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Monday, December 17, 2007

Lessons from the Tour

If you've ever attended a golf tournament, you know that there are two ways you can follow the action: hoofing it or parking it (or getting drunk in one of the food tents and watching it on TV, but that doesn't really count, does it?). Me, I'm more of a hoofer. I like to think that while I walk the course I not only appreciate the course design and see a variety of different players and shots, but get a workout in the process. Parking it in a grandstand? Please. I'd rather sit on a bed of nails. Ouch.

Yet at the last two tournaments I attended I've parked it. Last February at the Nissan Open (what's now called the Northern Trust Open), I sat in the bleachers behind No. 14 at Riviera, a downhill, 176-yard Par 3 into an easterly wind. I watched a couple dozen marquee players come through: Harrington, Garcia, Furyk, Els, Mickelson and the eventual winner, Charles Howell III. Some were playing well, others, not so much.

Here's what I observed:

1. Even though the pin was cut just on the other side of a cavernous bunker, nobody purposefully (as far as I could tell) played it safe. Every player-all 24 of them- took dead aim at the flag. The Lesson: Tour players, unlike most amateurs, know their distances and control their ball spin. Not that all of them pulled this off, of course, but it's a little peek into what makes a Pro a Pro. Know your distances, know your limitations.

2. As I recall there was only one birdie in the first five or so groups, and it was a chip in. Nonetheless there were plenty of good opportunities. A 10-footer here, a 12-footer there, still nobody rolled one in. All that changed when the leaders came through. Els, Furyk and Howell all birdied. The Lesson: Players are in contention because they carry hot putters. The algorithm is simple: good putting=lower scores.

3. Trust a good caddie. Some lesser-known players had Riviera caddies on their bags. Although the Pacific Ocean is (a few miles) behind the green, caddies were trying to convince their players to factor the ocean into their read. From where I was sitting the break looked pretty subtle, but I knew that most greens slope from back to front. Most newbies thought so too. In fact some players were so adamant about it that they were getting into arguments with their caddies. Sure enough, the ones who were convinced their putts broke toward the front of the green were shocked to see that, indeed, all putts break toward the ocean. The lesson: trust a caddie who loops in professional tournaments! And a bit more realistically, all putts break toward the agua.

Later this week I'll talk about another tournament where I was stuck in the bleachers and a few of the lessons I learned there. Stay tuned.

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