Friday, August 13, 2010

PGA Championship

Watching the PGA Championship this week brought back memories of my time at Whistling Straits a few months ago in Wisconsin.

Anyone who has a chance to visit Destination Kohler, stay at the American Club and play the Straits course - or any of the other courses there for that matter - should do so. Although it doesn't have history of Pinehurst or Pebble Beach, that's only because it hasn't been around as long.

The service was impeccable, the facilities top-shelf and the views of Lake Michigan from the golf course spectacular.

I was working on a piece for AAA Living about the then-upcoming tournament, and I sat down with this year's director for the last Major of the year - Barry Deach. Deach also headed up the 2004 PGA Championship in 2004 when it was held at Whistling Straits.

But initially, he hadn't planned on running the 2010 event - until Ryan Jordan resigned as tournament director in June 2009.

"I got a call out of nowhere," Deach said.

And to hear him talk about the facilities and people at Destination Kohler, it made sense that he returned to Whistling Straits for this weekend's tournament. But some of his comments seemed a bit contradictory to me.

Deach talked about how much fun it is to put on a Major tournament, but then he said he might see one or two golf shots during the four-day event. That just doesn't seem like fun because he's missing some pretty good golf shots.

Matt Kuchar, who leads the tournament at 5-under right now, holed out No. 13 from what? 100 yards out or so? Bubba Watson, in a four-way tie one stroke back, had a couple of amazing up and downs from the thick rough to save pars on 17 and 18. Jason Day finished with five birdies and made the turn at 34.

And even Tiger Woods, who played horribly last week, birdied his first two holes en route to a 71 for the first round. After a 3 on the par 4 10th, he blasted a 365-yard tee shot on No. 11, scoring a 4 on the 618-yard par 5.

After watching Woods' meltdown last week and knowing he was headed to Whistling Straits this week, I remembered something Deach said awhile back - even before Woods had returned to golf from his slef-imposed hiatus this year.

"We would welcome him with open arms," Deach said when it still was up in the air whether he'd play this year.

Then I wondered if Deach still wanted him there seeing how poorly Woods was playing. But Woods' answer to a report's question this past week puts that into perspective. The reporter intimated that Woods is the No.1 player in the world playing like the worst player in the world. Woods said that he might be the world's worst player, but he still could beat the reporter.

And even though Woods' 71 is only three strokes better than his opening round 74 at the Bridgestone Invitational, where he finished tied for next-to-last, it appears that he's hitting better shots.

We'll see.

Well, we will. Deach won't. He's having too much fun to watch golf.

Jason Day photo credit: Getty Images

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Pinehurst: an experience

Last week, I scratched an item off my bucket list. I played golf at Pinehurst.

Like most golfers, I had heard stories about golf at Pinehurst. One of my more special memories of Pinehurst No. 2 is watching Payne Stewart sink a 15-foot putt to win the 1999 U.S. Open. Four months later, he was dead.

I had heard that playing golf at Pinehurst is an experience. But what does that mean? An experience. Everything you do is an experience.

And after two days at the resort and two rounds of golf on Nos. 8 and 4, I on top of the world. But I still didn't get the "experience" factor.

Then I stepped onto No. 2. I thought about the history. The tradition. The restoration project to return No. 2 to more like its original Donald Ross design.

That's when I understood. It's not that No. 2 is a great golf course, worthy of its reputation. It's the golfers who came before you. It's knowing that you're standing in the same spot that legends did - Sam Snead, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagan, Frances Ouimet, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer. The list nearly is endless.

Stewart's putt in 1999 and his face-to-face celebration with a young Phil Mickelson are defining moments in Pinehurst history. But there's so much more history. Ben Hogan won his first professional tournament there.

Jones called it the "St. Andrews of United States golf." Ironically, sand from the Old Course's Road Hole bunker was poured into the greenside bunker on No. 18 in 2005 to celebrate the relationship between these two legendary courses.

But there also were less than stellar moments at Pinehurst No. 2. The same year Stewart made history there, John Daly was having one of his legendary meltdowns when he couldn't keep his ball on No. 8 green. Known for its turtleback greens, Pinehurst No. 2 has been confounding golfers just as long as it's been enchanting them.

And that's pretty much what happened to me. I was hitting the ball fairly well on the first two days of my trip, scoring well for me on Nos. 4 and 8. In fact, I shot my best round ever on No. 8 - a 91, just missing breaking 90 for the first time.

With five holes to go, I needed four pars and a birdie to reach this feat. I parred 14, 15 and 16. And because No. 17 was a par 5 and the closing hole a par 4, I knew I needed a birdie on 17 or I was lost.

My third shot on 17 ended up just off the front of the green and about 10 feet from the front-placed pin. I missed the birdie putt by 4 inches. On 18, I missed my par putt by a foot, and ended the hole with a bogey.

My confidence was off the chart, which I figured was good, considering I'd be playing No. 2 the next day.

But after a few holes, I realized that No. 2 was going to kick my butt that day. I think it was the combination of the awe factor and the greens that require pinpoint accuracy. It got to the point where it almost was funny.

Better golfers than me have been humbled by No. 2.

I ended up with a 103, about 10 strokes over my handicap.

Oh, but what an experience.