The greatest athletic tournament in the world was contested last week in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. The U.S. Open has always been a tremendous display of the best golfers in the world at their best, and worst, and this year’s Open was no exception.
Justin Rose of England won the event, and he deserved to. He was the most consistent player throughout the week, particularly on Sunday. However, I think the story most golf fans are taking from the event is the tragic sixth US Open 2nd place finish by lefty, everyone’s favorite runner up, Phil Mickelson. Our man isn’t getting any younger, but still hits the ball a ton and plays with an awe-inspiring amount of creativity. Hopefully he’ll have another shot at the Open, and it’s likely that he will. I think what endears Phil Mickelson to a lot of people is how relatable he is, both on the course and in his interviews off the course. During Sunday’s round, what he hoped would be the one that finally got him the US Open championship, and which I’m sure he approached as the most important round of his life, he made 2 double bogeys in the first 5 holes. The man struggles at times, like we all do, on the course. Yet by the 10th hole, he was still very much in contention. He put his pitch shot in from about 75 yards, making an eagle, and proceeded to hop up and down uncontrollably with his arms barely lifted above his shoulders, a look of childish excitement on his face. It was what any of us regular golfers would do in the same situation. In the end, the man loses the tournament, and is of course interviewed following the round. Never mind the words, his face told you what you needed to know. Nearly in tears, defeated; yet clearly gave his best effort. He gave his best effort, and it wasn’t enough. As disappointing as that is, it’s an emotion we’ve all experienced. To see it worn so clearly on a professional’s face, regardless of that profession, is strangely comforting.
It wasn’t just Phil’s tragic failure that made this open, or has made this event, the best golf tournament there is. Open to any golfer with a -1.4 or lower handicap, the Open truly is the “United States Open.” The fact that it’s truly available to anyone who has near the skill level of a professional ought to immediately endear the tournament to anyone. Over 9,000 players attempted to qualify this year, and several amateurs made the cut and stayed around for the weekend. One amateur, Michael Kim, ended up just 9 strokes off the lead, finishing tied for 17th place.
While there were amateurs playing like professionals, there were also professionals playing like amateurs. It always happens at the US Open, and it’s great to see. Inside of every professional are some terrible shots, just as in every duffer there’s a magical shot waiting to come out. It’s important to see bad shots on TV, they reaffirm that these guys are human, and that they are very, very good at the same time. Not only is it fun to see the bad shots, it’s fun to see the aftermath. In one 10 minute stretch during the early portions of the leaders’ rounds on Sunday, Rory McIlroy broke a club out of frustration, Steve Stricker shanked what one commentator described as a “hozzle-rocket” directly to the right out of bounds after he had already hit his drive OB, and Luke Donald double crossed a drive so far to the left that his ball ended up hitting a poor young standard bearer who was catching a moment of rest on a nearby hole. These are the actions and reactions of regular guys. Looking at just my two most regular golfing buddies, there is a parallel for each here; I broke my old 5 iron over my knee 2 summers ago after making an 8 on a par 3 and yanking my next drive OB (an EIGHT. On a par THREE. I should have just quit, you know?); my buddy Paul double-crossed a drive and hit a fellow golfer in the next last season (the guy was okay!); and my buddy Marty is legendary for his ability to shank shots to the right OB. In Rory, Steve and Luke, there was a little bit of Alex, Paul and Marty; and in a nutshell, that is what makes the US Open great.
Most intriguing for the moderately skilled amateur golfer, however, was the USGA’s stepping up to promote two of their initiatives “Tee It Forward,” and “While We’re Young,” both of which ultimately address slow play. If you didn’t catch any of the commercials, you can check them out here:
Nothing is more enraging than slow play, and I am very pleased that the USGA is taking steps to not only publicize the concern at the best time (the US Open is the only tournament that a great majority of duffers, hackers and noobs will watch in the year), but also to provide useful advice for how to improve it. I feel that the ad campaign was a smashing success.
The While We’re Young ads are pretty straight forward – one humorously showing Tiger lining up, and subsequently missing, a short putt at a mini-golf course, much to the chagrin of the children behind him waiting to play. We’ve all been behind duffers who “think it’s a major,” and it can be infuriating. That being said, I don’t think anyone is asking that you not take your time, concentrate and make the best shot you can (after all, it is generally a much quicker round if you are hitting better shots), there are just a bunch of things you can do to improve the pace. Just one tiny example of this would be recognizing that the first player to hole their putt ought to immediately grab the flag, and any of his or her playing partner’s clubs which are lying on the green; enabling the group to move on immediately once everyone has completed their putts. It seems simple, but it’s often that I’m the only one on the course doing this. I also wish more riders would recognize that the primary advantage of having the cart ought to be quicker play, not not having to walk. Two players in a cart need to adopt the drop off strategy far more than is done. Riders who don’t are often as slow or slower than walkers. Talk about irritating.
Perhaps the biggest implementation most players could make to improve pace, however, would be the subject of the Tee it Forward campaign; and that would be to play from the appropriate set of tees. Jack Nicklaus lets us all know that he doesn’t hit the ball as far as he used to, and enjoys making birdies; so he has moved forward. Seems simple enough, and a lot of old guys have already figured this out. The USGA is doing it’s best to address strong minded younger players (almost always men – women have a set of tees, and they almost unwaveringly play from them – kudos to you, ladies!) to set aside pride and pick the best set of tees for their game.
It is very deflating to stand on the first tee, see someone teeing it up from the whites, or, god help us all, the blues, and proceed to hit a poor shot as the result from an even poorer swing. We all hit bad shots, and are entitled to do so, but some of the all arms, hunched over, choked up on the club swings I see knocking it from the whites are cringe worthy. These players need to be going from the front tees. And the rest of us need to positively encourage it, and do nothing to stigmatize it.
The USGA’s approach is a good start; and their tee it forward program homepage lists the benefits: 56% of participants are more likely to play again, 85% had more fun (isn’t that the goal?), and a staggering 93% will “tee it forward” again. It’s not a perfect initiative though, as not every course even has the teeing the options to make the system work. The vast majority of municipal and public courses have the standard 3 sets of tees: red for the ladies, white for the men, and blue for the players. Some will add a 4th set, gold, for the old men and junior boys. Sounds great, but we all know how these tees are usually set up: on nearly every hole, the blue tees are simply set 10-20 yards back from the white tees, on the same tee box, while the golds, if there are a set, are put just a few steps behind the red tees. In actuality, then, most courses with 4 sets of tees have, essentially, 2 sets of tees. There may be a hole or two where the blues are set way back, but on the vast majority, it’s a 1 club difference between the whites and blues. What the course is asking those looking to “tee it forward” to do, then, is to tee up from the reds. While the program requires swallowing some pride, that is an awfully big pill to swallow for a lot of guys.
I’m sure you see where I’m going here: add a truly “middle” set of tees on most holes. Put something halfway between the blues and reds, give shorter hitters a fighters chance. Believe me, I know this is a pipe dream; tee boxes are expensive and time consuming to build, and it may be difficult for courses to get regular customers to move up. Still though, I can dream, right? More realistically though, courses could make it much easier for shorter hitters by identifying four or five longer holes for new tee boxes, and starting there. Focus on those 420-450 yard par 4s. Short hitters have no shot at these holes unless they hit the two best shots of their lives. Most courses only have 2 or 3 of these holes, and only 1 or 2 par 5’s in excess of 540 yards. Make these par 4’s 370-400 for the short hitters, and make the par 5’s around 490. It’s just a few tee boxes, and you can leave the whites where they are at for the holes that aren’t beasts.
Despite the above, there are many public, and even a few municipal courses out there with five sets of tees, each separated by 400-600+ yards by the time your 18 are done. For these courses, the initiative works great. The USGA offers a “self assessment” where a player can enter the clubs they use for their approach shot throughout the round into a chart. Once they’ve done so, they submit their entries, and are given an index which indicates whether they ought to “tee it forward,” are at the right place, or could stand to move back and still have fun. The link is below:
I decided to give it a whirl to make sure I haven’t been chronically and fatally overestimating my own ability to mash. On a scale where anything below 6.1 means move forward, and anything above 8.4 means you can move back, I registered numbers of 7.9, 9.1, 7.2, 8.5 and 9.1 during my last 5 rounds, all of which were played from the furthest set of tees offered by the course. Glorious numbers! My status as a MASHER was confirmed! At my next available opportunity, I was going to be sure to try it out, and, if possible, move myself back.
I played a round yesterday morning at the Buffalo Tournament Club, a fine public course most well known for it’s massive, undulating, and well kept greens about 15 miles east of Buffalo. BTC has 5 sets of tees, and the gaps between them are impressive. I always played from the middle, “Intermediate” set of tees, which measure 6370 yards. The two primary reasons I never felt like moving back to the “Championship” set of tees, which measures 6858 yards, were, first, that I didn’t think, even with my ability to pound drives, that I had the game to play from back there. Second, if I was able to get past the first, was that I didn’t want to seem like a douche to other players. You know, the “who does this fat kid with the hair and super short backswing think he is?”
Setting aside these fears, I gripped and ripped from the Championship tees yesterday. And you know what? I found the round to be one of the most satisfying I’ve played at BTC. I shot an 86, which could easily have been better had I not made a 6 on the 169 yard par 3 12th. I found that playing par 4’s with lengths of 418, 432, 436, 415 and 425 instead of 383, 416, 403, 346 and 396 respectively made for a round that was far more challenging and enjoyable.
So, in the end, the “tee it forward” program actually got someone to “tee it backward.” I’m not going to call it regression. The goal is for everyone to have more fun, right? All mild patting of myself on the back aside, there is one huge gripe I have with the “tee it forward” program, and that is the suggestion that all players in the group play from the same set of tees. In response to the F’ly AQ “should players of differing abilities within the same group play from different sets of tees,” the deflating response is “Recommend the group select tee markers that are most appropriate for a majority of the players, while ensuring that the weakest player could still enjoy the experience.”
C’mon now. There are several of my most common and favorite playing partners whom I regularly hit the ball 75-100+ yards further than off the tee. To ask me to move up to their ideal set of tees is as silly as asking them to move back to my ideal set of tees. I always sort of thought that the reason there were different sets of tees was so that, if there were appreciable differences between them, and if the dynamic of the group allowed it, each player in the group could indeed play from where they are most comfortable.
And so, at BTC, in direct defiance of the USGA’s wishes, my buddy teed it up from the Intermediate set of tees. He shot a 93, which was one of his best rounds of the year. He enjoyed his round as much as I enjoyed mine. We both played from the set of tees that was most appropriate for us, which I think the real goal of “tee it forward” ought to be. I haven’t ignored the fact that the primary goal of tee it forward is to improve pace. I think that you can easily play at a reasonable pace while also having the players in a group play from different sets of tees. Marty and I played at a great pace, finishing in under four hours. We were never more than a shot behind the group in front of us, and never more than a shot in front of the group behind us. All it took was one of us walking to our tee while the other was setting up, or one of us dropping the other off at our tee. Simple, really.
Check out tee it forward, and their self assessment tool, and give it a try.
By far the “golfiest” entry to date, this one is going to be the prototype for entries related directly to and concerning only the game. It’s a week since the Open, and it’s accordingly obvious that these thoughts have been festering for that length of time. I’m going to do my best to feel out what the appropriate frequency of these entries is. Clearly, it was one for the golf dorks, and I promise to the rest of you that these will not become a fixture. But for the golf dorks, rest assured that this won’t be the only one.
As promised, the next few entries will indeed focus on my golf game, logistics of the trip, and charity.
A final note: to date, I have secured $495 in donations! An amazing figure at this juncture! Absolutely amazing. Huge, huge thanks to everyone who has donated. To anyone who has not, please consider doing so if you are able. Anxiety and Depression are real, terrible conditions which affect millions. Furthering their acuteness is the stigma associated with having these conditions. People who’ve never struggled with them are so very quick to make well intended but ultimately insulting suggestions to “cheer up.” More on these topics later. As always, if you have any thoughts, comments or suggestions, please do let me know. Finally, let everyone you know about the project.