Tiger Was Right - So What's Next for the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge

By: Nancy Berkley

On Sunday, right before NBC television of the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open begins, golf fans will be able to watch four amateurs in a TV Special play Pebble Beach in the third year of the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge.

Peggy Ference -- Amateur Golfer in Golf Digest US Open Challenge
(photo courtesy of Steve Jennings/Wire Image)

In the way of background, it was after a tough U.S. Open at Oakmont a few years ago, that Tiger, issued his now-famous challenge: No non-professional can break 100 on these U.S. Open courses.

In this year's Challenge, two of the four amateurs were professional athlete celebrities - Wayne Gretsky, one of the greatest hockey players ever and Drew Brees, an MVP quarterback. The third celebrity was the actor-producer Mark Wahlberg. It's worth noting that all three celebrities are used to performing before large crowds where the stakes are big.

The fourth amateur was Peggy Ference, a 51-year-old woman from New Jersey who plays to a 5 handicap from the forward tees at Cherry Valley Golf Club in Princeton, New Jersey. (The forward tees on Peggy's home course are 5,399 yards.) Peggy won the Golf Digest on-line voting contest to be the non-celebrity amateur. Peggy is the first female golfer to be a finalist in the on-line voting contest and to win and earn her place in the Challenge.

Sorry to ruin the suspense, but the final scores of the Challenge round were: Mark Wahlberg: 97, Wayne Gretzky: 100, Drew Brees: 102, Peggy Ference: 118. Yes, only one person broke 100.

As part of the whole experience, on Tuesday evening before the round, Golf Digest and the USGA brought all the players and their celebrity caddies together. (Peggy's caddie was none other than this year's Ryder Cup Captain, Corey Pavin.)

Now with several rounds of the Open completed and the scores in - and lots of even-par rounds, I think we can all agree: "Yes, Tiger is right." The U.S. Open is the tournament of tournaments and most of the 23 million recreational golfers - even the best of them - cannot begin to play the game anywhere near the skill levels of professional golfers. That shouldn't shock anyone.

Peggy & NBC’s Dan Hicks (photo courtesy of Steve Jennings/Wire Image)

But I wanted to catch up with Peggy and hear her take on the event and her round. Peggy expected to play much better.

And, I also wanted a chance to speak to her teacher, Allan Bowman, the PGA club professional at Cherry Valley Golf Club who coached Peggy over the last couple of years and helped her to bring her handicap down 10-plus strokes. Allan flew out to Pebble for one practice round with Peggy. I hope the TV special includes a few shots of Allan.

Allan has not received the credit due him. Most golfers in this country learn how to golf from their club pro. A good club pro is really the gatekeeper to the game for millions of Americans. Allan is one of those very good PGA professionals. If more clubs had more professionals with his skill and dedication, the industry would be faring better than it is doing now.

Allan has been at Cherry Valley for 18 years and studied instruction under Craig Shankland, a well-respected instructor now working out of the LPGA International Golf Club in Daytona Beach, Fla., who appears regularly on the Golf Channel.

Peggy mentioned that she was not the only female at her club that has been successfully coached by Allan. So, I asked Allan whether he thought that he was a particularly good teacher for women. His answer was a modest "Yes." He went to on to say that when teaching women he asks more questions about what they are "thinking" than showing them a video of what they are "doing." Allan's advice for all instructors is, "Listen to your student and ask questions."

Mark Wahlberg probably complimenting Peggy on a great speech
(photo courtesy of Steve Jennings/Wire Image)

My first question to Peggy was what she thought viewers will learn from watching her round (and the other three celebrities)?

PEGGY: Peggy didn't have to think very long at all for her answer: "I think people watch us out there - struggling - but with a smile on our faces at the same time. What I hope people learn is that even when you are not playing well (and I had my problems that day), golf is fun. I hope they say, "Wow. There's somebody who can shoot 118 and love every minute of it. This is more than just about me. This is about opening up the game to more people."

I liked that answer because for many golfers and especially women, they worry about embarrassing themselves on the course. Here's Peggy - capable on a very good day of maybe breaking 100 on the hardest course she will probably every play - and she shoots 118. And she is doing it on national television with a camera following her and a mike strapped to her waist to catch her moans and disappointments.

I talked with Peggy about the cameras and the microphones and the distractions of playing before big galleries. I don't think she was quite as prepared for it as she thought when we talked a couple of weeks ago before the tournament.

In fact, Peggy explained how in her practice round with her teacher Allan Bowman, she was calm and at peace in her mind. But she could not find that mental place during the actual tournament. She had a good tee shot on the first tee, the best of the foursome in fact. But she sent her second shot to the right into the rough. As Peggy describes it, "The rough did me in." After that, she just could not keep it together. That's what professionals know how to do.

And assuming that Dan Hicks and Roger Maltbie, who are narrating the Challenge round TV Special, do their job, everyone watching will realize that professional golfers are first rate athletes who devote hours, days - their lives - to perfecting their skill. Amateurs like Peggy have day jobs and competing demands on their life.

Hopefully, the TV special will explain a little bit about the USGA Handicap System. Golf is a unique sport because players of different abilities can play on a level playing field. Most amateur and recreational golfers really don't understand how handicaps work.

If the TV special doesn't explain a little bit about how men and women's handicaps are determined from different sets of tees, they will have missed an important educational opportunity.

I asked Allan, who flew out from New Jersey to play a practice round with Peggy, what he thought of her chances.

Allan thought that Peggy's nerves could be problem. Peggy was a little worried about that herself. They had hoped to have some kind of practice round at in front of 500 members of Cherry Valley, but they never got that in.

Allan went on to say that with the rough the way it was, he thought that breaking 100 would be very difficult. We talked a little bit about the sheer strength required to hit through that rough.

Peggy was playing with one of the new "face-forward" F-2 wedges that eliminate a hosel. But, according to Allan, even with that new technology, more strength is required than most women golfers are prepared for. There is a reason, he says, that Tiger can bench in own weight in the gym. He needs it on the course.

When I asked Peggy about whether she thought she could learn how to hit out of that rough, she was more optimistic. She thought that with more practice and using a different stroke technique, she could master it. She said that Corey was giving her some valuable tips during the round.

This will be something to watch during the TV special. And let's hope that Dan Hicks and Roger Maltbie narrate the round well. There is probably a lot for all amateurs to learn about playing Pebble - or any course, for that matter.

But, my other question is more relevant and controversial.

QUESTION: Should a female golfer have been the non-celebrity golfer in the Challenge foursome. Or should a guy with a low handicap have been selected because the U.S. Open is after all a men's tournament?

PEGGY: "Well, we just got through saying that amateurs - regardless of gender - can't begin to match the skill of professionals. That issue is finished. Done with! So male or female amateur, it's not going to really matter. The lessons that the cameras will pick up will be the same from both genders; Golf is hard but at the same time it is fun."

And, consider this - a point Allan Bowman reminded me of. One day, a female may very well qualify for the U.S. Open. Although there is a USGA Women's Open, women are not prohibited from trying to qualify for the U.S. Open. Michelle Wie, in fact, tried to qualify a few years ago at Canoe Brook Golf Club in Short Hills, N.J. (The same gender neutral rules apply for the British Open.)

And, when that day happens and a woman plays in the U.S. Open, scheduled for 2019 at Pebble Beach, she will have to break Peggy's record of 118.

Concluding Thoughts

Maybe there is not much to "learn" from watching the Challenge. Maybe it is primarily entertainment. We all know how popular "Dancing with the Stars" is. So, maybe, this is Golfing with the Stars - a la Donald Trump style. The caddies were all golf professionals and celebrities of a sort.

I'm not sure whether more people are taking dancing lessons after watching celebrity dancers, but somehow I don't think that more people will take up golf because Mark Wahlberg shot 97.

Golf Digest and the USGA will decide whether the Challenge with non-celebrity golfers has run its course; in my opinion it has. Or whether a Celebrity Pro-Am is better entertainment and better TV ratings and sponsors. So, maybe next year's foursome will just be all celebrities.

But I think that Golf Digest has started something by opening the door to women in this year's Challenge. Once you see Peggy play golf and see her talk about her love for the game, it doesn't matter what she shot that day at Pebble.

In my view, Golf Digest owes women golfers. They are in the media business and in the golf business. So they don't want to publish a women's golf magazine anymore, but they have some options.

Allan Bowman suggested this, and I think he is right on target. Golf Digest has the opportunity to sponsor programs for women golfers. They can develop a series of golf programs that invite Peggy - and women like her to speak to other women. Peggy at age 51 is part of a very important cohort - age group - that with all the new equipment can take up the game and enjoy it and have fun.

Golf Digest should set up a special fund - let's call it the Peggy Ference Fund. It should subsidize travel by Peggy to speak to women's groups all across the country. To put her on the Golf Channel regularly.Women are great communicators and we need Peggy out there to help grow the game.

Whether or not you love watching the amateurs play Pebble on the Sunday special, I have no doubt that you will love Peggy and think she will be a great ambassador-in-general for the game of golf.

Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Golf Consulting, is a regular contributor to Cybergolf and an expert on women's golf. Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference source for marketing golf to women. She is a resource for golf-industry trends and marketing advice on her website www.nancyberkley.com. She chaired a panel at the World Scientific Congress of Golf in Phoenix, Ariz., in March 2008, and was a guest speaker at the Northern California Business Women's Conference at Poppyridge Golf Course in Livermore, Calif., in June 2008. Nancy also consults with golf facilities on how to attract more women golfers and families to the game. She was a contributing editor of Golf for Women magazine and is the Chair of the Advisory Board of Golfer Girl Magazine, where she also writes a series about careers in the golf industry. Her articles also appear on www.ladiesgolfjourney.com. Nancy provides a Free Help Line on her website for those seeking marketing advice in the golf industry.