Spy on Golf: The Best (and Worst) of 2011

With 2012 nearly upon us, it’s time to bid adieu to 2011 – a topsy-turvy year in golf that managed to entertain, start to finish, with or without Tiger Woods on stage. Here are one blogger’s picks for the year’s best – and best forgotten – people, moments and assorted objects.

Putter of the Year: Long (by a grip handle over Belly)

Putt of the Year: Keegan Bradley, PGA Championship, 17th hole of the final round

Quote of the Year: “As long as it’s legal, I’ll keep cheating like the rest of them.” – Ernie Els on using a belly putter

Prize of the Year: Cured Spanish ham

Headline of the Year: Saltman wins body eight in ham for hole-in-one

Ben Crane

Ham of the Year

Ham of the Year: Ben Crane

Player of the Year, Men: Luke Donald

Player of the Year, Any Gender: Yani Tseng

Youngster of the Year: Lexi Thompson

Streak of the Year: Donald’s 449 holes without a three-putt

Meaningful Meaningless Win of the Year: Tiger Woods, Chevron World Challenge

Performance for the Ages of the Year: Rory McIlroy’s eight-shot victory at the U.S. Open

Cutthroat of the Year: McIlroy, who dumped his girlfriend and his agent in 2011

Gag-Inducing Celebrity Couple Nickname of the Year: Wozzilroy (McIrloy and his new squeeze, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki)

Resurrected Career of the Year: Tie -- Sergio Garcia and Thomas Bjorn

Celebrator of the Year: Open champion Darren Clarke

Guinness Stout

Beverage of the Year

Beverage of the Year: Guinness Stout

#$!*& of the Year: Steve Williams

Innocent Bystander of the Year: Adam Scott

Captain of the Year: Fred Couples (Presidents Cup)

City of the Year: Jupiter, Fla. (aka the “new Orlando”)

Amateur of the Year: Patrick Cantlay

Lowlife of the Year: John Daly (who has officially retired this dubious honor)

Instant Classic: Cleveland Golf Driver a Beautiful Behemoth

As a guy who grew up playing woods made of a strange substance called wood, I find many of today’s drivers unappealing to the eye. There’s only one form a driver should take, and that’s pear-shaped.

Cleveland Classic Driver

Drooling yet?

So my heart skipped a beat when I saw Cleveland Golf’s new Classic Driver, due out early next year. Mahogany finish. Brass-colored face “insert” and sole plate. The word “Classic” scrolled on the crown as an alignment aid. Even a black leather head cover in a shape the company calls “RetroBarrel.”

Cue Homer Simpson drooling sound.

In a word, this is one gorgeous golf club. But that’s the end of the Cleveland Classic’s similarities with its ancestors. (You know, the ones made from trees.) The Classic maxes out the USGA volume allowance at 460cc, about three times the size of a persimmon driver head. Its face is massive – the deepest on the market, according to Cleveland. And off-the-rack models are powered by an ultralight Miyazaki graphite shaft.

While it’s not yet for sale to the public, the Classic has already been tested on Tour. In fact, 2011 Rookie of the Year Keegan Bradley used it en route to winning (with Brendan Steele) the Franklin Templeton Shootout last weekend.

Bradley, who strikes me as the traditional type, instantly fell for the club’s old-school aesthetics. “When I looked at the new driver, honestly, I loved it,” he gushed. “I love the gold face on it… You look down at the face and the thing that you focus on is the sweet spot. I think it’s brilliant. I think it’s gonna change the way drivers are made.”

Of course, Callaway, Ping, TaylorMade et al will have something to say about that. In fact, TaylorMade just introduced its new wood lineup, which carries a decidedly non-traditional name: RocketBallz.

May the best club win.

 

 

Spy on Golf: Countdown to 2012

Could 2011 have ended any better for golf fans?

All signs point to a thrilling 2012, and beyond, as the stars aligned in spectacular fashion during the latter stages of this season. Here just a few recent developments that signal a looming golden age:

  • Tiger Woods regains winning form at the Chevron World Challenge.
  • Luke Donald cements No. 1 ranking by topping the U.S. and European money lists.
  • Wunderkind Rory McIlroy follows up his U.S. Open triumph with another victory (Hong Kong Open) and six top-sixes in his last eight starts.
  • Sergio Garcia claims two titles in his native Spain.
  • Young Americans Webb Simpson, Dustin Johnson and Bill Haas dominate the FedEx Cup playoffs.
  • Jim Furyk goes 5-0 to pace the U.S. Presidents Cup effort.
Luke Donald

Luke Donald aims to keep his No. 1 ranking.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Professional golf is flush with great players in or entering their prime, aging stars with gas left in the tank, and emerging lads with big games and matching personalities.

Never has golf’s international talent pool been this deep or wide. For proof, here’s a breakdown of current standouts by age group:

Young guns (under 30): Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Alvaro Quiros, Rickie Fowler, Webb Simpson, Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, Nick Watney, Hunter Mahan, Keegan Bradley, Bill Haas, Ryo Ishikawa, Matteo Manassero

Prime-timers (30-somethings): Tiger Woods, Luke Donald, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Adam Scott, Matt Kuchar, Graeme McDowell, Justin Rose, Ian Poulter, Bubba Watson, Zach Johnson, Geoff Ogilvy, Aaron Baddeley

Elder statesmen (40-plus): Steve Stricker, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, David Toms, K.J. Choi, Thomas Bjorn, Miguel Angel Jimenez

Getting excited yet? Me too.

Tough stuff

Kiawah Island Ocean Course

Grrrr... The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island.

Back in the day, Golf Digest’s list of America’s toughest courses was its de facto list of the country’s top courses. When folks stopped equating difficulty with quality, the magazine introduced new criteria – like design balance and shot values – and changed the rankings to America’s best courses.

Now it’s doing both. Golf Digest is out with an updated list of the 75 toughest tracks in America, and it is indeed a Murderers Row.

No. 1 is the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, and I can vouch for its nastiness firsthand. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the remainder of the top five: 2. Pine Valley GC (N.J.) 3. Oakmont CC (Pa.) 4. Spyglass Hill (Calif.) 5. Bethpage Park, Black Course (N.Y.)

Others of note include TPC Sawgrass (7), Pinehurst No. 2 (10), Pebble Beach (14) and Augusta National (31).

Of course, tackling any of these courses is even tougher when you’re paired with one of Golf Digest’s 18 Most Annoying Golf Partners, whose aggravating ranks include our personal No. 1, the Cart Girl Schmoozer.

If the cart girls at these places are as mean as the courses, methinks our buddy would incur a rather harsh penalty.

Spy on Golf: Let’s Overanalyze Tiger’s Victory

Most of Tiger Woods’ wins take one of two forms: epic blowout or last-hole Houdini act. His latest victory fell squarely in the latter category, appropriate since it saw Woods finally escape the clutches of mediocrity.

Tiger Woods 2008 U.S. Open

Tiger was almost this happy after winning the Chevron.

Woods’ breakthrough at the Chevron World Challenge, where he birdied the final two holes to spear Zach Johnson, ended two years of winless, meandering golf. Of course, now everyone wants to know what comes next.

Check that: Everyone wants to predict what comes next. It’s a pointless exercise for sure, since only time and Tiger will tell. But it’s worth analyzing using the evidence from Woods’ recent play, going back to his solid efforts at the Australian Open and Presidents Cup.

Let’s break it down into three parts:

Tiger’s swing: I’m having trouble adjusting to Woods’ new, Sean Foley-crafted action; his hands are lower than before, and he has to rotate the arms abruptly on the backswing to get the club on plane. So I can only imagine how tough it’s been for Tiger to integrate these new positions and moves.

But darned if he doesn’t seem to have it almost down pat. The spectacular shots have returned and, more importantly, he’s making the routine shots look routine again.

Tiger’s health: We have to go by our eyes and Tiger’s words, both of which assure us his Achilles and knee are A-OK. No telling if they’ll stay that way, but for now, we pronounce Tiger fit as a flagstick.

Tiger’s mind: It all boils down to this, doesn’t it? I have a personal theory, based on one enlightening semester of introductory psychology, that Tiger felt something completely foreign in the wake of his sex scandal: shame. His self-loathing subconsciously undermined him on the golf course, telling Tiger he didn’t deserve to win. The result: Poor play, especially on the greens, any time he got into contention.

Or maybe he just wasn’t releasing the blade properly. Either way, it appears Tiger’s finally licked the issue.

Golf Gifts: From Socks to Simulators

What do you get the golfer who has everything? Something non-golf-related, of course.

Since no actual golfer (except maybe Donald Trump) has literally everything, we’ve prepared a list of holiday gift ideas suitable for just about anyone who plays the game. Our picks cover the budgetary spectrum, from affordable stocking stuffers all the way to “in their dreams.”

Straight from St. Andrews Claus himself, our picks for 2011’s best golf gifts:

BIG-TICKET ITEMS

Miura Forged Black Blades

Miura Limited Forged Black Blades

Golf vacation of a lifetime: We won’t tell you where to send your favorite golfer; suffice it to say, Scotland, Ireland and Australia/New Zealand merit serious consideration. Your best bet is to book through an experienced, respected golf tour operator like Perry Golf. They’ll take care of every detail, right down to fixing your pitch marks. Price: $1,500 and up. Way up.

An in-home golf simulator: These are all the rage among golfers with the space and disposable income to install one. P3ProSwing is one of the more affordable suppliers, and its packages allow you to “play” famous courses and analyze your swing. Price: Starting at $599; most popular package is $1,228.

Black beauties: Master clubmaker Katsuhiro Miura -- principal of Miura Golf -- is renowned for the look and feel of his luscious forgings, as his Limited Forged Black Blades attest. The appearance is so striking, in fact, your recipient may choose to display them rather than play them. Price: $2,200 (3-iron through PW)

MID-PRICED GOODIES

Major ducats: Every golf fan dreams of attending the Masters, but Barack Obama will be elected president of the NRA before you’ll score passes to that event. Your golfer will have to settle for the U.S. Open, played next year at San Francisco’s splendid Olympic Club. The USGA is currently running a holiday special – jump on it before Jan. 2, 2012 to grab some extra goodies. Price: $450 for individual Weekly Grounds Ticket.

Walk this way: We believe the game should be played on foot, and that those feet should be comfortable on their 5-mile journey around the course. Every major manufacturer makes lightweight, comfy shoes these days, so you can’t go wrong with FootJoy, adidas, Ecco, or any of the big brands. But we’re partial to upstart TRUE Linkswear, whose ultra-low-profile, spikeless kicks have made a big impression. Price: Starting at $129.

Clicgear golf cart

Cligear golf cart

Push it good: Sticking with the theme, toting a bag over the shoulder for 18 holes can really wear you out. A push cart makes things so much easier. Aficionados adore the folding 3-wheel models made by Clicgear, available in nine colors with a bundle of accessories. Price: $199

STOCKING STUFFERS

Scotland’s Caddies: This charming film, available on DVD, delivers 69 minutes of old-school Scottish loopers spinning yarns about everything and everyone. Caddies from St. Andrews, Troon, Dornoch, Turnberry, Gleneagles and other classic courses tattle on celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Sean Connery. They take on cheaters, too, as well as Americans and the dreaded French. The scenery is spectacular. Price: $19.95

Sock it to ’em: Socks are socks, right? Wrong. Kentwool uses super-fine Merino wool to make a sock so comfortable, the company says it can boost your energy and make you play better. Some sock, huh? Pros like Matt Kuchar and Bubba Watson think so. Price: $24.95 for a pair of Tour Standard models.

Belated Thanks for Golf’s Great Pleasures

Boy, did Thanksgiving come and go in a tryptophan-induced haze. Got buried so deep in turkey and stuffing, I neglected to post this article in a timely fashion.

Having scarfed the last scrap of leftovers, here are a few of the thousand things that make me thankful to be a golfer:

St. Andrews, Scotland - Old Course

No. 1 on our bucket list.

Walking a deserted course, solo, first thing on a Sunday morning.

A three-and-a-half-hour round.

Courses where you can’t possibly plunk a house off the tee.

A foursome without one of the guys who top this list.

Playing partners who know when to call off the hunt for a lost ball.

Hybrid clubs.

Launch monitors.

Clubfitting.

The golf equipment geeks who hang out here.

Friendly starters and marshalls.

Old-school Scottish caddies, like these guys.

ShotLink, the all-knowing PGA Tour stat-keeping tool, for those occasions when I just have to know which player is most likely to bunt a drive less than 240 yards, or score the lowest with a late second-round tee time going off the 10th tee. (Seriously, it’s all in there.)

Rory McIlroy

Thing o' beauty: Rory McIlroy's swing.

David Feherty.

Mike Keiser (visionary founder of Bandon Dunes and Cabot Links).

The town of St. Andrews, Scotland – No. 1 on my bucket list of places to visit.

Minimalist design and the architects who practice it.

Firm, fast conditions.

19th holes that serve local microbrews.

Pull carts.

Stand bags.

Rory McIlroy’s swing.

Matt Kuchar’s smile.

Tiger Woods’ glare.

Luke Donald’s putting stroke.

GolfClubAtlas.com

Seaside golf.

Handheld GPS devices and rangefinders.

The USGA’s Mike Davis, whose U.S. Open setups emphasize shotmaking and imagination over hacking out sideways from ankle-deep rough.

Street-style golf shoes.

Caddyshack quotes. Some of the best are short: “Don’t sell yourself short, Judge, you’re a tremendous slouch.” Others, classically long: “So we finish the eighteenth and he's gonna stiff me. And I say, ‘Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.’ And he says, ‘Oh, uh, there won't be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.’ So I got that goin' for me, which is nice.”

It sure is, Carl. It sure is.

 

Golf Claps & Silent Treatment: Presidents Cup

All together now: USA! USA! USA!

Feels pretty good once every two years, doesn’t it? Put another way, it’s a good thing America has the Presidents Cup to stir up some pride in between Ryder Cup whippings.

Tiger Woods at 2011 Presidents Cup.

Tiger Woods celebrated in style.

The United States once again took the International team to the woodshed, winning the 2011 Presidents Cup by a more-dominating-than-it-sounds 19-15 margin. And this was supposed to be the year the Internationals -- an Aussie-heavy squad playing on home turf -- broke a five-match victory drought.

Instead, the Americans succeeded where they so often fail against Europe’s Ryder Cuppers: on the greens. The U.S. squad made miles of twisting putts across Royal Melbourne’s diabolical, wind-whipped surfaces, continually snuffing any spark of a comeback.

With Uncle Sam’s finest pushing their all-time record to 7-1-1 against the Internationals, a question lingers: Why don’t the Americans play like this in the Ryder Cup? The Europeans have claimed four of the past five and six of eight since 1995.

Who knows? And for now, who cares? America’s golf community should enjoy the moment.

After all, the next Ryder Cup is just 10 months away.

The Presidents Cup produced a bevy of heroes and goats. We singled out these for polite applause and tacit disapproval:

Golf Claps

Royal Melbourne: Talk about living up to the hype. The Alister MacKenzie-designed masterpiece delivered compelling theater each day, the constantly changing conditions only highlighting the layout’s brilliance. And somehow, the setup crew kept things fair despite green speeds in excess of 14 (!) on the Stimpmeter.

Jim Furyk: Coming off his worst season since his rookie year, Furyk didn’t figure to make a big impact. Surprise! By going 5-0, Furyk paced the Americans and became the first player over 40 to win all his Presidents Cup matches.

Fred Couples’ captain’s picks: To the chagrin of many, Freddie followed rule No. 1 in making his captain’s picks: Never, ever pass up Tiger Woods. While Woods’ 2-3 record was nothing special, he played well in team-match defeats and even better in singles. For good measure, Woods clinched the Cup with a 4-and-3 beatdown of Aaron Baddeley on Sunday. Couples’ other choice, Bill Haas, was solid in splitting his five matches.

Ryder Cup

The Ryder Cup: Still golf's best.

While Woods’ and Haas’s combined 4 ½ - 4 ½ record may seem pedestrian, it compared quite favorably with the International captain’s picks. Which leads us to…

Silent Treatment

Greg Norman’s wild-card selections: Baddeley was bad, posting a 1 ½ - 3 ½ record. Robert Allenby was worse, putting up a big, fat doughnut against four defeats. That’s a combined score of 1 ½ - 7 ½, making Norman’s pre-Cup criticism of Couples ring rather hollow.

The Presidents Cup’s standing alongside the Ryder Cup: Sure, it’s fun to win. But until these matches become more competitive, the Ryder Cup will remain golf’s biggest biennial affair. By a longshot.

Golf Claps & Silent Treatment: Another Tiger Tease

In case you missed the Australian Open – which you probably did, considering it took place a gazillion time zones away from the U.S. – Tiger Woods came thisclose to winning his first tournament since 2009.

Tiger Woods Australian Open

Tiger Woods tantalized Down Under.

He didn’t, finishing third thanks to a Saturday 75 that cost him the lead. For most of the event, though, Woods had the Aussie crowds and international golf media buzzing. His drives were straighter than usual, the irons old-Tiger crisp, the putter showing more than occasional flashes of sizzle.

Following his third-round flop, Woods charged back with a final-round 67, falling two shy of Greg Chalmers’ winning score of -13. The display left most everyone impressed, if not quite ready to declare Tiger “back” just yet.

Left high and dry by too many Tiger teases the past couple years, some wags noted that he finished behind two journeyman types (Chalmers and runner-up John Senden). More importantly, though, look at the guys right behind him: Adam Scott, Geoff Ogilvy, Jason Day and Nick Watney. They’ve played some decent golf lately, haven’t they?

Bottom line: another non-win for Woods – still the only golfer for whom a third-place finish against a world-class field is regarded as a disappointment. But it bodes well for his – and America’s – chances in this week’s Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne.

We’ll be staying up for that one.

Golf Claps

The Presidents Cup: As if the controversies surrounding Fred Couples using a captain’s pick on Woods and Steve Williams’ foolhardy remarks about Tiger weren’t enough to spark interest… The matches got a further boost from Woods’ performance and that of International team members Scott, Ogilvy, Day et al. The Ryder Cup still reigns supreme when it comes to biennial team competitions, but the Presidents Cup continues to catch up quickly.

Oh, and we can’t wait to see Royal Melbourne, one of golf’s most revered sites. Architecture geeks rejoice!

Silent Treatment

John Daly: After intentionally drowning a half-dozen balls before walking off the course midway through his first round, Daly proved yet again that he’s a complete waste of a sponsor’s exemption. The man needs help.

Spy on Equipment: Long Putters, Snazzy Shoes and New Mizuno Irons

Golf gear manufacturers release a lot of new equipment during the year. While the vast majority of offerings are simply updated, tricked-out versions of existing models, interesting stuff does come down the pike every now and then.

Here are a few equipment items that caught our attention in recent weeks.

Bellying up – way up

TaylorMade Ghost Spider

TaylorMade's Ghost Spider putter.

Every golfer of a certain age remembers Jack Nicklaus’ stunning Masters triumph in 1986. Most have forgotten the explosion of putter sales that followed his win. Specifically, sales of the mammoth-headed MacGregor Response ZT putter Nicklaus used to make all those back-nine bombs.

In the 2 ½ years following Nicklaus’ sixth Masters victory, MacGregor sold an astounding 350,000 Response ZTs. A similar boom is mushrooming now in the belly and long putter market.

Late-season victories by Keegan Bradley, Adam Scott and Webb Simpson put extended flatsticks front and center in the public’s eye. TaylorMade recently tripled fourth-quarter sales expectations for long and belly putters, and accelerated the timeline for launching long versions of its popular Corza Ghost and Ghost Spider models.

Cleveland and Odyssey have reported similar success and product plans.

adidas joins street shoe brigade

Constant innovation is a key benefit of the free-market system. And whenever something original breaks through to a mass audience, copy-cats are sure to follow.

adidas adicross golf shoes

adidas' new adicross golf shoes

Hence, Nirvana begat Bush, the Android rode the iPhone’s coattails, and adidas joined the parade of companies mimicking Ecco’s Street Premiere golf shoes.

The adicross is adidas’ entry into this expanding category, which FootJoy, Nike and startups like Kikkor Golf have joined. (For the record, we consider TRUE Linkswear shoes a somewhat different breed.)

What does adicross offer? Lightweight, full-grain leather, five color combos and, of course, a spikeless sole.

Not to be confused with soul-less tripe. For that, we recommend listening to a Bush album.

Rejoice: Mizuno intros new irons

Few golf brands inspire the loyalty of Mizuno, specifically, the company’s forged irons. (You’ll get my Mizzies when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.)

Mizuno MP-59 irons

Mizuno's MP-59

There’s a new member of the esteemed MP family, the cavity-back MP-59. Like its forebear, the MP-58, the 59 features a hunk of titanium forged into the back of the blade. The company claims a 5-percent larger sweet spot on the MP-59s than the 58s.

Mizuno aims these irons at golfers in the plus-2 to 13 handicap range. In other words, you need to be a decent stick, but not a world-beater, to wield them properly.

Spy on Golf: Shove It, Stevie

This just in: Steve Williams is an idiot.

Make that a bleeping idiot.

Steve Williams

Steve Williams needs to memorize part three of the caddie mantra.

We already knew Williams possessed a vastly inflated sense of importance. Now Tiger Woods’ former caddie has revealed a stupid streak as big as his ego. Maybe bigger.

In case you missed the latest news, Williams took a stupefying shot at Woods during an annual caddie awards ceremony. First, Williams was roasted by colleagues for his infamous display of self-satisfaction following a victory by his new boss, Adam Scott, at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Taking his turn to speak, Williams explained.

“My aim was to shove it right back up that black (bleep),” he said, referring to Woods and an unprintable part of Tiger’s anatomy.

The remarks set off another roasting, and not the good-natured kind.

Media issued the requisite calls for discipline by the PGA Tour, Scott, and anyone else in position to punish the surly New Zealander. Williams, naturally, issued an apology while Scott stood by his bag man. The Tour claimed its hands were tied and said Williams’ apology would have to suffice.

As if this month’s Presidents Cup – where Woods will play as a controversial U.S. captain’s pick while Scott anchors the Internationals – needed any extra drama.

There’s a well-known mantra regarding a tour caddie’s on-course responsibilities: “Show up, keep up, shut up.” Williams should learn to follow part three, everywhere he goes.

Golfweek: Old is Best New

Once upon a time, Golfweek compiled an annual list of the 50 best courses opened in the U.S. during the previous year. Then that list dwindled to 40 in 2009. Now, it’s down to a mere 25 – which covers a two-year period and includes two renovations.

Such is the slow state of affairs in the course construction business, victimized by the economic downturn but already suffering growing pains earlier in the decade.

The building boom of the 1980s and ’90s, when several hundred new courses came online each year, created a demand-exceeding glut in supply. Things only got worse when the economy went belly-up. Now, more courses are closing than opening each year.

It’s sad, for sure. But that’s the free market at work, and far worse things have happened during the downturn. Besides, we’ve got a new Golfweek list to peruse.

No surprise at the top: Old Macdonald, the fourth course at Bandon Dunes Resort. Conceived by Tom Doak and right-hand man Jim Urbina, it’s a sprawling ode to Charles Blair Macdonald’s seminal design work at National Golf Links (Long Island), Chicago Golf Club and numerous other Golden Age classics.

The Patriot Golf Club

The Patriot Golf Club

The second spot goes to an equally intriguing project, The Patriot GC in Oklahoma. Robert Trent Jones II leaned on the men who helped him make Chambers Bay (Wash.) such a smash, Bruce Charlton and Jay Blasi. The trio hit another home run, carving a compelling course from a rugged, boulder-strewn chunk of northeast Oklahoma.

What makes The Patriot truly special is its purpose. The club is home to the Folds of Honor Foundation, the brainchild of PGA professional and F-16 pilot Major Dan Rooney. Folds of Honor provides scholarships to the kids of service members killed or wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Patriot is a private club, but sets aside three tee times a day for one-time public access. Ten percent of the $150 fee goes to Folds of Honor.

If you’re in the Tulsa area and covet a tee time, or just want to contribute to the cause, visit www.patriotgolfclub.com.

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