Teeing Off

MarTavious Adams and getting IT....

September 7th, 2010 | golfing

For the past seven years in September, I have had the pleasure of playing in one of my favorite tournaments, at probably my favorite golf course in the world - Pebble Beach. You might expect it to be either the AT&T in the winter or the US Open this past summer at Pebble, but it's neither. During these years Pebble has hosted The First Tee Open with the generous help of sponsors, Home Care & Hospice and Wal-Mart. It is without a doubt one of the highlights of The Champions Tour for me.

This past week 78 juniors selected from over 200 First Tee programs from all over the country came to Pebble Beach to play with the old guys like me, courtesy of The First Tee and its sponsors.  What makes this so special is they are selected based on both golf skill and their understanding of the nine Core Values of the First Tee, or in simpler terms, getting IT.  [The nine Core Values of The First Tee are: Honesty, Integrity, Sportsmanship, Respect, Confidence, Responsibility, Perseverance, Courtesy and Judgment.]  Their enthusiasm and smiles, their seriousness in the competition, their respect and manners all combined to prove that these youths of America get IT. 

Where they got IT in part was from The First Tee programs in their local communities. With the fun of golf being the hook, these young people came to a variety of First Tee facilities, like the Blue River Golf Academy and Learning Center in my home town of Kansas City, to learn the game as well as being taught the program's Nine Core Values. Our community built a three hole golf course which pre-dated the beginnings of The First Tee in 1997 in a joint City/private venture on public ground which is used by the First Tee youngsters as well as other golfers not in the program.  Three holes to get the beginners started in the game is all it takes. This facility and a commitment by a host of teachers and volunteers to help these youngsters learn the Core Values of the program has been, in the vernacular, very successful at getting IT gotten.

At Pebble Beach last Wednesday night, all the kids and most of us pros got together to have dinner and to hear a variety of people talk about each of the nine Core Values. I had the honor to speak of the core value Honesty, which gave me the opportunity to ask the room a question, "Raise your hand if you know the difference between right and wrong.” Of course all of us raised our hands. I followed by speaking to the fundamental truth about honesty, and that it makes one's life a lot simpler. Not having to remember the story you made up to your parents or having to live with yourself after not taking the penalty shot when you accidentally moved your golf ball which no one but you saw happen. The cover up is a lot worse than the truth...even though the truth hurts at times. Other fine speakers described the other eight Core Values with great passion. Many of the adults who attended this event, both sponsors and parents, said this was the pinnacle of the week for them...and I agree.

It was at this First Tee dinner that I first met MarTavious Adams. With a firm handshake and a broad smile he introduced himself to me, immediately confirming to me that the program was working. Confidence and Respect showed through his smile and manners. I couldn't wait to see how he handled the pressure of the tournament with me as his partner...and he certainly showed me!

We started play at Del Monte Golf Course, the easier of the two courses, and he proved right away he could play. I didn't score very well (a 73) but with his good play we managed a 68 as a team. On the par 5 ninth he hit it past me by 30 yards after I hit a good drive...ahhh, youth!

Round 2 was the cut round: the Pro/Junior teams were reduced to the low 22 teams.  We had to shoot a good score to play together on Sunday, and we did as we shot a 66 on the tougher course, Pebble, to make the cut by one.

Then came Sunday and the young man showed what he was made of. He started with a six foot birdie at the first, followed by a great chip-in for birdie at the third. Then came the fourth, the shortest hole at Pebble, but one full of hazards both right and left. After getting a great break with a poor tee shot which headed right toward the OB and Pacific Ocean, his ball flew through and over some trees and ended up in the rough some 180 yards short of the smallest of all the greens at Pebble. To hit his ball onto this uphill green would be a monumental task even for the likes of a Phil Mickelson. I would have had to hit my absolute best shot to get it on the green. I intently watched as he made a great swing with a long iron, the ball launched powerfully in the air. As it landed on the green stopping some 45 feet above the hole, right next to where I hit my gap wedge, I thought to myself he had just hit his career shot. Even after that great shot he faced a lightning fast downhill putt which he knocked it in with perfect speed as I struggled to two putt for my par. This was one of the greatest birdies I have ever witnessed as I told him he had to be the first person ever to make a birdie from where his tee ball ended up.

MarTavious (or Magic as his friends call him) wasn't done yet. He holed a 30-footer for birdie on the short par 3 seventh to make it four birdies in the first seven holes! He added another chip-in par on the sixteenth and we finished with a 66 to end up in the top 10 -- and a great finish to an inspiring week.

Now, for the rest of the story...the most important part.

MarTavious lives in Atlanta with his mother, Latoisha, and younger brother, Kiante, near East Lake CC. He goes to school at Decatur High where he is a junior. Being short on means, four years ago his mother was reluctant to have him enroll in East Lake's First Tee program, but MarTavious persisted.  His mother finally allowed him to join the program, showing he already had Perseverance.

East Lake CC is known for both its most distinguished member, the great Bobby Jones, and as the venue of the PGA Tour Championship.  Bobby played countless rounds there, and as the story goes, sadly Bobby retired there one day after hitting a very poor drive -- which led him to discover he had an incurable neurological disease, which eventually cost him his life.

But what East Lake is recently known for is Tom Cousins and his far reaching vision which has turned into reality for this community.  Mr. Cousins efforts at revitalizing the community with jobs, schools and The First Tee program are the reason MarTavious and many more youngsters like him are getting the right start in life. Now there is a choice where there was none before...a chance for the young people to learn about a better way of living their lives.  The plan is coming together. Mr. Cousins plan is succeeding. And the community is getting IT.

Thanks Mr. Cousins and The First Tee, for giving MarTavious, his brothers and sisters, and their community a hand up.

And thanks Magic for showing me a shot of a lifetime.

Dustin, Jackie, and The First Tee

August 24th, 2010 | golfing

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of listening to two young First Tee participants speak in front of an adult group of First Tee supporters here in Kansas City. They spoke of who they were and how The First Tee has positively affected their lives. For those who are unfamiliar with The First Tee, it is an organization which introduces youngsters to golf and to the ‘Nine Core Values’ associated with the game, which not so incidentally are the tenets of living a wholesome life. Values such as Integrity, Sportsmanship, Respect, and Honesty are routinely used in teaching the game to some 2500 young people in our community's program, run by a wonderfully committed man, Pat Zuk.

After listening to Sierra and Jimmy speak, it was my turn to address our program's supporters.  I spoke to the core value of doing the right thing even when you are negatively affected by it...which brought me to Dustin Johnson's rules violation on the final hole during this year's PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, a beautifully sculpted test of golf by the infamous designer/architect Pete Dye. I think it one of the most beautiful golf courses I have ever had the pleasure to play, with over 1000 bunkers to both frame the exquisite views of Lake Michigan and put the golfer in deep trouble if he or she strays off line just a little bit.

With over a thousand bunkers, the PGA decided that even if the bunkers were walked through by the gallery or driven through by carts, they would still be considered a normal bunker or "hazard," which has the rules restriction that the golfer may not touch the sand behind the ball with the clubhead before the ball is hit. This restriction applies to a water hazard as well...you can't touch the ground or water inside the marked water hazard with your clubhead as you address the ball. This is called "grounding" of the club in the USGA's rule book.

On the last hole of the tournament, barring a playoff, Dustin sprayed his drive off line into a patch of sand where the gallery had obviously been walking. When he played his shot, he "grounded" or touched the sand with his club at address before he hit the shot, which according to the posted rules in the locker room, first tee, and written on the "Local Rules" sheet given to the golfer before he teed off in the first round, explicitly said that ALL the sand bunkers or sandy areas on the golf course were considered "hazards" and so "grounding" the clubhead was not allowed.

When a rules official confronted Dustin with this rules violation, he was obviously disappointed but understood he committed a rules infraction and took it like a man, saying he hadn't read the rules and it was his fault for the violation. I truly believe that after losing the final round lead at this year's US Open and now PGA setback, he will be better off, as these defeats will steel his resolve. Time will tell but expect to see and hear a lot more of Dustin in the future. He will win majors.

Coincidentally I have made the same mistake Dustin made. I venture to guess every pro golfer has made some sort of rules mistake costing him or her shots and a smaller paycheck.

Playing the second round of the 2009 Masters on the famous dogleg left par 5 13th, I spun my third shot off the front of the green into the long (for Augusta!), but manicured grass rough just over the creek. I proceeded to hit a great lofted shot to within inches for an easy par...or so I thought until a rules official called my attention to the fact that I hit the shot from within the water hazard. I had taken my normal two practice swings and hit the turf each time, "grounding" my clubhead inside the hazard....a forgetful and costly mistake as I had to add the penalty of two more shots to my 5 for an ugly 7. I missed the 36 hole cut by more than two shots so it wasn't nearly as costly as Dustin's error in this year's PGA, but still I had to own up to my own stupidity...I knew better... but wasn't thinking.

Golf's most heartbreaking rules violation occurred during the final round of the 1957 US Women's Open at the always tough Winged Foot in New York. The great Hawaiian Jackie Pung won the tournament by one shot over Betsy Rawls, but was disqualified for signing an incorrect score card.

Golf's rules say the golfer must confirm each individual hole's correct score for the round on a scorecard kept by the other golfer. Both she and Betty Jameson, who kept Jackie's score, recorded 5's on the fourth hole when they both actually scored 6's. Even though they both recorded their proper total scores for the 18 holes, both were disqualified. It was the most profound loss for Jackie, as I always felt so bad for her anytime I had the pleasure to be in her company...to have won the most important tournament in golf and have it taken away by a seemingly insignificant rule of golf.

But this heartbreaking story is a good lesson for us all. Golf, like life, isn't a fair game. The First Tee is out there on playgrounds, in schools, and on golf courses all over the world teaching kids about golf and life. Support them if you can...it will pay big rewards for our kid's future...and teach them a game for a lifetime.

Summertime Thoughts (The Opens, Dustin Johnson, and the Grail)

August 17th, 2010 | golfing

The travels of summer have been quite concentrated to say the least. After (most likely) my final and emotional appearance in the US Open at Pebble Beach, with my son Michael on my bag, I took a few weeks off to prepare for a whirlwind schedule.  This schedule located me in London, St. Andrews, Carnoustie, and Seattle in four successive weeks. The first week was spent promoting my twin instructional DVD set, “Lessons of a Lifetime”, with a series of press interviews and a short game clinic. Then on to compete in three major championships in a row. These last few weeks since I have returned to Kansas City have been a blessing, as I have been able to relax with Hilary and the family, as well as get some chores done on the farm. I also have been able to test out some new putters and found a flaw in my golf swing which had dulled my game during this stretch.

The first of the three majors was played at the home of golf, St. Andrews Golf Links, probably the most famous golf course in the entire world, as it is one of the oldest. This year marked the 150th year of the Open Championship, and it provided a surprise winner, Louis Oosthuizen, who really impressed me first with his flawless golf swing but, more importantly, with his unflappable demeanor in the final round winning the tournament like Secretariat won the Triple Crown. His eyes never gave the impression of the nerves he had to have been experiencing leading by four shots going into the final round. No, he was calm and collected while his competitors showed their nerves in the tough windy conditions.

I missed the cut but late on Friday (because of a long stoppage of play because of gale force winds) I experienced one of my life's moments-to-remember, as I stopped on the Swilken Bridge at the final hole to take my final bow on the Auld Course playing in the Open. (It wasn't my final Open, as some thought, just my final Open at St. Andrews.  I will play the Open again with the R&A's new exemption for old Champions like me who chanced to play well in the Open in later years.)

As I teed off the final hole the sun was setting, creating a beautiful azure/orange sky behind the lighted R&A clubhouse. To the right of the 18th fairway people were lining the town's road, just out of bounds. As I stopped by the bridge, I bent down and gave it a kiss to say goodbye, then stood on it as the photographers took their shots of this long-in-the-tooth former Open Champion who has been blessed by the good fortune of winning what I deem the true "World Open”.

I finished with a birdie which reminded me of playing with my long time friend and competitor, Jack Nicklaus, in his final Open appearance at St. Andrews where he twice won (1970, 1978). He did what everyone hoped he would do (but I fully expected him to), birdie his last hole in an Open. So typical of Jack...he holed a downhill twenty-foot left-to-right breaker. Jack, more than any pro I ever knew, could birdie the 18th hole on any course in any tournament.

With this thought in mind, I set my goal of tying Jack's birdie which I accomplished with a 40 yard pitch shot over the Valley of Sin to within a few inches of the hole. Even though I missed the cut, and with sadness knowing I won't be back at St. Andrews playing in an Open, I left with the satisfaction that I managed to leave on high note.

After the next two majors, The Senior British Open at Carnoustie, and the Senior US Open at Sahalee, I have taken a couple of weeks off to get back to working on both my game and the farm.  Amazing how grass continues to grow even when being baked in the 100-degree-oven-like heat. The horses are the real stalwarts!

The summer heat is now breaking as we are beginning to see the advent of fall, my favorite season of the four.  The smells of walnut, the air freshening, along with the color transformations all beckon me outdoors to walk the hedgerows or sit in a tree stand or duck blind. The fall ....when Mother Nature prepares for her long winter sleep.

As I write this, I am now traveling to Oregon to play in The Tradition, reading the papers about Dustin Johnson's rule infraction at the PGA thinking I have done the same type of thing. At the Masters last year, I hit my third shot on the par 5 13th short on the upslope in the long grass just in front of the green. I took a couple of practice swings hitting the ground, before I hit a really fine shot to within inches for my par...or so I thought. As I was walking off the green a rules official was walking towards me and I knew something was amiss. He stopped and asked me if I knew I was in the hazard in front of the green and immediately I knew I had broken the rule (hitting the ground with my practice swings) that says you can't "ground" your club in a hazard...this means water hazards and bunkers. It just simply didn't dawn on me that I was in a hazard. Dustin did the same thing albeit he was not in a formal bunker with rakes aside. This is where it seems wrong to a lot people. But in fairness to the tournament and the rules officials, there were signs all over the place stating that the sandy areas were ALL considered bunkers. Thus the two shot penalty on him, like I incurred on the 13th last year, prevented him from possibly winning his first major championship.

Raw deal or "rub of the green"...this will be debated for a long time. As Bobby Jones declared, "Golf was not meant to be a fair game.”

As I play The Tradition at Crosswater in Central Oregon this week and visit one of my favorite places in the entire world, Crater Lake, I will be reminded that indeed life is like a beautiful gem, but with unseen flaws. The lake's exquisite blue waters hide an airplane which met its end there in its deep abyss many years ago.

Golf mirrors life in that its perfection is impossible to achieve. I have been lucky to be close enough to smell it, but never close enough to touch it. Its nature is to let you get ever so close, but never hold on to it. We ALWAYS could have saved a stroke here or there, couldn't we? Its bad bounces and seemingly unfair rules all contribute to its lure. Why is this? An unfair game, never to be mastered? As my good friend, Sandy Tatum described his lifelong love affair with the game of golf, we are all searching for the Grail.

 This explains the unexplainable best.

Memories of Links Golf from St. Andrews

July 11th, 2010 | golfing

St Andrews, Scotland:  I arrived yesterday from the blistering London heat to the cool, misty coastline of St. Andrews (where the Open Championship will be played this week).  The winds are calm by comparison to the ominous gray skies.  Having arranged a game with several close friends at the wonderful Kyle Phillips creation - Kings Barnes - I was looking forward to both my play and their thoughts about their first experience of playing links golf.  I still vividly remember mine when I arrived at Carnoustie to play in the 1975 Open Championship, just four years into my professional career.

That first ‘linksland’ experience was not actually at Carnoustie, but at a neighboring course, Monifieth Golf Club, as John Mahaffey, Hubert Green (my housemates that week) and I discovered we couldn't play the Championship course the day we arrived as it was reserved for the qualifiers only, not the exempt players, namely us.  We took it in stride and proceeded to Monifieth GC, arranged for some caddies and walked to the first tee.  Looking for the first fairway over the sea of dusty brown moguls, I asked my caddy for some direction.  He gave me the line of play, and I succeeded to hit my first ever links course tee shot right where he directed.  We found John and Hubert's drives easily, but after looking for my ball for quite a while, very puzzled, we abandoned it for lost and just played another from the middle of the fairway where I thought it should have ended up.  Not wanting to give it up for lost, I made one last attempt to find my ball and there it was -- 60 yards left on a 45 degree angle from where it had landed in the fairway, hidden in a small pot bunker.

THIS was my very first impression of links golf...and understandably it didn't sit too well with me...hitting a shot exactly where it was supposed to be hit and having it end up dead.

This is what I thought of links golf for the next few years: that it was grossly unfair.  I didn't like the fact you couldn't easily control the ball's quirky bounces or how far it rolled out.  I grew up with the softer and flatter American golf courses where one could quickly stop the ball and thus control its distance and direction.  Links golf was anything but this...the ball sometimes rolling well over a hundred yards...and in awkward directions.  I thought this way even as I won two Open championships - that very first year at Carnoustie and again in 1977 at Turnberry.

Then at Lytham St. Annes in 1979 after a particularly struggling first round, complaining to myself about the unfairness of the course, I finally came to realize that if I continued with this mindset concerning the nature of links golf, I would live a very unhappy life on these courses. So I consciously changed my attitude during the second round.  Rather than fight it or complain about it, I thought to myself, “Understand the uncertain outcome of a shot is an integral part of links golf...ACCEPT IT and carry on!”  It was then and there I rekindled the golfing memories of my childhood and the true nature of how I had to play the game when I hit the ball so short.  Back then, I could only run the ball onto all the greens. This is essentially the way you have to play links golf.... running the ball and taking your chances on the bounce. In the truest of senses, I had come full circle in my golfing life on that day at Lytham St. Annes.

Playing Kings Barnes with its butte-like dunes and its large contoured greens yesterday was again a real pleasure.  Kings Barnes is probably the most visually pleasing of any links course in the UK, as almost every hole has a view of the sea.  Yesterday was a day one thinks of when playing golf on the links, as a light rain and decent wind on the outgoing nine provided a rude awakening to the travelers who had arrived on their overnight flight that morning from the U.S. tired and stiff.  Thanks to some great caddies, we survived the course with few lost balls, as the course won the battle early as we all struggled with its variety of challenges, not the least of which was the rain.  The rain stopped and the winds calmed for our incoming nine as the travels had tired our bodies but not our spirits, the course remaining steadfast in its test and easily remaining the victor.

On the 18th, a difficult hole played over a treacherous deep burn, the joy of finishing was obvious for the depleted travelers as they all had been thoroughly humbled by the links and its weather. After a good meal at the local pub and some well deserved sleep this morning they all were ready to do battle with the links again, forgetting how humbled they were yesterday.  They will eventually get it.  It won't take them long, I sense.

And today the winds blow here at St. Andrews, possibly the precursor of a difficult week at the most historically significant place in golf, as I again will go out to ACCEPT what the Old Course has to offer with its bounces, wind, and huge greens, expecting the unexpected and the struggles and I hope small victories which go with its timeless challenge.