Taking another swing

Smyth's changes pay off as he ties for first-round lead at Baltimore Country Club

Senior Players Championship

October 10, 2008|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

Let's not mince words: Des Smyth does not have a pretty golf swing.

He picks the club straight up, gets it completely off plane, pauses, then goes after the ball like a hockey player looking to rip a slap shot top shelf.

It is - when you compare it to the fluid tempo and graceful turn that many players have on the Champions Tour - downright ugly.

But don't take someone else's word for it. Just ask Smyth.

"It looks far worse than it feels," Smyth joked yesterday, chuckling in his native Irish brogue. "It doesn't feel that bad, but it looks awful."

So awful, Smyth, 55, is extremely reluctant to watch his swing on video. He's a feel player, not a technician, and throughout his 34-year career, he has preferred to work through problems on his own.

But Smyth was playing so poorly this season, he finally broke down and looked at some video of himself. It stunned him.

"I just hate to do that, but I could see I was shutting the club down really badly going back, and so the minute I saw that, I knew I had to make a big change," Smyth said. "I had pretty much written off the rest of this year.

"I was just hoping to find something decent that I could take into next year."

Instead of waiting for next year, though, Smyth's swing changes might pay off this week. He shot a flawless five-under-par 65 yesterday in the opening round of the Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship at Baltimore Country Club at Five Farms, which tied him for the lead with Bruce Fleisher and Phil Blackmar.

Fred Funk, Eduardo Romero and Bernhard Langer headlined a group that shot 4-under, one shot back.

"I think it's the first time this year I've played a round without a bogey," said Smyth, who didn't have to make a putt of more than 12 feet in Round 1. "I'm really happy with the result. I wouldn't honestly say it could have been lower."

For Funk - who grew up in Takoma Park and attended the University of Maryland - his score was almost as good, but felt anything but flawless. His irons were erratic, his driver was letting him down and he felt as if he had to scratch and claw his way through the first eight holes just to remain at even par.

Funk, though, dunked a 60-foot birdie putt on the ninth green that helped settle him down and gave him all the momentum he needed to close strongly.

"It was hauling [butt] when it went in too, so it was one of those that was either going to be a three or a five," said Funk, 52, who had a small but vocal following urging him on throughout the day.

Funk birdied Nos. 12 and 16, dodged a bogey on No. 17 with a nice up-and-down after his approach came up well short, and then hit a beautiful 6-iron to inside eight feet on the mammoth 496-yard par-4 18th hole. He drained the putt and got a small roar from the gallery as he walked toward the scorer's tent.

"That always makes the cookies taste better," Funk said, biting into a chocolate chip cookie as he spoke with the media.

It's been quite awhile since Fleisher, 59, tasted victory on the Champions Tour. His last win came in 2003, a fact he took mock offense to when a younger reporter pointed it out.

"Five years? Has it really been that long?" Fleisher said after his own birdie-free 65. "Man, I've got socks older than you. Thanks for that. Maybe I needed a good kick to get me going."

Fleisher confessed that his stellar round required a little bit of luck, especially considering he is one of the shorter hitters on the Champions Tour.

Luck is something Smyth and his family have had in surplus recently. His son, Gregg, a university student in Dublin and occasional caddie for Smyth, won the Irish National Lottery this summer, taking home close to 9.4 million Euros ($14 million U.S. dollars.)

"We're still trying to settle things down because he got a lot of press and publicity, and he's shy and didn't like it too much," Smyth said. "But he's a good kid. ... He's always welcome to [caddie for me again], but he's busy with financial matters. The way the world is going, you wonder even where you should have money when the banks are risky."

IF YOU GO

Leaders after first round: Phil Blackmar, Bruce Fleisher and Des Smyth, 5-under (65).

Selected followers: Fred Funk, Scott Hoch, Bernhard Langer and Eduardo Romero, 4-under (66); seven golfers are at 3-under (67), including Jay Haas and Ben Crenshaw. Defend champ Loren Roberts is 2-under (68).

Today: Second round; first tee time 7:30 a.m. (gates open at 7);

Where: Baltimore Country Club at Five Farms (East Course), Timonium

TV: Today, 1:30-4 p.m. on Golf Channel; tomorrow and Sunday, 4-6 p.m., chs. 11, 4

Schedule: Tomorrow, first tee time 8:45 a.m. (gates open at 8); Sunday, first tee time 8:30 a.m. (gates open at 8).

Tickets: $22 in advance, $27 at gate for today-Sunday rounds.

Parking: Located on Shawan Road in Hunt Valley, just west of Interstate 83

Directions to general parking: I-83 to Exit 20B, merge onto Shawan Road West and follow signs

Information: ceseniorplayers.com

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