By Jeff Nuich
CSN Chicago Senior Director of Communications
Want to know more about your favorite Chicago media celebrities? CSNChicago.com has your fix as we put the city’s most popular personalities on the spot with everyone’s favorite weekly local celeb feature entitled “5 Questions with…”
Every Wednesday exclusively on CSNChicago.com, it’s our turn to grill the local media and other local VIPs with five random sports and non-sports related questions that will definitely be of interest to old and new fans alike.
This week – a man who defines the term “veteran sports journalist” – he’s been a fixture in the sports pages of the Chicago Sun-Times for over 40 years who has recently covered the Blackhawks and now the Fire, plus, his favorite passion – the sport of golf — for more years than he cares to mention – here are “5 Questions with LEN ZIEHM!”
BIO: Len Ziehm has been a member of the Chicago Sun-Times sports department since 1969 covering hundreds upon hundreds of local and national sporting events, including the Chicago Blackhawks, soccer and, of course, golf. He was an assistant sports editor for eight years and combined writing with editing duties until going full-time as a writer in 1985. In addition, he’s been the Sun-Times beat man on Northwestern University sports (11 years), tennis (5 years), running and fitness (ongoing, covered the Chicago Marathon for 25 consecutive years, 1979-2004) and Illinois college sports for five years.
1) CSNChicago.com: Len, with golf’s crown jewel, The Masters, coming up this weekend, the entire world will no doubt be focused on the return of Tiger Woods. It goes without saying the enormous amount of pressure he will be under, but it has been stated one of the reasons he’s choosing his return to golf to take place at The Masters is the “controlled” atmosphere at Augusta National. Can you explain to us how this “controlled” environment at The Masters differs from other PGA Tournaments?
Ziehm: The big thing is the ticket policy there. The same people go year after year. It’s the toughest ticket in sports because so many tickets are passed on from generation to generation. That minimizes the number of fans who might create a disturbance. Masters crowds are also known for behaving themselves (at least to a large degree). The security at Augusta National has been fine-tuned over the years as well, so anybody who acts up gets removed from the grounds pretty quickly. It was clearly the best place for Woods to return to the tournament scene.
From the “pure golf fan” standpoint, though, it’s unfortunate that the year’s first major tournament will turn into a Tiger sideshow. I take strong issue with those sports fans (including some of our local columnists) who have contended golf is boring without Tiger. It isn’t. He grows the sport’s fan base, to be sure, much like John Daly has. If you’re really into the sport of golf, though — and I am — watching a PGA tournament is enjoyable and entertaining with or without Tiger playing.
2) CSNChicago.com: Speaking of Tiger, if he doesn’t perform well at The Masters and, even worse for him, fails to make the cut, do you think this will destroy his personal & professional state of mind going forward and “a follow-up question” if he does win this thing, do you think it will make the whole lurid sex scandal thing finally go away?
Ziehm: Nothing will make the “sex scandal” issue go away, ever. That’s now a sad but significant part of his history, a part that won’t be forgotten. In some circles, it’ll overwhelm the big victories he’s had and the extensive charity work he has done. That’s unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is. I don’t expect him to miss the cut or play poorly at Augusta. His concentration level is extraordinary — very much like Michael Jordan’s in his glory years with the Bulls — and Woods NEVER plays when he doesn’t feel completely well prepared. That is a big reason he’s competed as well as he has over the years; he ONLY plays when he’s prepared to win. The fact that he hasn’t played in any tournaments to get himself back in a competitive mode is a valid consideration when assessing his chances of winning but, in his case, it’s probably an overrated consideration. I don’t think, in the long run, that it’ll matter much that he hasn’t played in a tournament since 2009. Then again, I predict he WON’T win at Augusta, just compete well and get his golf career moving again.
3) CSNChicago.com: Let’s talk Blackhawks for a moment. Is it safe to say you would rank this year’s team, at least to this point, as the greatest Blackhawks team you’ve ever covered? If not, tell us which Blackhawks season you would rank at the top and why.
Ziehm: The way the current Hawks are playing since the Olympic break, I’d say last year’s team was better. It finished strong and played really well in the playoffs — much better than I and most others would have predicted. Time will tell whether the current Hawks regroup in time for a postseason run. At the moment, though, I think the emotion spent in the Winter Olympics by all those Hawks who participated has damaged the team’s chances as far as the Stanley Cup goes.
Overall, I’ve covered the Hawks for nine seasons. The first team (2001-02) had a great regular season, but was banged up when the playoffs started and was quickly eliminated. After that came some really sorry seasons and a lockout to boot. So, these last two seasons have really been invigorating. As for the Hawks’ chances in the upcoming playoffs, I’m not nearly as optimistic as I was before the Winter Olympics. In my mind, the goaltending question has never been resolved. Antti Niemi may look the better option now, but he is still a rookie without postseason experience. That’s going to be a factor down the road, I’m afraid. It’s also interesting to me how much the Hawks seem to miss Brian Campbell. He hasn’t been fully appreciated since signing his big contract with the Hawks, but they’d be much better off now if he was still on the ice.
4) CSNChicago.com: You’re now on the MLS/Chicago Fire beat for the Sun-Times. What are your thoughts on this year’s team and does the absence of an international superstar like Cuauhtemoc Blanco hurt the Fire come playoff time?
Ziehm: The Fire have done some interesting things over the years, and the recent decision to go with two VERY young, inexperienced goaltenders ranks right up there with those I’d question. Unless it was purely a salary question (which the club won’t admit to), the decision to drop Jon Busch less than a week before the season started doesn’t make any sense. The Fire should be able to replace Blanco from the competitive side. Chemistry goes a long way in soccer, and Frank Klopas should be able to put together a lineup that can win eventually. It might not be as entertaining without a superstar, though, and right now the Fire doesn’t have one (Brian McBride certainly was one in his prime, but he’s 37 now and could well be playing his last season).
I like the addition of Collins John. He’s going to score a lot of goals. I also like the new coach, Carlos de los Cobos. I’m amazed at how quickly he’s learned English. When he was first hired, I wondered what the Fire management was thinking. The head coach has to be a communicator with the media and fans, as well as his players, and that’d be awfully hard to do in Major League Soccer without being conversant in English. De los Cobos comes from a different background than virtually every other coach in MLS, having been successful in the Mexican league first and with the El Salvador national team more recently. He has some adjustments to make in coming to MLS, which is much different than other leagues around the world for a wide variety of reasons. My suspicion is it’ll take a good portion of the season for him to get his team (and himself) tuned in to the task of winning. I expect a slow start but, hopefully, a strong finish that will get the Fire into the playoffs. Hiring de los Cobos was, in many ways, a risky move and dropping the proven, popular Busch was as well. Under a recent rule change (announced last week) the Fire can now sign as many as three designated players — top stars whose acquisitions won’t severely affect the MLS salary cap. If the Fire, without a designated player since Blanco left, moves in that direction my prognosis of the season ahead could change quickly.
5) CSNChicago.com: As mentioned earlier, you truly define the term “veteran sports journalist” for your four-plus decades of rock solid local sports coverage. With that said, now that traditional sports journalism is changing in this new digital age, what adjustments, if any, have you made in events you cover for the Sun-Times?
Ziehm: Interesting question. In many ways, things are much better now. Information gets out more quickly and comes from a broader array of sources. While print space in newspapers is shrinking, space to pass on information, analysis and opinion via the Internet is unlimited. All that’s a good thing. I do feel the personal touch in journalism is getting lost, and that’s not good. One-on-one interviews aren’t as frequent or as fruitful as they once were. So, in some ways the job has become easier, but in some ways it’s become harder as well. I guess, to give you a more concise, specific answer, we’re now more into notebooks and columns than we are into straight game reports. That varies from sport to sport and event to event, though. It’s an interesting transition period that we’re all going through.
BONUS QUESTION CSNChicago.com: Back to golf a two-part question: who’s the most famous person you’ve ever golfed with and what’s your personal best 18-hole score to date?
Ziehm: OUCH! Best golf score was 83 many, many years ago at the Bonnie Dundee course in Carpentersville. I’ve been within a stroke one way or the other of a 19 handicap for years, so that tells you my abilities as a player. But I have had a hole-in-one (not many can say that) and have three career eagles spread over a 48-year period. I guess — if nothing else — that shows my interest in golf hasn’t been of a fleeting nature. I’ve played in a lot of pro-ams over the years and, without question, the best player I’ve played with was Kenny Perry at the 2007 BMW Championship at Cog Hill. He was a very nice guy, as well. A few years back I played a couple of informal rounds with Michael Jordan at Lakeshore Country Club. So, he was probably the most famous person I played with. I’m just grateful for the chances I’ve had to play with lots of interesting people, famous or not so famous, over my years on the golf beat.
Golf, as well as beat coverage of it, has changed dramatically over the years. I remember covering my first Western Open, at Olympia Fields in 1968, we’d conduct interviews over a small table with Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer having a beer or cigarette while fielding questions from five or six reporters. I recall another time, not at a tournament, when Sam Snead held court for a few of us at Beverly Country Club and offered one interesting anecdote after another — some of them of an off-color nature. Now, to put it mildly, interviews with the big-name players are much more crowded, chaotic affairs that I’m sure will reach new heights now that Tiger Woods is back in action.