Last Sunday the PGA Tour brought down the curtain on a very contentious season with fan favourite and all-round good guy Rory McIlroy scooping the big prize, winning the Fed-Ex Cup for an unprecedented third time – something not even the great Tiger Woods has accomplished. It must have felt like a home match for Rory with the crowds chanting his name as he battled down the stretch with American world No 1 Scottie Scheffler. Poor old Scottie must have wondered if he’d strayed over to Europe.At the start things didn’t look good for Rory. Six behind going into the final round he still wasn’t on the par 4 1st green after three shots and, in fact, Scheffler had a seven-footer for a seven-shot lead. He missed and, unbelievably, a mere six holes later they were tied. The roars for Rory reached new heights when he holed for a birdie across the 15th green and the two were still tied with three to go. An incredible up and down on the 16th from the Irishman saw him hit the front for the first time and it was enough to see him squeak over the line for his third win of the year. It’s extraordinary that McIlroy has performed as well as he has with all the unpleasant, off-course distractions of the rival LIV Golf league. As he explained, however, being inside the ropes has proved to be a sanctuary for him where no one could get at him. His ability to compartmentalise things, focusing solely on the job in hand, has been key to his success on the course.
It remains to be seen, however, if his off-course efforts will bear fruit. Only this week Cam Smith, the Open champion, has announced he has joined Liv Golf, ending the speculation that has swirled about him for the last few weeks. Currently second in the world rankings, Smith is undoubtedly LIV’s biggest catch so far. He is the game’s latest major champion and at 29 years of age he spearheads an exciting crop of talent whose best days are not yet in the rearview mirror. And, very importantly, he appears to be largely injury-free.
Bearing in mind that Dustin Johnson reputedly signed on with LIV for around $200 million it’s safe to assume that Smith has commanded something north of that eye-watering sum. He’s presumably gambling on being able to play in the majors and it’ll be interesting to see if Smith’s decision results in the trickle of talent from the established tours becoming a cascade, or even tsunami, as players rush to cash in before the Saudis declare that their coffers are closed.
If a tipping point is reached where LIV has the majority of the world’s best, that will surely spell the end of the tours as we know them today. The tour or league that boasts the best players will hold all the power and the majors (which are outside the control of the main tours) will be diminished by the absence of the world’s best no matter where they play.
Ugly. Messy. Money. Power. Put all these words in a sentence and you get right to the heart of the matter. Can you see it ending well?
Meanwhile, in Kettering, Ohio, the fourth edition of the US Senior Women’s Open produced the first home winner in its short history. Jill McGill, a “young” senior, having only just reached fifty years of age, won her first professional title and consigned such luminaries as defending champion Annika Sorenstam, former champions Helen Alfredsson and Laura Davies and major champions Juli Inkster and Catriona Matthew to the minor placings. It was a joyous victory for a player who played here in Europe with us back in the 1990s before gaining her LPGA card.The redoubtable JoAnne Carner, “Big Mama” to all who know her, has played in all four editions of this championship but, alas, never managed to make the cut. She has, however, equalled or beaten her age in five of the eight rounds she has played, a truly remarkable achievement. She has announced now that, at 83, enough is enough.
“I think this is finally it,” she said, bowing to the inevitable. “It’s just hard work trying to get the whole game going. I let it go too bad.”
Her game, however, before she “let it go too bad” netted her eight USGA titles, 43 LPGA wins, three Player of the Year awards and five Vare Trophies for the lowest scoring average. She has loved this game relentlessly her whole life and competed fiercely over a span of six decades with a refreshing, no-nonsense attitude. She was the dominant player and intimidated her opposition with a never-ending string of fearless golf shots, often from the trees. Watching Big Mama was an exhilarating experience.A lover of practice, Carner inevitably had her share of injuries over the years but didn’t come from a generation that worked on her fitness. Eminent golf writer Ron Sirak tells a delightful Sorenstam story about Carner. Annika was in the fitness trailer having a back massage when Big Mama stalked in. Annika takes up the tale: “The therapist asked how he could help and JoAnne said, ‘two Advil’ then walked out.”
My only meeting with the Great Gundy (her maiden name was Gunderson) was in 2009 when Patricia and I were guests of the Nicklauses at the Memorial tournament. JoAnne was receiving one award and Patricia another, given posthumously to her late husband Dai. After the formalities were over we had a wonderful evening being entertained by the great one. Needless to say, there were a few adult beverages consumed and I remember JoAnne ringing up Marlene Streit in Canada at an ungodly hour when she discovered that Marlene and I knew each other and had played together.
Full of life, full of vim and vigour and full of love and passion for golf. Big Mama – what a legend.