It’s been something of a whirlwind two days: I began the weekend wanting to write something about Tiger’s exit from the Players Championship—specifically, the incident last Friday when that kid reportedly said, as Tiger Woods left the course for the day, “Say goodbye to #1, Tiger! Kiss it goodbye!” If Phil Mickelson had won the tournament, Tiger would have surrendered his crown as #1 player in the world. It was a great anecdote, with obvious allusions to the old story about the kid confronting “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in 1919: “Say it ain’t so,” said that child, then, a tone so different from Tiger’s child-demon; Mickelson, who happened to overhear the exchange, said “Be polite” to the kid. But that isn’t what this will be about.
Nor will it be what I had thought since late Sunday night would be the big story of the week: Robert Allenby’s series of weird decisions to close out the Players Championship and essentially hand it over to Tim Clark. Not that Clark didn’t deserve to win—he shot the low round of the day, 67, when a lot of the field wasn’t breaking par—but Allenby’s decisions seemed to take a lot of the drama out.
To clarify, I am not talking about the two putts missed at 16 and 17—the last one, especially, reminded me of Jack Nicklaus’ line: “I made it but it didn’t go in”—but rather the decisions he made on the 18th hole, which the press asked him about repeatedly afterwards. This Sunday, Allenby was the last man on the golf course with a chance to tie Tim Clark, and he needed a birdie on 18 to do it after missing chances at 16 and 17.
I’ve written about Allenby before, most notably questioning his work with his caddie at Torrey Pines earlier this year when Allenby, near the lead of the tournament on Sunday, flew his ball over the green at 14 and essentially blew his chances at the win with one swing. (Incidentally, it seem to me that “Caddie Killer” Allenby’s looper at the Players was not the same guy as his looper at Torrey, though it’s hard to tell.) Sometimes the putts fall and sometimes they don’t, so it’s hard to criticize Allenby on that front.
What’s hard to understand is how, knowing he needed a birdie to tie, he hit a 3-wood off the eighteenth tee instead of his driver. At the press conference afterwards Allenby defended his decision by making three different points. Let’s tackle them in order, shall we?
1. “That’s the toughest tee shot on this golf course … especially if you’re a right-to-left player like myself, and you’ve got the wind coming off the right and into.” Allenby actually makes a solid point here: it’s hard to birdie from the water.
2. “it’s just not a hole that you can hit driver because if you hit it straight, you’re going to be blocked out with the trees. I did that the first day with 3-wood” Uh, Robert, Lee Westwood and virtually everyone else in the field hit driver here, and I didn’t notice any of them blocked out by trees. And what trees are you talking about anyway? The ones on the right side of the fairway? Very little about this makes sense to me.
3. “I think I’ve only ever hit one driver in my whole life on 18, and that was into about a 30, 40-mile-an-hour wind.” Allenby returns to some kind of sense here: ok, he isn’t used to hitting driver at that hole. It’s a defensible decision, even if his reasons for never hitting driver there—see #2, above—are pretty inexplicable. The thought is, stay with what’s comfortable. But as Allenby hasn’t won in the United States for nine years, maybe he shouldn’t be looking for “comfortable.”
After the tee shot, Allenby was left with a 4-iron to the green, strange because a lot of other players (who hit driver off the tee) were left with 6 or 7-irons or better to the green. If you need birdie, which club would you rather be hefting?
After hitting that 4-iron to the right of the green, Allenby decided to putt instead of chip, despite the fact that while putting is generally better than chipping for amateurs, pros know that chipping usually has a better chance of going in the hole (while also having a greater chance of missing the hole by a greater margin than a putt would). Allenby defended that decision afterwards by saying “I know probably the commentators are going, oh, he should have chipped it. But you know what, I’d love to see them get in that situation and try to do that.” Well, that’s certainly true. But it’s also true that most commentators aren’t PGA Tour pros, and Allenby is. If anyone has the skills to pull off that shot, one would have to conclude that Allenby should be among them. It isn’t clear from his response whether Allenby really thought his best chance to make it was to putt, or whether he was thinking that he definitely didn’t want to give up a chance at second place.
Allenby’s trevails aside, what I really came away from the weekend—in golf, Monday is the weekend—wanting to write about however was my participation in Monday’s local qualifying for the U.S. Open. I ended up getting the bag of a member’s kid from my home track, Dan Stringfellow, who just happens to be this past year’s Illinois high school champ. The kid was unbelievable, at times driving it a hundred yards past the two pros in our group, and his record matches his skill: the only guys close to him for their high school careers are, all of them, present or former members of the PGA Tour. He’s only 17 still, at least for another week or so, but he’s been recruited to play at Auburn—a relative golf powerhouse—next fall.
Illinois of course is not particularly known as a golf powerhouse, though the state has produced a few pro golfers like Jay Haas, Todd Hamilton, Gary Hallberg, and a few other guys. But Stringfellow might be on another level than those journeyman pros: the sound his club makes meeting the ball is different than almost any professional player I’ve ever heard. The great players do make a different sound than others: talking about Jason Heyward, the Atlanta Braves new prospect, Terry Pendleton (the Braves hitting coach) said recently that “There are just some guys that hit the thing, and it’s, like, Oooh, that’s different. That’s way different.” It’s the same in golf—Tiger Woods, in 1999 anyway, sounded way different than anyone else on tour. Stringfellow makes a similar sound, which doesn’t make him Tiger Woods, yet, but it does mean that he has, as the recruiters like to say, potential.
Unfortunately, it seems that he hasn’t figured out the flat stick yet, as we missed something like 6 to 8 putts that easily could have dropped. He didn’t make anything more than 5 feet—and missed one of those. So the 75 he actually did shoot could have, with very little imagination, been a 68. Or better. The kid, it seems is still learning how to go really low; it may be that playing against Illinois high school competition, where 75 is a good score, hasn’t pushed him enough as yet. It may be that, like Allenby, he hasn’t developed enough of what the gutter press likes to call the “killer instinct.” But Stringfellow’s story is just beginning: he may or may not be the kid to knock Tiger off his pedestal, but the kid that will is alive now, somewhere. The only question, really, is whether he’ll be polite.