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Welsh golf exceeds the hype, in unexpected ways
The 11th at Royal St. David's (photo courtesy of Brandon Tucker/WorldGolf.com)

Welsh golf exceeds the hype, in unexpected ways

Royal St. David’s Golf Club and its singular Welsh backdrop, Harlech Castle

 

The British Open is nearly underway, and naturally there are myriad reasons to visit the U.K. with your golf clubs and, well, none of them have much to do with the British Open or any of the courses that host the Open Championship. Look at Wales, which is right next door to Birkdale (to all of England, to be honest) and the Open has never been held there. Yet the golf up and down the northwestern Welsh coast is outstanding. What’s more, when you venture into this section of the British Isles, you enter a region so remote, so removed from modern resort and tournament conventions, that a golf journey there feels almost, well… Arthurian.

Indeed, a hefty chunk of the King Arthur legend is Welsh, drawn from early poetic sources such as Y Gododdin that are, like the Welsh language itself, pre-Christian. The Druids, the priestly class of the class, considered the Welsh island of Anglesey sacred, and this ancient, mystical feeling still pervades the country’s dark hollows, its untamed coastline, even its trees (The Celts thought them sacred, you know).

Here’s an example of how this world and the modern golfing world can interact:

About 15 years ago my girlfriend, Sharon, who would later become my wife, and I went to visit friends in Market Drayton, Shropshire, just over the Welsh border, in England, and not far from Birmingham. In fact, I was there on assignment, writing a travel piece re. where to play in the Midlands while attending the 1995 Ryder Cup (and we can see what sort of promotional effect that story had; when was the last time you heard of anyone visiting Edgbaston, Beau Desert or Hawkstone Park?).

Anyway, we decided to head west a couple hours, over the Welsh border to seaside Harlech, home to Royal St. David’s Golf Club. I had written a letter to the club secretary requesting the courtesy of the club (remember letters?), and he had kindly obliged. Still, we arrived in coat and tie, ready for an audience and perhaps a drink in the bar before teeing off.

Now, Sharon was a pretty rank novice at this stage. She had her own clubs and arrived at the club looking pretty darned smart in a turtleneck and one of my vintage sport jackets with the sleeves rolled up (remember the ‘90s?). Still, the club secretary was dubious. I don’t know whether he suspected her inexperience (none of us had handicap cards), or he was merely a mild sexist when it came to sheilas playing the course. Whatever the case, he followed us to the first tee to witness our inaugural drives. I’m not sure who was made more nervous by this, Sharon or myself, but she drilled one right down the middle about 230 yards and off we went. Come to think of it, that may have been the day I decided she was the one…

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The 1931 U.S. Open: Golf’s very own Bataan Death March

George von Elm (left) and Billy Burke, combatants in the longest U.S. Open every contested..

The next time you play a round of golf in some modicum of heat and humidity, the next time you trudge up the 18th fairway and feel a bit of lactic acid building up in your thighs, spare a thought for Billy Burke and George Von Elm. These were the unflinching principals in the most extraordinary physical and competitive test golf has ever seen: the 1931 U.S. Open, held some 86 Julys ago at The Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio.  As the central characters in what Grantland Rice called “the most sensational open ever played in the 500-year history of golf,” Burke and Von Elm required 144 holes of medal play to produce a winner: Burke, by a single stroke.

Take a moment to think about the parameters here: 72 holes contested over the first three days, followed by 36 playoff holes on Monday and 36 more on Tuesday. Waged in the midst of a stifling, July heat wave — in an era devoid of fitness trailers, cushioned in-soles, and air-conditioned clubhouses — this match was golf’s precursor to the Bataan Death March. It was and remains, needless to say, the longest playoff in U.S Open history. Supreme Court cases have taken less time to adjudicate.

Or so it appeared during the morning round on Tuesday, July 6, 1931, as Burke and Von Elm — with 126 holes behind them and 18 still to negotiate — staggered off the 18th green toward the clubhouse for lunch. Even the most callow observer could see the quality of play eroding, quite understandably, under the enormous dual burdens of fatigue and Open-playoff pressure.

Yet Burke rallied to play his finest golf of the tournament over the final 18 holes. Von Elm, too, rose to the occasion and finished a single shot in arrears.

“I looked for a rather ghastly finish to a grand struggle,” wrote O.B. Keeler in The American Golfer. “Instead it was, and ever shall remain in my mind, the most remarkable exhibition of recovered stamina and poise and of sheer staying power and determination I have ever witnessed.”

Legend says that Von Elm, a lithe figure with little to lose, shed nine pounds during the championship, while the stocky Burke managed to gain two. “A circumstance,” Keeler mused, “which, if accurate, gives rise to wonder as to his diet.”

Read on to sort through, with me, the fascinating details of this extraordinary championship, staged 80-plus years ago this summer by two fascinating figures whose stories have been obscured by time, during a period when American golf was wildly popular but still adjusting to the loss of its first truly dominant figure.

•••

The 1931 Open was the first since 1920 without one Bobby Jones in the field.

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Coats, Ties and Foursomes: Collegiate Golf in the UK

Coats, Ties and Foursomes: Collegiate Golf in the UK

For all the trans-Atlantic DNA we share with our British golfing brethren, it’s easy and, I daresay, somewhat natural to assume that college golf here in the U.S. is pretty much the same as it is over there. Not so.

Top players from the U.K. (and mainland Europe) routinely travel stateside hone their games at American colleges and universities. Indeed, many of these men, women and their games will be on display later this month (May 19-31) at Rich Harvest GC, site of the 2017 NCAA Championships. But why do they make this trip in such appreciable numbers?

Because collegiate golf in the U.K. — like all college sports there — is decidedly low-key, even compared to the low-stakes Division III golf I played at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., during the early 1980s.

Yet, for my money, one can place collegiate golf alongside beer and period cinema as something the Brits still do better, with more nuance and panache, than we do. Yes, our universities turn out more tour professionals, but for the majority of college golfers, in both countries, that’s not the aim. It’s about competition and its sensible integration with the game’s social niceties — and no one does that better than the British upper crust, whose ethos dominated my university golfing experience abroad. Coats and ties, foursomes in the morning, singles in the afternoon, and no less than two proper English piss-ups sandwiched between them. You can have your vans, your matching shirts and golf bags. To Yanks, collegiate golf in the U.K. may look and feel more like a club sport, but having played both sides of this fence, I’ll go with the Pommies.

At mighty Wesleyan, a perennial golfing doormat, the exercise we underwent during the ‘80s remains recognizable: Throw on a pair of khakis and a golf shirt; pile into a van and meet a different college team, or two, at the course venue; play 18 holes of medal (maybe match play, on that very rare occasion); shake hands, tally up the scores, pile back into the van and drive home to campus. Big-time Division I golf schools don’t play many dual or tri-matches like these any more, I understand. More often they play various invitational tournaments whereby dozens of schools show up in one place, seven guys from each team play medal, and the best 5 scores count. We did this, too, though only once or twice a season.

Collegiate golf in England during the mid-1980s, when I played for the University of London, was nothing like this. Nothing. For starters, and perhaps most important, we rarely played other schools. Instead, university teams were hosted by golf clubs themselves, which trotted out their best players for a day of intergenerational match play and assorted reverie. Here’s a typical match-day regimen:

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B-listed by the USGA, Riviera Ponders What Might Have Been

B-listed by the USGA, Riviera Ponders What Might Have Been

 

[This piece was first posted in 2011. It seemed a good time to revisit, with the U.S. Open visiting yet another public course this June… hp]

I suppose we should count our blessings that a magnificent course like Riviera — a 1926 George Thomas design firmly ensconced in all the Top 100 lists that matter — still deigns to host PGA Tour events. As recently as 2001, when Riviera hosted the USGA Senior Open, club ownership was hell bent on securing a U.S. Open. There were multiple regrassings of the greens, which had not fared well during the club’s last major championship engagement, the 1995 PGA Championship, where our lasting image is a ground-level view of Steve Elkington’s winning putt bouncing frantically into our living rooms while traversing a hefty portion of Riviera’s pockmarked 18th green before disappearing into the cup. The 2001 Senior Open was to be Riviera’s chance at redemption, a very public audition for club ownership, tournament organizers and the course itself.

Looking back, the greens held up well enough but attendance was poor and it turns out not to have mattered a lick. The intervening years have witnessed a sea change in the USGA’s attitude toward the siting of its marquee event, and Riviera isn’t much discussed at all when future U.S. Open sites are the subject.

Why? Well, the 2002 Open at Bethpage really changed the way the USGA views itself and the national championship. The PR value of holding the tournament on a truly public course proved an undeniable boon to the USGA’s image and coffers. Crowds were huge, TV ratings soared, merchandize sales went nuts, and the USGA found a truly effective way to fight the impression that golf is game played exclusively by rich guys in bad pants. Private clubs weren’t barred going forward, by any means, but look at the list of Open sites played since 2002 and scheduled through 2017:

2017 – Erin Hills Golf Course, Erin, Wis.

2016 – Oakmont Country Club, Oakmont, Pa.

2015 – Chambers Bay, University Place, Wash.

2014 – Pinehurst No. 2, Pinehurst, N.C.

2013 – Merion Golf Club, Ardmore, Pa.

2012 – Olympic Club, San Francisco

2011 – Congressional Country Club, Blue Course, Bethesda, Md.

2010 – Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pebble Beach, Calif.

2009 – Bethpage State Park, Black Course, Farmingdale, N.Y.

2008 – Torrey Pines Golf Course, South Course, La Jolla, Calif.

2007 – Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club

2006 – Winged Foot Golf Club, Mamoroneck, N.Y.

2005 – Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, No. 2 Course, Village of Pinehurst, N.C.

2004 – Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Southampton, N.Y.

2003 – Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club, North Course

2002 – Bethpage State Park, Black Course, Farmingdale, N.Y.

That’s 16 events, fully half staged at courses the public can play. Bear in mind that the USGA, starting in 1895, didn’t hold the Open at public course other than Pebble Beach until it visited another very expensive resort venue, Pinehurst No. 2, in 1999. The chances of a legitimately great but still private club cracking the rota of courses for Open consideration have literally been halved, and a place like Riviera doesn’t have a prayer.

Of course, there are other considerations when choosing Open venues. The USGA likes geographic diversity; it seeks to move the event around (again, to fight the image that the game is run by northeastern elites). It attempted for many years to find a Midwestern venue that would suffice. Medinah and Olympia Fields were found wanting — enter the public Erin Hills, in Wisconsin, scheduled to debut as host in 2017. The same issue applied to west coast venues (which also afford the USGA and NBC the opportunity to televise, very lucratively, weekend rounds in prime time). Pebble Beach is a natural (and technically public) but it’s interested in hosting only once a decade. This was the opening Riviera was hoping to fill, but instead that tryout went to Torrey Pines in San Diego, in 2008. Then it went to Chambers Bay, yet another muni, in Tacoma, Wash.

There are other aspects to the USGA’s formula. Opens require a vast amount of space these days. Note the presence of multi-course public facilities on this list, allowing onsite parking and space for long rows of hospitality tents and merchandise tents worthy of Barnum & Bailey. At Riviera, squeezed onto a superb but tight piece of ground, densely flanked by fancy homes, the window of opportunity appears to have closed for good.

Feeding the Faithful: Golfing the East Coast of Scotland, by Rail
The estimable Balgownie Course at Royal Aberdeen GC

Feeding the Faithful: Golfing the East Coast of Scotland, by Rail

WHEN GOLF was first conceived, participants arrived at the course on foot or horseback, or, if the company was honourable enough, by carriage. For this reason, it remained for centuries a parochial, largely Scottish pursuit. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, all of British culture was transformed by an industrial capacity that, among other things, launched a transportation revolution.

Trains would change golf forever.

In particular, completion of the Forth Rail Bridge, in 1890, widely exposed the bounty of Scottish links courses for the first time — to the rest of Britain and ultimately the world, which still marvels.

The advent of train travel did something else: It spurred the development of “new” Scottish links built specifically to accommodate the rail-enabled.

Golf may not have been formulated with trains in mind, but the idea and practice of “golf by rail” shaped and grew the game during the late 19th century, its first true boom period, an age we now drape with garlands like “ancient”, “timeless” and “classic”. The railway made the game what it was, what it remains in the minds of many. Without this transformation, the romantic golfing vintage we so idealize (the one we still travel to Scotland to find) might never have materialized.

Indeed, the very idea of golf travel was born in this time. By 1890, the railways had cozied up to several superb links in the Scottish lowlands. It only made sense: Rail connected population centers, which lay mainly along the coast, close to sea level where terrain was flattest and bed construction easiest. Just a short walk from these new “centre city” train stations lay the common lands, the links, where, for example, in East Lothian, clubs like North Berwick, Muirfield and Gullane already resided. Today they remain as practical to play by train as they did in the 19th century — which is to say, perfectly practical for golfers with a sense of history and adventure.

The Forth Rail Bridge, the world’s first steel span, made this travel scenario a practical reality in Fife, revealing the birthplace of golf to the game’s myriad new zealots.

“As the train neared St. Andrews and I noted the gradually increasing numbers of the faithful,” wrote A.W. Tillinghast on his first trip to “that Mecca for golfers”, in 1895, “I marveled that the popularity of the ancient game had continued, unabated throughout the centuries.”

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Baronets & Collieries: Encountering Fowler’s Beautiful, Wild Place

Baronets & Collieries: Encountering Fowler’s Beautiful, Wild Place

Herbert Fowler is one of those architects whose name, curiously, isn’t readily attached to the many great golf courses he laid out and/or substantially retooled. Cruden Bay? That’s a Fowler. Royal North Devon? Fowler’s fingerprints can be found all over this west country masterpiece. Indeed, his renovation of the Old Tom Morris original (a.k.a. Westward Ho!) fairly well accounts for the superb course we know today.

This lack of name recognition begins to explain why a venue like Beau Desert Golf Club, which Fowler designed nearly 100 years ago in the Staffordshire hamlet of Hazel Slade for the Sixth Marquess of Anglesey, rings few bells. Yet a better heathland course golfers are unlikely to come across, as indeed many have not.

Herbert Fowler

For his own part, The Marquess (nee Charles Henry Alexander Paget) recognized immediately that Fowler had created something extraordinary on his Beaudesert estate. When the course was completed, in 1913, Paget whisked Fowler off to the family’s “other” ancestral estate at Plas Newydd on the Welsh island of Anglesey. There the architect laid out a second course for the Marquess, Bull Bay Golf Club, another obscure Fowler product you’ve probably never heard of.

The majority of Fowler’s brilliant work was done in his native England, but he did get around. Fowler was the man who transformed a ho-hum par-4 at Pebble Beach into one of golf’s most heroic, par-5 finishing holes. His Cape Cod design at Eastward Ho! (whose peculiar moniker now makes perfect, book-ending sense) is an old-world delight. Fowler also refurbished the ancient Welsh links at Aberdovey where venerated golf writer Bernard Darwin learned the game and played all his life.

Darwin would complete the Fowler circle by eventually visiting Beau Desert’s 160 acres of elevated, exposed ground some 25 miles north of Birmingham. Afterward he asserted that, “Here might be one of the very best of courses, for the turf is excellent and there is a flavour of Gleneagles about it. It stands high and is pleasanter in hot weather than cold, for the wind can blow there with penetrating shrewdness.”

The Ryder Cup may have played nearby at The Belfry; Little Aston may be the region’s most fashionable golfing address. But the finest course in this part of England is Beau Desert. And yes, Herbert Fowler designed it.

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International Olympic Committee Learning the Hard Truths of PGA Tour Attendance

International Olympic Committee Learning the Hard Truths of PGA Tour Attendance

The life of an elite professional golfer is one of great privilege, born of great skill. And now the International Olympic Committee is learning what organizers of PGA Tour events have known for several years: Getting the elite to schedule your event is like trying to lure multi-millionaires to time-share presentations.

The news that Adam Scott won’t be competing in Rio broke just as the Tour’s traveling road show stops this week in Charlotte for the Wells Fargo Championship, a top-tier event not just on account of its huge purse and quality golf course (Quail Hollow GC), but for the way it has traditionally pampered competitors. This aspect of tour life is seldom discussed outside the most wonky, Tour-obsessed websites and cable channels. However, the last decade has witnessed a startling arms race of perks and incentives, all bestowed with an eye toward delivering “name” players to individual PGA Tour events.

It’s a hard trick to turn. As the IOC is now learning, elite professional golfers have no real incentive to show up anywhere outside the Majors and World Golf Championship events, as they set their own schedules and money no longer interests them. Olympic glory? Representing your country? Cementing golf as an Olympic sport after a 112-year hiatus? A familiar 72-hole stroke-play format (as opposed to the team formats first advanced by Olympic organizers)? Today, all are likely to be met with indifferent yawns.

And why wouldn’t they yawn? Top players are so well compensated, the incentive to play 25-30 events per year (thus spreading around to many events the Tour’s considerable star power) has largely been removed. The fallback position for event organizers has been the lavishing of perks and niceties on players and their families.

At The Players Championship, conducted over Pete Dye’s TPC Sawgrass course each May, a purpose-built 77,000-square-foot clubhouse sports a cavernous locker room, a separate champions locker room, and a full-on spa that, during the tournament, dispenses free services (not just massage but manicures, pedicures and hot shaves) to players and their family members. The gourmet vittles served here are also considered the best on Tour.

There was a time when tour events burnished reputations by serving really good milk shakes and providing courtesy cars. Courtesy cars are today de riguer for all players, at every tour stop, but Charlotte takes it up a notch. Each golfer is provided a silver Mercedes-Benz S-300 or S-500 for the week. They are also entitled to police escorts if they happen to encounter something unseemly, like traffic. Free valet parking at Quail Hollow? Of course — even the caddies get that!

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Recalling, Replicating Scenes from the Parking Lot at Ponkapoag
My dad on the 8th green at Nehoiden, right across the street from the house where grew up. It's late November; the greens have been staked for fencing at the first snow. We sprinkled his ashes here, and there's a memorial bench for him just right of this frame, on the 9th tee. There is no headstone in any cemetery for him. This is his spot, for all eternity.

Recalling, Replicating Scenes from the Parking Lot at Ponkapoag

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My dad with his dad, the original Harold Gardner Phillips.

I try to write each August about my dad, Harold Gardner Phillips, Jr., as he passed away (all too soon) at the end of this month back in 2011. This exercise is equal parts homage and memory aid as I suppose one fears these recollections, now perfectly strong, will somehow fade with time. This year the jog happened naturally, as today I stand poised at the fulcrum of a generational see-saw: My son Silas goes off to college tomorrow, and so the memories rush back re. the day my dad saw me off, out of the nest and into the world.

As is the case with so many stories I’ve shared about my dad, golf plays an intersectional role. This one’s even more fitting because it centers on Ponkapoag Golf Course in Canton, Mass., a municipal track we played dozens of times growing up. One used to be able to see it from Route 128, the frenetic inner ring road that circles Greater Boston, though methinks ever-maturing trees now obscure that view. Today there are only 27 holes at “Ponky”, but there used to be 36. The course one used to see from the highway was nothing special. The other 18, however, was a Donald Ross design from the 1930s that, despite the rigors of time, high traffic and miniscule maintenance budgeting remained damned sublime.

My dad and I played Ponky together on a several occasions, but this was mainly a place where he, my mom and various other parental figures dropped my friends and me for an entire day of golfing adventure. It also served as venue to a pair of tournaments: The CYO (that’s “Catholic Youth Organization” for those who may not have grown up in Boston, where the Church held such wide-ranging cultural sway) and the New England Junior Championship.

That day I left for college, a cloudy late August morning in 1982, I was scheduled to play a quarterfinal match at the New England Juniors, as I had qualified earlier that week for what stood to be a potentially anti-climactic match-play portion. I had packed our Dodge Omni that morning with all my stuff. Win or lose, I would decamp for Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., some 100 miles southwest, directly from the golf course.

As it happened, I won the match, bettering a kid from Rhode Island named Fred, 3 & 1. I signed my card, informed a quite delighted Fred that I would be withdrawing, told the officials, and walked off to the parking lot.

There to my surprise I found my dad, who had just rolled up.

My competitive golfing career would never prove particularly extensive. Indeed, this tournament and the New England Juniors the year before were the only two events I had ever played, to that point. Golf was a fall sport at my high school, as was soccer, which took clear precedence. In other words, while my dad had played hundreds of rounds of golf with me over the years, and we maintained a spirited, running match for decades, he had never seen me play a proper tournament match against anyone else.

One time, in college, he showed up at Pleasant Valley Country Club near Worcester to see me play a collegiate match featuring Wesleyan, Springfield College (I think) and Assumption. I know the latter to be true, for certain, because I ended up facing a guy from Assumption that day named Frank Vana, who would go on to win multiple Massachusetts Amateur crowns. My dad worked near PVCC and he showed up on the 9th or 10th hole, at which point my game imploded. He scurried off after we finished 13, not wanting to cause/witness any more carnage.

For many years, I was never sure what exactly he meant to “do” that day — in the parking lot at Ponky. We had said our goodbyes that morning, and it wasn’t as though I was going off to war. But today, I can see he probably wanted one last moment with his boy, who would soon leave and return in some way, shape or form, a man.

I’ve been trying to remember what exactly my dad and I talked about during that moment in the parking lot. I surely went over the match with him, and the curious aspect of my winning but withdrawing. I don’t remember that we got into anything particularly deep. I remember being touched that he had shown up, but there were no tears. I’m pretty sure we shook hands.

See here a relevant excerpt from the eulogy I delivered for him in 2011:

My dad was not a particularly emotive man, not for most of the 40 odd years I had a clear picture of him. I remember one time I came home from college and was determined, in the sure and committed way of college students, to simply start hugging him and telling him that I loved him. I had seen other dads do this and had been impressed — that a father and son could be so open and physical in their affection for one another. I wanted that for my dad and me, to be honest. So I started out with hugs and, well… the man never really got comfortable with it. It just wasn’t his way. I remember telling him during this same period that I loved him, and noting that, to some extent, one is obliged to let people know that this is so, to verbalize it, to say it plain. He said that wasn’t his way, that he instead showed people he loved them. I remember thinking, at the time, that this was something of a cop-out.

But the man knew himself. As I grew older, I better recognized the ways he expressed intimacy and let you know how he felt. There are no rules or universalities for these things, I’ve learned, as I myself have grown as old and, in some ways, as wise as he. The more I observed this, over time, I can report that my dad did practice this sort of behavior consistently, with all sorts of people.

I think one of the keys to understanding and appreciating my dad is this: If he enjoyed something, his greatest joy was to share that enjoyment with you. If there was a piece of music that he found thrilling — and the man enjoyed a notably wide musical taste — he wanted you to listen to it and, ideally, derive the same thrill, too. If there was something he had seen on PBS or C-span, he wanted you to see it, too. If there was food item he had acquired or my mom had made, he wanted you to consume it. Right then. His enthusiasm for this sharing was really quite intimate, almost childlike in its enthusiasm. You might walk into my parents’ home, having not seen him for weeks, and his most deeply held desire was to have you sit down and watch an interview with the historian Gordon Wood, right then, so soon as you put your bag down.

And there was another aspect to this: He wanted you to listen or watch or taste or, to the extent possible, read this stuff WITH you. He wanted to sit right next to you while we watched the Gordon Wood interview, together — so he could pause the recording and discuss it. He wanted you to put the earphones on while he would stand right there beside you, grinning giddily, as you listened to some choral piece by Arvo Part. He would call just to see how far you were in a book he had recommended, to get updates on your progress…

I loved my dad but I, like many sons, have fashioned a great deal of my life in response to his. When Silas heads off tomorrow morning, there will be hugs. There will be tears. That said, I expect that whatever I’m feeling at that moment, is the same thing my dad felt that day, some 32 years ago, in the parking lot at Ponkapoag.

Silas is flying to Montana tomorrow morning, with his mom. I suppose that if I could meet them in Chicago for one last goodbye, I’d do it.

New US Soccer Jersey Fitting — For Quick 18

New US Soccer Jersey Fitting — For Quick 18

US soccer jersey 2014

As there is little media crossover between the golf and soccer worlds, allow me to relate one such news nugget re. the sartorial tempest now brewing over what the U.S. soccer team will be wearing when they take the field at June’s World Cup, in Brazil.

See above. Apparently this is the new U.S. Men’s National Team home jersey for the upcoming tournament, soccer’s quadrennial world championship. Notice anything familiar about it? Yep, it looks remarkably like a golf shirt — and early returns from soccernistas the world over have not been positive. See here some of the chatter the new shirt has generated online.

One could reasonably argue as to why anyone should care. But considering the blockbuster sales opportunities represented by futbol jerseys, here and abroad, it was an odd choice by U.S. Soccer and its official outfitter, Nike. There are undeniable similarities between traditional soccer jerseys and modern day golf shirts, namely the collar and button-style placket. But it’s odd that U.S. Soccer and Nike would appear to have missed the mark by two years — this looks like something Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson would wear to Brazil in 2016, when golf makes it return as a bona fide Olympic event.

Maybe you’re like me, in that you’re a bit sensitive about golf’s less-than-stellar track record in the duds department. We’ve made some admirable progress in this regard, I think, as it wasn’t that long ago that outsiders considered golf a game for rich white guys in bad pants. It’s unfortunate enough that a) the good folks at Loud Mouth are trying to bring back utterly ridiculous trousers; and b) white belts have successfully wheedled their way back into the golf couture (somewhere, Greg Brady is laughing).

Now we have soccer fans ragging golf, indirectly, for the plain-vanilla, markedly uncool nature of golf shirts, which, thanks to clothiers like Nike, have actually come a long way.

The whole thing is a bit mystifying, and it’s hard to see how golf gains . Nike is known for pushing the envelope with its golf stylings. What could possibly have moved them to put forward something so lacking in flash? If this was an attempt at something retro, I, as a soccer fan, don’t see the reference point. I think it’s safe to say that if one can plausibly wear a soccer shirt for a round at dad’s club, and it doesn’t look out of place beneath a blue blazer, the youth market will not be impressed.

 

10 Questions for Guan Tianlang

10 Questions for Guan Tianlang

Guan Tianlang web

How many 14-year-olds do you know who warm up for a star turn with Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy by defending the most coveted amateur title in Asia, in hopes of re-punching his ticket to The Masters? That is the quite extraordinary story of Guan Tianlang, who, as we speak, is teeing it up at the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship (AAC) in China’s Shandong province, at Nanshan International GC. The AAC runs Thursday to Sunday — winning it means a Masters invite (Augusta National GC is a tournament organizer) but also a final qualifying slot for the 2014 British Open. So soon as his AAC has concluded, Mr. Guan (surnames first for the Chinese, of course), flies south to Hainan island, where he will participate in a morning Skills Challenge with Messrs. Woods and McIlroy, at Mission Hills Resort Haikou (that afternoon, the two pros will contest The Match at Mission Hills to be held over the resort’s Blackstone Course). Guan, of course, made Masters history earlier this year — competing as a 14 year old and making the cut on golf’s biggest stage. I recently had the chance to sit down with Guan to discuss the state of his game, his travels, his history with Tiger and Rory, and his relationship to Mission Hills, where he’s been a fixture at junior tournaments since 2008 (he’s a native of nearby Guangzhou). Oh, and for the record, all this talk about being a precocious 14 year old goes away this week. Guan turns 15 on Friday, Oct. 25.

 

Q: You are quite famous, internationally, following your performance at the Masters in April 2013. Tell us what you’ve been doing since that time.

Guan Tianlang: The Masters did make me better known than before. I played several PGA Tour events after The Masters, including the Zurich Classic, HP Byron Nelson Championship, The Memorial, and FedEx St. Jude Classic — before taking the whole summer off for fitness training and catching up with school work. I played one Japan Tour event, the Vana H Cup KBC Augusta, after coming back from the States. Now I am going to school as a normal student and getting ready for the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in late October.

Q: The slow-play penalty you incurred during the second round at The Masters gained a lot of attention, as well. How do you view that episode now? Do you play faster, or do you think the penalty was perhaps unfairly applied?

GTL: As I said back then, I respect the decision and I accept it completely.  It was a tough day. The weather was bad and it took more time to make the right decision, and you know, it’s The Masters! I have a good routine and I haven’t changed much because of the penalty. But yes, I do pay more attention to my pace and I think I have been doing well on that part. Overall, it was a very valuable experience.

Q: Describe your history with Mission Hills. You have worked on your game there? Competed in tournaments here?

GTL: I have participated in more than 10 junior golf tournaments hosted by Mission Hills, since I was seven. And I won several championships there. The courses are beautiful and challenging. Actually the second time I met Tiger Woods was at Mission Hills Shenzhen. A great memory.

Q: There are many courses at Mission Hills — 12 in Shenzhen and 10 on Hainan Island. Which is your favorite course?

GTL: My favorite one must be the Mission Hills Norman Course. But I haven’t been to the Haikou Mission Hills. I hear it is amazing and can’t wait to play there!

Q: You will appear at a junior clinic and skills challenge prior to Tiger Woods’ and Rory McIlroy’s Match at Mission Hills on Oct. 28. You already have a history with both players.

GTL: Yes, I’ve met both of them before. I met Tiger at the HSBC Championship when I was 12, and we played a par-3 hole together. Met him the second time at Mission Hills Shenzhen and received a trophy from him. And, of course, I got to play with him for 9 holes at Augusta National on the Tuesday of the Masters; it was a dream come true, as everyone knows he is my idol. I haven’t played with Rory before but we had a nice chat at the Masters. He was very supportive and said he wasn’t as good as me when he was 14. He is humble and a very sweet guy. A great player as well!

Q: Have you attended similar junior clinics as a spectator? If so, what did you take away from the experience?

GTL: I have attended some junior golf clinics, when I was younger. The one hosted by Mission Hills with Tiger Wood was one. I can’t say how much in terms of golfing skills I have learned from the instructor, but I shall say the whole experience did inspire and motivate me to practice harder and become a better golfer.

Q: Was Tiger Woods always role model for you? Are you old enough to have the same thoughts about Rory McIlroy?

GTL: Tiger Wood has always been my idol. I believe he is the role model as a golfer for many, many people out there. Look at him: He won 5 PGA Tour events in one year and he is now the world No.1. He is the greatest player of his time and perhaps will become the greatest of all time soon. Rory is such a mature and great player. I can see how much more I need work on myself — to grow into a player like him. Both of them are the players I look up to. I’m very excited to get the chance to challenge them.

Q: What advice did Tiger give you during that Masters practice round — anything that helped you during the tournament, or with your golf going forward?

GL: Yes, it was a great experience and probably the most nervous 9 holes in my life. He is my idol, after all. We did chat a bit during the practice round and also off the course. Lots of advice. But the one piece, as other great golfers also offered to me, is enjoying your game and embracing your experience at The Masters. It was my first Masters journey, and I hope there will be many more coming.

Q: You turn 15 on Oct. 25, just before The Match at Mission Hills. You remain a young man, but do you feel as if golf is more popular today, in China, than it was five years ago? If so, how can you tell?

GTL: I believe so, absolutely.  First of all, you can see more and more media are paying attention to the sport. Second, more and more juniors start to pick up the game, which makes the future of golf in China very promising.  The golf community in China is expanding with its addition to the 2016 Olympic. Golf will become more and more popular here for sure. It is a great sport, why not?

Q: When will American golf fans see you again? Does your tournament schedule bring you to North America in 2014?

GTL: I hope everyone who supports me will watch me and root for me when I play other events outside the U.S., such as Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. Augusta National is an organizer [winning this event last year earned Guan his Masters place in 2013] and it is the best amateur event in the region. I am going back to defend my title and I hope they will be watching. I haven’t planned any tournaments in North American next year. Hopefully I will win my ticket back to 2014 Masters.