There is a reason why it’s called the Silly Season. How do you follow up something as memorable as a victory by the team of Natalie Gulbis and John Elway? Unless you’re TV’s Dancing With the Stars, you don’t.
What, you don’t recall Gulbis and Elway combining to win last year’s ADT Skills Challenge, golf’s answer to Punt, Pass & Kick competitions?
Well, it’s a minor addition to golf’s Silly Season in December and until the celebrities were imported, it was actually kind of fun to watch tour players test themselves on the kind of shots that have become a staple of Golf Channel’s Big Break shows-bunker blasts, long drives, chipping contests, trouble shots, you name it.
With apologies to Natalie and ol’ Number Seven, NBC has come up with a new and better format for the ADT Skills Challenge. It’s more interesting to me, anyway, than watching celebrity hacks. And at the very least, you have to give NBC double-bonus points for originality.
This year, players will team up with their caddies and play for equal shares-yes, equal shares-of an $820,000 purse.
“My first reaction was disbelief, and that was before I knew about the $820,000,” said Mike (Fluff) Cowan, who is actually a pretty good player despite his hangdog appearance.
The teams are Cowan and his former long-time PGA Tour boss, Peter Jacobsen; Fred Couples and his perennial caddie, Joe LaCava; U.S. Open runner-up Rocco Mediate and his caddie from Torrey Pines, Matt Achatz; and Greg Norman and his occasional caddie and permanent son, Gregory Norman. Phil Mickelson and his caddie, Jim (Bones) MacKay, were invited but Mickelson was playing overseas and unavailable. The competition will be held Monday at Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort in Florida and edited into a pair of two-hour shows that NBC will televise during the peak of the golf season (insert your bemused laughter here), Dec. 27-28.
Caddies could spice up the event. At least Joe the Plumber wasn’t invited. Or, even worse, golf writers. That would be scraping the bottom of the barrel underneath the lowest portion of the totem pole buried under a rock. On Mars.
The favorites have to be the Normans. Greg contended for the British Open this summer, even though he must be in his 70s by now, and Gregory is a pretty good player who has lately developed some pro aspirations. Cowan and Jacobsen could be formidable, too, although Jake, who has already had a hip and knee replaced, is coming off back problems and hasn’t played in a while.
After a never-ending slog of stroke-play events, even in the Silly Season, any new offering is a good one. The Skills Challenge has always been an underrated addition to the lineup. It has featured an eclectic list of winners over the years, including Gary Player, Jacobsen (three times), Nick Faldo, Vijay Singh, Brad Faxon and Mark McGwire, among others.
One unsolved issue is the pace of the show, even though it’s edited. It’s way too long at four hours over two days. One two-hour show would be plenty. Still, the original idea of seeing who’s the best at different parts of the game has always had merit. The twist this time will be seeing which caddies actually have game and seeing how they react to the kind of pressure their bosses have always played under.
The format is the brainchild of NBC Sports executive vice president Jon Miller. “We’ve been looking at a way to energize the event,” Miller said. “I’ve known Joe LaCava for years and I began to think about the special relationships between players and caddies. There’s no other sport like it. The idea was to celebrate the caddies and put them on equal footing with the players. We thought it would be a fun showcase. The caddies have wonderful personalities and a lot of people at home recognize them.”
In lieu of a straightforward competition between tour players, this caddie format may work. You’re sure to see some interesting shots, if nothing else. That’s interesting as in good and interesting as in, oh my god.
“I hit one shot this year at the 17th hole at Sawgrass in a practice round and I could barely pull the club back, I was so nervous,” said Achatz, who was about to start a job waiting tables just before Mediate hired him to caddie earlier this year. “There was nothing on the line, just a couple of players watching. I did hit the green but I’m going to be nervous. Hopefully, Rocco isn’t going to rag on me too much when I hit a horrendous shot.”
That’s OK. Ragging makes good TV. The caddies are all diligently working on their games right now. Cowan is going early to Naples, Fla., to hone his skills with Jacobsen’s help. The loopers are already dreading certain shots. For Achatz, it’s the long drive challenge. “I have a terrible case of the duck hooks,” he said, “and I don’t want to kill anybody.”
LaCava is concerned about the fairway bunker challenge. “Pros have a tough time with that so how do you think I’m going to do?” he said. “Long-iron bunker shots, I’ve got issues.”
Cowan said his bunker game is in shambles. The nerves may be, too, for all of them. “I agree with Matt, teeing it up for this amount of money in the ADT Skill Challenge, I may not be able to draw the club back,” Cowan said. “Competing on a nationally televised level is going to be a different experience. It’s a whole new ballgame.”
During the Silly Season, the deadest part of the golf season, anything new can’t be all bad.