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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Golf vs. Baseball

When I was younger, baseball was it. I played it, watched it, and memorized records, boxscores, and stats. My recall of baseball data was (and still is to an extent) on the verge of freakish.

Somewhere in the '90s, I lost interest. I can't link my falling away to anything specific like the strike or 'roids. My guess as to what happened was that I began to relate less and less with the players as the years rolled on. And, other things in my life become a bigger priority. I didn't like baseball less, but other activities and interests moved it out of the spotlight.

While baseball was on the downswing, my interest in golf was on the upswing. I began playing when I was about nine, but after college I became a bigger golf fan than a baseball fan. Hence, the golf blog and my quest to play 1,000 different courses by the time I'm seventy.

Barry Bonds' 756th home run got me thinking about the virtues of both sports and how they compare using some metrics that I made up. Here's a little list that might spark some debate:

Baseball: Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken, Willie Mays, Cy Young, Ty Cobb, Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Derek Jeter, Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig, Walter Johnson, Roger Clemens, Bob Gibson, Tony Gwynn, Ichiro Suzuki, Alex Rodriguez, Greg Maddux, Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Jim Palmer, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Carl Yaztremski, Mariano Rivera, Reggie Jackson, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew, Whitey Ford, Roberto Clemente, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, and Hank Aaron.
Golf: Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Johnny Miller, Jimmy Demaret, Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Peter Thomson, Billy Casper, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Jackie Burke, Charlie Sifford, Chi-Chi Rodriguez, Vijay Singh, Tommy Armour, Old Tom and Young Tom Morris, Francis Ouimet, Ben Crenshaw, Ray Floyd, and Harry Vardon.
Verdict: Even with the likes of Cobb, Rose, Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa on the list, baseball gets the nod in the Heroes category. Golf has a storied history, but too many of the baseball players are larger than life and far more well-known to the common man than the golfers.

Baseball: Pete Rose's hits - 4,256; Cy Young's wins - 511; Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak - 56; Barry Bonds' home runs - 756*; Rickey Henderson's stolen bases - 1,406 career and 130 single season; Nolan Ryan's strikeouts - 5,714; Ty Cobb's batting average - .366
Golf: Sam Snead's wins - 81; Jack Nicklaus' majors - 18; Jack Nicklaus' Masters wins - 6; Jack Nicklaus' runner-ups in majors - 19; Colin Montgomerie's Ryder Cup singles record - undefeated in eight appearances (I had to throw Monty a bone)
Verdict: No sport can match baseball in the record department. Even Barry Bonds' hijacking of Hank Aaron's home run record cannot diminish the sheer scope and variety of baseball's records.

Baseball: Most people don't play baseball beyond high school.
Golf: Most people don't play golf until after high school and can keep playing well into their seventies and sometimes into their nineties.
Verdict: There's no question golf is the better sport to play for many years. And even though it's an individual sport, golf is also more social than baseball.

Baseball: A baseball game can be found on TV almost any time of day or night for nine months straight. It's decent to watch on TV, but a much better experience in person.
Golf: Golf is mostly a Thursday through Sunday TV affair, and it's exciting to watch if you know what you're watching and you have an interest in the players. The majors are usually more intriguing to watch than the regular Tour stops. In person, golf is a lot of fun, but the opportunities to go to a tournament are limited for most Americans.
Verdict: Tie. Baseball is better in person, and golf is better on the boob tube.

Big Events
Baseball: Baseball has three big events. They are the All-Star Game, the playoffs, and the World Series. The All-Star Game used to be fun, but now it's kind of a joke. The playoffs are usually compelling, but I don't like the wild-card feature. I think it's a bit forced, though I can stand it. The World Series is great, but if big market teams aren't in it, I usually tune out.
Golf: Golf has been trying to manufacture big events like the World Golf Championships and the FedEx Cup, a playoffs for golfers. No matter how hard they try, these gimmicks will never equal the prestige of the four majors. In addition to the majors, there is the Ryder Cup and the Presidents Cup. This is a lethal combination.
Verdict: The World Series and the playoffs are the only baseball games worth watching anymore (can you say, "overexposure"?), and there's nothing like the Ryder Cup or the majors in golf. Golf by a hair.

Baseball: As long as we're not talking about pharmaceutical technology, baseball has stayed purer than golf. However, the new ballparks are pretty homer-friendly no matter what kinds of sticks they're swinging.
Golf: There have always been advances in golf technology, and the courses have been changed over time to accommodate it. However, the golf ball might be just a little too hot for the pros. For the amateurs, it makes the game more fun.
Verdict: Baseball has done a better job reining in technology and keeping the playing field level.

So baseball wins by a score of 3 1/2 to 2 1/2. I guess this little exercise didn't create the result I was looking for.

What do you think?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Picks for the PGA (I give this stuff away for free!)

I can't believe the PGA Championship starts tomorrow. Doesn't it seem like the Open Championship just happened?
The PGA is a tough one to handicap this year. Tiger just made mincemeat of the field at Firestone, but that's nothing new. He has a hard time on dogleggy par 70 courses like Southern Hills, so I don't see him as the favorite. In fact, I'd be surprised if he top tens it.
Here are my picks to win, and why:
1) Sergio Garcia - I picked him at the British, and he couldn't close the deal. If he can suck it up and face the music this week, he should do well. Tee to green there's no one better. He has to get out of his own way on the greens and in the press tent.
2) Justin Rose - He's red-hot, and he's due to break through. Rose is a grinder who can withstand the ups and downs one will experience at a course like Southern Hills.
3) Shaun Micheel - I just have a feeling about him. He hasn't played that well in '07, but he has a W and a 2nd in previous PGAs.
4) Zach Johnson - His driving is straight, and he is above average with his irons. And, he's a very good putter to boot. That's a tasty combination.
5) Kenny Perry - He's been playing very well lately. He's streaky, so if he gets it going, then he can go the distance. The PGA has always been his best chance at winning a major. He's getting older, so if he doesn't do it this year, his time will have likely passed.
6) Andres Romero - He's fearless, and he won't mind the hot weather as much as some of the other players.
7) Justin Leonard - Oklahoma is near Texas, and Leonard has fared very well in past PGAs. He's peaking at the right time.
8) Ryan Moore (Darkhorse) - He's due to live up to his expectations. Why not in a major?
Agree? Disagree? Let's hear what you think. Please comment at your leisure.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Congratulations to Lorena Ochoa

Networked Golfer congratulates Lorena Ochoa for her five stroke victory at the Women's British Open at St. Andrews over the weekend. If anyone deserved to win, it was definitely Lorena.
I've been tracking her career for about three years, and though majorless prior to St. Andrews, she has been the dominant force on the LPGA of late. No one else, including Annika Sorenstam, has played as well as her on a consistent basis. But what I really like about her is who she is off the course.
There have been many articles written about the kind of person Ochoa is. Though I can't find it online, Golfweek ran a wonderful story recently about how she treats people. She is extremely grounded and doesn't seem at all affected by her celebrity. Sometimes, famous people start their careers like this, but they derail after several years on top. I don't see that happening with her.
One of my favorite anecdotes about Ochoa is how she makes a point to visit the grounds crew at every tournament. She visits them at the maintenance shack unannounced and by herself. Her main reason for making these visits is to thank the crew for their hard work and to compliment them on the course conditions. And, she's completely sincere.
She spends time talking, posing for photos and signing autographs. She makes their week, and probably their year, for if you haven't noticed, the majority of grounds crew members are Hispanic, and to them (especially Mexicans), Lorena is a hero.
Enjoy Ochoa's game while you can, but pay close attention to how she comports herself on and off the course. She's a bona fide role model for young women everywhere.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Scotland - Chapter 4

The Open Championship at Carnoustie
Friday was a big day. We were headed to Carnoustie, the famous location of Jean van de Velde's implosion at the Open. But first, Tubby, Maureen and I rolled out of bed at 6:15am to walk around the corner from the Ardgowan to have a little chat with the starter at the Old Course.

The previous night, we had walked over to the Old Course to soak in the atmosphere, see a couple of the holes up close, and find out if there was any way we could snag a tee time. We took a few pics and asked some golfers who were heading up the 18th fairway in the near dark how they had gotten on the course. They told us that they showed up that evening and were able to use a tee time reserved for locals. We did some more investigating and found out that it is indeed possible to show up around 5pm and tee off in one of the last times of the day if some of the locals failed to show up.

This shred of hope got our juices going. We decided to get up early on Friday and see if we could get on the starter's waiting list. If that didn't work out, we would swing by the starter shack after Carnoustie and vie for a local slot. When we arrived at the starter shack on Friday morning, it was quite cold, and it was raining steadily. The starter showed me that there were thirteen people on the waiting list competing for two open tee times that morning. We had no shot he said, unless we came back that evening. So, our chances were slim, but we decided we would come back after the Open and check the status of the local tee times.

At this point, I figured we would stick to our plan of spending the day at Carnoustie, get back to St. Andrews when we could, and play the Old Course if we were able. We jumped on the 9:30am bus to Carnoustie in full rain gear. The weather forecast was grim, but we were ready.

It took about 50 minutes to get to Carnoustie. The bus dropped us off about two blocks from the entrance to the course, and we sailed in. Amazingly, no one checked our badges at the gate. We hung around the 18th green/17th tee box/16th green area for about 25 minutes and saw John Daly, Ernie Els, and Lucas Glover, among others. Els was going along nicely, and it was obvious that he was going to contend for the title.

Jay Payne taught me a system several years back at Augusta for watching a tournament. You start at the 18th and walk the course in reverse. This way, you can see everyone at some point in their round, and it enables you to scope out all the holes. The system worked well for us. We saw basically every big name player in the world, including Sergio, Tiger, Furyk, and Phil.

The rain and clouds disappeared about mid-morning, so it was a perfect day to watch the tournament. The crowds were well-behaved and much quieter than in America. Aside from walking Carnoustie and seeing the best players in the world do things with a golf ball that I could never do, the highlight of the day was chatting up the players. Few Brits will attempt to do this, but we had no problem getting the attention of several players. We determined that the best way to talk to them is while they are walking after a tee shot or while waiting to hit.

Sara was excited to get Vijay Singh's attention. He was walking up the fairway with his driver in hand, and she yelled, "Go Vijay!" He turned around, looked right at her, and gave her a big smile. I guess he hadn't heard many shouts of encouragement that week. It made her day, as she's a huge fan of the Big Fijian.

She also got a similar reaction from Justin Leonard on the par 3 eighth. I scouted out my opportunities for a little chatter and got some serious reactions from Charley Hoffman, Jonathan Byrd, Boo Weekley, and Duffy Waldorf. Boo and Duffy were the best. Boo was walking up the 13th fairway appearing a bit out of his element. Tubby noticed that he kept looking up to the sky at the TV cranes. I asked Boo if he was chewing Copenhagen, and he was all too happy to chat away. He said, "Well, I brought over about 30 tins of tobbacco for the trip because I didn't want to run out. I just buy the cheap stuff." Then I complimented him on his camoflage outfit, and he smiled and laughed. He continued to talk for close to a minute, and then he needed to hit his shot. He might be a hick, but he's a heck of a nice guy. If he hadn't been playing, I'm sure he would have rambled on forever. We found out later that the Scots really took a liking to him, which was nice to hear.

Duffy Waldorf was also engaging. I asked him how he was doing (forgetting that he was about a zillion over par), and he said he was okay. He was wearing a very tame, light blue sweater with dark pants; it was not the normal Duffy attire. I asked him where his loud golf gear was, and he said, "Nobody sells loud clothing for cold weather. I couldn't find anything else to wear!"

Maureen and Tubby started to get anxious about seeing Tiger. I told them to calm down because he had a 2:20pm tee time, and that we'd see him eventually. I looked at the tee sheet when we were at the 7th hole and noticed that Tiger's group would be playing #6 soon. So, we parked ourselves near the 7th tee in full view of the 6th green and fairway. After a few minutes, the crowds quadrupled in size, so we knew Tiger was coming. We saw him play the second half of #6 and tee off on #7. Tiger had hit his second shot on #6 into the front, left greenside bunker. He took a quick slash at it without even taking a practice swing. His leave was over 30 feet away. He was hopping mad. It's rare to see him take so little time over the ball. He got a disappointing par and exited the green quickly.

After that, we caught up with Monty, Ian Poulter, Ryan Moore, Mike Weir, and others. We made our way out of the tournament a little after 4pm, satisfied that we had worked Jay's system to perfection.

By the time we got on the bus, it was fairly obvious that we weren't going to get back to St. Andrews in time to weasel our way onto the Old Course. The sun was shining, and the locals were out in full force. Still, I talked to the starter, but no dice. Tubby was a bit disappointed, but having no expectations of playing the Old when we planned the trip, I wasn't fazed. Sure, it would have been cool to play it, but the chances of getting on were slim to none.
Maybe the next time we go to Scotland, we can plan ahead for the Old. In person, it's like nothing else I've ever seen. The town of St. Andrews is extremely charming, but the Old Course has a feeling all its own. Thinking we might still get some golf in, Tubs and I took a drive over to Crail and Kingsbarns. We tried to get on Crail, but their starter shack had just closed for the day. It was okay, as we had a big night ahead of us in St. Andrews and one final round to play the next morning. All in all, it was a day to remember.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

My Latest Golfing Goal

We all need to have goals. The more specific they are, the more likely they become achievable. And when you tell other people about them, you're even more likely to follow through.

I've been talking for years about "trying to get my handicap down". However, I've been stuck in the 11-14 range, and I can't seem to play well consistently enough to play off single digits. I've pinpointed several factors that are preventing me from going lower more often.

1) I don't practice enough.
2) I haven't had a lesson in twenty years.
3) I have two to four big numbers every round.
4) I'm confident on the tee about 50% of the time.
5) My goal for improving has not been specific enough.

The first two factors are easy to solve. I will get some lessons and practice more. The third factor should take care of itself if I do the first two. The fourth factor is mental, and I can work on that. Confidence will come after playing better more often.

So, although there is lots of work involved in solving the first four, they are doable. The fifth one is the easiest, and I'm going to solve it right now. I have a new goal to play in a sectional qualifier for the 2008 U.S. Amateur Public Links in June of next year. One must have a maximum handicap of 8.4 to play in a qualifier. There, I said it. I'm going below an 8.4 in the next ten months. It's out there for everyone to see. That's the first step to making it happen.

I figure I need to get my current stroke average (about 91.8) down to about 85, which is about 1/3 of a stroke per hole. Reducing the frequency of sevens, eights (and even nines) will naturally lower my stroke average, and other improvements should assist the process. Put in those terms, there's no reason I can't make it happen.

Networked Golfer readers: Is this goal realistic? Do you have any advice for getting it done? Any words of wisdom in the comments section would be appreciated.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Golf in Scotland - Part III

Lundin Golf Club
After taking a day off on Wednesday to travel to Edinburgh for some siteseeing, we were back on the course on Thursday afternoon at Lundin Golf Club, which is a beautiful links course south of St. Andrews adjacent to Leven Links.
I had done a good bit of research on courses near St. Andrews that might not be familiar to Americans, and I chose Lundin based on reviews and pictures on the web. Close contenders for the Thursday slot were Crail (Balcomie Links), Monifieth Golf Links, Leven Links, and Elie. After talking to several Scots about these options, each of them had a favorite, but they all said that they were of similar caliber and loads of fun. The pro at Belleisle went so far as to say that Lundin was his favorite course in Fife, so that made me very confident in my choice (Fife includes St. Andrews and Kingsbarns).
Lundin Golf Club is also referred to by the locals as Lundin Links. It runs right along the sea, and except for three holes midway through the round which run up and along a hill pretty far inland, it is a very pure links track. From the first hole, I knew this would be one of my favorite courses ever.
The guys in the pro shop were welcoming and quick with a laugh. I told them about Jimmy's hole-in-one at Turnberry, and one of them said, "What did they give him?" I mumbled something about a certificate, and he was incredulous. He said that if he had aced a hole at Lundin, he would have been given a bottle of whiskey!
We tried our best to win the whiskey, but the closest we got was my tee ball on the 5th hole, which came to rest about 15 feet from the cup. Pretty weak.
The conditions were optimal for scoring. There was very little wind until the back nine, but even then it never blew more than 15 mph. We all started out gangbusters; Tubby birdied the first, and Jimmy and I were both hot at the outset. However, somewhere near the seventh hole, the wheels started to fall off. Tubby had two other birdies (he drove the green on the par 4 sixteenth), but none of us could make a run. We were again derailed by too many drives in the gorse, and Jimmy and I found ourselves hitting three off the tee about five too many times. We all broke 100, but there were no fireworks. Tub Rock was undone by a horrid display from 150 in; if he had been able to hit more greens after ripping bomb-diggities off the tee, he could have had the round of the week.
There are several blind shots at Lundin, primarily on tee shots. I am a fan of blind shots, but many people don't like being uncertain of the landing areas. Blind shots make you think, and when you hit it where you're supposed to, it's like getting a little bonus. Courses where "it's all in front of you" are nice, but I enjoy the quirkiness of courses like Lundin. And so, the yardage book is indispensable for first-timers. Thankfully, Tubby and I each invested in one at the pro shop. Had we not, it would have been a drubbing. I felt like for the most part I hit the ball well at Lundin, but penalties and a balky putter held me back. It was disappointing to score poorly, but I'll always remember it as one of the most fun and interesting rounds of my life.
As we were walking up the finishing hole (a real beauty of a par 4), the guy from the pro shop was driving down the road next to the green (you can see the road in the picture below). He rolled down his window and said, "Should I be getting out the bottle of whiskey?" Only in Scotland.

Note: This is a good time to mention a tip for anyone planning on golfing in Scotland. It was my experience that feeling as though it's essential to play the famous courses like Royal Dornoch, Troon, Turnberry, St. Andrews, Muirfield, Carnoustie, etc. might prevent you from playing gems like Lundin Golf Club. There's absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to play the world-beaters, but one can have an extremely fulfilling golf trip in Scotland without playing the "top" courses. I could play Crail (Tubby and I checked it out), Elie, and the like every time and feel like I was getting all I needed. So, don't get frustrated if you can't afford Kingsbarns or can't get on the Old Course. There are scores of second-tier tracks that will blow your mind and maintain some heft to your wallet.
Pictures: 1) Jimmy, Maureen and I in Edinburgh, 2) A view from the 18th fairway of the uphill approach at the first, 3) Lundin Golf Club meets the sea, 4) A blind tee shot, and 5) I have no idea why Tubby his holding this divot on the last.