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Sports

Lots of hockey. Lots of golf. Other sports too. 

PGA 2015: Jason Day! But, Really, Jordan Spieth’s Left Elbow

Minivan Dad

So, the PGA Championship has come and gone. I have to admit, I’m never really all that jazzed about the PGA. I like seeing great golfers play great golf, don’t get me wrong. And those who say it lacks identity, well, that’s not really accurate. Great players playing great golf and shooting low scores - on a course that’s supposed to be really hard but doesn’t really play that way - is its identity. Or at least it has been since the PGA of America managed to virtually eliminate the “Who?” champions. 

On Sunday, Jason Day outdueled Jordan Spieth, Brendan Grace, Justin Rose, and others to win this year’s version of the PGA, at KohlerLand’s Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, with a score of 20-under par. Yes, -20. And yes, the golf world at large can now breathe a sigh of relief that another Nice Guy managed to eclipse something Tiger Woods did during what the media may someday refer to as his Reign of Terror. There was high-def coverage of Day’s wonderful emotional reaction, and gorgeous repeated aerial shots of Whistling Strait’s 8 million sand pits - sorry, traps - but to me, the dominant visual image of the weekend was one involving Jordan Spieth’s left elbow.

—-Warning! The following assumes technical knowledge of the golf swing and may bore non-swing-junkies to tears! Proceed at your own risk! Or spend an hour or two reading this first!—-

Jordan’s “chicken-wing left elbow” is a huge topic of discussion after Sunday’s presentation on the CBSKonica/MinoltaSwingVision-brought-to-you-by-oh-I-forget, which showed Spieth and Day swinging wedges side-by-side on a split screen. 

Jason Day, left, and Jordan Spieth

Jason Day, left, and Jordan Spieth

Jordan’s unusual elbow position is documented throughout the sequence, as compared to the more traditional position and rotation shown in Day's swing. Why does it matter? Jordan’s elbow rotation, or lack thereof, during and just after impact allows him an extra fraction of a fraction of a second during which the clubface is facing his target while he allows the clubhead to accelerate through the ball... 

...before he rips his hands across to his left side and releases his right forearm over his left.

IMG_4034.jpg

Basically, it allows him to rotate his body harder and faster, but still have a margin of error to control the ball and hit an accurate shot. Sounds like an excellent plan right? Plenty of people are now lining up to teach it to all of us amateurs out here, or explain it on TV or in magazine articles so we can go try it ourselves. (I’m not gonna lie, I’ve already had the wedge out on the bedroom carpet.)

Here’s the thing. Don't do it. Jordan Spieth can do it because he’s a professional golfer, and he is capable of at least partially controlling the path and speed of a piece of metal whipping through the air at an uncontrollable speed attached to a flexing, torquing tube of steel or graphite. You and me? We’ll just screw it up.

Know what’s going to happen if we try to deliberately bend our elbow at address and hold it off forward of the ball (chicken-wing it) before we release the club? We’re going to start hitting the ball thin, short, and right. That’s Jordan’s occasional “regular” miss. It will be our regular shot, if we ever strike the ball cleanly at all! 

Look, if your left elbow is normally bent a little at address, fine. If it’s bent a little at the top of the backswing, also fine. Don’t try and straighten it until it’s so stiff you can’t do anything. If it chicken-wings during impact normally, and you hit the ball consistently already, ok then. But don’t try and do it on purpose just because it works for Jordan Spieth. Then you’ll have tension in your elbow from trying to bend it instead of trying to keeping it straight! 

The point is, we have to rotate our body around our spine angle, allow the clubhead to accelerate through the impact zone, and then get our hands around our front leg and body so the clubhead moves back “inside” the target line after impact, along the arc of the swing. We have to trust that this will, in fact, deliver the clubface square to the target line through the ball position. If we try to exert microcontrol over the direction of the clubface and the path of the clubhead instead of just letting the physics of the swing happen by themselves, then we’re going to be hooking, pushing or slicing almost every shot that we don’t hit fat or thin.

Jordan Spieth’s left elbow position is a specific, repeatable swing idiosyncrasy that he and his coach developed from a characteristic of his own natural golf swing, one that clearly gives Jordan an edge over the vast majority of his competition. There are plenty of these in the annals of golf history - Miller’s Reverse C, Nicklaus’ flying right elbow, Palmer’s whirlybird finish. Personally, I like to think of it as Ben Hogan’s left wrist position at impact, moved up to the elbow instead. I’d also issue a warning before encouraging anyone to try it. Like Hogan’s wrist, Jordan’s elbow is not the secret. It’s just his secret.

 

 

2015 Open Championship Review: Zach Johnson Plays Golf for a Living

Minivan Dad

As I said in my Open Championship preview last week, picking winners of golf tournaments is a fool’s errand. The traditional yellow scoreboard of the 2015 Open Championship on the Old Course at St Andrews said as much to me at the close of the tournament.

I didn’t see Zach Johnson coming. I probably should have, after he had just barely missed the playoff at the previous week’s John Deere Classic (won by Jordan Spieth). Johnson triumphed Monday at St Andrews in a 3-man playoff over Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman. Oosthuizen seemed unable to hit the ball consistently for all of Monday’s 4th round, yet somehow managed to birdie the 18th hole after a spectacular approach to finish 72 holes in a tie with Johnson. Marc Leishman, who played the weekend in 64-66, made his lone bogey of the final two rounds just when he couldn't afford it, on the 16th hole holding a one-stroke lead. Johnson started the four-hole playoff with birdies on the 1st and 2nd hole, held his lead as everyone bogeyed the 17th, then watched as Oosthuizen missed a birdie putt to tie. "I hate when tournaments end on a miss," he said, which was mighty gentlemanly and undoubtedly true.

Johnson’s one of those guys who everyone thinks should win one of these because he hits the ball low, is a terrific wedge player, a tenacious putter, and a pretty even keel guy. He also won The Masters in 2007, which was the year Augusta National basically played as if it was an Open Championship. So it was weird that up until now, he hasn’t really knocked anyone’s socks off over there. I just figured that for whatever reason he was one of those guys who played the right kind of game but just couldn’t get it done. When Zach’s right foot slipped on his second shot to the 17th green at the beginning of his downswing, resulting in a bogey for the hole, it looked like that would be this year's signature bad luck moment. (Along with the many weather-related issues of the first two rounds, which I don't need to recount.) Johnson wouldn't go quietly, though, and he followed that by draining a 25-foot putt on the 18th to finish at 15-under, good enough either for a playoff or an outright win. Then he sat and waited... for an hour and a half. 

What an hour and a half it was. Now we get to talk about Jordan Spieth. (I have to say I did predict would finish 3rd or 4th by a stroke or two.) Spieth was steely, erratic, exciting, marvelous, sportsmanlike, and everything everyone hoped he would be, except victorious. When he dropped a long downhill bomb of a birdie putt on the 16th hole to reach 15-under, it looked like he might actually get it done. After his drive on 17, though, he seemed to lose his swing a bit. He pushed his 2nd to the right, leaving him a long pitch to the green. He played it to about 8 feet but then couldn’t sink the putt, dropping him back to -14. His drive on 18 was a bit of a pull-hook far left, and he overcompensated for a mud ball on his second, leaving it right of the front pin, from where it spun into the Valley of Sin. Not being Constantino Rocca, he missed his birdie putt, and the Grand Slam was gone. True to form though, he and caddie Michael Grellar sat on the steps of the R&A clubhouse to watch the playoff, and he was early down on the green to congratulate Johnson when it was over.

So that covers Spieth. Jason Day was right with him at -14. Before the tournament, I thought that both he and Oostshuizen might be able to win, but that playing with Tiger Woods would derail them. I guess the maelstrom of Tiger is now expected, as both managed to survive watching him hack his way around the first two rounds. Both mounted charges on the weekend. Justin Rose did well, though he never challenged. Henrik Stenson was alright. Sergio Garcia challenged Monday until, as expected, his putter let him down, and Adam Scott did exactly the same. Scott briefly tied for the lead, in fact. 

As for Dustin Johnson, well, he was there. And then he wasn’t. DJ overpowered the course during the first two rounds, and held the lead after 36 holes. In the delayed 3rd round on Sunday, the tournament passed him by. Just as everyone was shooting in the 60s, Johnson couldn’t manage birdies on the front nine and dropped a few strokes on the back nine, never to be heard from again. Rickie Fowler, my pre tournament pick, treaded water for two rounds, got to -7 after Sunday’s round, then closed with a 73 for a middle of the pack finish along with Phil Mickelson, Hideki Matsuyama, and others. I think that covers my pretournament mentions.

So now back to Zach, for whom this win redefines how he will be viewed in golf history. A second Major Championship means that his first at the Masters is not his only, and therefore can’t be viewed as a fluke. His second different Major Championship means that he can’t be viewed as a horse for a course type of winner. In fact, with 12 Tour wins and 2 Major Championships, he has a legitimate case to be inducted into the Golf Hall of Fame without winning another title. That’s pretty good for a guy from Iowa who played his college golf at Drake and then worked his way up through the developmental tours for 6 years before earning his way onto the PGATour in 2003.

Most interesting is the list of golfers who won the Masters who also won the Open Championship on the Old Course at St Andrews- a list that Zach Johnson now joins. The names are recognizable- Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Sam Snead, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo. That’s not just a group of random guys. That’s a good chunk of golf’s Pantheon. Although Faldo wasn't a particularly long hitter or overly creative player, he was the dominant player of his era in the Majors, and the rest are among the most dynamic and popular golfers ever to play. Johnson won his Majors with accurate drives and surgical wedges on the two courses in the Major Championship rotation that are most associated with length and power. That takes supreme self-confidence and some steely putting nerves.

As a devout man of Faith, there is no question that Johnson truly feels that he has been blessed. It wouldn't surprise me at all if this win adds a little confident peace of mind to his competitive fire, and helps him win a few more titles. Maybe even a US Open somewhere along the line. Watching Zach bawl his way through post round interviews, and hold back tears while holding the Claret Jug during his acceptance speech, it was clear that he knew what this victory meant as a personal accomplishment. I usually don’t use quotes from athletes when I write about them, but something Johnson said during his immediate post-round interview, when ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi wouldn’t leave him alone, struck me as profound.

When asked why he was so overcome by his triumph, with tears rolling down his face, Zach replied, “Because I play golf for a living.” Yes, Zach Johnson, now two-time Major winner and 2015 Champion Golfer of the Year, most certainly plays golf for a living. Very well. Very well indeed.

On Golf: Tom Watson, In the Gloaming

Minivan Dad

The 65-year old man, his son caddying for him, walked up the enormous double fairway of the 1st and 18th holes at The Old Course in St. Andrews. A light breeze rippled his golf trousers and his hair as he and his playing companions, an old rival unbelievably competing to make the cut in The Open Championship at age 55, and a young Englishman reaching his prime, crossed the Swilcan Bridge. They paused for pictures, and then the golfer stood alone, basking in the glorious Scottish sunshine as the light frames the Royal and Ancient clubhouse behind him. The man walked up the 18th hole to the cheers of the throngs filling the grandstands, as the camera panned to the adjacent town where people were gathered on their balconies, crowding for a view of the final shots of the great champion’s Open career, at the home of golf. As a reward for their undying love over the decades, the man summoned his younger self, hit his second shot to the 18th green and, naturally, sank the curling birdie putt, sending the adoring crowd into a frenzy.

That’s how TV had it all scripted out for Jack Nicklaus. And that’s just how it happened, 10 years ago in the 2nd round of the 2005 Open Championship. The 55-year old who made the cut that day was Tom Watson. The same Tom Watson who, if it wasn't for an unlucky bounce of a perfectly struck 8-iron on the 18th hole of regulation, would have won The Open Championship at Turnberry four years later. When he was 59 years old. The Open Championship, not the Senior Open (which he had already won 3 times by then). The same Tom Watson who won The Open 5 times, and who, this Friday, likely finished out his remarkable Open Championship career. 

Tom Watson won The Open Championship 5 times, on 5 different courses (Carnoustie in 1975, Turnberry in 1977, Muirfield in 1980, Troon in 1982, and Birkdale in 1983). From 1975-1983, he was Nicklaus’s greatest rival, and there are those who would argue that for that period of time he, not Nicklaus, was the most dominant golfer on the planet. He won 8 Major Championships. He defeated Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977 in the “Duel in the Sun,” when the two men distanced themselves from the field and played together in the final pairing for both the 3rd and 4th rounds. Watson shot 65-65, Nicklaus 65-66. In 1982, he defeated Nicklaus at the US Open at Pebble Beach before winning at Troon. In 1984, Watson finished 2nd to Seve Ballesteros at St Andrews, the closest he came to winning at the Old Course. But then the putts stopped falling. He never won another Major, though for 71 1/2 holes in 2009 it appeared that he might.

Nicklaus as an older man has taken a page from Arnold Palmer and assumed the role of the kindly ambassador. He captained the Ryder Cup long ago and has avoided the ultra competitive forum it has become. He was the ceremonial leader in the development of the President’s Cup, having now given way to Fred Couples. His course design business is enormous. His equipment company was fair but had some success, as did his apparel company. His marriage and family have always been a public part of his persona, and continue to be. He was gracious as Tiger Woods chased his Major Championship total, and he has been publicly supportive of Tiger as he has disintegrated in front of our eyes. I don’t think any of us truly knows what Jack Nicklaus thinks when he is alone at night, but that has been by design. He is a canvas on which we paint our version of Gracious Elder Statesman.

Watson? Notsomuch. His personal story is not quite the same as Jack’s. He says what’s on his mind, and by most accounts, he can be a little… prickly. He battled alcohol demons and his first marriage ended in divorce. His beloved caddie, Bruce Edwards, succumbed to ALS. He was openly critical of Tiger’s on-course behavior. (Right or wrong, it’s unusual for anyone in the golf sphere to openly criticize Woods for anything, at least until the last couple of years, and it didn’t make him any new friends.) He captained a losing Ryder Cup team this past season, and appeared to be at odds with several of the players, specifically Phil Mickelson. On the golf course, though, his full swing remains as reliable and repeatable as anyone’s since Ben Hogan. There, he seems totally at peace, goofy gap-toothed grin and all.

It had been Watson who had tears in his eyes in 2005 while Nicklaus twinkled and smiled for the crowd, and he was clearly emotional Friday night. There was no farewell birdie for Watson, though. After a wonderful 18th tee shot, he appeared to shank his half-wedge to the right from an ideal position in the left fairway, into the Valley of Sin that fronts the 18th. His putt up the hill wasn’t, as they say, struck with authority, and then he missed his par putt short and right, just as he had missed the putt that would have given him the 2009 Championship. He shrugged a resigned shrug, and tapped in his bogey. I wouldn't know if he thought of Jack’s 2005 birdie or not. Everyone else certainly did, because the two scenes could not have been more different.

It looked something like midnight in Scotland (actually it was closer to 10pm) when Watson, Ernie Els and Brandt Snedeker reached the 17th and 18th holes at the end of the 2nd round. The tournament had been delayed by torrential rains in the morning, so instead of finishing up to full bleachers and spectators hanging out of hotel rooms, Watson walked up the 18th fairway to the cheers of a crowd of people on The Links Road adjacent to the course, and maybe a thousand (give or take) people in the bleachers at the 18th green. The entire adjacent 1st tee grandstand was empty, and there was no one in the seats in the TV background as he teed off on the 18th tee. The Royal and Ancient clubhouse was illuminated by its facade lights, its members out on the steps in their formal dinner dress. It even looked dark on TV, and you got the feeling that they would have brought in cars with their headlights on like the old sandlot football days just to let Watson finish his round in the gloaming instead of having him come out at 7am in Scotland (2am Eastern US) to complete his final hole. 

I’m sure Watson was thrilled to have his now-stable family there, and his son Michael on his bag. I’m sure he would have appreciated a big crowd at the end, like Jack and Arnold and even Nick Faldo got (in his GodAwful sweater from his 1990 Open victory at St. Andrews), and the warm sunshine on his face. Instead, he was playing in the dark, for the R&A members and the fans who cared enough about golf to show up late, in a cold wind at the end of a delayed round, to watch him walk the 17th and 18th holes.

Some fans probably feel that Tom Watson didn’t get a grand enough sendoff from the Swilcan Bridge. Really, though, it was fitting. Those who were there are Watson people. The dedicated fans, the purists who love that he never used a long putter, or a saw grip, even though he’s had the putting yips for years. The people who marvel at his continued full-swing perfection. Most of all, the people who still, for no reason, occasionally find themselves thinking “Crap, I so wish Tom Watson had won that Open at Turnberry at 2009.” For the record, I’m one of those people.

I’d like to think that after 40 years of embracing the vagaries of chance and luck that define Open Championship golf, this farewell seemed somehow more genuine. I’d like to think that Tom Watson doesn’t need an orchestrated moment in the sun. I’d like to think that for Tom Watson, the Duel in the Sun will do.