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Campbell, Perry Defy 'The Buzz' Leaderboard at 2009 Masters
To all those Tiger-philic sportswriters pandering to the casual fan - you know the type, the ones who tell you pre-tournament that "the buzz" is always and only "Tiger vs. Phil" - allow me to quote the immortal Jerry Garcia:
"Well, well, well…You can never tell!"
Chad Campbell and Kenny Perry may not attract casual eyeballs or be popular pre-tournament predictions in the eyes of the media cognoscenti, but they play golf for the green jacket, and the everyman, workmanlike tandem stand atop a galaxy of stars on the Masters leaderboard after 36 holes, which includes seven American Ryder Cup members standing at T-11 or better at the halfway point. The pair leads the 2009 Masters with 9-under scores of 135. Argentina's Angel Cabrera is one shot back at 8-under after carding consecutive 68s.
Even though he squandered a six-shot lead, the phlegmatic Campbell "aw-shucksed" his way through the media interview afterwards with pragmatic, even-keeled observations, though he may be 48 hours from the greatest career achievement of his life.
"I've never been high-profile, or supposed to win the majors or anything," said the quiet, affable Texan. "I never saw myself in that aspect, having to come to the media room before the tournaments or anything." When asked if he thinks the golf world views him as an afterthought he admitted sheepishly, but humbly: "Possibly. I don't feel that way but I definitely see where you're coming from. But it doesn't affect me at all."
After racing out to 9-under after 15 holes before finishing with back-to-back-bogeys, Campbell again sped out of the gate, reaching 11-under after 28 holes, only to bogey 11, 12, and 17 before rallying with a closing birdie.
Co-leader Kenny Perry had a clean scorecard - five birdies, no bogeys en route to a 67. The phlegmatic Perry - who exhibited supreme grace under pressure when he was vilified in the press last year for skipping the British Open to play in America in an attempt to make the Ryder Cup squad so he could represent the Stars & Stripes in his home state of Kentucky - was sincerely grateful and excited to find himself tied for the lead.
"You know what?" he asked rhetorically to the writers assembled in the press tent, "everything is a bonus now, it really is. I'm just going through each and every day enjoying life a little bit. I think I can win. You know, I'm not going out there very casually. I'm still very - I'm burning inside, wanting to kick everybody's butt."
Wait a minute! Did I say even-keeled and phlegmatic? Who are you and what did you do with the real Kenny Perry? Did his evil twin escape from the trunk of the rental vehicle and reprise Rocco Mediate's Sunday Sermon to the scribblers at Torrey Pines? The candid Perry bared his heart much like Rocco.
"I think the public looks at you and says you need to win a major. But for me, to where I came from, the roots I had and my upbringing, to come from a nine-hole golf course in the middle of nowhere; I didn't have swing coaches. I didn't have this entourage. I didn't have the money. I didn't have anything. I was borrowing money, begging, doing whatever I could, scratching and clawing to get out here. "It means a lot more to me, I think, because of where I've come from and where I've been able to go and how much success I've been able to have. To me, that's very satisfying and very gratifying."
It's such humility and candor that has erased the memory of his supposed faux pas in skipping the British Open last year and has him one of the sentimental favorites going into the weekend.
Perry credits a new driver with his resurgence. "I've switched one club in my bag from my four wins and it's my driver. I put this new driver in play and I told my caddie, I said, 'I think I can win a U.S. Open with this driver, because I'm driving it so straight.' I've probably lost five to seven yards in distance, but it's given me a lot of confidence in straightness. It don't really curve as much right-to-left. It's a very straight driver….I probably missed three fairways this whole week."
Should the Kentucky Colonel win the Masters, it would make his tenure as the Grand Marshal of the Kentucky Derby Parade even more poignant. "We are the Grand Marshals of the Kentucky Derby, he explained. "It's just going to be a fun week with Dad and I, a lot of waving and hand-shaking. Hopefully I can wear the green jacket while I'm doing all that." It would also be a touching tribute to his mother, Mildred Perry, who is gravely ill fighting myeloma cancer.
I once wrote that rooting for Campbell, Perry, and David Toms was like rooting for your orange tabby when he's playing with the catnip toy. But that was when they were the only recognizable names on a U.S. Open leaderboard so cluttered with unknowns and international journeymen that you couldn't pick out half the faces out of a line-up of the Grateful Dead, Phish, and the Allman Brothers.
But this year they have led a birdie barrage more akin to career superstars than workmanlike grinders. Everyone is transfixed with their meteoric rise. Indeed, the leaderboard is filled with great stories and personalities overachieving and playing with pride and passion. There are always interesting angles on the PGA Tour; you just have to work a little to find them.
How about Todd Hamilton? Americans know him as a surprise winner of the 2004 British Open at Royal Troon, where he beat the infinitely more recognizable Ernie Els. But Hamilton has won 14 international titles. Still, Hamilton is a huge surprise based on his previous Masters appearances; his best prior finish is a dismal T-36, and he was playing poorly coming into the week.
"Not counting this event, I made two out of nine cuts," he said. "But you know, I may have had some 74s and 75s, but a drive five yards left here, five yards right there, a couple of times during the round, and those 74s and 75s could have been even pars; a few putts here and there."
Well look who found his game just in time. He had a shocking eagle on 15. Known more for bump-and-run, dink-and-dunk golf, Hamilton hooked a shot around some trees from the left of the fairway to 25 feet. "One of the other guys in the group had almost the same putt before me, so I got to watch his ball and made a good read, hit a good putt, and luckily it went in."
He also credited both his major championship experience and a new putter with his remarkable comeback. "I think just knowing that I had won before helped. [Also] I found a driver that I really felt comfortable with. I never really drove the ball that well. When I did, I usually played well, because my short game was pretty good, and I would hit my irons well. But I found a driver that I really, really liked….I really took a liking to that driver, and I think that's what set up the year for me….my driving has stayed quite well the last two days, and it seems like each one of those other components [chipping and putting] has gotten a little bit better."
Growing up in the wild Texas winds necessitated learning wind-cheaters and a diverse array of recovery shots. Hamilton spent hours Wednesday hitting long bump-and-run shots in preparation for the week. With Augusta similar to St. Andrews in undulating terrain and fickle winds, it's surprising his finishes here haven't been higher. In his last year of Masters exemption from his Open Championship win, a win here would rekindle his career. His 138 aggregate (6-under), leaves him just three back of the leaders.
Other former major winners - besides the likely suspects of Woods and Mickelson - are just as delighted by their sterling position heading into the weekend. 2007 U.S. Open Champion Angel Cabrera has enormous length and tamed Oakmonster despite missing nine fairways in the final round en route to a closing 69 to edge Tiger Woods by one shot. "Having won a major gives you confidence, for sure. The most difficult one to win is the first one, so I think that the second one, well, I'm looking forward to the second major win. I think that in this tournament, I'm going to have a lot of chances if I'm able to make all of those putts within 10 feet."
Other major champions are also in the hunt. 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk is tied for sixth at 4-under with Shingo Katayama, Rory Sabbatini, Anthony Kim, and Sergio Garcia. Major champions Mickelson, Geoff Ogilvy and Vijay Singh are in a logjam tied with four others for 11th place at 3-under. Woods, Padraig Harrington, and 1985 Masters champion Sandy Lyle head a large group at 2-under, which includes two heartthrobs popular with the ladies, Camilo Villegas and Aaron Baddeley.
Of all the highly touted new blood, perhaps the day belonged to Anthony Kim, whose 11 birdies - an Augusta National record were only eclipsed by the heartwarming and graceful interview he gave afterward. "Yesterday I hit only six greens and shot 75. I'm very excited, obviously, to make 11 birdies out there. I haven't been making 11 birdies in two days; so to make 11 in one day is pretty special. And obviously to do it at Augusta is amazing. Hopefully I can build off that and if I keep the putter hot, I like my chances here."
He carded two different streaks of four consecutive birdies: one from five though eight and another from 12-15. "This has been my dream for a long time. So to be out here, actually doing it, have my parents with me, I can't ask for more….The putts kept falling so I just kept walking them in and going to the next hole."
The kid's got great perspective, but losing everything by partying too much, then getting a chance at redemption will do that. "I read a great story this morning before I teed off about that baseball player who died two nights ago," he explained sincerely. "I said, 'Look, it's been a dream of mine to be at the Masters my whole life, and there's no reason to pout about a bogey or a three-putt, but enjoy being out here and enjoy all of the hard work that was put into it by myself and my parents, and go out there and have some fun'….I think that's what made the 11 birdies a lot easier….the last line of the story was 'You never know what can happen, even at 22.' You have to live every moment of every day like it's your last."
Truer words were never spoken. With stories like that, do we really miss Tiger and Phil dominating the conversation yet again? The fans certainly don't.
"I'm rooting for Kenny Perry," said an enthusiastic Joe Trainor, a fervent golf fan from Forest Hills, N.Y. He's a regular guy, and he looks like he's enjoying himself out there. "I'm also rooting for Anthony Kim because he's a nice kid, and for Rory McIlroy because I want to see how good the new blood is. I like a tournament where we get to see the other players."
Trainor almost didn't get to see McIlroy. In the midst of a ghastly finish where he closed double-bogey, par, triple-bogey to plummet off the leaderboard like his parachute didn't open, McIlroy kicked the sand in the greenside bunker at the 18th hole. The only problem was his ball was still in the sand and it raised the question whether he should be disqualified for "testing the sand."
"We were all on pins and needles waiting for the announcement," said Irish golf writer Karl McGinty. Though the Rules of Golf use the word "test," which usually applies to practice swings in the sand, "they have to consult the decisions on the rules to make sure," McGinty said, fearful that some decisions could interpret the rules broadly.
Happily, McIlroy was spared the guillotine and will play the weekend, adding to an electrifying ambiance. "It's been a tremendous tournament so far," added McGinty beaming that broad, welcoming Irish smile, as though we just got off the plane at Shannon to join him at Ballybunion. "It's been absolutely thrilling."
Of course it has. The so-called "buzz" created by vacuous Tiger-loving tabloids was - as usual - completely wrong. In the last 10 years it's been Tiger-Phil at a major exactly twice: Pinehurst '99 at the U.S. Open where -OOPS! - Payne Stewart beat them both, and Baltusrol '05 in the PGA where Tiger wasn't a factor until a surge on the last day brought him within shouting distance. Even then, Tiger wasn't sure he was in it. Remember the Monday finish? Tiger watched it from an airplane tarmac in Teterboro! No, the real rule of thumb is when one plays well, the other falters: Winged Foot, Oakmont, Hoylake, Pinehurst, Shinnecock…stop me anytime.
Don't believe the hype: it's more myopic than Mr. Magoo. There are countless other captivating stories: Gary Player's tearful goodbye - where he was as valiant and gallant a Black Knight as any medieval romance, making us all cry and cheer one last time - the rise of the young guns like McIlroy and Ishikawa, Harrington's potential Paddy Slam, (which made Lee Westwood ask Padraig in a text message, "are you taking up wrestling?")
Though some scribblers just want to sell a few extra papers to casual eyeballs and sell the simpleton story to lowest common denominator golf-loving football fans, true golf fans have a deeper, broader understanding than just hype.
"There is no doubt there is overexposure of Tiger," said Lou Iaboni, a golf fan from New York City. "I don't even get to see enough of the top ten players on the leaderboard," he added, shaking his head. "But also, Tiger has brought more players into golf, brought out more competitive spirit, and raised awareness of increased fitness to the game. Players are showing more fire. Sergio, Padraig, Rocco," he said, his voice becoming even more confident as he went on, Tiger brings out the best in them. The sport has become more competitive."
He's right, the game is more competitive, but the coverage has declined badly. Without Tiger last year, we saw so much more golf and so many more golfers. "His absence sure didn't make Royal Birkdale less exciting," grumbled Ian Poulter. Thank goodness the Masters keeps ESPN and CBS on a tight leash and be especially glad it's not NBC or TGC running the show. If they were, we'd be watching Woods arrive at the course, hit on the range, see a special biopic, watch replays of his other majors, go to commercial, return from commercial to watch Woods hitting a shot, Woods eating a banana, Woods throwing away the peel, fans fighting for the peel, Woods talking to "Stevie," Woods drinking a Gatorade, Woods mumbling to himself, Woods blowing his nose, Woods backing off a shot, Woods glaring at a cameraman, Woods hitting another shot, cut to commercial. Lather, rinse, repeat. Meanwhile someone else is leading! Unbelievable.
Tennis shows exactly why we can't make the game revolve around one man, or even two men. I love Federer vs. Nadal as much as the next guy, but you know the problem with that? Rank and file sports fans tune out the entire tournament until the final.
With Tiger gone last year, the fans spoke loudly. Ben Curtis fans - dubbed Ben's Brigade - started showing up dressed in the colors of their favorite football squads. Younger fans embraced other once forgotten major winners when Hamilton and Greg Norman contended. Even gorgeous divas got into the act, as young female fans, who once labeled golf as a sport for the old, embraced handsome young studs. Chippendales wannabe Henrik Stenson got nearly naked two weeks ago, and Camilo Villegas and Aaron Baddeley, set so many hearts athrob, all the girls want them to get naked. "I'm rooting for Baddeley!" chirped Rebecca from Mississippi at last year's PGA Championship. "He's got the cutest buns!"
OK, so it's a little lowest common denominator, but the game is growing and it's not only because of Tiger and Phil. Moreover, the truly great tournaments and venues are still magical. The Masters was the American flagship tournament before Tiger Woods was even a gleam in Earl's eye. And the Masters will still be the Masters long after tiger is gone, so will golf for that matter. When that happens, golf will not die, linger on life support, or even lose stature simply because one great player hangs up his spikes. It survived the retirement of Harry Vardon, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, and every other golfer in recorded history. At the end of the day, Woods is just a man, but golf is an institution. Woods is just another surfer on the wave - a great one to be sure - but another great surfer on the wave, not the lunar cycle causing it.
"Augusta is the star," explained Trainor. "At the majors, the course is the focus, not those playing. Pebble is the same way. We love seeing the great old courses." That's what the Masters is all about. Sure Tiger may shoot 65 tomorrow and make a statement - "Cave adsum!" - ("Beware! I am here!"), but The Masters is bigger than him and so is golf.
Don't tell me it's Tiger-Phil only. This week is about Augusta National, gathering all her power, emerging from the mists of time and a year-long sleep, basking in four days of glory, and then vanishing once again into hallowed history, and waiting to be called forth once more, for another year of romance and intrigue: clanging swords, burning castles, valiant deeds, and heroic rescues.
Don't tell me it's "one man who is bigger than the game:" it's the elation of players as they finally triumph and achieve that lifelong dream of childhood as they don the Green Jacket in stately Butler Cabin, and it's the heartbreaking anguish of the vanquished as they see their dreams turn to ashes and dust and scatter to the winds with a wayward approach that find's Rae's Creek, when all the sighs of Heaven can offer no solace.
Don't tell me it's a two man race, and omit the winner of back-to-back majors from the conversation; it's courage bold and stories told on our vibrant field of green as she wakes with all the glory of spring. It's not the players; it's Magnolia Lane, and the Crow's Nest, and the beaming amateurs, and the genteel hosts, grateful patrons, the roaring on the pines, and the ghosts of majors past: Sarazen's 4-wood, Watson's putter, Seve's Swashbuckling, Nicklaus's charge. As Jerry Garcia would sing:
Don't tell me this town ain't got no heart, cause I can hear it beat out loud!
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.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, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf 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.