Bellerive remains afloat; first round is Friday

Thursday, September 4, 2008
Writing from Town and Country, Mo.

Lovely though Bellerive Country Club is, perfectly positioned in greater St. Louis' version of Lake Forest, it lacks one luxury bauble.

A dome.

Had that been in place over the golf course today, the first round of the 105th Western Open would have taken place as scheduled. But Bellerive, being a real golf course and not one of the miniature variety, is subject to the vagaries of the weather, and the weather arrived in force late Wednesday night.

The remnants of Hurricane Gustav began as a light rain and barely a bit of wind. By early Thursday morning, the rain was steady, the wind gusty at times, and PGA Tour officials pushed the start of play back two hours. By late in the morning, there were consistent downpours, and at 11:30 a.m., Tour officials bowed to the inevitable, and called play for the day.

That moves the opening round of what these days is known as the BMW Championship to Friday, where the 69 players will commence firing at 10:40 a.m.

The good news is, even after 2.91 inches of rain, as measured by course superintendent Chuck Gast, the course will be playable and the gallery will be able to walk it. His tournament crew of 70, a group which includes 40 volunteers schooled in turfgrass management, were at work by early afternoon, even as the water ran off into 16 miles of drainage and then to the surrounding creek system.

"We're going to bounce back pretty quickly," Gast said. "We have a great drainage system. We just have to have some time to dry it out."

PGA Tour tournament director Slugger White mentioned Butler National Golf Club when assessing the extent of the deluge. He recalled the 1987 Western Open, when helicopters hovered over fairways to dry them out, and eventually, nine holes of the Oak Brook Golf Club municipal course was put into play to all a 54-hole tournament to be conducted.

"This may be as bad as I've seen it in a long, long time," White said. "We've got a mess out there. But Chuck Gast and his crew are doing a wonderful job. At Butler National, we had fish swimming on the greens there. And this downpour rivals some we've had at Castle Pines."

There was fear that much of Bellerive's front nine, which is in a flood plain, would be under water, but that proved not to be the case. The $9.5 million in renovations, made in 2006, paid off in the best possible way.

With a favorable weather forecast – the sun is advertised to appear on Friday – the plan is to play the first round on Friday, repair the field and play 36 holes on Saturday, and play the final round as scheduled on Sunday.

Saturday's television schedule has also been altered. NBC will be on the air as planned from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Central, after which it has the San Diego State-Notre Dame football game. At 2:30 p.m., the Golf Channel will pick up live coverage, and stay with it until the conclusion.

The big public parking lot on the Hunter Farms on Bellerive's western boundary was the biggest concern of Western Golf Association tournament director John Kaczkowski on Thursday.

"It's hilly," Kaczkowski said. "The hilly spots are drying out. The lower spots … "

Kaczkowski said that was the reason people holding Thursday tickets could use them Saturday or Sunday, but not Friday. He was working to find additional parking lots at high schools and business parks for the weekend, knowing those wouldn't be available on Friday.

"This isn't like Cog Hill," Kaczkowski said. "We can't just call Mount Assisi."

Only a handful of players were at the course, mostly those who had early tee times. One, Hunter Mahan, came out just in case the course was judged playable. He saw no problems with the rest of the week.

"Bellerive drains exceptionally well," Mahan said. "In a lot of places, we'd have (canceled) in two hours. This (zoysia) is a strong grass. It can take it."

Mahan can also take playing 36 in a day.

"And if you get the right momentum, you can ride it for a long time," Mahan said.

Especially on a course that has been soaked. No matter how quickly things dry out, the conditions will be anything but firm and fast. That means little roll in the fairways – don't be surprised if the PGA Tour plays "lift, clean and place" – but allows for shooting darts at pin placements.

"You can be aggressive and fire at the pins, because you know the ball's going to stop," Mahan said.

The course record is 5-under par 65, scored by Jeff Maggert in the third round of the 1992 PGA Championship. By Friday night, that sentence may have to be revised.

– Tim Cronin

First round swims to Friday

Thursday, September 4, 2008
Writing from Town and Country, Mo.

The aftermath of Hurricane Gustav forced the cancellation of the first round of this year's Western Open (a.k.a. the BMW Championship) on Thursday at Bellerive Country Club. All-night rains that became stronger in the morning prompted PGA Tour officials to move the first round to Friday at 11:30 a.m.

More details to follow.

– Tim Cronin

Commentary: Points or pointless?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Writing from Town and Country, Mo.

It's the third week of the PGA Tour's playoffs, and for the second year in a row, there isn't a contest.

Last year, Tiger Woods ran away and hid from the field, and didn't even have to show up the first week.

This year, with the formula tweaked to encourage volatility in the standings, Vijay Singh's won back-to-back, and is running away from the field.

"I don't even know if it's possible for someone in 13th place to catch him," said Steve Stricker, who happens to be in 13th place on the eve of the first round of the 105th Western Open – under cover as the BMW Championship for the second of a six-year corporate run – at Bellerive Country Club. "Maybe if I win both and he finishes last in both."

Then only if various and sundry train wrecks befall Sergio Garcia and Co. in between. Garcia is second, Mike Weir third, and Justin Leonard fourth. Other notables are in the top 10, including Phil Mickelson, who will figure out some way to play himself into a quandary, and, if projected rain hits, a quagmire as well.

What matters is this: If Stricker isn't sure what he can do to take the lead, and isn't sure if he can take the lead, should anyone else care?

"Interest is up," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said Wednesday afternoon, before noting that the television ratings have been sunk by the double whammy of a lack of Tiger Woods and a surplus of the Beijing Olympics. If that's increased interest, it's disguised as apathy to the Nielsen crowd.

Finchem mentioned that there's been more talk about the playoffs on sports talk radio, though that will be news to most sports talk radio hosts, especially those in Chicago. Ah, Chicago, which has loyally supported the Western Open since 1962, and this year has no big-time golf championship for the first time since 1960.

"When you leave a market like Chicago, they roast those who are involved in the decision," Finchem admitted.

That, at least, he's spot on about.

The problem isn't the competition for the attention of the audience. The problem is the product. Tournament golf has never had a playoff concept, and not one where it's played four-fifths of the way through the season, ostensibly to crown a champion, after which seven more weeks of tournaments are played. (And this year, one of those seven is the week before the Tour Championship, but is part of the autumn swing. So go figure.)

By itself, the Western Open is a fine show, no matter what the name. It was better received in Chicago being played during golf season, which September is not – though you can't tell the fans in St. Louis that – and was better with a full field.

As a playoff affair, the paying customer is presented with a small field, albeit one of considerable quality, and has to have a degree in calculus to determine the race within a race, if he or she cares at all. And we know the answer to that question.

Like team sports playoffs, the deal may determine a champion, but may not decide who the best player is. Padraig Harrington, having missed the cut both in New Jersey and in Boston, may not make the field for the Tour Championship, never mind victories in the Open Championship and the PGA Championship. Tiger Woods, whose fourth win of the season, the United States Open at Torrey Pines, was the most dramatic in decades, is sidelined until his damaged knee heals.

Yet, those are the two players with the greatest argument for player of the year honors. Which makes the playoffs more inconsequential than the Players Championship, which has a legitimate argument for being the fifth professional major.

That's why more tweaks will be forthcoming.

"I relate it to hockey," Mike Weir said. "The No. 8 seed can have a hot goalie, beat a No. 1 seed in the first round, and go on to win the Stanley Cup."

Not that anyone in St. Louis, or Chicago, for that matter, knows anything about the Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, Harrington, sitting 44th when a spot in the top 30 is needed by Sunday night, wants to see even more potential for the standings to shuffle.

"I'd give more emphasis to guys playing well, not guys scraping by," Harrington said. "Make this week more volatile than the previous two weeks. Right now, it's tougher to move up in week three. Double the points for week three, and double it again for the Tour Championship."

He likes the idea, but it's doubtful that will make Neil in Northlake call the sport chatterers to talk up the prospects of D.J. Trahan. Unless, that is, Trahan can fill in for Carlos Zambrano in the Cubs' rotation.

– Tim Cronin

On the eve of the storm

Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Writing from Town and Country, Mo.

As usual, the gentlemen and ladies of the Western Golf Association have taken care of virtually every detail in advance of their big professional gala, known to history at the Western Open and more recently, once the check cleared, as the BMW Championship.

Their hard work is hardly a surprise, given a history of success that goes all the way back to 1899. There's just one thing missing from the 105th playing of the big fandango.

Go to the massive merchandise tent, located a flip wedge from the 18th green on the plush acreage of Bellerive Country Club, and you can't locate what may be the single hottest seller for the next 48 hours.

Life rafts are not to be found.

That's a shame, for the weather forecast through Friday morning is an atrocity. The remnants of Hurricane Gustav, which thankfully spared New Orleans, were taking aim at greater St. Louis at midday Wednesday. The forecast calls for three to five inches of rain. If the great green blob on the radar in central Missouri heads this way, bet the over. As for the course, bet part of it to be underwater. Part of Bellerive drains well, but that part drains into the part of Bellerive in the valley. Most of the front nine is a flood plain, and you don't want to know about the public parking lot.

A deluge brings the prospect of Thursday's tee times not being acted upon until some time Friday, which would dampen, but not drown, the spirits of St. Louis golf fans. They are a hardy breed, without a visit from the world's best players since the 1992 PGA Championship – the 2001 American Express World Golf Championship tournament here was canceled on Wednesday, September 12, a day after the horrors visited upon New York and Washington – and have already turned out en masse to see the first Western Open without a defending champion since 1970. When you've got about 20,000 strolling in on a Tuesday, and 25,000 fans on hand for a Wednesday pro-am and Tiger Woods, he of the bum knee, is not one of the pros, you've got an eager audience.

As many or more are expected to turn out for the first round on Thursday, if Thursday happens. If not, they'll be here on Friday, when Thursday may be played out. Regardless, the limited field – 69 players, with only Woods absent from those eligible to play – means this affair could still conclude on Sunday. The potential to play 36 holes in one day looms, and could be accomplished without too much trouble, as long as everyone doesn't four-putt.

While the galleries gawk, the talk of the players is the size of Bellerive's greens. They're like Dubsdread's, only moreso.

"Huge," said Steve Stricker without pausing to pick a different word. "Rees Jones made it very difficult for us. You've got to get it in the right quadrant."

Take the green at the 460-yard par-4 18th, for example. It rolls up toward the back on the right, and dips toward the back on the left. And you don't want to leave it short, lest more rolls than in a bakery come into play.

The length of the course is also an eyebrow-raiser. It's listed as 7,324 yards. That's for a par 70. Of course, Stricker did allow that he was hitting the ball 300 yards. With his 3-wood. (Dubsdread was listed as two yards longer from 2004 through 2007, but played to a par of 71. The last par 70 Western Open was in 1959, at the Pittsburgh Field Club, a 6,625 yard course.)

"If it rains, it's going to get even longer," said meteorologist Sergio Garcia.

Garcia, who has had more trouble closing than an off-kilter screen door, may find the key holes on the course, the long 16th, 17th and 18th, to his liking. He drives the ball 294.1 yards, but that's only good for 46th on the PGA Tour. The 16th is a 235-yard par-3 that demands precision, the 17th a 601-yard par 5 that asks more of the same. As noted, the home hole is a 460-yard test around a corner.

Meanwhile, Vijay Singh and Padraig Harrington lead the important categories going into the first round. Singh, thanks to his wins in New Jersey and Boston, leads the money, and Harrington, with two majors in his pocket but in danger of missing the Tour Championship unless he moves from 44th to at least 30th, is first in scoring average.

As might be expected, Singh was as workmanlike in his assessment of his chance to go three-for-three as he is on the range.

"Just play your own game, play hard and play good," Singh said. "I'm not worried about the points. I'm just really worried about this week. If I win, it'll be great. If I don't win, hopefully I can get enough points to clear it up."

No matter what the weather, the happiest man going into the Western is Jay Williamson, the 41-year-old overnight success who just happens to be a Bellerive member. He made the show, the third of the three PGA Tour playoff tournaments leading into the Tour Championship.

"That's the best thing," Williamson said. "That I'm not here because someone gave me a spot. I'm here because I earned it."

Williamson said he doesn't really have an edge, but he knows this about Bellerive, which weaves its way through stands of trees and around water hazards: The shorter the grass, the better.

"The true test of Bellerive is keeping the ball in the fairway," Williamson said. "You're going to get the ball close to these flags because of the rain. The greens are already soft, not really that fast, and unfortunately those are really the defenses this golf course has."

Alas, what course superintendent Chuck Gast may really need is the Army Corps of Engineers. Can a BMW float?

-- Tim Cronin

To the links for the Western Open!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Writing from Chicago

The launch of this site as a golf-oriented destination for golfers and golf fans commences with the playing of the 105th Western Open, the second under the assumed name of the BMW Championship. Beginning Wednesday, we'll be reporting from Bellerive Country Club in Town and Country, Mo., just outside St. Louis.

Tiger Woods, soon to be the father of two, is the non-defending champion. Vijay Singh, who has won just about everything in the game except the Western, is the prohibitive favorite. He's won the last two tournaments, he's putting like a 20-year-old, and he plays well in the heat. Did we mention the tournament is just outside St. Louis?

Barring late withdrawals, 69 of the top 70 will be on hand. Woods, of course, is sidelined by his bum knee.

We'll be back tomorrow with a championship preview, looking at the contenders, including Singh, and the key holes on the course designed by Robert Trent Jones and remodeled – for $9.5 million – by son Rees Jones.

-- Tim Cronin
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