Articles By Rob Doster
Fred Couples is obviously not a "What have you done for me lately" kind of guy. He proved it by tabbing the 132nd-ranked player in FedExCup points to be a part of his Presidents Cup team.
Yep, pending his acceptance of Freddie's Captain's Pick, Tiger Woods is headed down under to represent the United States when the Americans take on the International squad in the biennial Presidents Cup matches Nov. 14-20 in Melbourne, Australia. The question is, why?
Aside from a tie for fourth at The Masters, where he harnessed his fading powers for a couple of magical hours on Sunday, Tiger's been a train wreck this season, physically and mentally. Since that afternoon in Augusta, Woods has withdrawn from the Players, dealt with knee and ankle injuries, fired caddie Steve Williams in a seeming fit of pique, posted a T37 at a course (Firestone) he once dominated, and missed the cut, badly, at the PGA Championship.
Right now, Tiger can't find a fairway off the tee with binoculars and a GPS; he's 190th in driving accuracy. His scoring average of 70.53 is easily the worst of his career. Admittedly, it's a small sample size given his abbreviated schedule, but that brings up another point: Has Tiger played enough competitive golf over the last year to bring any kind of game to Royal Melbourne?
Right off the bat, Couples sounded defensive in announcing the pick.
"There is no reason for me to wait till Sept. 26 to pick Tiger. He's the best player in the world forever. Is he playing well right now? No. (But) he almost won (The Masters) four months ago so you don't do that by playing poor golf," Couples said. "In my opinion, when you're the best player in the world for 12 straight years and you're not on a team, there's something wrong.
"Everyone else can have their opinion, but as far as I know Jay Haas and myself are the captains and we want him on this team."
Here's the bottom line: The Presidents Cup has always suffered from a credibility gap and an interest deficiency as the Ryder Cup's red-headed stepbrother. Holding the event without Tiger — even a wounded, toothless Tiger — is NBC's worst nightmare. Like it or not, he still moves the needle, even if he's only attracting rubberneckers eager for another meltdown. I suspect that if Freddie needed any persuading, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and NBC analyst Johnny Miller were more than happy to provide it.
Take the club you are chipping with, then take another club out of your bag and turn it over and hold the two clubs so the upside down club sticks out beside your left hip. When you chip the ball the goal is for the upside down club not to hit you in the side. If you scoop and the club hits you, that is your “punishment.”
Charlie King is Director of Instruction at Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Ga., and founder and CEO of UnCommon Golf. He’s recognized by Golf Magazine as a Top 100 Teacher in America.
During his absence from golf, Tiger Woods has lost none of his ability to inspire intensely held opinions. On the occasion of Tiger's comeback round in the WCG-Bridgestone Invitational, we thought it would be a good time to hear from various quarters about the state of Tiger Nation.
“You think you're friends with a guy. You talk to him once a week for 15 years. You're like, this dude is my friend, we do things, we have fun together. I haven't talked to him in two years and I'm wondering what the hell is going on. I'm sitting back like everyone else and saying, what the hell is going on? I just feel sad, to be honest with you. You're like, dude, who is around this guy, who has his back, who has his best interest, who doesn't want anything from him? I don't know why we haven't talked to him in a couple of years. It's been very frustrating to watch everything that has transpired, and getting rid of (caddie) Steve Williams was probably the last straw for me.” — Charles Barkley, on the Mike Lupica Show
“Obviously I'm a player, but I'm a fan of golf and of sports, and it's a very compelling story. Everyone wants to know what he's going to do if he comes back, how is he going to play, how is his knee, people want to know. It'll be interesting. I think the draw has worked out really well for him playing with Clarkie (Darren Clarke) the first two days. He'll feel very comfortable in that environment. Darren is a very good friend of his. Yeah, it'll be interesting to see how he does come back.” — U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy
“His expectation is to win. I mean, obviously it really doesn't matter what I think. I know coming off injuries and being away from competition, it is tough. When I had my wrist injury, you feel like practicing and preparing away from tournament action. You feel very ready. When it comes down to crunch time and playing under competitive circumstances, it's a lot more difficult. You know, Tiger has done it a few times. He's obviously been away through injury a few times, so he's getting used to it a little bit. But I don't know what his expectation is. Obviously he always sets his standards very high, and that's the way he should be.” — World No. 1 Luke Donald
“Well, it's great that he's back. I mean, he's great for golf; he is. It's kind of like when (Michael) Jordan left and he retired for the first time. There was a hole in the game, there just was. Him not being here, it's a great opportunity for other players to come up and show their skills and everything, but there's no one like Tiger. I've never seen anyone like him. He's one of those once-an-era type of guys who's kind of changing the game forever. It's great that he's back. It's difficult because he's so secretive. We don't know how much of him is back. Is his leg good? Is it not good? You just don't know. Hopefully he's healthy.” — PGA Tour player Hunter Mahan
“He is playing out of desperation. He believes the only way out of the hell that he’s in is to play his way out. He wants to prove everybody wrong, he probably feels pressure from his sponsors, and he knows that time is slipping away. But I don’t think he’s physically, mentally or technically ready to play. How could he be?” — Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee
“The old Tiger is dead. He doesn’t have the same body and he doesn’t have the same mind.” — Chamblee
“I’ve heard of guys who have come back from long layoffs, guys who have changed caddies and guys who have changed swings. But it’s unprecedented to do all three at once.” — Golf instructor David Leadbetter
“A wounded dog has a tough time trying to keep winning battles. And because the battle was a lot tougher than I think even Tiger realized, he needs to heal before he gets back into these battles again.” — Michael Jordan
Golf Tip: You’re standing on the tee with the driver in your hand with the ball teed up nicely. So which one — ball, tee or ground — are you going to hit? I always ask my students which one they plan to hit, and they say “The ball, of course.” I then ask them, “So why do you hit all three?”
Too often, on a tee shot, the player sends the tee flying and the dirt spraying.
Instead, the ideal way to hit a tee shot is to leave the tee in the ground and sweep the ball off the top of the tee.
Do how do you do that? Very simple: Don’t sole your driver at address. Put the driver head where the ball is and start from there. Make sure the sweet spot of the club is level with the ball when you’re at address. That way, you don’t have to lift it up or drop it down to get the clubhead to where the ball is. Look at the second photo - the driver’s sweet spot is matched up perfectly with the ball.
Craig Shankland is Senior Instructor, LPGA International Golf Club, Daytona Beach, Fla., and Director of Instruction, The Maroon Creek Club, Aspen, Colo. Craig was the 2001 PGA Teacher of the Year in the U.S. He's recognized by Golf Digest as one of America’s 50 Greatest Teachers, and annually in Golf Magazine’s Top 100.
Ball-striking is the term that's commonly used to describe the quality of contact between the clubface and the ball at impact.
In pitch shots — and in all shots, for that matter — there's an important distinction between striking the ball and scooping it.
Striking occurs with the hands and handle leaning slightly forward at contact with the weight on the left side. Conversely, with a scooping motion, the weight stays back and the player tops the ball or hits too far behind it.
A simply prop can help you overcome the scoop and replace it with a strike.
You've "popped" a towel before, right? This is a great way to train your hands to stay ahead of the clubface at impact.
You cannot “cast” a towel and get it to pop. The right wrist needs to stay bent back and let the end catch with a snap. This is a great drill to get rid of an early release.
Rob Akins is Director of Instruction at Spring Creek Ranch in Collierville, Tenn. He is recognized by Golf Digest as a Top 50 instructor in America.
A sample of post-British Open commentary:
• “I have 294 messages, and the writing is far too small for me to look at them in this state, so I may look at them tomorrow at some stage and figure them out.” — Darren Clarke, after a night of celebrating his Open win
• “I feel a bit funny about putting stuff in the Claret Jug that shouldn’t be in there, so I’m a little bit more reserved as to what I should do. So there’s nothing in it as yet. That may not be the case as the week goes by, but at the moment there’s been nothing in there.” — Clarke, when asked if anything had found its way into the Jug while in his possession
“We're blessed to have obviously two fantastic players in Rory (McIlroy) and G-Mac (Graeme McDowell), and … the old guy coming along behind them … We have fantastic golf courses, we have fantastic facilities, but to have three major champions from a little small place in a short period of time, it’s just incredible.” — Clarke, on Northern Ireland’s recent run
• “Phil has been through an awful lot with Amy, and we have spoken quite a lot. He has turned into a very good friend of mine through thick and thin, and he said some very, very kind words to me there after the thing, which is great. And Amy is looking fantastic, as well.” — Clarke, who lost his wife Heather to breast cancer and has supported the Mickelson’s through Amy’s bout with the disease
• “My game is suited for basically every golf course and most conditions, but these conditions I just don’t enjoy playing in really. That’s the bottom line. I’d rather play when it’s 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind.” — Rory McIlroy after a frustrating Open weekend
• “I had to start trying to make birdies, and that's when I ended up making a couple bogeys.” — Phil Mickelson, whose 6-under start melted away with four back-nine bogeys
• “I hung in there all day, made some birdies on the back to get back in there and just unfortunately made the double-bogey on 14, which really just took all my momentum out.” — Dustin Johnson after another major disappointment
• “Dustin really doesn't think about a whole lot. I don't think he's going to be too worried about it. He's someone that gets over things pretty quickly. He's a great player. I love the way he plays the game. He can hit the ball a long ways, and I wouldn't worry about Dustin.” — fellow American Rickie Fowler
• “Very happy for Darren Clarke, well deserved win.” — post-Open tweet from Tiger Woods
Parity, in the post-Tiger Woods era, is alive and kicking. Not counting the season’s first two majors, 10 straight PGA Tour events have been decided by one shot or in a playoff. The difference between a two-year exemption and obscurity could be just a missed chip or putt.
David Toms is the hottest golfer on the planet at the moment, and we happen to have access to the guy who helped him get there, childhood friend and longtime swing instructor Rob Akins. Over the years, Rob has helped Toms win 13 Tour titles, including the 2001 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club — site of this year’s PGA — and he's also lent his wisdom to Athlon readers as a member of our Elite 8 faculty of golf instructors.
“In my opinion, Rob is one of the best instructors in the world,” Toms said. “His intimate knowledge of the golf swing, unlimited energy and dedication to his job have led to my current success.”
Here, Rob tells us how to master the greenside chip, one of the most important shots in golf.
Forget the one-foot putt for a second as the simplest shot in golf. Discounting the putter, the greenside chip shot is the simplest motion in golf. It doesn’t take a lot of moving parts, and the swing is short. Simplest doesn’t mean it’s the easiest. You may be having trouble with this shot, as a lot of golfers do. I’m going to make it simpler.
The chip is defined as a low, running shot, whereas a pitch is defined by more air time. The chip is the introduction to hitting a lofted iron. The manufacturer gave you a club that gets the ball airborne by the way it is designed as long as you hit the ball solidly.
So that becomes our first goal in chipping: Hit it solidly. With that in mind we are going to get the arc of our swing to hit on or past the spot where the ball sits.
All the essentials of chipping make sense if you keep hitting the ball solidly in mind. The weight should be leaning toward the left foot, the hands are slightly forward, and the ball is just back of the middle. These setup factors all encourage a solid shot. I keep mentioning solid because that is a must before you can have distance control.
In the swing, let the club make an arc going back. Don’t keep the club too low or pick it up too sharply. On the forward swing, you want to avoid the most common fault in golf: the “scoop.” Make sure to bump the ball with the hands leaning slightly forward.
Now, I’d like to offer you a couple of drills that focus your attention on touch and feel.
Drills for Touch and Feel
Chip It In
Find a spot on the fringe 6-10 feet from the hole. Chip with the attitude that you are going to chip it in. Start to move farther away while maintaining the goal of holing it. This focus will increase your confidence and your results.
Ping Pong Ball
You can use this drill inside. Hit chip shots with a ping pong ball. Notice how hitting slightly down makes the ball go up and puts some spin on the ball. Be creative and take what you learn to the real ball. I have all my juniors and many of my adult players use this drill indoors.
This drill teaches my players touch, the effects of spin and imagination. It also helps you develop your intuition when chipping — that’s critically important.
I used to chip ping pong balls onto my dining room table at home and try to get them to stay there. It’s a fun, competitive little game to play with a partner, and one that really helps you learn to shape your shots.
And while you’ve got the ping pong balls out, experiment with them. See what it takes to make them curve. Hit draws and fades. You can easily pick up little habits to take with you to the course.
One Ball’s Difference
Throw a sleeve of three balls onto the ground, and line them up facing the hole, one right next to the other. Line up as if the middle ball is normal ball position. Playing the ball that’s farthest back will give you a lower shot with more run if you need it. Playing the forward ball will give you a slightly higher shot that will not run as much.
Rob’s Rules for Great Chipping
1) Land it on the green.
2) Land it as close to you as possible.
3) Land it on a flat spot.
Rob Akins is Director of Instruction at Spring Creek Ranch in Collierville, Tenn. He is recognized by Golf Digest as a Top 50 instructor in America.
Random thoughts after a compelling Players Championship weekend:
• The Tank lived up to his nickname. Players champion K.J. Choi was steady and solid, constantly moving forward, obstacles be damned. Next up for Choi: winning a major. He’s come close, with top 10s at the last two Masters, and if the short putts start dropping with greater frequency, he could win one soon. Watch him at the PGA Championship in August.
• On the other hand, those looking for the Players to serve as a springboard need to study a little history. Several recent winners have pulled disappearing acts. The last three — Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson and Tim Clark — have combined for zero wins since their Players “breakthroughs.”
• Welcome back, DT. David Toms’ 72nd hole birdie to force a playoff was truly epic. On the hardest hole on the Stadium Course, Toms’ drive found a sand-filled divot, but one of the better iron players of our time coaxed his approach within 20 feet and coolly drained the tying putt. Toms’ anticlimactic bogey in Sudden Death ended the tournament, but the real killer was his bogey at 16, where his hybrid found the water. Still, in getting to the playoff, Toms played some of his best golf since winning the 2001 PGA.
• The 17th hole at the Stadium Course is probably the most divisive hole in golf. It’s great TV, but is it a great golf hole? It’s a little circus-y for my taste, but you can’t deny the drama. All in all, the hole’s a net positive for the PGA Tour’s flagship event, especially when playoffs start and usually end on the island green.
• With all due respect to K.J., the biggest story of the weekend was Tiger’s W/D. Where does Woods go from here? Has his body broken down on him? Is his Achilles injury more serious than he’s letting on? That’s the rumor, anyway. There are also major concerns about his knee. If he wasn’t there already, Woods has reached a point where the only four tournaments that matter are the ones that can get him closer to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. Makes you wonder why he even showed up for the Players. Tiger may ultimately catch Jack, but his mystique is gone
• By the way — Sean Foley? Not to be too impolite, but just shut up. Foley injected himself into the Woods-Bubba Watson dustup, in which Watson claimed — rightly, by the way — that Woods was headed in the wrong direction. Since Woods hired Foley as his swing coach, Tiger has regressed. Foley is like a judge on American Idol, essentially irrelevant but interrupting the proceedings to provide an opinion anyway. When Woods wins a major on his watch, then he can speak up. There are few things more grating in sports than an egomaniacal swing coach.
• Reigning U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell isn’t exactly on a roll heading into his title defense. After missing three of his previous four cuts, McDowell climbed into contention, seemingly on the verge of breaking out of his prolonged slump, before spraying balls all over the Stadium Course on his way to a final-round 79. Me? I don’t trust McDowell’s herky-jerky swing.
Here’s a random sampling of thoughts from players heading into the PGA Tour’s flagship event, The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.
On his current drought: “I’ve gone through periods like this in my entire career. There were some down times, but this one has lasted longer than I would like to expect. But it is what it is. You keep progressing, keep playing through it, and I’m going to let it happen.”
On the state of his game: “The whole idea is that I peak four times a year and I’m trying to get ready for Congressional (site of the U.S. Open) and I need some playing time. I missed playing last week at a golf course I truly love playing, but I really want to get out there and play and compete. This is a big event, and I want to be here and play.”
On his health: “The knee is better, no doubt. The Achilles is better, as well. So I’m here playing.”
Current FedExCup points leader Bubba Watson
On the absence of world No. 1 Lee Westwood: “I mean, the tournament is still going to go on. We still have a great field. But you've got to look at his schedule. His schedule sets up where this is just a tough week for him to get over here. He needs some time off. That’s fine.
“We aren’t the media. We don't look at who's here and who's not here. I’m trying to beat 143 people no matter who’s here, no matter if he’s here or not.
“But no, that's the thing about golf, though. He’s from Europe. He plays that schedule, and he plays some over here. It just didn’t fit in his schedule this year. There’s a lot of great tournaments that we can’t play in all of them.”
On the famed 17th island green: “That is a hole that's unique in golf because it has no bail-out. You have to hit a great shot. You have to hit the green or it’s a two-shot penalty. It may as well be out of bounds there because you’re back re-hitting it. It’s certainly a unique hole, and I’ve paid it a lot more respect as time has gone on and appreciate what it can do to harm you and try not to get too greedy because the penalty is so great.”
On the state of his game: “I see some things in my game that are starting to get better and better. I’ve been able to, for the last year, year and a half now, putt with direction. I really know what it is I’m trying to do on the greens now. I’m rolling the ball better than I ever have in years.
“My short game has been sharp. My driving has been much better, I feel, and I’m excited about this week. I feel like I’m driving the ball straighter than I ever have, and I’m excited to put that into play.”
2004 Players champion Adam Scott
“I think everything is in as good a place as it can be, and from here it’s just a matter of continuing to push myself to get better and better because I think there’s room for improvement everywhere. I’m certainly not dominating golf, so I need to keep pushing myself and try and keep moving in a forward direction with it all. But I’m on a good track right now. I feel very happy about where it’s all at.”
On the absence of Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy from The Players: “You know, you miss a couple top 10 players and the No. 1 player, it’s going to weaken the field. But it’s still an extremely strong event.
“I know Lee has played here a few times. But he just doesn’t feel like it suits his game very well, so why play an event when you don’t feel like you’re going to get to it having a chance to win or feel comfortable in it. I mean, I can’t speak for him, but I guess that’s his reasons.”
On his chance to become No. 1 in the world this week: “Being No. 1 isn’t really a goal of mine. That’s really just an outcome of going through the right processes and hopefully the results coming. If I go out and continue to work on what I need to work on and give myself the chance to win this week, and if I pick up the trophy, then great; it’s one of the spoils. But it’s certainly nothing I’m really concentrating on.”
On Tiger Woods: “I see determination. I see a hunger, which are two key components to any player, really. Once you have those things, mix those with hard work and great ability, and you’ve got a recipe for success.
“You know, he’s displaying a lot of patience, as well. Generally I think he’s displaying a lot of patience. We all have our frustrating outbursts from time to time, but I think he’s been very patient considering what I’m sure he expects of himself. So I think he’s a very determined man right now.”
I pity the poor AP writer who had to bang out a recap of the madness that was this Masters Sunday. At times during the wildest final round in memory, visions of a seven-man playoff were dancing in Jim Nantz’s head, so much so that they crowded out all of Nantzie’s usual clever wordplay once Charl Schwartzel — yes, Charl Schwartzel — went birdie x 4 to win the green jacket.
That’s right — no “Charl in charge!” or “Charl-broiled!” For once, the action spoke for itself. No enhancement necessary.
It was a truly remarkable day, with a deeper cast of stars than “Ocean’s Eleven.” There was Tiger Woods, angrily charging his way up the leaderboard. There was Adam Scott, finally delivering on his potential with clutch shot after clutch shot. There was Jason Day, bulldog-tough, with the trophy wife of all trophy wives waiting for her post-round kiss. There was young superstar Luke Donald, who made a birdie for the ages at 18. There were the crafty veterans — Geoff Ogilvy, K.J. Choi, Angel Cabrera — taking turns trying to outshine the young guns.
And there was Rory McIlroy, who did a Greg Norman on his Sunday coronation and then took it like a man.
But we probably should have known what was up early in the round. After Schwartzel chipped in for birdie at 1 and drained his approach for eagle at 3, it was clearly his day, even if we didn’t know it at the time. Things like that just don’t happen on Masters Sunday unless it’s destiny.
From there, Schwartzel just hung around, biding his time, making no more moves but no big errors, until he reached the par-5 15th and switched into history-making overdrive. For the first time, a player birdied the final four holes on Sunday to win The Masters. Let me say that again. A player without a PGA Tour win or a major top 10 on his resume birdied the last four holes of the most storied golf course on earth under the most crushing pressure imaginable.
The last birdie, a slider at 18 that snuck in the side of the cup, was a fitting end to a Master-ful 67 and gave him a two-shot win. But having even a tenuous lead allowed Schwartzel to enjoy his walk up 18, the greatest moment of any golfer’s career.
“Well, I've seen it so many times sitting at home, guys walking up the 18th,” he said. “And just walking up it was such a special feeling, knowing that — I mean I only had a one-shot lead, so you don’t want to get too excited about it, you still got to win the golf tournament. But it just really felt good.
“That putt I practiced it in the practice round and I said to my caddie, I know it’s three balls outside, I’m going to hit it there and see if I can hit it with dead weight because I don’t want to leave myself too long and it managed to find the bottom of the hole.”
And now, Ernie Els’ protégé has done something that the Big Easy himself has never pulled off.
• The top seven guys on the final leaderboard all shot in the 60s. Simply spectacular golf.
• McIlroy showed class and poise by answering questions after shooting an 80. Hope Tiger was watching. Woods continues to disrespect the post-round interviewer. Dude, answering stupid questions is part of the gig.
• Tiger benefits from the what-if post-round analysis more than any other player, and I normally refuse to play that game. Everybody leaves strokes on the course. But Woods does need to shore up his short putting, which used to be automatic. That eagle miss on 15 would have been unthinkable five years ago.
• I had this thought when it looked like Adam Scott might win — this Aussie triumph would have been made possible by McIlroy pulling a Greg Norman. Irony alert.
Much like the 1,600 azaleas that line the 13th hole at Augusta National, Phil Mickelson’s game is in full bloom just in time for golf’s most prestigious gathering.
Lefty went low this weekend, shooting 63-65 to win the Shell Houston Open by three shots for his 39th career victory. As he did in 2006, when he won the week before The Masters, Mickelson arrives in Augusta riding a wave of positive momentum as he attempts to become the first player since Tiger Woods in 2001-02 to win back to back green jackets.
As he basked in the glow of his best weekend in almost a year, Mickelson reminded everyone that even when he’s at his best, his greatest obstacle is himself.
“It feels really good for me to have played well and to gain some momentum heading into next week,” he said. “It feels a lot like ’06 in that I needed to have a week where I kind of put it together. By that I mean, I’ve been saying all year I’m playing well but I’m not getting the scores out of it, and I’m having just kind of a lapse of focus.
“And it was even evident today on a couple shots, a basic easy chip shot on 8 that I flubbed and 3-putting 15. Those little types of lack of concentration. I’ve got to continue to work on that. Although all in all, this was one of the best weeks I’ve had in a long time as far as seeing the shot and being able to hit it. So, it was a great week in that regard and great for getting momentum heading in next week.”
Mickelson, who awoke this morning to find himself ahead of Tiger Woods in the World Golf Ranking for the first time in 14 years, is hesitant to pronounce himself the favorite, but he won’t rule himself out, either.
“There’s always a bunch of guys that can win that tournament,” he said. “I don’t think the last two days should change anything on how others view that particular event. It’s wide open. There’s a lot of players that can do it. But I certainly like the way that I play the golf course, and I’m very pleased with the way my game is coming around.”
The consensus among elite players seems to be that you should skip the tournament the week prior to a major. In that regard, Mickelson flies in the face of convention. But it seems to work for him.
In PGA Tour history, only four players have won the week prior to The Masters and then gone on to win the green jacket. Mickelson, who won the BellSouth in 2006 the week before winning the Masters, is one.
“Each player as an individual golfer has to find out what’s best for them to prepare for a big event,” he said. “And I find that I tend to play my best in a major championship when I compete the week before. It gets me into competitive frame of mind, and I enjoy the challenge in only having three days between competitive rounds.
“So that for me personally works. But I know that Nicklaus and a lot of guys prefer to have the week off and kind of focus in on that one particular golf course and those shots. I understand that. There’s an argument both ways. As a player, you have to find out what works best for you as the individual.”
We know it can work for Mickelson. Will it work again this week?
Here’s your amazing stat of the day: Transitions Championship winner Gary Woodland did not miss a putt inside 20 feet on Sunday. He struck 17 such putts, and all 17 found the bottom of the cup. That will win you some golf tournaments. And if that sort of moss mastery continues, consider Woodland a rising star.
“You know, we’ve worked hard on it,” Woodland said of his putting. “I think that’s the one thing that’s really held me back over the years, and through working a little bit with Brad Faxon and Randy Smith together, us three, we’ve really attacked it this year. It’s been coming along.”
Faxon is known as a flatstick virtuoso, so it’s not surprising that he’s becoming a go-to consultant for struggling greensmen. “The more I got out of Brad was mental stuff, preparation,” Woodland said. “You know, he was talking about my stroke was a little slow, and maybe that’s why I was coming up at the Bob Hope (where he lost in a playoff). I kept coming up short right. He gave me a drill. … The last couple weeks we’ve really focused on the speed of the putter, and it’s really taken off.”
As has his career. Woodland, a former multisport athlete, started focusing solely on golf only eight years ago, but he’s obviously a quick study.”I was athletic, but I didn’t know what I was doing out here,” he said. “I got hurt, and I had to step back and really figure out how to play this game. And I'm starting to figure that out right now.”
Obviously. The 27-year-old now has four top-six finishes in his six appearances so far in 2011. But the final round at Innisbrook wasn’t a leisurely Sunday stroll. Woodland’s back nine was a wild ride that featured five birdies, three bogeys and a 10-foot par putt at 18 that clinched a one-shot win over Webb Simpson.
It’s appropriate that, during the heart of the NCAA Tournament, the PGA Tour showcased a former college basketball player. Woodland played hoops at Washburn before transferring to Kansas to play golf.
“My first (basketball) game was in Allen Fieldhouse, we got smoked by Kansas, and I realized maybe I need to do something different; this isn't going to work,” Woodland said. “The coach at Kansas told me when I decided I was going to play basketball, he said, you’re going to change your mind, you have a future in this game. I called him a year later, and here we stand.”
So how did Woodland fare against the Jayhawks? “Three points. I was 1-for-7.”
Content at this point to follow Kansas hoops from afar, Woodland has more urgent concerns, like a trip to Augusta, although that wasn’t at the forefront of his mind as his roller-coaster round wound down. “I was struggling all day hitting the golf ball, so that’s all fine and dandy. I’m so excited playing the Masters, excited for the FedEx, I’m moving up in that, excited to go to Kapalua next year (For the Hyundai Tournament of Champions), but today I was just trying to get the golf ball on the green.” Where his putter took over.
Woodland heaped credit for his win on swing coach Rusty Smith, who also turned Justin Leonard into a world-class player. “Randy and I, we haven’t changed anything,” Woodland said. “I’m just better at what we've been working on. I’ve been with Randy for five or six years now. We put a golf swing together within the first year I’ve been with him and we haven’t changed anything since, we’re just trying to master it. You know, I attribute it all to that, just getting better at what I do.”
Woodland absorbs all he can from the players around him, including fellow Smith pupil Leonard. “Yeah, you know, I try to pick Justin’s brain as much as I can. I think he gets tired of me being around. You can learn so much from that guy, I played with Paul Casey this week. He looked like he struggled all day and he shoots even par. That’s something that I hadn’t had in the past.”
Along with Dustin Johnson, Woodland epitomizes the new generation of sleek, athletic players, belying the old stereotype of golfers as paunchy cigar-chompers. “I think if you’re athletic you can play this game,” Woodland said. “It’s a lot of hand-eye coordination. It’s one of those deals where athletes can come play golf, but golfers, it’s tough, we can’t go dunk a basketball. We can’t go hit a 100-mile-an-hour fastball, but they can come play our game, so I think golf attracts a lot of athletes.”
After months of bemoaning the decline of American golf and watching the Euros climb to the top of the world rankings, I’m gratified to report that American golf’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. At a World Golf Championship event — which the Euros treat like a major — the Yanks came to play. Heck, even Tiger Woods posted a top 10.
The WGC-Cadillac Championship was a showcase for some of the top young Americans in the game, and right now, nobody tops Nick Watney, who held off Dustin Johnson to post his third career win; it was also his fifth top-10 finish in five starts in 2011.
Leading Johnson by a single shot and facing the daunting 18th at Doral, Watney put on the big-boy pants, pulled driver and striped a beautiful tee shot to set up a bold 8-iron approach to 12 feet and a clinching birdie that gave him a two-shot win over Johnson. After Saturday’s hat-over-the-face finish, when Watney yanked his tee shot at 18 into the water, the result was especially gratifying. “This means so much,” he said. “It’s the biggest day of my golfing career. You know, with the way yesterday ended and two years ago (when he was the runner-up in this event), it means a whole lot, and I’m very, very excited.”
When prodded, Watney admitted to being a little apprehensive on the 18th tee, facing the most important drive of his life with the biggest win of his career at his fingertips. “I wasn't nervous. I really wanted to take care of business and to grasp this opportunity,” he said. “I actually love that feeling; you don’t get it too often, but I really love to be — yeah, I guess a was a little nervous.
“But it’s fun. It’s fun. That’s why you play.”
After winning this latest installment of the world golf all-star series, Watney has deposited himself at the vanguard of American golf. The world rankings are starting to reflect that fact; Watney entered the week at No. 15 with a bullet. “I feel like all I can do is try to keep improving, hopefully keep winning tournaments,” he said. “The World Rankings are what they are. I mean, it’s cliché, it's very cliché, but that’s not why I play. I play for feelings like this.
“If one day you guys decide that (I’m one of the best golfers in the world), then I’ll be honored, but I don’t really think about that.”
Johnson was happy for his friend despite his own stumbles; an untimely bogey at 16 was the death knell for his chances, especially after Watney’s heroics at 18. It was the latest disappointment for DJ, following last year’s U.S. Open collapse and PGA Championship gaffe. Obviously, though, Johnson is close, and once the putts start dropping, watch out. “I played really well,” he said. “Just couldn't get in the hole with the putter. Hit a lot of great putts. They just were not going in.”
A Tour that’s desperate for signs of life from its signature superstar had to take some comfort in Tiger Woods’ final-round 66. Afterwards, Tiger was optimistic, almost chipper, about his progress. Apparently, the vaunted “process” that Tiger’s been harping on is taking hold. “Today, I hit a lot of good golf shots and when I did miss-hit one, I knew what the fix was right away, boom, and I got right back on my run of hitting good shots again,” he said. “That feels good.”
He needed a little help to climb into the top 10 — Rory McIlroy yanked his tee shot on 18 into the water and made bogey to fall into a tie for 10th with Woods — but it was his first visit to the top 10 in an official Tour event since the 2010 U.S. Open. Playing partner Thomas Bjorn liked what he saw. “I just thought his iron play was phenomenal today,” Bjorn said “His distance control was there. He gave himself a lot of opportunities.”
Tiger’s former coach, Butch Harmon, was pretty frank in his assessment after Woods’ struggles on Saturday, which included a duck hook and a pop-up off the tee. “The drives at the second and 14th were a shock," Harmon said of those two hacker moments. “This is Tiger Woods, not a Nationwide Tour player trying to get his card. If I’m Tiger Woods, I’m a little frustrated I’m not seeing more consistency.”
And if I’m Butch Harmon, I’m obviously taking a little bit of pleasure in Tiger’s struggles.
At times at this weekend’s Honda Classic, as players trudged around the windswept PGA National Champion course, it seemed that a U.S. Open had broken out. The Bear Trap, the Nicklaus-toughened 15-17 stretch, took its toll, and Rory Sabbatini took advantage, building a five-shot lead heading into the final round. On Sunday, though, the wind died down and the scoreboard lit up, putts started dropping and balls started finding fairways. Sabbatini’s lead proved big enough, but just barely, as he held off a charging Y.E. Yang by a single shot to earn his sixth career win.
Yang posted three birdies down the stretch, including a birdie on 18 for a final-round 66 that forced Sabbatini to make a less-than-routine two-putt par for the win. Sabbatini’s clutch birdie on 16 had provided the necessary cushion, giving him the final word in his duel with the Bear Trap.
“You know, fantastic golf course,” he said. “Extremely challenging. The (course) preparation was incredible. You know, I guess there’s a pretty good reason they call it the Bear Trap because if it doesn’t get you one way, it's going to get you another. It definitely caused some stress for me today. But you know, just a fantastic week, and just really thankful to be sitting here right now.
“I think my wife was pregnant twice before during two of my wins and this time thankfully she wasn't because I don't know if she could have handled the stress today. Definitely to me, every win out here is as special as the first one. They are all different. They are all unique and just what can I say? It was a fantastic week, and everything went great and it was just better than could be expected.”
Sabbatini’s history of pot-stirring has often made him an unpopular figure on Tour. There was the time he got fed up with playing partner Ben Crane’s slow play and walked to the next tee while Crane was still putting. Then there was the time he got curb-stomped by Tiger Woods in the final round of the 2007 Wachovia and proceeded to proclaim Woods “more beatable than ever.”
But this is a kinder, gentler Sabbatini. It may be too late to rehab his reputation among golf fans completely, but he’s trying. He really is.
“I’m a passionate golfer, I really am,” he said. “I love the game of golf and I’ve had my moments. I’m not proud of everything I’ve done out here, but I’m trying to learn. I’m trying to be a role model for my children and I know as my wife has said to me, I wouldn’t want my son doing some of the things that I've done in the past.
“So I definitely have to take into account that my son is old enough now that he understands everything that I do, and really try and be a role model for him.”
Sabbatini has a kindred spirit in Jerry Kelly, who finished third and shares Sabbatini’s passionate, volatile approach to the game. “He gets in his own way an awful lot and rubs some people the wrong way,” Kelly said. “I can relate to that because I’m the same type of person. But he usually has the best intentions for everybody else around him. Today, he did not let his emotions get the best of him.”
Weapon of Choice
All clubs are important, but golfers are especially particular, even neurotic and superstitious, about their putters. Sometimes a change of implements is all it takes for the putts to start dropping. Such was the case for Sabbatini, who recently switched to a TaylorMade Tour Ghost TM-770, with spectacular results this week.
“You know, it’s actually quite bizarre,” he said. “I’ve never quite had as much confidence in a new putter as I have in this one. After picking it up last week down in México and hitting a few putts with it, right away it just felt amazing to me. And was doing a little bit of work with it during the week, but obviously not using it during the tournament; and then getting here this week and doing some practice with it, it really just felt phenomenal. I can honestly say I think it was probably one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made in my golf game.”
Can’t get a much better endorsement than that. Check’s probably in the mail.
Golf lost a seminal genius with the recent passing of Frank Chirkinian, longtime producer of CBS’ golf telecasts. With his love for the event and his attention to detail, Chirkinian made the Masters broadcast the must-see television event on the golf calendar. Among his countless innovations: on-course microphones; quick cuts from player to player to bring viewers non-stop action; the use of blimps to provide overhead views; and, perhaps best of all, the presentation of player scores in relation to par rather than by total, a seemingly obvious adjustment that made golf radically easier to follow. He truly was the Father of Televised Golf, but he seemed to prefer his other nickname — The Ayatollah, a nod to his dictatorial, uncompromising approach to his craft. RIP.
Luke Donald had cultivated the reputation of a British Adam Scott — an insanely talented underachiever content to cash the big checks and live the lifestyle but failing when it mattered most. Turns out that Donald is more driven than we realized.
Four-plus years after melting down in the presence of Tiger Woods to lose the PGA Championship at Medinah and five years after his most recent win on U.S. soil, Donald used five grueling days in the Arizona desert to elbow his way into the conversation for best player in the world. The Accenture Match Play Championship was a five-day coronation for the newly minted World No. 3, who never trailed in a match and never even had to play the 18th hole at Dove Mountain.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve won in the U.S.,” said an elated Donald. “To come here and beat the Top 63 players, I guess, in the world, is very gratifying. It’s been an amazing week. I had a lot of good things happen, made a bunch of birdies, never trailed in a match. Kind of one of those weeks where a lot of things went my way.
“Whether I deserve No. 3 in the world, I don’t know. But certainly in terms of my work ethic and wanting it, then I do deserve it.”
Contrary to his reputation as a contented also-ran, Donald chafed under the burden of his U.S. winless streak.
“It certainly bothered me,” he said. “My goal every year is to win, win tournaments. It’s a long time since I’ve tried to play for money, you know. My first couple of years, maybe, as a rookie, you know, you think about making your Tour card and making cuts and making enough money to play the next year. But it’s been a long time since that.
“I solely focus on trying to win tournaments. I felt like I hadn’t won my fair share for as good a player as I felt I was and could be. It was disappointing, yeah. It was frustrating to me.
“But to come here and compete against the best players in the world and win the trophy is very gratifying.”
Donald’s victim in the finals, new World No. 1 Martin Kaymer, cited his opponent’s otherworldly short game as being the decisive factor in their match, won by Donald 3&2.
“I think he’s definitely one of the most consistent players on the Tour,” Kaymer said. “And I think he’s probably the best in the world in the short game at the moment. I played with Phil Mickelson a few times and it is unbelievable. But what Luke is doing at the moment is a joke, you know. Wherever he is, you know that he will make the up-and-down if he doesn’t hole it. And it was impressive.”
Now, for the first time since 1992, the top four spots in the World Golf Rankings are held by Europeans — Kaymer, Lee Westwood, Donald and Graeme McDowell.
“It’s fantastic to have four Europeans up there,” Kaymer said. “It was always Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and now there are four Europeans up there, so it’s good.”
The news isn’t all bad for American golf. Tiger and Phil sit at 5 and 6 in the world, and a good Masters gets them back in the hunt for the top spot in the suddenly fluid rankings. And then there’s the newest star in the American galaxy, one Gerry “Bubba” Watson, who lost his consolation match to Matt Kuchar to finish fourth but won many hearts with his valiant effort in the semis against Kaymer, where he lost 1-up despite a world-class birdie at 17, and his epic comeback in the quarters, where he rallied from five down with eight holes to play to beat J.B. Holmes. Bubba’s assessment? “It showed that I can play golf.”
The Northern Trust Open was almost the anti-Daytona 500. Instead of a young unknown shocking the world, a beloved fiftysomething battling the pains of advancing age nearly turned back time, but a sympathetic crowd at Riviera Country Club couldn’t quite drag Freddie Couples’ aching back across the finish line. Instead, a 29-year-old onetime phenom finally delivered on some of the promise that accompanied his arrival on the golf scene.
Aaron Baddeley, a hardened veteran at 29, recaptured some of the old magic that had him in the winner’s circle as a 24-year-old wunderkind. Badds’ turn-back-the-clock performance saw a return to an old swing and old results, as the Aussie earned the third win of his career but the first since 2007, back when his obvious talent seemed to portend a stellar career.
Abandoning the trendy stack-and-tilt swing method a couple of years ago, Baddeley went back to basics, and the change finally paid off in the form of an on-course comfort level that had been missing.
“As tough as the last two years were, I knew what I was working towards,” Baddeley said. “Even though I got frustrated at times and discouraged at times, I knew my end goal, so I was able to be patient. That was the key. I had to be patient because I knew my game has been there for a while, I just haven’t got the scores on the board.”
Couples stirred the crowd with birdies on his first three holes to reclaim the lead from Baddeley, but the sentimental favorite couldn’t keep it going. Nor could another member of golf’s old guard, Vijay Singh, who finished second, two shots back.
“Well, I thought Freddie was going to be tough today because definitely winning is a skill, and Freddie has been winning quite often recently,” Baddeley said of the Champions Tour superstar. “When he got off to a good start, I was like, Freddie looks like he's going to have one of those days where he's going to play great.
“I was still just trying to focus on my game and just try to do what I needed to do. … I was still right there, I was still only one back. It wasn’t like I was three back. For me it was just trying to keep doing what I was doing.
“Everybody was yelling out ‘Freddie, Freddie, Freddie.’ I knew he was going to be the fan favorite, and I mean, no reason why he shouldn’t be. He’s been such a great player over the years, and I mean, the fans just love him.”
So is Baddeley ready to recapture some of the love that greeted him when he seemingly filled the role of golf’s Next Big Thing? Maybe. And an invitation to Augusta presents another golden opportunity.
“I think I’m in a different situation I feel like now with my game,” he said. “In ’06 with Hilton Head (where he earned his first win), I was in the building stage with the stack & tilt, and then ’07 I had a good year after winning FBR. But I feel like my game is at a different level where I’m not trying to keep working on stuff. Like right now I'm just sort of maintaining the foundation, and then I’m really just trying to go out there and play golf.”
Couples’ final round 73 left him with a T7, five shots behind Baddeley. Not the result he wanted, but not bad for a 51-year-old with a balky back.
“Well, I’m disappointed but Aaron played very, very well,” Couples said. “It was cold and it wasn’t easy. There were a few good scores, but I didn’t think it was very easy out there. I certainly wanted to par the last hole. That's disappointing. But as far as the way I played, I played great. Today was — like I say, if I could have just hit a couple more shots and finished even in third place, that would have been phenomenal, but it wasn’t, and I’m pretty happy with the way I played. But I was trying to win.”
So was the solid week a sign that Couples’ notorious back was suddenly cooperating?
“No, it feels terrible. I feel like if I was playing another course this week, another tournament, there’s no way I would have played this well. This is just my favorite course. Literally if you watched me today I slapped it around and shot 73, and I’m highly disappointed. There were a lot of 73s out there today, but this is a great course for me.”
Conventional wisdom has long held that playing the Pebble Beach Pro-Am with Bill Murray is a recipe for failure. Murray’s on-course shtick is simply too distracting to the task at hand. It’s like trying to sit at your desk and get work done while a carload of circus clowns unloads in your office.
But where others find distraction, D.A. Points found inspiration. Points, this year’s newest Cinderella boy, captured his first PGA Tour win, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, with childhood idol Murray as his pro-am partner.
“Yeah, everybody all week kept saying, well, you got the short end of the stick playing with Murray. He’s so crazy,” Points said after a final-round 67 gave him a two-shot win over hard-charging Hunter Mahan. “I never, ever felt that way and I kept thinking, you know, why does everybody get so worked up thinking he's this big distraction?
“I tried to embrace it. I was expecting him to be, you know, more of a distraction than he was, and maybe he toned it down, maybe he didn't, I didn't know, but he just seemed to have fun and he taught me to go ahead and have a little more fun and in turn, it distracted me from trying so hard. It kept me more loose and having a good time with Bill.”
Adding to the good time was the duo’s win in the pro-am, Murray’s first win at the regular Pebble Tour stop (he did win the Champions Tour pro-am with Scott Simpson). Add champion golfer to Murray’s resume, although it’s not his first taste of golf success.
“I've won all kind of things, nothing that I could cash in at a pawn shop but I've won a couple of Pro-Am kind of things,” Murray said. “We were the low girls at the Boys & Girls Club tournament on Monday. I got pro shop credit, you know what I’m saying. I’ll get a vest that's marked down or something.”
Early in the week, Murray happened to be on the tee with the Tour’s resident practice machine, Vijay Singh, who helped Murray play some of the best golf of his life this week.
“In the course of the round Monday, I played a few good holes early, and then really lost my swing and it was ugly,” Murray said. “Big, flying mud and everything, it was terrible. And I thought I would go back and start hitting some balls and there was Vijay Singh on the range. I’ve known Vijay a long time and I’m friendly with him. And I would never go like, ‘Hey, you big Fijian, help me out here.’
“But he saw me sort of struggling and he came over and he said one thing, and I did it, and then about three minutes later he says another thing, and I did it, and then about four minutes later, he said another thing and I did it, and I never hit the ball that well in my entire life. And I just thought, holy cow, I don’t know how you can play this long and get something that late that can work. That’s basically why I’m up here today drinking wine and looking for another glass.”
Within Spitting Distance
Tiger’s getting closer, but he still has work to do. Woods entered the final round of the European Tour’s Dubai Desert Classic one shot off the lead, but he hacked his way to a final-round 75, at one point hocking a loogie on the 14th green that led to a fine from the Euro Tour and cries of derision from the broadcast team. Still, his T20 represents progress.
“Yeah, there were quite a few positives this week,” Woods said tersely after the round. “Also a couple glaring examples of what I need to work on, which is good, and I’ll go to work next week."
Woods blamed the windy conditions for derailing his first shot at a victory of any kind in more than a year.
“It’s just like anything, all of my old feels are out the window when the wind blows, so that’s the thing when you’re making change,” he said. “I went through this with Butch and I went through this with Hank. It’s fine when the wind is not blowing, but when I have to hit shots and the wind blows, the change of feels and the new swing patterns, they get exposed.”
Alvaro Quiros has long been a breakthrough star in waiting, with his mammoth length off the tee and movie star appearance. Quiros took a step toward legitimate stardom with his win in Dubai by a shot following his third straight 68.
The Spaniard feels he’s ready to make his mark in the big events.
“In my case, I’m pretty sure that I’m going to be in a good position to fight for a Top-10 in the Majors, if I make my job properly,” he said. “This is my target; to improve in the Majors, because as you can see, my numbers in the Majors are really bad. I think I made two cuts in eight Majors. So I can’t expect to win a major doing two cuts in eight. So, we will see.”
With apologies to John Wayne, if they were to make a movie about Mark Wilson’s golf career, they’d call it “The Searcher.” Wilson has spent much of his journeyman career on a quest for a viable golf swing, tinkering here and adjusting there in an endless pursuit of a workable combination.
For now, the quest is over; Wilson has found his Holy Grail. It may come crashing down tomorrow, but for now, he’s the hottest golfer on the planet, having won two of his three PGA Tour starts this season and surging to No. 1 in FedExCup points and No. 51 in the World Golf Ranking.
Wilson’s latest triumph came in the weather-delayed Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he held off Jason Dufner in a playoff for his fourth career win and second in less than a month.
Wilson saved a shout-out for renowned mental game mentor Bob Rotella for helping him find what he’s been looking for. Rotella had given Wilson a revised philosophical outlook some years back, and it had always stuck with Wilson. Now, it’s paying off in spades.
“Obviously I’ve always been a searcher in terms of my technique and my golf swing, try something new here or there, it might work for a little bit, and even switching during the rounds,” he said. “When I saw Dr. Rotella, I said, okay, do I spend a few months and just try to engrain a new habit in the swing, trying to get my club a little more on plane, certain little things I’d like to change, or do I just go with it and trust it and try to just do the same thing every day? And he says, the sooner you decide to just trust what you’ve got, the quicker you're going to become a better player. And I skated right through Q-school and then I won three months later at the Honda, my first win in 2007.
“And that was the mentality that I’ve taken ever since. I stray from that every once in a while, but for some reason at the end of last year, which was one of my worst years in recent history, it just popped back into my head, hey, I’ve got to just trust what I’m doing and just play my own game — not put my swing on camera every afternoon after the rounds and try to make it perfect, because I looked around and I see everyone has got a different swing. And even some of the best swings on Tour, if they can’t dial in the yardage, it’s not going to help them. So just focus more on myself, and that's what Bob really helped me with.”
A self-described Cheesehead, Wilson could hardly celebrate the Packers’ win as he tried to sleep on a tenuous two-stroke lead with six holes to play. “I was a little more nervous today than I was expecting,” Wilson said. “I didn’t sleep great last night. It was probably the excitement with the Super Bowl and the uncertainty of today.”
Two Gloves, One Tough Loss
Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey probably won’t sleep well for a while. After losing the third-round lead, the Nationwide Tour grad and budding folk hero saw his hopes drown at 17, a drivable par 4 where he found the water twice. “I guess I’ve just got to deal with it,” Gainey said. “You’ve got to win with class and you’ve got to lose with class, so I'm trying to deal with that right now.”
Gainey, whose distinctive persona includes two dark gloves and one funky, jerky swing, still posted his best finish since the 2008 Children’s Miracle Network Classic, where he finished second.
Another Missed Opportunity
Phil Mickelson spent much of 2010 missing out on chances to supplant Tiger Woods as the World’s No. 1 golfer. With the No. 1 window closed for now, Lefty still missed out on a chance to pass Woods in the rankings. A solo third or better would have nudged Mickelson into the No. 3 spot in the World Rankings ahead of Woods, but Lefty could only manage a T29 after opening 67-65.
The nickname “Bubba” conjures the image of a carefree good ol’ boy who whistles his way past the graveyard. Bubba Watson’s got the good ol’ boy part down, but the carefree part? Not so much.
Facing an elite field and a chance to win his second PGA Tour event, and despite playing some brilliant golf on a major-caliber golf course, Watson was a bundle of nerves coming down the stretch of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Facing fellow lefty and hometown hero Phil Mickelson, Watson delivered when it counted, but he wasn’t exactly the Rock of Gibraltar out there.
Watson rolled in a clutch 12-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to give himself a two-shot lead over Mickelson, then sweated out Mickelson’s eagle attempt — although a poor drive left Mickelson no choice but to lay up and attempt to hole his third shot from the fairway.
“I learned that no matter how many rounds of golf you played, how many times you’ve been in the lead, and how many times you’ve won, you still get nervous. I was scared to death out there. Kept telling myself I’ve done this before. I’ve hit many golf balls. I can do this. I’ve shot many low rounds before, it’s just this time happens to be with the crowd and media and everybody in the world watching.
“I love the game of golf, so I’m nervous every time. I’m nervous on Thursday. I’m nervous on Wednesday, playing my Pro-Am partners. I want to play good at the game of golf. And you can’t perfect it, so there is always that bad shot just lurking.”
Still, winning breeds confidence, and Watson enters the meat of the Tour season on a surge of self-belief.
“Well, any time you win you’re going to have a higher belief in yourself,” he said. “To win on any golf course, I could care less what golf course it is or the competition is, because everybody’s great. That's what the sign used to say. These guys are good. You know, it’s the PGA Tour.
“No matter who is in the field, the field’s great. So for me to win a golf tournament is great. It’s a special day and a special honor to be blessed to have two wins on the PGA TOUR.”
Watson may be the game’s newest breakthrough star at 32, but he’s aware of his place in the game’s hierarchy. “I’ve done it (won on the PGA Tour) twice now,” he said. “I’m only 50 behind Phil and about 80 behind Tiger. So they better watch out.”
Lefty Turns Right
Has golf’s ultimate swashbuckler gone conservative? A week of safe, smart play from Mickelson culminated with his decision to lay up from the rough on the 72nd hole, forcing him to try to hole a wedge shot for a tying eagle. He did add a degree of theater to the occasion, though, having his caddie, Bones Mackay, tend the pin on the shot. “Obviously, you need to hit a great shot and you need to get some luck to hole one from the fairway,” Mickelson said. “I’m not naive on that. I get it. But I also didn’t want to have something in the way. It’s not like I do it every week. But the last hole of the tournament, I’ve got to make it.”
Mickelson seems rejuvenated after a troubled 2010 that included wife Amy’s high-profile cancer battle and his own revelation that he suffers from a form of arthritis. Having Amy following him on the course put an extra spring in his step.
“I think the way I would want to phrase it is Amy and I are in a much better place,” he said. “I mean, we feel we’re in a much better place. We’re excited about 2011. We just have a lot of things have been going our way, and we're in a better place. I think that 2011 has the potential to be what I expected 2010 to be. So I’m going to continue to work on my game and see if I can have a great year.”
For once, Lefty isn’t tinkering with his swing. “Again, the great thing or the thing I’m most excited about is I’m not making any changes. I’m kind of done making changes in my game and I’m trying to hit shots now.”
The guy with the Nike hat and icewater in his veins shot four rounds in the 60s and nearly took down the two lefthanders. No, I’m not talking about Tiger Woods, who was MIA on the weekend on his way to a T44 finish. I’m talking about Jhonattan Vegas, this season’s breakout star who followed up a win at the Hope with a T3 at Torrey Pines, where a shot that found water at 18 derailed another spirited effort from the native Venezuelan.
“I’ve been playing great golf,” he said. “I’m enjoying the moment, and enjoying everything about the PGA Tour so far. It’s been a dream come true. I’m just loving it, having so much fun. Even when I hit the ball in the water on 18, I went, oh, well, let’s see if we can make it now. Like I said, you've just got to keep loving the game, and that’s why we're here.”
Vegas far outshone his more ballyhooed counterpart in the Nike stable. Woods fought his swing throughout his 2011 debut, showing that there’s much more work to be done to fully implement his latest rebuilding job.
He’s risen to No. 2 in the World Golf Ranking, but there’s little evidence to suggest that Martin Kaymer isn’t the best golfer in the world right now. Kaymer dominated a world-class field, winning the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championshipby eight shots and in the process passing Tiger Woods into the No. 2 spot in the computer rankings. The reigning PGA champion is firing on all cylinders; his winning margin was the biggest in the tournament’s history, and his score also set a tournament record.
Golf is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, and lately, Kaymer’s done more than enough to surpass the player he considers to be the best in history.
“He’s probably the best player in the world, or the best player that ever lived,” Kaymer said of Woods. “To be in front of him for a little bit, we’ll see how long it takes him to overtake me again, but you know, it makes me very proud to be better in the World Rankings than, for me, the best player in the world.”
Kaymer and World No. 1 Lee Westwood are at the vanguard of a new Golden Age in European golf. Westwood and Kaymer join reigning U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell, who finished tied for third at Abu Dhabi, and second-place finisher Rory McIlroy in comprising a Big Four that surpasses any foursome the U.S. could currently muster. At the very least, European golf is in its strongest position since Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo were winning majors in the early 1990s.
“Yeah, I think it was 1993 when Langer and Faldo were leading the World Rankings,” Kaymer said, recounting a brief history lesson regarding the top Euro one-two punches. “I think for Lee and me, it’s a very nice position to be; to be No. 1 and 2 in the world, you can see how strong European golf became the last few years. And not only through the Ryder Cup, just if you have a look at the major winners last year, Graeme McDowell, almost every week he had a chance to win the tournament.
“It's just a matter of time that Rory wins a big, big tournament somewhere. He won in Quail Hollow last year already, but I think he will win plenty of majors in his career, so you can see at the European golf, it’s getting better and better, which is just nice to see; that there’s always a great challenge. Of course, the PGA Tour in America is a fantastic tour, but I think our tour, we don’t have to hide anywhere.”
On the contrary — Kaymer’s talent and that of his cohorts is plain for everyone to see.
McDowell used his T3 finish to pass Phil Mickelson into fourth place in the World Rankings, although Lefty sounded his familiar refrain — rankings aren’t important, but majors are. “I think it’s interesting and it's certainly a goal of all players to get up on top of the world rankings, but I think it’s more interesting to see how it plays out in the majors,” he said. “I’m not as concerned with the rankings as some. ... I’m more concerned with getting my game ready for the majors.”
Here Comes Tiger
Woods’ fall to No. 3 in the world comes just as he’s making his 2011 debut at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, a course where he’s won the last five times he’s played. Will the world rankings provide motivation? Probably, as will his desire for validation after another round of swing changes and a long winless drought. A recent Tweet seems to indicate that he’s ready: “I’ve been working hard on my game, it’s game time hooah!!”
Boo Weekley knows about as much about the winner of the Bob Hope Classic as anyone else. “I ain’t got a clue,” Weekley said about his fellow second-round co-leader Jhonattan Vegas. “That’s y’all’s job. My job is just to play golf.”
We’ll all have to get to know Vegas a little better after the unknown Venezuelan overcame a missed 9-footer that would have won in regulation and then a drive that found the water in the playoff to become the first rookie to win the Bob Hope and the first Venezuelan to win a PGA Tour event.
It was a stirring win for a guy who’s had to scrap for everything growing up in a nation that has recently seen leader Hugo Chavez decry golf as a game for the rich. “Life for me hasn't been always the best,” Vegas said. “I had to fight to get where I am. I’m a fighter, and if I set a goal in front of me, I’m just going to die just to get there, and fight hard to accomplish what I set out in my mind.”
There are probably worse things than playing 36 holes on a Sunday in Hawaii and getting paid handsomely to do so. Playing 36 holes without a bogey, though, means you’ve earned your paycheck, no matter how big that check might be.
With the final two rounds compressed into one day due to rain, Mark Wilson played 36 blemish-free holes to win the Sony Open in Hawaii, closing his marathon day with a 67 to earn his third career win, and with it an invitation to the Masters.
Wilson made a clutch par save on the 71st hole to maintain a one-shot lead, then birdied 18 to close out a two-shot win over Tim Clark and Steve Marino. His bogey-free Sunday navigation of the short but tricky Waialae course proved that there’s still a place on tour for a traditional, short-hitting course manager who can make critical putts.
“I thought about that on 17 before I hit the putt, I haven’t made a bogey all day, so why start now?” Wilson said afterward. “It entered my mind, but when I was over the putt I didn’t think about it. That’s one of those neat stats to have. I don’t have too many bogey-free rounds in my career, so it’s pretty cool to have two in the same day.”
Wilson, who ranked 150th in driving distance but 26th in accuracy in 2010, was rock-solid down the stretch and credited an offseason workout routine for maintaining his groove during the draining day.
“I worked out pretty hard with my trainer in December and November just the short off-season we had, and I didn’t really feel tired in any way and didn’t make any swings down the stretch that felt like they were tired swings,” he said. “So I guess it helped me. If you’re going to play 36 holes on any golf course, this is a good one to do it on because it’s pretty flat, all the holes are close together. So I think everyone got around okay today.”
With the Sony win comes an invitation to Bobby Jones’ little get-together in Augusta. Like any first-time Masters participant, Wilson is scared and pumped all at once.
“You know, I’m anxious to play,” he said. “Maybe a little scared about the length, though, from what I’ve heard. Some of the shorter hitters talk about how it’s kind of eliminated them from the field, like I hear Tom Watson talk about it. But I’m going to go in there with — I get goosebumps thinking about it to be honest with you. Part of me feels like I don’t belong, so I’m going to have to get over that hurdle and be ready to play that week.”
There’s time for Wilson to build up his confidence going in to the Masters. But there’s also time for the nerves to mount.
The first big-time event of the 2011 season is coming up this weekend, and with all due apologies to the PGA Tour’s Bob Hope Classic, it’s not in the U.S.
While some B-list celebrities and a second-tier field gather for the Hope, many of the world’s best players will be assembling half a world away, in Abu Dhabi, for the European Tour’s HSBC Golf Championship part of that tour’s “desert swing” through the Middle East. All four of 2010’s major winners — Phil Mickelson, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen and Martin Kaymer — will be on hand, as will Lee Westwood, Paul Casey, Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter and the Molinari brothers. Just the latest example of the globalization of golf.
Jonathan Byrd is what golf scribes call a flatliner. Nothing gets this guy ruffled, least of all a playoff to win the first event of the 2011 PGA Tour season.
Byrd won for the fifth time in an underrated career, beating an elite field of winners in capturing the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions on the strength of a final-round 67. He had won the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospital for Children Open in October, also in a sudden-death playoff, merely to gain entry into the Hyundai.
Of course, Byrd got an assist from his playoff competitor, the much more combustible Robert Garrigus, who gagged a three-footer on the second playoff hole to give Byrd the win.
Byrd, the first American to win this event in a decade, now sees his schedule open up with trips to Augusta and the U.S. Open on his docket. And he plans to have fun in the process.
“The best thing I’m doing in my game right now is simplifying things,” he said. “I complicate things way too much, trying to be perfect, and that’s been my biggest barrier over my career. And I finally got to the point, I don’t know what it is, maybe the other way just hasn’t worked and now I’m just kind of simplifying things and just really enjoying playing. I’m having more fun.”
Garrigus has a heartwarming story of his own; he’s overcome addiction to forge a competitive career on the PGA Tour, and he’s also overcome the shame of a sweat-soaked butt in Memphis last year that earned him a nickname I can’t repeat on a family website. He’s also a guy who’s easy to root for, a gregarious bomber who won’t let the day’s disappointment get him down. “If you had told me this — I’d have been in a playoff with one of the best players in the world — I’d have said, ‘Hey, bring it on and we'll get ’em next week,’” said Garrigus. “It was a great week. I’ve lost about 133 golf tournaments, and it’s not that big a deal. I get a nice check, and I get to go next week and relax and have fun.”
G-Mac Goes Low
Reigning U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell seems intent on proving that his 2010 breakthrough is just the beginning. McDowell fired the round of the (very, very) young season, shooting a final-round 11-under 62 at a Kapalua course that he’d never navigated before this weekend and narrowly missing the playoff.
“Sunday of the U.S. Open was pretty fun last year,” said McDowell when asked if he’d ever had a better day. “(But) 11-under par ties my lowest-ever round as a professional golfer; so from that point of view, from a purity-scoring point of view, no, I’ve never had a better day than that.
“I’ve really enjoyed this week. It’s a week you want to be at, and it’s a week obviously you want to be here every year because it means you’ve won a golf tournament and that normally signifies a pretty good year.”
Pretty good, indeed. It’s time for McDowell to join Lee Westwood, Tiger Woods, Martin Kaymer and Phil Mickelson in the discussion for best player in the world right now. If he’s not there already.
Feeling good, Louis
Of the five players who qualified for the Hyundai but chose to skip it, only British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen chose to play elsewhere. Good choice. South African Oosthuizen played in the Africa Open for the first time and won it for the first time as well. Despite missing the first American event, Oostie will be a full-timer in the States in 2011 and could be a season-long factor.
One helpful TV viewer cost Camilo Villegas a certain paycheck at the no-cut Hyundai. During Thursday’s round Villegas chipped up a steep bank at No. 15, only to have the ball roll back toward him. While the ball was still in motion, Villegas harmlessly pawed at some loose turf with his club. Uh-oh. Rule 23-1 states: “When a ball is in motion, a loose impediment that might influence the movement of the ball must not be removed.” Some eager-beaver viewer apparently knew the rule better than Camilo did and informed the world via Twitter. By the time the mistake was uncovered, Villegas had signed his scorecard without the appropriate penalty, and as even I know, a signed incorrect scorecard means disqualification. Stupid, yes, but them’s the rules.
News broke over the weekend that Dustin Johnson and Natalie Gulbis have embarked on a romantic relationship. Don’t know if it’ll last, but those would be some handsome kids.
Kolb or Vick? Does It Matter?
Michael Vick leads the NFL in passer rating. Kevin Kolb has three 300-yard games in five career starts, including yesterday’s 23-of-29, 326-yard, three touchdown masterpiece. Has one team ever had two of the top 10 quarterbacks in the league? Vick, nursing injured rib cartilage, never even emerged from the locker room during the Eagles’ 31–17 rout of Atlanta. If he had, he would have witnessed a nearly flawless performance from his replacement — a performance marred only slightly by an interception that set up a Falcons touchdown, and a scary concussion to big-play receiver DeSean Jackson. So is there a quarterback controversy in Philly? So what if there is? In this case, there are far worse problems to have. “When you’re sitting here as a chubby head coach in the National Football League and you have two good quarterbacks, you're a happy guy,” said a suitably jolly Andy Reid.
Welcome Back, Big Ben
In the Steelers’ first four games, they amassed a total of three touchdowns passes. During yesterday’s 28–10 win over the Browns, they matched that total. Glad to have you back, Big Ben. Roethlisberger made an emotional return from league-mandated suspension, throwing for 257 yards and three scores and giving the Steelers an offensive dimension they’d been papering over for the season’s first quarter. Rather than harbor bitterness at Big Ben for putting them in an early-season bind, the Heinz Field faithful welcomed him back like a conquering hero. “I started thinking about it on the way here,” said Roethlisberger. “Before the game I got emotional. To hear the cheers was something special. I got a little emotional.” You know what made the fans emotional? Seeing a quarterback actually get the ball into the end zone.
Wade Phillips: Dead Man Walking
The Cowboys held the Vikings offense to 188 yards and clamped down on Adrian Peterson to the tune of 24-73 (3.0 ypc). Unfortunately, the Cowboys also kicked off to Percy Harvin. Harvin’s 95-yard kickoff return TD was the key play in Dallas’ 24–21 loss to Minnesota in Sunday’s Desperation Bowl. It was the latest chapter in a season-long saga of despair in Big D. The Cowboys are statistically dominating their opponents in every area except the scoreboard. They’re outgaining their foes 400.0-289.4 and are dominating time of possession. Yet they’re 1–4, and the little things are the culprit, the things that get coaches fired — penalties, turnovers, special teams play. Owner Jerry Jones is adamant that any coaching decisions will come after the season — I would neverconsider doing that during the season," Jones said — but after his team let the Vikings off the hook, Wade Phillips seems destined for a hook of his own.
Best Win of the Day: Patriots Over Ravens
No Moss? No problem. After the Patriots shed the mercurial Randy Moss, they reacquired Tom Brady’s old security blanket, Deion Branch, and the two rekindled their on-field love affair just in time for a critical overtime win over the Ravens. New England erased a 20–10 fourth-quarter deficit, as Brady found Branch seven times for 75 yards and a touchdown in the final stanza and overtime. Branch’s two catches on the P-men’s final drive of the day led to Stephen Gostkowski’s game-winning 35-yard field goal with only 1:56 left in overtime. Defensively, the Patriots held the Ravens to punts on their final five possessions. Suddenly, this team has a familiar feel, which should inject a similarly familiar feeling of dread into the rest of the AFC. “Tom and I have been away for four years and I honestly don’t feel we missed a beat,” Branch said.
The Colts Are Still the Colts
The AFC South is the most competitive division in football. After Monday night’s division showdown between the Titans and Jags, there will still be a three-way tie at the top, with tonight’s loser nipping at the threesome’s heels. But the division favorite? The NFL’s version of Old Faithful. The Colts mixed flashes of greatness with moments of ineptitude in last night’s 27–24 win over the Redskins in Landover, proving yet again that they don’t have to be at their best to win. “The standards and expectations of our team are so high that whenever we have a few bumps in the road, people seem to panic. ‘The Colts are going to have a bad year,’” said cornerback Jerraud Powers. “Well, we’re going through the same stuff, if you look around the league, it’s pretty balanced right now, there’s no real dominant team out there. We’re working on being more consistent and finding our identity.” That identity, until proven otherwise? Division kingpin.
POY? How about DJ? And I don’t mean Trahan. Dustin Johnson’s pursuit of the 2010 FedExCup is coinciding with his late push for PGA Tour Player of the Year honors, as a summer of lost opportunities gives way to an autumn of achievement.
Johnson earned his second title of 2010, gutting out an impressive win at the BMW to surge to second in the FedExCup chase behind Matt Kuchar heading to East Lake for the Tour Championship. It ain’t a major, but a playoff win, one that brings a $10 million bonus within reach, is a nice consolation prize.
“To finally get it done, especially after all the things I’ve gone through this summer, to finally get it done on Sunday, it can't feel any better, especially I played really good golf today,” Johnson said. “I didn’t make as many birdies as I would have liked to, but I made just enough.”
One of those birdies came on the penultimate hole, a tap-in after a monster drive and scintillating wedge to two feet. It was the highlight of a bogey-free back nine that allowed Johnson to overcome Paul Casey’s three-shot lead and continue to erase the ghosts of Pebble Beach (where he shot a final-round 82 to lose the U.S. Open) and Whistling Straits (where a rules gaffe at the 72nd hole cost him a spot in a playoff at the PGA).
“Pebble taught me a lot, I think,” he said. “That’s where I learned … after getting off to a rough start, I kind of maybe got a little fast. Everything starts moving fast in a situation like that. So I really learned to be patient and not rush things. I didn’t rush any shot today. I took my time, took practice swings, even when I — a few times I felt myself trying to rush a little bit, but I would stop, put my club back in the bag and come back and go through my routine and just take things slow.”
Johnson is putting the finishing touches on a season that has seen two wins and seven top-10 finishes in 22 tournaments. Even if you play the what-might-have-been game, it’s been a remarkable season.
“I think I’m getting a lot more consistent with my ball-striking day in and day out,” he said. “Short game is pretty good. This week is the first week I’ve really felt like my putter has come back. Even though I didn’t make a lot of putts today, I made the short ones, and all my putts I hit on line. I hit them where I was looking. You can’t read them all right; it’s just not going to happen. I hit everything exactly where I was looking.
To finally get back and feel like the putter is there, it definitely helps a bunch.”
Add a hot putter to his prodigious physical skills, and the sky’s the limit for Johnson. I’m calling it now — DJ’s a favorite at Augusta.
We’ll Call It a Draw
Popular perception would hold that Phil Mickelson melts in Tiger Woods’ presence, but Mickelson says Tiger brings out the best in him, and the numbers back that up. Woods and Mickelson have now been paired together in a Tour event a total of 26 times, and in their individual head-to-head matchups they now stand 11–11–4 after Lefty’s 67 on Sunday bested Woods’ 71. Mickelson has now won six of their last eight pairings; Woods’ last head-to-head win came in the second round of the 2008 U.S. Open. “I enjoy it,” said Mickelson. “He certainly brings the best out in me. That wasn’t the case earlier on. But I feel like he gets the best out of me now.”
Woods will not be participating in the season-ending Tour Championship, after his tie for 15th at the BMW left him 42nd in FedExCup points. But Lefty got a first-hand look at Woods’ ever-evolving game, and he liked what he saw out of his Ryder Cup teammate. “I think his game is inches from being there,” Mickelson said. “His speed is back. He’s solid, very close. He’s hitting shots. He didn't pull off a few today, but he hit a lot of good shots there coming in.
“He made a couple of bogeys and followed up with a number of birdies there toward the end. But you can tell that his game is like inches from turning because his speed is back and his putter looks great. I mean, his game is not that far off at all. It looks very close to being right there.”
Tiger will take the three weeks leading up to the Ryder Cup to fine-tune his game with new swing coach Sean Foley as he embarks on his third significant re-build of his swing and his game. “I can practice at home with Sean in peace and away from everybody and put some work in and also work on my short game and my putting, things I have not been able to do out here,” he said “It’ll be nice to work on all these little things and concentrate on my game a little bit more and sharpen up, be ready come Friday (of the Ryder Cup).”