Articles By Rob Doster
You can't spell victory without VY. Of course, you can't spell hypersensitive, either, but that's another story.
Vince Young joined Tim Tebow in spicing up Week 11 of the NFL season with late-game heroics. The two most polarizing players in pro football had remarkably similar, remarkably successful weekends, much to the chagrin of their many detractors. Three days after Tebow led the Broncos on a defining, game-winning 95-yard drive in a 17–13 win over the Jets, Young reprised Tebow's performance with an 80-yard march of his own as the Philadelphia Eagles kept the Dream alive in MetLife Stadium with a 17–10 win over the Giants.
If there's one guy who can divide a room more quickly and decisively than Tebow, it's Young, who wore out his welcome in Nashville with his emotional fragility despite winning 30 games and salvaging two lost seasons with strong stretch drives. He departed for Philly and promptly put the target on his team's back by applying the Dream Team label.
Entering last night's game, his only pass of the season had been intercepted, and for much of last night, Young was his typically maddening self. He tacked on three more ill-timed picks against the Giants, the most painful coming on an end zone jump ball that ended a Philly threat with the Eagles clinging to a 10–3 lead. And when the Giants tied the game at 10 a few minutes later, it looked as if another late Eagles collapse was in the offing.
But turn on the lights and ratchet up the pressure, and it's VY's time to shine. If by some miracle the Eagles find a way to make the playoffs, they'll look back and credit The Drive — an 18-play, 80-yard, nine-minute odyssey that might have salvaged a lost season.
Young did something that Michael Vick has been unable to do all year: He stood tall in the fourth quarter, calmly leading his team on a game-winning march that was as clutch a series as you'll see in 2011. The Eagles converted six third downs on the drive, the last one an eight-yard strike from Young to Riley Cooper for the go-ahead touchdown.
"We knew we had to dig deep," said Cooper. "Everybody contributed. It was not just one player, not just one long play. We pieced that last drive together piece by piece."
Young's final numbers — 23-of-36, 258 yards, two touchdowns — were marred by those three interceptions, which gave him a passer rating of 69.0. But Young's most important number has always resided on the scoreboard, and he's been on the right side more often than not, with a career starting record of 31–17. Much like his Denver counterpart, Young is more about results than style points, which is a good thing, since Vince's sidearmed slings aren't going to win many converts.
Of course, both quarterbacks owe their defenses a steak dinner or two. Like the Broncos, who harassed Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez into a forgettable evening, the Eagles' much-maligned stop unit shut down the Giants running game and held Eli Manning in check all night, forcing a Manning fumble on the final possession after a Victor Cruz catch-and-run had put the Giants into scoring territory.
But this weekend was a tale of two quarterbacks, who shook off their obvious shortcomings to post key wins.
"Vince, stepping in for the great Michael Vick, that's a tough thing to do and he did it and the guys rallied around him," said relieved Eagles coach Andy Reid. "The offensive line and defensive line played well, the offensive line had a huge challenge when it counted and they were able to put some things together."
• The other NFC East showdown was just as compelling, as Dallas outlasted Washington 27–24 in overtime. When Tony Romo is on, as he was in throwing for three scores, he's impressive. He's also 18–2 in his career in November, matching Hall of Famer Otto Graham for best record over his first 20 November starts. Of course, January wins are better, and Romo doesn’t have many of those.
• The best game of the day? Baltimore's nailbiting win over the Bengals, who built credibility despite another painful division loss. Andy Dalton continues to make believers; the gunslinging ginger threw for 373 yards and led a desperation drive into the Red Zone. But Joe Flacco was just a little better, throwing for 270 yards and two scores as the Ravens picked up a key win heading into their Thanksgiving showdown with the Niners.
• What now, Bears? Chicago won its fifth straight, beating San Diego 31–20, but lost starting quarterback Jay Cutler to a broken thumb. Unless the Bears go out and get a quarterback — Marc Bulger, anyone? — they'll turn to Caleb Hanie to keep their playoff hopes alive.
• Green Bay and Detroit enter their Thanksgiving showdown at a combined 17–3. The Packers were far from dominant in their 35–26 win over the Bucs, surrendering big days to Josh Freeman and LeGarrette Blount, but they did enough to win their 10th. Meanwhile, the Lions used five Matthew Stafford TD passes and four Cam Newton interceptions to outlast the Panthers 49–35.
If you can't pass, you can't win. Right? Tell it to the Denver Broncos, whose ground-bound attack flies in the face of the prevailing notion that aerial bombardment is the only way to go in today's NFL.
John Fox's team might be setting offensive football back decades — centuries, even — but the Broncos are also winning, climbing to 4–5 and only one game back in the wide-open AFC West. In Denver's 17–10 win in Kansas City, Tim Tebow posted the most bizarre stat line by a winning quarterback in recent memory: two completions, one victory. For the day, our hero was 2-of-8 passing; of course, one of his two completions went for for 56 yards and a touchdown to Eric Decker, giving him a sterling passer rating of 102.6 — his highest number as a starter.
More importantly, Tebow directed an old-school, cloud-of-dust rushing attack that produced 244 rushing yards — and that was without Willis McGahee, who went down with a bad hammie on Denver's first possession, and mostly without Knowshon Moreno, who sprained his knee later in the first quarter. That left the bulk of the work to some guy named Lance Ball, who pounded KC 30 times for 96 yards.
Think the option can't work in the NFL? Denver ran it 16 times for 95 yards, 5.9 yards per carry. Of those 16 plays, Tebow kept it four times for 31 yards (7.8 ypc) on his way to 44 rushing yards.
Among the game's statistical oddities: Denver, which led 10–0 at halftime, became the first team since the 1994 Packers to lead a game at halftime without having completed a pass. (The Packers' QB that day? Brett Favre.) The good folks at Elias tell us that Tebow is the fifth quarterback since 1980 to throw all of his team's passes, complete two or fewer and still win. The Broncos ran on eight straight plays on their opening possession, a 57-yard march that culminated with Tebow's 7-yard TD scamper.
It might be simple posturing, but Fox sounds like a guy who's simply sticking with what works, not a coach forced to run a stripped-down offense out of desperation. "It's just a mindset. It's a low-risk offense. It's not an indictment on Tim Tebow or whoever our quarterback is," Fox said. "It's just whatever is working for us. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. We tried to possess the ball and keep our defense fresh."
For now, it's working. KC mustered only 258 yards of offense and rarely threatened.
So can it last? Seems unlikely. At some point, Tebow will have to reach double digits for completions and find his targets more than 50 percent of the time. But for now, it's kind of fun to watch a team trample all over conventional wisdom and stick it to the naysayers — even if it results in typical Tim-speak, which seems to annoy his detractors as much as his lousy mechanics and hyper-righteous image.
"I'm not trying to send a message," said Tebow, who moves to 3–1 as the starter since taking over for Kyle Orton and now has a career 20-to-6 touchdown-to-turnover ratio. "I'm just trying to be a football player. We can improve from what we did today and get better."
• You could make the argument that, right now, the Texans are the best team — and not just the best fantasy team — in the AFC. Their 7–3 record is matched only by Pittsburgh, and the Texans own a Week 4 win over the Steelers. Their remaining schedule includes games with Jacksonville, Carolina, Indianapolis and a season-ender at home against a Tennessee team that they beat by 34 in Nashville. They look like a safe bet for 11–5 and a shot at home field throughout the playoffs. They have the best two-headed rushing attack, the single best offensive weapon in the AFC in Arian Foster (21 touches, 186 yards, two touchdowns in a 37–9 win over Tampa Bay) and a quarterback in Matt Schaub who's finally limiting his mistakes. It could all fall apart tomorrow — these are still the Texans — but today, it looks pretty good. UPDATE: And here you go. Schaub has a foot injury that will leave him sidelined for several weeks, meaning Matt Leinart's the starter in Houston. Uh-oh. Forget everything I just said.
• Over in the NFC, the 49ers are making converts all over, myself included. The Niners may not eclipse Green Bay for the NFC's best record, but the Packers' margin for error is slim. Just take a look at San Fran's remaining schedule, the fruits of playing in the NFL's weakest division: two games with Arizona, two games with St. Louis, a game with Seattle (combined record: 8–19). Green Bay, meanwhile, still has to face Detroit (6–3) twice, plus the Giants (6–3), Oakland (5–4) and Chicago (6–3). After a 12–1 season with Stanford and an 8–1 start to this season, Jim Harbaugh is 20–2 over his last 22 games. The guy can coach. "I don't take any credit. It's these men. These mighty, strong men," Harbaugh said. "They deserve the credit."
• Don't go to sleep on the Patriots; they're clearly the class of the AFC East. Tom Brady was brilliant in a 37–16 shredding of the Jets, completing 26-of-39 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns. With their 117th win together, Brady and Bill Belichick passed the Dan Marino-Don Shula duo for most wins by a QB-coach combo.
• Tony Romo was brilliant in Dallas' startling 44–7 rout of Buffalo. Romo completed 23-of-26 passes for 270 yards and three scores as Dallas sent a message to the NFC East. That message? We'll probably fall apart later, but we're playing well right now.
— by Rob Doster
Score one for the NFL, where the marquee matchup vastly outshone its college counterpart this weekend. Pittsburgh-Baltimore was everything that Alabama-LSU could have been: A bruising matchup of defensive titans, yes, but a game that also included some truly clutch offensive heroics, grace under pressure and competent special teams play.
There were also subplots galore in Baltimore's 23–20 win over the Steelers. You had a guy (Torrey Smith) who went from goat to hero in the space of five plays; a maligned quarterback (Joe Flacco) standing tall and exorcising demons in leading a game-winning 92-yard drive into the teeth of a Dick LeBeau defense on the field where two of the last three Ravens seasons have ended; and another 300-yard game from Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, who led a stirring fourth-quarter comeback in becoming the first Steelers QB with three straight 300-yard games.
But above all, you had guys knocking each other's heads off. Cris Collinsworth dug deep for the appropriate cliché: This was not a game for the faint of heart.
"This Steelers-Ravens game is a game for men," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. "This is a game for big men. You've got to shine bright in this game if you want to win this game. And nobody shined brighter than Joe Flacco in this game."
Two weeks ago, Flacco was in Derek Anderson territory, coming off an abysmal Monday Night performance in a 12–7 loss to the Jags; today, he's the leader of a 6–2 Ravens team that has swept the Steelers for the first time since 2006. His partner on the game-winning touchdown, receiver Torrey Smith, faced down demons of his own in catching the game-winner. Smith was called for holding on the first play from scrimmage, erasing a 76-yard TD run by Ray Rice. On the climactic drive, he had a sure touchdown bounce off his fingertips. But he rewarded Flacco's confidence with a 26-yard TD catch with eight seconds left.
And so ends the Steelers' one week as the AFC's anointed ones — although the Ravens haven't written off their AFC North rivals.
"We swept them, but don't be fooled — we'll see them again in January," said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who had the game's only interception. "This is the only team in the world that can play like we play and match us blow for blow."
• Speaking of clutch, Eli Manning reprised his Super Bowl-winning drive against New England, doing it in Foxborough this time to beat the Patriots 24–20. Manning took the Giants 80 yards in eight plays, and once again he benefited from a miraculous catch by an unsung receiver wearing No. 85. This time, it was tight end Jake Ballard, who made a leaping 28-yard grab and then completed a drive for the ages by catching a one-yard Manning throw for the winning score. The G-men have a two-game lead in the NFC East, while the Patriots are tied with the Jets and Bills and fighting for their playoff lives.
• Tim Tebow's 2–1 as Denver's starting QB, but he has to share credit for the Broncos' 38–24 win over Oakland with ageless running back Willis McGahee, who ran for 163 yards and two scores, including the game-clinching 24-yarder with 1:53 left. Tebow did add 117 yards, as he and McGahee became only the fifth QB-RB combo to rush for 100-plus yards in the same game. Tebow's passing? A work in progress: 10-of-21, 124 yards, two TDs, no picks. Since getting the starting job, Tebow's thrown five TDs and one interception.
• The Dolphins forgot what this season's all about, as they actually won a game and took a hit in the Suck for Luck sweepstakes. I guess that pride thing got in the way. "All I've wanted to do for seven weeks is see these guys smile," said coach Tony Sparano of his 1–7 Dolphins. Well, Tony, fans in your town aren't smiling today.
• The Harbaugh brothers are a combined 13–3. Not to be outdone by John Harbaugh's 6–2 Ravens, Jim Harbaugh's Niners improved to 7–1 with a 19–11 win over the Redskins. They've won six in a row. Mark it down: They'll host a playoff game this season.
• The Packers are chasing history at this point. The NFL's lone unbeatens were tested by the Chargers, but here's your key number: 3–0, as in interceptions thrown by Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers. The NFL's career passer rating leader, Rodgers has just had the best half-season in NFL history. There's no reason to think he'll hit a wall.
— by Rob Doster
Here's a little perspective for all the Tim Tebow haters out there, John Elway included: In Elway's fifth career start, he was 4-of-10 passing for 36 yards and no touchdowns, and he threw a pick-six before being yanked in favor of Steve DeBerg in a 31–14 loss to the Bears. The game dropped Elway's record as a starter to 2–3, and at that point in his career, he was 38-of-83 passing (45.7 percent) for 420 yards (84 yards per game) and one — one! — touchdown. His highest passer rating in any of his first five games? 58.8. I guess the Broncos should have declared the Elway experiment to be a failure and moved on to their "Suck for Esiason" strategy.
Here's a side-by-side comparison between Tebow and the man who will decide his future in the league (over their first five career starts):
Tim Tebow John Elway
Starting Record 2–3 2–3
Att-Comp 75-157 (47.7%) 38-83 (45.7%)
Passing Yards 984 427
TD-INT 8-4 1-5
Rushing Yards 327 41
I'm not saying that Tim Tebow is going to evolve into a two-time Super Bowl-winning, Hall of Fame quarterback. What I am saying is that declaring Tebow to be an NFL bust, which seems to be the prevailing sentiment right now, is premature, and that Elway would do well to remember his own horrendous start when publicly assessing his current quarterback.
There's no point in sugarcoating Tebow's performance yesterday; he was awful against Detroit in a 45–10 loss, completing 18-of-39 passes for 172 yards, throwing a 100-yard pick-six to Chris Houston and losing a fumble that Cliff Avril returned 24 yards for a touchdown.
But this rush to judgment is ridiculous, particularly when you consider that Tebow's offensive line essentially put his life in danger, surrendering seven sacks to the Lions' ferocious offensive front.
Tebow is not the classic NFL prototype at the position that Elway was, and he may never be an effective pocket passer. But he brings attributes to the position that make him worth the risk, particularly for a team that's going nowhere and doesn't possess a better option.
It's hard to play NFL quarterback; there are fewer than 32 guys on the planet who can do it competently. I may be crazy, but given Timmy's intangibles, I think this experiment could still work. The relentlessly optimistic Tebow agrees with me: "I'm just going to get up early and go to work and try to get better tomorrow and consistently improve and be the best person-slash-quarterback for this organization," he said. "We'll bounce back and have a great week of practice and get ready to go try and get a win next week."
• Ben Roethlisberger out-Brady'd Tom Brady, completing 36-of-50 passes for 365 yards and two scores in Pittsburgh's 25–17 win over New England and its NFL-worst defense. Brady dropped to 6–2 all-time against a team he normally dominates.
• The Dream lives on. Philly kept hope alive with a 34–7 demolition of the Cowboys in a game that was over before halftime. LeSean McCoy had the sixth-best rushing performance in Eagles history (185 yards).
• Over in the AFC South, the Haves had their way with the Have-Nots. Tennessee toyed with the Colts, winning 27–10, while the Texans shut down the NFL's worst offense in a 24–14 win over Jacksonville. Houston (5–3) remains a half-game ahead of Tennessee (4–3) in what could become one of the better division races.
• Maybe it was the throwback unis. The Rams got their first win, and it was a shocker: 31–21 over the Saints. Steven Jackson got loose for 159 yards and two touchdowns, and A.J. Feeley — yep, A.J. Feeley — was the winning quarterback.
— by Rob Doster
The Indianapolis Colts are taking this "Suck for Luck" thing to Mt. Everest-style heights. Indy put on perhaps the worst performance by an NFL team since the expansion-era Bucs, showing that they're fully prepared to stage a season-long tickle-fight with the Dolphins for a chance at drafting the best QB prospect since the guy standing on the sidelines in a Colts cap. Indy's 62-7 loss to New Orleans in the Superdome was a clear statement that they're in the Luck sweepstakes for keeps.
How bad were the Colts? Let us count the ways. They surrendered 557 yards of offense, providing the Saints with nearly equal opportunities on the ground (236 yards) and through the air (321 yards). The Saints matched the NFL record for points in a single game since the merger, and the 55-point margin was surpassed only by the Patriots' 59–0 win over the Titans in 2009. Indy mustered only 252 yards, much of it in garbage time, and turned the ball over three times, throwing a pick-six to Leigh Torrence to close the scoring.
Drew Brees was brutal in his efficiency, throwing more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four). For the night, Brees was 31-of-35 for 325 yards and five scores, slicing the Colts defense with short timing passes in becoming only the second player since the merger to throw for 300 yards, five TDs and no picks in a game three times. The one-sided spectacle was enough to give interested spectator Archie Manning flashbacks to his days as quarterback for the Aints.
"I was real proud of how we played tonight, how we handled the week of practice," said Saints coach Sean Payton, who coached from the booth while nursing a broken leg. "We spent a lot of time during the week just talking about us beginning to play our best football, because we really felt while we were 4–2, we hadn't done that."
Meanwhile, the Colts seem a bit resigned to their status as NFL doormats.
"That team played better than we did in every area and we just got whooped across the board," Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. "It's one of those things that once you don't do the little things right, there is a lot of bad things that happen to you. Obviously, I have to take responsibility for our team and the way that they played."
Uh, Coach, you might not want to do that. Not if you want a shot at standing in the vicinity while Manning tutors Luck next season. Now that would be job security.
• The Titans were nearly as bad as the Colts, allowing the Andre Johnson-less Texans to roll up 518 yards while mustering only 148 themselves in a 41–7 Texans rout. Chris Johnson continues to hear it from the home folks, who rained down boos on Johnson's 10-carry, 18-yard performance. Seems like Titans fans have the impression they're not getting their money's worth.
• My colleague Nathan Rush has said all that needs to be said about Tim Tebow's performance. It wasn't terribly pretty, but Tebow did what he does: He won. One of these games, he might even complete 50 percent of his passes.
• You might think that the 1–6 Vikings have bottomed out given their heartbreaking 33–27 loss to Green Bay. But the men in purple might have themselves a quarterback. Christian Ponder's numbers were horrendous at first glance, but the kid showed heart. Of course, when your counterpart is nearly perfect, it's tough to win. Aaron Rodgers was 24-of-30 for 335 yards and three TDs in his continuing assault on the record books.
• Most valuable non-QB in the league? How about Matt Forte? The Bears running back is the first player since 2004 to surpass 1,000 yards from scrimmage in seven games after rushing for 145 yards and catching passes for 38 more in a 24–18 win over Tampa Bay in London.
• On a day of steaming deuces, few stunk worse than the Saint Louis Rams. After entering the season with hopes of a division title, the Rams fell to 0–6 with a 34–7 loss to the Cowboys, allowing DeMarco Murray, of all people, to set the Cowboys single-game rushing record with 253 yards.
• Carson Palmer's debut with the Raiders couldn't have gone worse. Palmer was 8-of-21 for 116 yards and three interceptions as Oakland lost to the Chiefs 28–0. Kyle Boller, whom he replaced, was just as bad, throwing a pick-six on the Raiders' first possession, one of his three first-half interceptions. Palmer may be regretting his decision to climb off the couch, although the Raiders have a bye week to figure things out.
This is one of our favorites. You can work on improving straight putts and breaking putts. This aid helps your path, face control and a pattern of success for confidence.
Affix a length of string to two pencils, then stick the pencils in the ground so that the string is taut. Place the ball underneath the string, then use the string as your guide.
Charlie King is director of instruction at Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Ga. Charlie is recognized by Golf Magazine as one of the top 100 instructors in the U.S.
The LPGA has received a priceless gift in the form of a giggly 16-year-old home schooler. A Tour that is starved for fan attention, marketing dollars and a charismatic American presence has had the good fortune of having Lexi Thompson fall into its lap.
Thompson became the youngest winner in LPGA history last weekend when she captured the Navistar Classic at age 16, dominating a strong field in winning by five shots. In the process, she grabbed, at least briefly, the attention of sports fans who wouldn’t know World No. 1 Yani Tseng if she hit them in the knee with a gap wedge.
Thompson’s remarkable maturity and infectious passion for the game could propel the struggling Tour past its tiny niche as a Golf Channel afterthought and into a legitimate presence on the sports landscape. Or at least ahead of the WNBA.
His enthusiasm tempered by the cautionary tale of Michelle Wie, whose too-much-too-soon saga and lack of maturity spoiled her premature arrival on the scene, LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan must play this carefully. He can’t hitch his wagon to a 16-year-old, but at the same time, he can’t ignore Thompson’s potential impact on his Tour and the sport itself.
Whan must weigh the Tour’s 18-year-old age requirement against its tenuous position in a struggling economy. In 2008, the Tour schedule included 34 events; in 2011, it’s down to 25, with 13 of them outside the United State. Thompson could be just the tonic this Tour needs.
Here’s a sample of what they’re saying about golf’s newest phenom:
“She is most known for how long she hits it and how far she flies it, but I think she doesn’t get enough credit for how smart she played today and how good her iron shots are and how good she is at scrambling.” — Tiffany Joh, who was paired with Thompson during the final round of the Navistar
I don’t want to be the commissioner responsible for freshmen in high school being in the position of having to decide their futures. — LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan, who will be forced to rule on Thompson’s upcoming petition for membership in light of the Tour’s age requirement that participants be at least 18
“She has kind of proven she can play out here. She's proven she can handle the social part of it. I think they should give her full (membership).” — 51-year-old LPGA legend Juli Inkster, who was the oldest player participating at the Navistar
“It’s great to have all these fans out here. If it wasn’t for them these tournaments wouldn't go along. Having the little girls out here just looking up to me, that's what I've always wanted. I just want to portray to them that I'm following my dreams.” — Thompson, on the fan response to her win
"They give up their lives for us, you know, saving our country. ... Donating to them, you just have to. I mean, look what they do for us. It's just amazing that they do that. I definitely want to give back." — Thompson, who plans to donate $20,000 of her winner’s check to the Wounded Warrior Project
This is one of our favorites. You can work on improving straight putts and breaking putts. This aid helps your arc path, face control and a pattern of success for confidence.
Simply affix a length of string to two pencils, then stick the pencils in the ground so that the string is taut. Place the ball underneath the string, then use the string as your guide.
Charlie King is Director of Instruction, Reynolds Plantation, Greensboro, Ga. He's recognized by Golf Magazine as a Top 100 Teacher in America.
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.”