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Monday, March 24, 2014

Beyond the Spotlight: Missing the Cut

Aussie Karrie Webb, 2014 JTBC Founders Cup Champion.
As I began writing this post, the second round at the JTBC Founders Cup was still in process.  As I am finishing it the players have completed the final round.  For the final two rounds Judy Rankin's attention was focused on the top of the board, on the two battling rookies -- Mirim Lee and Lydia Ko -- and for a time on Morgan Pressel, who was briefly flirting with the lead but then lost her momentum -- always a good story to follow up with a post-round interview.  But here came Karrie Webb, playing her way up the leaderboard on a bright, sunny Phoenix Sunday afternoon to snatch the victory with a clutch putt on the 18th hole, over an hour before all the cards were signed and all the players were in the clubhouse.

Until near the end of that sprint to the finish Webbie played outside the television commentators' spotlight and we almost missed it.   In her comments on Webb's victory, Judy Rankin admitted that for much of her early career Karrie Webb played in Annika Sorenstam's shadow and while Webbie was and is a fierce competitor and a very skilled golfer, she was overlooked because the media tend to focus on the prevailing star.  Rankin's correct.  There's so much golf being played outside the spotlight, so much to be learned by looking beyond the top five on the board, or the top ten, or even the top twenty.

Mid-way through the second round, with a brief glance at the lower reaches of the leaderboard, I knew that some of the LPGA players I follow privately weren't going to make the cut.

Golf is a strange game.  It's unpredictable and capricious.  There's a certain part of the playing of the game that's beyond the control of the golfer.  All of us who play golf at any level lose more frequently than we win.  For no apparent reason a club that's worked round after round suddenly fails us.  (I was having that experience with my 3-wood, which failed me miserably for several rounds and then yesterday, without any rational explanation, started behaving properly again.)  Our putters can take take on a life of their own, we choose a line intuitively, and a putt that seemed impossibly long and befuddling drops. And then there are rounds when none of that happens, no matter how carefully we read the greens and line up the putts.

We know these things when we step up to the first tee and we know these things when we walk off the 18th green at the end of the round.  I've long suspected that this understanding and acceptance is a big part of the allure of the game, because the magic of the moment can and often does appear (or disappear) without warning.

Even for someone like Paula Creamer, who consistently makes the cut, week after week, there are long dry spells between wins and those moments of high exhilaration that can only be fully expressed by flinging ourselves down onto the green and exuberantly pounding the grass are rare punctuations to otherwise ordinary golf routines.

Paula Creamer's going to play the weekend at the Founders Cup, but Yani Tseng and Juli Inkster are not.  And they played the second round probably understanding they wouldn't make the cut.  Neither did anything less than give their best to that round.

Yani Tseng is my hero.  She's struggled for more than a year with a swing and clubs that used to sing like a well-trained chorus but no longer do her bidding.  I've been watching.  There have been hopeful moments, just hints that Yani's golf magic has returned.

But each time it seems as though Yani might be recovering that beautiful, smooth-as-silk swing that sent her balls soaring straight and true, it's been no more than a brief and ephemeral memory.

And so it was during the early rounds at the Founders Cup. On Thursday her first round included an eagle and four birdies, but also a bogey and two doubles.  Then Friday, two bogeys and a double.  At the turn on Friday she was three shots over par for the tournament, well below the cut line.  She did not quit.  To the contrary, she put everything she had into those final holes.  She gave them her best effort, birdied the 15th and the 18th, then paid her complements to Marilyn Smith and Shirley Spork and Renee Powell, who were holding court beside the 18th green.

In life, as in golf, we all have days and sometimes weeks and months when the magic has slipped away, when no matter what we do it doesn't return.  I want to live my days when the magic is elusive the way Yani Tseng played her second round at the Founders Cup.

Juli Inkster is my role model.  She's starting her 31st year on the LPGA Tour.  She's fifty-three years old, and she's competing against players who are younger than her daughters.  (So am I, but my daughters, if I had some, would be Inkster's age.)  With 31 pro wins and 148 top-10 finishes and career earnings topping out at over thirteen million dollars -- in the neighborhood of half a million dollars a year -- with endorsement fees, appearance honoraria, and all the other miscellaneous 1099 income sources added on top of that base, Inkster's had a fine career and made a good living swinging her sticks.

But she hasn't won since the 2006 Safeway International and she missed eight cuts last year.

So why is Inkster still competing?  That's such a silly question.  All of us who play golf are still competing.  We compete against ourselves, against how we played our last round.  We compete against each other.  We compete against Old Man Par.  Inkster's still competing because she can, and because she loves playing golf and because she love competing.  And even though she announced that 2014 will be her last season on Tour, I know she'll play her best game every time she tees off.

Inkster started her Founders Cup as the newly named captain of the 2015 American Solheim Cup team.  There will be no whining on Team USA, she declared.   Juli Inkster doesn't whine, period.

I've always believed I can get a solid read on someone's character by watching how they play a round of golf.  I'd love to play a round with Yani Tseng and Juli Inkster.