We caught up with one of the true icons of Aussie golf ahead of the 2014 Masters at Augusta.
The arrival of the Masters this month will rekindle memories of Adam Scott’s epic breakthrough victory last year, ending the nation’s hoodoo at Augusta. The year’s first golf Major will also see Brett Ogle return to the famed Georgia course for the first time since he last played the event 20 years ago. The face of Fox Sports’ golf coverage will be on site to host a full-on production from the network as it takes over the Masters broadcast: in addition to every round, they will have the lead-in par-3 tournament, as well as four other dedicated channels devoted to Amen Corner, the 15th and 16th, the featured group and Masters news. Best of all, the splendour of Augusta will be in full high-definition. “Shit, five channels – that’s impressive,” says Ogle with his characteristic, club-golfer-like enthusiasm for the game. Inside Sport chatted with the two-time US tour winner about the Aussie chances this year, his own Masters memories and why golf on TV needs more humour.
The question golf fans across the country have been asking each other the past year: where were you when Adam Scott won last year?
Monday mornings for me, I’m usually in Sydney preparing to shoot The Golf Show. I was in the hotel, watching like everybody else on TV, jumping up and down, carrying on. I actually thought Jason Day was going to win, to tell you the truth, one up, three to play.
Were you a believer in the curse? Did you have that sense of foreboding, particularly when Cabrera tied it?
Yeah, I really did. When he stiffed it on the last I thought, “Here we go again. We’re going to go through this whole rigmarole that we’ve always gone through over the last 77 years.” Waiting for an Aussie – especially Greg Norman, with four really good chances at Augusta, and a miracle shot got him, or he bogeyed the last or Faldo gave him some punishment on Sunday.
Pulling back from it a bit, did you think Scotty was going to be the one to do it?
The guy that I thought had the ball-striking ability to win around Augusta was Robert Allenby. Hits it right-to-left, and that shape suits Augusta. I really thought he’d be the one, especially before 2001, because he was one of the world’s best; always consistent. After he won (in LA) in 2001 and didn’t win after that, his putting was always hot or cold. Geoff Ogilvy hits it super-high; I thought he was another good chance. Stuart Appleby had a great chance in 2007 going into the final round leading. Scotty, it depends on his putting. His putting declined in 2008-09 where he was off the planet, he missed a lot of cuts. The long putter has taken his game back to where he was. It saved him.
You have a lot of experience with the long putter. Has it surprised you how effective Scott has been with it on Augusta’s famously touchy greens?
We have similar greens in Melbourne. The thing is, every week on the PGA Tour the greens are super-fast. Augusta, they just have more slopes on them. Sometimes you have to play away from the flag, two-putt from 40 feet. The guy who will win is the guy who makes the least mistakes, not the most birdies. Scotty’s got the game, he’s got the confidence now. What’s going to happen on January 1, 2016 (when the ban on “anchoring” putters comes into effect) is the question mark for mine. Just before 2011 at the Honda Classic, he shot 77-82 and had 70 putts. The next week, he came out with the long putter and finished fifth or sixth, and from there on, he’s rocketed back up to where he was in 2008. So that long putter has given him confidence, big time. He’s got two years – he’s going to have to do something mid-year next year. It’s hard to say moving forward what he’s going to do, but for the next two years, he’s certainly in line to be world no.1. He’s a great ball-striker – when he putts good, he wins.
Augusta is one of those places that suits a certain type – attackable spots, combined with ones that can rise up and bite you.
Adam doesn’t make many mistakes – he’s the best driver of the ball in the world. That sets you up at Augusta – when you’re ripping it down there 300, you’re shortening a lot of holes. As good an iron player as he is, he hits 13 greens when he’s playing bad, and hits the par-fives in two. His bad days are not that bad – he’s always there, and when he putts good, he shoots low; when he putts ordinary, he shoots 70. That’s why he’s become more consistent the past two seasons.
You mentioned Jason Day – huge recent victory for his career at the WGC-Match Play. How do you assess him at present?
He’s my pick this year. Second in 2011, second last year. He’s starting to learn, after winning the World Cup last year and the Match Play, how to finish off tournaments. That’s been the crux to his game – he hadn’t quite learned how to finish off. He’s only 26 years of age, and he’s learned now from so many disappointments. He’s got the ball-striking capabilities, but take a look at him putting inside 15 feet. He’s red-hot; he doesn’t miss too many. He’ really strong on short putting; he’s hardly had a three-putt in the last few years at Augusta. He doesn’t hit it way off-line, even thought he rotates hard at it. You don’t see him hitting that one 30 or 40 yards right. Great short game; inside 15 feet, he’s awesome, particularly on quick greens.
We have an Australian amateur in the field, Oliver Goss, who is highly touted. What are your thoughts on the Aussie playing stocks at the moment – it’s strong at the top, but maybe not as deep as a few years back?
It’s still good, but the class around the world has stepped it up as well. There are a hell of a lot of guys coming out of college in the States who are really good players, so that adds to the top 100 and squeezes others out. Our stocks here are good: the foundations, the Vic Institute. There’s plenty of golf on the cards for young amateurs. But as for the top 100 in the world – you can almost take it to 150 who are equivalent in terms of quality. And they’re younger – that Guan Tianling, he says he’s 15, I think he’s 30 the way he plays. It’s bloody amazing. They’re ready at a younger age because they’re tournament-hardened; they’re not frightened when they get out among the pros to contend. But we’ve got a stack of amateurs here.
A dark horse pick?
Jordan Spieth. He’s an exceptional player and a really good putter. I expect him to play well at Augusta; he’s played well everywhere else over the past year. He’s really stepped it up. Have a look at him, he’s been contending every single week. For a 20-year-old kid, that’s unbelievable ... he’ll contend. Hits it high, hits it straight, putts well. He and Jason Day are my picks.
You’re going to be on-site this year – have you been back since the time you played?
I haven’t been back since ’94. I played in ’93-94, and I’d won Pebble Beach just prior to my first trip to Augusta. I hosted (the TV show) Inside The PGA Tour, and I did a thing driving Magnolia Lane, did a whole thing over the practice round. The first year, I was going really good, I led after nine holes. I’ve still got one accolade I can hang on to: I was the first person in Masters history to make two eagles on two par-fours in the one tournament. Since then, it’s only been Brandt Jobe and a guy called Jack, uh ... Nicklaus, is it? (Laughs)
Augusta gives out crystal goblets for making eagles – what happened to yours?
They’re here, looking right at me as I speak to you. They’re not to be touched ...
There’s something to the place that melts even the most jaded people. How did the effect hit you on your visits as a player?
Like everybody, you grow up watching and go, “Gee, I’d love to be there one day.” It’s invitation only – it’s the weakest Major of all of them, because they’ve still got past champions and they don’t open up the field. But the aura it’s had since 1930 is incredible. Turning off Washington Drive into Magnolia Lane was just a super feeling. Tell you a funny story – I’ve always been mates with John Daly; me, him and Nick Price were the only bloody smokers on tour. Me and JD are standing on the practice range, and we’re pumping drivers over the back of the range, trying to get them over the net – the net was super-high – and onto Washington Drive. Naughty, naughty, but we were having serious fun.
You were really long with the old gear, when the ball spun. Were you one of those guys who weren’t as long with the new equipment?
Yeah, I can’t keep up with the guys like Bubba Watson; they’re in a different league. I was long with the balata ball and the woods. These days, it’s all about launch angle and no spin on the ball. It’s a totally different game. There are a lot of guys who just smoke it out there.
You turn 50 this year, always a checkpoint for pro golfers. Back in the early ’90s, would you still have anticipated playing at this time?
Yeah, I did. It’s funny, because back in 1984, I was chipping those plastic balls you buy in Kmart down the hallway at home. I flinched one into the side of the wall. I thought, “Aw, that’s different.” Over the years, it got worse – it was the bloody yips. It started in my chipping and went into my putting. I couldn’t chip anymore. I got around with a long putter, won the Hawaiian Open with it. But my chipping drove me off the tour, and if I could still chip, I’d still be on tour. My ball striking is still good. People see me hit it still, and ask me if I’m going to play Champions Tour. I don’t have the nerve. My chipping is gone. I spent thousands of dollars seeing sport psychs, trying to re-program my brain and get around somehow. I had to step away.
What have you learned about the yips? You surely have heard a lot of theories.
The neurotransmitters in your brain don’t match up, and you get uncertainty. You flinch at the ball, your hands flinch. When you practise a profession so much – it’s not only golfers, it could be anything: tennis players, cricketers, pianists, surgeons. A lot of people have had this, you know, or got it. The more you do it, the worse it gets, and gets in your head. And once you do it once, it’s so hard to get out of your head for the rest of the day. When you see super slow-motions of guys chipping and hitting the ball, see how their skin or their hands shake at impact? I’ve always wondered if that had anything to do with it, because that’s the feeling that you get just as you’re hitting the ball, that flicker of the hands. I’ve never really asked that question before.
You went on to craft a second career in TV. One often-heard gripe about golf coverage is a lack of humour – like David Feherty, you’re one of the few who bring a lively presence with meaty analysis. Do you have a philosophy of how golf should be covered on TV?
I do, that’s my personality. David’s a good friend, played Euro Tour with “Ferret”. McCord too ... he said something about “bikini wax” and was never to be seen (on the Masters telecast) again. Please, get over it. That’s funny. My philosophy is, don’t be over the top. But there come times, and I’ve always been a spur-of-the-moment guy, when you throw it in there without it being detrimental to the players. I watch the Euro Tour late at night and it’s bat-shit boring, dreadful. I can’t cop it.
It’s a shame, because the game is inherently funny ...
Yeah, can be. Without being detrimental to the players – if the guy is leading by two with three, and is really under the pump, and hits it 30 right, you don’t say, “That’s just a shocking shot.” You explain to the viewer why he’s hit that shot, how he’s feeling, so the viewer at home can say, “Well, I’ve been nervous before.” I can’t stand people who knock the game of golf; it’s a tough game. A lot of times there’s a lot of funny things that could be said, but they’re not, because someone’s worried about their job going.
For The Golf Show, you get to see a lot of the top golfing sportsmen. We always hear things like Ricky Ponting was good enough to play the tour – who was the most impressive?
Ponting’s not good enough to play on the tour. Good, solid amateur. If he practised hard, he might have been, but ... don’t know. Greg Blewett stands out: good golf swing. I played with him a bit. Pat Rafter was solid. I’ll tell you who is good – Braith Anasta. He has an action that squeezes the ball beautifully, just crushes it like a pro. He’s probably the closest one who I thought, “He could be on tour, impressive.”
That’s not just your football fandom talking?
Well, he did play for the Sydney Roosters. I do love my Roosters.
I’ve been made to ask: of your golf ads, which is the one you enjoyed making most?
They were all good; we shot ’em in two days. The one that stands out that everybody loves is my mum. Because everybody relates to having their mum go, “Are you wearing those new shoes? Are you using that new driver?” Yes, mum.