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Mario Lemieux & Hockey Players Favorites in Team Challenge

By: Jay Flemma


There is an enormous difference between golf and competitive golf. Bogey golfers may think that 20-footer on No. 18 they sank to take $20 off their lunkhead golf buddy at Bushwood Country Club, or that crisp iron shot they hit during the Duff Brewery Scramble at Meatball Meadows will prepare them for the big pressure, big money moment.

In fact, they never get to that big pressure, big money moment. They usually hit a few shots early in the round that look more like Old Aunt Millie trying to play golf after her lumbago started acting up again, and shoot themselves out of the match before the back nine. Even at the higher levels of amateur team competition, the team with deeper talent and lower handicaps usually wins at about a 67 percent clip, or 2-1, whichever you prefer. For example, in the famous Potomac Cup matches that pits the best amateurs in Maryland vs. the best amateurs in Virginia, Virginia, which has lower handicaps than Maryland through the 12-man rosters, leads the series 4-2.

PGA head professional Hank Furgol agrees. "Usually, handicaps are based on 80 percent of what someone shoots, so higher handicappers will be in a tough spot trying to keep up with scratch players," he explained.

All this means that the higher handicappers playing in the Pro Sports Team Challenge - despite being revered all-stars in their respective sports - will be hard pressed to defeat the seasoned scratch golfers they'll face. And that lack of experience will make all the difference when a quarter of a million dollars is on the line for their favorite charity.

Captain Mario Lemieux and his band of hockey players are prohibitive favorites to win the 1st Annual Pro Sports team Challenge celebrity golf matches. With two scratch golfers, Grant Fuhr and Brett Hull, and two 1 handicappers (Lemieux and Pierre Larouche), they have a clear advantage over the other teams, which have at least one double-digit handicapper on their respective squads.

The Teams & Their Handicaps

Here are the team line-ups and the players' handicaps:

Baseball

Captain Ozzie Smith - 10
Bret Saberhagen - 4
George Brett - 6
Vince Coleman - 3

Football

Captain Drew Brees - 5
Michael Strahan - 12
John Elway - 1
LaDainian Tomlinson - 15

Basketball

George Gervin - 4
Clyde Drexler - 4
Jason Kidd - 9
Kenny Smith - 24 (really 36, but 24 is the max allowed under tournament rules)

Non-Playing Captain Charles Barkley is a 24 (again, much higher, but if by some strange circumstance he is called into active duty, he can only use a 24 handicap).

Hockey

Captain Mario Lemieux - 1
Grant Fuhr - 0
Pierre Larouche - 1
Brett Hull - 0

The Format

On Day 1 each team will play the other three in a round-robin series of nine-hole matches over the scenic and strategically intricate back nine of Eagle Falls Golf Course at Fantasy Springs Resort in Palm Springs. Individual match-play contests will use accelerated scoring, wherein the winner won't simply get one point for winning the match, but will get one point for each hole by which he defeats his opponent and an additional point for each hole left over. For example, the winner of a 4&3 match will score seven points, while the winner of a 3&2 match will score 5, and so forth.

On Day 2, one member from each team will lock horns with a member from each other sport and four 18-hole skins matches will be played. The order of play will be crucial. There are no carry-overs and each hole has a point designation of 5-3-1 for first, second, and third; ties split the points for the tied positions.

Moreover, on both days each team will have one player in each session designated as a "2x" player, whose match counts for double points. Handicaps are used in all matches, so the better players will be giving lots of candy (the slang term for strokes) to the lesser lights. Let's break down the matches.

Day 1

Baseball vs. Football. Baseball is slightly stronger through the line-up. Sure, Elway is the best player on either team, but even if selected as the 2x player he'd have to draw Ozzie Smith as an opponent to have the widest advantage, a one-in-four chance. With double-digit handicaps, Tomlinson and Strahan will be hard-pressed to keep up with Brett Saberhagen or Coleman. Advantage: Baseball

Hockey vs. Basketball. Gervin and Drexler are strong players and have fighting chances against any of the hockey players, but Smith is a 36 playing as a 24. He's simply overmatched. If he notches a single victory during the match-play phase, or perhaps six points during the skins game, he'll have done as well as non-playing captain Charles Barkley can ask the last man on the roster to play. Advantage: Hockey

Baseball vs. Basketball. While three players on either side are relatively close on paper (Kidd's 9 may make him vulnerable), again, Smith will have to play way over his head - were talking the round of his life, a statistical outlier for a 36 handicapper, or hope somebody eats too much habanero sauce with their Tex-Mex the night before the match in order to be competitive. Advantage: Baseball

Football vs. Hockey. Two double digit handicappers on football against two scratch golfers? I don't like their chances. Elway can't drive four cars at once, and we're not at altitude. Advantage: Hockey

Baseball vs. Hockey. This is the marquee match-up. Still, Ozzie (a 10) will have to play well and have his opponent have an off round to notch a victory. Advantage: Hockey

Football vs. Basketball. Another tight match on paper. I'll take Elway against any of the basketballers, but if he draws Kidd or Smith his talent will have been wasted. The line-up card is critical here. Advantage: Even

Day 2

The hockey players have a slight edge as they are strongest through the line-up. After that, I'll take the deep Baseball team over the Fighting Elways or Gervin and Drexler. Prediction: 1) Hockey, 2) Baseball, 3) Basketball, 4) Football

Eagle Falls should prove a stern test to the less experienced players, but the expert golfers won't be as fazed. Golf course architect Clive Clark's deep, sod-faced bunkers are much harder then flash-faced bunkers with shallow lips. Desert layouts have tight, target-golf fairways and the desert rule will be in effect. If a player hits the ball off the fairway and chooses not to play off of the rocks, he takes a one-stroke penalty and plays from the point of entry, just like a lateral water hazard. We could see some big numbers if someone loses either their timing or tempo or both.

Moreover, the course rewards the most consistently accurate players first and the best chippers and putters second. That favors the scratch golfers and that's Team Hockey. Elway may have the heart of a lion. But he can't hit every shot for his team, just like Tiger can only win five points at the Ryder Cup, not 14.5. "Iceman" Gervin and "Clyde the Glide" may play over their heads, but Kidd and Smith will have to play straight and smart golf - a tall task for a mid or high handicapper. As for Strahan, he's pretty jovial, a trait I think will play against him. The attributes he uses best on the football field - speed, strength and aggression - are the same attributes that play against a golfer, who needs balance, coordination, and patience. Instead, the loose, jocular Strahan may not have the same focus as the scratch player, who is used to the chaos and turmoil a bad shot spawns. If anyone will get frustrated and go in the "mumble tank," it's him.

Then again, a lot depends on who stays up all night playing no-limit Texas Hold 'em. If someone stays up until sunrise with Johnny Walker, Jose Cuervo and Jim Beam filling out the night's foursome, pardon the pun, all bets are off.

Last weekend, while covering the 98th Walter J. Travis Invitational, one of the greatest amateur golf competitions in the world, I saw two of the country's most decorated amateurs hit shots in the clutch that were shockingly bad: one fatal and one near fatal. In the quarterfinal match, eventual winner Mike Kelley was a mere 40 yards from the green on the first playoff hole. He could have kicked the ball within 15 feet of the cup. Instead, he was between clubs and on a thin lie. He didn't commit to the shot and decelerated, a rookie mistake. He chunked it - strip steak, throw rug, choking dog, whatever your term for a duff - and the ball went seven yards and into the deep greenside bunker.

A veteran of years of competition, Kelley drew on that experience to "let it go and concentrate on the next shot" and got up and down to continue the playoff. He won on the next hole. His next match, the semifinal against equally well-decorated amateur Kevin Hammer, saw another equally zany shot during crunch time. With the match tied at the 17th, Hammer was in the left greenside bunker facing a garden-variety sand save opportunity under normal circumstances.

But a semifinal of the Travis is not an ordinary circumstance; it's a pressure cooker. Hammer hammered it all right, over the pin, over the green, over the boundary fence of the golf course, out-of-bounds and into Rockaway Boulevard. The ball was last seen making a sharp left onto Grand Central Parkway. Hammer's chances to win sailed away with that Titleist Pro-V 1.

So you tell me. How will Kenny Smith or Ozzie Smith or LaDainian Tomlinson or Michael Strahan do in that circumstance? There's no tight end pulling to clear the path for Tomlinson's 5-iron shot to the home hole. No lightning quickness will help Ozzie pitch over a bunker or pond to a short-sided pin. No hair-trigger release will help Jason Kidd roll in a triple-breaking putt to halve the 18th hole and scratch out half a point. The TV cameras will catch every painful misstep and each one will weigh more heavily. To an amateur, the pressure gets worse, not better, and when players break, they break hard and jagged.

Handicap golfers have weaknesses. Scratch golfers have complete games. Handicap golfers lose focus and get frustrated. Expert golfers can smell when there's blood in the water and feed off the pressure. Sure, handicap strokes even things out on paper. But that's merely the starting point. Then they have to swing the club and put the ball in the hole. There are four scratch golfers on Team Hockey and, over 45 holes, they'll simply make fewer mistakes and hit more clutch shots when they have to.

That's what scratch golfers do, especially with a quarter of a million dollars on the line for charity. Take the slap-shooters and lay the points.



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.