Monday, March 31

Errie Ball: Last Man Standing from First Masters


No. 13 at Augusta National Golf Club. (Wally Baba/Flickr)

On the trail of a golf story from yesteryear, I stumbled across Errie Ball, a Welsh-born pro who was befriended by Bobby Jones at the 1930 British Open and soon after came to America to be assistant pro at East Lake, Jones’ home course in Atlanta, Georgia.

I learned Errie, age 97, was the last surviving player from the first Masters in 1934 won by Horton Smith. I called him one afternoon in January at his Florida home.

“What was it like playing in that first Masters?” I asked.

“The first Masters, they were having a lot of trouble getting off to a good start,” Errie said. “It was like a friendly deal. I didn’t feel too scared or nervous at all in the first one because it was more relaxed. Bob Jones made it that way.”

Jones wasn’t the only thing that helped keep things loose.

“There was a lot of liquor floating around,” he added. “Of course, in those days, I didn’t drink anyway.”

It was far different the next time Errie teed it up at Augusta National.

“When I played it again in 1957 it was a different story. It was really big time.”

I’d be surprised if any living person has played with more golf champions from past generations than Errie Ball. In addition to Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, Errie later played with golf greats Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan.

In fact, Errie goes so far back I had to ask, “Did you ever meet Harry Vardon?”

“No,” he said. “I saw him in the distance and watched him. My father was a good friend of Harry Vardon. He had a beautiful swing. I know that.”

Errie has seen hundreds of swings in his 97 years and still spends time on the practice tee.

“I’ve had a couple of operations, which has taken me off the golf course and I haven’t really played 18 holes in two years,” he said.

“But I’ve hit a lot of balls on the practice tee and still give a few lessons. I’m feeling a lot better now and I think I’ll probably start playing soon.”

−The Armchair Golfer


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Saturday, March 29

Oops! Armchair Golf Misquotes Winston Churchill



“Golf consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
(not said by) Sir Winston Churchill


Biographical note: Sir Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II.



This misquote brought to you by The Armchair Golfer.
Getting it wrong for the love of the game.

Thursday, March 27

Armchair Q&A: SI’s Jim Gorant on the Masters

In his book, FANATIC: 10 Things All Sports Fans Should Do Before They Die, Jim Gorant takes you on his pilgrimage to golf heaven on earth, Augusta National. It’s good stuff for the golf or sports junkie. Jim provides vivid glimpses into this world-famous golf landscape and the strange sideshow outside the tournament gates.

The book, which includes nine other sports must-do’s, comes out in paperback the week before the Masters. Jim is a Sports Illustrated senior editor and a self-described sports addict. We hooked up via email earlier this month.

ARMCHAIR GOLF: It's been a few years since your sports fanatic boondoggle. Do you still owe your wife big-time?

JIM GORANT:
I owe her for agreeing to marry me in the first place. Seriously, I think it helps that the book turned out well. She's always proud of me, but in the end she enjoyed reading it herself and that helped make all the sacrifice and craziness seem worthwhile. It doesn't hurt that over time you tend to forget how bad things were. It's the same phenomenon that allows women to have more than one baby. Within months of having the first they sort of forget how miserable the experience was. Maybe sleep deprivation has something to do with it.

AG: You've no doubt watched the Masters all your life. What was most startling about actually being at the Masters and Augusta National?

JIM GORANT:
To me the most startling thing was the juxtaposition of the scene outside the gates at Augusta National and on the grounds. The course is pristine and beautiful, but you expect that. What you don't expect, or at least I didn't, was the sort of honky tonk, flea market feel that dominates the streets outside the club. It's sort of where Bobby Jones meets John Daly. If I'm being totally honest, I also love any chance to use the word juxtaposition.

AG: You were fortunate to see Jack Nicklaus in his last Masters appearance. What else is on your Augusta highlight reel?

JIM GORANT:
Amen Corner, Magnolia Lane, players skipping the ball across the water at 16 during practice rounds, lunch on the clubhouse balcony, and a friend who's a well-known TV personality trashing a customized golf cart while cruising around the development we were staying in the rain well after midnight.

AG: Did the experience disappoint you in any way? Now that you've been, have you gone back?


JIM GORANT:
I have been back and imagine I will certainly go again. I really loved it. It's just one of those places that so unique and so special that it makes you feel lucky to be there. You don't want to leave.

AG: I'll be a first-timer at the Masters this year. Any tips or advice? Should I go easy on the pimento cheese sandwiches
?

JIM GORANT: You're on your own with those pimento cheese things. I stayed away. Although I will say, they're a great deal, like all the food at the Masters. Otherwise, wear comfortable shoes because you're going to want to cover a lot of ground in order to see everything there is to see. As for viewing, I like 16 during practice, and the spot right by the 12th tee where you can see part of 11, all of 12 and all of 13. It’s beautiful and there's plenty of action.

AG: If you made a list of golf tournaments to see before you die, what events besides the Masters would be on your list?


JIM GORANT:
Good question. Obvious answers are the other majors, U.S. Open, British Open and the PGA. I also really enjoy the Players, because it's a such a different-looking course with lots of dramatic risk/reward shots. Beyond that I'd want to hit the classic venues -- Riviera, Pebble Beach, Colonial. Phoenix for the, um, atmosphere, and then something in Hawaii, because who doesn't want to go to Hawaii?

AG: Any good stuff you can share that didn't make it into the book?


JIM GORANT:
No. All the good stuff is in there.

−The Armchair Golfer

Wednesday, March 26

Masters Coverage at Armchair Golf

(Pocketwiley/Flickr)

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for the Masters. So while I keep an eye on the Zurich Classic and Shell Houston Open, I’m going to kick off my Masters coverage tomorrow. Here’s some of what’s ahead.

Q&A: SI’s Jim Gorant on the Masters

Jim is the author of FANTATIC: 10 Things All Sports Fans Should Do Before They Die. One of those things is trekking to Augusta National for the Masters.

The Last Surviving Player from the Inaugural Masters

I’ll have a piece on Errie Ball, who I talked to early this year. Errie, 97 years young, was a friend of Bobby Jones and played in the first Masters.

50-year Anniversary of Arnie’s First Masters Victory

Last fall I talked to one of the two men who tied for second in the 1958 Masters, the first of Arnold’s four Green Jackets. I’ll tell you what Fred Hawkins said and revisit the controversy surrounding that Masters.

First Sunday in April: The Masters
A preview of a new Masters book, a collection of stories from players and golf writers.

My First Masters
I’ll blog about my trip to the Masters for the Monday practice round. I’m going with John Coyne, the author of The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan and The Caddie Who Played with Hickory, due out in late April.

A Conversation with Mark Frost
I’ll have an interview with the author of The Match and The Greatest Game Ever Played. I had an enjoyable talk with Mark a few weeks ago about The Match (which, I learned, will be made into a documentary) and other golf subjects. The timing is a little uncertain, but I’ll probably have this interview for you soon after the Masters.

−The Armchair Golfer

Monday, March 24

USA Today Jinxes Tiger Woods

Geoff Ogilvy


Tiger lost. When was the last time you saw those two words in the same sentence? About six months ago. Absolutely right.

Tiger couldn't quite catch Geoff Ogilvy at the CA Championship completed Monday morning at the Blue Monster. Just like I've had such a difficult time comprehending Tiger's greatness, now -- after five straight PGA Tour wins -- I can't comprehend a loss.

So I'm going to take the easy path. I'm blaming USA Today.

Yep, that's right. They ran the big cover story on Tiger last Friday saying he's greater than Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Jim Brown and Willie Mays put together. (OK, they didn't really say that, but close.)

Forget the Sports Illustrated jinx. That's so last century. There's a new jinx. And it's so USA Today. The proof is the Friday edition.

I mean, how else can you explain those missed short putts and other silly things Tiger never does?

You can't.

-The Armchair Golfer

Sunday, March 23

Tiger’s Amazing Feel

(D Knowles/Flickr)

A gram is about the weight of a paper clip. You need to know that for this anecdote from a USA Today cover story about Tiger Woods published on Friday.

According to the story, Nike had Tiger test a prototype driver a few years ago. He hit three versions and pronounced he liked the light one.

They all weigh the same, Nike said. No they don’t, Tiger insisted.

So the Nike research team put them on a scale and discovered the one Tiger preferred weighed two grams less than the other two.

I’m not sure if Tiger will win today at Doral. He’s five back going into the final round with some good players in front of him, including Geoff Ogilvy, Adam Scott and Vijay Singh.

Will the streak continue? We’ll know in a few hours. Meanwhile, I have a plane to catch and won't find out until late tonight.

UPDATE: As you may know, the leaders didn't finish Sunday and completed the back nine this morning. Overall, the play was lackluster with Geoff Ogilvy hanging on for a one-shot victory. Tiger made a few birdies on the back nine but it wasn't enough. No one was holing putts or making a charge.

−The Armchair Golfer

Friday, March 21

Las Vegas Without Golf Clubs

I flew into Las Vegas yesterday afternoon for my nephew's wedding. It was 31 degrees and windy when I left home. The Las Vegas weather forecast is monotonous in a way that I can definitely handle: 79, 79, 79. (Hey, I'd take those as golf scores, too!)

I have something in common with South African pro Louis Oosthuizen: no golf clubs. Not because of the airlines, though.

I didn't bring my clubs because this weekend isn't about golf. I don't often see my family since we live on separate coasts, so it will be great to spend time together. Maybe I'll also catch a little March Madness and golf on the tube.

I may be sans clubs, but what I did bring (besides a dark suit for the wedding) is a pair of shorts, something I haven't worn for at least six months.

-The Armchair Golfer

Wednesday, March 19

South African Needs Golf Clubs to Play with Tiger

“It should be great fun. But I wish my clubs would arrive.”
-Louis Oosthuizen, on playing with Tiger Woods at the CA Championship


The airlines messing with your golf equipment. That’s not what you need when you have a tee time with Tiger Woods.

After a long flight from Johannesburg to Miami, South African Louis Oosthuizen stepped off the plane and learned that his golf clubs were missing.

Welcome to America. Enjoy your stay. Good luck playing with Tiger.

Ping was making up an extra set of clubs for the 25-year-old Oosthuizen just in case. What is his game plan for playing the Blue Monster with Tiger?

“I've got to focus on my game, because I’ll be looking at him the whole time,” Oosthuizen told The Associated Press. “I want to see how he handles himself, because that’s the level we all want to get to.”

I think we’ve heard this before.

-The Armchair Golfer

Monday, March 17

Q&A: The Field Looks Ahead to Doral

Tiger Woods (C. ONeal/Flickr)

ARMCHAIR GOLF caught up with The Field after Tiger’s stunning victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Q: Thanks for doing this. It must be difficult after such a heartbreaking loss to Tiger Woods. What were you thinking when Tiger was standing over that last putt?

THE FIELD: That there’s no earthly way a human being can make that putt to win a golf tournament. We thought we had played well enough to get into a playoff.

Q: Then it goes in.

THE FIELD:
Right.

Q: Pretty clever to throw Bart Bryant at him.


THE FIELD: We didn’t plan it. It just worked out that way this week. Frankly, we’ll take anybody who can play decent and keep his lunch down when Tiger’s name is on the leaderboard.

Q: Tiger’s record and current win streak are phenomenal. How do you explain his dominance?

THE FIELD:
Where do we begin? The guy does everything so well. He won a heckuva lot when he had some weaknesses. Now he’s really hitting his stride. What’s Tiger won against us –- five straight?

Q: Yes, five on the PGA Tour and seven worldwide.


THE FIELD:
Right. Another thing, though, is he really knows how to pick his events. He’s very fussy about his schedule, where he plays, how he prepares. We have to play every single week.

Q: That’s true, but you’re putting about 130 guys up against Tiger every time he tees it up no matter where he plays. Shouldn’t that be an advantage?

THE FIELD: Actually, it’s more like 70 players. That’s about how many make the cut and play on the weekend. So we’re only really putting 70 up against Tiger.

Q: OK, 70. How do you like your chances this week?


THE FIELD:
Tiger has won five in a row and three straight at Doral. How do you like our chances? Seriously, over the years our record is pretty good at Doral. But we’re not going to pop off. We don’t want to give Tiger any bulletin board material.

Q: What’s your game plan?

THE FIELD:
We just have to go in there and, after our guys make the cut, take it 70 shots at a time and hope we have a good week. It doesn’t really do any good to worry about what Tiger’s doing. We just have to focus on our own 70 games.

Q: And hope you get a win against Tiger soon?

THE FIELD: Well, sure. But even if we don’t we can take away some positives.

Q: Like what?


THE FIELD:
We’re doing well on the money list. Some of us will make the Ryder Cup team. Stuff like that.

Q: I see what you mean. Thanks, and good luck this week.


THE FIELD:
You got it.

(This is an ARMCHAIR GOLF spoof.)

Saturday, March 15

David Feherty No Match for Truck

The next thing I know, I'm at Baylor Medical Center, the only hospital in the United States that doesn't have the Golf Channel.
−David Feherty

CBS golf analyst David Feherty still had his razor sharp wit, even with three broken ribs and a punctured lung. Feherty was riding his bicycle near his home in Dallas when a truck hauling irrigation equipment squeezed him to the edge of the road and smacked him with a side mirror.

Feherty said he would be laid up in the hospital for a few days, but would be ready for the Masters telecast.

His most pressing concern? The leader of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, not easy to know at the Golf Channel-less Baylor University Medical Center.

Maybe he should have been taken to Parkland Memorial.

−The Armchair Golfer

Thursday, March 13

Golf Novelist Tries to Break Out of the Pack

(Glasson/Flickr)
For millions of golfers this would be paradise, the stuff of February daydreams. But for the guys I was playing with, this wasn’t paradise. It was just another day to post a score or barf on their khakis.

That’s an excerpt from the opening of Between Clubs by John Ochwat, a writer from Portland, Oregon.

“I've written a golf novel, which I entered in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest,” John wrote in a late January email.

“The contest took nearly 5,000 novels in the first round, and cut the field to 836 semifinalists. Last week I got the good news that my novel, Between Clubs, is a semi-finalist.”

Penguin is the contest sponsor. You can learn more about Between Clubs and download it free here.

−The Armchair Golfer

Tuesday, March 11

No Ernie at Arnie’s

Scratch Ernie Els from the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, where Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will return to action this week.

Els won the Honda Classic to start the Florida Swing, snapping an 0-for-47 winless streak on the PGA Tour.

“It was a difficult decision because I enjoy playing here,” Ernie wrote in his weekly diary. “But I have to be honest with myself and the fact is, I felt mentally pretty tired in Tampa.

“I want to stay fresh for the Masters, so I think a week off now is the right thing to do. I’ll stay out here in the U.S. and work on my game.”

This week’s question: Will Tiger continue his win streak?

−The Armchair Golfer

Sunday, March 9

Bernhard Langer Survives Seven-hole Playoff

Bernhard Langer (Fortsonre/Flickr)

Finally. It’s over.

While reading up on other golf news, I’ve been keeping an eye on the Toshiba Classic (Champions Tour) in Newport Beach, California. Jay Haas fired a 65 today to catch and pass third-round leader Bernhard Langer.

But Langer birdied the 72nd hole to force a sudden-death playoff. Many times these playoffs are settled in a hole or two. Not this time. Haas and Langer went seven extra holes before Bernhard sunk the winning birdie putt on the par-five 18th.

The pair completed the 18th hole three times in the playoff, and twice played the 16th and 17th. It’s another good (and hard-earned) win for Langer.

UPDATE: I just saw the last two playoff holes on the Golf Channel. Haas nearly chipped in for an eagle on 18 (the ball ducked in and came out) and then uncharacteristically missed a four-footer to give Langer the win. It was the first-ever playoff loss for Haas, who is now 5-1 in playoffs.

−The Armchair Golfer

Thursday, March 6

Ryder Cup Captain Paul Azinger All About Hotness

Paul Azinger (Fortsonre/Flickr)

I saw this over at the Local Knowledge Blog at GolfDigest.com. The topic is captain’s picks for the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

“I think if some guy wins three tournaments in a row on the Nationwide Tour and his last tournament is the week before the week I pick, I probably pick him,” Captain Paul Azinger was quoted as saying.

“I probably pick him because I'm pretty sure that dude is hot. I'm looking for anybody that I think is blazing hot.”

But that wouldn’t apply to any other Tour –- or would it?

“I might not care if they come from the Senior Tour,” Zinger added, “keep that in mind.”

Well, that’s different. What do you think?

The Armchair Golfer

Tuesday, March 4

‘The Match’ by Mark Frost

From the author of The Greatest Game Ever Played, The Match tells the story of a 1956 private match between two legendary pros –- Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson –- and two top amateurs –- Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi.

The match was arranged by Eddie Lowery, a millionaire who caddied for Francis Ouimet in the 1913 U.S. Open (The Greatest Game Ever Played), and George Coleman, a baron of industry and close friend of Ben Hogan. The setting is Cypress Point Golf Club on the Monterey Peninsula just prior to the Bing Crosby Pro-Am.

I had read about this famous match over the years, but, to my knowledge, Mark Frost is the first to tackle it in book form. The subtitle (The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever) struck me as hype, but Mark makes a case by explaining golf's professional-amateur paradigm of the mid-20th century.

If you know nothing about it, the match itself was an unbelievable day of golf that has become legend. Mark Frost writes pretty sentences, and he escorts the reader around Cypress Point with his usual skill.

I was curious to see how Mark would stretch the material into a book. The answer is he intersperses the personal stories of the four players, Lowery and Coleman. I’ve read fairly extensively about this period and managed to pick up new information, particularly on the colorful, fun-loving Harvie Ward.

If you like a well-told story from the early era of professional golf, you’ll certainly enjoy The Match.

The Armchair Golfer

Sunday, March 2

Lorena Ochoa: ‘I Like the Way I’ve Started’

Twenty under. That pretty much says it all about the first 2008 start for Lorena Ochoa at the HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore. Lorena won by 11 strokes over second-place finisher Annika Sorenstam.

When asked to put her opening victory into context, Lorena said:
It means a lot. To me it's a great motivation, you know? It makes me want to play better, to win more. But like I said, sometimes there is just no explanation. It just happens and it was a great win for me. Everything came together at the right place, and I'm ready to keep going. I do want to have a great year this year. I know it's going to be tough, we're just at the beginning, but I like the way I've started.

And what did Annika think of Lorena’s performance?
She's playing well, but it's nothing I don't think that's not achievable by any means. I think I'm playing as good from tee to green, so I'm very proud of the way I hit it.

It’s only one tournament, but I think Annika and the rest of the ladies have their work cut out for them.

The Armchair Golfer