Tuesday, November 21 at 9 a.m. on the 18th Green of Pebble Beach, my wife Marianna and I joined some 800 friends and employees of RJ Harper in an emotional tribute, the likes of which I haven’t experienced since 17 years prior, when gathered in the same location to honor Payne Stewart. Over RJ’s 32 years of working in the golf department at Pebble Beach, our paths had crossed so many times that a warm friendship developed.
RJ, who died of Pancreatic Cancer on November 8 at the age of 61, lived out a remarkable life that included an amazing journey to the top position in the golf department at Pebble Beach. RJ grew up as the consummate athlete at Westwood High in Memphis, Tennessee, where he won varsity letters in basketball, baseball, golf, track and his best sport, football, where he starred as quarterback. RJ went on to play halfback on a full scholarship at Rhodes College in Memphis, scoring four touchdowns in his first game as an 18-year-old freshman and leading the team to a 9-1-1 record, the best in school history. RJ was later inducted into the school’s hall of fame.
RJ fell in love with Pebble Beach and moved there in September of 1985. He accepted a $5-per-hour job as a marshal dreaming that one day he could become Head Professional, which he realized just four short years later. RJ held the post as Pebble Beach’s Executive Vice President of Golf and Retail for the past 17 years, in which he helped bring the U.S. Open to Pebble Beach in 1992, 2000 and 2010. He was the Championship Director of the 2000 U.S. Open and General Chairman of the 2010 U.S. Open. He would have again served as Chairman for the tournament when it returns to Pebble in 2019.
RJ was instrumental in helping me and others put together the memorial service for Payne Stewart at Pebble Beach in 2000, including Payne’s 21-Drive Salute. RJ was honored with the same special salute after his service on Tuesday. RJ also helped me plan and arrange for Thomas Kinkade’s painting of the celebratory moment in order to raise funds for the Payne Stewart Memorial, which I helped start at the Kids Across America Camp near Payne’s hometown of Springfield, Mo. RJ was also involved with Tim Finchem and me in announcing the Payne Stewart Award, given annually on the PGA Tour with proceeds going to the Payne Stewart Memorial.
It was RJ who was so excited when I finished the first round of the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach after shooting a 68. He escorted me to the press room where I was inundated with questions about how someone could have stopped competing for two years, stop practicing and almost lead the U.S. Open. It was RJ who had to tell Tiger to be patient while he waited in the back of the press room for his turn after he shot 65 to take the lead.
RJ was also instrumental in getting my son Daniel trained and hired as a caddy at Pebble Beach one summer. It was there that Daniel and RJ’s youngest son, Tucker, connected and remain friends today. RJ’s two boys are both great athletes and very good golfers.
The man that was memorialized in such a special way was exactly the person I knew, and that doesn’t always happen. RJ’s character was clearly represented by so many who spoke. Three in particular spoke of a character that we all should aspire to live, truths of living a successful life.
“RJ had a vibrant personality, an engaging smile and always a positive attitude,” said Bill Perocchi, CEO of Pebble Beach. “He cared for others and was a true team player.”
Jim Nantz, Mr. CBS Sports Everything, said: “He had a genuine heart and that innate ability to make people feel a bond with him.”
Said JT Harper, RJ’s oldest son:“As eloquent as my dad was, I won’t remember him for any words, phrases or advice, because it wasn’t what he said, it was what he did, and it was how he lived.”
Through the words of those closest to RJ came three key principles worth mentioning that RJ exhibited through his life. We all know these principles, but a friendly reminder is often powerful:
- Guard your mind with a positive attitude.
- Place relationships above business, and treat others as you would want them to treat you.
- Practice what you preach. Let your life live what you believe.
These principles are what good leaders practice. RJ was a good leader, a good friend, a passionate Christian and he will be missed greatly by so many who knew him. Pebble Beach has lost someone who can never be replaced. RIP my friend.
Top 5 wedges of all time
Wedges. They are the “trusted old friends” in our golf bags. They inspire confidence inside of 100 yards and help us get back on track when we hit a wayward approach.
There was a time not too long ago when a bunker was considered a true hazard, but over the last 80 years, as agronomy has evolved on the same trajectory as club an ball technology, wedges have changed a great deal along the way—from the first modern prototype wedge built by Gene Sarazen to clubs featuring various plating and coatings to increase spin and performance. There are a lot of wedge designs that have stood the test of time; their sole grinds, profiles from address, and performance bring back memories of great hole outs and recovery shots.
With so many variations of wedges in the history of golf (and so much parity), this is my top five list (in no particular order) of the most iconic wedges in golf history.
Original Gene Sarazen Wedge
Gene is famous for a lot of things: the career grand slam, the longest endorsement deal in professional sports history (75 years as a Wilson ambassador), the “shot heard around the world”, and as mentioned earlier—the creation of the modern sand wedge. Although not credited with the invention of the original “sand wedge” he 100 percent created the modern wedge with a steel shaft and higher bounce. A creation that developed from soldering mass to the sole and flange of what would be our modern-day pitching wedge. Born from the idea of a plane wing, thanks to a trip taken with Howard Hughes, we can all thank Mr. Sarazen for the help with the short shots around the green.
The next evolution of the original Sarazen Design, the Wilson R90 was the very first mass-marketed sand wedge. Its design characteristics can still be seen in the profile of some modern wedges. Although many might not be as familiar with the R90, you would almost certainly recognize the shape, since it was very often copied by other manufacturers, in their wedge lines.
The R90 features a very rounded profile, high amount of offset, and a great deal of bounce in the middle of the sole, with very little camber. Although not as versatile as modern wedges because of the reduced curve from heel to toe, the R90 is still a force to be reckoned with in the sand.
You know a name and design are classic when a company chooses to use the original notation more than 30 years after its initial release. The 588 was introduced as Cleveland’s fifth wedge design and came to market in 1988—which is how it got its name. Wedges were never the same after.
The brainchild of Roger Cleveland, the 588 was made from 8620 carbon steel—which patinad over time. Not unlike the Wilson before it, the 588 had a very traditional rounded shape with a higher toe and round leading edge. The other part of the design that created such versatility was the V-Sole (No, not the same as the Current Srixon), that offers a lot more heel relief to lower the leading edge as the face was opened up—this was the birth of the modern wedge grind.
Titleist Vokey Spin Milled
The wedge that launched the Vokey brand into the stratosphere. Spin-milled faces changed the way golfers look at face technology in their scoring clubs. From a humble club builder to a wedge guru, Bob Vokey has been around golf and the short game for a long time. The crazy thing about the Bob Vokey story is that it all started with one question: “who wants to lead the wedge team?” That was all it took to get him from shaping Titleist woods to working with the world’s best players to create high-performance short game tools.
Honorable mentions for design goes to the first 200 and 400 series wedge, which caught golfers’ eyes with their teardrop shape—much like the Cleveland 588 before it.
Ping Eye 2 Plus
What can you say? The unique wedge design that other OEMs continue to draw inspiration from it 30 years after its original conception. The Eye 2+ wedge was spawned from what is undoubtedly the most popular iron design of all time, which went through many iterations during its 10 years on the market—a lifecycle that is completely unheard of in today’s world of modern equipment.
A pre-worn sole, huge amount of heel and toe radius, and a face that screams “you can’t miss,” the true beauty comes from the way the hosel transitions into the head, which makes the club one of the most versatile of all time.
Check out my video below for more on why this wedge was so great.
Honorable mention: The Alien wedge
To this day, the Alien wedge is the number-one-selling single golf club of all time! Although I’m sure there aren’t a lot of people willing to admit to owning one, it did help a lot of golfer by simplifying the short game, especially bunker shots.
Its huge profile looked unorthodox, but by golly did it ever work! Designed to be played straight face and essentially slammed into the sand to help elevate the ball, the club did what it set out to do: get you out of the sand on the first try. You could say that it was inspired by the original Hogan “Sure-Out,” but along the way it has also inspired others to take up the baton in helping the regular high-handicap golfer get out of the sand—I’m looking at you XE1.
That’s my list, WRXers. What would you add? Let me know in the comments!
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Host Michael Williams talks with Steve Sacks of Sacks Parente Golf about the idea and implementation of their revolutionary Series 39 blade putter. Also features PGA Professional Brian Sleeman of Santa Lucia Preserve (CA).
Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below.
A day at the CP Women’s Open
It’s another beautiful summer day in August. Just like any other pro-am at a professional tour event, amateurs are nervously warming up on the driving range and on the putting green next to their pros. As they make their way to the opening tees, they pose for their pictures, hear their names called, and watch their marque player stripe one down the fairway. But instead of walking up 50 yards to the “am tees,” they get to tee it up from where the pros play—because this is different: this is the LPGA Tour!
I’m just going to get right to it, if you haven’t been to an LPGA Tour event you NEED to GO! I’ve been to a lot of golf events as both a spectator and as media member, and I can say an LPGA Tour event is probably the most fun you can have watching professional golf.
The CP Women’s Open is one of the biggest non-majors in women’s golf. 96 of the top 100 players in the world are in the field, and attendance numbers for this stop on the schedule are some of the highest on tour. The 2019 edition it is being held at exclusive Magna Golf Club in Aurora, Ontario, which is about an hour north of downtown Toronto and designed by noted Canadian architect Doug Carrick. The defending Champion is none other than 21-year-old Canadian phenom Brooke Henderson, who won in emotional fashion last year.
From a fan’s perspective, there are some notable differences at an LPGA Tour event, and as a true “golf fan,” not just men’s golf fan, there are some big parts of the experience that I believe everyone can enjoy:
- Access: It is certainly a refreshing and laidback vibe around the golf course. It’s easy to find great vantage points around the range and practice facility to watch the players go through their routines—a popular watching spot. Smaller infrastructure doesn’t mean a smaller footprint, and there is still a lot to see, plus with few large multi-story grandstands around some of the finishing holes, getting up close to watch shots is easier for everyone.
- Relatability: This is a big one, and something I think most golfers don’t consider when they choose to watch professional golf. Just like with the men’s game there are obviously outliers when it comes to distance on the LPGA Tour but average distances are more in line with better club players than club players are to PGA Tour Pros. The game is less about power and more about placement. Watching players hit hybrids as accurately as wedges is amazing to watch. Every player from a scratch to a higher handicap can learn a great deal from watching the throwback style of actually hitting fairways and greens vs. modern bomb and gouge.
- Crowds: (I don’t believe this is just a “Canadian Thing”) It was refreshing to spend an entire day on the course and never hear a “mashed potatoes” or “get in the hole” yelled on the tee of a par 5. The LPGA Tour offers an extremely family-friendly atmosphere, with a lot more young kids, especially young girls out to watch their idols play. This for me is a huge takeaway. So much of professional sports is focused on the men, and with that you often see crowds reflect that. As a father to a young daughter, if she decides to play golf, I love the fact that she can watch people like her play the game at a high level.
There is a lot of talk about the difference between men’s and women’s professional sports, but as far as “the product” goes, I believe that LPGA Tour offers one of the best in professional sports, including value. With a great forecast, a great course, and essentially every top player in the field, this week’s CP Women’s Open is destined to be another great event. If you get the chance to attend this or any LPGA Tour event, I can’t encourage you enough to go!
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