Americans Stand Tall at Doral
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.