Saturday, September 26, 2009

Leonard Thompson

Unless you're a ultra hardcore golf fanatic, you might not have heard of Leonard Thompson.

He doesn't show up atop leaderboards like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson do almost each week. But Thompson has played more professional golf tournaments than both Woods and Mickelson combined.

The SAS Championship marked Thompson's 1,000th tournament, combining both the PGA and Champions tours.

He joined an elite group Friday, becoming one of 10 golfers to play at least 1,000 professional golf tournaments - Miller Barber, Dave Eichelberger, Charles Coody, Arnold Palmer, Dale Douglass, J.C. Snead, Gay Brewer, Gene Littler and Jim Colbert.

There was a time when you did see Thompson's name on leaderboards alongside more recognizable names like Hale Irwin, Payne Stewart and Curtis Strange. He won three times on the PGA Tour, his first coming in 1974 at the Jackie Gleason-Inverrary Classic, where he beat Irwin by one stroke. He won the 1977 Pensacola Open by two strokes over Strange; and he topped Stewart, Billy Andrade and Doug Tewell by one stroke at the 1989 Buick Open.

I caught up with Thompson, 62, in the clubhouse at Prestonwood Country Club Friday after
Irwin and John Morse presented Thompson with a huge cake to mark the historic event.

He was sharing his cake with the wait staff in the clubhouse, getting a couple of pieces to go and leaving the bulk of the chocolate delight behind.

As we walked outside, he just shook his head and said he had no idea that a cake would be waiting for him on the 18th green after his first round of the tournament.

"Pretty nice," he said.

Thompson, a North Carolina native and Wake Forest graduate, said 1,000 tournaments isn't something you set out to do. The Champions Tour, previously called the Seniors Tour, was nine years away.

"But once I knew I was going to do it, I tried to arrange to do it here," said Thompson.

He grew up in Laurinburg; played his first tournament at Pinehurst; went to Wake Forest; and played in 20-plus Greater Greensboro Opens.

"Anything in North Carolina has special meaning," he said.

He said he had the chance to do a West Coast swing of Champions Tour events, but his 1,000th would have taken place somewhere in California. He didn't want that. He wanted to do it in his home state.

"Four or five things have to happen to make it to 1,000," he said. "You have to stay healthy; you have to have an understanding wife; you have to have an organization in place to have enough events to play to reach 1,000."

Thompson has officially retired from the Champions Tour, but he plans to play some events as long as he remains competitive.

And those competitive juices were apparent on Friday. After a round of 74, I suggested that he was probably just happy to be playing.

"I ain't as happy I would have been if I had shot a 65," he said.

Hale Irwin (L) and John Morse (R) present Leonard Thompson a
cake marking Thompson's 1,000th tournament during the first
round of the SAS Championship Friday at Prestonwood
Country Club in Cary. (Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Trevino out

Lee Trevino said he hit too many 5 woods during two rounds of Pro-Ams leading up to the SAS Championship in Cary and was forced to withdraw because of his back.

Trevino, a crowd favorite anywhere he plays, flew out this morning shortly before his 10:40 a.m. tee time. Alternate John Morse took Trevino's spot in the SAS.

When the announcement went out over the loudspeaker that Trevino had withdrawn, you could hear the groans ripple throughout the crowd at Prestonwood Country Club, which by the way is pretty large for a Friday.

Trevino, who turns 70 in December, still plays a half dozen events or so each year.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Preview Day

The day before the SAS Championship starts, golfers were mentally preparing themselves for the weekend. Just like a pre-shot routine in which golfers picture a straight and long drive or a putt dropping into the hole, golfers this weekend were talking about winning.

Fred Funk, Charles Schwab Cup points leader, said he's been playing pretty well of late, and he wants to win to build momentum heading into the Senior Players Championship next week in Baltimore where the points double.

Eduardo Romero, last year's SAS Champion, said he's ready to put some poor showings behind him. "I came here to win."

Monday, September 21, 2009

SAS Championship

Come on, how can you not get excited with the likes of Lee Trevino, Hale Irwin, Fuzzy Zoeller, Lanny Wadkins, Tom Kite, Tom Lehman, J.C. Snead, Craig Stadler, Curtis Strange, Hal Sutton, Fred Funk ... ?

I could go on. But you get the point - I hope. I'll be at the SAS Championship this week in Cary, covering the tournament for AP.

There's a good story on the SAS Championship Web site about how some dozen or so golfers in the field have ties to North Carolina, including Mike Goodes and David Eger, a couple of fellow UNC-Chapel Hill alums.

Here's the link.

So, if you're in the Triangle area this weekend, come on out. These are the guys who put golf where it is today.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tip of the week - bunker play part 2


Bryan Bush, teaching professional from Charlotte, returns to finish his tip on bunker play.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fallen firefighters tournament

Anytime I play in a best ball tournament, my goal is to use at least one of my shots because usually, I'm playing with golfers who are much better than I am.

Thursday was no different.

I was lucky enough to latch onto a team with three good players, including Jason Bland, a Rocky Mount firefighter; Scott, a volunteer firefighter in Nash County; and Mr. Glover, an 82-year-old man who still can play the game..

We played Ford's Colony in Rocky Mount, a nice course that's fairly wide open, but can play long - more than 7,000 yards from the tips. We played from the white tees, giving my teammates a chance to drive the green on a couple of the shorter par 4s.

But at the par 3s, I stepped up. There were closest to the pins contests at the four par 3s, and I had short-lived leads on two of the holes. My best shot probably came at No. 16, which played 169 yards from the white tees over water. I stuck it below the hole on the right side, about 10 feet from the pin.

We used a couple of my drives on longer holes, and at least three of my putts. I was putting pretty well Thursday.

We ended up with a 60, 12 under par. But that was only good enough for fifth place. The winning team - one of two fielded by Tarheel Auto Sales - which carded a 56 for the day. Plus, there were three 57s.

But it was for a good cause - a fundraiser for North Carolina firefighters who have been killed seriously hurt. Organizers still were tallying up the total money riased, so I'll update you guys later on that.

I'd call it a success. About two dozen teams turned out, and they had some extra contests that seemed pretty successful, too.

I know I had a good time, and I'd like to play Ford's Colony again. It was my second round there, but it's definitely one of the better courses in Eastern North Carolina.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Fallen firefighters charity tournament

The first N.C. Fallen Firefighters Foundation Memorial Championship golf tournament is scheduled for Thursday afternoon at Ford's Colony in Rocky Mount, and I'm going to mosey over there to see if I can join a team.

Organizers aren't taking individual players, and I didn't put together a team. So we'll see. Obviously, if anyone wants to play, let me know.

Here's a link to the Web site.

It's definitely a good cause. The money goes to an organization that helps families of firefighters who have been killed or seriously injured. There have been three firefighter deaths so far this year in North Carolina, including a Salem volunteer firefighter who died of a heart attack in March.

Hopefully, I'll find a team tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Pick your favorite foursome

If you could three golfers to round out a foursome, who would you choose? Living or dead, makes no difference.

There are so many from which to choose. Lee Trevino, who once threw a rubber snake at Jack Nicklaus before teeing off an 18-hole playoff at the 1971 U.S. Open; the great ball-striker Ben Hogan; Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur ever; smooth-swinging Slammin' Sam Snead; Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus.

Well, you get the picture.

I was having so much trouble just picking three so I divided my lists into different categories. First, golfers no longer with us; second, golfers who are retired from competitive play; third, golfers now playing on a Tour; and lastly, female golfers.

So let's get to it.

I'd first choose Payne Stewart, Bobby Jones and Sam Snead.

I remember exactly where I was while watching Stewart win the 1999 U.S. Open, just four months before he died. My goal is to one day play consistently enough to dress like Stewart in honor of him.

Jones once called a penalty on himself at the 1925 U.S. Open after his ball moved slightly in the rough. Because no one saw the infraction, officials left the call up to him. He said it moved, incurred a two-stroke penalty and lost by one.

Snead comes from rural Virginia near the border of West Virginia, my home state, so I have sort of a connection there. Plus, he's the winningest golfer in PGA history.

For the next category, I'd choose Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Arnold Palmer.

Nicklaus and Palmer were part of the Big Three (along with Gary Player) in the 1960s. They typically battled head to head and raised golf's popularity significantly. Nicklaus won 18 Majors, more than anyone else, and he actually had more Major runner-up finishes (19) than any other golfer. Palmer gave us Arnie's Army and that popular drink named in his honor - iced tea and lemonade.

And as far as Trevino goes. Come on. Anyone who will throw a rubber snake at his opponent just before a playoff ... I wanna party with him. Actually, the real story goes that Trevino forgot he had the toy in his bag and that Nicklaus saw it and told Trevino to throw it to him.

But the legend is far more funny.

Third picks go to Padraig Harrington, Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate.

Arguably, the greatest golfer of all time, Woods still is chasing Nicklaus on the Majors wins' list and both Snead and Nicklaus for all-time wins. But he's close.

After seeing Mediate up close at the Buick Open this year, I think he's pretty loose on the golf course. And funny, too.

I don't know why I'd choose Harrington. He had a great run in the Majors last year, but this year, he's had bad luck at a couple of holes in tournaments that put him out of contention. But he never cried foul.

Lastly, I'd go with Michelle Wie, Christina Kim and Paula Creamer.

OK, many of you might be wondering why I left off Natalie Gulbis. Well, if I had said "hottest golfers," she would on the list. I'm not saying that Wie, Kim and Creamer aren't hot; I'm saying the category is female golfers.

Kim is one of the more flamboyant players on the LPGA Tour, and I want to have fun on my round of golf. Plus, she can play.

I think Wie is coming into her own after breaking all the age records in women's golf. She's still a teenager - she'll be 20 in October - but she really showed me something at the Solheim Cup last month in Illinois. As impressive as she was as a kid competing against adults, I think she'll be more impressive as an adult competing against other adults.

And Creamer. Although she's been on the Tour for just four years, she's already won nine times and near the top 25 in earnings. Nice.

So there you have it. That's who I'd pick.

Who would you pick?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Hickorly Meadows Golf Course

It's no Augusta National or even a match for any of the courses at the Kingsmill in Williamsburg, Va.

But it's not supposed to be.

Hickory Meadows is a 30-year-old municipal golf course straddling Interstate 95 on one side and farmland on the other. And many golfers might overlook Hickory Meadows when looking for a place to play in the Rocky Mount area, but they'd be missing out.

It's a nicely designed, wide open, well-maintained course that is basically very forgiving for those of us who might hit an errant tee shot into an adjoining fairway. I've played the course three times in the past few months, and that happened to me a few times.

But even when you're in trouble - lying two in another fairway - you still have a good chance of getting back on track and making par.

Don't get me wrong. There are some challenges to Hickory Meadows. Although the fairways are wide open, even the first cut of rough is tall. A couple of times, I felt like I was at a U.S. Open event.

And with three par 3s, three par 5s and 12 par 4s - all but two less than 400 yards - it plays pretty short (6,423 yards from the tips.)

My favorite hole is the closing hole - a short par 4 with water just in front of the green. Long hitters can go for it and make birdie fairly easily. My least favorite hole is No. 16, a crazy dogleg with water all the way down the inside of the leg.

Yes, you can find better courses nearby. But I like it, and if you get a chance to play Hickory Meadows, you shouldn't pass it up.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Tip of the Week - bunker play - part 1

Teaching professional Bryan Bush talks about shaving strokes off your score with good bunker play.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Patriot Golf Day

Last year, I played Grand Haven Golf Club, and I discovered I was at the course where Patriot Golf Day got its start. Fighter pilot and golf course owner Dan Rooney started Patriot Golf Day - which now is a weekend - two years ago to raise money for Fallen Heroes Foundation and Wounded Warriors Inc.

Here is the story from the USGA.

Rooney and his father bought Grand Haven Golf Club in 1998, and renovated it into a very nice course. Tall trees surround tight fairways, making it a bit of a shotmaker's course.

But that's not important right now. What's important is letting everyone know that this year's Patriot Golf Day is scheduled for this weekend - Friday through Sunday. At public courses across the country, $1 in all greens fees will be donated to the two military groups. And private courses are expected to add $5 from each member's monthly dues.

The first year, the nationwide event raised about $1.2 million. In 2008, it raised $2 million. In 2009, let's shoot for $3 million.

Interestly, I was watching TV the other day when a commercial aired about Patriot Golf Day. Two young boys appeared on the screen, saying they'd be playing for their father, Capt. Chris Cash, who was killed in 2004 while serving with the N.C. National Guard in Iraq.

I had done several stories on Cash and his death, and I remember talking to his two sons. I was lucky - I had my dad around for almost 40 years. They weren't even out of school when their father was killed.

I guess because I played the course where it all started, and a couple of kids who I know are playing for someone special in their lives, I feel an attachment to the event. Plus, my niece just returned from tour of duty in Iraq; and my dad served in World War II; and many of my other family members served or are serving in the military.

There are a few courses in the Rocky Mount area from which to choose, but with more than 4,000 courses participating, I'm sure you can find somewhere to play this weekend.

Here's a list:

So, what do you say? I'll be playing. Will you?

Photo is of Tim Hygh on No. 13 at Grand Haven Golf Club, a nice 153-yard par 3 with a huge waste bunker in the front and right of the green.