Thursday, July 31, 2008

Charlotte's Wagner hoping for big finish

Johnson Wagner spent the past two weeks hanging around home in Charlotte, playing some golf, relaxing and getting ready for what he hopes will be a big finish to his 2008 PGA Tour season.

Wagner, who won the Shell Houston Open in April, opened the World Golf Championship-Brdgestone Invitational Thursday in Akron, Ohio, with a solid even-par 70, putting himself in position to be a factor at Firestone when the weekend arrives.

The victory in Houston in April not only got Wagner into the Masters at the last minute, it affirmed his belief that he belonged on the tour. His record since Houston, however, has been spotty.

He made four straight cuts in one stretch but his best finish has been a tie for 27th in the EDS Byron Nelson Championship.

Wagner ranks 45th in FedEx Cup points and went to Firestone intent on improving his standing as the four-tournament playoff stretch approaches in three weeks.

"I'm starting to play better on tougher courses and in bigger events and I feel like I can play well in this stretch," Wagner said. "I want to make the top 30 in the FedEx standings so I can play in the Tour Championship and winning another tournament would certainly take care of that."

After the Bridgestone this week, Wagner will play the PGA Championship next week, bypass the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro then being the FedEx Cup playoffs at the Barclays in mid-August. Ideally, he would play his way into a spot at the Tour Championship Sept. 25-28 at East Lake in Atlanta.

As for his breakthrough victory at Houston, Wagner said he needs to focus on what's next rather than on what he's already done.

"I need to quit thinking about (the win)," Wagner said. "I need to focus on the good things I did to get in that position and start doing them again."

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Again, Wie elects to be sideshow at men's event

The Women's British Open, pardon me, the Ricoh Women's British Open, is being played this week at Sunningdale in England and Michelle Wie is playing instead in the PGA Tour's Legends Reno-Tahoe Open.

Need I ask, what's wrong with this picture?

The question I've always had about Michelle Wie is whether she's more interested in being a great golfer or a great star.

The fact she's in Nevada rather than England this week raises that question again.

Sure, she would have had to qualify to play in the British Open, but if you're serious about being great you try to play in the biggest events. Unless you're Kenny Perry - but he's 47 and deep enough in his career to skip the British Open even if it's a decision he will likely regret down the road.

Wie was a star. Now she's a curiosity, which means she's moved in the wrong direction.

Playing in another men's event - a second-tier PGA Tour event that includes none of the top 50 players in the world - seems the wrong thing for her to do right now. Maybe she will make the cut - she's shown signs of getting her game back - but what would that prove?

I would love to see Michelle Wie become everything we've projected her to be. She could further transform women's professional golf if she could become a regular winner.

She makes you watch.

If it can all come together for her, Wie could have an enormous impact on the game.

But bypassing a major to be a sideshow in Reno-Tahoe isn't the best way to do it.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Play golf, live longer

What if I told you that playing golf can add five years to your life?

I know, there are times when you think your head will explode after you've chunked another wedge into a bunker or hit a slice deep enough into the woods that the CIA couldn't find it. You think the game will kill you, not keep you alive.

But if the findings of the Karolinska Instituted in Sweden are accurate -- and its reputation apparently makes it the Pro V1 of its field -- then playing golf may be better for you than a glass of red wine a day or passing on the Thickburger.

According to the study, which was published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science, golfers are 40 percent less likely to die at a given age than people who don't play golf. Don't ask me to explain the formula but that means the game adds about five years to your life, unless you go about it the way John Daly does.

The study evaluated 300,000 golfers and took a variety of factors into consideration. The study looked at blue-collar and white-collar golfers to negate the idea that wealthier people tend to play golf, and consequently, might have access to better health care.

I'm just guessing here but playing football probably doesn't add five years to your life. Bowling probably doesn't either.

But golf apparently keeps you alive longer, which is a good thing unless you have the shanks.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Namesake was golf giant

Many of the best young players in the Charlotte area are at Cedarwood Country Club this week playing in the Dick Tiddy Metro Junior championship.

Chances are the winners won’t be familiar with the man for whom the tournament is named but he was one of the giants of golf in this area.

Tiddy was a Charlotte native, who played college golf at Wake Forest with a fellow named Arnold Palmer, beginning a friendship that started in the 1940s and lasted until Tiddy passed away four years ago at age 74.

Tiddy was good enough to play the PGA Tour for a couple of years but he was a Hall of Famer as a teaching pro and all-around golf man. He knew how to make club members happy, cure swing flaws and brighten the days of everyone who came in contact with him.

He was the head pro at Charlotte Country Club before taking the same position at Cedarwood when it opened in the mid-1960s. But when Palmer called and asked Tiddy to run his beloved Bay Hill Club in Orlando in 1971, Tiddy moved south but kept his Charlotte connections alive.

For more than three decades, Tiddy taught golf at Bay Hill despite a series of health problems that gradually took away his ability to walk. Friends from Charlotte would routinely visit Bay Hill and Tiddy would return home where members of his family remain.

There was nothing he liked better than helping someone with their golf swing, whether it was a kid just learning the game or one of the many touring pros he put his trained eyes on. He made the game seem easy and I can remember him watching me hit high soft draws during a lesson and happily calling them ‘Carolina cut shots.’

Dick Tiddy was a big man, standing about 6-5 and weighing more than 250 pounds but he was larger than that in the ways that matter most.

He touched thousands of golf games and just as many lives, improving both.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Filling Tiger's void? Harrington, but not Phil

In the aftermath of the Open Championship, the question isn't whether Padraig Harrington is the game's second-best player regardless of what the official world rankings say -- he is -- nor is it whether this major championship Sunday performance is like so many others in Greg Norman's star-crossed career -- no, this was different.

The question is, what happened to all the guys who were supposed to pounce on major championships while Tiger Woods is on the mend?

This was going to be Sergio's moment, but he shot 44 coming in on Sunday and was never a serious factor.

Ernie Els?

His first-round 80 said more than his three good rounds from there.

Phil Mickelson?

Paralysis by analysis. Just play golf. Enough with the five wedges and rocket-science approach to trajectory and all that overthinking. Just go play golf, especially over there where feel is the most important thing.


He's getting old.

Adam Scott?

Where'd he go?

At least 23-year old Anthony Kim played like a guy capable of winning, at least until he put a putter in his hands. Then the hole started playing hide and seek.

Harrington, meanwhile, enhanced his place in the game with his gritty play. He's as tough as they come and his back nine Sunday was a thing of beauty. Looking for a winner at the PGA next month? I'll start with Harrington.

As for Norman, he didn't win but he had a chance with nine holes remaining and, in the process, he reminded us again of how captivating a personality he can be.

Norman was the game's dominant personality for a decade and having him back out front again reminded us of how flamboyant he was.

Had he somehow kept it together and won at Birkdale, it would have been one of the great stories ever, on a level with Jack Nicklaus' win in the 1986 Masters.

It didn't happen, unfortunately, but it's different when you're a 53-year old businessman who plays golf when the mood hits. This wasn't Norman in his prime with all the arrows in his heart. This was an aging giant back for one more moment and he played with much of the world pulling for him.

Norman didn't play as well on Sunday as he had in the three previous rounds and there was some criticism of him hitting his driver as often as he did. But Norman is considered by many to be the best driver -- combining length and accuracy -- ever. To play away from his strength on Sunday would have been counterintuitive.

Maybe he would have won if he'd hit more 3-woods and hybrids off the tee. Maybe not.

The way Harrington played at the end, it was his tournament to win.

The question is where everyone else went.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Will it be British Open champion*?

Will it ultimately matter on Sunday when someone is handed the Claret Jug that Tiger Woods was not at Royal Birkdale this week?

Of course, it will.

How can it not?

It's a major championship, of which Tiger has won 14 of the past 46, and in the prime of his career, he's not there. Having proved last month that he can, in fact, beat the rest of the world on one good leg, Woods' absence changes the structure of professional golf.

Players have made the point this week that the Open Championship is bigger than one player and they're right. They've been chasing golf balls around the hay over there since 1860 and having your name etched on the trophy is an extraordinary achievement.

But when you hear Ernie Els talking about how ominous Tiger's presence is when he's in the field and you remember Sergio thanking Tiger for missing The Players Championship he won in May -- was Sergio joking? -- it's obvious who and what are missing.

Evidently the game itself spooks Els these days, based on his body language while shooting an 80 Thursday.

This is a moment -- as the PGA Championship next month will be -- when the Adam Scotts and Sergios need to take advantage of the opportunity. Tiger will be back next year and the status quo will return with him.

Someone will be proclaimed champion golfer of the year Sunday afternoon at Birkdale and read his name on the Claret Jug.

It won't have an asterik beside it.

At least not one that's visible.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

18 holes with Clemson's Bowden

In another two weeks, Clemson football coach Tommy Bowden will be immersed in the start of preseason practice, dealing with all the things a head coach of a likely top-10 team has to deal with.

On Tuesday, however, Bowden spent the day playing golf at The Reserve at Lake Keowee, hosting an annual outing for media and athletic staff members before the crush of the season arrives.

I was paired with Bowden, sharing a cart with him, and though our golf didn't exactly sparkle, spending four hours with him away from football was a treat.

He recently returned from the annual family vacation with his father and brothers and kids and grandkids to Panama City, Fla., where the focus may be more on golf than football.

"My dad plays 36 holes a day every day and he plays in the heat of the day," Tommy said. "If you're just going to play 18 holes, you'd better take your own car because he's not leaving."

Bowden is a solid -- and quick -- golfer who hit several good shots during the day, but he doesn't play as regularly as some coaches. By his own admission, he's no Steve Spurrier on the golf course, but he has fun.

At The Reserve, a beautiful Jack Nicklaus-designed course nestled among the hills alongside Lake Keowee, Bowden would stop the cart on bridges to look into creeks for snakes -- we saw one black snake sunning itself -- and he looked longingly at the lake when the course bumped against it.

He lives on Lake Hartwell near Clemson and, like the rest of us, stared at how far down the water is, leaving boats stranded on the shore in places. Bowden also talked about how much he enjoys taking his boat on the water when he has a few hours.

As for the golf, Bowden joked that he needed to stack his team with good players one year so he could win the tournament he hosts.

He didn't do it this year. Maybe next year.

-- Photo (above right) taken of Clemson football coach Tommy Bowden before participating in his annual media golf outing in Sunset, S.C., on Tuesday, July 15. (Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Ballantyne facelift moving along

The golf course at Ballantyne Resort may be closed for the summer but there’s a lot going on anyway.

The layout, among the busiest and most popular in the Charlotte area, is getting a significant makeover that began June 16.

The practice range area will be dramatically different when the course reopens – Sept. 1 is the target date. The range has been reshaped and a new pavilion has been built nearby, creating a place for golfers in outings to gather.

The pavilion will sit where the practice green was and will have new putting greens on each side.

The staging area is also getting a facelift to help with the many outings the course hosts each year.

The most significant change to the course will be seen at the par-4 second hole. What used to be a short, quirky dogleg right with a tiny green has been transformed into a straighter par-4, essentially a new hole that will be a nice improvement.

The long, severe green at the par-4 eighth hole is also being reshaped to make it more player-friendly.

Additionally, the bunkers are being dredged and will have premium sand installed. Creek work and landscaping is also under way.

“It’s getting a really good facelift,” said Dana Rader, who operates her golf school at the resort. “The whole concept is geared toward a wow factor.”

Speaking of Rader, she’s also been down for a time this summer after having knee replacement surgery last month. She hopes to be back at home on a limited basis next week.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Kim develops attitude to match game

When Anthony Kim won the Wachovia Championship here in May, it was deemed to be the first of many victories for the 23-year old.

No. 2 came Sunday at Tiger Woods' AT&T National at Congressional in Washington, adding to the growing sense that Kim may be the game's next big star.

Kim has an exceptional swing that appears sturdy enough to hold up under pressure. It's efficient and powerful, an ideal combination.

The difference, as Kim admitted at Quail Hollow in May, is in his attitude. He's still a hot-shot young player, but he has begun to grow into his talent. He has begun to understand how to play and, consequently, how to win.

That isn't limited to hitting good shots and holing putts. Kim has offered several anecdotes about the growing pains he's experienced in his short time on the PGA Tour and offered a telling story in the media room after his win in Washington on Sunday.

He was playing in the BMW Championship last fall during the FedEx Cup playoffs. Kim had been out late the night before and showed up 15 minutes before his tee time, just long enough to grab a breakfast burrito and slap a couple of putts before going to the first tee. While he was preparing to change into his golf shoes, Kim saw Woods, whose tee time was much later but who had already had an extended pre-round practice session. Woods won the tournament while Kim finished tied for 52nd.

"That was quite a low point for my career," Kim said Sunday. "I wasn't doing myself justice to act that way and prepare that way."

The change has been dramatic.

And we're just seeing the start of it.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Big stars skipping Tiger's event, but why?

Tiger Woods isn’t the only star missing from the AT&T National this weekend at Congressional Country Club in Washington.

There’s no Phil Mickelson. No Adam Scott. No Vijay Singh. No Sergio Garcia. No Ernie Els.

Shall I continue?

In an event hosted by Tiger – who won’t be on the property at Congressional because flying causes his newly repaired left knee to swell – and is played on a superior course that will host the U.S. Open in three years, only five of the top 20 players in the current world rankings have bothered to show up.

It should remind us again how fortunate the Wachovia Championship has been to draw the star-stacked fields it has each year.

Tiger offered a modest defense of the field during a conference call this week when he said players make their own schedules based on many things and he understands they can’t play all the time. Tiger is the ultimate example of picking your spots, but he operates in a different universe.

What does the paucity of big names at Congressional mean?

I don’t think it’s guys dissing Tiger. If he asked a favor, I’m guessing most players would say sure.

The U.S. Open was three weeks ago, guys have had time to rest and the British Open is still two weeks away. This seems the perfect week to play. They can’t complain about the course and it’s the Fourth of July in Washington. Sure, it’s hot but it’s hot almost everywhere in July.

In fairness, some guys are ailing. Scott, for example, is still dealing with the hand he caught in a car door last month.

The edge has been dulled on this season now that Tiger is on the shelf, and it doesn’t help when what seems to be a big event winds up as a week off on too many stars’ schedules.

It is, unfortunately, the way of the world on the PGA Tour.

The question this week: Did Steve Stricker bring the fireworks?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Tiger talks about knee

During a conference call on Monday, Tiger Woods filled in some of the details about his knee problems that put a premature end to his 2008 season.

Woods said he still doesn’t know when he will return to competitive golf and won’t until he gets into his rehabilitation later this year. He said doctors have told him it could take between six and 12 months for him to fully recover.

Tiger said he’s had knee soreness the past 10 years because of the stress he puts on his knee in his swing. He said he’s worked to reduce the torque on the joint but the knee problems have been ongoing.

Woods said doctors told him when they removed a cyst from his knee in 2002 that his anterior cruciate ligament was more vulnerable to rupturing. To better support his knee, he worked hard on strengthening the muscles in his leg.

While running on a golf course last August, Woods said he took a slightly awkward step and felt his ACL rupture. “It didn’t take much,” he said. “Everyone was surprised it lasted as long as it did.”

He opted not to have reconstructive surgery at the time and focused on training to support his knee.

Woods said his knee “held up great” early in the year but became more unstable as the season went on. The natural rotation from his swing caused cartilage damage and his surgery after the Masters was intended to allow him to complete the 2008 season, then have reconstructive surgery.

He developed stress fractures, which caused him to miss The Memorial Tournament two weeks before the U.S. Open and the injury essentially shut down his practice time.

“It got to the point where I couldn’t walk to a cart. That’s not good when the cart is 10 feet away,” Woods said.

He couldn’t play more than nine holes in preparation for the Open and decided before the tournament that he would shut it down for the year after the championship, regardless of how he played. Of course, he won, proving that he can beat everyone else with just one good leg.

“It will be nice to finally have a healthy leg,” Woods said.