Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Show of faith keeps Rock Barn on tour schedule

When the 2010 Champions Tour schedule was released Tuesday afternoon, the first thing I looked for was to see if the Greater Hickory Classic at Rock Barn was on the list.

It is and it was a nice surprise.

There's no guarantee the tournament in Conover will be played next fall but the fact the tour put it on the schedule in late September/early October is a show of faith that Don Beaver, Jim Correll and the others who run the event will resolve the sponsorship issue that threatens the event's future.

"We are so close," Correll, the tournament's executive director, said. "It's one of those things where until we dot the final Is and cross the final Ts we're not quite there. But we're extremely optimistic."

There are bigger Champions Tour events played in larger markets but there's a nice feel to the Rock Barn event. It's comfortable, the players enjoy it and it celebrates the tour.

It's not trying to be the Quail Hollow Championship. It's succeeding in being a good place for the Champions Tour to spend a week each year, tell some stories, sign some autographs and play some golf.

It's a good thing to continue.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Former 49er golfer Murphy makes Q-school finals

Former Charlotte 49ers golfer Trevor Murphy moved one step closer to the PGA Tour Saturday when he played his way through the second stage of the qualifying process at Southern Hills Plantation Club in Brookville, Fla.

Murphy finished tied for 18th (69-73-67-71) in the second stage qualifier, earning a spot in the final stage which will be played Dec. 2-7 at Bear Lakes Country Club in West Palm Beach, Fla.

By reaching the final stage of Q-school, Murphy will have at least conditional status on the Nationwide Tour in 2010. Depending on how he plays in the final stage, Murphy could earn a PGA Tour card or full status on the Nationwide Tour.

Also advancing through the second stage were Charlotte resident Bobby MacWhinnie, former North Carolina golfers Tom Scherrer and Matt Davidson, along with former N.C. State golfer Chris Mundorf.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Quail Hollow Championship deserves its honor

When the Quail Hollow Championship was recognized this week as 'Best In Class' by the PGA Tour's Tournament Advisory Council it reinforced what many people already knew -- it's one of the premier events in professional golf.

What tournament director Kym Hougham, general chairman Mac Everett, Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and many others have done is create and sustain an event that gets it right in areas big and small.

It lands the best players in the world every spring because of the golf course, the hospitality and the vibe. It engages the community which, in turn, has embraced the tournament.

Talking with the tournament director of another top-level PGA Tour event recently, he gushed about all the things the Quail Hollow Championship has done so well. It has become a standard of excellence on the PGA Tour.

It would be easy to take it all for granted but the people in charge haven't done that. Each year they keep list of potential improvements and go to work on them immediately. They've scaled back in some places, upgraded in other areas.

Everett may have explained the philosophy best a couple of years ago when he said that unlike many businesses that immediately say no to any request then look for a reason to say yes, the Quail Hollow Championship tries to say yes and only says no when it must.

Each spring, it's Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and other the golfers who get the attention but the stars of the Quail Hollow Championship are the many people who make it happen.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Second-stage qualifying starts today

Second-stage qualifying for the PGA Tour begins today in six spots around the country, another step in the whittling process for players hoping to earn -- or retain -- their playing privileges on the PGA Tour.

The bonus for players who survive this 72-hole test is the promise of at least some status on the Nationwide Tour in 2010. The goal, though, is to get through this week then play for a tour card in early December.

Drew Weaver, the former British Amateur champion from High Point, is among the players trying to advance this week. So is Jay Haas Jr.

Trevor Murphy, the former Charlotte 49er, is playing as is Charlotte resident Trae Ely.

For some familiar tour players, it's a chance to get back out on tour. Among the familiar names in second-stage qualifying this week are Shaun Micheel, Jason Gore, Kirk Triplett, Joe Durant, Robert Gamez, Mark Hensby and Carlos Franco.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wie's win likely the first of many

Now that Michelle Wie has had a few hours to celebrate her first victory on the LPGA Tour -- the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, in case you haven't heard -- it's time to ask the next question:

How many more will she win?

Hopefully, many, many more.

Though Wie's victory was buried in a mid-November avalanche of football, it was a huge moment for the LPGA Tour, which needs her the way fish need water. In a year when most of its news has been negative, the LPGA Tour finally got the image it's needed -- Wie smiling and holding a trophy.

The 20-year old -- she didn't win as a teenager, it turns out -- can't solve all the LPGA's problems but she help minimize them. Professional golf is driven by stars. Just ask the PGA Tour about its muffled bang last year when Tiger Woods was on the shelf after knee surgery.

Wie is the biggest star on the LPGA tour. Ochoa may have a tournament named for her but Wie makes people pay attention. Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Jiyai Shin are talents with some personality but they're not Michelle Wie.

It took Wie 65 starts on the LPGA Tour to finally win. Is that longer than expected?


What does it mean?

It means she's just getting started. She's already been through the classic celebrity/sports cycle where she has been adored then criticized, tossed aside as a disapppointment and a bust.

Now she's back with a game that's growing up with her. Wie has refocused, concentrating on succeeding on the LPGA Tour rather than making the cut in a men's professional event. To me, a win on the LPGA Tour is far more impressive than making the cut at a PGA Tour event with a mediocre field would be.

Wie has already shown she can contend in major championships. What she hadn't shown was that she could win -- it had been years since she'd won a trophy of any kind -- an LPGA Tour event.

She proved that Sunday.

It's what Wie -- and the LPGA Tour -- needed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Rory McIlroy puts Quail Hollow on 2010 schedule

With the Quail Hollow Championship still six months away, it's a little early to get into the question of who's coming and who isn't but one star has already put the event on his schedule.

Rory McIlroy, the young Irish star, said in Hong Kong on Wednesday that he has joined the PGA Tour and will add the Quail Hollow Championship to his schedule.

McIlroy will play eight straight events in the United States starting with the WGC-Accenture Match Play Champinship in March.

"The big fact in making this decision is that I want to play in the best tournaments in the world," McIlroy was quoted in the Irish Examiner. "I've already played in many of those (PGA Tour events) already and the only events new to me next year will be Bay Hill, Quail Hollow and the Memorial."

McIlroy is considered by many to be the game's next superstar and his 2009 performance strengthened those opinions. McIlroy finished tied for third at the PGA Championship, a fourth-place week at the HSBC Championship in Shanghai and a top-10 finish at the U.S. Open.

McIlroy said the European Tour will continue to be his home tour. He will play eight events in the States during the spring, return to Europe in the summer, then come back to the U.S. in advance of the PGA Championship to meet his 15-event minimum in the U.S.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Has it become Phil's show, not Tiger's?

Has Phil Mickelson supplanted Tiger Woods as the best golfer in the world?

I'm not ready to go that far.

But after the way Mickelson won The Tour Championship and how he left Tiger in his dust in Shanghai over the weekend, there's no question Lefty is right there.

This is the Mickelson we've seen in spurts, the Mickelson brimming with confidence and swagger. He stands over putts now expecting to make them, not hoping to make them and, if you've ever played golf, you know the difference is enormous.

When Dave Stockton tweaked Mickelson's putting stroke earlier in the fall, it was like polishing a diamond. He put Mickelson back where he was comfortable, the hole suddenly looked twice as big and the game became, relatively speaking, easier.

The only downside to Mickelson's resurgence is the timing. He's done now for the year, just as he's hit his peak. Usually, Phil has been long gone by this time of the year, ready for vacation. Now he probably wishes he had another few tournaments to play.

There may be a little rust when he comes back next year but I'm thinking this latest run has reinvigorated him. He posed with Tiger after the Tour Championship, having won that event, and his win in the HSBC event over the weekend was made more noteworthy by the way Tiger went backward on Sunday.

The question isn't whether Phil can beat Tiger right now.

It may be whether Tiger has lost something. He was a mess early in the final round, lipping out putts, hitting a shot in the water, chopping his way out of contention on a Sunday stacked with stars.

Maybe his edge has dulled just a little. It's easy to make too much of the fact that Tiger didn't win a major this year. That's going to happen from time to time but because everything he does is overanalyzed, it raised questions.

Where does Tiger go from here? My guess is he keeps doing what he's been doing, grinding to make himself better, sorting out the little things that kept him from winning this year. There will be calls for him to ditch Hank Haney but that seems unlikely.

He didn't play well on Sunday and it was striking because it so rarely happens. Throw in the fact he lost to Heath Slocum in a playoff event and didn't win at East Lake and eyebrows go up.

Tiger is playing again this week in Australia and everybody will be interested to see how that goes.

Maybe not everyone. It may not matter to Mickelson.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A red flag but what does it mean?

When it was announced recently that Doug Barron had earned the distinction of becoming the first PGA Tour player to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs, it drew an interesting reaction.

There wasn't much of one.

It's probably because only die-hard professional golf fans are familiar with Barron -- he hasn't spent many Sunday afternoons on camera -- and what's left of the golf season has been buried beneath the World Series, pro and college football and the ongoing angst surrounding the break-up of Jon and Kate.

Once the Tour and its players decided to have testing, it was inevitable someone would be red-flagged. That it was Barron, who didn't make a cut in four Nationwide and one PGA Tour start this year, came as a mild surprise. But given the tour's general insistence that there is no PED problem, it would be head-turning regardless of whose name first popped up.

Barron, if you don't know, is a 40-year old whose game has gone away. He's made less than $2,000 in his last 16 starts and breaking par has been as difficult for him as it is for the average 10-handicap.

The tour and Barron were suitably vague in announcing the positive test and the suspension that accompanies the result. No one's saying what Barron tested positive for and it's unlikely anyone will.

If you were expecting the drug testing policy to expose some muscle-bound bomber you're disappointed. Barron looks like a lot of 40-year old guys who haven't spent enough time in the gym.

He's had health problems, say people who know him. Maybe that factors into the positive test.

What does it say about professional golf? Not much. If someone wants to avoid detection, there are ways to do it.

If there's a problem with performance enhancing drugs in professional golf, I'd be surprised. Commissioner Tim Finchem initially wasn't for drug testing because he said, in essence, there was no need.

Barron's case doesn't necessarily validate the testing. It hardly moved the public opinion needle. It's the first positive test since the program began more than a year ago.

If it were someone else, the reaction would probably be different. So might the attention.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Ten years old, Carolina Invitational still strong

For 10 years, the Carolina Invitational four-ball tournament at Carolina Golf Club has been true to its mission.

The idea was to create a fall event that would feature many of the best players in the region, playing as two-man teams, on a golf course originally laid out by Donald Ross.

It isn't played with a lot of fanfare. It's more about the golf, the competition and the fun.

But if you can wrangle an invitation to the Carolina Invitational, bring your A game.

The 10th annual tournament Saturday and Sunday at Carolina is stacked with good players. The average team handicap -- yes, average -- is + .15. There's no room for choppers, unless you're former U.S. Amateur finalist David Strawn, whose nickname is Chopper.

Strawn is in the field along with defending champions Michael Teague and Robby Kirby. Joe Jaspers, one of the top players in the Charlotte area for years, is playing as is former pro Brett Boner and many others.

What began a decade ago as a tournament designed to bring together the best players in the area continues to do that.