Monday, October 6, 2008

Golf Legends - Tom Watson

Image Courtesy: BBC

Each time Tom Watson stepped on one of the link courses for the Open Championship, it would be fair to say, love was in the air. Such was the dominance of this great American golfer who produced some of his best golf in some of the most difficult conditions endured by golfers on the course. Not for nothing was he known as the best golfer in terrible conditions, although I am not quite sure how delighted he was with that monicker being associated with him but it was still a shade better than being called Huckleberry Dillinger.

Tom Watson was not your usual Golfer. In fact with a degree in Psychology from Stanford University he was anything but the usual golfer. Shortly after his graduation from Stanford, Tom Watson turned pro but his first few years did not yield much success. Despite his degree in psychology what seemed to fail Tom Watson was his ability to close out tournaments. After another one of his meltdowns in a tournament, the great Byron Nelson approached him and offered his assistance. That was the fillip that Tom Watson needed and his career was up and running. Under Byron Nelson’s guidance he transformed himself from an ‘almost there’ golfer to a complete golfer adding victories to his kitty.

With the new found streak of mental strength Watson began his quest for tournament wins which finally ended with 39 victories on the PGA Tour. He built up a reputation as a scrambler which led to the term ’Watson Par’. It clearly represented the frustration and amazement experienced by other golfers who would see Tom Watson launch wild shots, find himself left with an improbable putt for par and see the ball being drained into the hole time and again. But the enduring legacy that Tom Watson left was his incredible dominance of the Open Championship, winning it as many as 5 times. Any discussion of Tom Watson would be incomplete without a mention of the most famous ‘Duel in the Sun’. Golf folklore is full of stories of that day in Turneberry, of the burning sun, sunburnt fairways, blustering wind and that duel between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson which was perhaps the greatest between two people over the course of a championship in Golf.

But that was not the only time Jack Nicklaus was pipped to the post by Watson. He did it again in dramatic fashion in Pebble Beach at the 1982 U.S. Open, chipping in an improbable shot from thick rough to birdie a hole that had Bogey stamped through the length and breadth of that 17th green, leaving Jack Nicklaus distraught once again. Through the course of his career,

Tom Watson proved to be Jack Nicklaus’ greatest nemesis. In 5 of Tom Watson’s 8 major wins, it was Jack Nicklaus who finished second. But as fierce as their competition was, what will also be remembered is their great friendship and that remarkable moment of sportsmanship when Jack Nicklaus gave Watson a ‘Bearhug’ after they completed their ‘Duel in the Sun’. What embodied Tom Watson’s love for the game could be captured in that one line in the heat of the moment during the 1977 Open Championship when he looked over at Jack Nicklaus in the middle of their incredible fight and said-:

“This is what sports is about, isn’t it?”

Golf Legends - Ben Hogan

To understand why Ben Hogan is attributed with the greatest swing and considered the finest the game has seen, all you need to know is that it is believed he “invented” practice. Not only did he play a near flawless game, he spent many hours early in the morning just working on his game. Apart from that, his meticulous planning and concentration made him stand apart from the rest of the players in his generation. Ben Hogan started his career as a caddy at Forth Worth where another famous golfer of that time, Byron Nelson was also a caddy. He won as many as 63 professional titles in a period of over 20 years but unlike his compatriot Sam Snead he could not extend his career for much longer.

Even during the period he dominated the game, it was an interrupted career. Firstly he was sent on war duty during the second world war and then later in 1949 he was involved in a life threatening car accident. The car in which he was traveling, had a head-on collision with a Greyhound Bus. Many doctors feared he would never be able to walk again. ‘Walk again’ he did but not just did he walk again, he went on to win his second U.S. Open the very next year. Who can forget that moment, captured in a frame by famous photographer Hy Peskin with Ben Hogan hitting a one iron from the tee and as he holds his pose the 16,000 strong crowd, lining the fairway on either side right up to the green wait with bated breath to see the outcome of that shot. Despite the fact that Sam Snead won 11 tournaments in that year, it was Ben Hogan who was awarded the player of the year title. It was in recognition of his remarkable courage, grit and determination.

Ben Hogan largely kept to himself and was an introvert by nature. This led to him being misunderstood and characterized as cold and aloof on the golf course. But that was not the case. It was a testament to his incredible concentration and focus; he completely blocked the world out while playing, fuelled by the desire to win. Jimmy Demaret a pro and one of the players who used to practice with Ben Hogan once said he couldn’t understand why people think Hogan keeps to himself. "When I play with him, he talks to me on every green, he turns to me and says, 'You're away.' "

Perhaps the stat that best portrays his consistency is that he finished in the Top Three on the leaderboard in nearly 50 percent of the 292 tournaments he entered on the PGA Tour. The reason behind that is as he says-:

“The secret is always the next shot”

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Golf Legends - Sam Snead

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“Sam Snead did to the tee shot what Roger Bannister did to the four minute mile”

-Byron Nelson

Samuel Jackson Snead, a phenomenon from Ashwood, Virginia who redefined power hitting in Golf. His ‘Honey Sweet’ swing helped him in a large part to build up a legacy as one of the finest the world of golf has ever seen. In a career that spanned nearly four decades, Sam Snead notched up as many as 82 PGA Tour victories, the maximum by any player and a record that is being chased down in great earnest by Tiger Woods.

Born in a family that was not very affluent, Sam Snead’s first few golf clubs were nothing more than carved wood. But he wasn’t going to let that be a deterrent. At a time when Golf was still a rich man’s sport, Sam Snead with his country boy style was a refreshing change. He once said “If a lot of people gripped a knife and fork the way they do in a golf club, they'd starve to death”. That was the kind of person he was, proud to wear his ‘small town boy’ badge but talented enough to ensure that no one was going to forget his name in a hurry.

A tribute to the remarkable spirit of this great athlete was the fact that he played the game actively even when he was more than 70 years old. While this year everyone has been talking about Greg Norman’s remarkable third place finish as a 52 year old at the 2008 Open Championship, Sam Snead had in fact got a third place finish to his credit at the 1974 PGA Championship as a 62 year old. The eventual winner that year was Lee Trevino but he just finished three strokes behind. He attributed his remarkable athleticism even at an old age to his squirrel hunting days in his childhood in Ashwood.

He had patented the Wyndham Championship trophy in his name. During his playing days this regular PGA Tour event in North Carolina was known as the Greater Greensbro Open. He won it as many as 8 times, a record on the tour with his first victory coming in 1938 and his last win there came in 1965 when he won as 52 year old, the oldest winner of a PGA Tour event.

Somehow he could not transfer his voracious appetite for winning tournaments on the PGA Tour to the Majors. He managed to win his first major only after he had 27 tour victories to his credit. But if at the end of the career a professional golfer has 7 Major wins to his credit then he will go down in the annals of history as one of the better exponents of the golfing art. The only blot, if you may so, was that he never managed to win the U.S. Open. He later on went to write in his autobiography “whether it was some kind of a jinx or whatever, it seemed that whenever the USGA flag went up at the Open, so did my score”.

A charming person and a true legend, he will go down in the annals of history as a great champion

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Golf Legends - Byron Nelson

Image Courtesy: Pat Perez Golf

The year 1945 in the game of golf will forever be associated with Byron Nelson. That year "Lord Byron" won 18 tournaments which included 11 tournament wins in a row. A record that still stands the test of time. Some say it is a record even more impressive than Joe De Maggio’s 56 game hitting streak. His 113 consecutive cuts made are second only to Tiger's 142 a streak that was snapped at the U.S.Open in 2006. But Byron Nelson's 113 consecutive cuts is a feat far more impressive than Tiger's achievement. According to the existing rules "The PGA Tour defines a cut as receiving a paycheck, even if an event has no cut per se. In Nelson's era, only the top 20 in a tournament received a check.”

In reality, Nelson's "113 consecutive cuts made" are representative of his unequaled 113 consecutive top 20 tournament finishes. Such a feat has never been accomplished by any other player. In the modern era, any player who makes the cut receives a pay but Nelson's feat is truly unparalleled because of the rule the PGA Tour had back then for cuts made.

A little known fact about his early days was that he caddied along with Ben Hogan at the Glen Garden Country Club and even beat him there in a tournament held for the caddies. Even though in 1945, some of the professionals on tour including Hogan were sent for active war duty, it would be unfair to say, that phenomenal win streak was because of a weakened field. Most of the top professionals played through the year and other than him, the other great during that period in Golf, Sam Snead, also won multiple tournaments. The reason why Byron Nelson was not sent for war duty was a peculiar health condition. It took his blood a lot more time to congeal than what is considered the norm.

He gave up golf the year after his special achievement because he wanted to spend more time in becoming what he thought was the reason for him to be on earth, a Rancher. The only reason he claimed he tried to win and in the process won 52 events on the PGA Tour was to get money to invest in his ranch. Obviously the windfall in 1945 ensured that his cattle would never have to worry about their next meal. The reason he took to Golf and chose to become a pro was because he had no other option. That was the period of The Great Depression and it meant he had no stable job and hence he took to the game as a source for earning income. This was one job he was never going to lose.

He was the first golfer after whom a professional event on the tour had been named, the EDS Byron Nelson Championship. Last year was the first time the event was played in his absence. He passed away in September 2006 and was awarded the U.S. Congressional Medal posthumously. It is the highest civilian award and he joined a club that includes the likes of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and many other great people.

A great golfer and an even better human being.

Golf Legends - Bobby Jones

Image: Painted portrait of Bobby Jones at Hoylake

You may as well blame a man for not robbing a bank”- Bobby Jones

That was the famous line that exemplified Bobby Jones’ great sportsmanship, a quality for which he would also be remembered, other than the fact that he was perhaps the best golfer before the Open Era. This happened in the 1925 U.S. Open when he called a two stroke penalty for causing the ball to move when no one else noticed to it. When praised for his act, his response to the praise was the above line. The U.S.G.A has named the Sportsmanship award after him.

He still remains the only golfer to have achieved the Grand Slam in golf, winning all the four major championships in the year 1930, which at that time included the U.S. Open, the British Open and the two amateur championships. No one really thought it was possible except for Bobby Cruickshank a golfer from Scotland who early in the year bet $500 that Jones would win all the four majors. He got 120-1 odds on that. By the end of the year he was richer by $ 60,000. Of course it was a real pity that Bobby Jones decided to retire from competitive golf at the age of 28. A degree in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech and one in English Literature from Harvard meant he was a very accomplished man. The greatest tragedy of it all was the fact that Golf was just a part time activity for him, something to which he only devoted a few months in a year.

The fact that he was a child prodigy who started winning events from the time he was 6 hardly helped his cause. Through most of his teenage years he failed to captivate the imagination of the golfing world and that is when the many stories of his famed temper started doing the rounds. Legend has it that he managed to control his temper after a championship in 1921 where he was paired with Gene Sarazen and the two bet against each other’s temper. Bobby Jones never threw a club through the round and did not have to let go of the $10 note, the amount of the wager. Not till he was 21, did he make the first big splash by winning the U.S. Open that started his period of domination which finally culminated with the Grand Slam in 1930 after which he curiously chose to retire from active golf.

His tryst with the British Open was an interesting one. He withdrew halfway through his first appearance at St Andrews in 1921, expressed his dislike for the Old course and thus incurred the wrath of the locals. He didn’t even bother to play in the Open championship the next few years. He only played the Open three times after that and won it on all three occasions.

But retiring from active golf did not mean that his contribution to golf had finished. He designed the Augusta National golf course along with Alistair Mckensie and founded the most prestigious Golf tournament, the Augusta Masters. His instruction manuals became a rage and still many young golfers around the world religiously follow his tips. A gem that I picked up from the lot, truly describes why he was such a great golfer-:

“The secret of golf is to turn three shots into two”

Golf Legends - Old Tom Morris

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia

Simply put, he was the W.G. Grace of Golf. There is no better way to describe the grand old man of golf who rose to fame through the second half of the 1800’s. Born in the ‘home of golf’, he went on to win the Open Championship four times. Old Tom Morris started his career as an apprentice to Allan Robertson who was considered by many as the first professional golfer. Robertson, in fact taught Old Tom Morris the art of making Featherie balls which was the norm during those days. It was one of the changes in the game that led to Old Tom Morris parting ways with Allan Robertson. The reason was the Gutta Percha ball which was a new invention and the standard ball adopted in golf after the Featherie.

He was born in St Andrews but he moved to the West coast of Scotland to take over as the custodian of the links of Prestwick. He was back at St Andrews after being offered a royal annual salary of 50 Pounds which was a lot of money during that time. Tom Morris spent nearly 40 years as the greens keeper at St Andrews and in his honour the green on the 18th hole at St Andrews is named after him. He was a master of many trades. Not only was he one of the best golfers of his times, he was also a club maker, course designer and a greens keeper.

Although he failed to win the Challenge belt on his first attempt it was not to elude him for long as he went on to win it four times, in 1861, 1862, 1864 and 1867. Contrary to popular belief, the Claret Jug was not the original prize for the winner of The Open. It was the Challenge Belt made of rich Moroccan Leather embellished with a silver buckle. Incidentally when the Claret Jug was first introduced in 1872, it was Young Tom Morris, son of Old Tom Morris who was the first owner of the Claret Jug.

A record that Old Tom Morris held for a really long time was that of the greatest margin of victory in a major. He won the 1862 Open by a margin of 13 strokes. It was a record that stood tall for a very long time till a certain player called Tiger Woods went on to win the U.S. Open in 2000 by a margin of 15 strokes. The record that Old Tom Morris still holds is that of the oldest winner of the Open Championship while his son, still holds the record for the youngest winner of the Open Championship. They became the only father-son pair to finish Winner and Runners Up when Young Tom Morris won the Open in 1869 and Old Tom Morris finished second. Together the two of them shared 8 Open Championships. Unfortunately Young Tom Morris passed away at the tender age of 24.

2008 happens to be the 100th anniversary of his death. After a fall down the new club at St Andrews, it is believed he never regained consciousness and died a few months later due to the injuries sustained by him.

One of the greatest quotes attributed to Old Tom Morris is one where he described the people of St Andrews by saying “We were all born with a webbed feet and a golf club in our hand here