Golf

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

THE PLAYERS: ONE OF A KIND

As always happens this time of year, the debate gets stirred up as to where The Players stands among golf tournaments.

Is it just another tournament?

Is it a Major?

The answer to both of those questions right now is no.

It’s far from just another tournament.

With all due respect to the volunteer forces around the country who put on weekly PGA Tour events, The Players is a couple of notches above any of those.

Being the showcase for the PGA Tour, in it’s backyard, they spare no expense to make it the marquee event on Tour. It’s their time to shine and they take advantage of it. I’ve said several times before and still believe it: this tournament isn’t only the best run golf tournament, it’s one of the best run sporting events in the world. It needs some tweaking, no doubt, but it’s way up there on the list of what a big event feels like.

But it’s not a major either, at least not yet. What it is is the championship of the PGA Tour.

Each of the four Majors has it’s on cachet.

The Masters is about the reverence for the game, the traditions of the game and the southern hospitality they consistently show at Augusta National. It’s very much about the game of golf.

The US Open is our national championship. If you think you’re good enough you can sign up somewhere in your town and have a chance to win the national title. Through qualifying and competition, anybody can get there.

The Open Championship honors the beginnings of the game, the elements and in some respects the way the game was invented to be played: through the elements. It also serves as the world championship for many, having been around (the game that is) before some countries were even formed.

The PGA Championship was a math play event as invented, mimicking the game most of us play among our “friends.” It also honors the nearly 30,000 professionals who keep the game alive in public and private clubs and continually try to grow the game.

The Players is none of those.

It’s about the fans, corporate hospitality, charity, television and a performance by the players as entertainment for the fans with a large amount of money on the line.

I heard several analysts last week say the 17th hole “holds the tournament back.”

From what?

The Tour itself is mirrored by the 17th hole. It’s difficult, corporate tents surround it, fans are everywhere and television has installed a dozen or so cameras to catch every angle of what happens.

Some have suggested it would be a better hole if it was somewhere else on the golf course so you might have a chance to recoup any lost strokes that might happen there. Actually it’s perfect where it is. It’s a lonely shot when you play there by yourself, standing out on that peninsula with nothing but water and the green in front of you. As the 71st hole in a championship, it should define the decision-making, the nerves and the execution it takes go finish the job.

Hit it or don’t. It’s that simple.

Seventeen isn’t holding the tournament back.

It defines what The Players is all about.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

TIGER AT THE PLAYERS

“Its about the angles and that makes it tough.”

And with that, Tiger Woods explained why the TPC Stadium course is so difficult for the best players in the world.

Pete Dye intended that way, and Tiger acknowledged that in his annual pre-tournament press conference.

“It’s pretty typical Pete. There aren’t many holes where you can just let out the driver. You have to find the right angles. And if you miss on the greens, you have some of the funkiest chips and lies you’ll ever see,” he explained.

Woods’ average finish is 21st at The Players at the Stadium Course. He won in 2001 but doesn’t see the course in it’s current form favoring any type of player.

“You have to hit it straight,” Tiger added to no one’s surprise.

“But you also have to have it in the right spot to come in to the green from the right angle.”

The change to Bermuda greens has also made the course more difficult according to the world’s number one player.

“Since the change to Bermuda it’s made some of these greets hot. It’s tough to get it close. And if you miss, you need a little luck.”

After his appearance at the Masters, Tiger said he took a week off and did nothing to do with golf and got back to training and working on his game about a week and a half ago. He’s a bit trimmer than he was a year ago, probably attributed to his ability to work out at the level he wants to without being injured.

When asked about his game after playing only 4 holes and going to the range, Tiger said he’s “very pleased,” with his game, which of course, is bad news for the rest of the field.

He’s part of the afternoon/morning tee grouping on Thursday and Friday at this year’s Players.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Golf in North Florida: It is (and isn’t) all about The Players

While most of the country is waiting for the “golf season” to start, we’re in the height of it here in North Florida. I know we generally never go out of the golf season, but there’s not a better time to play here than spring through early summer. The days are longer, the weather is milder and the golf courses are all nearly perfect. For three decades, The Players (TPC, Players Championship for those of you who have been around for a while) ramped up our thirst to play, scheduled in March. First at the beginning, then in the middle and finally at the end before making it’s move to May to occupy the spot open between the Masters and the US Open.

The move to May for The Players has mixed reviews so far. In the current spot on the calendar, it’s a natural “big tournament” for professional golf, filling the month-long void between the majors in April (The Masters) and June (The U.S. Open.) But if The Players is to every be considered a major it’ll take time, the respect of the players themselves, and a fan base that just can’t get enough. Right now, buying a ticket to The Players early in the week is not a problem. If you want to see the best players in the world “up close and personal” buy a Tuesday or Wednesday practice round ticket and head to TPC Sawgrass. It might be the easiest and best ticket in sports. The Players is not only the best run golf tournament in the world; it might be the best run sporting event around. Fan friendly, easy access, reasonably priced, plenty of food and drink and the best in the world at what they do right there.

Its taken a while for The Players to find a true identity. Deane Beman’s dream was to create a fifth major, run by the PGA Tour, a true Players Championship. But you can’t force things like that and the media, and a lot of fans rebelled. The move to a permanent home was met with some resistance by Tour players who were building a golf course design business of their own and didn’t think the Tour should be their competition. The Stadium Course itself struggled early-on with problems associated with being built in a swamp. And did the Tour want the winning score to be Greg Norman’s -24 or David Duval’s -3 on their home course?

The Tour is in Ponte Vedra because Beman brought it here. The success and the size of the volunteer force at the Greater Jacksonville Open convinced him that North Florida was the right place. The tournament is here because, through a few machinations, Deane couldn’t buy Sawgrass Country Club and the Fletcher’s had the foresight to sell the land to the Tour for $1 to build their course.

They’ve gone through a lot of growing pains to get where they are now, even forgetting that Jacksonville, and all of North Florida and South Georgia is where their bread’s buttered. Nonetheless, the tournament’s in the right spot, and in the right hands, with the right leadership, poised to grow in the players, the fans and the media’s eye every year. So when’s your tee time?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Players 2012: Big And Getting Bigger

I don’t know if it was the weather or just everybody’s mood but this year’s Players had a whole different feel from Monday through Sunday. It’s always been a party, and for a long time, that seemed to be the main focus of the people attending. But this year the events themselves, from the Military Appreciation Day on Wednesday to the final round on Sunday all seemed to have a purpose and a full draw when it comes to what the week has become.

People wanted to be there. They wanted to be a part of the military job fair on Monday. They wanted to see the stars play on Tuesday and hear what they had to say. They wanted to hear Luke Bryan on Wednesday and they wanted to watch golf when the first ball was in the air early Thursday morning.

With the unseasonably mild weather in the second half of the week, the fans were out in record numbers. There were more people there on Friday than I’ve ever seen at the tournament. And attendance figures show there were even more fans there on Sunday. People seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The players all praised the golf course as “Tough but fair. And the greens are perfect.” So all the years of moaning about the Stadium course seem to be something of the past. Not every player has to like every course, but this year, the criticisms were muted. There were plenty of new places for fans to sit, get out of the sun, cool off, get a drink and watch golf on TV.

The tournament’s new Executive Director Matt Rapp has a vision that the Players should be Jacksonville’s Kentucky Derby. He’s from Louisville and wants to bring that feel to this event. So far, he’s been successful, putting in at least a dozen places where the average fan felt like they had their own chalet pass. They’re planning on doing more next year.

The one thing that bothered me was the heckling of Kevin Na during the final round. If you spend one minute with that guy you can’t help but root for him. He’s accountable for his recent slow-play problems and says, “It’s my fault and I’m trying to fix it.” But for some guys to boo him and heckle him during arguably the biggest round of his life was wrong and unfair.

It reminded me of Hal Valdez in 1987 when he jumped into the water right before Jeff Sluman had a putt in the playoff against Sandy Lyle to win the tournament. As a spectator, it’s not our place to have a hand in the competition. It’s akin to jumping on the field and catching a ball in a baseball or football game. Na’s a nice player and I hope he gets his demons in order.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Tale of Two “Guys”: Tiger and Phil

I’ve been a bit of a watch geek since I was a kid. My dad tells a story of me taking apart a whole clock when I was two years old and apparently being very proud of it. So I’m always interested in what watches the players are wearing because they always have the high-end stuff.

The AP guys like Graeme McDowell and Rory McElroy have fantastic watches but a little above my pay grade. A lot of guys are Breitling or Rolex wearers and those are on my wish list.

So here’s a tale of two guys named Tiger and Phil. Both are sponsored by Rolex, Tiger just recently and Phil since the beginning of his career (Tiger’s had Rolex’s European sister brand Tudor and TAG as sponsors in the past).

I talked to Tiger four days in a row at the “flash” interview point so I wasn’t unfamiliar to him. On Sunday, he came to the interview with his watch on, a beautiful stainless steel with a black face divers watch. It looked like a new model so when he stepped off the podium I waited for a lull in the craziness that usually surrounds him and asked, “Tiger, is that a Sea Dweller you’re wearing?”

He had his back to me when I asked but when he processed the question; he turned to me and said, “What’s that?” “Sea Dweller?,” I repeated, pointing to my own wristwatch.

“Deep Sea” he quickly said, turned his back and walked off.

Deep Sea is version of the Rolex Sea Dweller, just thicker and can withstand more pressure. Tiger is a deep “free-diver” in his spare time, diving to depths without scuba gear or other assistance where possibly a regular watch couldn’t survive. It made sense that he was wearing that watch but I had to chuckle at his immediate reaction when I asked.

As an ambassador for Rolex you might think that he’d stop for at least a second to show it off or something like that. But alas, he turned his back and got out of there without another word.

You might have noticed that Phil Mickelson plays with his watch on his left wrist. Mickelson had his watch on each day when he came to the interview area and I talked with him four days in a row as well. When he finished on Sunday, he stepped off the podium toward me so I asked him the same question, “What Rolex is that you’re wearing?” Mickelson stepped toward me and held it up saying, “It’s the Cellini. I like it because it’s thin. See how it lays against my wrist?” he said as he held it up to eye level. “It’s not bulky and I can wear it while I play.”

“It’s the new Cellini?” I asked as we both admired his watch. “No,” Phil said, “I think it’s a couple years old. But I really like it.”

A chat about a watch, like a normal person would react. Even if he wasn’t an “ambassador” for the brand.

That might not seem like a big deal, but when anybody asks me about my watch, I like to engage them in conversation, figuring they might tell me something I don’t know about the watch. I get to see what they’re wearing, see what their ideas are about why they’re wearing it or whatever. I usually take it off, hand it to them. It might sound geeky but it’s something I like.

So that brief exchange with the two most famous golfers in the planet confirmed my thought about what kind of “guys” they are. I joke with my friends that Phil is “Us with money.” Tiger, on the other hand, is something completely different.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Lots of Golf Here

There aren’t too many better places to play golf in the world than here in North Florida and South Georgia. We can play year-‘round and some of the most desirable golf courses in the country are in our backyard. No matter where you look, north to Sea Island or Amelia, any one of the courses here in town, the places in Ponte Vedra or St. Augustine and even south to Palm Coast and Daytona, you can’t go wrong. Each one better than the next.

The interest in golf here is so high, it’s one of the reasons the PGA Tour has their headquarters here. Then Commissioner Deane Beman saw the support the Greater Jacksonville Open had among the fans and volunteers and along with the Fletcher brothers offer to sell the Tour the land for $1, a whole destination, community and world famous tournament sprung up under our noses.

There’s plenty of history surrounding the game, and not just what has happened at the Stadium Course at the TPC at Sawgrass.

The Jacksonville Open was part of the barnstorming tour of professionals going around the country. Hyde Park on the Westside was it’s home and the top names in golf were playing here for prize money. The 6th hole at Hyde Park is known as “Hogan’s Alley.” It’s a par three where the future Hall of Famer made an eleven. When asked how he made an eleven on the par three, Hogan reportedly looked at the lone reporter there, took a long drag on his cigarette and said, “I missed a five footer for ten.” (It’s a line that parodied in the film “Tin Cup” by Kevin Costner.)

The Ryder Cup was scheduled to be played here at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club in 1939, but the matches were cancelled because of WWII.

The whole concept of the Greater Jacksonville Open, the GJO, got it’s genesis when local golf pioneers Dick Stratton, John Tucker and others were sitting on stools at Silver’s Drug Store in Jacksonville Beach. Those guys knew Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus personally and figured if they could get the big three to come, the tournament would have a chance.

There’s a plaque in the fairway at Selva Marina’s 18th hole commemorating Jack Nicklaus’ double-eagle on his way to victory. Arnold Palmer owned Hidden Hills and the tournament there and the associated reverie raised a lot of eyebrows in town. And there’s the story of a famous player who played in the afternoon in Thursday’s first round when the GJO was at Deerwood and emerged from the bushes on Friday morning wearing the same clothes for his second round. Apparently the party at Deerwood after hours was pretty good!

Could you imagine a location called the “Swingers Tent” going over in our current politically correct environment? But that was the name of THE place on A1A when fans, players and officials alike left the golf course and headed north from Sawgrass Country Club. That tent had it’s own set of stories. As the home of The Players, the Stadium Course has it’s own share of stories as well, although most are now confined to the course. To clear out underbrush on that island left of 14, a bunch of goats were brought in, (thus the name “Goat Island”). One night when the water was low, the goats made their way to the clubhouse and climbed on the roof, eating away at shingles and causing all kinds of havoc. Beman was not happy.

Most players didn’t care for the course or the tournament early on. From Lee Trevino’s “We shouldn’t have to putt on dirt,” to Nicklaus’ “I don’t think you should have to hit 4-iron into the hood of a car,” Pete Dye’s design was not met with universal acclaim. But Jerry Pate jumped in the water, Fuzzy Zoeller wiped Greg Norman’s brow, Davis Love hooked a 1-iron out of the woods and onto 16 and the legend started to grow.

Although the tournament belongs much more to the PGA Tour now than to us, it’s still part of our history. A rich history of golf that’s exciting, dramatic, and quirky all at the same time.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tiger’s Accident

A quick phone call as I was walking out the door started about an hour of frenzied investigation, clothes changes and u-turns. All for a car accident, all for a guy who hits a golf ball for a living.

All for Tiger Woods.

When I first heard that Tiger had been in a car accident the normal “reporter” questions flashed through my head. Where? When? Why? Which lead to other questions like: What was he doing driving out of his house at 2:25 am? He hit a what? A fire hydrant? And a tree? None of it made sense of course, and the idea that Tiger was in “serious” condition in a local hospital had me driving straight to work to do more investigating and get the story on the early news and keep it simple.

Of course the story changed about five times in the next 20 minutes. Tiger’s bleeding, Tiger’s in serious condition. Tiger’s still in the hospital. Tiger’s disfigured, blah, blah, blah. But sifting through that kind of information is what I’m supposed to do, and I was making phone calls, confirming some stuff and getting a laugh out of some others.

That Tiger was in a car accident is definitely news. That he was hurt is bigger news, and his condition is what everybody would want to know. The rest isn’t important. No alcohol, no drugs, no speeding and his wife had to use a golf club to knock out the back window of his 2009 Escalade in order to help Tiger out of the car.

The rest is speculation and none of our business.

There’s a report in one of the well-known tabloid magazines that Tiger has been carrying on with a woman, not his wife, at various stops around the world. So was Tiger in a fight with his wife about this report and stormed out of the house? It’s none of our business. What ever it is, there’s nothing in Tiger’s private life that shouldn’t stay private. We’re not entitled to any more information than what’s contained in the police report. Despite the insatiable desire to get any sort of salacious information, it’s none of our business.

Stay out of it. If Tiger’s got a family issue, it’s just that, a family issue.

Maybe it’s something as simple as the gas pedal got stuck on the floor. Maybe it’s something as complicated as family problems. Whatever it is, what we should be interested in is if he returns to the Tour. If his health is OK. If he’s still motivated to be the greatest player in the world.

Outside of that.

None of our business.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Arnold Palmer… More Than a Name

There are certain invitations you don’t turn down. A chance to have lunch and spend a good part of the day with Arnold Palmer is one of those.

Palmer’s Bay Hill golf course went through a major renovation this summer. As is customary, the Palmer Course Design Company invited some media from around the country to preview the course and to talk to Arnold about the changes in Orlando last Tuesday.

I’ve known Arnold Palmer for a long time and I’m sure he makes everybody feel like they’re actually his friend. I’m asked often about whether my job is any good and my stock answer is, “I’ve had beers with Arnold Palmer and I’ve flown with the Blue Angels. How much better can it be?”

I have had beers with Arnold; I’ve had “guy” conversations with him. I’ve been with him at lunch in Ed Seay’s office. He encouraged me to get my pilot’s license and since I have, we talk about aviation and flying now each time we meet. I’ve learned a lot from Arnold.

In fact, my playing partner, David Couch of APCD at Bay Hill confirmed what I’ve thought for a long time: A lot of us have learned a lot from Arnold and in turn, from Ed Seay.

Being on television in one town for nearly 30 years doesn’t make you a celebrity but it does make you recognizable. So people want to talk to me often, and I’ve always tried to take the lessons I’ve learned from watching Arnold deal with everybody he meets. He’s warm and gives you his full attention.

I learned a lot of how manage in a professional setting by watching Ed Seay, Arnold’s partner. And often, Ed would explain that he got a lot of that from Palmer himself. Friendly, firm and forward thinking, Arnold Palmer probably doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to run a business and keep people around him motivated and productive.

It’s obvious that Arnold was involved in the process of sprucing up Bay Hill. They brought in over 200 trees; they re-shaped and even moved some of the bunkers. They changed the fairways and put new grass on the greens. The most dramatic change is the “beach bunker” in front of the 17th green. It’s still a tough hole, but like the rest of the changes it’s perfect.

It’s just what Palmer likes: tough, pleasing to the eye.

A hole that takes a real golf shot to get it close and make birdie.

“It’s not about length,” Palmer told me standing behind the 8th green. “We can stretch it to 74-hundred yards but I want it to be risk/reward. I want it to be a challenge but not impossible.”

They’ve made changes strategically, moving bunkers out of the range for regular play and right in the spot Tour players are trying to hit it to. Suffice to say, I liked everything about it even though I didn’t play very well. It’s playable but with a big, championship course feel.

Palmer hosted a get together afterwards and talked about how he got involved with Bay Hill (“I tried to buy it after playing in an exhibition in 1965. We closed in 1974”), his first birdie on the new course (“number two”) How Bay Hill had changed (“I love Disney but if I had my druthers, it never would have come”) and his trip to Washington the following day to accept the Congressional Gold Medal (“I think I’ll go.”)

Politics aside, Palmer said one of the great joys of his life has been his relationship with President Eisenhower and that he was never more honored than when he was asked to present Ike at the World Golf Hall of Fame induction in November.

He hears better than he used to, and is gracious as ever.

I asked him about his birthday celebration two weeks ago and he said, “I’m gad it’s over. I wish it was a few birthdays ago! Eighty’s not bad, it feels pretty good right now.”

“Eighty’s the new fifty,” I joked with “The King.”

“Let’s just say it is,” he responded with a sly smile.

I’m still learning from him.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Plan Comes Together

Sometimes in radio and TV things get crazy. You know, the best laid plans and all that. And sometimes, rarely, it all comes together. Yesterday on the radio show was one of those “all comes together” days.

I had asked my friend, tennis legend Tony Trabert to come on the show to talk about the U.S. Open. He’s a fantastic guest, as you might expect after over 30 years in broadcasting. He also happens to be a great guy and I’m lucky to count him among my friends. Anyway, I did a little research and found a cover story on Trabert from August 29, 1955.

He had already won two legs of the Grand Slam and was prepping for the US Open and the Davis Cup. Tony laughed and said “25 cents Sam,” in reference to the price on the cover. (It also says $7.50 a year.) I read him a quote that ended something like, “I work and train hard and I don’t want to lose a match because some linesman isn’t paying attention.” When I asked Tony if he could ID the person behind that quote he said, “I don’t know, McEnroe?”

Of course it was Trabert himself, quoted in Sports Illustrated.

It was only funny because Trabert has always been known as the ultimate sportsman and McEnroe’s behavior on the Davis Cup team while Tony was captain was so boorish that it eventually lead to Trabert’s retirement. Tony went on to explain that during that era in big time tennis, they got the linesmen out of the stands.

“Sure, they’d get club members, but there weren’t any professionals or people trained to do that.”

“Yeah, but what Aussie was going to make a call against John Newcombe?” I asked.

“You’re right about that!” Tony agreed.

The rest of the interview was much more like a conversation about tennis rather than an interrogation. Like I said, sometimes it comes together.

Following Trabert, legendary NFL scout Gil Brandt came on the air and told some stories I’d never heard. “Bob Hayes was so strong we figured he’d be able to handle the NFL,” Brandt threw in when talking about drafting early.

“How you determine he’d be able to play in the NFL though?” I asked.

“It’s funny how we got Hayes,” Brandt continued. “We had the draft right after the last regular season game because of the AFL and about 1 o’clock in the morning we had gone through just about everybody and he said ‘Who’s the fastest guy up there?’ ‘Bob Hayes,’ I answered. So we took him. “

” Two rounds later after there were a bunch of chicken bones and coffee cups strewn around it was our turn and Tex said ‘Who’s the best football player?’ ‘Roger Staubach,’ I said. So we took two Hall of Famers in the middle of the night, kind of on a hunch.”

I listened to that story with my mouth open just amazed that a) I’d never heard it before and b) Brandt was telling it on our air. Brandt went on to tell a half-dozen stories like that with me being more amazed by each one. He did say they drafted 9 Hall of Famers in their first fifteen years. I couldn’t help compare that to the Jaguars track record since they became a franchise.

Just one of those days when it all comes together.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tiger Doesn’t Lose

Nearly flawless in the first round. Brilliant in the second. Solid in the third, Tiger Woods had a lead at the PGA at Hazeltine and just about everybody was handing him the Wannamaker Trophy for the 5th time.

Except Y.E. Yang.

The Korean was solid throughout the day and the chip in eagle at 14 gave him the lead. But Tiger didn’t go away. He made a six-footer for birdie there to stay within one. And he made every other 4 and 5 footer to keep the pressure on. I found myself rooting for Tiger. Not to just win, but to make some birdies coming in and beat the other guy. I didn’t want Yang to fall apart a la Padraig Harrington (again). You don’t expect a three time major winner to make an eight on a par three but that’s what knocked Harrington out of contention.

Tiger had his chances but unlike in the past, he:

  1. Didn’t make everything he looked at
  2. Didn’t have the kind of distance control he’s famous for.

Faldo is the last guy to be able to control his irons as well as Tiger usually does. It’s the old joke.
Hogan: (to his caddy) “How far is it?”
Caddy: “142, 143.”
Hogan: “Well, which one?”

Faldo won three Masters being able to control his irons down to the yard. Think about it: Every time Tiger takes a swing, you expect the ball to be close. On Sunday, that wasn’t the case. And he didn’t make everything. So Y.E. Yang played steady down the stretch, didn’t fall apart and hit a couple of shots that made the difference.

Like Tiger usually does.

The question is, does Tiger come back and destroy the next field he plays or is this the new version? He’s the best athlete out there, and the best golfer. He’s always been the best putter, as well as the most prepared. I don’t know which one of those could possibly go away, but it was obvious a couple of times on Sunday; it just wasn’t his turn to win.

One of his famous lines as a young player was “Second Sucks.” In this case, I don’t think so. He’ll work harder, figure out why he didn’t win, and he’ll be back to compete as hard as ever. But it does embolden the other players that it can be done. Tiger can be beaten. He has to cooperate, but he can be beaten.

The best thing about the competition is that it actually was a competition. Tiger made some clutch putts, kept it close but the guy he was playing didn’t fall apart, didn’t disappear in the face of the magnitude of the moment.

Yang’s win might grow the game in Asia as you heard the CBS announce crew talk about. But it’ll just make it all that more interesting in America the next time Tiger tees it up.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Lance and Tom State Their Case…

In one day, the two guys who I was rooting for in the two events I love to watch both imploded. I’ve learned not to get to emotionally invested in what’s going on at a sporting event. I did that as a kid, and experienced both euphoria and despair following what my teams did.

In this job, I’m a “professional observer” and don’t really have any favorites. Too often guys I wanted to see do well turned out to be jerks when I went to talk with them. They could care less what you think. They’re not invested in you in the least. They’re invested in themselves.

Somehow though, I got involved with both Lance Armstrong and Tom Watson.

I’ve met both. Armstrong is a very focused, guarded guy who is smart and sharp. He has a reputation as a bad guy, but I haven’t seen it. Watson is friendly and glib, but always detached. He has people he’s close to but it’s always been obvious that while he’s a great player and a great champion, there’s a lot more to Tom Watson than just who he is as a golfer.

While Watson’s quest is over, Armstrong’s continues. Watson had a chance. In the middle of the 18th fairway on the final hole of the tournament with an 8 iron in his hand, a simple par makes him the oldest tournament winner in history. The fact that it was The Open championship made the story even bigger.

And it’s not as if Watson snuck up on anybody.

He shot an opening round 65 and was the leader at the end of each day. He openly said he thought he could win and wanted to. And he backed it up with solid play and some big putts. But with the Claret Jug sitting there, ready for his name for a 6th time, he couldn’t close the door.

I don’t have any problem with any shot he hit on 18. Except the last putt that could have won it. I know he’s Tom Watson and I know he’s won Majors in the past and might not need any advice. But his caddy needed to go over there and say something to him. Remind him that he is Tom Watson and go over there and make that putt. Give it a run, Knock it right in.

He could have used that, but it wasn’t to be found.

Regardless of the outcome, it’s a fantastic accomplishment and a story for the ages. Keep working, pick your spots, stay sharp and you can stay competitive, especially in a sport like golf. Watson shouldn’t feel anything but that he came up a bit short. He played 72 holes and was tied for the lead.

Yes he had a chance to win it and yes he really waved at that final putt. But that’s the only one EVERYBODY saw. He made and missed plenty others over 71 holes that one a few people saw.

Because he’s so competitive, Watson will beat himself up for a while. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be the great champion that he is. No matter the outcome, his legacy is secure. Paul Azinger said the win means more to Stewart Cink than it would to Watson. Maybe so but if he had won, the historical context would have been tough to gauge. The biggest accomplishment of the year? Of the decade? Of the last 40 years? It certainly would be part of that discussion. Certainly the biggest accomplishment in golf in recent memory.

Lance’s situation is a bit different.

Alberto Contador might have shown that he was the strongest climber in that stage. The Tour, over three weeks, usually identifies the strongest rider. And up to this point, it’s Contador, no question. That doesn’t mean it’s over for Lance. A fall, a mechanical problem, an indifferent climbing day and all of the sudden, Armstrong is part of the equation regarding the winner of “Le Tour.”

But it’s a fantastic accomplishment no matter what happens.

Armstrong, day after day, is legitimizing his seven Tour wins and is showing again, that age is just a number. He’s said he’ll probably be back for next year’s Tour but the fact that he’s competitive for this year is just amazing. He only decided to return a year ago. He’s at least 10 years older than just about every other competitor in the race. And yet he’s in second place.

His surge on Tuesday showed he’s still got some gas in the tank and could be a factor in the last couple of stages No matter. He again is showing that age is just a number.

Which make me want to go hit some balls.

And ride my bike

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

US Open Proving Ground

I wasn’t sure who to root for, or against for that matter.

I like to get behind somebody in major golf championships. Sometimes it’s actually Tiger but othertimes it’s just somebody who looks like they need the win or they just got struck by lightning.

At this year’s US Open I was somewhere down in the field with Tiger, Phil and David Duval among the guys I wanted to see play well with Ricky Barnes and Lucas Glover on the other end of the spectrum. Barnes did his job and disappeared easily enough. Duval just about drove me out of my mind with a triple on his first hole Sunday to all but disappear: until he made it back after the turn.

I wanted Tiger to make a run because I wanted to see which one of the guys up front would fold up just seeing him within striking distance.

Phil’s story was easy. Wife Amy wanted him to bring the silver trophy back to her for her hospital room during her recovery from surgery for breast cancer. So Phil definitely had my support, just like everybody else watching. Wasn’t every woman watching rooting for Phil? Of course! But I also wanted David to win. So I was a bit torn, except for hoping that Glover would remember who he was and go away.

And it looked good for a while.

Tiger was lurking (does everybody say “lurking” when talking about Tiger?) and Phil and David were hanging near the lead. Until Glover decided this was the one tournament he was going to hang in there and win. Admittedly, both Phil and David made mistakes coming in, costing them a chance at winning, but wasn’t Glover supposed to have some massive blowup hole somewhere along the back nine?

In the end Glover wins, but Phil and David win too. Right?

Mickelson was the runner-up for a record 5th time and said “Oh well” when asked about another second place finish, further endearing him to everybody watching. Duval said exactly what I expected him to say: “While very happy about how I played, I’m very disappointed as well. When I got up this morning, there was no question in my mind that I was going to win the golf tournament.”

Exactly.

That’s at least what I hope David was thinking because that’s exactly what he needs in order to start being relevant again in golf. What if he hadn’t made triple on that first par three on Sunday? Would he have done that somewhere else? I don’t know but I do want him to play again soon. It just seems to me that he’s been right all along.

“I’m playing better than my scores reflect,” he said before the US Open started. “I still consider myself one of the top ten players in the world.”

That comment drove a lot of the assembled media to distraction, or snide laughter. Of course that was before they all jumped on his bandwagon. I actually hope the tires go flat on that bandwagon soon.

Duval can still play. He has some other priorities in his life and perhaps has lost 10 years of his prime career time. But he’s figuring it out and if he stays healthy, he’ll continue to play well, and win. Soon.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tiger Weekend Rant

It’s not often that I sit around and watch sports on television on the weekend. I like to get out and do stuff, use the DVR, check in on the highlights, go to the Internet and see what’s going on. But rarely do I sit down for a few hours and just watch stuff.

Except this past weekend.

It was just a feast of a bunch of stuff that I found compelling. From Tiger Woods in the Memorial to College Baseball to the French Open Tennis tournament on in the morning, I just found myself with clicker in hand flipping back and forth and keeping up with all that I could.

Did I mention the Magic/Lakers game on Sunday night? Or the NASCAR race from Pocono? Throw in a little Major League baseball and you literally could have not left the couch all weekend and not been bored for a minute.

Whenever Tiger is in the field at a golf tournament, the rating spike up about 40%. But Tiger was four back at the start of the final round, so he would be but a bit player in the final round.

Well, not exactly.

He starts making birdies on the front nine and put himself at least somewhere near the lead. As soon as that starts happening as if on cue, everybody else starts to fall apart. Three-putts, balls in the water, it’s as if the Persian army is coming to Thermopolie and instead of the Spartans defending, they sent the girl scouts to sell them cookies. Guys are falling all over themselves to not be involved when it really counts.

On the back nine, a few players move into contention and there’s a four-way tie for the lead as Tiger’s playing the 16th hole. “Wow,” I think, this is going to be fun. A playoff, some other top players. But no, Tiger turns into Tiger again and the rest of the players turn into pumpkins. Woods birdies both 17 and 18, hitting one of the best final-hole shots ever with a 7 iron to one foot for the clinching birdie.

Jack Nicklaus says it’s the best “driving round” he’s seen Tiger have in recent memory.

And, of course, Jack’s right.

Only six times in his career did Tiger hit all 14 fairways and Sunday was one of them. Jim Nantz said it was as good a final hole shot he had ever seen Woods hit. But he started back right? Well, he shoots 65 and everybody else shoots a million. Jim Furyk shot 69 with a birdie at the last to finish solo second but you never got the feeling he was going to win. You always got that with Tiger and he just went out and did it.

No question players on Tour play differently when Tiger’s in the field. Most of them forget how to play. I was hoping for some kind of Tiger, Furyk, and Davis Love playoff. But Davis finished bogey, triple bogey to go from tied for the lead to six shot off the pace. Not exactly the hallmark of a closer.

All I can think about is Tiger playing in a different era. What if he played against Lanny Wadkins, Ray Floyd and Tom Weiskopf every week? Not that they were world beaters, but all won major championships and all acted like they were going to get into a fistfight with one of their “fellow competitors” any second. They didn’t wilt. They fought. Throw in a field that might include Arnold and Jack, Player, Trevino, Watson, Billy Casper and you get the picture.

At least somebody would be standing when they got to 18.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Players, Stenson & A Little Tiger

Just about anybody in the top 15 who shot 66 in the final round of The Players was going to walk away with the trophy and the $1.7 million that goes with the title. Alex Cejka seemed a likely candidate to not get the job done based on his past. Tiger Woods usually scares off the competition just by appearing in the final group wearing a red shirt.

Cejka lived up to his reputation as a good player but not a strong finisher.

In about 42 minutes his five-shot lead had evaporated, a double-bogey on the fourth hole sealing his fate as a non-winner. Tiger never got anything going, not even making birdie on the second hole to serve notice on the field. So with the tournament wide open, about a half-dozen players looked to be eventual winners: Retief Goosen, a two-time major champion, Ben Crane, John Mallinger, Ian Poulter and Henrick Stenson.

Of those, Crane’s notoriety came from his deliberate play, Goosen as icy-cold in tough conditions. Mallinger as an unknown, Poulter for his finish last year at The Open and his clothes, and Stenson for taking his clothes off at Doral earlier this year to hit a shot out of the water. Nobody seemed to notice that Stenson also happens to be the fifth ranked player in the world and at 33-years old has won 10 times around the world. He might not be a star in the US but as a true international player, he’s in the thick of things.

I had a chance to talk to Stenson after the round and asked if he was watching scoreboards to determine how he played. “Once I made the putt on 11 I felt like I could take control of the tournament. The putt on 13 gave me a lead and when Ian birdied 15 I topped that and figured if I kept walking I should win.”

He made it sound so simple but it was anything but. Stenson played a nearly flawless round, missing one fairway (14 and still made par) and posting six birdies enroute to a 66, the best round of the day.

“We know he has the talent,” Tiger said afterwards. “But in these conditions, impressive. Pretty incredible.”

And that’s from the best player in the world.

Talk all you want about Tiger’s lack of smiling, his big arms, his knee, whatever, but when he’s impressed by what somebody did on a golf course he just walked off of, you take notice.

Unlike Craig Perks, who I thought would validate his victory after the 2002 Players, I don’t think Stenson will disappear at all. It should move him to the forefront when it comes to the big tournaments and especially the major championships.

“This will give me confidence when it comes to the majors,” Stenson said afterward. “If I can play like this on this course against this field, I should be able to do it in the majors as well.”

I think he’s right about that.

He strikes me as a very even-tempered player (he is Swedish after all) with tons of game. It really comes down to the putter, like with most players out there, but Stenson will put himself in position to be successful in the future and his name will be heard on leader boards for a while.

Two other stories played out this week. Tiger’s just fine but perhaps still a little rusty. “First time I’ve played back-to-back weeks, something I was wondering about. The knee’s fine. I can practice.” That’s good news for Tiger, his fans and the Tour.

It’ll be interesting to see if that’s what’s going on with his game, just some rust, or if it’s fatherhood, distractions, age, whatever. He’s still incredible and looks like the light-heavyweight champion of the world. I know Johnny Miller said Tiger was too bulked up to play, and although I disagree, Miller should know. When he moved to his farm in the mid ’70s’ he bulked up enough that he stopped winning.

I do agree with Miller that Tiger doesn’t smile anymore. While that doesn’t matter it does appear he’s playing a joyless game. I don’t know if that goes with the territory as one of the most famous athletes in the world or he just is grinding all the time. Hindsight will give us an indication.

The other story is Jeff Klauk. Klauk finished a 3 under and represented himself very well. As the son of the superintendent for 20 years he estimates he played 1000 rounds at the Stadium course and knows it from mowing fairways and raking traps. He had a local contingent of fans giving him support and I’m sure he felt some pressure in his first appearance at The Players.

But he didn’t fold at all and at one point was tied for 7th.

A bad back nine on Friday cost him a shot at the first page of the leaders but he showed everybody, and perhaps most importantly himself, that he belonged out there with the best players in the world.

“My goal is to play in the Tour Championship,” Klauk revealed on Sunday. In order to do that, he’ll have to finish in the top 30 on the money list. Maybe not that far fetched if he keeps this kind of play up.

“If I can replicate what I did on several nines this week over 72 holes, I’ll be just fine.”

More than that Jeff.

You’ll be a winner.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Halfway at The Players

It looks more like a law firm than a PGA Tour leader board: Mallinger, Crane and Johnson sounds like somebody you’d hire rather than go to watch make birdies. But they’re among the players contenting for The Players title in 2009.

Does that mean Tiger, Phil and company are out of the picture? Not necessarily but it does show the depth of the field and the “on any given Sunday” aspect of the Tour.

But is that any good for the Tour? Probably not.

We know that television ratings go up 40% when Tiger is on television on Sunday. And they’re desperate for a Sunday pairing of Phil and Tiger in the final group of a significant tournament to jump-start the “rivalry.” When the two played together on Sunday at the Masters the focus was on that two some instead of the leaders. Because that’s where all the buzz was on the golf course.

Nobody cared about Angel Cabrera and Kenny Perry until after it was apparent that neither Tiger nor Phil was going to win. But we followed their every shot until the final hole before the focus went back to who actually might win the tournament.

Sure, Jody Mudd won here in 1990 and Craig Perks in ’02 proving that anybody can win this thing if they get hot on Sunday. After he made birdie on his final hole of the day (#9) to finish at even par and potentially make the cut, I asked Phil Mickelson if the TPC Stadium course would allow him to get into contention even though he was 11 shots off the lead.

“Absolutely,” Phil said before I could even finish. “I’ve played late in the day on Sunday here and seen guys make birdies and march right up the leader board. If I make the weekend I’m planning on trying to shoot a low number tomorrow and move into the top 10 or so. If you’re there Sunday, you have a chance to win.”

Mickelson said he’s hitting the ball just like he wants to but isn’t making any putts. “I made three birdies today and all three were two putts,” Phil added.

There are two things that constantly go on at Players. First it’s the golf tournament that counts. It’s the best-run tournament and perhaps the best run sporting event in the world. Very positive, very efficient and as a professional tournament, it clearly identifies the best player of the week, all through his bag.

On the other hand, it’s a massive social event with the Tour and many other corporations using it to entertain clients and get their message across. And it’s part of the social fabric of North Florida. I’ll bet half of the people who are at the tournament, as “spectators” don’t see a single shot struck during the week. Well maybe they see Tiger take one swing but other than that it’s a huge outdoor cocktail party rivaling Florida/Georgia.

Which is perfectly fine.

No it’s not the Masters, nor the US or British Opens, but it’s something special all by itself. I hope it keeps up this weekend.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

It’s The Masters, Again

“History is made here every year.”

That’s how Phil Mickelson described Augusta National and the Masters and what makes it different from the other Majors. Mickelson knows the history of the game and showed it when he quoted years and players regarding the memories that are made at Augusta National.

“Gene Sarazen in ’35, Jack in ’86, what happened to Freddie at 12 in ’92. Those are things you remember from year to year. At US Open at Pebble Beach we remember what Tom Watson did at 17 in ’82 or what Tiger did to everybody in 2000 but those are years apart. Here it happens every year.”

It was about as succinct an answer ever given for the mystique of the Masters. It’s not the oldest Major, or the most difficult to win. Yet it’s the one that everybody yearns for.

This year was as dramatic as it was heartbreaking. Obviously when Tiger said “you have to plod around here now,” after last year’s final round 75 won it for Trevor Immelman, the members at Augusta decided to turn back the clock and listen for the roars that came from the “second” nine on Sunday. The days where a 30 in the final nine holes can propel you to the Green Jacket are back.

Based on tee position and pin placements, if you had control of your game, you could make a run, create some excitement, make the guys behind you hear the roars from 13 and 15 and post a number good enough to make the leaders pay attention.

That looked like just what was going to happen when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson shot up the leader board with birdies and eagles on the first nine, putting them into contention. “My number was 11,” Tiger said after the round. “I knew if I could get to 11, those guys in the front would have to beat it.”

Alas, Tiger never got there.

Whether it’s the rust from not playing or a seismic shift of how the world works, not every putt went in as it usually does and instead of keeping his foot on the gas, Woods bogeyed 17 and 18 to finish at 8 under without scaring the leaders. Mickelson really had it going on the first nine holes, turning at 10 under, but missed very makeable putts on 15 and 17 and dunked one in the water on 12 to make double.

“A terrible swing,” Phil said afterwards. On that swing, and the two putts, Mickelson admitted to not committing to what he believed and it cost him each time. He finished at nine under. Good, but not good enough.

Meanwhile, in the final group, Kenny Perry was cruising along with pars through 11 holes and Angel Cabrera was knocking it all over the place and still keeping pace. He was no factor at all for a long time. Between Tiger and Phil, Perry holding onto the lead and Chad Campbell making enough birdies to keep pace, Cabrera was an afterthought.

When Perry hit it to a foot for birdie on 16, he had a two shot lead over Campbell. And, oh by the way, Cabrera also made a 7 footer to stay two behind. Two up with two to play, Kenny Perry suddenly realized he could win the Masters with a par on either of the final two holes. Like Ed Sneed, Raymond Floyd and David Duval before him, Perry had one arm in the green jacket but couldn’t finish it.

Seventeen and eighteen are both difficult driving holes but pretty simple if you do hit a good drive and play it from the fairway. Perry’s drive ended up in the fairway after hitting it in the right trees. Even his second shot (six iron) was OK. But that’s when the wheels started to come off.

“I skulled that chip,” Perry explained of his third shot on 17. “And I hit a great drive on 18, right down the middle, but it found it’s way into the bunker.”

It was a little painful to watch.

After going 23 straight holes without a bogey, Perry was about to make back-to-back fives to fall into a three-way tie and a playoff. Chad Campbell had posted 12-under and Cabrera made a four-footer to get in as well.

“Augusta is the most precise course in the world,” 3-time Masters champion Nick Faldo has said many times. Add the pressure of a Major championship and a playoff and even the best players in the world start to do funny things.

Cabrera hit his drive on 18 straight in the trees while Campbell and Perry knocked it down the middle. Cabrera then hit a tree with his second and it luckily caromed back into the 18th fairway. With 7 and 8 irons in their hands, Perry and Campbell had the clear advantage, but it is the Masters and it is a playoff and neither hit the green.

Cabrera’s out of it right? He hit sand wedge to six feet and made it. Perry chipped up to a tap in and Campbell hit a nice bunker shot, only to miss a four-footer. Perry and Cabrera hit great drives on 10, only to see Perry pull his second shot left of the green. Almost a sure bogey. Cabrera’s 8 iron was below the hole, two putts from victory. His tap in par gave him a second Major.

Amazing that the guy who is behind always seems to have the upper hand at Augusta.

But that’s what makes it the Masters.

Again.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tiger’s Open (Or Was It Rocco’s)

I was rooting for Rocco. Nothing against Tiger, in fact, I think this win solidifies his spot as the best ever. All that’s left is for him to pass Jack Nicklaus with 18 professional majors and to call him “the best” would be indisputable.

But still, I was hoping Rocco could pull it off.

“He had to birdie 18, again, to tie me, and he did it. That’s why he’s so tough to beat,” Rocco explained in an emotional post-round statement.

You can’t say this was a walkover by any means. Rocco fought and fought and fought and by the time they got to 18 he had a one shot lead. The lead you knew he needed because Tiger was going to birdie the par 5, the last hole, and the one he birdied or eagled all week long. When he hit his drive in the fairway, you knew he’d at least hit it on and two putt for birdie.

But Rocco also “has his name on his bag,” as Fuzzy Zoeller used to say about guys you’ve never heard of, noting that they’re professionals as well.

“Rocco can make birdie and win,” I thought before he hit his drive into the bunker.

The usually reliable driver got him in trouble on 18, not giving him a real chance to go for it in two and win with a two putt. But he still had about a 15 footer to win it. “I might never have this chance again, so this putt is not going to be short,” is how he described his thought process to Roger Maltbie while he was walking to the playoff.

But somehow, you knew that Tiger would prevail.

Which got me wondering if his opponents, Rocco, Bob May and others somewhere in their minds aren’t thinking the same things.

The thing about Tiger that spooks these guys is the fact that he makes so few mistakes. When he needed to hit the ball in the fairway and knock his second shot on the green on 18, he did it. He didn’t over-try, or do anything differently. He just did his job.

“I figured if I did my job then what happens, happens,” he explained after making a 12 footer on Sunday to tie Rocco for the lead at 18.

Which is another difference between Tiger and the current crop of players on the PGA Tour. He’s confident in his own talent and just figures if he goes about his business, he’ll be fine. And what happens, happens. But the rest of them are scurrying all over the place trying to “elevate” their games and it just doesn’t work. That’s why I think it’ll take a whole new set of players, guys like Anthony Kim, to supplant Tiger (if ever).

Tiger has shown the kind of money that can be made in golf, and the level of fame that is also available. So the top athletes of the next generation will be considering golf as an option.

But for now, Tiger has shown that he’s capable of the focus and the execution to win under any circumstances.

Plus he’s the best putter, period. He’ll make it from anywhere, and you should expect him to make everything. Because he probably will.

But like a lot of people, I was still rooting for Rocco. I know him a bit and despite the “everyman” storyline they were following, Rocco is much more than that. When he lived in Ponte Vedra (right off the second fairway of the stadium course) he invited me over. Gave me his cell phone and his home number. Introduced me to his wife. In other words, was just normal.

An upper tier player with 8 wins on tour, Rocco just didn’t accept the “star” lifestyle. He lived in a nice house and enjoyed the perks that go along with the status of being a PGA Tour player, but he just was who he was.

I saw him this year at Bay Hill and he immediately stopped practicing and walked over to say hi. Actually we embraced like old friends and talked about how long we’d known each other.

He explained that he was healthy and expected to play a lot on Tour this year. He was working with Jimmy Ballard on a whole new swing and what was interesting to me was how Rocco was listening and reacting to the “coaching.” He was really trying and it was working.

Just normal.

If he had won, it wouldn’t have changed him, and the fact that he didn’t win won’t change him either. He’ll be known as the guy who extended Tiger to the max and a lot of people will know Rocco and more about him.

Which is good.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Players, Bigger, Better

Everybody’s got an opinion about The Players. It’s always been that way for some reason. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer always downplayed its significance. Both wanted their tournaments to be the next “big” thing and didn’t like how then Commissioner Deane Beman was going about promoting the “TPC.”

Nicklaus once said he didn’t think it was right to have to “hit a 4-iron into the hood of a car,” when asked about the Stadium course. Lee Trevino once said, “it’s hard to read dirt,” during one of his numerous complaining conferences about the golf course. “Somebody’s making birdies out there,” was the usual response when the negative comments were brought up.

Since the tournament was moved to the Stadium Course, the winning score has always been under par. Not so at Sawgrass country club when twice the winner was at one over. They’ve moved the championship several times on the calendar. It started the first week of March and eventually settled on the third week. The first week was just too windy and unpredictable when it came to the weather. Even though it was far enough away from the Masters, it just wasn’t the right spot either in the month or geographically.

It moved around the country before settling on north Florida. Ft. Lauderdale, Texas and Atlanta all hosted the “Tournament Players Championship” the flagship tournament of the PGA Tour. But it wasn’t until it moved to its permanent home that it really started to take a beating. That’s because it was something different than just a regular Tour stop.

Beman had bigger plans. He wanted it to be a Major. “Don’t call it the TPC anymore,” one Tour staffer told me about 20 years ago. “Dan Jenkins says TPC sounds like something teenagers snort and Deane doesn’t like that,” was the reason given. I just shrugged my shoulders and complied. Their tournament, they can call it what they want.

As the Tour got further into golf course building and designing and running the tournament, The Players Championship came under more and more criticism. Some of it was valid; some of it was just about animosity aimed at Beman. So he retired and Tim Finchem stepped in. Finchem has presided over the Tiger era, so it has been hard for him to do anything wrong. The Tour has seen unprecedented growth and their flagship tournament has gone along with it.

Two years ago they made another big leap, moved the tournament to May, changing the name (again) changing the golf course, building a new clubhouse and upping the prize money. All in one year. Having been around this thing for more than 25 years it was obvious the Tour was taking the next step. And not a small one. Massive electronic scoreboards, actually giant televisions were placed on every hole. Information about every golfer on every shot was easily accessible. You never had to leave your spot. And the corporate hospitality tents started to multiply and become more lavish. They started popping up everywhere. Not just along 18 and on 17. They were on nine. Next to sixteen. The Benefactor Pavilion behind the 17th tee looked like a cruise ship had parked there.

It was becoming real stadium golf. With a bunch of skyboxes. Ever been to a skybox for a football game? It’s a lot of socializing mixed in with watching the game. Some live, some on TV. And that’s what watching this tournament as become as well. There was some thought that the crowds weren’t as big in 2008, maybe because Tiger wasn’t there.

Not true.

Look at who was on the fairways and greens. Mainly people who didn’t have access to some chalet somewhere. Or those who were making their way to one. There’s so much corporate hospitality that everybody’s in a skybox, in the air-conditioning, having a cool cocktail watching the golf, some live, some on TV. With 22 hours of coverage over the 4 days, you saw just about everything that was significant, no matter where or when it happened.

And that’s what the PGA Tour is about.

It’s a corporate entertainment venue. It’s a once a year appointment for sponsors and guest to get away from the office in a whole different environment. Go to any Tour stop and you see that on a smaller scale. At The Players, its super sized. And going to get bigger.

With Ron Cross leaving to join Augusta National, the new executive director of The Players will be charged with expanding the tournament on a national and global scale. Getting “Golf Dubai” and “Lufthansa” to use the Players as a hospitality destination will be more of the goal than getting “Bono’s” to buy a skybox. There still will be tickets to buy for the general public. And for now they’ll still be available at Publix.

But this tournament isn’t the GJO anymore. It’s not even the TPC. It’s the PGA Tour’s showcase event and the PGA Tour is an international organization. Even if they’re in our backyard, their market is the entire globe. And they’re going to take advantage of that. It’s different, and I think better.

The focus will be on Ponte Vedra and Jacksonville for the whole week. People from around the world will want to come visit and play that golf course. More luxury hotels and good restaurants. Better shopping and a real spot on the map. No, this isn’t the tournament with the “Swingers Tent,” on A1A. It’s bigger. And better.

Get used to it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Back To Augusta

I heard somebody describe the Masters as “more Member-Guest than Major,” and that’s pretty close to the truth. Especially Monday through Wednesday. I walked into the press building last week to see many, no all of the same, familiar faces.

Martha Wallace, in her familiar spot behind the counter looked up at me and said, “Hi Sam, great to see you again!” That might not seem extraordinary but remember, this is a Major championship, one of the big sporting events in the world every year. There are a thousand or more media types running around the grounds at Augusta National.

And Martha greets most of them by name. I did feel a little special though when she said, “Sam this is your 31st year!” “I’m well aware of that Martha,” I said with a laugh, feigning an age wince. “You worked at WCBD in Charleston from 1978 to 1981as the Sports Director there before you went to Jacksonville,” Martha said, reciting my record on her computer screen. “If I ever want to know something about myself I’m calling Augusta,” was my answer in a serious voice. Martha lowered hers and whispered, “We’re better than the government.”

And I believe it.

I do know that if you have the right credentials and follow the rules, it’s one of the easiest events to navigate. Conversely, if you don’t have what you need, you’re not getting in. And break the rules and you’re out as well. Politely, but the people at the Masters run things they way they see fit, and if you don’t want to go along, no problem, there’s a tournament next week.

And that’s one of the things I like the most about working there.

They make every accommodation for you if you’re trying to get your job done. They cater to their “patrons” to help them enjoy the experience. You can still get a sandwich and a beer for less than five dollars. And of course the place is immaculate. So much so that I’ve noticed over the years that smokers carry their cigarette butts with them instead of throwing them on the ground. The wrappers are still green on all of things sold at Augusta and the commercial names on anything are covered up.

The tournament has changed over the years. The golf course is different, the clubhouse rules have changed (Women were not allowed on the second floor until about 8 years ago), the press building is now state of the art and the practice rounds tickets are now done by lottery.

Starting next year, the tournament will begin to allow children in for free with a paying adult. Tournament Chairman Billy Payne made that announcement along with several others instituting a whole different focus for Augusta National. I’ve always been impressed with Payne and continue to be so. His vision for the tournament and the club is far reaching.

His focus this year is on brining more young people into the game. That’s why he encouraged such frivolity at the Par 3 contest. That’s why the Par 3 is now televised. “We want young people to see that you can play a thousand yard golf course in under two hours and have fun doing it,” the Chairman said at his Wednesday press conference. It’s a brilliant initiative and worthy of the “visionary” status that most people give Payne.

The tournament continues to be run flawlessly and this year they were plagued with some tough weather on Sunday that drove the scores up. That’s ‘going to happen. But I’m a bit concerned about the “mystique” that is the Masters and the roars from the back nine that separate Augusta from everywhere else, including the other three majors.

They’re gone.

The course is so difficult now that nobody’s going to shoot 31 on the back and charge to the front a la Palmer, Nicklaus and others. That’s one of the things that makes the Masters what it is and I hope they bring that back.

Trevor Immelman is a nice champion but playing it safe and shooting 75 in the final round doesn’t excite anybody. Will Immelman emerge as the next great International player? Who knows? Gary Player’s voice mail apparently settled him enough on Sunday to get him through the tough times. Player told him to keep his head a little more still while putting and to grind it out through adversity, because it will come.

Immelman took advantage of that advice and wins the Green Jacket. It’d be nice if he’d validate the win by backing it up with some solid play, and wins throughout the rest of the year.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

John Daly’s Ok?

I know it’s become very popular to just bash John Daly. Say he’s tormented, he’s full of demons, and he’s a drunk and a disgrace to the game. You could make a case for all of those based on his actions, but as much as I think he’s responsible for a lot of his own problems, jumping on the “Daly’s a loser” bandwagon is just flat out wrong.

I’ve spent some time with Daly in professional situations and he’s been up front, professional, polite, sober and on time. It’s very vogue to call him a “functioning alcoholic” but that’s a very clinical term and the fact is, we just don’t know. I’ve been around plenty of people in my personal life and in my career that were loaded but still getting the job done.

And I knew it.

There are signs, and if you’re paying attention, they’re pretty easy to detect. I understand that alcoholism is an insidious and tragic problem and some people have a very difficult time beating it. But stop making the blanket statement that “Daly’s an alcoholic.”

We don’t know.

We know that he likes to have a good time. That in public he occasionally drinks too much. That he likes to drink. And gamble. That he’s been drunk. And he’s lost millions at the tables. By society standards, he’s out there, a failure. A two-time major winner, no question Daly has talent. And he has squandered it to the point where we can now ask: What might have been?

When he first burst on the scene Pat Summerall and Frank Chirkinian both told me that he’d win a half dozen Masters or so. “It’s the perfect golf course for him,” was the consensus. Shortly thereafter he was drinking with a few friends of mine at the Freebird Café in Jax Beach and the next thing you know he was tearing up his hotel room at the Marriott at Sawgrass.

“The boy’s got issues,” Fuzzy Zoeller whispered to me after he was summoned in the middle of the night to get Daly straight. Since then Daly has won, and lost on the PGA Tour. Remember the great sand shot he hit at 18 in San Diego to seal the win? Also remember the 3-foot comebacker he missed to lose in a playoff to Tiger at a WGC event? He smacked a ball while it was moving in a major championship. He turned toward the audience once during a clinic and hit a driver over their heads from about 15-yards away.

He’s been on both sides of the spectrum. He has problems, no doubt. But on one level he could be a regular guy who likes having a good time and goes over the edge occasionally. Anytime he does that it’s pretty public and he pays a price. When he was drinking in the Hooter’s tent in Tampa on Sunday during the tournament he was vilified by much of the media. The CBSSportsline writer, Steve Elling, (who I’ve never heard of) absolutely destroyed Daly for his actions and said he was disgracing the game.

What a sanctimonious position! Elling got his information secondhand (he admitted he wasn’t there) and even recounted a conversation between a fan and Daly about drinking a beer together. What’s that got to do with anything? One of the highlights of my career was beers with Arnold Palmer on a Wednesday night before the Players Championship. And Arnie had an early tee time the next day.

Butch Harmon’s announcement that he was “firing” Daly as a client was ludicrous. I know Harmon is from a storied golf family and he has a lot of respect for the game and is in turn respected for it. But that was just grandstanding. Harmon could have easily just said to Daly, “Hey John, this isn’t working so let’s call it a day.” Instead he made a bunch of public pronouncements about how Daly’s top priority was “getting drunk” instead of golf. Even Daly said he just wished that Harmon would have called him and called it off. We all know that Harmon is a publicity hound, just ask Tiger, right before he fired him as his swing coach.

When Daly missed his Pro-Am tee time at the Arnold Palmer Invitational the reaction was “told you so!” It’s not like he turned up on the first tee wearing yesterday’s clothes, stumbling to the ball and carrying a beer. He says he got the wrong tee time when he called the tournament office the day before, receiving his Thursday time instead of his Pro-Am time. He knows he should have done more investigating than one phone call but that was his story.

Pretty believable.

Somewhere in there is the truth but I really think we don’t know what it is. I hope John can get his life together and keep it there. A lot of people have tried to help John but haven’t been successful. Remember, professional golf is full of country club, silver spoon types who have a big holier than thou attitude. Daly’s always been an outsider and remains so.

We’ll see where this goes but for now, I’m withholding judgment.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Bad Words, Worse Consequences

There are a lot of angles to the Kelly Tilghman situation. She’s back on the air and Tiger said it was a “non-issue.” Fair enough but on the outside, a lot of things have happened.

The editor of GolfWeek was fired for putting a noose on the cover of the magazine. He was just trying to further the discussion but his bosses considered it the height of insensitivity and he lost his job.

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem railed against the cover when it first came out and that probably led to the firing. When asked about it, Ben Wright had plenty to say. Wright was fired from CBS for his comments about lesbians on the LPGA Tour and his observation that “women’s boobs get in the way of the golf swing.”

“I think she has very little talent,” Wright said. “I’m amazed that she’s gotten just a slap on the wrist. I can’t stomach the woman.” Was he sympathetic? “Not one bit,” Ben continued. “Think before you speak.”

Fuzzy Zoeller hasn’t had any comment but it is interesting that he was destroyed in public and lost millions in endorsements, in essence fired, after his comments in 1997 when Tiger won his first Masters. Zoeller’s thoughts were in response to a question under the oak tree at Augusta, after his round with a drink in his hand and who knows how many before. His comments were wrong-headed, as were Kelly’s. But the punishments have been very different.

Fuzzy was virtually forced off the face of the earth when it came to making money outside of swinging a golf club. Tilgham is back to work in two weeks. I hadn’t thought of this before but is there a gender disparity at work here?

Not being black, I’m sure I can’t appreciate the depth of the negative connotation of a noose or any phrase that includes the word lynching. Knowing that Tilghman went to Duke, maybe that was part of her lexicon growing up. But as the lead anchor in a major sport, she has to know better and measure her words better.

I know how easy it is to paint yourself into a corner when it comes to ad libbing but based on the knowledge of the inflammatory nature of certain words. I thought she got off light.

As for Wright and Zoeller, both white men, they paid a very steep professional price. I’ve seen Ben work occasionally but he’s like he’s radioactive when it comes to a network hiring him. Zoeller just received an apology from some of the sponsors who dropped him but he’ll never recoup his reputation or the years it cost him.

Tiger left Zoeller out to twist in the wind as well as compared to how he defended Tilgham immediately. She’s not a competitor for Tiger and she’s a de facto “friend” of Woods’. So she gets to apologize and get back to work.

It hardly seems fair.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Ed Seay 1938-2007

His friends from Jax Beach called him “Poogie” an endearing name from his childhood and high school days at Fletcher. Around the world he was know as Ed or Mr. Seay and as Arnold Palmer’s golf course design partner. Today, Ed Seay died after a long illness at his home here in town. He was 69 years old.

Ed joined with Arnold in 1971 and formed the Palmer Course Design Company in 1972. He has been involved in the design of over 300 golf courses all over the world. From Japan, China, Russia, Europe, Ireland, his ideas have been involved with some of the world’s most famous courses, including the K Club, which recently hosted the Ryder Cup and Tralee, Old Tabby Links in South Carolina and Aviara in California.

After I had a chance to play Old Tabby Links a while back, I mentioned to Ed that I had been there and that it was fabulous. “Why didn’t you call me?” was his typical response, looking for a way to make my day there even more enjoyable. “Nice work there Ed,” I said. “You liked it? Oh, yeah, that’s pretty good there,” he finished, obviously happy with his work there.

Ed sent me to a course called “The Oasis” about an hour outside of Las Vegas a few years back. “They’re not running the place right,” he lamented. “But you won’t see a more spectacular place.” And of course he was right. I drove to the middle of nowhere to get to “The Oasis” but the memories of that day still linger.

Locally, Ed crafted Sawgrass Country Club, the Plantation and Marsh Landing in Ponte Vedra. Ed served as a Past President of the American Society of Golf Course architects and was honored with their lifetime achievement award two years ago. He also was a member of the American Society of Landscape architects.

Although Palmer resides in Orlando and Pennsylvania, his design company was, until about 1 year ago, always here in town, on Ponte Vedra Blvd across the street from the Lodge.

Having spent hours and hours both personally and professionally with Ed, I can tell you he was gracious, generous, sometimes hilariously profane and loyal to a fault. Ed was dedicated to his family, friends, Arnold, whom he always called “Boss,” the Florida Gators and the United States Marine Corps. He was an expert at liar’s poker. His holiday parties are the stuff of legend.

To say the least, Ed cut a large swath wherever he went, and he made sure you were part of the “inside” crowd. His office in Ponte Vedra was like a museum, but it was also a comfortable and welcoming place to just spend a few hours in conversation, or should I say listening to Ed. There might have even been a cocktail or two shared there among friends.

I could go on and on, and I’m sure outlets like the Golf Channel will have long retrospectives on Ed’s life and career. But I’ll echo the words of Erik Larsen, the Exec. VP of PCD who said, “He’s one of the greatest people I’ve ever known.”

Ed is survived by his wife Lynn, his son Mason and Daughter Tracy and two grandchildren. The funeral is Saturday at 10AM at Christ church in Ponte Vedra with a reception following at PVIC.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

It’s in His (Sergio’s) Blood

I was sitting at an outdoor restaurant in Athens, Greece when a woman walked by and heard me speaking my limited Greek to the waiter. She noted that I was an American and asked where I was from. “Jacksonville,” I said as she laughed. “No, not in the States, I mean where are you from here,” she explained. “My family is from Ikaria, but I’m half Greek. The other half’s Irish,” I said. “Me too,” she said with a smile. “So you’re incredibly sentimental with a short fuse,” and laughed. “Pretty much,” I said, laughing as she walked away.

My fuse is a bit longer than it used to be, in fact, I don’t much get upset any longer, I just remember.

I tell that story because I believe there’s a bit of truth to the different personalities you can find in different parts of the world. I’m pretty proud of my heritage, and I know it shapes who I am and always will. Kind of a round about way to talk about Sergio Garcia and the British Open Championship.

I was watching some of the post-round wrap up and just laughed out loud when several of the Golf Channel announcers chastised Garcia for his comments after his runner up finish. “I’m playing against a bunch of guys out there. Probably more than the field,” Sergio said referring to his own ‘bad luck.’ The announcers intoned that Garcia had some growing up to do and that we got a look into the “window of his soul” with those comments.

Tim Rosaforte is an American, but has traveled the world covering golf. Brandel Chamblee is a former PGA Tour player and Peter Oosterhuis is English, so for them to comment on a Spaniard’s comments moments after he lost the Open, should have had a bit of perspective, but none of them figured it out.

If you or I drive down the street and our car starts smoking and stops, we figure, “Well, I should have changed the oil,” or something like that. At least my American sensibilities tell me that’s how I should act. A Spaniard, (or an Italian, or a Greek or many other Europeans) have a completely different reaction. If their car stops on the side of the road, they jump out, hit the fender and say, “My car, it hates me!” And that’s how Sergio was reacting.

He was looking for that one break, that one good bounce that he thought he had earned through his stellar play over the first three rounds. It’s no reflection on anything but his sensibilities. That’s how Sergio thinks. That’s how Seve thought as well. There’s a fire there, a belief that there’s a little bit of magic going on in the world, not just a bunch of plodding strikes of the ball. It can help you, or it can hurt you, but you can’t harness it.

If you think that’s a bunch of bull, that’s ok, and if you think it’s a lack of accountability for your actions, that’s ok too. But when Sergio hits the ball at the hole and the next time it hits the stick and goes in, just chuckle a little bit and give thanks for the little bit of magic that was involved. And when Sergio gets a couple of those breaks and he believes they’re going in his favor, he’ll win. A lot.

All congrats to Padraig Harrington as well. He took the breaks he got, the little bounces toward the hole instead of into the rough and he made himself a champion.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Rick Murray: Real Courage

Comparatively, I didn’t know Rick Murray for very long. We met in the parking lot of a church in Palm Valley leaving Bruce Edwards’ funeral. Bruce was Tom Watson and Greg Norman’s caddie for years and I knew him starting in the early ‘80’s. He moved to Ponte Vedra and was diagnosed with ALS, and his funeral brought people from all over the country.

Rick stopped me on my way to my car. I say stopped me, but he actually just spoke from the side of his van, sitting in his wheelchair as I admired some of the “Go Navy” stickers on the van. “I have ALS,” Rick told me at our first meeting.

Outside of being in a wheelchair, he didn’t look very infirm. A Naval Flight Officer, Rick had been active in all kinds of sports, especially tennis and cycling. So seeing him in a wheelchair, he looked like a guy who was convalesing from something like a broken leg and he’d be back on his feet in no time. But the prognosis was not good. Three years to live, max. Little did I know that he had already exceeded that expectation and planned to “live” a lot more. We had a nice conversation, he introduced me to his wife Sherry, and we went on our way.

Somewhere in the not so distant future from that meeting, I had donated a visit to “The End Zone” to a charity auction, and Rick bought it. When they called to redeem the prize, I told them all about it, but they said, “Rick’s not getting about too well and was wondering if you’d just go by and have lunch with him.” “Sure,” I said, and we set it up.

Turns out Rick and Sherry didn’t live far from me in Mandarin so I went by with the instructions to, “Just come around back,” which I did. When I got a look at Rick I was a little stunned. He’s stuck in his bed with a contraption hooked to his head that kept him breathing. “Fourteen times a minute,” he explained to me.

He couldn’t shake hands anymore so I tapped him on the palm and sat down. For the next couple of hours we talked about sports, flying, sports, women, sports, people, sports, reality and sports. Rick knew what he was talking about. Could quote stats and dates with the best of them and was really sharp. I hadn’t dealt with anybody in his condition before so it was a hard juxtaposition to see somebody with such a fragile body have such a strong mind. I knew I had met somebody I could talk with who had an objective view of things but was never afraid to let you know where he stood.

Our conversations over the next couple of years were varied both in topic and duration. Sometimes we’d just watch a game, others we’d solve the world’s problems. Once when I was there I could tell he was a little down and I asked him “What’s up with you?” He kind of motioned to himself as if to say “all this” so I stood at the foot of his bed and looked him right in the eye.

“Do you understand how important you are to so many people? Do you know what an inspiration you are to everybody you meet? Look, I draw inspiration from you every day so don’t you dare start to get down,” I said, as sternly as I could.

“I’m slippin’,” Rick said softly and after a short pause followed that up with “but thanks” and a small smile. I tapped him on the palm, kissed him on the head and walked out of the room, crying of course.

Each time I’d see Rick after that he’d say, “I’m getting’ worse,” but that’s about all we’d say about his condition. It became more and more difficult for him to speak, a sign that ALS patients are sliding down a slippery slope. I had to lean in closer each time to hear him, and after a while, it was more non-verbal communication than anything else.

And then last week he was gone.

I had really torn feelings about that, knowing how much he had suffered but also knowing how much he loved living. “Persistence wins again,” was one of his favorite sayings and that really stuck in my mind.

I could go on and on about him writing a book, about his Harley passion, about the cycling trips after his diagnosis but suffice to say when I hear the word “courage” the next time, I’ll be thinking of Rick.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Major Players?

Good weather, a perfect golf course, a somewhat dramatic ending and a star as the champion. The Players, 2007 had all of the ingredients of a very significant sporting event. A big-time golf tournament. So the question still is getting asked: Is it a Major?

The latest answer?

It doesn’t matter.

The Players move to May gives it a stand-alone quality that it didn’t have when it was scheduled 2 weeks before the Masters. It was a tune-up for Augusta and the players, at least the top players, were focused on the first “major” of the year. Winning The Players would be nice; a nice exemption a lot of money but The Masters is what they were pointing at to have their games in shape.

Now, The Players fills a spot in the schedule between Augusta and the US Open where, if truth be told, Jack Nicklaus hoped his Memorial Tournament would eventually reach Major status. But the tour has done everything right when it comes to running this tournament. They accommodate the fans, the media and the players with the best of everything. Any new innovation that comes along, The Players incorporates it into the tournament, making it possibly the best run sporting event in the world.

A major?

It has a quality of it’s own. Remember that the Western Open was once considered “a major.” When Bobby Jones won his Grand Slam, the Majors were the US Open and Amateur and the British Open and Amateur. The Masters wasn’t around; the PGA was for club pros. So achieving “major” status means it’s a significant week on tour, and is a tournament that the players especially want to win.

Tom Kite considered it a major when he won in 1989, saying it was a big week and the best field in golf. Current winners like Tiger Woods and Adam Scott, and this year’s contender, Sean O’Hair grew up in golf knowing that The Players was an important event. Not just a regular tour stop but a tournament to focus on.

What the tournament needs is a succession of winners who are stars on tour. That’s why it was important for Phil Mickelson to win this year. The move to may, a redone golf course and extended television coverage, the tournament needed a bona fide star to win it. No disrespect to Sean O’Hair, or Stephen Ames or Craig Perks, but if a tournament wants to raise it’s status and become more high profile, the list of winners has to be the dominant players of the era.

The tournament needs some drama at the finish to take the next step. Phil winning was great, but it would have only been surpassed by a shootout between Phil, Tiger, Sergio, Ernie and a couple of other big stars. Then it becomes memorable for the way a guy got to the championship instead of some competitors falling by the wayside.

There are some national media members who deride The Players and Ponte Vedra as a tour stop on steroids. It is a regular tour stop, times ten. And part of the PGA Tour week in and week out is the atmosphere surrounding the events. They’re not the Masters or the British Open. They’re not the US Open; they’re PGA Tour stops that include corporate hospitality and a party, fun atmosphere. That’s part of it. It that means never becoming a so-called “major” it doesn’t matter. The tournament stands by itself.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Dinner with Jim Furyk

I’m a member of a small business group that meets once a month to discuss trends and happenings in Jacksonville. We get together for dinner and usually have a speaker from a charity, a business or a portion of government. And sometimes we step away from our “mission” to have some fun. This was one of those months as one of our members brought Jim Furyk as our guest for the evening.

Furyk is currently the #2 player in the world and just returned from Hawaii when he played the opening two events of the year on the PGA Tour. Our group is pretty informal, with everybody sitting around the table chatting up the speaker while dinner is served. Furyk fit in perfectly with the group with his easy-going manner and his honest, forthright storytelling.

While attendance at our monthly meeting us usually solid and sometimes spotty, this one was packed. Most of the members are golfers, and a chance to hear a former US Open Champion and one of the top players in the world talk about the game, his fellow competitors and life on tour.

Furyk’s an interesting guy because he has a story. Raised in Pennsylvania, his father became an assistant golf pro the year he was born. Furyk always had a passion for the game, but his father pushed him toward other sports instead. “If it had a ball or a glove, I was involved with it,” Furyk said while recapping his youth.

He played football and baseball, but was mainly interested in golf, as early as 8 years old. “My Dad said I wasn’t old enough to play yet, so I asked him to give me an age. He said 12, so when I turned 12, I held him to it and made him let me play.”

Furyk was passionate about the game, in the summer. That’s when he’d play all day during the week at the local muni, taking lessons from his father, “Standing in the kitchen,” at night and on the weekends. He played football early in high school and baseball a little longer until golf took over. “I played in 8 tournaments one summer in high school and won 6 of them, so I figured golf was the sport,” he explained.

Furyk was competitive and a winner in Pennsylvania, but that’s not considered a hotbed of golf. “So I started to play in some junior tournaments around the country and Arizona was the best college situation for me, so that’s where I ended up,” Jim said matter of factly.

“Of course I was interested in getting far away from Pennsylvania at the time,” he added with a laugh.

He might be #2 in the world now, but Furyk has played on just about every mini-tour and shared a social life with other players of his era on the road. So he knows those guys, and they know him. He didn’t hide at a country club or just show up at the US Amateur. Furyk played, and made himself an elite player.

“If there’s one thing about my job that I don’t like, and I’m not really complaining, it’s the travel,” he said when I asked him about “life on tour.” His earnings are in the millions, but Jim isn’t all about luxury. He flies commercially when it makes sense (Hawaii and Europe) and uses the PGA Tour’s personal trainer as opposed to importing his own.

In other words, he’s normal. He’s a pro’s pro, a big sports fan, plays golf with friends and honest with the people he deals with. He’s easy to root for.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tiger vs. The World

Much has been made about the inevitability of Tiger Woods win at the PGA championship. It was a pretty sure bet that he’d win after tying the course record on Saturday and moving to the top of the leaderboard. He’s unbeaten going into the final round of a major either as the leader or tied for the lead.

Inevitable, probably, but not only because of Woods’ greatness.

There are plenty of reasons to sprinkle around, and the timidity of his opponents should be somewhere near the top of the list. When is somebody going to put some real heat on Tiger in the final round? I thought Luke Donald might be the perfect foil on Sunday. A Chicago resident and a former student at Northwestern, he had a comfort factor none of the other competitors shared. He has plenty of game, as evidenced by his play in the first three rounds.

And he’s considered to be on the verge of greatness.

Nothing could solidify that more than staring down Tiger in the final round of a major in the same pairing. But instead of a challenge, Donald faded off the leaderboard as if he really didn’t want to be there. Tied with Tiger on the first tee, he was a whopping seven shots back when they got to the tenth. Seven shots! Between Tigers 40 foot bombs for birdies and Donald’s shaky play (and a couple of bad breaks); Woods only had to keep breathing on the back to take his 12th major title.

So who is Tiger’s competition?

Clearly nobody currently on Tour can handle him. He competes with history, and currently history rates Jack Nicklaus as the best ever. Nicklaus finished with 18 professional majors, and the universal acclaim as the best player ever. I saw Hogan and Snead play at the end of their careers, so I can’t say how Nicklaus’ career matched up to theirs. But I saw Jack in his prime and he controlled the game, much like Tiger does now. Nicklaus supposedly had a weak wedge game, but much like Woods is given credit for now, he dominated every phase of the game. He was the best driver, the best putter, and best long iron player and managed his game better than anybody.

I agree that the fields are deeper now than they were in Jack’s heyday. He had to beat maybe 10 guys in the field on a regular basis. Tiger has a deeper field, but doesn’t have the legendary foes that Nicklaus had to face. Jack had to beat Arnold, Watson, Player, Trevino and other Hall of Famers in order to collect his major championships. Tiger has the occasional Bob May to slay, but knows going in, it’s him versus the field.

Perhaps Woods has elevated his game to another plane that nobody can get to. I’ve often noted that he’s the best athlete out there and he’s the vanguard of what I think will be a whole generation of great athletes who choose golf, thanks to Tiger. There’s plenty of money in it, it’s glamorous and has a long career span. Really, if you were going to have a pick up basketball game and your talent pool to pick from was the PGA Tour, who’d be your first pick?

How about a touch football game? A 100-yard dash? Whatever, you’d take Tiger.

Add that athletic ability to the obvious mental capacity, the dedication to practice, the personal discipline of his fitness routine and a little bit of magic, and you have the best player out there.

By far.

I’ve admired Nicklaus’ ability to balance his life and his career. By the time he was 30, Jack and his wife Barbara had four children. But Nicklaus kept winning. Tiger has chosen to focus on his career, and solely his career for now. Nicklaus was the first player to take some weeks off, during the golf season but for most of his career, it was Jack vs. the other best players in the world every week there was a tournament. Tiger only faces other guys in the top five at the Majors and a couple of other tournaments during the year.

You can’t compare scorecards because of the equipment changes and advancements in agronomy, but it would be interesting to see the great players of the last 100 years face each other on a level playing field. You’d see a similar dedication and desire to win among them all. Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, Bobby Jones, Snead, Nelson, Hogan and the rest didn’t worry about what else was going on, they worried about getting the ball in the hole.

I did hear somebody say that those players, including Nicklaus didn’t have to deal with the media attention Tiger faces today. I laughed at that, recalling what the final holes of championships used to look like with the crowd on the frog hair of the greens and the press right in their face. There was no media management in that era. The press was king and did what they wanted. I’d call that a wash.

Want to compare travel? Hogan played in the British Open once because it took a long boat ride to cross the Atlantic and it was plenty expensive. Nicklaus drove or flew commercial for most of his career. Arnold became a pilot and flew his own plane from tournament to tournament (and still does.) Tiger faces none of those challenges.

So while I think he’s a great player and among the greats of the game, a little perspective should come into the discussion before anointing anybody the “Greatest of All-time.” When Tiger gets to 18 major wins, and I believe he will, that’s when the real scrutiny and debate should begin.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Miami Project

I spent the weekend in Atlantic City at the Roger King Invitational golf tournament. King is the premier syndicater in commercial television, handling shows like Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune and Oprah. He’s a big supporter of the Miami Project for the Cure for Paralysis and the Buonoconti Fund and the proceeds from his tournament go directly to the fund.

The Washington Post Company, the parent company of my station, Channel 4, is also a patron of the Miami Project and a sponsor of the golf tournament. So, our General Manager invited me to go along for the banquet and the dinner. The banquet had a very extensive silent auction with some fun sports memorabilia, some jewelry and some exotic spirits. The Trump organization, through the Taj Mahal on the boardwalk was also a big supporter, and also donated a check for $250,000 at the banquet.

The golf was nice on a links course that really felt like Ireland with the winning team finishing at 20 under (not us!). Anyway they raised a lot of money, over a half-million dollars and had a bunch of celebrities involved from Bob Griese (who played with us and was more personable that he’s been when I’ve been around him in the past) to Bob Beamon and Gerry Cooney (whose team won!). Cooney was a hoot by the way, as funny as anybody and really just enjoyable to be around. I don’t know if it’s an act but if so it’s a pretty good one.

I saw my friend Scott Clark, a sportscaster in New York and spent some time with Garo Yepremian and his family (very nice people). Leonard “Truck” Robinson was there and I spent a few minutes with him talking about playing at Raines High School. He told me he was a much bigger baseball player than basketball but he made a good living at basketball as a pro. He’s living in Phoenix now.

But the most impressive part of the weekend was to hear, watch and experience the commitment Nick Buonoconti has to his son and to the Miami Project. Mark Buonoconti was a linebacker at the Citadel when he dislocated his neck 21 years ago and lost the use of all of his limbs. His father, Nick, the Hall of Fame linebacker, made a commitment that night to raise money to look for a cure for paralysis.

And I mean a commitment.

Buonoconti was, and is convinced that all it will take is money to find a cure for paralysis. Not research, not desire, but money will fuel all of those things and find a cure.

And he might be right.

After raising millions of dollars, the Miami Project is past the research phase and onto clinical trials of different “cures” for paralysis. They’ve been able to restore movement in paralyzed lab rats in nearly 75% of the tests. And they think they can implement those treatments directly to humans. That very exciting for the people involved and their families and if it happens it’s because of one dad’s love for his son.

I mean the bond and commitment between Nick and Mark Buonoconti is the most impressive thing I saw all weekend. I hope it happens for a lot of reasons, but also to validate the commitment they’ve made to find a cure. It’ll show that love and hope can get things done. I know that’s hokey sounding but they’re the driving force behind this search for a cure

Right now they’re working on about 60 “cures” at the Miami Project and believe that they’re going to get it done soon. “I’m sick and tired of seeing my son in a wheelchair,” Nick said from the podium on Saturday night. “I want him to stand up and put his arms around me and give me a hug.”

“I’m sick of it too,” Mark said from his wheelchair when asked to speak on stage. That was followed by Mark thanking his parents for allowing him to become the person he has (while being stuck in a wheelchair!)

Pretty powerful stuff.

If you’d like to learn more about the Miami Project, their website is
http://www.miamiproject.miami.edu

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jack’s Farewell

To us, it’s the British Open. To the rest of the world, it’s just known as The Open Championship. The golf championship of the world as put on by the Royal and Ancient Golf club, commonly known as “the R&A.” I had a chance to attend the Open this year both as a reporter and as a guest of the R&A.

This 134th renewal of The Open had special significance on several fronts. First, it was back at St. Andrews, the home of the R&A and on The Old Course, known as the birthplace of golf. It also marked the final appearance as a professional player by Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus is a three-time Open champion, having won twice on the Old Course, in 1970 and again in 1978.

Nicklaus often said a “real” Open champion is one that wins at St. Andrews, something Bobby Jones once told him. So when Jack said he wasn’t going to play any more competitive golf, Peter Dawson, who runs the R&A, asked him if he’d return to Scotland to play in the Open one more time if they played the Championship at St. Andrews. Nicklaus said yes, and the plans were put in motion.

They switched years between St. Andrews and Hoylake, putting the Championship on the Old Course in 2005, the final year Nicklaus would be eligible to play as a former champion at 65 years old. The R&A says the pairings are done in a blind draw, but it looked a bit fishy when Jack was paired with his long-time rival and 5-time Open champ Tom Watson, as well as young Luke Donald.

Donald and Nicklaus both have a promotional deal with the Royal Bank of Scotland. Mmmm. The Royal Bank even issued two million five-pound notes with Nicklaus’ picture on the back. He’s the only living person besides the Queen and the Queen Mother to ever have his picture on Scottish currency. So to the Scots, Britons and golf fans everywhere, this was a big deal.

Nicklaus is the best player of all time. His record is unmatched, and no matter what anybody does after him, including Tiger, his impact on the game, on and off the course can’t be matched. He played like nobody before him, displaying power and touch. He won all over the world, but managed to stay close to his family. Money never seemed to matter; it was the titles that Nicklaus was after. History was his only competition.

But while he’s the best player ever, he’s not the best loved. His methodical, business-like style throughout his career turned some fans to other players. His battles with Palmer, Trevino and Watson were titanic in proportion, but many people had trouble warming to Jack. His biggest shortcoming when it came to the crowds was that he wasn’t Arnold.

He didn’t emote, either on or off the course, which, of course, was part of his greatness. That’s changed a bit as he’s gotten older, but he was always steely eyed and seemed to have ice water in his veins when it came to hitting a big shot at the right time.

None of that meant anything this week as his every step at St. Andrews was recorded and reviewed by spectators and television viewers. Tiger lead after the first and second rounds playing nearly flawless golf, but it was every shot and step of Nicklaus’ rounds that were the centerpiece of the BBC’s coverage. BBC announcer Peter Aliss always refers to Nicklaus a “the great man.” There was no question this week that he was just that.

An opening 75, three over par was serviceable, but Jack wasn’t happy. While it seemed everybody wanted to be in place Friday afternoon to see Nicklaus’ final stroll down 18 at The Old Course, Jack didn’t see it that way. He’s often joked that he’s now a ceremonial player, but it was pretty evident that he wasn’t going to make it a trip down memory lane this week.

To him, it was a competition, and as such, he was going to try and win. Sixty-five or not, Nicklaus saw it as a chance to compete, and he did just that. His Friday tee time gave him a chance to pretty much know what the cut number was going to be after 36 holes. Something under par in round two, and he’d probably be around for the weekend. So when he birdied number one after a driver and 7-iron to 6 feet, the crowd went nuts. He hung around even par in his second round coming to 17, the famous “Road Hole” at St. Andrews. He was still three over, with the cut looking to be around even, or one over, so everybody figured this would be it, a memorable walk through the final two holes, including the huge amphitheatre that makes up the first and 18th holes at the Old Course.

Everybody except Jack of course.

“I figured if I made a couple of birdies coming in, I’d have a chance (to play on the weekend), Nicklaus said in his post-round interview. But alas, a bogey at 17 sealed this as his final round as a competitor at the Open Championship, so even he accepted the ceremonial walk down at to the cheers of the thousands assembled.

His stop on the Swilcan Bridge was classic Nicklaus.

He climbed to the top and put his leg up on the wall of the bridge in very deliberate fashion. As with just about everything, there’s a plan with Jack, but he didn’t linger alone, quickly inviting his son Steve as well as Watson, Donald and their caddies on the bridge for a photo. A final shot with just he and his son, and he was off.

After all, there was more golf to be played.

His drive was just short of the “Valley of Sin” that guards the 18th green. His second shot, a putt actually, went about 10 feet past. And, allowed to be the final player in his group to finish, in typical Nicklaus fashion, he made the putt for birdie. I had a spot at Forgan House, just to the right of the 18th green, a chance to see history happen with the other thousands there just for that purpose. The applause was thunderous and long as Nicklaus made the putt and waved to the crowds. It wasn’t emotional until he grabbed Tom Watson and wouldn’t let him go. They walked off the 18th arm-in-arm, nearly all the way to the clubhouse. Then his whole family came down the steps for hugs and kisses and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

One Of Funk’s Punks

I try not to root for any particular player or team when I’m covering an event. I always like to see the home team win. It makes the fans happy, most of my friends are happy and certainly it makes a reporter’s job easier. Players and coaches are much more willing to talk after a win. At a golf tournament I like to see good play, good shots, an aggressive approach and somebody win instead of everybody else losing. And I do root for certain players. You get to know some of the guys when you hang around long enough, and you can’t help but hope they play well.

This brings us to Fred Funk.

He’s an easy guy to like and being a Maryland guy, I’ve always followed his career closely. I tried that with former PGA Tour player George Burns and that was a disaster. Burns was just gruff, rude and mean spirited, almost the exact opposite of Funk. Growing up in Tacoma Park, near the Maryland campus, Fred graduated from Maryland and became the golf coach there as well. So he’s no silver spoon guy. To the contrary, he even was a circulation manager for a newspaper for a while. A regular guy, with a regular job who just happened to be a very good golfer.

He was playing so well, he was encouraged to try the PGA Tour, and qualified as a Tour member in 1989. Like a lot of guys, he picked Ponte Vedra as his home to be near the practice facility at the TPC as Sawgrass. Funk might play more events than anybody else on the PGA Tour, so he really could live anywhere. Within the last year he was ready to move to Orlando, but at the last second changed his mind. So living in the area and also being a Maryland grad, it’s pretty natural that we’d have a connection.

I always check his scores in the agate type, and usually seek him out when I’m at a Tour event, if only to say hi. Last week he was his usual accommodating self leading up to the Players Championship, again making it easy to wish him well as the tournament drew near. A 65 in the first round showed that the golf course was not favoring the long hitters like a regular tour stop, and showed that Funk had his putter working, glaringly the weakest part of the game. Between the weather delays and the wind on Monday it was hard to predict who would emerge as the winner, and for the longest time, there really wasn’t a favorite. Until Funk birdied 12 and 13 to pull ahead of the field and declare himself as a contender.

At that point he had a two shot lead and almost anywhere else, the tournament is over. But that’s when he made it interesting. “I don’t make anything easy on myself,” Funk said after the final round. Three putt bogies on 14, 15 and 17. You could see the tournament slipping away from the fan favorite. “I said to myself in the middle of the fairway on 16, ‘How many more chances are you going to get?” That’s when he made his final birdie of the tournament, the insurance that he would eventually need.

How he played 18 was textbook in his approach if you want to win. Risky, but textbook none the less. Fade the ball down the left side of the fairway with your drive: Smooth a six iron from 170 that “I caught it on the toe,” according to Funk. Bunker shot to 5 ½ feet, and one putt for par. “I just wanted to put a good stroke on it,” Fred said right before the celebrating began. “I didn’t want to walk off 18, make or miss, thinking I didn’t hit a very good putt. My caddie reminded me it wasn’t over, but I said ‘It is for me!’ I had finally made something.”

When Fred was standing over that putt on 18, it was as quiet as I’ve ever heard it on the final hole at the Players Championship. There have been important putts there before. You only have to go back to last year’s finish when Adam Scott needed that 12 footer to avoid a playoff. But this was different. You could almost hear the silent prayers from the stands trying to will the ball in the hole. I was far enough away that I was able to say out loud “Let yourself do it Fred.” One of the guys I work with was standing next to me, and when I said that he gave me a startled look. I guess it was something out of character for me, but I really wanted him to make it. “So did everybody else,” a guy told me at the gas station later. I laughed, but got his point. Funk’s popularity cuts across all kinds of lines through the gallery. Everybody can relate to his game and his story. Now that story is a little richer. The right guy won.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Ryder Cup, Tyger Cup

A team competition in a uniquely individual sport should reveal something about the players involved. The Ryder Cup certainly does that. Once again, the Europeans beat the American, this time handing the US their worst loss in the 77 year history of the event. All this with a distinct advantage in the rankings among their players and major championships galore on their resumes compared to low world rankings and exactly zero majors for the Europeans.

So what happened?

The Euros trounced the Americans, figuring out how to play as a team. For your basic amateur, team golf is the norm. Me and my partner against you and yours. When I’m out of the hole, I’m rooting for my partner to keep me in it. The Europeans do exactly that. When one guy is AWOL, the other grinds harder to keep him in it. The Americans don’t seem to be able to figure that out, instead sticking to the “I’ll play my game and that’ll be good enough” mentality.

I don’t know who came up with the Tiger Woods/Phil Mickelson pairing, but it was the American problem in microcosm. “History demanded it, the fans demanded it,” American captain Hal Sutton said of the match up. I have a hard time believing that Sutton forced this on either one of those guys. One of them had to make the suggestion that it would be a good pairing. But it didn’t work. Even their body language early in the opening match on Friday showed that it was an uncomfortable start. I hate to lay the whole thing at Tiger’s feet, but he is America’s best player (no matter the world rankings) and his demeanor sets the tone for the rest of the team.

He’s never seemed comfortable in the team format, except when he’s played with David Duval. (They won the World Cup together.) You never hear a “what do you think” or some idle chatter about conditions or the matches or whatever. He’s the guy everybody’s looking to for a cue, and it’s not happening. There’s a theory that Tiger doesn’t want the other players too comfortable with him because he wants that air of invincibility to stay around when he faces them on the American tour and in the majors. There’s another that Tiger is best when paired with a player clearly his junior in stature who will show Tiger the deference he’s accustomed to. But who knows? The litmus test is his record in team competition in the Ryder Cup, and it’s not good.

Tiger’s taking a beating in the media right now for his comments comparing his record to Jack Nicklaus’ in Ryder Cup play, and rightly so. Tiger has lost twice as many matches in team play than he’s won. Nicklaus, on the other hand, was 17-8-3. And nobody was more dominant or intimidating than Nicklaus in his heyday. So what’s the answer? You don’t sit Tiger Woods, do you? His succession of partners has gone from his best friend, Mark O’Meara, to his biggest rival, Phil Mickelson, with virtually the same results: losses. Justin Leonard, Tom Lehman, David Duval, David Toms, Davis Love, Chris Riley, Paul Azinger and Mark Calcavecchia have all be paired with Woods and all have come back with a loss or two.. He did win back to back matches with Davis in 2002, but lost with him this time around.

For the ’06 matches at the K Club in Ireland, the American captain, (Azinger, Larry Nelson) should first ask Tiger if he wants to play. As in, “Do you want to be a part of this team?” Azinger is feisty enough to do it, and Nelson has no relationship with Tiger so he won’t have a problem either. Then he should ask Tiger who he wants to play with. Let him pick his partners and tell him that they’re his partners. Finally, talk to the rest of the team and tell them to get over the whole Tiger thing. They’re professionals, so go make it happen.

Isn’t everybody else sick of losing to the Euros?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Duval’s Return

I spent a few hours over a couple of days with David Duval last week. I was glad to see him since he’s faded out of the picture over the last few months. Duval was married in March and moved to Denver with his new wife and their three children. Denver, you might ask? Not exactly the place to work on your game in the off season. But Duval isn’t worried too much about his game, or appears not too worried, and that’s OK.

Having known David for the better part of twenty years, (here’s where I drop into my “sage old grizzled veteran role”) I’ve watched his development as a player, and also as a person. From junior golfer at Timiquana and the Plantation, to collegiate star at Georgia Tech, to a hiccup joining the PGA Tour, to bonafide Tour star, David was singularly focused on a goal: see how good he could be. Not to become the best player in the world, but to see how good he could be. Turns out, that quest did lead him to a number one ranking and a major championship at The Open. But David is a smart guy, a very smart guy, and the win at the Open, while gratifying as a payoff for hard work, was not satisfying as an end all-be all achievement. And it affected his motivation. What other mountains were there to climb? Throw in an emotional breakup with his long time girlfriend and a variety of injuries that changed his swing, and all of the sudden, David couldn’t break an egg.

For so many athletes, they keep pounding away, trying to find the answers, only to become more and more frustrated. But most do that because that’s all they know. Duval is much different. Golf is just one of the things he knows and exploring the other parts of his life is as important to him as anything he could achieve in golf. Those couple of days I spent with David were enlghtening for me and for a lot of us who’ve known him for a long time (there I go again.) He’s as happy as I’ve ever seen him. He’s content, he’s centered. That arms length, aloofness he displayed in public has been replaced by a genuine warmth, complete with a straight look in the eye and a smile.

Duval’s travails in life have been well documented, and they shaped his personality. So it would make sense that two very positive things, marriage and kids, would also shape his personality. When I asked him the standard newlywed question “How’s married life treating you?” He grinned ear to ear and said, “Awesome!”

His step-children, two boys and a girl from 13 down to 8 years old, are attached to him as if he’s been around their whole lives. He talks to his kids with that combination of love, tenderness and authority that can’t be taught. I know he’s only been married for a couple of months, but he and his wife certainly seem like a match.

I didn’t ask him when he’d play again, but just about everybody else did. He didn’t really have an answer, except something vague about when he’s ready. Which is perfect. Money is not a problem, and even though his sponsors, (Nike, Oakley et al) are running a little thin on patience, Duval isn’t about to step back into professional golf until he’s ready. He looks healthy, more healthy than he has when he’s on a strict diet and exercise regime. He’s committed to the U.S. Open, but it’s doubtful he’ll play there. Even the (British) Open Championship might not get him back. David and his father, Senior PGA Tour player Bob Duval, are scheduled to play in Johnny Miller’s Father-Son Tournament in August and it could be until then before David returns to competition. Don’t be surprised if he returns to the Tour at the International, outside his current home, Denver, also in August. But don’t worry about David. He’s just fine. In fact, he’s better than that.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Palmers’ Masters Legacy

Sometimes when people ask me about my job and whether I still like it, I have a pretty stock answer that really rings true in my head. “Are you kidding,” I’ll say, “I’ve flown with the Blue Angels and have had beers with Arnold Palmer, what’s not to like?”

And that’s true.

I’ve used Palmer as that standard of excellence, for all others to be compared to. And a lot of people have done that. Becaue it’s so easy. Arnold has always made it easy. He’s the only athlete I’ve ever met who makes you feel like he’s got all the time in the world and you’re his only concern of the day when he’s talking to you. He has more grace in the end of his little finger than most athletes acquire in a lifetime.

“Everybody out here should turn around and hand Arnold 50 cents on every dollar he makes,” said Curtis Strange, perhaps the only smart thing Curtis has ever said.

Palmer’s final apperance at the Masters as a competitor was a parade, and a celebration of his 50 years at Augusta. Palmer won the Masters four times, but his connection with the tournament and Augusta National is much more than that. It’s the place where Palmer became a star. It’s where he made his connection with everybody, golfer and non-golfer alike. Frank Chirkinian was the producer of CBS’s coverage of the Masters and recognized immediately that the camera loved Arnold. His charisma came right through the lens. Because it was, and is, real. A blue-collar guy winning in a white collar game.

But it was more than that.

Palmer is unfailingly polite, a characteristic he says his father instilled in him. Last week Palmer was in Ponte Vedra at his design company offices for the day. I was invited to do an interview with Palmer, but it turned out to be much more than that. Arnold asked me to stick around for lunch, and his favorite desert (strawberry vannila fudge sundaes) and just some chat time. He was affable as ever and during our interview told a great story about his latest (19th) hole in one, just three days earlier on 17 with 7-wood on his home course Bay Hill.

I asked him if there was one shot that remained in his memory of the thousands he’s hit in the Masters, one that might have been the best shot he’d ever hit there. “In 1960, I hit the Eisenhower tree on 17 with my drive and it fell straight down. I hit four-iron there on the green, made the putt and went on to win,” Arnold recalled like it was yesterday. We laughed, and turned the cameras off. He stepped aside and paused, and said without a smile “I could have told you about a bunch of bad ones I hit there. Like that 6 on 18 in 1961.”

Here we were 45 years later, and Palmer was still seething about the tournament that got away. The competitive fire still raging inside. And that’s what I’ve always liked about Arnold. He wants to win and makes no bones about it.

I was watching his final round on television last Friday and his interview afterwards. Palmer cried. And we all cried with him. “I guess I’m just a sentimental sop,” Arnold said when asked about his feelings. (I thought Bill Macatee and Peter Kostis were horrible by the way). But true to form, Arnold thanked the fans for their support over the years at Augusta. No Arnold, thank you.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Scott Wins Players

I spent about an hour with the engraver from Waterford crystal standing next to the 18th green yesterday at The Players Championship. A friendly Irishman, he joked that if Paddy Harrington won, “we’d need a bigger trophy.” “A-d-a-m-S-c-o-t-t, short and sweet,’ and we both laughed. “When do you think I can start,” he asked. “When he hits his second shot on 18 in the middle of the green,” I answered. The TPC at Sawgrass is fraught with peril through the final three holes, where the championship can be easily lost, or won, with one swing of the club. “It’s brutal,” is how Scott described it standing outside the media center.

His second shot on 16 wasn’t a good sign when he pulled it left into the rough. Though he made a nice chip and an easy par, left isn’t good on 17 or 18. So when he hit his pitching wedge in the middle of green on 17, left of where he was aiming, there was a little jitter in the crowd. Padriag Harrington went to the practice tee to warm up, even though Scott had a two shot lead. Harrington knows left is not good on 18. But when Scott smartly drove a 2-iron down the right side of the fairway on the final hole, the engraver started. Then stopped when Scott’s 6-iron second shot landed in the water, left of the green, never touching earth. “Not a good swing,” is how Scott described it, “just one of those things that happens around here.”

Just one of those things? Only when you’re 23 can you think that way. “A chip and a putt to win,” is how Scott recounted his thought process. Now that’s putting a positive spin on things. I just hit it in the water on the final hole of a big championship and am about to go down in history as the biggest choke in the history of the tournament, but “just a chip and a putt to win” is running through my mind.

Scott freely admits that he’s had fellow Aussie Greg Norman as his hero throughout his golfing life. Perhaps it was fate that he bumped into Norman in the practice area on Wednesday and asked for help with his chipping. The 1994 champion spent an hour trying to get Scott to accelerate through the ball on short shots. Apparently it worked, with Scott giving Norman credit for the variety of up and downs he made throughout the week.

“I wasn’t thinking about it, but I definitely used the new technique,” Scott said when I asked him about the lesson and his chip on 18. “It was the only shot I was kind of nervous over, but I said to myself, ‘just a chip and a putt to win.’ “There’s no way I would have been able to make that kind of chip with my old technique. Once it got up there, I didn’t let myself think of anything else but making that putt.” Maybe Scott didn’t think of anything else, but everybody else certainly was. Where does the playoff start?, was the thought on everybody’s lips. But Scott calmly made the putt, and the place exploded. “You should make that putt every time on perfect greens like these,” he explained. And that’s why he’s who he is. At 23 and already a two time winner on tour and 6-time champion around the world, everybody says he’s got the game to compete at the top. But it was those thoughts, those positive thoughts, those mental adjustments that showed who he is.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

It’s A Girl’s Game

Now that the circus has left town, the PGA Tour can look at the “Great Annika Experiment” and decide if it was good for everybody, or good for anybody. The organizers of the Colonial look brilliant. They invited the one person on the planet who can actually play, who brought more publicity to their tournament than even Tiger Woods. Certainly, Vijay Singh looks silly, his harsh comments and subsequent withdraw from the Colonial putting him in caveman status in most women’s eyes.

Men’s golf is no worse for wear, Sorenstam herself admitting, “this was a bit much for me,” with Women’s golf getting a little bit of a boost. It’s not a completely inferior game, just a different level of competition. Sorenstam’s opening round 71, one over par, was solid as she hit almost every fairway and every green. But she couldn’t putt worth a lick. She’s never been considered a great putter, one of the stark differences between the PGA and LPGA Tours, but her putting wasn’t even average by her standards. Thirty-three putts usually means six or seven over in a normal round, but Sorenstam’s accuracy off the tee and with her irons gave her plenty of chances.

Her second round 75 is where some of the cracks in a game that isn’t rewarded by good putting started to show. Over two days, Annika made just two birdies, not anywhere near the kind of performance that gets into contention or even makes the cut on the PGA Tour every week. But once she teed it up on Thursday, much of the conversation regarding Sorenstam changed from “will she make the cut,” to “I hope she makes the cut.” If you watched her interaction with the media, the fans and other players, you couldn’t help but be rooting for her. Somehow, she was able to show that she was serious, yet not threatening to either the men or the women. She was funny. She was humble. She was astute. And she wasn’t afraid to let everybody know that this was “my Mt. Everest.” Other than Arnold Palmer, I can’t think of one professional athlete that could have handled her situation with the same style and grace as Sorenstam. She was unfailingly polite, admitted her shortcomings, thanked everybody, and said she hoped she played better.

So what’s not to like about the whole thing?

Nothing!

Sorenstam got a chance to measure her game against those who compete at the highest level. She found the going pretty tough, even against a limited field. As I’ve said before, just looking at her game, she has “cut line” talent on the PGA Tour. She’d be hanging around the cut line each week, making it to the weekend when she putted well, and going home on Friday nights when she didn’t. She’s by far and away the best female player, so there’s no threat, at least right now, that this scenario will be repeated with any serious thought of a woman being able to compete. Not to say that it won’t happen in the future. The money’s too good, and the game is too widespread to not see some female players develop enough game to challenge the men.

Michelle Wie says she wants to compete half the time against men. But she’s 13 years old, and her opinion might change. Beth Daniel played on the men’s golf team during her time at Furman, but opted for the LPGA Tour when she turned pro. Sorenstam didn’t shoot 80, but she didn’t shoot 65 either. This wasn’t about men vs. women anyway; it was about one dream fulfilled. And it was, even if somebody woke Annika up before she hoped it was over.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Playing Augusta

I’ve always said I’ve gotten to do things throughout my career that I never would have come close to if not for the job I have. Playing Augusta National is one of those things and near the top of the list. I’ve played Augusta several times, including last Monday as an invited member of the media. Actually, I won a lottery spot after throwing my name into a basket with several hundred other members of the media.

The last time I played Augusta as a member of the media was 1980 and was told it was a “once in a lifetime” thing. And I believed them. I bought new shoes and an Augusta National shirt, I worked on my game and ground out every shot from the back tees. I’ve played there since as a guest, but never again as a member of the media, until last Monday. I joked with the Masters PR director Glenn Greenspan for years about a “10, 15 or 20-year rule” after covering the tournament for more than two decades. “Sorry, Sam,” was Glenn’s reply, “you know, once in a lifetime.”

My friend and Senior Sports Photographer Kevin Talley even wanted proof one time that “The National” kept up on such things. The year he was selected, 1997, he asked to see if I could play again. “Kouvaris?” the smiling woman behind the desk inquired. “Let’s see,” she said as she reached under the desk for an old strongbox with 3X5 cards filed inside. Under the “K’s” she pulled out an old, yellowed and faded card, looked at it and read, “Sam Kouvaris, 1980,” put the card back, closed the box and slid it under the desk, with a smile.

Last year in the credential request form, a notification announced that as a member of the media, you were now re-eligible to submit your name into the lottery every seven years. “Every seven years?” I asked Glenn on the phone in early January. “Yeah, just call it the Sam Kouvaris rule,” he chuckled. Glenn and I have a long professional and personal relationship. He was the original Media Director for the USFL’s Jacksonville Bulls in the early ’80’s. We forged a friendship then that has lasted through my tenure here and his stops with Georgia Southern, the PGA Tour, Gary Player and now Augusta National.

So there I was, lined up to play on Monday at Augusta National. Sunday pin placements, perfect 72 degree weather, a caddy, and another new shirt. Without boring you with the details, suffice to say I didn’t play as well as I would have liked, but I wasn’t horrible either. I didn’t make anything over 5 feet (including four birdie chances) and had my share of three-putts and doubles. I was determined not to be score oriented, and grind away, but rather enjoy the experience, if only for how beautiful a walk it is. But it did give me an appreciation for how hard the golf course is, how small the margin for error is, and just how exacting you have to be to score well.

I had parred one and two, and was down the middle on three, 109 yards to the front and 114 to the hole. I hit my “gap” wedge, caught it a little heavy, and as it was in the air, thought it might be a little short. “Just get up a little,” my caddy, Brandon said while the ball was in the air. It landed in the fringe, 108 yards from where I hit it, and instead of hopping forward to set up a birding chance, it spun back 25-yards down the slope away from the hole. Now I have a nearly impossible shot (for someone of my limited talent anyway) and end up making six! So playing there was a thrill and it accomplished just what I had hoped: a confirmation of the PGA Tour’s slogan that I repeated more than once that day. “Boy, those guys are good!”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Hooties Comments

Sometimes when you read the things you’ve heard said, they look very different in print. Sometimes without the impact and subtleties and sometimes more harsh than intended. Hootie Johnson, Chairman of Augusta National and the Masters golf tournament has suffered from both cases for the past ten months. He’s been characterized as a Neanderthal and as a progressive. He’s been lauded and vilified for his comments regarding single-gender rights for private organizations. And each time, his comments, when read, seem well thought out.

Today in his annual question and answer session with the media at the Masters, Johnson reiterated the club’s policy on membership in an opening statement and said he wasn’t going to take any questions about that issue. Some of the assembled media worked their way around that, and others decided to ask anyway. Johnson relented after admonishing a reporter for lecturing him. His comments, in print, were well crafted as he cited the Girl Scouts, sewing circles and the Junior League as examples of women-only private organizations. But how he made those comments won’t win him any friends.

When asked about Tiger Woods’ comments saying he believes that there should be a woman member at Augusta, Johnson said “I won’t tell Tiger how to play golf if he doesn’t tell us how to run our private club.” Kind of a funny line if made in an off-hand manner, but from the podium of the pressroom at Augusta there wasn’t any humor in it. Johnson seems to be a paradox to many people. A father of four daughters and a champion in many cases against discrimination, he’s been whittled down to a small-minded man who is a brute by those who want to make this a right or wrong issue. His record for supporting so-called progressive causes in the state of South Carolina is well documented. He has fought against discrimination in very public ways. But he doesn’t see this issue as discrimination.

“Single gender is an important fabric on the American scene,” Johnson responded to a question today. “There are thousands and thousands all across America. Both genders. Health clubs, sewing circles, Junior League, Shriners and we should not and we’re not discriminating. And we resent it very much when that accusation is made against us.”

Johnson was asked about his daughters’ thoughts on the issue and he recounted a story about his wife’s recent birthday. ” . . . And my wife and the four daughters wanted to go to the lake place to celebrate her birthday. And they let me know that the really didn’t want me to come along with them. And they didn’t want their husbands to come along. We congregate there all the time, but they were going to do their thing. It’s just a natural thing. And I don’t know how to articulate that or how to explain it. But it’s just been going on for centuries and centuries that men like to get together with men every now and then and women like to get together with women every now and the. And that’s just a simple fact of life in America.”

Research seems to back Johnson up, as a vast majority of women don’t think the gender membership policy at Augusta is an issue. I’m with them. It’s not an issue. It’s a private club that can set their own rules. They give money to charity and strive to put on the best sporting event they can every year. I’ve always had a rule I follow: I don’t go to any parties I’m not invited to. Why try and shoehorn myself somewhere where they don’t know me or possibly they don’t want me to be there?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Augusta 2003

Plenty of people have been to Augusta National. Thousands stream here every year for the practice rounds, holding their tickets as if their admission to the site of the Holy Grail. Up until about five years ago, you could just show up in Augusta, walk to the gates of Augusta National and buy a ticket to the practice round. For the par three tournament one year, so many people showed up, the membership decided it was literally unsafe for the spectators and decided to go to a lottery system and limit the number of tickets made available.

At the Masters, your ticket is good for one particular day in the practice rounds, Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. What’s called a Series Badge is good for the tournament days only, Thursday thru Sunday. The change in the crowd is dramatic. Practice rounds have patrons moving about the course in a frantic pace, trying to get everything in during their one day. They’re dressed in golf clothes, with the names of clubs from all over the country emblazoned on their chests. Starting on Thursday, the crowd is smaller, quieter, and older. They take up positions all over the course, watching the parade of players come through, acknowledging their skill with polite applause. They’re dressed is a more demure fashion, khaki jackets, floppy hats and sensible shoes.

This year, those shoes need to be waterproof, with rain falling on the course throughout the beginning of the week. The wet conditions have also changed the golf course, again, making it even longer. They’ve redesigned the fifth hole, moving the tee behind the fourth green, giving it some more length, and they’ve added two, huge, gaping bunkers on the left side of the fairway. “I’m not going in there,” Davis Love said yesterday after a practice round. “I’ll go into the trees right before I go in there. It’s so steep David (Duval) said he wouldn’t snowboard down it, so you know it’s bad.” Duval doesn’t necessarily like the changes, saying they’ve taken some of the drama away from the tournament. The two-time runner up added, “There aren’t as many birdie holes, you have to pick your spots. The back nine isn’t there for the taking anymore, even the par fives. If you had a two shot lead going to the back on Sunday, you might take nine pars and feel pretty good about your chances.”

“You can tell by the roars,” 1979 champ Fuzzy Zoeller observed. “It used to be you could tell what was happening by the roars coming up the hill from all over the course. Now, there aren’t so many ’cause guys are trying to scratch it out, trying to make pars.” One concensus is that length is essential. Fred Couples was amazed how long you have to hit it to just get into position. “From what I saw out there today, I’m not going to say you can’t play the course if you’re not long, but it’s definitely a bomber’s paradise.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Love Wins 2003 Players

When it happens in your town, it always seems so huge when weather stops play in the local PGA Tour event. But the guys on tour deal with weather every week. It’s no big deal to them. Sometimes we make a lot about the advantage of playing in the morning vs. playing in the afternoon, and the players know the “luck of the draw” does have an effect on the outcome, but over the course of a year, it probably evens out. That’s why the players were pretty non-plussed about the weather delay at the Players Championship this year.

“We’ll finish 72 holes,” Rocco Mediate said after Friday’s round. “No way this is a 54-hole tournament, they’ll play until they’re done, no matter how long it takes.” And that seems to be the prevailing attitude among all the players. Tell me when to tee it up and that’s when I’ll be there.

When was the last time you heard of a PGA Tour player missing his tee time? Darren Clarke wanted to finish on Friday night despite the darkness toward the end of his round. David Duval was one of his playing partners when they approached the 17th tee, Duval told Clarke he’d come back tomorrow to finish if Clarke wanted to. Clarke said he wanted to get done that night, that he didn’t like to get up early, especially to play one hole as tough as the 18th at the Stadium Course. The other player in the threesome, Garrett Willis agreed. Willis and Duval were not going to make the cut. Their tournament was over as soon as they were done. Clarke was four under par and in touch with the leaders. But they hatched a plan to get finished under the rules.

Knowing the horn was going to blow to suspend play because of darkness, Willis agreed to quickly putt out on 17, hustle to the 18th tee and hit his tee shot, putting their threesome in play on the 18th. The Tour rule allows a group to finish the hole they’re playing once play is suspended for darkness, if they choose. Willis did just that, hitting his tee shot on 18 before Duval and Clarke had even lined up their putts on 17.

“A little bit of a veteran move,” is how Duval described it on Friday night. “Darren said he wanted to finish, but I told him I’d come back tomorrow if he wanted.” As expected, the horn blew before Clarke and Duval had teed off on the 18th, but they were allowed to finish the hole. Clarke made bogies on 17 and 18 and in retrospect cost himself a lot of money and potentially a chance to win. “I wouldn’t do it again,” Clarke said after Saturday’s round put him in touch with the leaders, “but I was all for it last night.”

Maybe because the Players Championship isn’t considered a major by the media (it is by the players themselves) but somehow Davis Love’s final round won’t go down in golf lore as what it most likely is: the best final round in a big tournament ever played. David Duval’s 59 at the Hope a few years ago is pretty strong, but the TPC at Sawgrass’ Stadium Course is treacherous and unforgiving. Love striped it all day and after making birdie on 9, knew it was his tournament to lose.

“The drive on 10 was key,” Davis explained in the darkness an hour after his win, “but I killed my drive on 11 (303 yards, the longest of the day) and Freddie (Couples) said to me, ‘that’s the best drive of the day’ and when I hit my drive on 18 Freddie said, ‘OK, that’s the best drive’.” Love didn’t miss a shot all day and according to Couples, his playing partner, “everything was within a few feet. It was amazing.” By any measure, it would be hard to diminish Love’s career to this point. He’s won a major, he’s a zillionaire, and is considered among the game’s elite. But there is a gnawing thought that somehow his career has fallen short of expectations. “There’s no higher expectation than the one you have of yourself. We all want to be the number one player in the world and we’re not satisfied if we’re not. I know Tiger is a great player, but he doesn’t win every week. I’m going to continue to work like I have been and I won’t be satisfied until I’m ranked number one. Maybe I’ll get there, maybe I won’t, but that’s what I’m working for.”

A long list of players have been set up as Tiger’s foil: Duval, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, but never has Davis Love been mentioned as the man who can challenge Woods’ dominance, and Davis didn’t like that. “I’ve promised myself that I’m going to concentrate on every shot over 72 holes, to get focused in on the target, to work hard and be the best I can be.” Fred Couples, Love’s best friend on tour, says there’s no question Love has the talent to ascend to the top. “Davis likes to do other things, as we all do” Fred said after Sunday’s round, “but I think he’s committed to seeing just where his talent can take him. I know this; I’ve never seen anybody play a round of golf like he did today. It was amazing.”

There was a lot of talk about Love’s potential domination when he arrived on tour. His length, the distance between his head and hands at the top of his back swing, his ability to overpower a golf course, etc. He’s harnessed all of the physical ability, and perhaps his motivation as caught up with that as well. If so, we’re in for a show.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Augusta And Women

I’ve been covering the Masters since 1979. I was there when Fuzzy Zoeller made that putt on 11 to win the Green Jacket and I’ve been there to see Tiger Woods begin his historic run. And I was there when they had those little brass plates on the wall that said “Gentlemen Only” designating card rooms, smoking rooms and the locker room where men might gather and act in a manner that might offend some women. Those brass plates quietly disappeared about 10 years ago.

I’ve seen so much change at Augusta National that you’d barely recognize the place as the same spot I visited 25 years ago. Despite it’s history and tradition, just about everything at Augusta National is evaluated ever year by the membership, and even the golf course has undergone some subtle and not so subtle changes over the years. It might appear staid and conservative from the outside, but inside the gates, they’re always looking for a way to do things better.

There’s usually a lot of fanfare associated with any change at Augusta. Fanfare from the outside that is, because the membership doesn’t talk about any of the changes. In fact, the membership is pretty much asked not to talk about anything, leaving the public pronouncements to the chairman. People made a big deal about it when the PGA Tour players were allowed to bring their own caddies, and when Augusta admitted it’s first non-white member. And now, Martha Burk, the head of the women’s coalition, is making a big deal about there being no women members at Augusta. Her point is that the Masters is a public entity, and therefore women should be admitted.

I’ve never understood why people would want to shoehorn themselves into places just to say they were there. I don’t want to go to any parties I’m not invited to, and I don’t want to join any clubs where they don’t want me as a member. But Martha Burk wants a female member at Augusta, saying it’ll advance women’s causes and women’s rights everywhere.

Before all of this became public last summer, Augusta National was in the process of inviting women to be members. It probably would have happened as early as 2003. But now, William “Hootie” Johnson, the chairman at Augusta National, says it “definitely” won’t happen before this year’s tournament in April. Johnson says Augusta will invite woman members on their own timetable.

The membership of Augusta National is just that, a national membership. Many of the 300 members represent the top corporations in America, and the membership is spread out all over the country. While Johnson’s public stance has been heavy handed, he’s right: Augusta National is a private club and can invite anybody it wants to be a member.

The club produced results from a poll yesterday showing that more than 70% of Americans agree that a private club should be allowed to determine the makeup of its own membership. Burk calls the poll “amateurish.” The whole thing has been ugly with charges and rebuttals, threats and reactions. But Burk is way over the top. Her current threat to have protests and boycotts at the Masters this year sound like a yapping dog at the gate.

Women are patrons at the Masters every year. They make up a large portion of people watching the tournament. More than 1000 rounds were played by women at Augusta National last year. Despite her protestations, the club and the tournament are two different things. I’ve been to plenty of fraternity parties where women were present, and they were welcome and having a good time. But as far as I know, none of them demanded to join afterwards. Times change, people change, organizations change. And they removed those little brass plaques a long time ago.