year in August and then to Ft. Lauderdale the following February. When it moved to Ponte Vedra and Sawgrass Country Club it was played in mid-March before settling on the last week of March in 1983.

Three factors worked against The Players in March in the Tour’s quest to make it the 5th Major. Weather could always be a factor, but as anybody who lives in North Florida knows, we’re as likely to have a week of perfect weather as anything else and much of the memories of the Players in March include perfect weather. There were a couple of Monday finishes, but for the most part, delays in the competition were minor. In it’s quest for a spot on the overall sports calendar as a significant sporting event, the tournament switched from CBS to NBC once CBS made a commitment to the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Nobody’s going to forget about March Madness because the Players is happening, and at times that was a sticking point for the decision-makers at the Tour. And finally, the last week of March also happens to be two weeks before the first full week of April and that’s always The Masters.

When contested in March, there wasn’t a tournament that went by without many of the storylines focused on the contestants preparing for Augusta. The Players creator, then-Commissioner Deane Beman, didn’t like any talk about the Masters, wanting his tournament to gain “Major” status as a true “players championship.” Despite his protests, Beman had one eye on what they were doing at Augusta National as he developed the players. His competitive nature would allow otherwise.

“This is our championship,” he was fond of saying. Deane had a prickly nature about him when it came to competing with Augusta and the Masters and didn’t like it when the basketball tournament was on television in the hospitality suites, the clubhouse and the media center. When he could control what people were watching, he did. (We couldn’t watch the basketball in the media center more than once.)

When he took over as the PGA Tour Commissioner in 1994, Tim Finchem had many of the same thoughts about The Players and even more about it’s relationship with Jacksonville. Under Finchem, the Tour tried to separate the tournament once known as the “GJO” from the city entirely, stressing to the assembled media, “the dateline is Ponte Vedra.” There was no reference to it being one of the beaches associated with Jacksonville in any of the promotional material regarding the tournament nor on the national telecast. The dis-association with the city was strongest when Finchem and the Tour decided that The Players should be an international destination for fans and that the local flavor and support of the tournament was holding it back from it’s rightful place in the pantheon of professional golf competition.

They came to their senses a few years ago when Matt Rapp took over as the Executive Director and they refocused on the local community, it’s support, fan base, and the tournament’s reputation as a “must attend” event (and party) in North Florida.

I’ve always said that most of the locals who attend The Players think every PGA Tour event is like that. Of course the Players is like nothing else out there, taking the best from every PGA Tour stop all year and incorporating it into the Stadium Course. It’s not only the best run PGA Tour event, it might be the best run sporting event anywhere as well. It’s a sought after hospitality opportunity for corporations all over the world as well as businesses in Jacksonville and North Florida. It’s a nice blend of both.

Which brings us to the current Commissioner Jay Monahan and the move back to March. Monahan said during this year’s Players that they were “considering all options” and they didn’t have any plans to move the tournament “at this time.” Jay doesn’t have a problem with the proximity to the Masters nor the concurrent time frame of the NCAA Tournament. It doesn’t need it’s own month on the calendar or separation from the majors to draw attention. He sees the Players as a stand-alone sporting event and now, in 2017, he’s right. The tournament has it’s own following, it’s own stature and maybe most importantly, it’s a very big deal to the modern day PGA Tour player. Adam Scott was the first champion to say, “This is the tournament I’ve dreamed of winning.” And that was in 2004.

Gone are the days that “Deane’s tournament” was vying for significant status ahead of “Arnold’s tournament” or “Jack’s tournament” on the PGA Tour. Beman’s drive to put the Tour in the club and course building business rankled more than a few of his contemporaries, so they weren’t all fired up about supporting the TPC, as it was originally called.

From a nuts and bolts standpoint, a move to March will bring the golf course condition and the wind direction back to where the Stadium Course was originally intended by designer Pete Dye. They can make the course as hard and fast as they want.

And it’ll put the Players back in the “Florida Swing” on the golf schedule where it belongs. While much of the country looks to the Masters as the start of spring and the beginning of the golf season, those of us in North Florida know, our games are already rounding into shape during some good weather days in February and March.

It’s the right call and a good fit. Nothing ever wrong with being 1st on the schedule.

TPC Performance Center Will Make You Better

Gone are the days of hitting iron after iron, driver after driver to find the one that “feels” right. Technology has changed all of that. Measuring every aspect of your golf swing and the result is an every day occurrence in today’s game. The new TPC Performance Center at Sawgrass is tying all aspects of the game together in one place and giving players a chance to be the best player they can be. It’s a big step from an hour on the range hitting 20 different drivers.

“Nothing’s more of a step than this,” said Todd Anderson, the Performance Center Director. If his name is familiar, Anderson comes to the TPC from Sea Island where he was in charge of their performance set up and happened to tutor two of the last four FedEx Cup winners. His track record speaks for itself.

“We have everything you need to improve as a player. The practice area, the balls, the targets, all of it is top of the line. Then you come into our building and see the technology to really quantify the different parts of somebody’s game. Nobody will be ahead of us.”

While the game is looking for growth and keeping players interested, it’s always been focused on the score. How do I lower my score? Can I get my handicap lower? Anderson says that’s their focus as well.

“The key is can we change the number,” he explained. “Here are the things you need to do to get there. We’re trying to find a way to assess people’s games when they come in. How can we take all this information and put together a package to help you improve as a specific player.”

At the TPC Performance Center they have three instruction bays with full video and display screens. That have a top-100 club fitter on staff with what seems to be every combination of shaft and head for irons and metal -woods possible. A state of the art video/computer-putting lab dissects your stroke and shows you how to improve. And while everybody can’t be the athlete Dustin Johnson is as the #1 player in the world, the Performance Center has a full gym with a golf-specific athletic trainer who can test your movement and prescribe a fitness routine to help you be a better player.

“When you see the top players getting better, there’s no reason the rest of us can’t also improve,” Anderson said. “Not everybody has a full time job playing golf. So that’s the goal: to “dumb it down” to the average guy who’s playing golf. Take that information, that plan. Figure out how much time and energy you want to put into it so you can play better. That’s the goal.”

There have been several steps in this direction from club manufacturers. Taylor Made had “The Kingdom” in Carlsbad, CA and a smaller version in other locations. (Including TPC Sawgrass) and Nike had “The Oven” in Dallas where they could “cook” Tour player’s games to perfection. Nike’s out of the club business and Taylor Made is for sale. But the TPC Performance Center takes all the best aspects of what they did in those places and what Anderson was doing at Sea Island and puts it in one spot.

“Being able to take the different aspects of improving your game; fitness, club fitting, instruction, it’s come a long way,” Todd said with a smile. “You can now quantify improvement. It used to be just with your score. Now, I can tell you longer, straighter, club head speed, all of that. It’s the same thing with fitness. Use the technology to help you as a student to show you how you’re improving and where you need more work.”

If you’re into being the best player you can be, you’re behind the curve if you haven’t optimized your equipment and taken a good look at your game. But it comes at a cost.

A full game assessment at the Performance Center is $199 (for now) a pretty good value for about three hours of looking at your golf game. You’ll leave there with information on how to get better. A club fitting through your bag is $375 and is also about 3 hours. When you leave there, you’ll know what equipment fits your game in its current state.

If you have an unlimited golf budget, you’ll spend hours and hours there honing your game and your new equipment and no doubt, you’ll leave a better player. If you have any kind of budget, the assessment is a good starting point to figure out how much more you want to spend to lower your scores.

Players Is Big And Getting Bigger

If you made it out to The Players this year, you saw a lot of changes to the golf course and even the traffic flow for the tournament. It was a big undertaking from almost every perspective. Fans were getting a new experience and the players needed to adjust to a revamped golf course.

“A renovation and a change to the infrastructure of this magnitude hasn’t been done since the course was originally constructed,” The Players Executive Director Jared Rice said this week. “So, to see how fans behaved and moved around the golf course was really helpful to see what adjustments we need to make, primarily infrastructure, getting in and out easier, moving around the golf course easy, making sure that we have amenities like food and beverage placed in the right places.”

As a golf tournament, The Players remains somewhere between the four majors and the week-to-week competition on the PGA Tour. But as a sporting event, it nearly has no peer. From the traffic flow to the food and drink available, The Players is organized, efficient and fun. While the bulk of the spectators are locals, the Tour has tried to market the event nationally and internationally, making it a destination event. It’s not a Major; it might never be a Major. But it’s a combination of every best thing offered at PGA Tour events every week. It’s not like a regular tour stop.

“Think about 28 million viewers nationally watched this telecast,” Rice explained. “When fans and viewers see a really active and engaged and energized community, that delivers a feeling of ‘what a great property, I want to go to that tournament’ and really presents our community in a really positive light.”

Although the competitors in the field said the new 12th hole needed to be “tweaked” at the least, Rice said his feedback was that the fans liked the “drivable par four” aspect of the hole and the gathering places around the new design.

“I think 12 was really, really appreciated by our fans,” he said. “From the local restaurants we have around the golf course, Taco Lu being right there on 12, the shaded bleachers delivered a great vantage point of the 12th hole and the 13th green. It was as good as advertised and it will only get better in the future.”

From a sheer numbers standpoint, the 2017 tournament produced some eye-popping statistics. More than 35,000 complimentary military tickets were issued. The Patriots Outpost had 19,000 military visitors and their dependents over the week. There were nineteen regional restaurants featured on the course. Over 100,000 bottles of water were sold during the six days of the tournament. The hot dogs sold laid end to end would stretch out two miles long.

A total of 943 media credentials were issued for the tournament to 202 media outlets representing 17 countries. The Players was broadcast in 24 different languages to a potential audience of a billion viewers.

Would any of that change if they moved The Players back to March? There’s an argument to be made for both sides. The current May date gives it a “vacation” feel for fans and a summer tournament feel for the competitors. March signals the start of spring here in North Florida and it seemed a little higher control of your game “through your bag” was necessary to come away with a victory.

Either way, the tournament will continue to grow in size and stature as the current crop of competitors put an emphasis on winning at the Stadium Course.

“When you look at the national nature of who may come into our community and host or vacation in a March date, when you may have a lot of snow in the rest of the country, it is a very positive thing.,” Rice said about a potential change. “And then May, the weather has been fantastic, almost idyllic the past couple of years. There’s a lot of positives to May too, so it is a nice problem to have and one thing we know is whenever it is played, it will be the best fan experience in golf.”