The Big Four

July 29, 2012

Just an interesting topic to ponder amongst our readership.

Last week, the big easy earned his second British Open title, taking home the Claret jug. This marks Ernie’s fourth major. While many are lauding his performance–and feeling quite sorry for one Adam Scott–I took a moment to pause and remember the time when golf seemed more exciting than any, and, looking back, what that time in history has led to.

When was it we started calling them “The Big Four?” 2004? 2005? To think it’s been 7 or 8 years since that time frame makes it seem like we’re getting old. Nonetheless, in the historic career of one Tiger Woods, the period of “The Big Four” was one of probably his greatest areas of achievement.

Colloquially, The Big Four meant Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, and Vijay Singh, who typically were consistent contenders and always ranked in the top 6 or 7 in the world rankings. Their attendance at tournaments drove the public eye, and sponsorship money for the Tour site of the week rose and fell with their decisions to compete or not. These men are, by and large, the reason that PGA Tour prize money is now consistently over $1MM per tournament for the winner, with each tournament seeking to draw the best in the world.

In May, the Devil Ball Golf Blog (http://sports.yahoo.com/golf/blog/devil_ball_golf/post/The-Big-Four-is-now-down-to-the-Big-One-?urn=golf,241789) opined that Mickelson was the only of The Big Four to currently be in contention. I guess things change. Tiger has held at least a share of the lead in each major since, and Ernie Els…well…won the Open.

When we were in the heat of The Big Four, however, it felt like a “Big One”–with Tiger Woods essentially dominating. Even though Phil, Ernie, and Vijay all placed well, the consistent performer was Tiger Woods. He won two majors in 05, two in 06, one in 07, and one in 08. Mickelson broke through for a major in each of 04, 05, and 06, but nothing compared to Tiger’s dominance. Els and Vijay…well…Vijay won the 2004 PGA but seemed to never really hold on to his putting.

What’s interesting to review, though, is what’s happened since. When you look at the numbers, Tiger Woods won 6 majors during that time period and 14 overall. But Phil added another major. So did Els. And when we look back, we see that two of The Big Four have won four majors (Phil and Ernie) while one owns three titles (Vijay). Collectively, these men account for 25 major championships won.

Compare that to the current streak of now 15 majors without a repeat winner (last being Padraig Harrington, 2008 PGA after the 2008 British Open), and it really puts the performance in a span of history. Els’s recent win was the first time in ten majors that the winner was not a first-time major championship.

In other words, what these players did was utterly unbelievable. They dominated the game in a way that we likely will never see again. While it appeared at the time that Tiger was the dominant force (and he probably was), think about what these men achieved. All of them will likely be in the World Golf Hall of Fame as soon as eligible (Phil already is!). And, what’s more amazing–they’re still competing at a high level almost a decade later. While the current state of golf is something to debate, looking back at the history we’ve seen, this just might have been the greatest generation of the game.

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JK: 7/24/2012 at 10:37 AM EST

Alright LG, time to put it out there.

There’s a lot of discussion lately about belly putters. More appropriately, there’s a lot of discussion about what to do about them. After going decades without single mid-length putter or long-putter winnings on Tour, now the belly putter is taking the Tour by storm. Three out of four of the current major champions used belly putters to win (Keegan Bradley, 2011 PGA; Webb Simpson, 2012 US Open; Ernie Els, 2012 British Open). Bubba Watson (2012 Masters) is the only current major champion who did not use a belly putter to win.

So there are many questions to answer here, but to me, the main point boils down to: 1) is it an advantage? if so, 2) what should be done?

Some people are just antithetical to belly putters and long putters in general. While neither you nor I use them–and I personally find them to be a bit distasteful–I do see a need in golf for them. Many amateur-level players need a way to make the game fun. Poor putting can often thwart someone’s progress as a golfer, and a long or belly putter may give them the stability they need to get over the hump. For example, when my wife’s grandfather played, he wasn’t in good enough health to lean over a putt, so he got a long putter and stopped 3-putting EVERY green (he still did 3-5 times per round, but way less than previously).

I think the more important point, though, is that belly and long putters really don’t give a “better” player much of an advantage. No matter the golfer, the person must still read the putt, account for the speed, pick the line, and set up to it properly before any mechanics of the stroke happen. The ability to do this successfully comes after hours and hours of practice that a “good” player will put in regardless of the length of putter he/she uses. To put it another way, the belly putter didn’t read the 35-footer that Keegan Bradley hit on the 17th hole at Atlanta Athletic Club–the player did. The player read it, accounted for the speed, picked the line, and let the put go on that line.

Further, I don’t think a longer putter shaft REALLY makes it all that much more stable for the better golfer. Adam Scott bogeyed the final four holes at Royal Lytham & St. Annes largely because he picked poor targets and failed to execute the mental part of his putting routine, not because he was using a long putter instead of a belly putter.

Webb Simpson’s putter didn’t make Jim Furyk pull his fairway shot in the bunker on 18 at Olympic or make Greame McDowell miss his birdie attempt by a mile and a half. Am I missing something?

Opponents of longer-length putters say it helps stabilize the stroke. That may be true, but at the same point, it prevents someone from using his or her athleticism to correct in small variations, such as when precise speed is needed, or when the player plays from the edge of the green and needs to blade the putt a little bit. I’ve practiced with a belly putter before, and I do see some stability improvement. But the stability improvement is far outweighted by the inability to control the distance, for me at least.

In my view, there is little to no real advantage in belly putters. I see it more as a mental advantage that some people will find helps their own games. Maybe some people will play better with them, but I firmly believe that others (like me) won’t. Just like all of the other equipment tweaks one can make (shaft flex, various grips and sizes, cavities vs. blades, groove changes, ball changes, etc etc etc etc etc), I see the putter shaft length and stroke method as just another option that a player can choose to make his or her game better. That’s what it’s all about, right?

What say you LG?

LG: 7/25/2012

For two reasons, I don’t think long putters should be allowed.

First, we should look to the game itself.  For me, golf is about using using a club to move the ball closer to the hole.  While this might seem to leave some room for a belly putter or long putter, the image just seems to go against what golf is all about.  When I think “golf swing,” I can’t imagine an athletic motion taking place with an anchored club.  No other club is anchored to the body in “golf,” so it makes little sense to allow it for the putter, in my view.  For that reason, I don’t think it should be allowed in competition.

Second,I think there is advantage and long putters should probably not be allowed in competition.  Golf is a mental game.  Putting is the strongest mental test given that it requires the least athleticism.  It takes a lot of skill and nerve to make short putts that matter.  I am inclined to believe that long putters provide a mental crutch to players that use them on those kinds of putts because they have the knowledge that they will make a fluid stroke based upon their equipment, not their practiced routine.  In that way, they provide an advantage (whether real or not).  While you can pretty easily point to Adam Scott’s performance in the 2012 Open Championship to counter this, the point isn’t players with long putters can choke, but rather, he choked DESPITE having that mental advantage.  Read: double choke.  At the highest level in the game, the point is to test your mental fortitude, not your ability to make a 4 footer.  No one in the entire world would (or should) bet against Adam Scott on any given 4 foot putt, but that putt becomes harder when it means you win or lose the title of “Champion Golfer of the Year.”  For a player to have a mental advantage over another based upon the equipment they are playing rather than the time spent on the practice green is what bothers me about the long putter and why I think it should not be allowed in competition.

That being said, I think they can be great learning tools to learn a fluid putting stroke.  Often, players like Ernie will switch back and forth between a standard putter and a long putter to get a feel for a good putting stroke.  I’m all for using them in a practice round.  I’m all for using them on the putting green.  I think you and I agree on the fundamental point; Long putters just aren’t golf.

JK, 7/26:

I agree that long putters and belly putters “just aren’t golf,” but I’m less opposed than you. The entirety of golf is about selecting equipment that maximizes your game. We do it with drivers; we do it with golf balls; heck, we do it with shoes. Every little thing to get an advantage makes sense. Some people had this “ban it” mentality when metal woods came out or when cavity-back irons were developed. Slowly, those things have become part of the fabric of the game to where no one would think of using a non-metal driver and cavity-back irons are almost universal. Even the classic “PING Anser” putter was looked at with shame originally but now is the most ubiquitous design available. While I see your point, I think it’s just part of the natural progression of the game. If you’re wanting to ban something, ban the way Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey swings a golf club. That’s way more offensive than a belly putter.


This post is an introduction to a new series we’ll be offering here on the PF in the coming months: Understanding Putters. Putting is perhaps the most important aspect of the game of golf. It’s where at least 1/3 of your strokes will be played, and it can account for a tremendous success or a horrible failure.

Unfortunately, many classics of golf literature give too scant attention to putting in general. Even the ones that discuss putting fail to discuss how the equipment one might select affects one’s putting performance. Many average golfers are unaware that there are even different types of putting strokes for which different equipment is suggested.

This program will not attempt to teach a putting stroke. Neither LG nor I am qualified to do that. However, we will discuss various theories behind putters, the purpose of different equipment specs, and how the theory integrates with the equipment. Hopefully, with more knowledge, the golfer reading these posts can select the putter that gives him or her the best chance to succeed.

UPDATED 7/23/2012: Way to go Ernie!

I know they call it “The Open Championship,” but we’ve got one of those that’s pretty important too, so I’m going with what they used to call it. I looked back to last year’s predictions (here https://thepowerfade.com/2011/07/18/conversation-british-open-predictions/), and it’s a good thing LG and I have other careers to take besides predicting golf tournaments. Anyway, without further ado:

7/17/2012

JK:
Winner: Phil Mickelson m/c – Ernie Els
Winning Score: -3 -7
Runner Up: Lee Westwood T-45 at +6 – Adam Scott
Low Amateur: Are there really only two amateurs in the field? How about Alan Dunbar i think they both m/c
“Unknown” in the Top 10: Greg Chalmers T-45 – Nicholas Colsaerts was T-7, Alexander Noren was T-9, Thorbjorn Olessen was T-9. Other than that, actually a pretty strong Top 10:
1 Ernie Els -7
2 Adam Scott -6
T3 Tiger Woods -3
T3 Brandt Snedeker -3
T5 Luke Donald -2
T5 Graeme McDowell -2
T7 Thomas Aiken -1
T7 Nicolas Colsaerts -1
T9 Ian Poulter E
T9 Zach Johnson E
T9 Miguel Jimenez E
T9 Mark Calcavecchia E
T9 Matt Kuchar E
T9 Geoff Ogilvy E
T9 Vijay Singh E
T9 Dustin Johnson E
T9 Alexander Noren E
T9 Thorbjorn Olesen E

Last Year’s Winner (Darren Clarke) Will … (Win, Top10, Make the Cut, or Miss the Cut): Drink a lot of beer on Saturday and Sunday. M/c yah
The Master’s Winner (Bubba) Will …: wear pink socks on the plane home. M/c was in it for awhile; T-23
The US Open Winner (Webb) Will …: Stay home with his wife and potential new baby. Congrats Webb
The current PGA Champion (Keegan Bradley) will …: miss the cut. still learning how to do this thing T-34
How many prior winners will be in the Top 10: 3 YES! Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, and Marc Calcavecchia
Will someone win it, or will everyone else lose it? Someone will win it. Sans Carnoustie, the British Open is usually won by the most composed player. Els won it, but Scott defintely lost it as well
What will be the biggest story of the tournament? Phil finally comes through at the British fail
Who is most likely to “Tom Watson At Turnberry” it? Tiger he kind of did, but it was clearly Adam Scott who choked it
Will you watch on Sunday? Probably about half of it yep
Jason Dufner will: Top 10 T-31
Tiger Woods will: Top 10 Correct, T-3
Rory McIlroy will: Make the cut Correct, T-60
Zach Johnson will: Make the cut (no hating, LG) Top 10, T-9
Steve Stricker will: miss the cut T-23. Stricker played pretty well considering
Dustin Johnson will: he’s actually playing? make the cut Top 10, T-9. Good job freak of nature

LG:
Winner: TW T-3
Winning Score: -3 -7
Runner Up: Justin Rose M/c
Low Amateur: Are there really only two amateurs in the field? The one JK didn’t pick. both m/c
“Unknown” in the Top 10: Does Kevin Na count?  If not, let’s go with Sam Walker. First, you know Kevin Na doesn’t count. Second, he shot 73-77 to m/c. Finally, Sam Walker shot 76-70 to m/c
Last Year’s Winner (Darren Clarke) Will … (Win, Top10, Make the Cut, or Miss the Cut): MC sorry Clarkie
The Master’s Winner (Bubba) Will …: MC T-23
The US Open Winner (Webb) Will …: MC If by “MC” you mean “not show up because he was home with his wife waiting on their new baby to arrive,” you’d be correct, but I suspect that is not the case.
The current PGA Champion (Keegan Bradley) will …: Make the cut T-34
How many prior winners will be in the Top 10: 2 3
Will someone win it, or will everyone else lose it? Hard to say – depends on the weather.  Let’s go with Tiger wins it. Tiger won nothing
What will be the biggest story of the tournament? Tiger’s 15th. do you just copy/paste this from one prediction to another?
Who is most likely to “Tom Watson At Turnberry” it? Lee Westwood. Go read a book, guy. I wish it were Westwood.
Will you watch on Sunday? Yes.  Live? no. did you?
Jason Dufner will: Make Cut T-31
Tiger Woods will: Win T-3
Rory McIlroy will: Top 10. T-60
Zach Johnson will: MC Top 10, T-9
Steve Stricker will: MC (sorry, Steve) T-23 (sorry, LG
Dustin Johnson will: Top 5. Top 5 isn’t a choice. He was close though. T-9

Play of the Week 36

July 13, 2012

This week’s POTW is the John Deere. Normally, we wouldn’t be worried about a “grade B” tournament, but watching the coverage of the first two rounds, I’m brought back to my childhood.

But, not by the John Deere itself–by the players.

When I was young, I was a nerd. Being a nerd, I played golf as a kid (before Tiger Woods–I got cool really fast when he jumped on the scene). I enjoyed watching the tournaments. My favorite player at the time–Nick Price–was doing a great job cleaning up majors and dominating the tour with his Ram Zebra and Goldwin AVDP. Davis Love III was in his prime, and “the greatest player never to win a major.” Phil Mickelson was young…and skinny. Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book was the best seller for golf instruction.

I thought it was odd when I saw some Tour Balata and Professional 90 golf balls on sale earlier this week. But theres something to this nostalgia thing. It helps remind you of your past and gives you a flashback to some great memories. I remember the first time I hit a Tour Balata….pretty awesome.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only person to buy some of those Professional 90s, because the guys on the leaderboard this week at the John Deere sure are the ones who know to use ’em. Let’s look at it this way: If I told you that Jeff Maggert was T-2 going into the weekend after shooting 68-62, that Lee Janzen was T-7 at -10, and that Steve Stricker was going for his 4th win, your first reaction would probably be “where’s Greg Norman on the leaderboard” followed by “hey, did you hear what the president said at the deposition? ‘It depends on what the meaning of the words “is” is.'” Yet that’s the leaderboard at the John Deere classic this year.

Alas, it IS 2012. Davis Love III is all but forgotten on the PGA Tour. Nick Price is on the “Champions Tour” (back when I was growing up, we called it the Senior Tour). Phil Mickelson turned out to be every bit the player everyone thought he would be and more so the eater that no one thought he would be. Goldwin and Ram are no longer companies. And if you ask a playing competitor for his “little red book,” you better be ready for some funny looks and a quiet rest of the round. Still, I love when the Tour shows up at an “easy” course, and the old-timers (short hitters) come out and show these young kids how it’s done. Even Stewart Appleby has shown up at T-23, -7.

I’m sure some of the younger kids in their Puma Monolines and Cobra Amp driver are probably thinking “what is this guy talking about?” The golfers of today just are missing something. I won’t say class, but there’s a way the game used to be played that just doesn’t exist anymore. It’s nice to see a flashback of some of these guys–I wish them all the best.

Thanks, guys, for the trip down memory lane. Now go out there and show the young guns how it’s done.

Last week, JK and I had a talk about possible ways to help me improve my ability to hit greens in regulation.  At that time, I was hitting my irons crisply and to consistent distances, but was still having problems controlling trajectory.  This resulted in a lot of greens missed but with the ball pin high a few yards off-line.  My problem was becoming more pronounced in the windy conditions I typically face in Northern California.  After shooting a career round the previous Saturday, I sat down and evaluated my round.  Of the 8 greens I missed, 5 were missed left, two long, and two short.  The three misses to the right were with wedges, or were from the left rough.  My miss, clearly, is left.  On windy days, the little draw I have become accustomed turns into something between a hook and a duck hook.

JK suggested that, because my ballstriking with my short clubs needs to improve if I hope to keep shooting in the 70’s, I should take my clubs and have the lie angles checked.  For a little background, the lie angle is the angle formed between the ground and the club shaft when the club is properly soled:

Like most things in golf, a small change in equipment specifications can result in significant changes in shot shape and distance.  For example, changing a driver’s loft from 9.5 degrees to 10.5 degrees can significantly raise trajectory, increase carry, and decrease roll-out for a given player.  The total distance change may not be significant, but it may improve the golfer’s chances of clearing that forced carry their 9.5 degree driver was not making.  The changes to shot shape caused by flaws in lie angle are even more pronounced:

As shown, if the club is too “upright,” that is, the lie angle is such that the toe of the club is raised relative to the heel, the player will tend to miss left (left side of image).  This makes sense because if the heel of the club is lower than the toe, it will make contact with the ground before the toe, causing the head to close through impact.  If the club is too “flat,” that is, the heel of the club is raised relative to the toe, the player will tend to miss right (right side of image).  This also makes sense because if the toe makes contact with the ground before the heel, it will tend to be dragged behind the heel and push the ball to the right.  When the club is properly soled, it gives the golfer the best chance for making solid contact and hitting a straight shot.  Small differences can be huge.  For some reference, the total amount of variation in lie angle for any clubs is about 4 degrees flat to 4 degrees upright.

With all of this knowledge in mind, I decided to get the lie angles checked on my irons by a competent professional.  My first stop was a big box store in San Jose.  As is custom for fittings in such a store, the bottom of my club was taped up with tape that shows where contact was made with the ground.  A plastic lie board was setup with a ball, and I hit a series of shots to determine what part of the club was making contact with the ground.  So far, so good.  Once we had determined that the lie angles on my clubs were too upright for me, the “clubmaker” at this store took one look at the results from one club and said all of my clubs needed to be bent “at least one degree.”   The big box store also wanted to charge me $5.99 per club to have them bent.  I’d need to leave my clubs with them for a week as well to have this process performed.  If the clubs were not right when I got them back, I’d have to tell them what adjustment was necessary and wait another week.  Thanks, guys, but I’ll go somewhere else.

Enter Brian Razzari.  I called the Brad Lozares Golf Shop at the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course on my way home from San Jose.  I should have called here first because I was looking for someone that actually knew what he or she was doing.  Upon answering, Brian was completely accommodating of my ridiculous request to come in within the next 30 minutes to have a lie fitting performed.  He quoted me the very reasonable price of $50 to have the lie angles on each and every one of my irons and wedges (10 clubs total) adjusted based on a dynamic fitting he would perform at the driving range.  He would watch me hit a few shots, take the club, bend it, and watch me hit more shots to determine the correct lie angle for each club.   This is tour-level fitting, people.  Brian also checked the lofts on each of my irons to make sure they were consistent.  I also learned that Brian is a certified Titleist club fitter.  He knows my AP2s better than most in the Bay Area.  After about 45 minutes of hitting balls and bending clubs, Brian informed me that he bent my irons 2 degrees flat, wedges 1 degree flat, and did not adjust my 60* wedge at all because the sole already showed that it was at the correct lie angle for my swing.

I am not sure I can say enough good things about the experience with Brian, but if you are interested in making your game better, I highly recommend getting your clubs fitted to your swing so that you don’t start making compensations in your swing to make up for an incorrect lie angle.  If you are in the Bay Area, I highly recommend a trip to Palo Alto Muni to visit Brian Razzari if you want a tour-level fitting experience for a reasonable price.

Palo Alto Muni: http://www.bradlozaresgolfshop.com/ or call 650-856-0881 and ask for Brian.