Hall of Fame Has Blind Spots, But Finchem Isn’t One Of Them.

For everything that has been denied golf fans in this period of quarantine—access to courses for many, the Masters for all, freedom from Peloton updates for an unlucky few— one thing remains soothingly constant among the social media commentariat: begrudgery.

That much was evident with the news that former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem will join Tiger Woods and Marion Hollins in the next class to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. The announcement was greeted with griping that was as predictable as it is tedious, an exercise in collective eye-rolling intended to suggest not only that Finchem is undeserving but that his inclusion dilutes the Hall’s credibility.

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The Ghosts of St. Andrews

Doug Sanders died today. I wrote this almost five years ago after watching Sanders walk the range of the Old Course during the 2015 Open Championship.

This is a town for ghosts. Some of them are even dead.

You’ll see and hear them aplenty if you wander around the Old Course, this fabled spit of land where golf has been played since the 1500s and which this week hosts the Open Championship for the 29th time.

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The Humbling Of Ernie Els

Four years ago today, Ernie Els saw his Masters hopes effectively end before he even reached the second tee thanks to a six-putt from short range on the first. It was a moment that said much about the struggles of Els the player, but much more about Els the professional. I wrote this in the aftermath

Major championships are golf’s most unforgiving coliseums, exposing every weakness and insecurity in order to identify and then celebrate the player most worthy of a victory that both defines and elevates a career. But only on Sunday evening. And only for one player.

For the rest of the competitors, majors usually bring varying degrees of misery, battles against expectations they can’t meet, elements they can’t control or demons they thought vanquished. Especially at the Masters, which began Thursday in Augusta, Georgia.

Ian Woosnam’s struggle this year was clear-cut: At 58, the diminutive 1991 champion is too enfeebled to play a course measuring a daunting 7,435 yards. He shot an opening-round 82, 16 strokes worse than leader Jordan Spieth and just one stroke better than last place, occupied by a 16-year-old amateur from Costa Rica.

Bubba Watson’s battle was against the only thing more unpredictable than the volatile two-time winner himself: the weather. He was close to the lead early, but the blustery winds—assisted by his fickle focus—saw him slump to a 75. His play was poor enough to spur a Twitter spike for the hashtag #PrayForTed, popular among golf fans who follow Watson’s petulant criticism of his caddie Ted Scott with an almost Talmudic devotion.

Then there is Ernie Els, a four-time major winner and one of the finest golfers of his generation. Els wrestled only himself. And he lost.

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Golf Behind Prison Bars

The first article I ever wrote for Golf Magazine, published in the fall of 2003, was about my visit to Prison View Golf Course, built by inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, once the most infamous lock-up in America. The warden at Angola then was the unctuous Burl Cain, who used the same tone of voice whether musing on shooting prisoners or shooting armadillos. He later resigned facing allegations of corruption.

State Road 66 in West Feliciana Parish ends at Louisiana’s most famous gated community and newest golf course. For those who built this scrappy track 59 miles north of Baton Rouge, it really is the end of the road: Prison View Golf Course is part of the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, America’s largest maximum-security prison and for many years its bloodiest.

Prison View opened to the Angola staff in July, and when a no-frills clubhouse is added this winter, the public will be welcome, too. “I think a lot of people would love to go to a maximum-security prison and play golf,” says warden Burl Cain, who would not be out of place in Cool Hand Luke. A sign in his office reads, If the warden ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

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Golf at Prison View in Louisiana.

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A Royal & Ancient Pest

Maurice Flitcroft, the greatest gatecrasher in the history of golf, died 13 years ago yesterday. I interviewed him many moons ago. This story ran in the July 2001 issue of the long-lost Maximum Golf magazine. 

The British Open has spawned a century and a half of legends, from Old Tom Morris to Young Tom Watson to… Maurice G. Flitcroft?

While he never come within shouting distance of the Claret Jug, Flitcroft occupies a special place in Open history. Indeed, the 71-year-old retiree from Barrow-in-Furness, England, may be the greatest hacker in the history of any major. He’s certainly the most determined.

The 1976 Open saw the emergence of two remarkable players: One was Severiano Ballesteros, then a 19-year-old phenom who held off Johnny Miller at Royal Birkdale for the better part of four days before finishing in a tie for second to the flaxen-haired American. The other was Flitcroft, then a 46-year-old crane operator.

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The legendary Maurice Flitcroft, who died March 24, 2007.

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Waiting Out The Unknowns, Hoping For Better Days

Schedules are sacrosanct in golf. Each season rotates around the immovable cornerstones of the calendar — springtime in Augusta, summer amid wintry weather on a British links — and each week is identified not by its dates but by its PGA Tour stop. Valspar last, Match Play this, Valero next. There are schedules within schedules, the roll call of tee times that lines up the action and the broadcast listings that bring it all home.

The abandonment of the Players Championship began (at least) 11 desolate weeks without Tour play, severed our tethers to the schedule, and left both fans and players adrift.

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Ballybunion & Bill: A Love Story, Kind Of.

Almost 20 years ago, I went to Ballybunion, County Kerry, to write about the ‘Clinton Cult’ that had sprouted in the village, where the world’s only statue to America’s forty-second president had been erected. This story was published in the now-defunct T&L Golf in 2001.

William Jefferson Clinton recognized a good omen when the afternoon sun finally broke through the slate gray skies as his motorcade neared Ballybunion Golf Club.

It was September 5, 1998. Back home, the impeachment drama was reaching a crescendo: The president was just three weeks removed from admitting his affair on television to a rapt and revolted nation; only two days earlier he had been denounced as “immoral” on the floor of the Senate by Joseph Lieberman. Yet the sexual shenanigans holding his fellow Americans in thrall were proving to be of little consequence in rural Ireland.

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Bill Clinton gets a pointer from the legendary Christy O’Connor Sr. during his first round at Ballybunion Golf Club in 1998.

Sweeping along the freshly resurfaced laneways of County Kerry, the president saw hedgerows lined with colorful billboards declaring ‘Ballybunion Welcomes Bill Clinton’. In the town itself, the Stars and Stripes seemed to hang from every window, with twelve in particular conspicuously fluttering atop a rundown nightclub. “That was such a special day for me,” Clinton would later remember. “Every little Irish village I went through on my way to Ballybunion had people in the streets, and all their stores had been repainted. It was just so beautiful and so unbelievable.” 

Even the name proving so inescapable at home was discreetly excised from the celebrations, as Monica’s Hair Salon became, for one day, the President’s Shop, hawking coffee mugs and T-shirts. “Beautiful,” sighed Maria Finucane, the local who has organized the Ballybunion International Bachelor Festival for twenty years. “The village will never look so good again.”

To an embattled American president fighting for his political life, the little Irish village was indeed a blessedly benign sight. Of course, he was oblivious to the forces that even at that moment were hard at work to use the presidential visit for their own purposes. In particular, he had yet to meet the wily Irish huckster who, though Clinton didn’t know it, was attempting to turn the First Golfer into Ballybunion’s own Local Hero.

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Rory McIlroy Emerges As The Conscience Of Golf

Most of the 121 men in the field at the Arnold Palmer Invitational are judged by a straightforward metric: a scorecard that documents the ebb and flow of their work day. Global brands — whether a corporation or an individual athlete — are measured against more complex and fluid standards, like the company they keep, the actions they take, the conscience they evidence.

These are not benchmarks against which golf has traditionally fared well. Until Thursday.

In the first round at Bay Hill, Rory McIlroy opened with a round of 66 that amply demonstrated his celebrated skill as a player. What followed established him as a leader.

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Premier Golf League: Big On Promises, Short on Substance

As cris de coeur go, Premier Golf League’s opening salvo sounded less passionate than petulant. The proposed rival circuit to the PGA Tour sent its first tweet on Friday, one that included an audacious appeal to individualism given that it is partly financed by a regime that dismembers free thinkers.

“Nobody owns golf,” the message read. “Golf is owned by everyone who enjoys it, watches it, and thinks about it – in other words, you. #PGL”

As an implicit call to arms against the reign of King Jay of Ponte Vedra, it fell flat. But that idea of ownership – not of the game, but of the players –explains why the League’s CEO, Andrew Gardiner, has finally moved into the open to speak publicly. He was on a salvage operation after Rory McIlroy holed the entire concept below the waterline earlier in the week.

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Are We Facing Phil’s Final Act?

It’s the capricious nature of sport that for all of Phil Mickelson’s high achievements his career is still largely defined by the one championship that got away a half-dozen times.

The U.S. Open was the first major tournament Mickelson ever contested, finishing low amateur at Medinah 30 years ago. He has made 28 starts in all and the results read like an EKG, spiking with each of those six runner-up finishes, five of which would meet anyone’s threshold for heartbreak. So the possibility that his Open career might flatline with last year’s mundane T-52 at Pebble Beach seems a cruel jest.

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The Distance Report Is Out: So Begins The Battle For Golf’s Future

To a jaundiced observer, golf debates must have all the obvious relevance of a couple of tweedy academics bickering over the best translation of Beowulf between draws on their pipes. No debate is more fractious than that surrounding distance, which has for years rumbled along like a freight train in the night. During that time friendships have been sundered, garments rended, pearls clutched and block buttons exhausted. To casual fans it must seem like golf esoterica; to those who care, it’s golf in extremis, an existential argument on the very future of the sport.

Ours is a game of byzantine conventions, so it’s unsurprising that many drive-by spectators believe it hasn’t evolved in years, that it remains the domain of those who prefer the way things used to be, regardless of what those things are. The reality is that golf, like an aging Hollywood actress, shows marked change if you know where to look. Only now have we reached a moment when its wheezy statutes begin to catch up.

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Booze, Boos & Bedlam: Inside the 16th Hole at the Phoenix Open

There was an outbreak of the Corona-virus on Saturday at TPC Scottsdale, though no experts from the Centers for Disease Control were needed to determine its origin. This is an annual epidemic — fueled by barley, hops and yeast — that transforms normally prudent citizens into drooling cretins and the normally staid PGA Tour into a rollicking party.

The festivities begin at 7 a.m. when the gates open to a stampede that rivals any Walmart on Black Friday. But instead of dashing for discounted flat screen televisions, this excited crowd sprints to grab a coveted spot at the 16th hole, and it’s the most thrilling competitive charge you’ll see on a golf course this side of a Sunday afternoon in Augusta, Georgia.

Each year, Saturdays at the Waste Management Phoenix Open dawn with buoyant spirits. And each year it ends in a sorry mess of tipsy antics and failed bladder control.

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Proposed Splinter Tour Exposes Cracks In PGA Tour’s Foundation

Triangulation is an indispensable strategy in politics and commerce, deftly positioning oneself as an alternative both above and between the stale, established options. Just such an approach is evident in Premier Golf League, which aspires to be a new global tour for golf’s superstars.

Every promise of what this hypothetical tour will deliver — elite fields, colossal prize money, fresh formats, elevated viewing options, even tax revenue — carries a none-too-subtle subtext that both players and fans are ill-served in these areas by existing Tours and their broadcast partners. There’s an element of truth in this, but a different triangulated analysis lays bare a troublesome reality for any new tour: without players, there is no money; without money, there are no players; without both, there is no broadcast deal. And six years after the idea for this new tour first emerged, all it has produced is more name changes than Zsa Zsa Gabor’s wedding registry.

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Senior Tour’s Problem One Phil Is Unlikely To Address

This ought to have been an outstanding week for Miller Brady. The PGA Tour Champions, of which Brady is president, began its season in Hawaii with more fanfare than usual thanks to the debut of Hall of Famer Ernie Els. Nor is Els the only major winner who will slather on the Bengay and saddle up for the senior circuit in 2020. Jim Furyk and Mike Weir both turn 50 on May 12, with Rich Beem following in August.

Yet for all the promise this year holds for Brady, it presents a problem too: Phil Mickelson.

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In Protecting One—Patrick Reed—The Tour Risks Losing Respect of Many

By now, PGA Tour executives must feel a gloomy kinship with those anonymous White House officials who regularly insist the President is taking a mature approach on an issue, only to wake to another inflammatory tweet storm from the toilet. For no matter how meticulously the Tour has sought to douse the Patrick Reed conflagration, Reed himself only provides more kindling.

A number of truths became apparent when Golfweek revealed that Reed has engaged a lawyer in an effort to silence Brandel Chamblee, the most prominent critic of his alleged cheating at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas last month.

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