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!