Episode Five – The Rise of TopGolf

Confession: I love TopGolf. I love that it’s fun. I love that it’s inclusive. I love that it is golf. I grew up with my parents taking me to the bowling alley on Friday nights because they were playing in a league with friends. Because it was their social/competitive outlet, it became a bit of a passion for me. (Confession #2: I once owned my own ball and shoes)
My interest in bowling even had me watch it on TV each weekend.

TopGolf is the modern version of the bowling alley. Anybody can do it, and you don’t even need to play golf. You can eat and drink while doing it. Etc. Etc.

But, TopGolf hasn’t stopped at the consumer, entertainment experience. In fact, the corporate philosophy has shifted as the consumer experience has led more people to playing traditional golf. With the acquisition of TopTracer, TopGolf is now a part of live golf on TV and, now, the technology is branching into traditional driving ranges and clubs around the country.

There is a lot on the horizon and plenty to learn about how quickly the popularity of TopGolf (and its products) has taken hold.

This episode features Ani Mehta, VP of Corporate Development for TopGolf, and discusses TopGolf’s role in growing the sport, technological improvements, early rollout successes and corporate responsibility.

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Episode Four – Is Golf Healthy?

Yes, the NCAA Tournament is the next major sporting event to keep an eye on, but with the Super Bowl in the past, there is a gap in the sports landscape that needs to be filled. Is golf poised for a bigger piece of the pie?

With the help of Ryan Ballengee of The Golf News Net, we talk everything:

Is Jon Rahm becoming #1 so quickly a good thing?
What is the perfect number of players at the top of the sport?
How do economic changes impact the sport?
What is the equipment story of 2018?
Was JB Holmes in the right or wrong taking four minutes to hit a shot?

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Episode 3 – The Tiger Effect

This is a huge week in golf for a number of reasons, but the most notable has to be the return of Tiger Woods to competitive golf. As somebody who was standing there when Tiger’s glutes didn’t fire in 2015, I can confidently say that this comeback feels different.

Every shot will be tweeted and dissected, not to mention a countless number of polls and prop bets will have the entire golf community guessing what will happen. We shouldn’t care. The only person who is owed something from this comeback is Tiger himself. For what he gave the sport and accomplished, he should have the power to write his final chapters.

That leads to this podcast… I contend that professional golf doesn’t need Tiger Woods the way many in the media do. I also, however, recognize the power he has in every aspect of the sport. The Tiger Effect is real, but how real was it and what power does it have remaining?

With the help of Matt Adams (Golf Channel, Fairways of Life), we break down the numbers of how Tiger has impacted the sport and what this week could mean to its present state.

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Episode 2

I saw Dustin Johnson torch the field in Maui two weeks ago. To me, it’s hard to argue somebody is a better golfer in the world than DJ, but that’s what arguments are for. Is he the consensus number one? No, especially if you track the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings. That would be Rickie Fowler. Rickie?! Yep.

Episode 2 of the Perfect Number Podcast explores various rankings of players, and chats with Lance Ringler from Golfweek. You don’t want to miss it. Really good stuff and a different way to look at how we measure success.
(Jordan Spieth should have been Player of the Year last year, not Justin Thomas. Listen and find out why)

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The Perfect Number Podcast

I had been toying with the idea of podcast for a long time and finally came to the realization it was time to take the plunge. But what do you produce to be relevant and not muddy the already-crowded waters?

I’m a bit of a geek. I’m definitely a golf geek. Why not explore my nerdy questions in a long-form program? I’ve been around the game of golf in so many different capacities that I feel my knowledge is dangerous, just enough to think I know it, but not enough to be a voice of reason. This podcast hopes to solve that conundrum by chatting with REAL experts.

It will be thoughtful, it will be deliberate and it will happen as often as something interesting comes about. Topics will include stats, analytics, fantasy, psychology, fitness and probably a lot more.

The first episode is here and I hope you enjoy it!

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More Than My Pro

Two completely different “events” have converged in a perfect storm of my golf world this week. The first: I’ve been sucked into the social media war of words about proper golf swing construction and instruction. Primarily, it has centered around Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee’s various takes, many of which have drawn the ire of current PGA Tour professionals.

From an uneducated view – and having not read every statement – it seems the center of the argument is about letting naturally talented athletes/golfers (see: Woods, Tiger) use their God-given skills to be great, not deconstructing them into swing machines. I don’t know if that is a good opinion or not. But, it is a little personal for me.

I started taking golf seriously when I hit my teenage years. Working in the game at a local country club fueled my passion to play it. I swung hard, had a strong grip and putted with my right index finger down the shaft of the club. Quirky? Yes. Detrimental? No.
There were plenty of professionals who wanted to change some of those characteristics. My canvas was still relatively clean. The trouble was, it didn’t feel natural for me to do it. One pro steadfastly said he would work within my uniqueness and make me better AND comfortable at the same time.

That second event this week: That pro, Alan Schulte, is being inducted into the Indiana Golf Hall of Fame. One of the best players the state has ever seen, he was my first real swing doctor and the only one I’ve ever sought for swing advice in 20+ years since. I worked for him in various capacities through the years and was there for his first PGA Championship. Most importantly, he has been a great friend.

The moral of this story? In golf, don’t seek out professional help just for the answers. Seek it out for the relationship. The answers will eventually come, but getting stuck in the technical isn’t what the game is all about.

Right Place, Right Time

Every broadcaster wants a special game to call. You can’t control when you will get one, but you have to make the most of it when it falls in your lap. It’s icing on the cake when your stream-of-consciousness final call goes viral and inspires a bunch of online quotes. Once I get the DVD, I will clip this game in the Video section…

A Basketball State

Last night, Butler lost on the road at Indiana State, becoming the first ranked opponent to get beaten by the Sycamores in 10 tries. The last? Notre Dame in 2013, on the home floor of the Irish. Notre Dame and Indiana State haven’t place since. It’s likely now that the same will be true for the Bulldogs.

In a state that claims a sport as one of its most treasured exports, how the institutions that foster much of that love and history  have arrived at not playing each other is both sad and understandable. Butler’s presence in the game last night was almost a lose-lose. By losing, it assures the Bulldogs of a questionable (I won’t call it bad, yet) loss on paper, when analyzed, without much context, by the NCAA Selection Committee. Had they won, it would have been an overlooked W far removed from the “quality win” column the committee salivates over.

Nothing above is a knock on either program. It is a product of the system by which we field a tournament of 68 teams – the ultimate measuring stick of a program’s annual success. For Butler, a team that was clamoring for the power teams of the state to play two decades ago, a power move against such games is likely coming. It’s good business.

But we, as fans, don’t care about that business. We like our basketball homegrown. My fondest memories as a Butler fan (with radio/TV commitments, there are few) are road trips to Muncie, Terre Haute, Evansville and others at the beginning of the season to cheer on my team. Walking into a hostile environment to be that minority roar from the rafters. The talk was certainly trashy, but it ended with a high five after the game. Respect. We were different, but the same.

Aside from Indiana beating North Carolina, the two greatest men’s college basketball games played inside the state’s border this season have been last night in Terre Haute and Fort Wayne’s win over the Hoosiers last month. If Indiana and Butler fans can put on objective glasses for a moment, they could see what those wins did to keep basketball fresh, relevant and attainable at all four corners of the state.

Those games shouldn’t deter schools from playing each other. If anything, it should make them more prevalent. Will it happen? Probably not, but if it does, why not have it look something like this:

Indiana Major Basketball Programs (4) – Butler, Indiana, Notre Dame & Purdue
Indiana Mid-Major Basketball Programs (6) – Ball State, Evansville, Fort Wayne, Indiana State, IUPUI, Valparaiso

[Before I get killed by my Crusader & Horizon League fans, let’s be honest – This categorization is fair, especially when it comes to tournament success, budgets, conference affiliation and rational thought]

Major vs. Major Scheduling
Thanks to the forward-thinking folks at the Crossroad Classic, and the fans showing up to produce money too good for the schools to ignore, this is already done, and is awesome.

Mid-Major vs. Mid-Major Scheduling
To a large extent, this already takes place. Valpo has games against both Ball State and Indiana State this year. IUPUI plays Ball State and the Jaguars have had series with others. There are also a couple of conference foes. But, all of it is contingent on staffs securing these deals. Let’s take care of that for them!
Every year, each team on this list plays four games against others, two on the road, two at home, rotated the following year for four true home-and-home series. 

Major vs. Mid-Major Scheduling
This may require legislative intervention or even an act of God, but for the sake of the sport, let’s make it work! To the credit of all the schools, there are games this decade, but not to the level fans would want. Forcing all six mid-major teams may be difficult, so I settled on a random rotation of four games in a four-year span:
Every year, each Major team will play four games against Mid-Major opponents, three at home and one on the road. It’s a four-year agreement that winds up being a 3-for-1 for the Mid-Major.

Keep something in mind before you think the idea is crazy: Other states mandate this happen. Wisconsin plays Green Bay and Milwaukee. The Iowa schools rotate annually.

Given the above hypothetical, we could arrive at the following non-conference schedules:
Indiana – Butler (N), Ball State (H), Evansville (H), IUPUI (H), Valparaiso (A)
Butler – Indiana (N), Indiana State (A), Fort Wayne (H), Ball State (H), IUPUI (H)
IUPUI – Purdue (H), Butler (A), Indiana (A), Notre Dame (A), Ball State (H), Indiana State (H), Valparaiso (A), Evansville (A)
Valparaiso – Indiana (H), Purdue (A), Notre Dame (A), IUPUI (H), Ball State (H), Fort Wayne (A), Evansville (A)
So on, and so on and so on…

To be fair, Valparaiso in 2016-17 may have scheduled better than what this provides. Having an all-everything player and recent run of success gets you more invitations, but would a home game against IUPUI be better than Chicago State? Would a road game to Mackey Arena be better than Oregon at the end of it all?
For the big schools, you’d hope season ticket holders in Bloomington would appreciate Ball State more than Houston Baptist. Wouldn’t Fort Wayne be a better draw at Hinkle than Central Arkansas?

It’s not going to happen, but it feels more attainable than not. Who’s with me?!

Dare to be Great

When I was younger, I wanted to grow up and be Joel Cornette. It is an odd statement considering that Joel was six months younger than me. But, as my life advanced and our paths continued to cross, I realized how true that was. I also realized how wrong I was. I couldn’t be Joel Cornette. Not even close.

I stopped growing when I was 13, stuck in a six-foot frame that I felt was destined for greater heights. I was the post player at so many Butler Basketball camps that kept improving, kept scrapping, kept fighting and kept falling in love with Hinkle Fieldhouse. While I was raised an IU fan, the Hoosiers had a roll-call list of legends. I wanted to be the one who transformed a hometown school. Never shy of a microphone or conversation, I wanted to be the brash, outspoken big who changed a program. Sound familiar? Instead, I got to be witness to (and document) the one who did it far better than I ever dreamed I could.

Last Tuesday, my daughter was home sick with a fever. She threw up all over my polo shirt during breakfast. Frustrated and somewhat frantic, I headed upstairs to change, grabbing the first navy blue shirt I could find. It was emblazoned with the Butler logo. Within minutes of putting it on, my phone rang. It was as if the Butler fabric that connects us all just knew.

Joel Cornette was a person who you couldn’t avoid. He wouldn’t let it happen. Higher powers, it seems, wouldn’t let it happen. Through all the radio interviews, games, newspaper articles and ways basketball united us as classmates on parallel paths, there was a humanness to Joel’s relationships with people that made him the most approachable 6-10 superstar in college. Today, the Butler Way has become a brand almost bigger than the school itself. The principals that guide the philosophy adorn walls, are mailed in campaign brochures and have crept their way into every department and class of the university. Over a decade ago, it didn’t need to be in lights, or even written, it was just done. The inherent belief in a higher standard of action and expectations was a mutually shared way of life. Whether it was basketball players or broadcasters, we just knew. Stay humble, show passion, uplift those around you and be grateful for that opportunity. It took losing Joel to realize how much we lived in his example. Beyond the speeches, his leadership was as much non-verbal as it was the opposite.

Even as peers, I looked up to Joel, but didn’t realize it until we got to work together. When his time at Iowa came to an end and he dipped his toe in the broadcasting water, being able to be a true teammate of his was a dream come true. He made you want to be better than you thought you could be. I’ll always remember our first game together. It was at Valparaiso. In walks Joel to the bathroom while I am putting makeup on my face.
“Are you serious, bro?” he asked, to open our first interaction in five years or so.
“Welcome to a new ballgame,” I fired back.
He was just uncomfortable enough that I felt equal to a guy who had always been unflappable. After we taped our first opening segment, he gave me a look that was equal parts terror about his performance and admiration on what I did for a living. I was finally a teammate of Joel Cornette. The little kid in me was satisfied.

Joel

We spent a few years on the Horizon League road together. We became competitive about dropping information into broadcasts, making the other laugh or finding ways to bust each others’ chops (me on his free-throw shooting, him on my affinity for hair product) on air without earning the ire of our producers. As a Butler guy, I could be message-board fodder for fans around the league. With Joel as my analyst, nobody cared what school I was from.
I knew his heart wasn’t totally into broadcasting (and landing at Priority Sports was the absolute best thing), but we had fun. I learned a ton about basketball from him, and worked more games with him than anybody in my career. But, getting to know him more as a person will, ultimately, be the best thing that ever happened.

When my wife and I got married 12 years ago, we attended premarital counseling sessions. Among the many lessons we learned was the concept of the Circles in your life. At the core, you and your spouse are the inner circle, which should demand the most focus. Just beyond that, the circle with your children. Family next, and so forth.  As we get older, the focus continues to shift more inward, towards those center circles because time is so valuable.
Joel Cornette was the rare person who could permeate all of his circles. It didn’t matter who you were, where you lived or how you met, it was one giant circle for him. That’s not a learned skill, or the product of intense dedication. That’s an inherent trait of a remarkable person. In the wake of his passing, the overwhelming lesson has been to not take your relationships for granted, but I don’t think any of us are truly capable of bridging every gap. Joel was.

At his Celebration of Life yesterday, Jordan Cornette told the remarkable story of Joel’s seemingly divine reach from Heaven during a dinner on Sunday. I’ll be the first to admit that I struggle with faith in such acts, but the emotion of the day always has you longing that the smile is, indeed, shining down on us.
Trying to escape my own emotions, and terrified by the passing of a fellow 35-year-old, I hit the road to go for my first run in over six months. Lumpy and out of shape, I took my aging Golden Retriever, Grace, with me, knowing she couldn’t do more than a mile anyway with her bad hips. After over a mile of running, and with Jordan’s story on my mind, neither of us was breaking down. I smiled, looked down at my dog and said ‘Grace, are you okay?’ She looked right up at me, stared for 2 seconds, turned and sprinted ahead faster. Two miles. Three miles. I looked up to the sky and shook my head.
Dare to be Great.

When my kids grow up, I want them to be Joel Cornette.

Team Golf > Individual Golf

Last weekend, I won my club championship. It was an honor. It was validating. It was exciting. It had drama. It felt empty?

A week before, I competed in a Member-Guest at my friend’s home club. We grinded, ended up in a winner-take-all match to win our flight and lipped out a putt on the last green that would’ve clinched the points needed for victory. For two middle-aged men clinging to the limited moments of competition, it was gut wrenching. Eight days later, I got my own individual glory. It didn’t come close to filling the void.

While I sought redemption individually, the best women golfers in the world were putting on, arguably, one of the best shows of golf all year. The International Crown was sensational. It featured the best performance in a losing role (Mel Reid’s 1-on-2 near miss against Japan), tremendous action and a USA victory that felt cathartic for a country needing a confidence boost to its roster. In a golfing summer where every golf schedule is crammed with tournaments, the LPGA provided something different, yet awesome: Team Golf.

“I think it’s pretty cool that we can be a part of a team that it’s the top four golfers for your country,” Gerina Piller said afterwards. “To be one of those four is pretty special for me, and obviously always playing for your country is just — just gives me chills to think about.”

Watching Team USA win, coupled with my inability to find full satisfaction in an individual triumph brought me back to the Olympics. Golf will have a seat at the biggest sports table in the world in two weeks. Will anybody care?

The defection of the game’s best male players has cast a dark shadow over the future of the sport at the games, and the viability of the competition in Rio. I contend that the fears of crime, mosquitos and bacteria have merit in small doses, but are a mere smokescreen to the larger issue: players don’t see the value and aren’t inspired to play. You can’t blame them. I only wonder if a true team format could fix it.

Outside of the four major championships in golf, the overwhelming favorite event for fans to watch is the Ryder Cup. For me, the most exciting golf I ever witnessed outside of a major was the NCAA Men’s Golf Championships. What do both have in common? Team.

Playing for one’s self is good theatre. Relying on one’s self for the result of a team is a psychological thriller. My hope is that we see more aspects of team golf, perhaps even in 2020 at the Tokyo Olympics.

“I think the Olympics are bigger than any golf tournament on the planet,” Stacy Lewis recently said. “It’s bigger than the Masters. It’s bigger than the U.S. Open. It’s bigger than the Women’s Open. It’s the biggest thing out there, and I want to be a part of that. I want to be around the other athletes and see what makes them great and go cheer on the other U.S. Olympic athletes.”

It may not be bigger, but it could be. Give them partners. Give them something even greater to play for. Watch how much fun that becomes.