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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Life's Little Moments and A Monster of a Course...

After a successful week at the PGA Championship, I postponed my trip to Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Wyndham Championship for a couple of days.  Thanks to my job and the travel demands it requires, I miss most of the “little moments” that take place in my children’s lives.  Whether it’s their first steps, first words or the trips to the ball field or dance studio…I have and will continue to miss almost everything.  I know, I know…I play a game for a living and I will be the first to admit that I am very blessed and fortunate when it comes to my career.  However, no success or achievement will ever replace those “moments” that I have lost along the way.  It makes me sad to look back over the last five years and think about how much the road has taken from me.  With that being said, there was no way I was going to miss another “first”…especially when my last tournament was only a few hours away.  I left Kiawah Island immediately following my round on Sunday and drove home to see my little shadow, Jake, begin his journey into Kindergarten bright and early Monday morning.  He begged me during the week of the PGA Championship to “please come home so you can take me to my first day of school.”  Without even blinking, I assured him that I would be there.  I played chauffer to and from school on Monday and then Tuesday morning before I headed north to Greensboro.  I cannot tell you how excited he was to have his Daddy (and Momma and Libby) alongside him as he walked through the halls and into his classroom.  I will always remember his face, his excitement and his thankfulness that I was there.  And to me…that’s better than any amount of success I will ever achieve on the golf course.

The 2012 Wyndham Championship was in some way, more of an experiment than a tournament.  After putting a new putter in place on the Sunday of a Major (crazy!), I kept it in the bag to see what it could do for an entire week.  The unexpected change at the PGA Championship was the first new look in almost two years!  I decided to switch the normal size Winn grip on my TaylorMade Spider putter for a bigger/fatter one (Super Stroke), which I truly believe gave me better feel on the greens.  I didn’t have a 3-putt during the entire week and I definitely made more putts beyond 10 feet than I had with my old putter.  In terms of statistics, I finished the week near the top in the two most important Putting Stats complied by the PGA Tour (6th in Putts per Green in Regulation and 13th in Strokes Gained).  In my opinion, the experiment was a success and I am looking forward to what it can do in the coming weeks.

I left Greensboro after another made cut and headed north to begin the most important stretch of the PGA Tour season…the FedEx Cup Playoffs.  New York City is the site of this week’s tournament (The Barclays) as we begin the first leg of a four-tournament elimination style format.  The infamous PUBLIC golf course, Bethpage Black, plays host for the week and from all indications…it is going to be a Monster.  In fact, when Lucas Glover won the U.S. Open here in 2009, it was regarded as one of the toughest Opens in history.  Players were unable to reach the fairways on several holes due to the extreme length.  I played the course for the first time on Tuesday and it certainly lived up to its reputation.  My swing coach, John Tillery, made the trip up from Georgia on Monday and we worked extremely hard on all areas of my game.  I feel really good heading into tomorrow’s first round and I am excited about the upcoming challenge that is Bethpage Black.  If I can drive the ball well off the tee then I WILL find myself in contention come Sunday.  Ball striking is a premium and judging from the last few days of practice…I am ready. Besides, shouldn’t I get a nod from the Golf Gods or have some sort of an advantage when the course’s name is Beth? I certainly hope so!  

This week’s question comes from James in North Carolina.  He writes:  Blake, what is the key to your success in the Majors?

Thank you James for the email and question.  I truly believe that my success in the Majors is a result of three things.  Number 1:  My Game Plan.  I have a very conservative but aggressive game plan.  The conservative approach begins at the tee with my main focus being the fairway.  My goal is to find the widest part of the fairway…regardless of what club it takes to get there.  Fairways are a premium!  For example, at this year’s U.S. Open I hit a 3wd or Hybrid off the tee on the treacherous 630 yard par 5, 16th hole just to make sure I hit the fairway.  When I am able to find the fairway, I can then play more aggressive and attack the tough pin locations.  Hacking it from the rough makes for a very, very long day!  Number 2:  My Mind Set.  Every Player knows that when they tee it up at a Major, they are in for a battle.  Birdies are hard to make while Ol Mr. Bogey is usually lurking around the corner.  You have to be prepared mentally to accept a few hiccups along the way but strong enough to bounce back from them.  As many of you know, I have a very even keel and laid back personality.  This certainly helps in my Profession when things aren’t going according to plan.  Golf can be a rollercoaster and if you let your emotions get the best of you...Good Luck!  Number 3:  My Overall Game.  I have always been a Player that has thrived on the tougher courses and setups.  I normally drive the ball well and as I mentioned earlier, fairways are a premium.  My iron play, short game, and putting are certainly respectable and I am able to contend in the Majors because these aspects of my game usually keep me away from the Big Number. 

Thankfully, this week’s tournament at Bethpage Black will play like a Major!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

One Lousy Shot...

With the help of Ol’ Mother Nature, The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, stood its ground and provided the field in the 2012 PGA Championship an extremely difficult test.  Resting against the sandy beach and shore of the Atlantic Ocean, the Ocean Course used all of its resources to challenge the participants in the last Major of the year.  Other than a calm Thursday morning, the wind whipped over the landscape of Kiawah Island and played havoc with every player’s golf ball.  No one was immune and I was extremely happy to see the tough conditions. 

I arrived to Kiawah on Sunday afternoon and after waiting out a heavy rainstorm, I played and practiced till dark.  The course was in immaculate shape and it was evident from the very first hole that ball striking was going to be the key to the week.  Tight fairways, shaved areas around the greens, and deep waste bunkers awaited each and every player.  I teed off late on Thursday afternoon and the wind was blowing between 15 and 20 mph.  As I mentioned earlier, the morning wave played nearly their entire round in 0-5 mph wind and their scores reflected the mild conditions.  I hit the ball extremely well and finished the day at one under par (71)…well back of the morning wave leaders.  My putter didn’t show up once again and my two three putts in round one left me less than satisfied.  I woke up Friday morning expecting the same “mild conditions” that the other wave experienced but the trees and flags at the course indicated a very different animal.  Winds in excess of 25 mph greeted my wave of players as we made our way to the course.  My goal for the day was simple…no bogeys.  I knew this accomplishment would soar my name up the leaderboard and I set out determined to achieve my goal.  I battled the wind and tough conditions until the bitter end.  15 straight holes of bogey-free golf were more than ANY other player in the field.  An untimely 3-putt ended my streak and another bogey on the following hole derailed a really good round of golf.  The average score for Round 2 of the PGA Championship was almost 79 and believe it or not, there were MORE scores in the 90’s than the 60’s!!  My score of Even Par (72) certainly wasn’t bad and it climbed me up the leaderboard but as you can imagine, I walked away disappointed thanks again to my putter.   However, all was not lost.  I was in contention in only my 2nd Major and just a few shots back of the leader.  I have always had a knack for playing the tough golf courses well and this past week was no different.  Round 3 found me paired with former Masters Champion Trevor Immelman and in a tie for 7th place.  I hit the ball well but once again, my putter let me down.  After 10 holes, I was a disappointing 3 over par but it wasn’t because of my ball striking.   My putting was dismal and it showed in my score.   Heavy rain and lightning forced everyone off the course with instructions to return ready to play at 7:30am.  26 holes awaited me on Championship Sunday and I was determined to make up the ground I lost on Saturday.   I came out and once again, I hit the ball well but my putter let me down (didn’t I just say that!).  I missed only one green during the completion of my 3rd round but unfortunately my cold putter didn’t erase the bogeys from the previous day.  A round of 75 plummeted me to a tie for 25th place heading into the Final Round.  Extremely frustrated, I walked up to my locker and searched for answers.  Over the last five weeks I have worked tirelessly on my putting but for whatever reason, the ball has refused to go into the hole.  I reckon that my Odessey putter of nearly 2 years had officially ran out of gas!  I took a chance and grabbed the TaylorMade Spider (Prototype) putter that was built for me on Monday and headed to the putting green.  To change putters in the middle of a golf tournament is crazy but to change putters before the final round of a Major is INSANE.  I figured that since the putts obviously weren’t falling that it couldn’t get any worse.  It was worth the gamble.

The final round of the 2012 PGA Championship found me in a pairing with two Major Championship winners…Jim Furyk (winner of the U.S. Open) and Louis Oostevein (winner of the British Open).  I hit the ball well for the 4th consecutive round and THANKFULLY I made a couple of putts along the way.  It is almost embarrassing to write but after my 20 foot birdie putt fell on the 16th hole, I can honestly say that it was the FIRST PUTT that I made during the ENTIRE TOURNAMENT OVER 12 FEET!  Think about that…69 holes before I made a putt of a decent length!  I followed that birdie up with another one (a bomb!) on the long and difficult par 3, 17th hole to keep the momentum going.  A nice 5 foot par putt on the 18th hole completed my BOGEY-FREE round of 67 and vaulted me up to a tie for 7th place.

There was good news and bad news with my 2nd Major of the year.  The good news is that I hit the ball well for four days, battled hard and stood tall against the tough and windy conditions, didn’t make a bogey in the final round of a Major, and finished in tie for 7th place against a very strong field.  The bad news is that I fell ONE LOUSY SHOT short of qualifying for the 2013 MASTERS!!   Blahhhhhhhhhhhhhh…yes that was me throwing up!  One shot…seriously…one shot!  One putt was all it would have taken…one lousy putt and I would have qualified for MY World Series.  Oh well.  I battled hard and fell short.  I will get to Augusta when I get there.   Who knows…this week in Greensboro, North Carolina, may be MY week to win a tournament and qualify for Magnolia Lane…The Masters! 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Two Calls to the Bullpen and My 2nd Major...

Since my last entry, poor putting has continued to plague my golf game.  Two consecutive missed cuts ended a streak of Saturday and Sunday tee times that dated back to April!  The first mishap occurred in Mississippi at the True South Classic.  Scorching temperatures played havoc on both players and caddies…especially the ones in my wave.  After playing only a couple of holes on Thursday afternoon, thunderstorms with heavy rain and lightning forced us off the course.  32 holes were in store for me on Friday and unfortunately my caddy Barry was feeling the heat…literally!  Temperatures near 100 degrees provided little relief and after watching Barry’s health decline as the day progressed, I became very concerned.  After pleading with him for quite a while, I finally was forced to call a medic with five holes remaining.  He was shaking uncontrollably and his face was ghost white.  Bogeys and birdies were the least of my concerns and the cut line quickly became a distant thought.  The medical staff arrived immediately and began working on Barry.  I was forced to continue on to the next hole and luckily, my good friend and former UGA roommate Davis Thomason was walking outside the ropes.  I made the “call to the bullpen” for a relief Caddy and the two of us tried to make enough birdies to play the weekend.  Two birdies during the stretch just weren’t enough as I missed the cut for the first time since April (definitely not a bad run!).  However, like I said earlier, my concerns were definitely on Barry for most of the day and I finally made the decision (against his strong wishes) to shut him down.  It was a very scary situation and after completing my round, I rushed over to the medical tent to check on Barry’s condition.  He was still hooked to IVs but his complexion and overall well being looked better.  I cannot thank the medical staff enough for their thorough care…not only for Barry but also for the other 10-12 guys that “fell out” during Friday’s scorching marathon.  In times like that, Golf definitely becomes secondary.

After a disappointing week on the golf course in Mississippi, I flew to Toronto, Ontario for this year’s RBC Canadian Open at Hamilton Golf & Country Club.  I sent Barry home for the week so he could get his health turned around and in shape for the rest of the year.  I went to the “bullpen” yet again but this time I brought in my swing instructor, John Tillery.  We both viewed our week together as a great opportunity to fine tune things before the FedEx Playoffs as well as a chance to lock up a spot in this year’s PGA Championship.  With the end of the season right around the corner, it is imperative that I am sharp during the Playoffs and playing my best.  I have certainly been close to some pretty special things over the past few months but for one reason or another, things haven’t quite gone my way in the end.  JT and I set out to make sure that when August arrived, that I would be pumping on all cylinders.  Hard work was once again the theme in Canada…not only at the course but also at the home we had for the week.  My good friend, Don Schroeder, lives in Burlington, Ontario, (just 20 minutes from Hamilton Golf & Country Club) and to both of JT’s and my delight, he has a Golf Simulator in his basement.  JT and I spent countless hours every evening hitting balls until we felt satisfied about my swing.  The hard work showed up from tee to green but unfortunately my putter decided to play Houdini yet again.  My second missed cut in a row lead to a short week in Toronto but in hindsight, it was probably a blessing for two reasons!  First, the early exit from Canada allowed me to go home and actually enjoy an off-week.  In fact, Saturday night was only the 7th time that I have slept in my bed since the first week in April (almost 4 months!!).  I cannot tell you how nice it was to be at home with my family.  I practiced everyday on my green behind the house and for the first time in a long, long time, I was able to tuck my kids in their bed. Secondly, by missing the cut in Toronto I didn’t hurt myself as far as my standings were concerned.  I slipped a little in the FedEx and Money List but most importantly, I still qualified FOR MY 2nd MAJOR of the year!

And that brings us to this week...the 4th and final Major of the year.  The Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, South Carolina.  In what some are predicting as the toughest PGA Championship test in years, I am excited and ready for the challenge.  This is my first PGA Championship and I will certainly use my U.S. Open experience from earlier this year to help with my preparation.  I arrived to the island on Sunday morning and stayed until dark working on my game.  Monday morning brought a similar work ethic as I was the first player to tee off at 7:15am.  My game plan is simple...fix the putting issues that has ailed me since my putter was accidentally bent five weeks ago and prepare for another U.S. Open type tournament.  The winds are expected to howl thanks in large part to the ocean that sits only a few yards away from the fairways!  The course is in immaculate shape and it should be an extremely tough test of golf.  I fully expect to play well this week and who knows…if my putter behaves, I just might find myself with a late tee time and a chance to win on Sunday.  Redemption from the U.S. Open?  We will see.

This week’s question comes from Erin in Georgia.  She writes:  Blake, Each week you are paired up with different players. How does the PGA decide who you are paired up with and when do they let you know who you are paired with?

Erin, thank you for the email and question.  Players on the PGA Tour are grouped into different categories according to their status.  There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 categories and players can move in and out of different categories depending on their play throughout the year.  For example, I am currently in category #20 (Top 125 on Prior Year’s Official Money List) and during my Rookie year on Tour I was in category #26 (2-25 Nationwide Tour Prior Year/Top 25 & Ties Qualifying Tournament).  Tournament fields begin with category #1 and move downward until their “number” and field size is met.  During the first two rounds, I am paired with members of MY category.  However, after the cut is made on Friday, I am paired with players who are next to me on the leaderboard.  So regardless of category or status, the weekend pairings are an “open market” and I play alongside members of any category.  Tuesday is the answer to the second part of your question in regards to when we receive our pairings for the 1st two rounds.  This is because the Tour waits for the Monday Qualifier to complete and by Tuesday, most players are on site and registered.