Friday, June 27, 2008

5 players to watch while Tiger's away

With Tiger Woods’ participation in the PGA Tour reduced to commercial breaks for the remainder of this season, the question becomes what happens now?

What, the Travelers Championship doesn’t float your boat?

The PGA Tour will survive without Tiger for the next four months (remember, it essentially surrenders football season) though television ratings will probably be somewhere in the range of ‘JAG’ reruns.

Still, it’s an opportunity for someone else to take the stage, especially in the run-up to the Ryder Cup, which is great theater with or without Tiger.

Here are five players who can help themselves and the PGA Tour in Tiger’s absence:

It’s his stage now. He flamed out at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, but he’s still the brightest star in the universe while Tiger’s on the mend.

Lefty can carry the game if he plays well the rest of the summer. Don’t look for him to win the British Open, but perhaps the PGA and he’ll be a central character in the Ryder Cup.

It’s time for him to win a major and maybe fate pays him back at the British Open at Birkdale. His win at The Players was enormous for him, and he hung in there at the U.S. Open after a terrible start.

He has become a solid player who will probably be on the Ryder Cup team, just for him media center visits if nothing else. He’s likeable and he’s different enough that if he can win again, fans will notice.

I have the sense he’s the real deal. He idolizes Tom Watson and, while it’s way too soon to say he’s this generation’s Watson, he has similar characteristics. There’s an energy about Snedeker that gives off good vibes and people got to know him a little with his Masters experience.

He proved with his victory at the Masters that he’s an elite player. Now he has the chance to make himself a bigger star. He’s a sharp guy with a ton of talent and enough appeal to make people care. Another big win this summer would be huge for Immelman.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Rocco won fans, hearts at U.S. Open

Rocco Mediate didn’t win the U.S. Open trophy, but he won the hearts.

Until his disappointing end on the 91st hole of a championship that was so close to being his, Mediate found out that there’s still plenty of game left in his 45-year-old body and he learned how it feels to play golf on a cloud.

Tiger Woods is a marvel. We figured that out years ago.

Mediate is just a Pittsburgh guy, who has a balky back and likes to talk.

Everywhere he went over the weekend and on Monday, cheers of “Rocco, Rocco, Rocco” could be heard around Torrey Pines. He had the time of his life.

He could have melted when he was three strokes behind Tiger with eight holes remaining in the playoff, but he didn’t. Instead, Rocco made three straight birdies, flipped the advantage to himself and went to the 18th hole on Monday with a one-stroke lead.

It was the same position he was in on Sunday when Woods had to make a birdie to keep playing. Both times Mediate made a par on a hole that was generous about surrendering birdies.

When he absolutely had to make a birdie, he couldn’t and it cost him. As Rocco kept saying, he forced Woods to do something – and, naturally, Tiger did.

Mediate’s career may be defined by this Open because it reminded us again of how good a guy he is and how capable a player he is when his back isn’t forcing him to do television work or play professional poker.

The trophy went to Tiger.

But Rocco Mediate left with a smile on his face, too.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Winners, losers after Open's first round


-The working man: How else do you explain the presence of Kevin Streelman and Justin Hicks atop the leader board after 18 holes? Would you know either one of them if they pulled up a chair beside you?

The Open, of course, is sprinkled with guys who have been one-day wonders and they may fall into that category by Friday evening. But Thursday, they were better than everyone else.

-Ernie Els: He’s not a guy I figured had much of a shot in this Open, given the way his form has been. He’s traded mental coaches again, has changed his schedule back and forth a couple of times and seems unsettled.

But the Big Easy shot 70 in the first round and has a chance to build on that in the morning wave Friday. He knows how to win the U.S. Open, but it’ll take three more rounds.

-The course set-up: As promised, USGA officials played with the tee positions, shaving nearly 200 yards off Torrey Pines’ maximum distance. They’re likely to do the same thing today, though the adjustments might come on different holes.

Amazingly, no one has yet said this course set-up is too difficult.


-Defending champion Angel Cabrera: Maybe he should take up smoking again. Cabrera shot 43 on the front nine Thursday to shoot himself out of the tournament with an opening 79.

-Steve Stricker: He’s been mired in an ugly slump, missing four straight cuts and losing the edge that catapulted him to third in the world rankings late last year. He was leading for a time Thursday morning, shooting 4-under par on his first nine holes, but he followed that by shooting 41 on his second nine to wind up with a disappointing 73.

-Driver companies: Will Phil Mickelson start a trend by playing without a driver? Doubtful, unless the average Joe starts hitting 3-woods 280 yards.

Early surprises at the U.S. Open

There were two immediate surprises Thursday morning when Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Adam Scott met on the first tee at Torrey Pines to begin play in the U.S. Open.

The first was that Woods would double-bogey the relatively benign opening hole, hardly the way he imagined starting. He yanked his tee shot into thick rough left of the fairway, hacked it back to the short grass, hit a short wedge shot over the green into more thick stuff then missed an 8-foot bogey putt.

Easy six.

It is not Woods’ worst start in a major. He triple-bogeyed the opening hole in the 2003 British Open at Royal St. Georges.

Woods, however, quickly righted himself and made the turn at 1-under par, looking increasingly like the guy to beat again.

The second surprise was the fact that Mickelson chose to play the first round without a driver in his bag.

He had a fairway wood and a hybrid but no big stick on the longest course in major championship history.

Perhaps he was just trying to level things out after playing the Masters in 2006 with two drivers.

The absence of a driver became noticeable on the 515-yard par-4 sixth hole where Lefty was 50 yards behind his playing partners off the tee. He made a bogey five there, the first of three straight bogeys.

For all the questions about whether Tiger would be sharp, it was Mickelson who – at least through the first nine holes – looked off his game.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

There's hang gliding, sunbathing in nude

No one keeps official records on this, but it’s a fair assumption that this is the first U.S. Open played beside a nude beach.

For sure, it’s the first Open at a course with a hanging gliding port located near one of the tees.

Then again, we are in southern California.

Hang gliding will be discouraged this week while the Open is being played at Torrey Pines’ South Course. The USGA tends to frown on birdies and fliers buzzing Phil Mickelson when he’s putting.

As for sunbathing in the buff, well, the weather so far this week has discouraged that. It’s been cloudy and cool, which isn’t good for working on your all-over tan but the so-called marine layer is expected to subside this weekend, which means there could be some interesting blimp shots on the telecast.

A more intrepid reporter would have ventured down to Black’s Beach – it has its own website which features a photo of sun-tanned posteriors – but it’s a long trek and, well, I’m comfortable in my khakis, which would probably look out of place down among the, uh, free spirits.

I’ll take the word of a friend that it’s an interesting sight. Maybe if I sneak in behind the fourth green – it’s the one along the cliffs you’ve probably seen photos of – I’ll peek over at the beach.

And if you catch a shot of Tiger looking over the cliff there, you’ll know why.

Monday, June 09, 2008

I found a cool place at Torrey Pines

Here's a quick first impression of Torrey Pines from a man fresh off the plane from broiling Charlotte to the southern California coast:

It's cool.


Walking around Torrey Pines at mid-afternoon Monday, a windshirt would have come in handy. I know that's not what anyone in the 100-degree heat wants to hear, but that's the way it feels on the northern edge of San Diego.

They claim this city has the best weather in the country, and I suppose they're right - if you like it sunny and 70 almost every day. The only bad months are May and June when the 'marine layer' intrudes. That means low clouds and a touch of fog shroud everyone within a few miles of the ocean, at least until lunch time. Then it goes back to being sunny and 70 again.

On Monday afternoon, though, it was still cool and gray with just enough breeze to make your eyes water if you stood on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific for a few minutes. Sorry, that sounds like bragging. And maybe it should.

There are worse places to be than on the 488-yard par-4 fourth hole, which is the one that looks like it's about to fall into the Pacific. You wouldn't want to hit a tee shot there if you have a tendency to let it drift left because the only thing it can hit would be a trawler out in the ocean.

But as far as pretty goes, it wins, especially with a cool breeze coming off the water. The worst that can be said about the fourth hole is there's a sign behind the green warning of rattlesnakes in the brush, in case anyone's thinking of chasing their Titleist down there.

USGA officials are hoping the wind blows a little this week to make things more interesting when play commences on Thursday.

A nice, cool breeze.

Monday, June 02, 2008

U.S. Open history started in Charlotte

Sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open – the last way to get in at Torrey Pines next week if you’re not already in – is being held at 14 sites today.

It’s a cutthroat game where too many players are chasing too few spots and one bad hole can leave you home on your couch watching.

And sometimes history begins unfolding during sectional qualifying.

That’s what happened 72 years ago at Charlotte Country Club.

Don Bryant, now 85, was there in 1936 when Open qualifying was held at Charlotte, and he remembers watching how it ended that day.

Tony Manero, who was the pro at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, came to the 18th hole needing a birdie to get into a playoff.

The 18th was a sharper dogleg right in those days and Manero’s hopes looked lost when he hit his tee shot into the edge of what members still call the soup bowl off the right side of the fairway at the bottom of the hill.

“From there, he hit a low shot under some trees and it ran up to the edge of the green,” Bryant recalled. “He was just off the green by a little bit but he made the long putt to get in the playoff.”

At the first hole, Manero hit a poor tee shot that left him a longer approach shot than other players into the green. But Manero scraped together a par and had earned his ticket to the 1936 U.S. Open at Balustrol.

“And, by George,” Bryant remembered, “he won that U.S. Open.”