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August 11, 2009

Alan Shipnuck's Golf Mailbag: Changes at Pebble Beach, Tiger's friends, behind the scenes with Christina Kim and more

Posted at 12:43 PM by Alan Shipnuck | Categories: Alan Shipnuck's Mailbag

Pebble2_Beach_Golf_10As much as I enjoy hearing from the Golf.com readership, I recently received an even more treasured e-mail: My buddy Vince needed a fourth for a round at Pebble. And his company was paying. Suddenly taking my daughter to her friend’s birthday party seemed somewhat less pressing. So this past weekend, on a gorgeous 70-degree day, I teed it up at the Beach with the sole purpose of being able to report back to you, the reader, on the changes to the course now that the U.S. Open is but 10 months away. I won’t bore you with the details of my prodigious drive on No. 2, which left me only a 7-iron in, or the miraculous shot from the back bunker at No. 8, or the nerve-jangling up-and-down from above the hole at No. 13, or the majestic 6-iron I pured to within eight feet of the back left flag at No. 17, or the macho drive at 18 when I cut off half of the Pacific. No, that would be tedious.

What’s interesting is how Pebble, a quintessential second-shot course that has always been pretty wide-open off the tee, is being tightened up and turned into a true driving test, even before the wrist-breaking rough grows in. New fairway bunkering on 2, 3, 6, 9, 10, 15 and 16 have complicated each of those holes ramatically. I stood on the new back tee at 10, which is placed practically in the middle of the 9th fairway, and suddenly a beautiful but relatively tame par-4 looked like an absolute beast. (Above is a view of No. 10 from the tee.)

By far the coolest change is to No. 6, the gorgeous par-5 that is one of my favorite driving holes anywhere. In the old days there was a very wide fairway with a big bunker down the left side that was barely in play. Stillwater Cove to the right was also rarely a factor because rough and/or trees would halt most drives headed in that direction. Now the bunkering has been enlarged and shifted to the right, pinching the fairway and forcing players to aim much closer to the water. But that has become more dangerous because all the trees have been removed and the band of rough narrowed to only a couple of paces, so balls that are a little off-line can now tumble into the abyss. If you manage to find the fairway—and I hit a cowardly pull-hook way left—you’re then faced with one of the toughest shots on the course, blind and steeply uphill and usually with a strong crosswind.

The reward is one of my favorite walks, up to the plateau of the fairway, where the rest of the hole is revealed along with golf’s most glorious panorama, views encompassing Point Lobos and Carmel Beach and all of the rest of Pebble’s awaiting oceanside terror. This is where I want to have a heart attack when I’m 101.

That's all I have to say about Pebble, but don't worry: I’ll continue to suffer through rounds at championship courses because the readers have a right to know. Now, on to the mail.

“Earlier this year at Bay Hill, it was mentioned that Tiger and Sean O'Hair are friendly and that Tiger openly rooted for Sean over Phil in the clubhouse at one tournament. My question is when Tiger is friendly with another player, what is the common bond? Most of the time, it seems that Tiger is a golf-playing robot bent on world domination, so any time I hear a story like him rooting for Sean, it makes him more interesting." — John from Austin

The three guys Tiger plays the most practice rounds with are O’Hair, Chuck Howell and Bubba Watson. What do they all have in common? They’re all soft teddy-bear types who don’t disguise the fact that they are honored just to be in Tiger’s presence. Woods is way too much of an alpha male to get close with Phil  or Vijay or Sergio or any other player who might be a threat to his dominion. As for rooting against Phil, that’s bad blood that goes back to junior golf. I’ve gone deep on this topic before.

“I've been a reader of yours for years and know your feelings about Greg Norman in general, but if Norman were in his prime today, would he be the world's second-best player? Third? Fourth? Not even Top 10?”

Except for his brain, Norman had no real weakness. He drove it just as long and much straighter than Phil, his putting was much, much better than Vijay’s or Sergio’s, he was way more explosive than Padraig, and he brought his A-game virtually every time he teed it up, unlike an Ogilvy or a Casey. If Norman was in his prime today he would definitely be a top-5 player, and maybe even No. 2. But the problem with comparing eras is the evolution of equipment. Like his contemporary Nick Price, Norman’s biggest advantage was driving it long and straight relative to the competition, and everyone was using small driver-heads and spinny balls. It’s no coincidence that his dominance—and Price’s— ended as oversized titanium drivers flooded the Tour. Suddenly everyone else was long and straight, too.

“Shipwreck, how's the LPGA year-long story with Christina Kim working out? You had to be rooting for her [at the Women’s British Open, where she finished third]. While I think her personality is refreshing, she swings the golf club like a 10-handicap! Does she truly expect to be able to ever compete or contend on a regular basis with that swing?” — Bill Jones

Actually, Christina has been working on her swing over the last couple of months, squaring her setup and trying to get a little less steep. No doubt her action is quirky, but you can say that about many great players. Bottom line, she’s a feel player who can manufacture shots like few of her competitors. She was in contention at the Dinah Shore and British and earned a spot on the Solheim Cup team, so she must be doing something right.

Verchenova As for the project you alluded to, Christina and I are collaborating on a book that will chronicle the 2009 season on the LPGA tour through her eyes. It’s going to be quite juicy, as all of the tour’s secrets will be told. There are many thoughtful discussions about the issues that are unique to the tour, from the influx of Korean players to the financial strain on many players. Christina has been incredibly candid with me, and the book, which comes out next spring, will be one of the most raw, intimate, no-holds-barred diaries ever recorded about the ups-and-downs of a pro athlete. I’ve had a blast working on it so far—I think Christina and David Feherty are the two funniest people in golf—and there’s still half a season to go.

I gotta hang on to all of my best material, but I can give you some idea of Christina’s insight on a topic this readership will appreciate. Yesterday we were discussing the Evian Masters, where a glam cocktail party is held every year on Saturday night for the players. She's very straight, but she has a great eye for talent and  was raving about the charms of Maria Verchenova, the young Russian shown here who plays the Ladies European Tour.

“I was wondering if you were a golfer and that inspired you to become a golf writer, or if you wanted to become a sports writer and you ended up doing this.” — Corey Andrews

“Be honest with me, who is a better golf writer than you? I have my opinion but would love to see you try to come up with a legit answer.” — Charles Pickett

Does Tiger step to the first tee thinking he’s inferior to the competition? We all know the answer to that. I guess his swagger has rubbed off. There are many colleagues I admire: John Garrity, with his elegant prose and nimble wit; Michael Bamberger, with his insight and observations grounded in peerless reporting; the gloriously glib Gary Van Sickle; Jaime Diaz brings an unmatched historical perspective and knowledge of the swing; Bob Verdi, a throwback curmudgeon who enjoys an unmatched intimacy with the players;  Lawrence Donegan, a muckraker of the first order who actually gets the story right.

All of these guys love golf, but they love writing even more, and that's the key to doing the job well. I was only a casual golfer growing up, but I knew I wanted to be a sportswriter going back to the seventh-grade newspaper. I fell into the golf racket somewhat by accident, owing to SI’s needs, but once you write about golf for a while every other sport seems tame. There is nothing like the tension and tragedy of tournament golf, and as a global sport it offers an endless supply of colorful characters and juicy stories, not to mention interesting places to visit. There is a small-ball theory in sportswriting, which holds that the smaller the ball, the better the writing. Think about it, basketball and football have minimal literary tradition, while baseball enjoys a long history of excellent writing, surpassed only by the wondrous golf canon.   (I’m not sure where Ping-Pong or marbles fits in.)  I’ve been approached about jumping to various beats but ultimately my heart is in golf. And let’s face it, how often do our NBA guys get to play Pebble?

Have a question you'd like Alan to answer? Leave it in the comments area below and check back next Tuesday.

Photo: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images (Pebble Beach); Stuart Franklin/Getty Images (Verchenova)

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