Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 11, 2019

Distractions And Golf’s Curse Mar The Northern Trust

Patrick Reed won The Northern Trust on Sunday, besting Abraham Ancer by one stroke and both Harold Varner III and Jon Rahm by two. For golf fans that would normally be the big story of the weekend, especially because despite its chief sponsor being a financial services company, The Northern Trust is not the usual insurance company open or banking conglomerate invitational that make up much of the PGA Tour’s regular season schedule. Rather it’s the first tournament in the season-ending FedEx Cup Playoffs, now unfolding over three events instead of four. While capturing the FedEx Cup will never be mistaken for claiming a major in terms of its impact on a golfer’s career, winning the season’s championship, not to mention the $15 million bonus that one earns for doing so, makes the three-week pursuit a pretty big deal. So it seems important to mention Reed at the start, because both the victory and his resulting leap up the FedEx Cup standings from 50th to 2nd were largely overshadowed by a series of progressively greater distractions that began before anyone in the 125-man field teed off in Thursday’s opening round.

The setting for this year’s Northern Trust, Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, was itself the first thing to take the attention of both players and spectators away from the play inside the ropes. Built on the site of a former landfill, the course sits on the banks of the Hudson just across that river’s wide expanse from Manhattan. That makes for one of the most unusual and scenic backdrops in all of golf. If the sight of the Freedom Tower, Empire State Building, and Gotham’s other skyscrapers in the distance isn’t sufficiently diverting, there’s the Statue of Liberty rising just offshore, seemingly no more than a well struck 3-wood away. With the tournament scheduled to alternate between New England at TPC Boston and Long Island at Bethpage Black over the next four years, it will be at least half a decade before tournament golf is again played before such unique vistas.

Then there was the weather. Late Wednesday a series of particularly violent thunderstorms rolled through the New York metropolitan area, and Liberty National was not spared. The course was soaked and there was significant damage to the tournament’s infrastructure, including some grandstands and several hospitality tents. While the grounds crew was able to make the golf course playable in time for the first Thursday tee times, PGA Tour officials decided not to open the gates to fans until late morning, after the worst of the damage had been hurriedly repaired.

That in turn created what must surely have been one of the most unusual sights in tournament golf over the last two decades – Tiger Woods playing without a horde of spectators in tow. With an early tee time for the first round, Woods and his playing partners were on their second nine before the masses could set foot on Liberty National’s ground and begin the hunt for their hero.

When fans finally caught up with Woods what they saw was less than scintillating play, the direct result of a back injury that flared up during Wednesday’s pro-am. Woods returned a 4-over 75 for round one, and then withdrew before the start of round two on Friday. While he is safely in the 70-man field for next week’s BMW Championship, the withdrawal dropped Woods out of the top 30 on the FedEx Cup points list, meaning he’s not currently qualified for the Tour Championship. The more urgent question is whether he’ll be able to play at all.

Given his history of back and leg injuries, Woods’s withdrawal prompted a wave of speculation among the game’s media about his future. More than a few pundits predicted that this week marked the end of his time as a force in the game, with the doomsayers forecasting fewer and fewer appearances by Woods and little chance of future victories. Few of these pundits acknowledged that they were the same scribes who confidently predicted a return to the number one world ranking and victory in multiple future majors after Woods’s improbable Masters win just four months ago. The reality then and now is almost certainly somewhere in between these two extremes, but in the internet age moderation in either tone or substance apparently doesn’t generate enough clicks.

Once the Tiger speculation died down the tournament should have become the main story, but any hope of that was derailed during Friday’s second round. That’s when Bryson DeChambeau, the defending champion at The Northern Trust and one of the Tour’s young stars, became just the latest example of the disease of painfully slow play that too often sucks the interest out of even the most compelling event.

With his devotion to the physics of golf, DeChambeau is one of the slowest players on Tour. The rule, almost never enforced, is that a player has 40 seconds to execute his shot once it’s his turn to play, but the 25-year-old with five Tour wins regularly goes well over that limit. During Friday’s second round fans videoed a pair of particularly egregious instances. The first was when DeChambeau faced a 70-yard wedge shot from well off the fairway after an errant drive. Because it wasn’t a location he had previously marked in his yardage book, he walked to the green and back, pacing off the yardage, and then took time to make his mental calculations before finally swinging a club. That play was swift compared to his performance on the 8th green, the next to last hole for DeChambeau and playing partners Justin Thomas and Tommy Fleetwood. The player nicknamed the Scientist (though DeChamSlow would be better), took over two and a half minutes to survey an eight-foot putt. Thomas and Fleetwood were both visibly upset, and the Golf Channel announcers were roasting DeChambeau while he made his calculations, and again after he finally putted and missed the hole. Both videos quickly found their way onto social media, and the Twitterverse exploded with negative comments. What was most telling was the number of those that came from the accounts of other players.

DeChambeau defended himself to the media after Saturday’s third round, but the gist of his explanation was that other players hadn’t said anything directly to him and that he wasn’t the only pro guilty of slow play. Neither defense goes to the heart of the matter, which is that DeChambeau’s snail pace, as well as similar styles by too many other players, causes fans to lose interest, is unfair to other players in his group, and has become a blight on the game. What’s worse, when a dreadfully slow player is, like DeChambeau, a popular golfer who youngsters might decide to emulate, that style of play quickly spreads beyond the confines of PGA Tour events, eventually infecting country clubs and local munis.

After Reed’s victory (remember him?), the Tour announced that it would review its pace of play policy, specifically citing the two DeChambeau incidents and the reaction to them on social media. That’s only good news if the review produces change. Until current rules are enforced, and new, tougher ones put in place and enforced in turn, slow play will continue to be golf’s scourge. The Tour’s review is welcome but given the history of non-enforcement that allows DeChambeau and others to get away with spectacles like the ones at Liberty National, golf fans should remain understandably skeptical.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: