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Me llamo Pablo Larrazabal, y soy campeon

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My Sunday morning was spent in mourning for over three hours. As a Spanish teacher, I could not imagine what Pablo Larrazabal was feeling. five bogeys and one double bogey absolutely suffocated a single, front-nine birdie. The Spaniard turned in 42, six over par, after reaching 11 under through three rounds. Names like Sjoholm, Grace, Besseling, even Schwartzel, were returned to contention. With incredibly sore feet, Larrazabal looked like a wounded weekend warrior, limping along the Leopard Creek golf course. Which of his challengers would win? Certainly not the native of Barcelona.

Wil Besseling owned a two-shot advantage when he reached the 14th tee. He dunked one ball in the drink on that hole and lost his advantage to Joel Sjoholm. The happy-go-lucky Swede was 3-under through 13 holes, but could not notch another birdie coming home. He finished on 7 under par, and sat down in the clubhouse to wait. He would ultimately finish solo 2nd, a fine start to the new season.

Leopard Creek was kind to no one on this day. Brandon Grace dropped shots to par on holes two to four. He would claw back to 1 over on the day, but needed 1 under to reach the top. Fellow South African Charl Schwartzel wrote down one eagle, one birdie…and three bogeys on his outward-nine card. Still, compared with Larrazabal’s gaffes, even par was a miraculous comeback. The 2011 Masters champion played the inward half in 2 under par, joining Grace at 6 under.

Back to Besseling. From a lie in the rough on 18, he still went for a ridiculously-tucked flag in two, hoping to assure a birdie to reach 8 under. As expected, his knuckleball bounded past the flag, over the green, down the slope … and onto the rock wall guarding the peninsula from water. First dumb play of 2020, and it won’t be the last. Besseling made bogey on a sub-500 yard par 5, dropping to 6 under as well.

And yes, Larrazabal and his moaning, groaning, weeping dogs were, somehow, still a part of this tournament’s denouement. The Catalonian made bogey at the par-5 13th but followed with consecutive birdies at 15 and 16. Equally impressive was a massive par save at 17. With the stage set for a heroic comeback, Larrazabal drove into the rough at the last. Unlike Besseling, he was less brave than wise and laid up to wedge distance. His spinner stopped two feet from the hole, ensuring an unexpected, but strategic, birdie, and an inconceivable (in all its “Princess Bride” glory) conclusion to the event. After the lowest of lows times six, Larrazabal had somehow, in some borderline-unearthly manner, claimed his fifth European Tour title, and his first in four years.

Pablo Larrazabal, campeon.

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Ronald Montesano writes for GolfWRX.com from western New York. He dabbles in coaching golf and teaching Spanish, in addition to scribbling columns on all aspects of golf, from apparel to architecture, from equipment to travel. Follow Ronald on Twitter at @buffalogolfer.

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Podcasts

The Gear Dive: Episode 100

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In this 100th episode of The Gear dive, Johnny looks back at his top 5 favorite moments and discusses what’s to come in the equipment industry as we come out of the lockdown haze.

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: 3 keys to handling pressure

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Whether you play competitively or not, “pressure” is a big part of this game. Even if we are out for an evening practice nine, when we get over any shot, from drive to putt, we are putting “pressure” on ourselves to perform to our best capability.

So just what is pressure? My dad used to tell us the story about a guy who wanted to learn how to walk the tightrope. He strung a rope across his yard about a foot off the ground and started practicing—first just balancing, then walking, skipping—he got where he “owned” that tightrope. So, he decided he was ready for the big top, to join the circus. The circus manager says, “Well, climb up there and show me what you’ve got.” When he got to the top and looked down about thirty feet, he couldn’t even get off the platform.

Pressure!

Pressure affects all of differently, but it does affect all of us. How can we totally jack a two-foot putt sometimes? How can we chunk a chip shot? We don’t do that on the practice tee! But then, how can tour pros hit some of the gosh-awful shots we see them hit coming down the stretch? No one is immune.

So, I want to share my three keys to handling pressure. I’d like for all of you to chime in with your own personal keys that you use with success.

Here are mine:

  1. Recall success! The first thing that happens in pressure situations is that fear sets in. You may find yourself thinking of that last short putt you missed, or that chip you chunked, or bunker shot you skulled. In Dr. David Cook’s book/movie “Seven Days In Utopia”, the mentor tells his student, “See it. Feel it. Trust it.” See the shot you have and recall the dozens or hundreds of ways you’ve successfully executed it before. Take a few practice swings and feel the swing that will produce that vision. Then trust your skill that you KNOW you have and just execute.
  2. Get S-L-O-W. It’s a natural tendency to get quick when we are under pressure. As you begin to approach the shot, slow down a bit. If you are riding in a cart and approaching the green, pause for a count before you jump out of the cart. Take a breath before you pull the clubs from the bag. Walk a little more slowly over to your ball, which gives you time to think those successful thoughts we just talked about. Make your practice swings or strokes a little slower, more deliberately. And feel the end of your backswing. The quickness killer is not finishing the swing, whether it’s a full iron shot, a short chip or pitch, or even a putt. FEEL the end of the backswing to neutralize quickness.
  3. Lighten up! A nice relaxed grip is essential to a good golf shot of any kind, but pressure affects that first, most of the time. When you are feeling a little “amped up”, focus on your grip pressure and R-E-L-A-X. Your body will not let you hold a club too softly, but pressure sure can make you put the death grip on the club. And it is hard to swing too quickly when you have a nice soft grip on the club.

So, those are my “three keys” to handling pressure. Try them the next time you find yourself a little nervous, whether it’s for the club championship, or just beating your buddies out of a few bucks.

And let us know your keys to handling pressure, too!

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Equipment

Coming out of the haze: What to expect from the OEMs in the second half of 2020

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As we slowly come out of the lockdown haze, it’s going to be interesting to see which OEMs are primed to come out swinging. From where I sit, there are a few companies that either kept the foot on the pedal or found new ways to interact with the masses. I have been tracking the major companies for different reasons, and I am optimistic on most fronts. Now, it needs to be said that everyone has been keeping the respective momentum going in their own ways—this has been a challenge for everyone, so this analysis is simply a commentary on what may come in the second half of the year.

Many good folks were either furloughed or laid off during this lockdown—that’s where we all lost. It needs to be acknowledged that we are talking about golf here, but the underlying reality of this is still devastating. I so look forward to getting into the trenches with these folks again either back where they were or at new companies.

TaylorMade became educators…and kicked off live golf again

Big giant club company or big giant marketing machine…it doesn’t matter what you label them as. TaylorMade Golf, in my opinion, turned the heartbreak of stalling one of the biggest first quarters in company history into an opportunity to start talking…and teaching. With the help of the tour team and TM athletes, TaylorMade focused hard on talking to us all during the lockdown. With multiple initiatives through social media, the Driving Relief event, and the tour staff engaging way more than usual. I believe TM created a runway to start moving quickly once stores and pro shops open up again.

Let’s face it, with the social media presence, the most robust tour staff maybe ever, and the driver everyone seems to have reserved for the top big stick of 2020, what’s not to be confident about? On the flip side, a company that big could have really taken it on the chin hard, but how they handled the lockdown—from my chair—was fun to watch and will ultimately ensure a quick restart. There is something to be said about having guys like Trottie, Adrian, and Hause in the fold informing and keeping things fun.

Rumor has it new irons are dropping in the fall/winter, which could spell two awesome bookends to a bittersweet 2020.

PXG leaned in

Why online sales for all OEMs spiked is no mystery. Boredom, desire, and a credit card are keys to any great online buying experience, but PXG made certain that if you were not a buyer previously, you may be now.

The price tag has always been a key topic with Bob Parsons’ Scottsdale-based company. It’s no secret that the clubs aren’t cheap, but during this lockdown, they did multiple strategic initiatives to not only crank up direct-to-consumer buying but also expand the PXG conversation into different areas, namely fashion.

Price cuts across the board started early and, rumor has it, enabled PXG to achieve sales numbers unlike any other period in the company’s short history. Yes, cutting prices helps unit sales, but in the case of PXG, it brought in the club customer that ordinarily shied away from PXG for financial reasons and ultimately made them buyers. That’s where PXG seems to shine, once they finally get you in, they are very effective at keeping you in the family. Mercedes-Benz AMG is like that: once you have had a taste of the Kool-Aid, it’s hard to go back to Hawaiian Punch.

In addition to the aggressive price-cutting, PXG fashion, spearheaded by President Renee Parsons, launched a new collection that is designed and manufactured by PXG. Fashion in times like these is always a risk from a financial standpoint, but this launch has been on the calendar since the BOY and the current lockdown did not disrupt that. It speaks to the confidence that Bob and Renee have in what they are doing. Now, is it a guarantee that PXG garments will fly off the shelves? No. but that’s not the point, it’s the fact that this current climate didn’t scare them into pivoting or holding off.

Point to this pick is PXG looks healthy coming out of this and it was possible to believe that perhaps this would have taken a toll on the custom fit brand. There is even a commercial produced during lockdown to attract even more club builders to the fold. Not normal behavior in times like these, but is anything that PXG does normal? No, and that’s what makes them fun to talk about.

The company also released its Essential Facemask with 50 percent of proceeds going to Team Rubicon.

Ping was quiet…but don’t be fooled

Yes, they did some rare social media engagements with Kenton Oates and the tour staff, which were fantastic. But the real magic here was the quiet way in which Ping slipped into 2020 and the mystery they have in hand and what’s to come next.

There hasn’t been really any new Ping product in a good while, and I anticipate a big winter for the Solheim crew. Sometimes, silence is golden and from what I can gather, what Ping has coming in irons and woods will be yet again a launch that gets people talking.

Ping from a business standpoint is a company that gets one percent better every year. Never any dramatic shifts in strategy or product. It’s always good, it’s always high-performance, and it’s always in the “best of” category across the board.

Watch out for them over the next six to nine months…a storm is brewing. A good one.

Cobra introduced the “Rickie iron”

Cobra Rev 33 Irons

Compared to 2019 and the runaway success that was the F9 driver, Cobra Golf seemed to cruise along in the first quarter of 2020. The SpeedZone metal wood line was an improvement tech-wise from the F9 but seemed to get lost in the driver launch shuffle with an earlier release—and frankly everyone in the industry took a back seat to TaylorMade’s SIM.

It’s not placing one stick over the other actually, I have been very vocal about my affections for both, it’s just some years, the story around a club can generate excitement, and if the club is exceptional, boom. Cobra was that cool kid in 2019.

What Cobra decided to do in the downtime is slowly tease and taunt with a “Rickie Fowler” iron. Players blades aren’t typically the driving element of any business model, but what Cobra did was introduce to a beautiful yet completely authentic forging that will not only get the gear heads going nuts but also entice the better players to start looking at Cobra as a serious better players iron company. No small feat.

Point is, Cobra has generated buzz. It helped that Rickie’s performance at Seminole was just short of a precision clinic. Beyond the Rev 33, its rumored Cobra has a new players CB coming and some MIM wedges.

It should be an exciting last half for the Cobra crew.

The Titleist train chugged on

I mean, what else is there to say about Titleist? They are as American as apple pie, have a stranglehold on multiple tour and retail categories, and one of the best front offices in golf. The company is a well-oiled machine.

So what do I expect from them in the last half? Well pretty much what I would expect on any other year, solid player-driven equipment. A metal wood launch is coming, the SM8 was a huge hit in stores and on tour, and the ball portion is the biggest 800-pound gorilla in golf.

It was also nice to see a little more social media interaction beyond the traditional. Aaron Dill has been very active on the social media front and a good portion of the tour staff, namely Poulter, JT, and Homa were proactive in engagement. Might seem trivial to some, but specifically, Titleist and Ping are not super active in the organic interaction game, so it was nice to see both companies dive into the fold.

Cleveland/Srixon should have a lot to look forward to

Let’s be honest here, 2019 was a quiet year overall for Srixon. Shane Lowry won The Open, but in the golf mainstream it was a leap year for them in regards to any launches. The anticipation from me personally of what is to come is quite strong. I adore the irons. I have yet to meet one I didn’t love, and fitters across the country will speak to that in sales. The Srixon iron line has become a popular yet-sort-of-cult-classic among fitters and gearheads and rightly so. They are phenomenal.

The recently teased picture of the new driver on the USGA site more or less teased us of what is to come for the overall line. New Cleveland wedges are coming shortly and the golf ball has always been a solid component to the Huntington Beach company.

As much as anyone in the market, I believe Srixon could finish the year with some serious momentum going into 2021. The irons and ball have always been firestarters. My only wish for them, selfishly, is a more aggressive tour strategy in regards to landing one of the perennial top 10. It seems like a dumb thought, but I have always felt Cleveland/Srixon was always a serious hitter that at times seems to get lost in the conversation. Having a big gun on staff or a couple of them will remedy that quickly.

Callaway has an eye on big things for the golf ball

Callaway, a company that seems to do it all well, was actually a bit quiet since the lockdown started. After a solid release of the Mavrik line and some momentum in the golf ball area, I’m sure this lockdown probably felt like a kick to the shin.

However, this company is shifting in a good way. The idea that they were a golf club company that happened to make golf balls is slowly turning into a company with multiple major components that stand alone. TaylorMade is on a similar shift, and honestly it’s very interesting to watch. Do I think that anyone will ever catch Titleist in the ball category? No, I don’t. All of these mentioned golf balls are ridiculously good, but 75 years of trust and loyalty are hard to compete with. But that’s not the point, Callaway is a monster company that takes the golf ball conversation very seriously, and I believe this will serve them very well coming out of this craziness and help the momentum going into 2021.

 

 

 

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