Golf

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Ryder Cup 2002

There seemed to be a collective yawn coming from our side of the Atlantic after Europe wrested the Ryder Cup from the Americans on Sunday. Yes, it was exciting, and some people tuned in live in the morning to catch all of the action, but there sure wasn’t the fervor that’s existed around the cup since the mid-’80’s. Maybe it’s the fact that it was postponed a year, perhaps it’s because we were just trying to be good sportsmen, but that feeling that it was important wasn’t there.

We’re rooting for our guys, we want them to play well, but we just don’t want it as bad as the Europeans. And that’s reflected in our players as well. All are well off, multi-millionaires playing for their country once a year, arriving in their private jets, toting along family members, caddies, assorted outfits and all of the latest technology people can give them. Even the desire to win is there, and there in bunches, but it’s just not as important as it is to the Europeans.

Winning or losing the Ryder Cup can define a player’s or a coach’s career in European golf. Sam Torrance will now always be known as the genius captain who sent out his big guns first and swayed the momentum in favor of his team. (Conversely, I suppose, Curtis Strange will always be known as the foolhardy captain who left his best players, Mickelson and Woods, essentially on the bench.)

Just about all of the guys on the European side make their living playing golf in America. And none, save for Colin Montgomerie, have much bad to say about being over here. There’s not that snotty Faldo attitude to dislike, or the swagger of a Ballesteros to fume at. What’s not to like about Darren Clarke? Who is Nicholas Fasth? So it seems the popularity of the Ryder Cup has reached it’s zenith and come back to earth. If the popularity of the competition was actually based on one side’s dislike for the other, then the whole premise that Samuel Ryder put his name on the cup for was lost.

The players put together these matches originally, with Ryder adding the cup after two competitions. It was a gentlemanly way to square off, head-to-head using home course advantage on either side of the Atlantic. The Brits vs. the Americans, with all of Europe only being invited in the late ’70’s. The matches were scheduled every two years because of the travel originally involved. (Now both teams make the transatlantic trip via the Concorde. Three hours, three and a half, tops.)

America’s best player, Tiger Woods, half-jokingly said last week that he’d rather win the World Golf championship event than the Ryder Cup. “I can think of a million reasons (the amount of the winners check) I’d rather win here,” Tiger said. And in this era of golf’s Tiger mania, if Tiger says it’s not important, than it most not be that important. Now, if all of the sudden Tiger jumps up and says “The Ryder Cup is the most important thing in the world to me,” then it’ll jump back up in stature. And we know that’s not going to happen.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

British Open

There are a lot of things to take from this year’s British Open (The Open Championship to the rest of the world). First, they play some pretty good golf around the world, not just on the PGA Tour. There’s no question, as a whole, the best golf is played in America where the money is better, the golf course conditioning is better and three of the four professional major championships are held. But The Open Championship brings more elements into play.

The weather, for certain, is a factor. Played along the coast (usually) in the UK, one day it can be 50 and raining, the next 68 and sunny. Saturday and Sunday this year are perfect examples.

The courses are different, allowing the game to be played as it was intended, along the ground if necessary. No forced carries, just lots of risk and reward. Muirfield was just over 7,000 yards long, yet the score that got four players into a playoff was just six under. How does that happen? Through good planning and a solid setup, the Royal and Ancient created a scenario that rewarded solid ball striking, good chipping and bold putting. The greens weren’t overly fast, yet if you missed on the wrong side of the hole it was difficult to two putt. A wayward drive was penalized whether it traveled 275 or 350 yards. The penalty was the same for not hitting it in the fairway. Subsequently, guys who were playing well were rewarded, regardless of how long they were.

Augusta, USGA, were you watching?

Extending the “hazard line” makes a lot of sense. Saturday’s weather equalized the field. Guys who were hitting it solid survived, guys who weren’t paid the price. I thought it was funny how the players all just shrugged their shoulders and said “that’s just the British Open.” They would have howled if that happened at a regular tour event. And the R&A was right to continue play. The course wasn’t holding water, and the ball was staying on the green so why stop playing?

The fact that Tiger Woods shot 81 was shocking because he’s never done that before. At one point, he was on track to shoot the highest score of the day. Tiger? The one with the perfect swing and the mental toughness and focus to overcome anything? It just proves it can happen to anybody, no matter how together they are and how tight their game is. When it goes, especially when the weather is bad, it goes.

Woods is a tremendous player, the best in the world, and a contender for the best of all-time but he’s neither infallible nor invincible. He’s also the most commercially successful golfer of this era, and his game is tailored to the way courses are currently built. Would he be as dominant if all courses were set up like Muirfield? Tiger might win as often, but there would also be more contenders.

Ernie Els victory has to give him some confidence. Even though he’s won four times this year all around the world, have you ever heard somebody who seems to fight demons so often? It’s like he has a little devil standing on his shoulder saying, “you can’t do it,” followed by an angel on the other saying, “it’s OK Ernie.” They guy is a fabulous player who was doubting he would ever win (meaning beat Tiger) in a major again. David Duval also said he found hope and confidence playing at The Open Championship. If that’s the case, it should be a fun finish to the year.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Augusta 2002

I don’t know if my annual trip to Augusta would be considered a pilgrimage or a reunion because it feels like a little bit of both. Even the drive through eastern Georgia each spring is nostalgic. Going through towns, like Statesboro, Sardis and Waynesboro, depending on the route we take, seeing how they’ve changed over the past year and gauging the type of spring they’ve had on how far along the azalea’s and dogwoods are in bloom. The landscape can be breathtaking, and even though it’s only a short drive from home, Jacksonville’s seaside, beach town feel in comparison makes it seem a million miles away.

Augusta is a town identified by the medical college but world famous as the home of the Masters. Augusta National is located on Washington Road, a street something like Beach Boulevard near University. Inside the gates might be one of the most beautiful, pastoral settings in the world, but outside is a collection of fast food restaurants, ticket buyers (the sellers are very, very discreet), and street vendors selling everything from black velvet art to unofficial Masters gear. While the Masters has always been a big event, it’s grown in the last ten years to something huge, enveloping the entire town.

The people here are great, polite even when they’re telling you to get lost. They’ve raised the bar on tailgating too. When was the last time you saw people spread out their blanket and cooler and lawn chairs while waiting on line for a seat in a restaurant?

Of golf’s four major championships, the Masters is the only one played on the same golf course every year, so the course itself, Augusta National, is the star. They’ve had to change it over the years to keep up with technology and the ability of the players. Jack Nicklaus’ domination here in the ’60’s had the members make a few changes to the course and Tiger Woods’ assault on the Masters record book gave rise to a re-vamping and lengthening of seven of the 18 holes. These changes were widely publicized and celebrated. Nothing like the quiet changes of the past where you’d walk out of the door of the pro shop headed to the first tee straight ahead, only to have to make a left and march 40 yards up hill to find the new tee box.

The weather will play a role in how the scoring goes this week, but the course changes will make it more difficult. Unlike the other majors where they’ve taken the driver out of the players’ hands, the extra 300 yards they’ve added at Augusta will force players to hit driver and hit it precisely. It probably takes another fifteen guys out of the mix of possible winners, but the long bomber that wins here, will also have played his irons very well and putted better than anybody else. That’s why it’s hard to overlook Tiger, Duval, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els as the favorites, and difficult to see players like O’Meara or Olazabal contending again. They’re great technicians, great scramblers. But just not long enough. But Augusta is full of surprises and surprise winners. That’s part of what they call the “charm.” I told you they were polite.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tiger’s Greatness

The guy is phenomenal. Tiger Woods’ performance at the Masters was thrilling, strong willed and gutsy. It didn’t have the magic of his other major championship victories, but it had grit and was a show to remember. Is it a Grand Slam? No. Call it the Major Slam or the Quad Slam, whatever you want, but call it magnificent.

Holding all four major championship trophies at the same time is a monumental feat. Something other players have thought about, most notably Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Neither was able to accomplish it, but both had it on their minds. Palmer in 1960, Nicklaus in 1971. The problem was, other players got in the way. Nobody has done that to Tiger Woods. Jerry Kelly couldn’t do it at the Players Championship. Bob May couldn’t do it at the PGA and neither David Duval nor Phil Mickelson could do it at this year’s Masters.

Duval and Mickelson haven’t won major championships. It could be just their bad fortune to be at the top of their games when Woods is in the prime of his. Duval is a special story. It’s not as if he hasn’t won. He’s not afraid to “go low” as evidenced by his 59 at the Hope two years ago. His fitness regimen is unparalleled. In fact, when you see a tournament in person, Duval and Tiger standout as athletes. Everybody else looks like a golfer. David seems to be carved from steel, Tiger looks more like A-Rod or Jeter than Hogan or Snead. Duval has played well enough to win four green jackets, but fate or misfortune, or a three-putt at 16 has gotten in the way.

Nobody is owed a Green Jacket. Nobody is owed a major championship. Just ask Greg Norman. Duval has prepared himself like nobody else, except Tiger. It would be unfair to characterize him as Ali’s Frazier or Affirmed’s Alydar. Only a look back at his career from the future could cast him in that role.

Mickelson’s problem could be very different. His inconsistency in decision-making and shot execution under pressure could be because he’s still a golfer, not an athlete. He doesn’t seem to approach it as a battle, a mano-a-mano competition. It seems to still be a country club game to Mickelson. A commitment to fitness might be part of the recipe for future major championship success.

While there’s no denying Woods’ genius, I would like to see a serious challenge mounted consistently by the competition. Woods is always the player who doesn’t make mistakes, who comes up with the special shot. Can’t anybody else pull a little magic out of their bag? Nicklaus bristles a bit when there’s a comparison made between his play and Tiger Wood’s current domination of the game. Nicklaus points out that during his prime, if he made a mistake, there was another player with major championship credentials ready to step in. He had to contend with Palmer and Player then Trevino and eventually Watson. He’s right about that. Woods’ accomplishments against the all-time records validate his greatness, but there’s nobody in today’s game who can put heat on him with credentials to back it up.

Mickelson and Duval haven’t won a major. Ernie Els, Justin Leonard, Tom Lehman, and Davis Love, major winners all, seem to disappear at the wrong moment. But I’m not going to fret about whether Tiger’s dominance is good for the game. I’m going to revel in it. Witnessing history happens all the time. But in this case, we just know it’s happening.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Golf, Vodka and Soda

Some people say golf isn’t even a sport. A game they say, played by non-athletes who can do nothing else but hit a ball in a hole. I can see part of that. I’ve always contended that if you took a person who has inherent athletic skills, good hand-eye coordination and a desire to learn, you could make them a scratch player if that was all they worked on for a year or so.

Golf has become such a different kind of endeavor in the last 20 years. As the money grew, the players became more serious about the game, kept their bodies in better shape and practiced harder. The biggest complaint from the over-40 set in professional golf in the last two decades hasn’t been about anything on the course. They don’t like the locker room any more. Too many agents, too many briefcases, and too many pagers, not enough scotch, beer and card games. They were looking forward to the Senior Tour so they could have a cocktail with somebody, anybody, without a bunch of arched eyebrows scouring their bellies.

There are famous stories about Tom Weiskopf showing up on the first tee on Friday wearing the same clothes he wore on Thursday. Apparently something he learned from Raymond Floyd. If that happened these days, the player would be hustled off the course for some kind of counseling and put in a rehab, immediately.

Nobody on tour is acting like that anymore. It’s not even the middle of March and eight players have already won more than $1 million. Joe Durant is the only two-time winner on tour.

Who?

Joe Durant, one of the hundred or so players capable of winning each week.

Used to be only about ten guys could actually win, and that number was smaller if Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were playing. They just scared guys off the leader board. Tiger Woods did that for a short time, but not anymore. Players like Phil Mickelson and Hal Sutton are looking for the action.

The new golf balls are making everybody longer and giving them the idea that they can compete. Players are practicing harder and longer. “Hell, even Stadler is hitting balls on the range,” Fuzzy Zoeller told me at Bay Hill this week, “Stad never hit balls!”

Over the next two weeks in North Florida, the greatest golfers of all time will put their games on display. Not some kind of All-star, old-timers exhibition, but rather real competition.

The Players Championship should have every great current player in the world on the golf course for the first round of competition on Thursday. Every one of the top 50 players in the world is committed to playing. On Sunday, the best player of the week will be identified.

The Stadium Course at Sawgrass is set up so that if any part of a players’ game is deficient, it will cost him. He won’t win. The winner will have driven it straight, hit crisp iron shots, displayed a deft short game, and putted beautifully.

Tiger, Hal, Freddie, Phil, Duval, all of the best will be there.

On Monday, two of the most significant players in the history of the game will play at the King and the Bear at the World Golf Village. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus will play in a Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match over their new collaborative course in St. Augustine. Not put on an exhibition, like when they opened the course, but play a match. Real competition. Palmer at 71, recently shot his age in a tournament, and Nicklaus is still a force on the Senior Tour in his 60’s. They both want to win, and both hate to lose, especially to each other.

Where else are you going to see that?

Following that, Palmer and Nicklaus will pair up as a team to compete in the Legends of Golf at the King and the Bear. Every great player not on the PGA Tour who can still bend over and tee it up will compete.

Right here in our backyard.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tiger Woods, Heavyweight Champ

It’s a pretty complex relationship, the one between sports fans and Tiger Woods. For a while, it was pretty easy to not like Tiger. A young phenom, who hit it long, Woods was kind of surly, kind of brash, and easy to dislike as he made the transition from amateur to professional.

His father said outrageous things and was the epitome of a stage parent. We were bombarded with video of Tiger when he was on the Mike Douglas show. Tiger was the youngest this and youngest that and his father was everywhere, reminding us about it at every turn. Woods talked about his “A” game, his “C” game, his penchant for fast food and video games.

People who didn’t know anything about sports, and had never even watched golf on television, let alone seen a golf course in person, knew Tiger liked to wear red on Sundays. His lucky color we were told.

Then there was the money. Millions thrown at him by corporations trying to jump on the Tiger train, grabbing a bit of this star.

Different ethic groups tried to claim him, but Tiger demurred, calling himself a “cablinasian.”

All of that was easy to distance yourself from as a sports fan, with one problem: he kept winning. A streak at the end of his rookie year showed him to be a force and a regular on tour. His Masters win in 1997 rewrote the record book.

Still a sports fan could call it a one time thing. The newest John Daly. Okay, we think he’s a player, but let him prove it over time.

Then came the well documented “finding” of the new swing, and the call to his swing coach from the back of the range.

“I got it,” we heard Tiger said.

“So what,” many sports fans groaned.

The streak of wins followed, the comeback at Pebble Beach, the challenge to Byron Nelson’s record.

“Now Nelson, he was a real player,” the old-timers said in the nineteenth hole. Even his victory at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the most dominating performance seen in modern golf, didn’t convince some.

“Perfect weather,” was the cry from the peanut gallery.

Although it did turn a few heads.

When David Duval shot 32 on the outward nine at St. Andrews there were whispers. “Now we’ll see what he’s made of,” and we did. As Duval opened the door on the tenth hole leaving a birdie putt one roll short, Woods stepped through it, making his putt and the march to history was on. Duval melted down, Woods kept up the parade, like royalty, marching in front for all to see.

But it wasn’t until he walked off the 18th hole at St. Andrews did we see a bit of Tiger we didn’t know about before. A small hand on the shoulder, the comment, “walk off like a champion, because you are a champion” to Duval awakened echoes of sports heroes of the past.

Was it Tiger changing, or was it us?

Perhaps a bit of both.

Woods, at 24, was now a real part of history and he seemed to know what that is and all that goes with it. Before, all we saw was the exultation of victory, the fist pumping and the uncommon celebrations. Perhaps his graciousness in losing the match play championship to Darren Clarke was a bit of a hint of things to come. Maybe his position as the best in the world is so unchallenged, he can concentrate on the little things “old school” champions possessed. Maybe it’s none of that.

Maybe it’s just growing up.

Something has changed though, in Tiger, and in us.

Watching closely through the first two rounds of the PGA Championship, we wanted to see how Woods would treat his playing partner, Jack Nicklaus, the one with the title Tiger wants: greatest to have every played. Woods deftly went about his business, posting a first round leading 66, all the while showing deference to Nicklaus. Not an easy two-step to pull off.

Even Nicklaus, heretofore rather spare with his praise of Woods, said Tiger was the total package. In his post-round interview, Jack said he didn’t know if he could keep up with Woods in his prime. Woods was on the two-shot during the interview, and very respectfully stood and listened, watching Nicklaus, listening to what he had to say. No rolling of the eyes, no big smiles, no guffaw’s, no false modesty. Just, perhaps learning. When asked, Tiger said the right things and shut up. No scene stealing, no melting into the background.

When faced with a final round challenge at the PGA Championship by a virtual unknown outside of golf, Bob May, Woods dug deep and matched May shot for shot, finally winning in a playoff. If you tuned in only for the final round it was like watching a world class athlete play your club pro who just came out from the shop after folding shirts. May is nothing of the kind, an accomplished player from Southern California who has been a force in Europe for the past three years. How do we know that?

Tiger told us. He knew all about May growing up. He told us “May was the man!” in Jr. golf circles when Tiger was young(er).

This is the kind of stuff sports fans have been waiting for. A winner on the playing field, and somebody who understands the responsibility of his stature. It’s what the heavyweight champion of the world used to be. There was so much more to wearing the belt as the biggest and best. Perhaps that’s what the founders of golf at the Old Course had in mind when they gave a belt, instead of a trophy to the Open Champion. Young Tom Morris retired that belt, winning it three consecutive times and taking it home.

Maybe we should find it and fit it around Tiger’s waist.

Right now, he deserves it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

When Tiger Is On, Everybody Else Is In The Woods (Part II)

“It was just one of those weeks,” is how Tiger Woods explained his dominating victory in the United States Open at Pebble Beach.

Sure. Winning by 15 shots is just one of those weeks. And Secretariat’s win in the Belmont Stakes was just one of those races. Woods’ display was awesome. The length of John Daly and the putting touch of Ben Crenshaw. Except better than both. And throw in the nicest chipping feel around the greens, great bunker imaginations and an accurate and long iron game and you have something close to what Woods is now.

Rocco Mediate got close when he said, “If you were going to build a golfer in a lab, he’d come out as Tiger Woods.”

He also has Nicklaus-like powers of concentration. Scotty Bowman, the NHL coach, was a marker for the USGA following Tiger’s group during the tournament. Bowman knows a little about concentration and said Woods’ focus is on the shot and his caddie, he’s oblivious to everything else. That was apparent before his last full swing of the tournament. Just 123 yards from the 18th green with a FIFTEEN shot lead, Woods and his caddie are throwing grass into the air trying to figure out how a slight cross wind might affect his pitching wedge. With a FIFTEEN SHOT LEAD!

“Anything I say would be an understatement,” commented Ernie Els, one of the best players in the world.

“I’m not surprised,” said Tom Watson, the best player of his era. Where did all of this come from?

Simple. From Woods’ measure of success. His measuring stick has always been winning. Remember when Tiger said “second place sucks” and we all thought that was so cute? So young? So true! He’s got winning on his mind and nothing else. One tour pro, paired with Tiger during the US Open said it best: “he plays every shot like his life depends on it.”

Tiger is the first great athlete to choose golf as his sport. Centerfield for the Giants, wide receiver for the Jaguars, off-guard for the Knicks, they were all possible destinations for an athlete as gifted and focused as Woods. The money in the game now allowed him to choose golf without pressure to take his talents elsewhere.

And he works at it.
Day and night, night and day.

Early in the morning, working on his putting because he didn’t like the way the ball was rolling. Late at night because he didn’t like the shape of his iron shots. A three day trip to Las Vegas with his coach where they spent the entire time on the range playing Pebble Beach in their minds, working on the shape of every shot they thought Tiger might need on every hole at Pebble.

Who else did that?

Did you see Woods walk from the 17th tee to the bunker at 17 in the final round? With his left sleeve pulled up and the wind in his face, it was apparent Tiger has spent plenty of time in the gym in the last 4 years. And it’s not idle working out. It’s focused, like his game, on making him a better player. Better strength, better balance. Eye surgery? Better to see the greens with my dear. At 24, Tiger Woods has no distractions. No wife, no kids, nothing to get between him and greatness. The funny part is how the other players are reacting. They’re throwing their hands up and saying “you win!” Most are making their schedules around Tiger’s. When he’s in a tournament, they’re not. If they want to compete in his league, they’ll have to get up early, stay late, and be relentless.

David Duval spent the off season trying to get more “athletic, trying to feel more like an athlete.” Perhaps he knew what Tiger was up to because two years ago David said about Tiger, “If he learns to hit a wedge, he’ll win 6 out of every 10 times he plays.”

As Ernie Els said, that might be an understatement.

Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser has it figured out.

“Everybody said there will never be another Michael Jordan,” wrote Kornheiser. “There already is. He’s playing golf.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

… and all was right with the world (Arnold Palmer)

I received an e-mail the other day from somebody asking how I could possibly still be covering sports with the number of “bad characters” involved in the games these days. I thought about it for a while, and started to catalogue what I’d been covering for the past several months. Shootings, stabbings, court proceedings, lies, tirades and general mayhem have been everyday occurrences in the sports world. That’s no fun, and I was beginning to agree with my e-mail correspondent. That’s when Arnold Palmer happened.

I probably can’t overstate the effect Arnold Palmer has had on his sport, and the people who cover him. He’s one of the most scrutinized athletes of the century, yet he’s unfailingly polite, strong in his convictions, and successful by any measure .

Invited to a “grounds inspection” by Palmer Course Design at the new Golf Club at Northampton in Yulee, Florida, I headed there one morning, through the stoplight (yes, the one) in Yulee turned right at the next dirt road, and headed back into the woods. A couple of dusty miles later I came to a clearing, where about 15 people were standing in a circle, chatting, and the one in the middle was unmistakably Arnold Palmer. In a pink golf shirt, khakis and boat shoes, Palmer had just returned from looking over the shaping and routing of the golf course. He was early, as is his custom, and was ready to go. The Citation X was at the Fernandina Airport and he (what else!) had a tee time. While everybody else was scurrying about, as is the case with all real leaders, Palmer was the most comfortable person there. The organizers were worried Arnold might leave before the official time of the event. The guests and the media hadn’t arrived yet. I was a few minutes early (very rare) and had a chance to stand and chat with Arnold for about 5 minutes or so before conducting an interview. At the opening of Mill Cove a few years ago, Arnold invited my father to sit with him at lunch, and when I reminded him of that, and sent my Dad’s regards, Palmer graciously said he remembered that day, and asked me to remember him to my father! We talked about our mutual love of flying, and he quizzed me about what I was going to say in my upcoming speech at the Rampagers’ Change of Command. I chuckled to myself after a couple of minutes. Hey! You’re standing here chatting with Arnold Palmer like there’s no one else in the world! He’s just that comfortable. While reminding his long time partner Ed Seay about the tee time at Bay Hill, Palmer attended to all of his duties of the day, spoke to everyone as if he’d known them for years, told Ed to invite me to play golf at Bay Hill with him soon, and quietly, left. Not a minute too early, not a minute too late.

How is it that one of the most famous athletes of the century has the time for everybody, but never seemed bothered or rushed? What can the modern day player possibly say to excuse his boorish behavior after watching Arnold Palmer conduct himself with the grace of an international diplomat? The answer is nothing. I always find it funny to watch other players from golf and other sports, straighten their posture, change their vocabulary and check their attitudes at the door when Arnold enters a room. It can’t be brushed off with an “old school” reference. It can’t be called “classic.” It’s just what’s right in any situation.

I’ve been fortunate to have lots of professional encounters with Arnold Palmer. All are memorable, and two are good examples of the example he sets.

As a young reporter in Jacksonville, I asked the Tournament Director of the TPC, John Tucker if he thought Arnold Palmer might come on our air live for the six o’clock news. Neither Palmer nor Jack Nicklaus nor Gary Player had ever appeared live on the news in town, I explained. Tucker pointed to Arnold on the practice tee at the Stadium Course and said, “Go down there and tell Arnold I told you he would go live with you tonight at six o’clock.” After a bit of prodding, I ventured to the tee where Palmer was hitting irons, his caddie, assistant, pilot and others in attendance. During a lull in the conversation, I spoke up, “Mr. Palmer, my name is Sam Kouvaris from Channel 4 here in town and John Tucker told me that you’d go live with me on the six o’clock news tonight if I came down here and asked you politely,” I stuttered. Palmer continued hitting practice shots and without looking up said, “He did, did he?” “Yes sir,” I stammered. Palmer stopped, looked up, smiled and said, “Do you know where I’m staying?” “Yes sir,” I managed to answer. “Be there early and we’ll do it,” and with that shook my hand and went back to practicing. Why would perhaps the most famous athlete in the world agree to such a thing without a single hesitation? A long lost reason: Loyalty. He knew that John Tucker, his long time friend, would not steer him wrong. I arrived early (as instructed, again, rare) and was treated to a couple of the most entertaining hours of my young career. The live shot went off without a hitch and I left there saying to myself, “Come on! I just had beers with ARNOLD PALMER!”

A couple of years later, the Sr. TPC was being held at the Valley Course at the Players Club. Palmer was in the field, and they planned the grand opening of The Plantation at Ponte Vedra, with his appearance in town. I was asked to write the biographies of several players in the official program that year, one of them being Arnold Palmer’s. I was at the Plantation for the opening with several hundred others, and met Arnold on the bridge to the 12th tee. I had the program with me, and thought I might get him to sign the article I had written. Palmer took the program from me, and insisted on reading the entire thing while everybody else was waiting. Afterwards, he again shook my hand, said thanks, and signed it. Again, more than I expected, always renewing my faith in what can be right with professional sports.

Maybe Arnold Palmer’s explosion on the American scene, his values and place in history can never be repeated. Perhaps the confluence of sports, television and personality were a once in history happening, but there’s no reason we can’t continue to learn from his example.

A PGA Tour pro once said, “We should take 50 cents of every dollar we make, and give it to Arnold Palmer.” That might be a little low. He propelled two tours, the PGA Tour and the Sr. PGA Tour, into the public psyche as legitimate sporting events. He was more gracious in defeat than in victory. And more than once he made me think . . . all is right with the world.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

TPC Success

Ponte Vedra – Despite the weather delay, the final round of the Players championship provided just what everybody wanted: a dramatic finish, good television ratings, large crowds and a popular champion. The fact that it was Hal Sutton and Tiger Woods didn’t seem to make that much difference. The fact that Tiger Woods was in the final twosome did. It’s hard to believe Sutton could shoot just 71 in the final round with a one shot lead, and still win when Woods was his closest competitor.

That’s why the Stadium Course at Sawgrass is nearly an equal star to the players. Demanding, tough, penal but leveling is how most players described it. The course doesn’t reward a player with one great part of his game, it rewards the player with the whole game. Sutton had it, especially in the last round missing just one fairway, 16, and that was just barely. His driving was accurate, his iron play precise and his putting nothing short of brilliant. More importantly though, the game in his mind was working like that of a champion.

Sutton talked all week about not trying to force the issue, don’t try to use the accelerator all the time when the brake is what you need. That’s easy stuff to say, but actually putting it into practice in the heat of the battle with the best player in the world as your competition, that’s championship character in action. I asked Hal if he would have been able to do that 5, 10 or even 17 years ago when he first won the TPC, he said no, he’s a much better and smarter player than he was then. His personal and professional travails are well known, and unlike Fulton Allem, Sutton was unwilling to go into his problems and count them among the things that make him the player, and person he is today. His solid play over the last two holes showed grit and determination, and a willingness to trust himself to get the job done.

Following his victory, Hal praised Tiger but added, “He’s not bigger than the game.” If you read between the lines, Sutton was sending a message to his fellow PGA Tour players. Stop trying to play Tiger’s game is the message. Play your own game, trust yourself and good things might happen. Too many players are melting at Tiger’s feet, much like they did with Nicklaus, Palmer, Hogan, Snead and Nelson. Why is it such a big deal that Jack Fleck beat Hogan at the Open? Because everybody else was falling all over themselves trying to get out of Hogan’s way. That’s how too many players are reacting to Woods. In some ways, it’s understandable. Tiger is so good, so dominating and so able to will himself to success, it destroys the confidence of his competitors. His eagle on 16 Monday is the kind of thing that’s not supposed to happen in golf. It seems only Tiger can make it happen when he wills it to happen. Again, he’s an example of a great athlete who is playing golf, the first of what I think is many more to come.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

I miss Payne Stewart!

Orlando – It was warm, balmy even as I was standing on the practice tee at Bay Hill this week. It’s a trip I make every year, a chance to catch up with friends on the PGA tour and do some advance work prior to the Players Championship. Bay Hill is loose, a comfortable stop on tour, hosted perfectly by Arnold Palmer. The players were cordial, jovial even as they prepared for the longest golf course they’ll play this year on the PGA tour.

I love going to Bay Hill each year.
I just loved it a little less this year.

I missed Payne Stewart.

Last year on Wednesday of the tournament, I saw Payne on the practice tee. He greeted me heartily, with a quicker smile than usual. I’d known Payne since the early ‘80’s and noticed the change in his personality over the years. From a brash, self-confident star on the PGA tour, to a maturing father with two major championships on his resume’, Stewart no question had become a kinder person. We walked across the tee together, and he threw his arm around me and asked “How ya doin’ Sammy?” We laughed and I had a good feeling about the length of our friendship. We’re about the same age, with children about the same age, both doing just what we wanted to do, with some success. I saw Payne 4 or 5 times after that, but never in that relaxed setting of Bay Hill, but even in those heavy congested media-blitzes that occasionally followed him around, he’d give a knowing smile when he caught my eye that said, “Catch you later.”

For Payne there is no later, but he lives on in the actions and words of a lot of guys I know around his age on the PGA Tour, and among the media who cover sports and knew him. The explosive growth of the Tour has mirrored the same in the sports world, and the amount of media around it. The last 15 years have been phenomenal, with people chasing dollars, and stories, sometimes without time for reflection. Stewart’s death gave a lot of guys a real jolt. He’s Payne Stewart, US Open champion, master of his domain, he can’t die! But he did, and maybe we all learned from it.

I mentioned how I missed Payne at Bay Hill to a friend of mine in the press corp. He said at Pebble Beach this year, early one morning, he went to the wall that overlooks the Pacific near the 18th green and just sat there for a while, because he missed Payne. This isn’t supposed to happen between the media and the people they cover. It’s supposed to be a detached observation. But it’s not.

I miss Payne Stewart.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

When Tiger is on, most players are in the Woods

Good for Tiger
Good for Phil
.. and good for the game of golf.

Tiger Woods’ streak of winning consecutive golf tournaments is over. (Did you notice it went from winning 2 in a row, according to Tiger, to 6 in a row when the media decided that last year’s 4 straight also counted?) The streak brought a lot of attention to golf that it might not have gotten otherwise, and it brought to light how good players can be when they have their “A” game. Not just Tiger, but any of the top players in the world. Tiger is at a different level. No question about his ability, and he’s the best player in the world. But you can’t discount the talent, determination and ability of about 15 or so of the other top names in the game. Count David Duval, Davis Love, Fred Couples, Jose-Maria Olazabal, Ernie Els and even still Greg Norman plus a handful of other players in that top group.

For most players, a week where they have their “A” game going, means getting into contention, and maybe winning. For this group, it means dominating the competition, no matter who else is in the field, Tiger included. Look at Duval’s win at the Mercedes last year or Olazabal’s win at the World Series of Golf or Norman’s performance during his victory at the Players Championship. When these guys get going, nobody comes close. Tiger is at the top of the top, and has showed an ability to be in contention whenever he just makes the cut (which is why all tournaments should adopt the US open rule of all players within 10 shots of the lead make the cut after 36 holes). He’s great. The best of the best, but not enough credit is being given to the other top players out there.

In the final round of the Buick at San Diego, Woods admitted he wasn’t playing well, but still remained in contention. Why? He has a complete game. Dominating length. Solid short game, and confident putting.

“It’s disappointing the fact that I didn’t win,” Tiger said afterwards, ”but the positive thing is, you saw how poorly I played, to not hit the ball as good as I would like and not putt well the first couple of days, just to hang in there, chip and putt and just grind away at it and give myself a chance–I’m very proud of myself for that.”

When one part of his game deserts him, the others can pick up the slack. Not many other players can recover the way Tiger did yesterday, but the handful of top players can, and have done it. With Woods and Phil Mickelson tied after 13 holes, it was Woods who uncharacteristically made mistakes down the stretch while Mickelson hit the shot of the tournament, a 9 iron from 116 yards to 3 feet to set up a go-ahead birdie.

“Competing against the best player in the world and coming out on top means a lot to me,” Mickelson said. “The two things that I’m going to get from today are, one, the confidence that I can play against the best and I can win and, two, the next time I get a six- or seven-shot lead, I need to get tougher and try to make it eight, nine or 10.”

Woods is making other players better. Tougher competitors, stronger athletes. Duval’s off-season regimen was designed not to make him thinner, but to make him feel more athletic. He wants to have that churning in his stomach, the wobbly legs and the slight shake in his hands and know it’s from the pressure of competition, not from the fact that he’s out of gas. Rocco Mediate’s commitment to fitness is to allow him to compete against the likes of Tiger. Norman was the first player to emphasize physical fitness on the tour. Steve Elkington, Nick Price and others followed. Woods has sharpened the focus on the game, on what it takes to be truly great these days in the realm of big money, high-stakes, and global-spotlight professional sports. He’s the first, but he’s certainly not the last. Tiger is the beginning of a whole generation of good athletes who will choose golf or some other non-traditional national sport. Given a different upbringing, don’t you think Woods could be playing wide receiver in the NFL, or centerfield for some Major League Baseball team, or even one of the top mid-fielders on the US national Soccer team? He’s an athlete who chose golf, not a golfer who all of the sudden decided to be an athlete. Golf’s prize money has something to do with that. If it still was an afterthought in the sporting public’s mind with $20,000 purses, Woods might have been calling signals in this year’s Super Bowl. But the amount of money in the game is allowing top athletes to choose it as their sport. What Tiger’s doing now might seem unusual, but in 20 years’ we’ll see him as the vanguard of things to come.