Thursday, August 18, 2005

Fly Me To...Orlando?

Apologies to all my loyal fans (or loyal fan) for the paucity of content lately. It’s not been a great season of viewing for golf – and the Majors were not that appealing – except for the PGA. Now a few words on the PGA as a major and where I think it sits within the hierarchy – that would be LAST! The PGA claims to have the strongest field of the majors since only “professionals” play. However, those professionals include many qualifying club pros – and I doubt those guys could hold a candle to the US and British Amateur champions and runners up. So to me, the “pro” argument is BS. That being said, it has improved its stature mostly because of the venues. They’ve got a strong roster of upcoming courses that certainly rivals the US Open Championship.

My list for prestige – The Open Championship (the oldest), the US Open (patriotic), the Masters Tournament (the last entrant – but tradition and drama are hard to argue against) and the PGA Championship – in that order.

I heard about Tiger’s early exit from New Jersey yesterday and could not believe my ears. I am not sure if the other Monday competitors knew he had gone – but if they did I cannot help but think his exit relieved some pressure. “Hey, if I get to 2 under and into a playoff at least HE won’t be in it!” Turned out his judgment was prescient, but had he been wrong it would have been a monumental blunder.

So two days after a terrific run by Mickelson, Tiger steals the headlines. But his exit should not overshadow the excellent showing by Phil. He led or shared the lead after each of the four rounds. Interestingly for the Monday finish he opted to leave his 3 iron out of the bag – a club he needed on the Par 3 16th. He made bogey because of it, but the stroke proved non-fatal. Unfortunately due to a massive power outage in New Canaan I was unable to view the Monday finish (work wreaked havoc too) and most of the Sunday action. But what I did see and the press I’ve read showed a Phil Mickelson totally under control of his game and, more importantly, his head. Additionally, he drew some good fortune in that Elkington and Bjorn were unable to convert birdies on the Par 4.526 18th. He’s had plenty of bad luck in his career – so the rub of the “green” was warranted.

This week the tour travels to the NEC at Firestone in Akron, OH. A strong field is expected and Firestone is a solid track – so look for some hot action on Sunday!

Monday, April 11, 2005

Tiger's a Beast

Is Tiger unbeatable? Well the answer is “yes” and “no.” After watching the final round of the Masters (my viewing for the second and third rounds was rudely interrupted by a family wedding this year!) it is impossible for me to imagine Tiger ever letting a Major slip away when he has the lead going into the final round. If memory serves, he has only lost a tournament once from a leading position and that was to Ed Fiore in the elite Quad Cities open during his first season on tours.

So back to the question – I don’t think he will ever “lose” a major when he has control of his own destiny. The only way it will happen is if someone plays a blistering final round and steals the tournament. But the likely contenders all seem unable to accomplish such a task. I can remember when Nicklaus was in his later prime you all but expected a second nine charge on Sunday. In ’86 he shot 30 to overtake Ballesteros – who helped him by dumping his approach to hole 15. Singh and Mickelson are clearly capable, but when Tiger is ahead of them their play indicates more of a paralysis than an ominous birdie barrage onset. Els was a disaster.

Seemingly, the only time Tiger can be beat is when he is so far out of contention that the volume of players above him and conditions make a comeback impossible. Jack Nicklaus always said he didn’t worry as much about how many strokes he was behind as much as how many players were between him and the leader. Masterful observation!

But let’s give Chris DiMarco a ton of credit. He is the only person I have seen, with the exception of tour journeyman and now disappearing act Bob May, that has stood up to Tiger and – almost – beaten him. Look at two key shots on the back nine and you’ve got the whole round in a nutshell – Tiger’s chip-in on hole 16 and DiMarco’s non-chip-in on the 72nd hole. How that did not go in is mystifying. A little too much speed and Bobby Jones’s finger poking out of the grave kept it out. That shot was his chance. There was no way he was going to beat Tiger in a playoff. Why? Karma – and I hate to say that.

Although the final round was an electrifying duel between Woods and DiMarco, I was disappointed. It would have been much better to have had more players in the mix, but nobody posted a hot front nine, leaving Woods and DiMarco with too much room for the home stretch. I was annoyed that CBS stayed with Woods for all those agonizingly long putt and shot preparations. But it’s all about ratings for them and I can understand it. If he is in the lead, you have to get in the mindset that you are going to see every one of his shots and very few of anyone else’s.

So does Tiger go on to win the Grand Slam? This year he will have the benefit of courses that he can very well succeed on. Accurate driving will not play a premium until the PGA at Baltusrol. The US Open at Pinehurst #2 may not have a lot of rough to contend with and it is not particularly tight. When Payne Stewart won the let the greens play a starring role – they are nasty and the USGA will create a nightmare situation. Tiger demolished the field at St. Andrews in 2000. He’s got a great shot there for the Open Championship unless we get a good Scottish gale. There won’t be lightening and the R&A will throw those guys out there in almost any conditions – brilliant! Tiger could very well get to Baltusrol with three majors under his belt. I guess if his wife gets pregnant he may stay home to witness the joy of childbirth rather than pursue the Grand Slam – NOT!

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Tis the Eve of the Masters

‘Tis the eve of the 71st Masters Tournament and perhaps the most important element, the weather, is shaping up well. Based on comments from the practice rounds the scoring will be high this year, that is unless it rains at some point between now and tomorrow morning. Apparently the greens on Monday were as fast as they usually are on Sunday and the men of Augusta have seen fit to grow a more considerable rough.

I was lucky enough to attend the Masters in 1995, the year of Ben Crenshaw’s emotional victory on the heals of his teacher and mentor Harvey Penick’s death. What struck me about the course that is not visible on TV is the elevation changes that players face. It is an extremely visually pleasing layout, as one would expect from course architect Alistair McKenzie. Mr. McKenzie’s original layout has been significantly altered (Bobby Jones also gets credit for the original design) but the changes have mostly been made to maintain the integrity of the approach shots. The design of the greens and surrounding bunkering remains largely in tact.

What you see on TV is not what you get when you play. Although the greens are large and the fairway generous the actual target areas are quite small. Mr. McKenzie made all of his courses eminently playable for all skill levels, but challenging for the championship golfer as well. You will not lose a ball in the rough at one of his courses (if it is set up correctly) but you will be punished for wayward tee shots – in a deceptive way. The greens are meant to be attacked from very specific locations. If you are not in that location, you may hit the green, but your chances of birdie are unlikely. In fact, a three or four putt could well be in the cards.

That being said, experience plays a key role in success at Augusta. Only Fuzzy Zoeller has won as a rookie. Identifying the course’s subtleties and knowing when to pull off the gas are a premium. You will notice on the magnificent 12th hole that players will generally aim for the middle of the green, no matter the pin position, take a three and get to Amen corner with all due haste. Similarly at number 11, any approach shot left of the flag (unless it is in the far right position) is most likely a mistake. That little lake has cost many the championship (Floyd hit it in in his playoff against Faldo in 1990 and Hogan made the mistake as well.)

With the rough up and the greens as quick as they appear to be, scores will rise, particularly if the breeze picks up. You will see a lot of putts rolling off the green and a number of three putts. The champion will be the player who manages his game and remains most patient. Sound simple? Yeah, but it’s a Major.

So let’s look at the patient players who may well be slipping on the green jacket Sunday. My favorites include Retief Goosen, Ernie Els, Luke Donald, Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Others who could factor in are Jay Haas, Jose Maria Olazabal, Davis Love and Zach Johnson. Whoever wins will likely win in the putting category. I just hope we get a tight one. And remember, the Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday!

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

No Funk for Fred

I think Fred Funk was one of only about six players not in a funk at the Players Championship. What yesterday proved is that drama CAN exist without the Big Four in the mix (it should be the Big Five with Goosen included, but I am not part of the mainstream golf media!) What a show yesterday at Sawgrass.

Let’s start with 49-year-old champion Fred Funk who will be exempt on the PGA tour for FOUR MORE years. He’ll also get to play in the Open Championship (that’s in Great Britain for you neophytes) and the Masters for three years, will be exempt from qualifying for our Open Championship and will automatically qualify for the PGA Championship. What a fantastic story for one of the most likeable guys on the tour. (As a side note, at last year’s U.S. Open I had my cap signed by only major champions – with one exception: Fred Funk. Is the Players a major? Well, not really, but it’s at least half a one!)

Watching him come down the stretch I was wondering if Funk’s flat stick would cost him the tournament. He did not putt that well, especially at seventeen, but nobody else could drain one either. His six-footer at eighteen was nothing short of brilliant, especially when you consider what was on the line. It’s really too bad this didn’t happen on Sunday, when more folks could have watched (I have TiVo to thank!)

Kudos to the series of grinders who really held in there: Verplank (costly three putt at eighteen), Lumpy Herron, Tom Lehman, Joe Durant and Luke Donald. Donald just threw too much away on the front nine. It’s also nice to see Steve Elkington back (whose caddie was on my bag for a round last summer!)

As for the other titans, well, they couldn’t hold up. That wind will get a lot of players most of the time. And if you are not striking pure shots, it is going to hammer you. The rough was unforgiving (and to Tiger unforgivable – he says there shouldn’t be any on the course. Stop whining – it’s not as if it was only there for you, pal!) I did agree with Mr. Woods that the seventeenth should not be the seventeenth. It should be the eighth. It’s a stupid hole, but to have it potentially determine the outcome (Len Mattiace) makes it even stupider!

I am glad the breeze stiffened up Monday – it separates the wheat from the chaff. I play in the wind all of the time and I love it. It makes you think and adjust. And it blows for everyone! These guys are too often presented with “perfect” conditions – no wind, soft greens and generous fairways. Wrong! Perfect is just the opposite. Sometimes I think these guys don’t like to scramble like the rest of us.

Next week takes us to Atlanta for an event no one really cares about except Bell South executives and their major customers. Let’s face it, the week after is where it’s at and I think this Masters will be legendary (Caution: my predictions are usually dead wrong!)

Monday, March 21, 2005

Has Vijay Lost that Closing Touch?

Hard to believe that the once (and likely future) invincible Mr. Singh has successfully grabbed defeat out of the mouth of victory for the SECOND straight week. Let’s give credit where its due this week, however, to Kenny Perry.

As I predicted, he held on – which is rare. Not his holding on, I mean an accurate prediction from yours truly! Under the circumstances, Kenny played a great round, firing a two-under par 70 under brutally intense pressure. But Perry is no stranger to success – the mild mannered and well-liked Kentuckian has won all the major Invitationals – Colonial, Memorial and now Bay Hill. Very solid.

It is puzzling how Vijay made such a fatal error with a seemingly routine seven iron approach. With water on the right and tied for the lead, take your four and get to the playoff. Why he felt he needed heroics is a mystery. According to Singh the wind confused him and he should have selected a six iron. Well, duh! For a guy who manages golf courses meticulously this was a major fumble.

I have no doubt that Vijay will present himself well in this year’s majors and near-majors. The Players Championship provides possibly the best field of the season and you can bet that Vijay will be ready. Heck, he is throwing a dinner party tonight (I guess my invitation got lost in the mail!) and could easily throw out some ‘tainted’ mayo for the chicken fingers. That would take care of a few contenders!

The PGA tour starts in earnest on Thursday at the TPC of Sawgrass. I am no fan of Pete Dye or of this course. Island greens are an atrocity, unless the hole actually existed BEFORE man arrived. That being said, the stadium course sets up for great golf theater (just ask Len Mattiace) and should be a dazzling competition.

But the real harbinger of spring is down at sleepy Augusta in two weeks. Ben Hogan used to tune up at Seminole for the competition and this year’s tournament will be a great one. I can’t remember when so many players have performed at this high a level. And to boot – we will enjoy this Masters in high definition (or at least I will on my new TV!) Buckle your seat belts and think about the dogwoods and azaleas – it’s just around the corner, baby!

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Bay Hill and More

To the very small handful out there who actually read this thing, my apologies for the paucity of content. Excuse – family responsibility and work. No time to watch golf. However, I’ve had the good fortune to log some time with my pal TiVo for Bay Hill.

First things first…yes this is a golf blog, but several items to note. Today was a trifecta of sorts – my Chelsea Football Club (CFC) earned three points in the English Premiership by beating Crystal Palace 4 -1, my Arizona Wildcats overcame Alabama Birmingham and my wife and I enjoyed a bottle of ’91 Harlan Estate. Brilliant! CFC remain 11 points clear of SCUM (Man United – ManUre) and 12 points clear of Arse (Arsenal – sorry Wenger!) Now to GOLF.

Bay Hill is Arnold Palmer’s invitational – or it was until my friend Tim Finchem and the PGA got rid of invitationals. Now it’s a PGA event but like Colonial and Pebble Beach maintains an “Invitational” in the title. Anywho, Arnold is a God – as I write I am in front of a photo of Mr. Palmer and the Hawk (Ben Hogan) teeing off at #2 in the ’66 Masters. Palmer made the game what it is today. All the TV and prize money we and they enjoy can be directly credited to Mr. Palmer. If I had one round of golf left to play I would hope to join Arnold, my Dad and Lee Trevino for the round at my home course.

Unfortunately Arnold will not be playing any more professional events. Although he is well past any ability to compete his presence will be missed. It’s not about winning – there’s history too. During the course of his career he won seven major titles and a US Amateur (arguably a major). He’s also had a hand in some wonderful course designs.

At Bay Hill there has been plenty of compelling action. Although the third round has not been completed, the cream is rising. The most notable performance is from one of my favorites – Kenny Perry. Apparently Mr. Perry has forsaken his Tabasco sponsorship, depriving many of the wardrobe drama associated with his final-round attire. His ball striking has been nothing short of brilliant. Few golfers can compete with Kenny Perry when he is hot – including Tiger, Vijay and Ernie. I look for Kenny to finish it off tomorrow, barring an insanely low round from someone in the back seat.

But the player in the back seat may be Stephen Ames. Can you say Trinidad / Tobago? Could Mr. Ames be the first Tobagan to win a PGA tour event? Ames is on fire and looks to be in the mix come tomorrow evening.

Also playing well is a lethal group including Retief Goosen, who played 25 holes in nine under par and Vijay Singh, who clearly misses his perch atop the world rankings. Others to watch include Freddy – what a magical win that would be! and Sergio.

I love Bay Hill – but the tour’s hottest weeks are just ahead with The Players Championship and (my favorite) the Masters tournament. Oh Baby!

Friday, March 04, 2005

A Barn Burner at Doral

Is Marco Dawson a god or what? Forty one year old Dawson, playing under a major medical exemption, whose best finish was second in the 1995 Greater Milwaukee Open, fired an 8 under par 64 yesterday playing in a field laden with heavyweights. His round was as clean as his newly shaven scalp (he claims it shortens his prep time!) with eight birdies and no bogies.

Joining native German Dawson at the top were Brit Brian Davis, Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal, and our own Philly Mick.

TiVo rocks for golf - if you don't have it, get it! Watching TV any other way is a waste of time.

The Depends crowd, including 55 year old Tome Kite (-2) and Berhard Langer (-3) made a fine showing in the opening round. Langer could have gone deeper into the red had his flat stick not failed him on several occasions. No excuses for that at Doral - the place is in the best shape of its life. Kite continues to amaze - you MUST root for Texans in golf. Hogan, Nelson, Trevino, Kite, Crenshaw...The stern breezes breed great ball strikers.

Other highlights included a combined six strokes that the threesome of Woods, Hamilton, and Faxon carded on the tough par three 13th. Faxon nearly aced it, while Woods and Hamilton drained four-footers for a triple birdie showing.

It's also nice to see Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal back in form. Last year was his worst on tour at 142nd on the money list. No matter how badly he does though, he'll always tee it up in Augusta - and that rocks!

Doral is shaping up to be a great event. I am pulling for Marco, but will the heat of the company he'll keep wilt him?