Thursday, August 13, 2009

Interview with Billy Kratzert and John Brywa

This week I had the chance to submit a few questions about the PGA tournament to Billy Kratzert, TNT golf analyst, and John Brywa, managing editor for

Here is the transcript:

Q: What were the top stories from Media Day?

John: Tiger Woods’ press conference is always a popular event here. That was basically the highlight of today’s conferences.

Q: How do you think this tournament is looking compared to some of the other majors this year in terms of hype, buzz, and attitude going in?

John: The one thing I’ve noticed is that it is absolutely incredible the number of people who are here – the fans who have been to the first few practice rounds. Actually, I was just out there a few seconds ago. We’re lucky, the driving range is right behind the media center so you can walk out of the media center and see the backs of the players on the driving range. It’s incredible – the number of people here. I know the fan interest here in Minnesota has always been great, but I think this is surpassing even what the tournament organizers expected. They are expecting huge crowds each day of the tournament.

As far as the players, this is the last major of the year and the tagline is “Glory’s last shot.” This is their last shot for 2009 to play well and hopefully capture a major. The excitement is here and you can really feel it. It’s going to be really interesting to see this thing unfold over the next couple of days.

Billy: The event is certainly going to be well-attended. It’s already been well-received by the people here in Minnesota. The last time they had a major championship was seven years ago and they’ve had a couple of U.S. Open championships. When you don’t go back to the same spot every year, you get the energy from the people coming out to the course. When you go to Augusta or the Open Championship or this tournament, everyone knows it and expects it. It gets people talking and that’s what we need right now.

Q: How is Hazeltine looking this week and can you give us a general description of the course and conditions?

Billy: Well it’s unusually hot right now and the golf course is not as bouncy and as fiery as you would think it would be. It is a long golf course, the longest in PGA Championship history, over 7,600 yards. They have the longest par-3 in PGA Championship history. With all that said, it is a big golf course. But a lot of the yardage, is in the par-5’s. They essentially become par-3’s because everyone’s laying up then they become a 50-80 yard par-3. In setting up the course, there’s a few different options especially on the par-5 7th, the tee box can be moved up a little bit. Give the guys a chance to go for that par-5 in two. And then the 14th hole, the par-4, it can be moved up and be a drivable par-4. There are a lot of doglegs here, for the longer hitter, one would think so but don’t be surprised if a guy like Jim Furyk or Steve Stricker shine this week.

Q: Can you talk about the course in general – the greens, roughs, and which holes will be critical?

Billy: The greens are running as quick as they can, given the undulations in the greens. A lot of the greens have mounding and many of them are turtle back greens, where it filters off each way. As far as the rough is concerned, it was topped off Sunday afternoon after a huge amount of rain. I don’t think they’re going to touch it again. In my opinion, the rough isn’t all that penal right now. It’s very playable. I think there is ample room off the tee. I don’t think that driving the ball extremely straight is going to be a huge factor. Which plays into a Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson or a Geoff Ogilvy.

The course is in great shape. You look at the holes that will make a huge impact or the exciting holes. The 16th hole is always exciting. That’s where Payne Stewart made the putt on Scott Simpson, and the last time we where here in 2002 the rains were so heavy they had to move the tee way down on the 16th hole just so it was playable. The 18th hole becomes very challenging as it’s been increased by almost 20 yards. The 15th hole is now a par 5 and 650 yards. The 13th is a par 3 and it plays just under 250 and the 3rd hole is a par 5 and it’s 633. There are three par 5 holes over 600 yards.

John: The 16th is a great hole. I was fortunate enough to play the course on media day back in June and then back here in July to ride along on the course with Rich Beem for a feature we were doing. The 16th hole is an amazingly beautiful hole and could be considered the signature hole here at Hazeltine. If you do not hit a perfect drive, you’re going to make a big number there. It’s a really tough hole, but if you hit a good drive you have a chance. The second shot with the water all around it and the marsh makes it a very challenging hole.

All of the par 3 holes are going to be deep. They are so long and difficult, so you’ve got to be able to hit it long, and not only long, but high. The par 3 holes are going to be very critical to this Championship. I don’t see the par 5 holes being as critical, because for 99% of the field they are going to be 3 shot holes. It’s a matter of hitting your drive in the fairway, getting a good second shot that sets up your third shot that allows you to go right in the pit. The 18th is a wonderful closing hole and it’s uphill. For shorter hitters, that might be a 3 shot hole. They might even play it that way because it is so long. It’ll be really interesting to see how this course is played out this week!

Q: How have the players been assessing the golf course so far?

John: Right now, the number one thing that everyone is talking about is the length. At 7,764 yards, it is the longest course in Major Championship history. The rough isn’t too bad, not as bad as it was at Oakland Hills last year, but still it is very penal and if you don’t drive the ball in the fairway on some of these holes, particularly the par 5 and long par 4 holes, you’re going to struggle to make par. Both the length and position of the course are fantastic. The players have been raving about that. But, the length of some of the holes has caught everyone’s attention. You’ve got a couple of par 5s over 600 yards, you’ve got three par 3 holes over 200 yards – one 248 and another 231 – so those are going to be especially challenging for these guys.

Q: What is your prediction for the winning score this week?

Billy: I think you’re looking at a score of 9 to 12. It all depends on the wind, which there isn’t much of right now. It’s very hot and humid, so the ball is going quite a long ways. The golf course has a lot of bunkers on it. I think there are 109 bunkers on this course. All of the rain on Saturday night actually washed out all the bunkers here so Jim Mickel, the greens superintendent here, did a great job getting the bunkers in place and the course ready to play for this championship.

John: The conditions are going to be perfect – the weather is going to be perfect for at least the first three days. There is a chance for some rain on Sunday and late afternoon showers on Friday and Saturday. Still, I think if you get a player who is playing great and hitting fairways, they can make some scores up here. I’m going to say 9 under par wins it.

Q: Other than Tiger, who are the top names on your radar for winning this week?

John: Obviously, number one, especially given his performances over the last two weeks, is Tiger Woods. It’s kind of like it’s Tiger Woods and everybody else. Some more big names that others are talking about – Vijay [Singh], Padraig Harrington, as we saw in his performance last week at Bridgestone, seems to have gotten his form back at the right time. He played really, really well except for the 16th hole last week and he has the experience with the three majors that he’s won. He’s always a possibility. And, the usual suspects like Jim Furyk. Those are my three guys, right there.

Billy: Jim Furyk or Steve Stricker or I would also look at Lee Westwood. His name keeps coming to mind. He’s never won a major championship, but he has the game. Look at the way he played the Open Championship. He’s out of the playoff by a shot and he bogeyed on the last 4 holes. Yes, had a birdie in there on the 71st hole, a par 5, but he should have a major championship on his resume already. He’s one guy we should take a good, hard look at. Or, maybe it’s a young guy - a [Camilo] Villegas, Sean O’Hair, or Anthony Kim.

Q: Do you think there will be a potential "dark horse" at the Championship this year? If so, who do you think it will be?

John: I can see it happening. Who that might be, well, that’s why they are called dark horses because no one knows who it’s going to be, but I’ve got a feeling about a couple. I think Brian Gay has played great this year with a couple of wins. It’ll be interesting to see how he does. A couple other names that are in my head, for no real particular reason, are Charles Howell III if he can drive it up the fairway I think has a good chance. I also like Paul Casey and I like Matt Kuchar for some reason. I don’t know why, but his name is sticking in my head.

Q: At 7,674 yards, Hazeltine is brutally long. In your opinion, do the short drivers with otherwise excellent games have a chance, or are they just too handicapped by the distance this week?

Billy: A lot of people think the longer player has the advantage. But given the fact that of the par 5 holes where a player like [Tiger] Woods or [Phil] Mickelson should capitalize, only one that is reachable – the 7th hole. The other three are not reachable so the long hitters are not going to have any more advantage on those. When you’re looking at a guy hitting with a 7-iron or a 5-iron, a Tim Clark or Brian Gay or Jim Furyk might be as affective with a 5-iron as the longer hitters are with a 7-iron. I’m not discounting the length of the course, but I’m not placing the shorter hitters off to the side.

Q: How do you assess Rich Beem's chances?

Billy: Where he fits into the equation is this is where he won his first and only championship, I think that plays a big part. I think he gets an energy and confidence boost once he steps on the property. What are his chances? I’d say they are very slim [laughs] especially given the fact that Tiger Woods and other highly-ranked guys are playing well at the same time. To win here again, it will take a bigger strike of lightening than what happened the first time.

Q: Billy, do you have any advice for handling first-tee nerves (and nerves in general)?

Billy: Everyone handles it differently. A lot of these sports psychologists today say athletes handle nerves with a routine. They tend to block out the fact that there’s extra people on the tee watching them tee off, and focus on their routines. The more that you can go to your routine, and just hit the shot you normally hit, the better off you will be. I think people get in trouble when they think, “Well, I just hope I can put it out there.” Think of your plan – if you want to hit a hook or a draw, and try to get the shot. If you hit it, fine, and if you don’t, it’s not a big deal. Never try to do anything from a negative to get a positive.

Q: Billy, if you were still playing, what would your game plan be this week?

Billy: I would really concentrate on distance control and, by that, I am referring to the par 5 holes that you can’t reach. Also, the par 3s that are over 200 yards. The 8th hole and 17th hole, they are in the 175, 180 range. Because the rough isn’t that penalizing from what I’ve seen, a lot of it would be distance control. The more times you can put it flag high or just underneath the hole, you’ll benefit from it.

Q: What about Ernie Els? He played well last weekend, was 8th at the Open, but hasn't done much else this year. Do you think he will win another major?

John: I think he can because at 40-years-old he’s hitting that point where it’s now or never. He’s getting up there, I still think he has the game. I think he’s got to overcome his putter, which is what has let him down. Particularly at the Open, he missed a couple of short putts that could have turned the tide for him. Whether he does it here or not remains to be seen. Personally, I would love to see him do it because I like Ernie a lot.

Billy: If Ernie Els was in contention early, I’m not sure if he could sustain it. He really hasn’t done anything as of late, and he’s gone through the swing change. I just don’t think that all of sudden Ernie is going to be able to turn it around. There’s a lot going on with Ernie and I don’t think his golf game is there right now. I’d give him a slim chance this week.

Q: What do you think of the chances of young players like Camilo Villegas and Rory McIlroy?

John: I think it’s only a matter of time before Villegas wins a major championship. He’s got loads and loads of talent, great charisma, and the fans love him. Where he can do it and on what type of course? I’m going to say Augusta National. I can really see him doing something at Augusta National. It’s a little more forgiving for swashbuckling players like he is. So that’s my pick – Augusta National.

As for Rory, I can see that happening very soon. Rory is an unbelievable talent for his age. He won a European event when he was 19-years-old. He seems un-phased coming out on this stage, which is totally different than anything young players have ever been exposed to before. Where could I see him winning? I think the best place, where he would have the most experience and where his game would be made for, would be the Open Championship. I like him at Augusta, too. I don’t know why. Here at Hazeltine – it’s possible. We’ll see. He definitely has the length. He’s one of the longest players on the tour, so it’s a matter of how all the breaks fall into place, which is true for ever player. You have to get the break to win any major championship.

Billy: Both are good players. Villegas has played well on several occasions this year. He’s young. I saw him at the championship this year, along with [Ryo] Ishikawa, I thought they both showed their rookie sides of it. They saw their mistakes and didn’t take advantage. I felt that they were playing by the seat of the pants. But, McIlroy is the real deal. He’s going to be a good player for some time. Fundamentally, mechanically, when it comes to the golf swing – he’s as good as it gets. He drives it relatively straight and long. He’s a nice young man. I think he’s a great putter, even at a young age. He’s so young that I would say early in his career, he’s off to a start we anticipated when we first saw him a couple of weeks. He has the length this week. To win a PGA championship, people need the breaks. That’s the unknown right now – who’s going to get the breaks.

Q: Phil Mickelson has had an interesting year both on and off the course. Last week, his play was up and down - is he ready for this last major?

John: A lot of folks here are actually picking him to win. He played so great at the U.S. Open. It was such an emotional return for him there, and of course he is going to have the same emotion here. I saw him warming up on the range, and the crowds were unbelievable – the support for him and how appreciative fans are to see him here. I think it’s all going to come down to what kind of start he gets off to this weekend. If he gets off to a strong start, he could be there. If not, I think with of all the emotion of what he’s going through could make it tough for him to come back. I think a good start is critical for his chances this week.

Q: John, what are your top goals for during the tournament this week?

John: Obviously, our goal, as it is for every tournament and major we do, is to provide the best coverage of the tournament that we can. We have a stable of world-class writers that will be providing daily stories and updates on

We are also really excited about some of the new features added this year. We have updated our design, and users will find when they log on to the site, our main story section now includes up to five stories in one slot. We now have the ability to play video right there on the homepage, which is very exciting for us. It’s going to be exciting for readers to stay on the homepage and play video right there. Our player operates exclusive videos that no one else will have, which is very important to us.

On top of video coverage, we have our PGA Championship Live, which is exclusive, streaming coverage of the tournament. We will have the simulcast streaming of TNT’s broadcast available right on our site. We also have our Marquee Group Following where we’ll be following one group in the morning and one in the afternoon. We will be following Tiger’s group with Rich Beem and Padraig Harrington both Thursday and Friday. One new feature we’ve added is a poll where we are asking users to tell us which other group they want us to cover with our Marquee Coverage, so we’ve got a choice between a few other threesomes so users can go onto our site and cast their vote. The group the fans vote for is the one we will be covering.

Then we’ve got coverage of the par 3 holes. We also have four different windows of coverage that will be on-demand, instructional and have other features from our video coverage. We’re really excited about everything we’re offering this week. I think our users are going to find a new experience and it’s going to be one unlike that they’ve found for coverage of any other major championship.

Special thanks to Matt at The 20th Hole, Neil at Armchair Golf Blog, Gayle at Golf Gal, and Gregg at Lefty Links for submitting questions for Billy and John to answer.