PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Think different, act different, be different.
If golf in America is to prosper and grow, it needs to be different. It needs to distinguish itself from the tired old game of our fathers and grandfathers. Forget the “fairways and greens” prescription, forget the “drive for show and putt for dough” adage, forget everything you ever knew about golf.
Here at the Nature Valley First Tee Open, a 54-hole Champions Tour event that starts Friday, spectators caught a glimpse of the future on Thursday afternoon. The Coca-Cola Champions Challenge spotlighted a different kind of golf.
The result, as the Beach Boys would say, was fun, fun, fun.
The fans loved it. The players were caught up in the spirit of the competition. It was extremely entertaining.
The format was modified foursomes. Golf fans who follow the Ryder Cup know all about foursomes, or alternate shot. For American golfers to compete against one another in a meaningful alternate-shot event is highly unusual, but this showdown clearly caught the fancy of 100 or so spectators.
In this case, six Champions Tour players joined six junior golfers – one pro and one junior per team.
The big winners were Champions Tour player Gary Hallberg and junior Nadia Majidi of Tulsa, Okla. Each won $16,000, the money going to designated First Tee chapters for the promotion of junior golf. Hallberg’s earnings went to the Monterey, Calif., chapter, while Majidi’s donation went to her hometown Tulsa chapter.
The $32,000 haul came as a result of Hallberg’s 12-foot chip-in for birdie on the par-5 18th at Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Pro Jeff Sluman and junior Lakareber Abe were the only other team to collect any cash, thanks to a 6-foot birdie putt by Abe on the par-4 first hole. Sluman and Abe collected $4,000 apiece, with Sluman giving his money to the Chicago First Tee chapter, and Abe donating hers to the Houston chapter.
Three other holes – Nos. 2, 3 and 17 – were halved. With the money carried over for those three ties, the 18th hole was worth $32,000.
The golf was great, but the biggest treat of the afternoon was the constant banter and frequent needling by the Champions Tour players.
As Hallberg’s decisive chip headed toward the cup, defending First Tee Open champion Ted Schulz said, “No, no. It’s the Tom Watson shot.”
Schulz was referring to Watson’s dramatic hole-out on the 71st hole of the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
If Hallberg had missed the chip, the six juniors would have engaged in a chip-off for the $32,000.
Craig Stadler and Scott Simpson were teased mercilessly for their connection to the University of Southern California, whose football program is on probation. Stadler and Simpson played on the golf team at USC.
Simpson needled Sluman, “You’re not as good as your partner. She hits it on the green.”
The 15-year-old Abe, Sluman’s partner, emerged as the star among the juniors. Not only did she hit a monster 3-wood shot off the first tee and then convert a birdie putt, but she also hit a 215-yard 3-wood shot inside 10 feet of the cup on the par-5 second hole.
Sluman missed the resulting 9-foot eagle putt, and the team settled for its second straight birdie. Schulz sank a 14-foot birdie putt to tie the hole.
Alternate shot is nothing radical, but it’s a positive step in any American golf environment. Be different, I say.
If I owned a golf course, once a week I would cut bigger cups in the greens. Scores would go down, golfers would be happier.
On another day each week, I would have two cups on every green. I would encourage golfers to play to either one. On every hole, putt to the one that is closest or easiest.
Now that would be intriguing.
I would use two flags of different colors, so players could follow the conventional format and play to one color for 18 holes if they desired.
With big cups or two cups, scores couldn’t be posted for handicap purposes, but that doesn’t bother me in the least. The American handicap system is not something to be proud of, anyway. It needs an overhaul.
Those who are serious about attracting and keeping new golfers know something that many golf administrators don’t seem to consider: The fun factor must be a fundamental part of the game, especially among today’s young golfers.
The game is difficult, and many golfers end up embarrassed or humiliated. For golf to grow, fun has to make a gigantic comeback.
It is possible. Be different.