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An Open Letter to Trey Anastasio: Golfers Frequently Win Majors 'Shooting Par' or Worse!

By: Jay Flemma


Dear Trey:

Congratulations to you Page, Mike and Fish on another stellar fall tour and, in particular, another excellent Halloween show. You guys totally killed it! It was both fun and interesting to see you perform so many new songs on such a special occasion. Here's my best wishes to the four of you that the new album is a tremendous success, and I look forward to seeing you over the New Year's run, where I know you'll once again send MSG into orbit. And, hey! - how great would it be to one day see Phish supplant either Elton John or Billy Joel with a banner in the rafters for most MSG shows?!

As you remember, besides being an Entertainment/IP/Sports lawyer here in the City, I'm also a sports writer who has covered nine U.S. Opens, eight PGAs and the Masters. So I couldn't help but take note of the lyric in your song "Wingsuit" that, "You'll never win a major only shooting par." With great respect to someone whose music has been an enormous part my life for the last 27 years (yes, I go back that far!), and from one sports fan to another, please allow me to share some fascinating sports history with you: Golfers frequently win majors shooting par . . . or worse!

Before I begin, please don't mistake this for "correcting you" - I wouldn't presume. I know your lyric is a metaphor, I get that. Still, I love telling sports stories and I know how much of a sports fan you are. Look at this more as me sharing some great sports stories with my friend who has told me so many great musical stories over the years.

I know what a great sports fan you are (and even a former athlete - some of my closest friends played lacrosse with you at Taft at the same time I was at Deerfield . . .). After all, you once praised "Cam Neely! Kicking the Penguins ass!" in 1991 (although that didn't turn out too well), and your devilish little "Duke 72…Arkansas 76!" from the Flynn Theatre show brought the house down. You even referenced the U.S. Open back in 2009 when you were on Long Island, and of course the golf gag last New Year's was off the charts. So as a sports fan, enjoy this little walk through history for the journey.

It's quite common for golfers to win the U.S. Open with scores of even-par or higher. The Open brands itself as "Golf's Toughest Test," and the USGA likes to call it a "final examination" in golf. They actually try to make the winning score approach even-par, though they deny that to their graves in public. They sometimes even "trick up" the golf course with ankle-high rough, supermodel-thin fairways, and gargantuan length in order to suppress scoring. For decades the mantra has been that 280 wins the Open - meaning an aggregate of 280 strokes over the four days, even-par on a par-70 golf course. Sometime courses that are normally a par 72 or 71 are actually lowered to a par of 70 so that the "score to par" will be closer to even.

Trey & Page Hit Balls into the MSG Crowd

Just last year, for example, Justin Rose came from three shots back on the final day to beat Phil Mickelson at Merion Golf Club to win the Open. His winning score was 1-over (281). The year before, Webb Simpson shot the exact same score to win the U.S. Open at Olympic Club's Lake Course, although he had a lot of help from Jim Furyk, who threw up on his shoes all day. Furyk e wears a hat advertising "5 Hour Energy," but watching that was more like 5 Hour Agony.

Although Rory McIlroy shattered every major U.S. Open scoring record in 2011 with his 16-under (268 aggregate) dismemberment of Congressional Country Club (and because of that Congressional may never get another U.S. Open . . . it's just too easy), the year before saw Graeme McDowell win at Pebble Beach with an even-par score. So that's three times in the last four years that par or worse took home the trophy. In fact, scores as high as 5-over won twice recently: Geoff Ogilvy at Winged Foot in 2006 followed by Angel Cabrera at Oakmont the next year.

Experts point to several historic milestones in U.S. Open history as to when and why this "harder is better" mentality took over the U.S. Open. Some say it was Ben Hogan romping to victory at Riviera in 1948 with an 8-under score that led the USGA to toughen up the tournament. By illustration, Hogan won again in 1950 and 1951 with a score of +7 each time (287): once at Merion when he returned from his near-fatal car crash, hobbling to victory on all but shattered knees, and then again at Oakland Hills over a golf course so tricked up with rough that one writer called it "the toughest course ever designed by man, ghoul or Robert Trent Jones."

After that, over-par scores won the Open every year from 1954-59, and continued to win after that at about a 50 percent clip until we get to 1973. That is the other watershed year/defining moment for the U.S. Open being "Golf's Toughest Test." That year, at previously (and thereafter) unconquerable Oakmont, Johnny Miller shot a 63 to close and stole the tournament with the greatest final round ever seen at a U.S. Open. His winning score was 5-under, but it was that 63 that stuck in the USGA's craw . . . so badly that next year's tournament became known as the "Massacre at Winged Foot." They made the course so hard, Hale Irwin won with a 7-over 287. The next best score was 9-over and some golfers finished with scores of 30-over or more. It was a bloodletting worthy of a horror movie franchise.

Van de Velde & His Temporary Insanity at Carnoustie

Now the USGA really didn't have to go all Freddy Kruger on the field in response to Miller's 63, there was a reasonable explanation for it. The course had been flooded by rain for the entire week, and golfers had been playing lawn darts. They could fire at the pins with impunity. It was "Soakmont," not Oakmont, and the course was defenseless. The only reason why we "ooh and ahh" over Miller's 63 is because it happened on a Sunday, where he came from behind to win. Frankly, everyone is sort of getting sick of it because Miller never shuts the hell up about it. Nevertheless, measures had to be taken to protect the imprimatur of the tournament as being the hardest test of the year. So when the Open rolled around the following June, the only thing missing from Winged Foot was fire breathing dragons guarding the flagsticks, and believe me, if the USGA could have gotten away with that, they'd have tried it.

When we talk about the Masters or the British Open, your lyric is much closer to the mark. Since World War II, the British Open has been won with a score of even-par or worse exactly six times. More recently, Padraig Harrington won his second consecutive Claret Jug in 2008 at Royal Birkdale with a score of 3-over, but that tournament was plagued with freezing rain for its first three days. Though golfers are well-used to the sometimes shockingly cold, rainy weather that can hit England or Scotland even in July, they called it among the worst conditions they'd ever had to play golf in.

"It was as bad as Muirfield in 2002 . . . I wouldn't leave my ex-wife out in this," quipped one pro.

It happened again in 1999 at Carnoustie in Scotland, when an unknown named Paul Lawrie won with 6-over, defeating another unknown named Jean van de Velde. You might remember Van de Velde as the guy who tripled-bogeyed the par-4 72nd hole, blowing a three-shot lead. The pictures of him with his shoes and socks off and pants rolled up as he stands in Barry Burn looking at his golf ball are some of the most surreal in golf. That tournament also was a bit of a statistical outlier, though. Carnoustie wasn't a golf course that year, it was an obstacle course, choked with rough, stretched to an ungodly length, and with fairways so criminally narrow you had to walk down them single file.

A Dejected Phil Mickelson Watches Geoff Ogilvy
Walk off with the U.S. Open Trophy in 2006

Similarly, in its entire history (since 1934) the Masters has only seen four winners with scores of even-par or worse. While it happened three times in 12 years - Sam Snead in 1954, Jackie Burke in 1956 and Jack Nicklaus in 1966 - the only other time was when Zach Johnson won in 2007 with a score of 2-over 290. That, again, was a tournament plagued by freezing weather, possibly the worst in Masters history since its first tournament where golfers were huddled in tents eating cold chicken and distilled moonshine. The book on Masters weather is, "one day rain, one day cold, one day wind, one nice day," but all four days in 2007 saw everyone head-to-toe in fleece, turtlenecks, sweaters and jackets. They looked like Phish fans going to a December Albany show.

All right, they were a little better dressed than that . . . but you get the idea.

I was actually surprised how many PGA Championships have had winning scores over par because that's usually the easiest major to win. The courses chosen tend to be mildly easier than the crucibles of the U.S. Open, and the American parkland style of golf is more accessible to most Tour players than the links courses of the U.K. But five times between 1960 and 1976 scores of plus-1 or even-par took home the Wanamaker Trophy. It came close to happening twice in recent memory. In 2008, the PGA of America set up Oakland Hills so hard balls wouldn't hold fairways and greens, and everyone was over par after only two days. Thankfully, a storm out of the pages of the book of the Apocalypse soaked Michigan and turned Oakland Hills back into a golf course instead of a torture chamber. The boys could start flying at the flags and good players started to make a move. As a result, we got a historic finish. Playing 33 holes on Sunday, Padraig Harrington ending up winning back-to-back majors after a brilliant 66-66 to finish at 3-under. (He started the day 5-over!)

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the stories. As for your lyric, it's a metaphor, I know, I get it . . . poetic license and all that. Let's discuss it on the golf course some time, either playing or watching the pros at a major. The PGA Championship returns to the NYC area in 2016 when they play Baltusrol, a course which got its name after the farmer who was murdered there! (Baltus Roll, for those of you scoring at home.) And any time you'd like to play with me at some fabled ancient stronghold of American golf history, you just say the word and I'll make it happen. Until then, I'll be looking forward to New Years!

All the best,

Jay

P.S. Since I have the floor, pretty please with sugar on top, bring back "Forbin's->Mockingbird." Incidentally, if you see someone wearing a Pittsburgh Pengiuns' hockey jersey with "Forbin" and number 98 on the back, that'll be me. I've worn it to a few shows off and on since you guys came back hoping to get lucky and see it, but so far I haven't hit paydirt. The "98" by the way is a tribute to one of my other favorite songs, Genesis' "Supper's Ready," a song you guys would absolutely kill! (Page would also rock "Firth of Fifth"; "Los Endos" would be a great encore/set closer, and "I Know What I Like" would be great for the "call and response" thing you guys have been doing with the audience lately.)

"I think the reverse pivot in their golf swings is as wild as the reverse pivot in their music" - written by some chump who doesn't know squat about rock music after he saw the video of NYE set III.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.