Domain Change

Hey everyone. Just for reference, the URL of my blog has changed from http://www.alexurbansports.wordpress.com to http://www.justtapitingolf.com.

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30 minutes with Hudson Johnson

NGA Tour member Hudson Johnson graduated from Vanderbilt in 2010 with a degree in economics. He is second on the Vanderbilt golf team’s all-time win-list behind PGA Tour winner Brandt Snedeker.

NGA Tour player Hudson Johnson

In his rookie season on the NGA Tour, Johnson won the Timber Creek Classic in Daphne, Ala., and also claimed the Members Only Shootout, which paid for his entry fees into all NGA Tour events in 2012.

This week, the NGA Tour returns to Timber Creek Golf Club and Johnson looks ready to defend his title. The easy-going and affable Texan sat down for an interview today following his strong opening round of 5-under 66.

You’re the defending champion here at the Timber Creek Classic. What has winning on the NGA Tour done for your confidence?

I’ve noticed with myself that at each level it takes some time to get comfortable for some reason. As soon as I feel like I can compete, I start playing better.

I’d started playing well [prior to the 2011 Timber Creek Classic], and I played with some of the guys that were winning out here, and I thought — I’m not saying I am better than them, but I can play with them — that on a given week I can be better than them. I had a good finish the week before at Hawkinsville (Ga.) coming in here, and I came in feeling good.

Then when I won it was like, alright, I can do this. And that’s essentially what I want to keep trying to do: Feel like whatever level I get to, see who the best is out there and try and compete with them.

Do you think that is what makes the NGA Tour so valuable? The fact that it allows players to compete against professionals at this level, which the average golf fan might not even be aware of?

The thing is, if you take the top-10 guys out here on the NGA Tour, they are good enough to play anywhere. One or two of them are going to play at the top of the Web.com Tour and the top of the PGA Tour.

Just look at Ted Potter Jr., who won the Greenbrier Classic two weeks ago and was a two-time winner on the NGA Tour in 2011.

Exactly. At any given time, you’re playing against the next Ted Potter, or you could be the next Ted Potter.

What is your most memorable experience of playing golf at Vanderbilt?

Easily my freshman year, when we qualified for regionals out in Tempe, Ariz., and we were out of it by four or five teams going into the last day. As a team on the last day we shot 21-under — just absolutely blazed them — and ended up qualifying for nationals. But that last day was awesome. We came in and everybody was like “boom, boom, boom.” It’s fun to win something on your own, but when you have that team aspect and everybody’s pumped up about it and like, “Hell yeah, we just did that,” it’s more enjoyable to have people to celebrate it with.

Do you still follow Vandy sports?

Some, yeah. I like sports, and I have my teams. I was friends with a lot of guys on the football team, so the first two years out, I watched a lot more football games than I do now, same with basketball and baseball. I kept up with my buddies more than I kept up with the actual team. But I of course still like watching the games and going to as many as I can.

You’ve been called “the most interesting man on Twitter” but you recently deleted it, why?

I think several reasons. One, I was just getting tired of being on it all the time. I guess I realized that it is a fault of mine — like how if you’re an alcoholic, you can’t drink alcohol — and I was becoming a Twitter-holic. Everyday I would constantly be checking it. I didn’t like that. On top of that, I felt like I was way too caught up in social worlds and realms that I was no longer a part of [laughs], so I needed to get out of it. I am worrying what these people are reading when I tweeted, and I am not seeing this person but once a year. It was making me too self-conscious.

You recently started wearing button-up golf shirts more than traditional golf polos. What is your reason for that?

I just felt like wearing something else for a little bit. Who knows, and this could be a little premature [laughs], but when I am able to get out there on the PGA or Web.com Tour, maybe I can sign a clothing deal and start making some stuff like that. That’d be cool. I don’t like golf shirts. I think they are boring. The route now is everyone is going bright, like Rickie Fowler and all that, all these loud colors. I am not into that either. I’ve always liked old-school clothes. I would like to eventually get it to how guys used to look, like Sarazen, Hogan and Nelson. Those dudes had a sharp look about them. Just the tailored, sharp look that I wish they would start making. I don’t know, maybe I can help break that ground somewhere. Button-ups that look good, but that are also performance oriented, because most of those old-shirts weren’t.

What are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of your golf game?

It’s kind of both. I ride waves. So, when things are going well I can get them to go really well. Unfortunately a lot of times, when things go poorly, they can go really poorly. If you had to look at me from the outside, you’d say I am mainly a ball-striker and if the putter gets hot, it gets good.

Weaknesses are mainly short game and putter. Sometimes it’s really good and sometimes it’s really not. So I would say consistency more than anything. I think most of that is mentally learning how to stay comfortable.

What is something that the average golf fan might not realize about being a professional golfer?

It’s a great job, but at the same time it’s a lifestyle. Everybody’s like, “Oh you play golf for a living,” but they don’t realize it’s a lifestyle. It’s not like I am out here four days a week hitting golf balls and other than that I am doing nothing. I am out there all day, every day. Everybody is. Most of these guys work out; we watch what we eat. I guess it is just not as easy as everyone thinks it is. It’s not just loafing around.

Don’t get me wrong, there are guys at every level who are just kind of loafers who don’t do much, but for the most part, you aren’t going to find a dude out here who is really lazy, except for the people that don’t really want it. The time off maybe is good, but dealing with the pressure day in and day out for 30 weeks a year puts a strain on you. It’s like working out. The first rep, the first bench press you do is fine. But if you do that 30 times at max weight, you’re going to be worn out. It’s a lot more taxing mentally than people realize.

If you could win any professional golf event in 2013, which would you choose?

The Masters. That or the British Open. The Masters is just the Masters

Obviously if I told said you’d win a U.S. Open next year you wouldn’t argue?

Yeah [laughs] I wouldn’t argue with you. I mean the U.S. Open is awesome. The PGA Championship is great. It’s a major championship so of course you want to win it, but at the same time if you don’t play golf, you don’t watch the PGA as much compared to the other three. But if you said I could win the PGA, heck yeah. I don’t think Keegan Bradley is upset at all that he won the PGA [laughs].

The British Open you have to show so much character and grit. Same with the U.S. Open. But if I had to pick one it’d be the Masters. Because it is the freakin’ Masters.

Your dad played baseball at Baylor. Did that athletic background help you get started in sports?

One thing a lot of people don’t know about me, is that my dad is not actually my biological father. My real dad died when I was seven from a brain tumor, and my mom remarried when I was nine. But he adopted me, so he is my dad. Everybody around here knows him, and they sometimes call him Mr. Johnson, even though it isn’t his last name. But I don’t mind, and he doesn’t either. He’d never correct you. When I started picking up golf and getting into it, he was very influential. He has always been a hard worker. So he has always stressed that. From the get-go at an early age — I started the year before high school really, so I didn’t have much experience — he was good with how he went about it. He said. “If you want it, you need to work at it. You need to catch up to these guys.” But he didn’t stay on me and drive me or anything like that. It was very cool to have him there. That competitive nature he has, we share that.

The Olympics start tomorrow, do you think Olympic golf in 2016 is something that is going to be viewed at as important to the big names in the golf world? Will it be high on the list for a guy like Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods?

I don’t know why it wouldn’t be. You’re representing America against the rest of the world at the Olympics. That’s tight. How badass would that be? I would definitely, love to play in the Olympics. Not even for the golf aspects of it. Just the fact that you are representing the U.S.A. in the Olympics would be really cool.

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PGA decides to avoid Whistling Straights Act 2

Breathe easy, Dustin Johnson.

In a move that players in the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in South Carolina will praise, the PGA of America has decided to make the numerous sandy areas on the Ocean Course “through the green,” rather than bunkers as they were at the 2010 PGA Championship in Whistling Straights.

What this means is that players will be able to remove loose impediments around their golf ball and lightly ground their club with no penalty. If the sandy areas were played as bunkers, players would not be able to ground their clubs and could not move any loose impediments.

It appears the PGA of America wants to make this rule known very early so there isn’t a repeat of Whistling Straights in 2010, when Dustin Johnson was penalized for grounding his club in a bunker on the 72nd hole, leaving him two-shots out of a playoff with Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer.

“With the unique topography of The Ocean Course, natural sandy areas spread throughout the entire property, The PGA of America Rules Committee has determined that all of these areas will be treated alike and played as through the green” said PGA of America President Allen Wronowski. “We believe that by establishing the Condition of Play for the 94th PGA Championship well in advance of the Championship it will help players and spectators prepare for this spectacular Major Championship experience.”

This is a prudent move by the PGA and will make for less rules controversies at the PGA Championship this year. The 845,000 bunkers at Whistling Straights — just a rough estimate, give or take a few — were all played under the bunkers as a hazard rule, but it wasn’t clear to all the players and fans. Making the rule this clear removes ambiguity and will allow word to get around to every player in the field.

I am willing to bet one player won’t get the rule wrong ever again in his career: Dustin Johnson.

 

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Monday qualifying madness

For professional golfers, earning a spot on the PGA Tour is the ultimate goal, if even for one week.

The path to precious PGA Tour and Web.Com Tour exemptions is murky. There are the regular PGA Tour exemptions for members, sponsors exemptions, earned exemptions and Monday qualifiers.

For most professional golfers, the only viable option to earn exemptions is through Monday qualifiers and earned exemptions through developmental tours.

There are Web.Com exemptions up for grabs at this week’s NGA Tour Classic at Achasta Golf Club presented by Ace Wiring Systems and next week’s TimberCreek Golf Classic.

The increasing number of PGA Tour and Web.Com Tour exemptions available to developmental tours — the total number of exemptions awarded this season on the NGA Tour is seven — gives them a different route to the best events, rather than playing in Monday qualifiers.

Monday qualifiers are intense. For PGA Tour events, players must play in a pre-qualifier on Thursday — unless they are exempt, which few are — just for the right to tee it up in the Monday qualifier.  After the pre-qualifier, roughly 70 to 100 players battle it out typically for four spots.

Web.Com Tour events don’t have the Thursday pre-qualifiers and there are usually 14 spots available, but they are still difficult to advance through.

The trouble with the Monday qualifying system is that it requires players to shoot ultra-low to advance. With a plethora of quality players at every qualifier, a few are bound to shoot extremely low rounds.

Is a one-round birdie-fest really the best way to decide who gets life-changing exemptions? Deciding who plays in PGA Tour and Web.Com Tour events through one round is like deciding who moves from AAA baseball to the majors based on one at-bat.

Just this week, NGA Tour players Clayton Rotz , Ken Looper, Greg Sonnier and Austin Gutgsell attempted to qualify for the True South Classic in Mississippi on the PGA Tour. Sonnier and Gutgsell were able to earn exemptions, but the other two were not so lucky. Looper was the medalist in the pre-qualifier with a 63, but his 5-under 67 in the Monday qualifier left him on the outside looking in, two shots back.

“I feel that [Monday qualifiers] are really tough to get through,” Looper said. “It’s not necessarily a good measure of who should be in the event. You shoot one low round and you’re in.”

In four attempts, Looper has never advanced through a Monday qualifier.

“It’s like playing a four-round tournament and the winner comes off the first round,” Looper said.

If the PGA Tour and Web.Com tours want to add players that have proven themselves in competition, it would be prudent for them to give more exemptions through developmental tour events rather than through Monday qualifiers, where players can get on a roll over a short period.  The quality of the fields on the PGA and Web.Com Tours would be improved in this fashion.

Rotz finished one shot out of a 5-for-1 playoff in the Monday qualifier for the True South Classic when a player in the final group came in and bested his 6-under 66. He agrees that it would be beneficial if more exemptions were given to proven NGA Tour players.

“It would be advantageous [to have more exemptions given to NGA Tour players], because you would be giving them to guys who have proven themselves out here for almost an entire year, instead of maybe a guy who just goes out and plays good on one 18-hole round,” Rotz said.

Adding exemptions is exactly what the NGA Tour has tried to do this year to give its players a shot at playing on the biggest stage. The tour has been given an exemption to the Reno-Tahoe Open on the PGA Tour and exemptions to six Web.Com events.

Monday qualifying is unique in that it gives anyone a chance to qualify. NGA Tour players Randall Hutchison and John Hurley were able to Monday qualify for the John Deere Classic earlier this season, where Hutchison made the cut. Bo Hoag, another NGA Tour regular, played in the Honda Classic after advancing through a Monday qualifier. One of the difficulties of the Thursday and Monday qualifiers is that players on a tight budget have to wait around all weekend, and it is far from guaranteed that they will make the field.

“If you’re out of town, it means travelling on Tuesday, playing a practice round for the pre-qualifier on Wednesday, hopefully making it through, hanging out Friday and Saturday and then playing another practice round on Sunday for the Monday qualifier,” Hoag said.

Not only that, but if a player makes the field, they are there all week. Hotel costs and expenses can add up quickly and it is an extra strain on players.

NGA Tour member Hudson Johnson realizes the opportunity available at every Monday qualifier, but doesn’t believe it should be the only way for players to play in big events.

“If Monday qualifiers become the sole way to get out there, man you are a doing a disservice to a lot of people that have grinded their way through developmental tours for a long time” Johnson said. “There should be more reward [other than money] for somebody like Brandon Brown. It’s great that they win the money, but they deserve more as far as moving up.”

The NGA Tour has been home to many players recently that are able to compete on the Web.Com and PGA Tour. Nine NGA Tour players moved up last year to the PGA Tour and Web.Com Tour through qualifiers and earning status, including 2012 Greenbrier Classic winner Ted Potter Jr.

Golf is in a unique position as an individual sport. There is no draft. 18-hole qualifiers are a short-term solution for most players, and it can be difficult to move up for anyone but those on the Web.Com Tour, especially with the new system of PGA Tour qualification beginning in 2013.

“There are no scouts out here like there are in other sports,” Johnson said. “If you are not on the Web.Com Tour it is difficult to move up, even if you are very deserving.”

Increasing the number of exemptions for developmental tours would create a better avenue for players to advance to higher levels in their careers. Ideally, the top money leaders on developmental tours such as the NGA Tour would be given some sort of status on the Web.Com Tour. Earning tour exemptions this way would be a strong overall test of a player’s ability to compete week in and week out in four-round events.

Until that happens, exemptions awarded to high finishers on developmental tours are helpful in getting stronger players into Web.Com and PGA Tour events.

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The third U.S. Open

The U.S. Senior Open begins on Thursday at Indianwood Golf and Country Club in Lake Orion, Mich. Don’t be fooled by the relaxed atmosphere and over-50 age requirement, this is a U.S. Open.

The course is tough. The 6,862-yard layout was designed by Wilfred Reid, who is known for designing a plethora of golf courses in Michigan. The layout features an exorbitant amount of heather, which makes it look at times like it is in the United Kingdom rather than the Great Lakes State. There are elevated greens, deep bunkers and everything you would expect from a USGA Championship-caliber course.

 

The real star of Indianwood is the 18th green.

The 18th at Indianwood is different than the rest of the greens on the course.

In a word, the 18th green is unique. The first thing you will notice is its size. It’s massive. It looks more like a double green at St. Andrews or Carnoustie than the finishing hole of a private club tucked away north of Detroit. The possible hole locations on this green are never ending, and the USGA will certainly find some diabolical locations for the weekend rounds.

But it isn’t just the size of the green that makes it unique, it is also its drastic slopes and undulations. The picture above doesn’t do it justice, but trust me, you’ll find flatter pieces of bubble wrap.

Bernhard Langer, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open champion discussed the challenges of preparing for the 18th green, as well as a new golf course, in his pre-championship interview on Tuesday.  “Well, the 18th is so big you can spend an hour on there trying to chart that thing down, I think, with all the slopes and undulations,” Langer said. “Never seen anything like it, and I just saw it, I’ll spend a couple of extra minutes looking it over and writing down some of the humps and bumps.”

Humps and bumps might be the perfect word to describe the green. David Feherty usually refers to bumpy greens as having “Rhinoceroses buried underneath them,” but Tom Lehman had other ideas.

“I mean there’s something in there (under the 18th green). Volkswagen Bugs, maybe a few General Motors cars and Buicks.  Something is in there.  I don’t know.”

One thing is for certain, The unique green will be pivotal in deciding the champion of the 2012 U.S. Senior Open.

“You really have to do your homework to understand if they put the pin in this spot, where is it that I can actually make a par from and where is it that I can’t,” Lehman said.

One interesting difference between the U.S. Senior Open and a regular Champions Tour event is the same reason the majors on the PGA Tour are unique: The venue changes from year to year. Aside from the Masters, changing major venues provide an interesting challenge in learning a golf course in one week and trying to get comfortable enough to deal with the pressure of a major championship.

“This is a course that I’ve never seen before, so I take a little bit more time checking it out and making notes and trying to figure out how to attack it,” Langer said.

What most golf fans might not realize is that golfers and caddies make detailed green charts of every course, and it takes a significant amount of legwork to make sure every break is accounted for. With a new golf course, this has to be done from scratch. The green chart for the 18th hole looks like a topographical map of the Himalayas. No word yet on if the club has made Sherpas available to help players scale of some of its numerous bumps.

The point of this discussion is to highlight the fact that Indianwood is a unique and challenging course that is worthy of being called a U.S. Open site. The USGA prides itself on setting up the toughest test in golf for its respective fields. This week, that field is made up of over-50 golfers. Some are well known, like Tom Watson, and some are lesser known, like Larry Daniels.

The third U.S. Open kicks off tomorrow. Expect a tough and fair test.

 

 

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No crowds, no passion?

The AT&T National will look more like a college tournament than a PGA Tournament today.

If you haven’t heard, 80 mph winds knocked down over 40 trees at Congressional Country Club last night. In the interest of safety, the tournament has decided to keep spectators and volunteers off of the golf course until it can be further cleared today and tomorrow. The event will still be covered on CBS this afternoon.

That’s right, PGA Tour golf. With no spectators. Without a doubt it is going to be a strange experience for everyone involved, but it also adds an interesting twist to a tournament that was already compelling.

What will happen? Will the players still fist pump? Will they get angrier than they would have with people around? Will there be more lost balls with less people there to spot them and keep them in play? How will they cope with nobody yelling “Get in the hole” and “Mashed potatoes” on every par-5 tee shot?

One question that is easy to answer is whether or not the players will still fist pump, get angry and show emotion on the golf course — of course they will. Professional golfers don’t get up in the morning and try to win golf tournaments for the fans. They win for themselves. Emotion, both positive and negative, is the output of thousands of hours of hard work that only the player truly understands. For this reason, I expect just as big of a Tiger fist pump if he holes an eagle putt or a chips in today as I would on any other day. Fist pumps and anger are not a show for the fans, they are an expression of personal achievement and frustration that simply can’t be held in.

Even I have fist pumped a few times in high school tournaments and or the occasional scramble. And trust me, my galleries topped out in single digits at their highest. Another good example is the NGA Tour, where galleries are smaller than on the PGA Tour. Guys out here display emotion out on the golf course. This is their livelihood. This is what they work for day in and day out. With that in mind, it is no wonder they show emotion. The margin between success and failure in this sport is extremely thin; one shot here and there can be the difference between hitting it big and spinning your wheels.

With nobody on the golf course, it is likely that players will find themselves in more precarious positions than normal. The ball is bound to roll into some places it wouldn’t if the usual 3,000 ball barriers surrounded every hole. Players will likely have more gloves than ever before, since they won’t be signing and giving any away for hitting spectators.

What I am looking forward to the most is how the players deal with the odd pressure of being on television in front of no crowd. Most of these players have played in front of no crowd in college, but for many it has been a while. When was the last time Tiger Woods teed off in competition with no spectators? Hopefully someone in the media will ask that question, because I would like to know.

It will be difficult to gauge whether the peculiarity of having nobody out there will increase the pressure, or if having no spectators will make it feel more like a relaxed practice round. I guess all we can do is wait. And watch.

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AT&T National: Congressional transformation

While Rory McIlroy was dismantling Congressional Country Club last year en route to an eight-shot U.S. Open victory and a 16-under-par score, it was easy to forget that the event was, in fact, the U.S. Open.

Receptive greens made for a test that was vastly different than we are used to seeing from the USGA, but that doesn’t mean it was worse. Without question, the best player in the world won that week — McIlroy hit 62 of 72 greens. Of course the USGA would have liked the greens to be more Olympic Club-like, but sometimes mother nature just doesn’t cooperate. Nightly rain and unseasonably hot temperatures created a situation that was beyond even the best course superintendent and championship director’s control. The greens were soggy, and the rough couldn’t grow because the hot temperatures absorbed all of the water.

While the championship wasn’t a conventional U.S. Open, it was still a gripping event as McIlroy put on a virtuoso performance and announced his arrival as a superstar.

This week the PGA Tour again travels to Congressional for Tiger Woods’ event, the AT&T National. The course will resemble the course that saw McIlroy life the trophy for his first major championship victory, but in many ways it will be different. The fairways won’t be quite as narrow and the course won’t be quite as long. Despite the fact that the course isn’t being set up by the USGA this week, I believe the winning score will be higher than McIlroy’s 16-under total. Why? Because of mother nature.

Whereas overnight rain softened Congressional’s new and vulnerable greens a year ago, rain will not be an issue this year. The current weather forecast for the D.C. area includes something called a “Fire Weather Warning.” I’m no expert on weather, but that doesn’t sound like conditions that will slow the greens down. Also, the greens were redone for the U.S. Open, so they were still settling last year, which contributed to their softness. With an extra year of maturation, they are firm and fast.

The temperature for the opening round is supposed to be a cool 99. Warm temperatures should mean the ball will be flying a few extra yards, but it also is a physical grind to play through that kind of heat. I have played golf on days that are around 100 degrees, and by the middle of the back nine, water doesn’t seem to be effective anymore. As I sit here in Houston at the NGA Tour’s Golfcrest Classic, there are pros playing in the pro-am and the temperature is pushing 105. Thankfully, the temperature is supposed to dip a bit for the weekend, but if you don’t think the heat affects players, you’re wrong.

Depending on the hole locations, this week could be a test worthy of its host, Tiger Woods. Ben Crane tweeted today that the course is playing firm and fast and noted the finnish on 18 is brutal. Even with soft greens, the 500+ yard finishing hole was a monster at last year’s U.S. Open. Expect it to claim many more victims this year.

Congressional is a typical old-school, tree-lined course with undulating fairways and tricky greens. Looking at the course when I was at the U.S. Open last year reminded me of places like Oakland Hills and Firestone. The venue is great and the strong field will be put to the test. With the hot weather and firm greens, look for a score higher than McIlroy’s U.S. Open total to come out on top.

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