Several years ago, in one of the many enlightening chats I have had with Gary Player, he spoke about his pet peeve in golf – the distance generated by the modern-day golf ball.
While making his impassioned plea to the world’s governing bodies to rein in the golf ball, Player mentioned something very interesting. He said: “The golfers are only going to get bigger and stronger. The other day, I saw this Long Driving Championship, and there were these well-built players hitting the ball miles.
“Imagine a basketball player deciding to take up golf. He is going to be six-and-a-half feet tall, well built, athletic. How long will he hit it? It will be a nightmare. Most golf course designs will be obsolete because of them.”
Player really could have been talking about Dustin Johnson. The American has won on the PGA Tour every season since making his debut in 2008 (except for 2014 when he took that much talked about six-month leave of absence). And yet, he is only recently starting to live up to his potential.
His two wins in last two starts – the US Open at Oakmont and the World Golf Championship-Bridgestone Invitational – could really be the start of something special.
Dustin Johnson becomes the 2nd player in last 3 yrs to win a major and a WGC event in the same season (Rory McIlroy, 2014)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 4, 2016
Johnson is 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 87 kilos. But he is not just brute strength.
In a 2011 Sports Illustrated interview his trainer Randy Myers revealed that Johnson’s standing long jump would put him in the 93rd percentile among NBA players, and his three-cone drill (used to measure speed and agility) was in the 80th percentile among NFL skill-position players. Myers concluded: “I’ve been doing this for 23 years, and he’s the best athlete I’ve ever seen.”
Most experts agree that Johnson would have made a career in whichever sport he chose, simply because of his immense physical abilities. Johnson refuses to talk about his 2014 absence from the game, but whatever he did, seems to be working for him.
He had a reputation for being a party animal before that (a video of him caught by police while DUI went viral), but has looked like a change man following the birth of his first child with Paulina Gretzky in January 2015.
Going back to Player’s fear, the one stat that jumped out of his stupendous effort at Akron was the average driving distance – 342 yards! That really is bad news for any golf course. Most course designers would put their hazards around the 270 to 300-yard area on the fairway.
But given Johnson’s exceptional length of the tee, he has taken almost everything out of play. So, should we be wary of Johnson and the effect he can have on professional golf? Perhaps. But at the same time, we have two amazing examples in Jordan Spieth and Lydia Ko which reinforces the belief that there is so much more to golf than brute strength.
Spieth is constantly 40-50 yards shorter than guys like Johnson and Rory McIlroy, and yet, he has won two majors in the past two years and was the world No. 1. On the LPGA Tour, Ko ranks 117th in driving distance at 248.4 yards, way behind the phenomenally talented and athletic Alexi Thompson (driving distance leader at 284.2 yards). And yet, Ko is the women’s world No. 1.
Golf course designers are the not the only ones who must be complaining about Dustin Johnson. The man who has really suffered from his recent exploits is Scott Piercy.
The 37-year-old American, a three-time champion on the PGA Tour, is clearly playing the best golf of his life. He was runner-up to Johnson at Oakmont in the US Open by three shots, and then was left the bridesmaid once again in Akron as he finished one shot behind the same man.
U.S. Open:— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelESPN) July 3, 2016
1. Dustin Johnson
T-2. Scott Piercy
1. Dustin Johnson
2. Scott Piercy
Piercy has now made $1.76 million in his last two starts, improving to 17th in the PGA Tour Money List and 22nd in the FedEx Cup points list. More importantly, in these two weeks, he has jumped from 66th in the world ranking to No. 25.
Obviously, not many fans remember the second-hottest player on the Tour, but Piercy can take heart from the oldest adage in sport – if you keep knocking on the door, it is bound to open one day.
$706 million – the total sales of Nike Golf for the year ending May 31. That represents a drop of nearly six per cent in sales despite the fact that the golf market grew overall, and in America, Nike Golf’s biggest market, the number of rounds played have increased by 5.5 per cent (according to National Golf Foundation).
A part of the problem for Nike is the growing influence of Under Armour and Cobra-Puma Golf, and the recent success of TaylorMade’s M1 and M2 clubs.
As far as the feel-good story of the year in golf is concerned, it will be extremely hard to beat Bill Hurley III winning the Quicken Loans National.
In a tournament that aims to honour and raise funds for soldiers, Hurley’s win at the fabled Congressional Country Club in Washington was the best possible script.
The 34-year-old American, as we all know by now, is a US Naval Academy graduate and served the country for several years before achieving his dream of becoming a professional golfer.
The Quicken Loans National, hosted by Tiger Woods, an unabashed fan of the military having grown up with his soldier dad, has played a major role in Hurley’s life. It was in this tournament last year that he experienced some of the darkest days of his life.
On July 30, 2015, Hurley made an impassioned plea for the safe return of his father, who had gone missing. He was found a day later, but two weeks after the incident, Willard Hurley shot himself dead.
A former Walker Cup player and one-time world No. 6 amateur, Hurley’s game suffered and he lost his card. Then came some incredible bad luck when he played well in the four-event Web.com Tour Finals, only to miss a full membership for 2016 by a mere $394.
Playing on sponsors’ invitations and events his low category could give him a start in, Hurley continued to struggle this season, missing eight cuts in 13 starts with his best finish being tied 41st at AT&T Byron Nelson Classic. There were time he thought of quitting the sport, but for someone who had the famous dying command of James Lawrence ‘Don’t give up the ship’ drilled in him, that wasn’t an option.
Bill Hurley has now played 104 PGA events & finished top-10 just 8 times. Three of them at Congressional. Don't @ me, Course History haters.— Adam Levitan (@adamlevitan) June 27, 2016
It all changed last week on a golf course that is just a short drive from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he graduated from. Hurley shot 17-under par and played like a champion.
One of the best stats of his win was that he became the lowest ranked player in the world to win on the PGA Tour this season. He had started the week as world No. 607, the previous lowest was No. 513 Brian Stuard at Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
But even after the tournament, the legend of Hurley continues to grow. The win had earned him a place in the Open Championship at Royal Troon in two week’s time. Giving up on an Open spot is not the easiest thing for a professional golfer, but Hurley did just that on Wednesday, preferring to be present for his sister’s wedding which is scheduled the same week as The Open.
Bill Hurley III…truly, an Officer and a Gentleman.
Hurley hogged the entire spotlight at Congressional, but spare a though for Jon Rahm.
The Spaniard, who was the low amateur the week before at the US Open, turned pro at Quicken Loans National and showed his enormous potential once again by finishing tied third in the tournament.
Rahm, a former amateur world No. 1, had earlier played in the Waste Management Phoenix Open last year and finished tied fifth. The 21-year-old is already up to No. 285 in the world and while a dream Ryder Cup spot at Hazeltine in two month’s time would be asking for too much, he could be Europe’s star in 2018.
We are in the midst of what has been the most contentious week in the recent history of professional golf.
At one stage, June 27-July 3, 2016, was threatening to tear through the fabric of world golf. The 100th Open de France was always scheduled for this week by the European Tour, and when forced to change their calendar to accommodate Olympics, the PGA Tour pushed up the dates of WGCBridgestone Invitational to this week.
Given the importance of the French Open – France is hosting the 2018 Ryder Cup and the French Open is the biggest and oldest tournament in continental Europe – the European Tour threw a hissy fit and when all failed, they withdrew their sanctioning of the WGC event.
Because of the French Open and WGC-Bridgestone coinciding, only 60 of the 76 players who qualified will be playing in Akron.— Global Golf Post (@GlobalGolfPost) June 27, 2016
A lot of additional perks were given to the European Tour members who are playing in Paris, including double Ryder Cup points.
Shane Lowry, the defending WGC champion, decided to go to Akron and defend his title, but a majority of other stars have shown their support for European Tour by either playing the French Open, or missing both the tournaments.
1 – Maverick McNealy, son of Sun Microsystem founder Scott McNealy, is now the best-ranked amateur golfer in the world.
“I promise you, I would have thrown a fit. I wouldn’t have hit another shot. I would have sat there.”
– Jordan Spieth when asked what he would have done if he were in Dustin Johnson’s position during the US Open rules fiasco.
As painful as it has been to witness the exodus of golf stars from the Rio Olympics, there really are two ways of looking at the whole thing.
Obviously, as a competition, the absence of players like Jason Day and Rory McIlroy will devalue it. The lustre of the gold medal will appear that much dimmer even if someone like Jordan Spieth wins it, and even he is having second thoughts.
So, reintroduced in the quadrennial games after 112 years, is golf already a flop? That’s one way of looking at it, but only from the perspective of the International Olympic Committee and telecast partners NBC.
There are detractors who will say that golfers are not trying their best to be there. Unlike track and field stars and swimmers, the Olympics is not the pinnacle for a golfer. It could become as important as a major in the future, but that will definitely take some time. But things are not that bad from golf’s own point of view.
Olympics are not a career priority for golfers so inclusion probably not the best idea regardless of Zika fears. https://t.co/cSUbiTUazg— Michael Johnson (@MJGold) June 29, 2016
The main reason the International Golf Federation (IGF) wanted to become a part of the five-ringed extravaganza was to have an opportunity to develop the sport in parts of the world where it is not popular. Let’s face it, countries like the USA, Australia, South Africa and Ireland do not matter in the larger scheme of golf in the Olympics.
What would make a difference, is if guys like Anirban Lahiri of India, Wu Ashun of China and Miguel Tabuena of Philippines refuse to play. These are the countries that are going to benefit the most from the Olympic connection.
Back home in India, golf used to receive absolutely zero support from the government. However, now that it is part of the Olympics, there will be financial support for the Indian Golf Union, foreign coaching programmes for youngsters and funds to upgrade facilities and buy equipment.
This kind of largesse is not extended to non-Olympic sports. It’s almost a similar scenario in China and several other Asian and African nations.
And historically, the absence of a few stars hasn’t hampered other sports in the past.
When tennis returned to Olympics in 1988, three of the top male stars at the time – Mats Wilander, Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl – as well as the top-ranked doubles pairing of American Robert Leach and Jim Pugh, did not show up at Seoul, even though there was no fear of epidemic then.
This year, two of the greatest basketball players of modern times – LeBron James and Steph Curry – are not going as well. But basketball won’t suffer. And in football, we have seen various limitations put on the teams eventually selected, apparently because FIFA does not want Olympic football to rival its own World Cup.
Adam Scott, who WD'd from Rio, says Olympic golf would "grow the game" more if amateurs were playing instead of pros.— Will Gray (@WillGrayGC) June 29, 2016
Despite the withdrawals, the field for men’s golf remains strong. Spieth is still undecided about his participation, but reigning US Open champion Dustin Johnson and twice Masters champion Bubba Watson are looking forward to the new challenge.
World No. 5 Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, reigning Masters champion Danny Willett and former US Open champion Justin Rose are also planning to make the trip.
On the women’s side, the only player to drop out is South African Lee-Anne Pace. I am sure it will be a case of Citius, Altius, Fortius for golf in the Olympics eventually with, or without, the world’s top players.