January 8, 2021

Golf, Both Big And Small, Carries a New Era Into a New Year

As much as a golf nerd like myself hates to admit it, there have been some dark moments for the game in the 21stcentury. There have been times where the energy around the sport felt stagnant, like the humid and still summer air before an impending storm. 

I think back to the late-2000’s into the start of the 2010’s when the professional game, although sometimes buoyed by its two aging megastars in Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, was completely bereft of young, marketable and exciting talent. At the same time golf on TV felt stale, legions of courses were shutting their doors after far too many — and far too difficult courses — were built in previous eras. About 1.1 million golfers left the game in 2013. People were leaving in droves and there were days when few seemed to care. 

I think back to countless headlines of how the game was officially dead. If you were to quickly search “millennials killing golf”, you will find a never-ending slog of articles from several years ago that claim there is no way out for such a traditional and stuffy game.  

For most of my life as a 28-year-old PGA Professional who has played competitively, written about the game, taught people how to play or been glued to the TV for every second of my favorite tournaments, there have also been consistent warning sirens of how drastic measures need to be taken to make sure golf survives. 

In short, golf has made a living playing defense. 

Now, for maybe the only time I can remember, golf is playing offense. 

The PGA Tour teed off this week in Hawaii with a majority of its stars, and while there will be few fans watching the action in person for at least the first handful of months to the year, the energy heading into 2021 is palpable. For one, the top spot in the world is up for grabs to a handful of players who are in the prime of their careers and have each won a lion’s share of significant events — Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele and Brooks Koepka are all deserving of being the best player in the world. 

Johnson, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, has just won his second major and threatens to be an even more dominant force. Rahm is desperately searching for his first major and continues to fight the drama around whether he can manage his emotions in big moments. Thomas has flashed brilliance each year of his career and is on the precipice of a 5 or 6-win season where the golf world revolves around his swag. McIlroy is the one hoping to regain the glory of when he won four majors from 2011-2014.

DeChambeau is the shiny new toy who may do the unthinkable in becoming the first PGA Tour player to average over 330 yards per drive in a season, a goal he would easily crush if the year came to a close today. Schauffele is the wild card, a player with no weakness and the propensity for showing up time and time again when the spotlight is brightest. And then there is Koepka, a villain to some and  the “cool guy in a leather jacket with a cigarette” to others; is his run of brute force in the majors a thing of the past or have injuries simply caused a detour that is bound to subside now that his hip and knee are healed? 

While all of these are exciting, I am particularly inspired by the next generation after them. Collin Morikawa has already won a PGA Championship, Matthew Wolff is coming off of a top-5 in the PGA Championship and U.S. Open, Viktor Hovland is a two-time PGA Tour winner and Sunjae Im seems to play (and contend) every week. 

Golf is always better when its victors are young and energetic like these four players who are barely drinking age. And those standouts have plenty of company. Consider the stat below: 

Percentage of PGA Tour Winners age 25 and Younger

2005 to 2008: 7.9%

2009 to 2012: 8.8%

2013 to 2016: 17.4%

2017 to 2020: 24.7%

The youth movement is real, and it has a new generation of fans excited about the game. Golf on TV, while still a niche sport in comparison to giants like the NFL or NBA, has been a major success story throughout the pandemic. For example, the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, an event with a great field but certainly not at the level of the Masters or a U.S. Open, beat every NBA game it went up against in ratings at that time. And when ESPN took over the PGA Championship last year, the first round saw its best ratings in five years while the second round saw its best ratings in 10 years. 

Of course the TV market will always revolve around Woods, and he will likely play about 10 events this year if he stays healthy. Anything golf receives from Tiger (and Mickelson, for that matter) at this point in his career should be considered gravy. 

But the real reason for optimism as golf launches into 2021 goes far deeper than the thriving professional game. As we all know, the pandemic has brought the silver lining of additional family time, increased savings due to lack of travel and a desire for fresh air. While the entertainment and restaurant industries, to name just two, have been in freefall, golf has been an unlikely hero to many during this time, and the numbers are eye-popping.

I recently opened up this email from the National Golf Foundation, an organization that works tirelessly to track how the golf industry is performing: 

“Rounds played in October came in 32% higher than last year, according to Golf Datatech’s latest report, raising the national year-to-date filgure to +10.8%. Several multi-course operators we checked in with recently told us that the surge in play continued in November, putting us on track for an annual increase of somewhere around 50 million rounds over 2019. Pretty amazing. Record setting? Not quite.

Can you guess the last (and only) time we had an increase bigger than that? It was Tiger’s breakout year – 1997 – when the number of rounds jumped up 63 million over the year before. Rarely has coming in second place felt so good.” 

Not only were far more people heading out to play golf, but golf retail sales surged to levels we have never seen. As an example, overall sales this August were at $331 million — up 32 percent over the same month in 2019 and far greater than the previous record of $287 million back in 2006. 

The pandemic is eventually going to come to a close and, as the saying goes, water will find its level. However, there have been millions of people introduced or re-introduced to the game since last March and I believe they will stick with the game even when masks have returned to closet drawers and social distancing is a remnant of the past. 

That is where Graff comes in. We are a part of a revolution within the game — and I don’t use that word lightly — where golf is transitioning from the days when a scorecard and pencil were the only tools considered to enjoy the game. 

Now we are in a time when practicing or playing a round no longer has to be a frustrating and vague endeavor with little understanding of why you performed the way you did. You can gain immediate feedback, served directly to your phone, whenever you want it. And when patterns emerge within your game, we are going to help you discover the most streamlined and effective ways to come out on the other side so you can enjoy this incredible game. Here at The Club, we are building a podcast, as well as Q&As and other columns, that delve into how to improve in the age of analytics by talking with the brightest minds in the game. Here you will find answers, interesting discussions on the latest trends and a new appreciation for how to golf smart. 

As more people discover golf and the professional competition side of the equation hits a golden age, it doesn’t matter how good you are or how long you have played. The door is open and the possibilities are limitless. 

To all of the above, I say this with unbridled enthusiasm: there has never been a better time to love this game. 

November 16, 2020

After a Career of Close Misses, Johnson Gets His Easy Walk Down 18

By the time Dustin Johnson reached Augusta National’s second nine, the place we all say the tournament is meant to start, everything had already been decided.  

The 36-year-old who grew up a short drive away in Columbia, South Carolina, held a commanding lead over promising but mostly unproven players Cameron Smith and Sunjae Im, leaving the final holes, typically the stage for incredible theatre and indelible moments that will be replayed for years to come, to become a merely ceremonial exercise. 

To be honest, if you had to rank the last 20 Masters by Sunday drama, yesterday’s tournament would be near or at the bottom of that list. And let me tell you, as a golf fanatic who lives for majors coming down to the wire, I loved every minute of it. 

Johnson’s hall of fame career has been plagued by questions of what he could have been rather than what he is, a stigma largely coming from the many majors he let slip away. Yes, he did win the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont to claim his first major, but any conversation around the 6’4” bomber always came back to the opportunities he missed. 

It started over a decade ago when Johnson imploded in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. One of the most exciting young players at the time, he built a three-shot lead over Graeme McDowell and looked completely in control during a Saturday 66. However, just a few holes into Sunday’s final round, Johnson had embarrassingly melted down with a rash of poor swings and disastrous decisions, all leading to an 11-over 82. 

And then, two months later at the PGA Championship, Johnson led by one stroke with one hole to play. After a drive well right into the waste bunker, he scrambled for his bogey to get into a three-way playoff with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson. That was only until a rules official notified him that he had grounded his club in the bunker on the final hole, violating a local rule and adding two strokes to his final tally. 

It wasn’t just that Johnson lost those two major championships. Hundreds of inexperienced players have worked their way into contention only to struggle, and nobody can blame them for it. 

What people saw in Johnson was a man with the physical gifts to win as many major championships as he wanted, but the mental shortcomings that would prevent him from doing so. The media labeled him as unintelligent based on his monotone voice and straightforward viewpoint of the game. The phrase “you can’t trust Dustin” became prominent among onlookers who wanted to anoint Johnson as the game’s next dominating presence but couldn’t bringt themselves to pull the trigger. Not based on his track record. 

For years, that line of thinking was confirmed. Johnson racked up victories in PGA Tour events and solidified a top 5 world ranking, but not unlike Greg Norman of the 80’s and 90’s, he lost in every possible fashion. 

There was the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay where Johnson shared the lead heading into the final round. Down by one stroke on the final hole, he set himself up with a 12-foot eagle putt that would have given him the victory over Jordan Spieth. He raced it by a few feet and then carelessly missed the comebacker. Showing almost no emotion, he tapped in for par, signed his scorecard and briefly talked to the press about how it was just a golf tournament. A month later, he led the Open Championship at St. Andrews through 36 holes and faded away with a pair of 76’s over the weekend. Whether he came agonizingly close or faded away, Johnson never seemed certain of himself. 

How could someone with that much talent take losing so easily? 

It’s true that much of the conversation was vanquished when Johnson won the 2016 U.S. Open in trying conditions — the USGA had botched another rules situation and saddled Johnson with the possibility of one stroke being added to his score as he battled down the stretch — but we all still wanted more. 

We wanted him to dominate the 2017 Masters after he had cruised to three consecutive PGA Tour victories leading up to the tournament. Before he got to the first tee, he fell down a flight of stairs and never even played. 

We wanted him to take control of the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills when he collected a four-stroke lead through 36 holes. He shot 77 in the third round to fall back into a tie for the lead, and then he struggled one more time in the final round to finish in third place. 

We wanted him to prove himself just this past August at the PGA Championship when he took the 54-hole lead ahead of mostly major-less players. Instead he wilted while rookies like Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff rose to the occasion. 

By the time he came to this year’s Masters, Johnson had captured 23 PGA Tour titles and was one of eight players to finish runner-up in all four majors. He had done everything possible in normal events, from crushing fields by 11 strokes to defeating world-class players in nail-biting playoffs. 

We just wanted to see him do it, just one time, when it counted. 

Sunday was that day. Johnson had built a four-stroke lead coming into the last round and then looked wobbly coming out of the gates, making sloppy bogeys on Nos. 4 and 5 to see the lead cut down to one shot. We all felt uneasy. However, Johnson made birdie at No. 6 and settled himself back into a comfortable lead, providing an insurmountable cushion. 

It’s a shame there weren’t more spectators on the final hole to give Johnson the standing ovation he deserved, especially with what happened next. In his post-tournament interview on CBS, the supposedly emotion-less gunslinger broke down — this time in tears. 

Of course he cared about the heartbreaks. The scarring from the collapses was always there. Privately he also wondered whether his talents far outweighed his accomplishments.

They don’t anymore. Dustin Johnson is a Masters champion and now among the elite club of players to have won at least two major championships. 

The conversation can finally end because the verdict is in. 

You can trust Dustin Johnson. 

September 21, 2020

In Dominating U.S. Open Victory, DeChambeau Proves His Daring Hypothesis

The way Bryson DeChambeau won the U.S. Open at Winged Foot defies conventional thinking, so much so that we need to redefine what that thinking says in the first place. 

To back up for a second, here is a recap of the DeChambeau story: 

A great junior player from California, he won an NCAA Championship and U.S. Amateur in the same year while attending SMU. At the time, he attracted eye balls for his odd equipment — all of his irons and wedges are the same length — and an upright, single-plane swing that matched the uniqueness of the clubs he played. 

Many questioned whether that formula would still work as a professional, but the answer was a resounding yes. In his first two seasons on the PGA Tour, DeChambeau won four times and collected over $10 million in earnings to become one of the rising stars of the game.  

But the 27-year-old who has been known to test the limits of how the game can be played decided to go in a completely different direction starting at the end of last year. He announced in November that he would be adding on some 40 pounds to his frame, all in an effort to gain swing speed and become one of the longest players in the game. To do so, he would go on a rigorous weight training protocol while downing any protein shake he could get his hands on. 

Most in the golf community laughed at him. I know I did. 

The experiment to gain power has gone awry for literally hundreds of professional golfers trying to transform their bodies and games. It can be done, but the path is perilous. For DeChambeau to put himself out there in that way at a time when he was a top-10 player in the world seemed reckless and fraught with danger. 

He came back in 2020 looking like a linebacker, and his power numbers went up along with his weight. The results were almost immediate as DeChambeau tallied three consecutive top-5s prior to the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. 

And then over the break, he got stronger and bulkier. When professional golf returned in June, DeChambeau started to bulldoze his way around courses by hitting driver on nearly every hole, escewhing accuracy for whatever extra power he could find. The formula worked as he led the PGA Tour in strokes gained against the field off-the-tee, won the Rocket Mortgage Classic and continued to be in contention almost every week.

Even as he found success, DeChambeau had doubters. Some said his aggressive, damn-the-torpedoes style of play would not work on more demanding courses and major championships. Some said he would not be able to maintain his current workout regimen. 

The latter is still a curiosity moving forward, but the former has been proven false. DeChambeau tied for fourth at the PGA Championship and then found the ultimate validation this past week at the U.S. Open, a tournament famous for punishing players and inducing fear from start to finish. 

Over a century of history tells us that hitting fairways at the U.S. Open is mandatory if you want to win the event. It says that 5-inch rough will eliminate any hope you have of success, that accuracy and precision are the hallmarks of a champion. 

DeChambeau didn’t care. He only hit 23 of 56 fairways for the week, lashing drivers across the property and extracting himself out of the thick rough with relative ease. No U.S. Open champion in history had hit fewer than 30 fairways on their way to victory, but DeChambeau rewrote that thinking — and did we mention that he dominated the field, winning by six strokes and finishing as the lone man under-par for the tournament. 

It would be no revelation to say that power is an advantage in golf, one that is growing by the year. The best players are not the most accurate, nor are they the best putters. The best players are, far and away, the most powerful. 

But there is a revelation in how the game will be played and how players will train to get there. During the U.S. Open telecast, commentator Jim “Bones” McKay said that he has one piece of advice for junior golfers who want to be professionals one day: swing as fast as you possibly can. 

Whether that is right or wrong is a discussion for another day, but DeChambeau has proven that the quickest path to being a dominant player is to do whatever is necessary to follow McKay’s advice. If that means putting on weight, gaining strength and wailing on the ball with everything you have, that is what it will take. 

So let’s introduce a new conventional thinking. The new kings of the game are not the ones with the gorgeous, Fred Couples-like swings. They aren’t the ones who can strategically place their ball around the course with nuance like a game of chess. 

They are the kings of speed, and everything else comes secondary. 

August 12, 2020

Collin Morikawa Matches Harding Park’s Major Moment

As Collin Morikawa, just 23 years old, took command of the PGA Championship late on Sunday evening, I couldn’t help but think of two moments. 

The first was just a little over five years ago when we watched the coronation of Jordan Spieth as the then-21-year-old dominated the Masters for his first major victory. His ascendency was meteoric — capturing two U.S. Junior Am titles, playing on the 2011 U.S. Walker Cup team, winning a national championship at the University of Texas, turning professional midway through his sophomore year and then cashing in almost immediately with a victory at the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic — that his stardom seemed inevitable. He won with charm and a sense of relatability, picking apart golf courses with his brain as much as his physical tools. 

Spieth’s recent trip to the wilderness aside, Morikawa is strikingly similar. He spent more time in college, going four years at the University of California-Berkeley, but his precociousness and polished game have led to a scary level of success early in his career. Morikawa went from having no PGA Tour status to winning three titles in just over a year, notching 15 top-25 finishes in 27 professional starts. 

He has as many major victories as he does missed cuts. And the way he got there was by shooting 65-64 on the weekend at TPC Harding Park, the lowest weekend score by a winner in major championship golf history. Morikawa joins Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Rory McIlroy as the only players to win a PGA Championship before turning 24 years old. 

Like Spieth before him, Morikawa doesn’t have the traits to overpower a course with length. On a PGA Championship leaderboard littered with bombers who down several protein shakes a day, it was the kid who ranks 110th in driving distance who won the tournament. 

He did it the traditional way with a classic golf swing that lacks flash but produces consistent results. Morikawa led the field in fairways hit and proximity to the hole with his approaches. And after being widely criticized for the one glaring flaw in his game — struggles with a putting stroke that made everyone nervous the closer he got to the hole — Morikawa was first in strokes gained putting. 

When Spieth won the 2015 Masters, we all wondered what his ceiling would become. He’s won two more majors and has 11 PGA Tour wins total, but dare we say that Morikawa’s ceiling may be slightly higher. His swing is more fundamentally sound, his mental game less polluted with scar tissue. Morikawa will find himself in a slump at some point in his career, but don’t bet on them lasting long. 

The other memory I went back to when Morikawa lifted the Wanamaker Trophy was about the venue where he won.

In the summer of 2018, I flew out to San Francisco on a cold, foggy morning and had what you would describe as a quintessential experience for “The City”. I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, parked up in the Marin Headlands and walked down to the Battery Spencer for a picturesque view. I watched the seals bark at Fisherman’s Wharf. And of course I had to wind back and forth down Lombard Street. The classic tourist checklist. 

But the most genuine San Francisco experience I had was at TPC Harding Park, an unassuming public course less than a mile from ultra-private meccas Olympic Club, San Francisco Golf Club and Lake Merced Golf Club. 

Harding Park, site of last week’s PGA Championship, is a truly unapologetic municipal course, so much so that it was once used as a fan parking lot when Olympic Club hosted the 1998 U.S. Open. That was back when it had fallen on difficult times, the course’s net income going directly into the city’s general fund, a scenario that led to poor maintenance. Weeds joined into the rough, the bunkers eroded into something closer to quicksand and the greens became choppy. 

It was Sandy Tatum, the 1942 NCAA champion at Stanford, who convinced then-PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem that the Tour should invest in the facility. The late Tatum has a statue on the property, and deservedly so — the course has been returned to its original glory that it once enjoyed back in the 20’s and 30’s when many considered it the second-best municipal course in the world behind the Old Course at St. Andrews. 

The entrance to the course jarringly cuts through the dramatic 18th hole and drops golfers off at a parking lot that borders a small practice range full of mats and people waiting to hit. Every ethnicity, age and ability of player is represented. Near the first tee, players and their push carts gather, sorting out the details of the day’s match. If you live in San Francisco, a tee time is around $80; if you are from elsewhere but still in the Bay Area, it’s $200; but if you are from anywhere else in the world, it’s $300. For that reason, you will find a large contingent of locals who make Harding Park their weekly game. 

In the clubhouse, which from the outside could pass for an ordinary four-bedroom home, a grille looks out over the finishing hole where players ascend a hill looking out over Lake Merced. Typically the biggest tournament played on the layout is the San Francisco City Championship, an amateur event of average joes that has been contested every year since 1916, the oldest consecutively played golf tournament in the world. This past week, it was their first major championship and Collin Morikawa making that same walk everyone else does. 

The course itself reflects the people who play there. Harding Park features no water hazards or blind shots or greens with roller coaster greens. It’s framed by towering cypress trees and inviting corridors, with few opportunities for lost balls. The fairway bunkers are firm with no large lips. The rough, which was thick this week for the tournament, is patchy and playable. The defining characteristic of the course is a set of greens that look simple but contain subtle breaks, flummoxing everyone from 30-handicaps to Rory McIlroy.   

That’s how it played throughout the tournament, holding firm against the world’s best while also providing plenty of entertainment. The birdie holes were out there, such as the short par-4 7th, reachable par-5 10th and drivable par-4 16th, but it demanded shot-making like Morikawa provided on the weekend.  

It’s only fitting that Morikawa, a California native who spent his college years in the Bay Area, would win his first major as Harding Park made its major debut. For as much as golf doesn’t make sense sometimes, there are moments like this that match perfectly. 

And in Collin Morikawa’s case, this won’t be the last time that happens. 

May 27, 2020

Two Key Lessons Golf Can Learn From a Compelling Exhibition

Last Sunday’s match featuring Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning drew an average of 5.8 million viewers, becoming the most-watched golf telecast in cable television history.

The rain-soaked affair peaked at 6.3 million viewers, clearly drawing considerable attention from the sports-starved masses. These substantial numbers even eclipsed final-round viewership for last year’s Open Championship and PGA Championship, two majors that lacked drama and star-power down the stretch. 

When reading the tea leaves about what this means for golf, we all need to proceed with caution. The event featured four of the most popular athletes of their generation, at a time when seemingly everyone is at home searching for entertainment. Ratings for The Last Dance documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls pulled nearly identical numbers on five consecutive Sundays. The NFL Draft shattered all expectations when an average of 15.6 million watched the first night. NASCAR and UFC, two of the most popular sports operating at the moment, have also enjoyed increases. 

But regardless of what kind of bump they received versus typical ratings, there are plenty of positives to share and lessons to learn. Chief among them is that golf taking the sporting spotlight at a time when 97 percent of courses throughout the U.S. have opened will, at the very least, convince some to go to a driving range for an afternoon rather than watching another hour of Netflix. That slight residual effect could be a continuing factor in June as the PGA Tour hopes to be playing while the four major professional team sports debate a return. 

According to the National Golf Foundation, attracting new golfers has been a bright spot over the past two weeks. 

“Course operators are telling us they are seeing lots of new faces, and retailers are saying they are moving an unusually large number of beginner (boxed) sets of clubs,” said NGF’s CEO Joe Beditz. “There seems to be a surge in participation among beginning golfers and those who haven’t played in a while.” 

Putting aside the hopes for introducing beginners to the game, there were two key lessons from The Match found in both format and presentation. 

From talking to golfers around the country over the past year, my sense is that traditional stroke play is no longer being viewed as the only “proper” way to play golf. It’s still the king for competitions at the highest level, but there is a significant push for more recreational match play, alternate shot and games where a couple of bad holes won’t keep you from being able to enjoy the round. Such feelings are so strong that courses are even being built to support different formats — Ohoopee Match Club in Cobbtown, Ga., was designed by Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner in 2017 with the specific purpose of being used for match play. It’s indicative of a larger movement for different formats to become normalized. 

What better stage to promote different forms of the game than having Woods and Manning go up against Mickelson and Brady in modified alternate shot over the final nine holes? The opening nine of best ball went along slowly as Brady and Manning struggled to keep the ball in play, but the alternate shot portion really showed how quick the game goes when it’s four players using two golf balls. 

It’s also one of the most relatable formats. On the par-4 10th hole, a poor Mickelson approach had left Brady with a tricky shot just right of the green, while a solid strike from Manning allowed Woods to have a great look at birdie from about 20 feet. Brady putted from off the green to three feet and Woods missed, halving the hole. The beauty of golf is that an 8-handicap golfer, in any given moment, can be just as great as a 15-time major champion. In that format, they found occasional equal footing with all four players having to contribute.

Of course it was fun because of the players involved, but the game itself was engaging. Just like we see in the Ryder Cup, showcasing something other than stroke play can only help courses become more innovative. 

The other lesson, which was incredibly powerful, came with the telecast itself. Granted, this event was an exhibition with no intention of being too self-serious, but the tone made a massive difference. 

Longer podcast-style stories were told in-between shots — Brady explaining how former New England Patriots teammate Drew Bledsoe pulled a “purple dye in the socks” prank on him his rookie year ranked among the highlights — and having additional player audio created an added layer of intrigue. Justin Thomas, making his announcing debut, added just the right amount of context without wasting words. It’s a shame he has another 20 years of competitive golf ahead of him, because he would make a tremendous commentator. 

Not every broadcast should look like what we watched on Sunday, but anyone who produces golf content should have been taking notes. The golf spoke for itself and created one of the more engaging environments we’ve seen over the past few years. 

Whether Sunday’s event impacts golf long-term is questionable, but the ethos of it is a great snapshot of what makes this game beautiful. 

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