Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Best Of The Best: Ranking The All-Time No. 1 Players

   With Luke Donald supplanting Lee Westwood as the No. 1 player in the world golf rankings this week, it got me to thinking about who have been the best of the best since the rankings began 25 years ago.

   Donald became the 15th player to be ranked No. 1, remarkably none of them named Phil Mickelson. Here's my top five No.1 players in the Official World Golf Rankings era:

  1. Tiger Woods

    What a shock. He's spent 623 weeks at No. 1, which equals 11.9 years. He may never be No. 1 again but he owned it for more than a decade, almost as much as everyone else combined.

  2. Greg Norman

    It's almost easy now to forget how big and dominant Norman was for a long time. He occupied No. 1 for 331 weeks with a game that was almost as big as his personality and image.

   3. Nick Faldo

   He was bigger in Europe than he was in the States because he played more there but Faldo -- long before we knew he could be funny -- was a classic grinder. He kept giving himself chances in major championships and wound up with six of them.

   4. Seve Ballesteros

    He was No. 1 for 61 weeks but the rankings came along during the back-half of his prime. At his best, Seve was unlike anyone else, both in his style and his game.

   5. Vijay Singh

    He bumped Tiger off his throne a few years back, which was a monumental achievement. He won nine times in 2004 when he overtook Tiger and is the PGA Tour's best ever in his 40s.

   If you're wondering, the other No. 1 ranked players are Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam, Fred Couples, Nick Price, Tom Lehman, Ernie Els, David Duval and Martin Kaymer, as well as Westwood and Donald.

High School Golfer's Good Deed Gets The SI Treatment

   Jonathan Price, the sophomore at Granville Central High who intentionally lost a playoff so his friend and teammate Michael Pope could play in the state high school championship earlier this spring, has written a short first-person story for Sports Illustrated's Golf Plus section this week.

   Price also spoke recently at Old Chatham Golf Club's annual black-tie dinner after news of his unselfishness spread.

    It was Price who had a six-inch putt to advance to the state tournament but, while standing over the clinching putt, decided to give his friend a chance to play in the tournament instead because Pope was a senior and wouldn't have another chance.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Eger Keeps Getting Better

   For a guy who spent a good portion of his adult life setting up championship courses for both the PGA Tour and the USGA, David Eger came within a eyelash Sunday of the biggest victory of his golf career.

   Eger, who lives part-time in Charlotte, was beaten by Tom Watson Sunday on the first hole of sudden death at the PGA Senior Championship at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky. Eger, 59, could look at his failure to birdie the par-5 18th hole in regulation -- he missed a five-foot birdie putt -- and again in the playoff -- when he hit his tee shot in a bad spot in a fairway bunker -- as the critical missed opportunities.

   Still, after shooting 74 in the opening round and taking advantage of a good final round on a breezy, difficult day, Eger had only minimal regrets. He hit a poor putt on the 72nd hole and, judging by his post-round comments, that's the one that will linger with him.

   But for a guy who was hobbling around on a broken ankle last summer, it's been a terrific year. Eger teamed with Mark McNulty to win the Legends of Golf title in Savannah last month and had a chance to win his first major championship on Sunday. Not bad for a guy who decided at age 48 to give professional golf a try after watching it from close range for so many years.

   "So just like Dana Quigley or Allen Doyle or Jay Siegel or even John Harris, it's the ultimate mulligan in life for a golfer to be able to come out here and play and play reasonably well at times and compete with the likes of Tom Watson and Hale Irwin and wonderful great players who I watched from a golf cart for years and years win tournaments and championships," Eger told reporters in Louisville.

   "It's not a bad feeling. I'm comfortable in my own skin."

Friday, May 27, 2011

Are You Man Enough To Step Forward?

   You know the type:

   Guys (no offense ladies but this seems to be a male ego issue) who insist on playing the back tees whenever and wherever they play golf. It doesn't matter that their handicap and shoe size match, they're taking it to the tips because that's what they think real golfers do.

   It's a macho thing, like 8.5-degree drivers for guys who should be hitting 10.5 drivers.

   I understand if it's a one-time thing, like trying to play Quail Hollow from the tournament tees or Carmel Country Club's newly redesigned South Course from its full 7,500 yards just once for the experience. But Rees Jones, who redesigned the South Course, said he stretched Carmel to 7,500 yards to allow flexibility in setting tees from one day to the next, not so the course would actually play that long.

   Jones pointed out that Congressional Country Club, host of the U.S. Open next month, measures more than 7,400 yards but will play closer to 7,200 for the Open.

   But back to the point of this. The USGA and the PGA of America recently announced an initiative called 'Tee It Forward' designed to get more golfers to play from shorter tees, not longer tees. The idea is to make the maddening game more enjoyable for everyone, even those of us who are too stubborn to move up one set of markers.

   The big push is July 5-17 but the organizations are rolling out the campaign details now.

   "The idea is to make golf more fun," Allen Wronowski, president of the PGA of America, said.

   If that's the goal, then maybe he can fix my short game.

   By moving up a set of tees, Wronowski and others in the golf establishment are saying, players will have more fun. Hitting a 7-iron into a green is more fun than hitting a hybrid, at least in theory anyway.

   Jack Nicklaus is on board. He thinks golfers should play shorter tees. He also thinks the golf ball should be rolled back so it doesn't go so far, which he's absolutely right about but which will probably never happen.

   Barney Adams, the clubmaker, has been pushing the idea of playing shorter tees for a while and he's on to something. Whether it catches on is a different question.

   Most of us don't hit it as far as we think we do unless there's a cart path involved. We see a 6,700-yard golf course and think that's fair enough. According to research by people who are better with computers than me, a 6,700-yard course for most of us is like an 8,100-yard course for the pros.

   I'll save you the trouble -- the pros don't play anything within a long-par 5 of 8,100 yards, if you could even find one.

  If you drive it 300 on average (come on now, you know you don't), it's fine to play from 7,150 yards to 7,400 yards.

   If you hit it 250 off the tee (don't make me do a Bushnell test to find out if you're telling the truth) you should play from 6,200 yards to 6,400 yards. Bet you play longer courses than that. I do.

   If you average 225, you need to be playing from up front at 5,800 yards, maybe 6,000. That's not me saying it, it's the guys who've studied it. I'm just saying...but they might be onto something.

   And, if you average 150 off the tee, you need to be playing tennis.

  These are only guidelines. In golf, you can pick your poison, most places anyway. In Scotland, they tell you which tees to play, based on your handicap. Not a bad idea. Plus, they can play 18 holes before we've reached the 14th tee over here.

    A quick round of golf. That's fun.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Golf, Charlotte Lose A Friend In Norman Swenson

Norman Swenson, one of the great golf characters around here for years, died in recently on plane flight home from a golf trip to South Korea.

Swenson played college golf at Wake Forest in the 1960s and lived on the 16th hole at Carmel Country Club’s South Course for many years. He and his family had moved from Charlotte and split their time between the North Carolina mountains and a home in Florida. His daughter, Perry, played collegiately at Texas and co-hosted a show on The Golf Channel about Myrtle Beach.

In addition to being an excellent amateur player, Norman Swenson had a world-class collection of golf memorabilia.

“Norman was one of the true ambassadors of golf,” his friend, Xan Law, said. “He was so generous taking people to play at Pine Valley and on other golf trips. He was one of those rare golfers who got better with age. He’ll really be missed.”

Monday, May 23, 2011

Is The Belly Putter In My Future?

   I'm thinking about the belly putter.

   Just thinking about it, not going there. Not yet anyway.

   I know that listening to someone else talk about their golf game is as much fun as long bunker shots but indulge me for a moment. Maybe you've been where I am today.

   Then again, how many of you have three-putted seven times in 18 holes in a tournament like I did Sunday? That didn't include the 18-incher I also missed.

   If I'm going to continue playing, I'm going to get behind the push to go to 15-inch wide cups like the ones they used at Pine Needles earlier this year to see how much better people played. Not only did it speed the game along, players made more putts, there were more smiles and no one was the worse for it.

   It's a helpless feeling when you're standing over a putt with your mind doing a Google search for a new swing thought. You know what it's like: That didn't work so let's try this. Hmmm, that didn't work either. What about...

   I knew this was coming. I wrote a blog last fall about how nice it was to be a good putter again. Six-footers were opportunities, not evil teases. I was making more than my share of 15-footers and it showed in my scores.

   Todd Smith, a superb teacher and a friend of mine, had given me a simple suggestion and it worked -- for several months. Now that simple suggestion has gone the way of eight-track tapes.

   With the likelihood of 15-inch cups being adopted any time soon by the USGA, I've asked Todd to try and work his magic one more time. There's a member-member event coming up at Cedarwood where I play in a couple of weeks. The way I'm putting, it could do serious damage to a friendship.

   And I'm not ready to go shopping for a belly putter.

  Not yet, anyway.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Golf's Summer To-Do List: The First Five

   It's not exactly like a New Year's resolution but now that we've hit full golf season around here, I've concocted a list of five things golfers need to do this summer. It's just a start. I'll do another list of five later and if you have suggestions, feel free to pass them along.

  1. Play in at least one tournament.
    It's one thing to play golf with your buddies, it's something else when they put the pencil in your hand and tell you to putt them out. Some people thrive on competition. Others, not so much.

    If you haven't played tournament golf in a while, do it again. It's amazing how much attention you'll start paying to those 18-inch tap-ins.

  2. Play with seven clubs rather than 14

   You can pick which clubs you leave in your car's trunk but take half of them out of your bag for one round. It will force you to hit different kinds of shots.

   If you're like me, you've probably got five or six clubs in mind you'd like to take out permanently. My hybrid, for example, would not make the seven-club cut. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver are getting along better than my hybrid and I these days.

  3. Practice putting

   Rolling a few putts before a round doesn't qualify as practicing your putting. If you practice at all, you probably bang balls and avoid the putting green. It should be the other way around.

   I know that and you know that. Of course, they tell us cheeseburgers are bad for us, too, but that doesn't change our habits.

  4. Walk nine holes late in the day

   It's the prettiest time on a golf course. If you don't want to carry your bag, you can pull a cart but walk, don't ride. Just this once.

   5. Don't wear those ugly shorts

   You know the ones I'm talking about. Everybody has a pair but, really, it's time to let them go.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Changes Coming To Golf Club At Ballantyne

   The eighth hole at the Golf Club at Ballantyne is being reworked and will have a new green when the project is completed in late July.

   The par-4 eighth hole has been among the most challenging holes at the course, particularly its green which runs diagonally behind a creek. The project will enlarge and relocate the green, providing more options for hole locations and for players approaching the putting surface.

   A new tee is also being built behind the existing tee, a fairway bunker is being added and another is being extended.

   Also, the par-4 second hole is getting a new tee, which will make the hole more of a dogleg.

   Play will not be disrupted during the project.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

UNC's Inman Eyeing Champions Tour

After 13 seasons as the men’s golf coach at North Carolina, John Inman is going back to work on his own game.

Inman resigned his coaching duties recently and with his 50th birthday less than two years away, the former PGA Tour player is planning to give seniors golf a try. Inman, who won twice on tour in his 12-year career, nearly qualified for the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks ago, losing the final spot in a playoff.

“My whole life has been around professional golf and I love to compete and play at a high level,” Inman said. “You don’t forget how to play and how to compete. But if I’m going to have an opportunity at the Champions Tour, I need to be ready.”

Inman became the first man to win the ACC golf championship as both a player (1982) and a coach (2006). In his tenure with the Tar Heels, Inman led his team to 16 tournament titles and five top-20 end of the year rankings.

He’s staying connected to the North Carolina program for six months, helping with the construction of a new clubhouse at Finley Golf Course while the school searches for his successor. Leaving North Carolina, Inman said, is bittersweet.

“I feel a little bit of everything,” Inman said. “Anything you’ve done for a long time and put your heart and soul into, when you leave there are a lot of different feelings. I enjoyed working with the guys and seeing them reach the next level.

“But it’s a demanding job and it takes a lot of work, effort and some luck. It’s kind of like playing professional golf. All the things have to go right for you.”

Monday, May 16, 2011

Choi Wins, Toms Doesn't And The 17th Keeps Us Watching Again

  Thoughts on The Players Championship:

   -- It was great to see K.J. Choi win Sunday. He doesn't have the profile and popularity of some players but he's been a quality player for a long time who is respected and admired on multiple levels. He's always been an excellent ball-striker but hasn't been a great putter. There were moments Sunday when it looked like the putter might cost him again but he made enough. Good for him.

  -- It's almost a cliche but it's better to see a guy win a tournament than to have someone lose it. David Toms' late miss, while not totally unexpected, was disappointing. The birdie he made to force the playoff was big time and to turn around and let it get away the way he did was unfortunate.

  -- Every year there's the debate about whether the 17th hole at the Stadium Course is gimmicky. Of course it's  gimmicky but that's part of its charm. I've already had two people who don't normally watch golf on television talk about watching The Players because they like to see the pros playing the 17th hole. And it still takes its victims.

   -- I didn't see Graeme McDowell's meltdown coming. I figured he was the likely winner when the final round started but, under the gun, his swing didn't hold up. It may next time but under pressure, new swings (McDowell has just tweaked his) tend to revert to old habits. It was tough to watch.

  -- Still wondering what happened to the new generation of stars at The Players....


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Tiger WDs At Players Championship; What's Next?

   Tiger Woods' withdrawal today after shooting 42 on his first nine holes at The Players Championship is one more chapter in the story that keeps swirling.

    It's apparent that Tiger's knee/Achilles issue hasn't healed which raises the long-term question about what's next for him. The U.S. Open is five weeks away. That's the target. Whether he gets there, it's too soon to know.

   The PGA Tour suits have to be cringing. This is the second straight year Tiger has pulled out at Ponte Vedra and, before lunchtime on Thursday, the tournament is without Woods, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy.

  It's too early to know much about Tiger's situation and he's not one to share everything anyway. My guess is he went to The Players with some question about whether he was physically ready and he got the answer in a hurry. At 35, what used to heal quickly takes more time.

 Who knows what's next.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What's It Say About The Players That Westwood, McIlroy Aren't There?

   With world No. 1 Lee Westwood and No. 6 Rory McIlroy bypassing The Players Championship this week at the famous TPC Stadium Course, does it say more about them or about the tournament?

   It says something about both.

   As for Westwood and McIlroy's highly publicized absences, it has the feel of a political ploy designed to point out the problems with limiting the number of PGA Tour events non-members can play each year. Westwood made that clear by skipping The Players despite having a game built to win at the tricked-up but fun to watch Stadium Course.

    McIlroy can point to his two visits to The Players and his two missed cuts as evidence that the course doesn't suit his often otherworldly game. He has the facts in his favor but it's hard to believe there's a course to which McIlroy can't adapt his game.

   Both players share the same agent, Chubby Chandler, and he seems to be making a point to the folks in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.. about limitning non-members to 10 events a year. That may work for the rank and file but it's my feeling that if you're in, say, the top 40 in the world, you should be free to play where you want.

   The idea is to get the best players on the course as often as possible. Let more scheduling freedom be one of the perks of a high world ranking. Having Westwood and McIlroy there this week would make a special week even better.

   But how special is The Players Championship?

   It's one of the biggest tournaments in the world. It's not a major championship and it never will be but it doesn't have to be a major. It's great being what it is.

   I think it woudl be better if it were moved back to the latter part of March when it used to be played but that's not likely to happen. The way it fits now, there's a big event from April through August now, allowing players to point to peak moments. That's what Tiger's always talking about and it's why he's at the Stadium Course this week -- because the U.S. Open is just over a month away.

   The Players Championship has its own traditions and, love it or hate it, the 17th hole demands you pay attention.

   It's a huge week -- with or without Westwood and McIlroy.

Monday, May 09, 2011

The Best Sunday Finish At Quail Hollow

In its nine years, the Wells Fargo Championship has given us a thick scrapbook of memorable moments. What it gave us this year was the best finish in tournament history.

Here are my five top Sundays at the Wells Fargo Championship:

1. 2011

It had a little of everything, starting with Phil Mickelson making some early birdies then it had the lead ping-ponging back and forth among a handful of players.

There was the rules issue with Padraig Harrington, sending him back to the 13th tee to determine if he’d hit from in front of the tee markers; there was Rory Sabbatini’s charge while facing a possible suspension from the PGA Tour; and, there was Charlotte-born Bill Haas chasing a victory.

The way it ended, with Clemson brothers Lucas Glover and Jonathan Byrd in a playoff forced by Byrd’s spectacular 72nd hole birdie capped a terrific day.

2. 2010

Rory McIlroy’s closing 62 last year was so spectacular and so far beyond what anyone thought was possible at Quail Hollow that it echoed around the globe.

It cemented McIlroy’s international stardom with his first PGA Tour victory and his run of six straight threes to close the round won’t be duplicated. It was pure magic.

3. 2005

A playoff with Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia and Jim Furyk, that’s a pretty good threesome.

It was a Sunday when Garcia started with a six-stroke lead and shot even-par 72 but it wasn’t enough.

4. 2007

Tiger Woods won in Charlotte after struggling over the final nine holes. Steve Stricker had a chance to tie him until he hit his tee shot under a tree on the 16th hole.

Two memories stand out from Tiger’s victory:

The long eagle putt he made on the seventh hole to build his lead and the way he rifled his golf ball down the fairway after holing the winning putt.


On a rainy Sunday, Jim Furyk made an eight-foot par putt on the 72nd hole to force a sudden-death playoff with Trevor Immelman then he won the championship by holing a six-footer on the same green on the first extra hole. It was a measure of redemption for Furyk, who had lost in a playoff the year before.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Now That's The Way To Finish A Golf Tournament

For a moment Sunday afternoon, about the time everybody coming to the Mother’s Day matinee at the Wells Fargo Championship had arrived, Jonathan Byrd had a four-stroke lead and the chance to siphon the juice out of the warm springtime air.

Then – right after everyone put their caps back on after taking a moment to honor the late Seve Ballesteros -- things got crazy in a Rory Sabbatini, Fear The Beard, Let’s Go To The Video kind of way.

By now, you know how it ended, with Lucas Glover beating his buddy Jonathan Byrd on the first hole of sudden death but getting there was all the fun.

There was a time, though, when it appeared any one of several other players might win. Bill Haas had a chance. Kevin Na had a chance. Until he faded late, Andres Romero looked like he could win without ever having a shot of his televised.

Then Sabbatini arrived, all big hat and attitude, throwing birdies on the board like they were spitballs. Sabbatini is rumored to be facing a PGA Tour suspension for letting his temper get the best of him a couple of times and the possibility of him rolling into the tour’s headquarters this week having just won a big-time event was amusing.

When Sabo birdied 14, 15 and 16 to get a share of the lead, it became a serious possibility. But Sabbatini said, “One short” when he headed to the scoring room after his round and he was right.

While Sabbatini was finishing, Padraig Harrington was being accused of hitting his tee shot on the par-3 13th hole from in front of the markers necessitating a sudden, intense investigation.

A marshal was said to have reported the breach and pretty soon, Harrington and his playing partner, Phil Mickelson were back on the 13th tee studying divots the way David Caruso studies evidence on ‘CSI: Sunglasses.’ After a lengthy review, it was determined that nothing had been determined and, therefore, Harrington was absolved of any guilt.

Harrington is one of the game’s great gentlemen and it was nice to see the relief on his face when the decision had been rendered.

Finally, it came down to a pair of Clemson guys trying to beat each other while keeping their fans in line.

Every time Byrd would hit a tee shot, a few of his fans would shout ‘J-Byrd’ in their football-game voices. Living in tony Sea Island, Ga., as he does, Byrd doesn’t get that every day but he went to Clemson so he understands.

Then there was Glover, who was trailed by a group of guys wearing home-made ‘Fear The Beard’ t-shirts. The good news is they were better than Glover feared they might be when he was told to stay out of the garage where his hosts were making their wardrobe.

By sundown Sunday, Glover was wearing a new navy blazer, one of his prizes for winning a Wells Fargo Championship that looked just great with his beard.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Mickelson Goes The Wrong Way

   Observations as we head into the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship:

  -- I keep believing Phil Mickelson will win this tournament one day but it's not going to happen this year. Mickelson played himself out of the tournament Saturday afternoon by shooting 74, depositing two more golf balls into water hazards around Quail Hollow. That's five water balls this week if you're keeping score at home.

    As sharp as Mickelson looked Friday, he was that ragged Saturday. It happens but I didn't expect to see it happen Saturday. Maybe he can shoot 62 in the final round the way Rory McIlroy did last year but even that may not be enough.

  -- Neither Stewart Cink nor Lucas Glover has won a tournament since they won their respective majors in 2009, Glover at the U.S. Open and Cink at the British Open. Both have a chance to snap their streaks today.

    --  The soft conditions have led to lower than normal scoring but things get different on Sunday afternoon. Still, with as many players as are gathered in striking distance, it's going to take a really low round from the winner. Both are emerging on the bright side of swing changes.

  -- The gallery at Quail Hollow Saturday seemed as large as I've ever seen at the tournament and why not. With ideal temperatures, a little breeze and a good tournament, it was a perfect day to be at Quail Hollow. Tournament officials expect the attendance to decline a bit on Sunday, understanding it's Mother's Day.


Remembering Seve Ballesteros

   As the memories of Seve Ballesteros come rushing back, wrapped in the sadness of his passing, three images come to me.

   The first is of seeing him win the 1980 Masters, watching up close his magic. Part of it was the golf but more of it was who he was. He had that almost indefinable but undeniable aura that radiated from him.

   He was the kind of guy the movies would make up but he was the real thing. He played golf with a rare passion. It didn't hurt that he was handsome, dark-haired and fiery. Watching Ballesteros could be spell-binding because there was an almost untamed element to his golf.

    Seve would hit it in places few others would and then dazzle us with his ability to save par or make a birdie from the ragged edge.

    The second image is of a photograph taken years ago that showed Ballesteros shaking hands with his long-time Ryder Cup partner and fellow Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal after winning another match. They were silouetted in profile and the image of Ballesteros, jaw jutted forward and leaning into the handshake, captured the essence of Seve's competitive fire.

   Finally, I remember standing on  the 10th tee at the K Club in 2006 during the Ryder Cup matches. Like the hundreds packed into the grandstands around the tee, I was waiting for a match to reach the 10th hole.

   Quietly, Seve walked onto the back of the tee, standing beside a wall by himself. Gradually, the gallery noticed Ballesteros and began cheering, finally giving him a standing ovation.

   That's what he meant to golf, particularly European golf. We didn't see enough of him here but we saw enough to know -- and to remember now -- Ballesteros had a rare brilliance.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Perez Has The Look Of A Guy Who Can Keep It Going

   Thoughts on the Wells Fargo Championship at the halfway point:

  -- Pat Perez sounds very confident, having undergone a major swing reconstuction that has him bombing the ball again. He's also rediscovered an old putter that's brought back some old magic so he'll be a formidable force this weekend.

   The guy has made 18 birdies in 36 holes. He won't keep making them that fast but when Perez gets going, he can go low. He's fought his temper in the past. That could be his biggest challenge.

  -- There's a distinct ACC feel to the leader board. Clemson has Jonathan Byrd and Lucas Glover near the front, Wake Forest has Bill Haas and Webb Simpson, N.C. State has Carl Pettersson and Georgia Tech has Stewart Cink and North Carolina's Davis Love III isn't that far back.

  -- Phil Mickelson got his competitive groove back Thursday afternoon and rolled it into Friday morning. The 66 he shot in the second round looked easy and it could have been a handful of shots lower. He's been close here so often, you know this is one he'd really like to win. Saturday will determine if this is the year or not.

  -- With a SubAir system under the greens at Quail Hollow, I expect they'll have the blowers working all night to pull as much moisture as possible out of the putting surfaces. They don't mind guys shooting good scores at Quail Hollow but they know the greens need to have some fire to have the course where they want it.

  -- You could see the disappointment on Rory McIlroy's face after missing the cut Friday afternoon. He was grinding until the end and made a couple of late bogeys when he had to force the issue.


Storm Sneaks In Then Slides Away

   When the first rumble of thunder was heard at Quail Hollow this morning, a PGA Tour official on the fifth tee told Jim 'Bones' Mackay, Phil Mickelson's caddie, that the storm was about 13 miles away.

   Mackay wasn't thrilled.

   There was no umbrella in Mickelson's bag.

   The good news is the horn sounded moments later and players and caddies were whisked away before a brief downpour drenched the golf course. The storm seemed to sneak up on everyone not sitting by a weather radar.

   It was a nice, soft morning -- perfect for the kind of low score Mickelson was putting together -- and suddenly it turned gray, cool and noisy.

  The good news is the weather has come and gone -- at least for the time being -- with only a minor delay to the action.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Phil's New Toy, Fowler's Start and More

   Observations from the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship:

   -- The most surprising thing about the first day was Rory McIlroy's 75, which was as sloppy as the score suggested. McIlroy said he fought his timing throughout the round, never getting comfortable with his swing and he paid the price for it.

    He'll need a very good round Friday afternoon -- at least 68 I'm guessing -- to make the cut. Losing him after two days would be both a surprise and a disappointment.

  -- Phil Mickelson has a new 2-iron in his bag this week. It has a thick, blocky sole but  he can scald his new toy from Callaway.

     Mickelson shook off a sluggish start and played his way into good position as the first round unfolded. With an early tee time in the second round, Mickelson has a chance to jump up the board in a hurry.

  -- Rickie Fowler likes Quail Hollow. He finished sixth last year in his first trip here and he opened with a 68 Thursday. If you believe in trends, Fowler would follow in the pattern of dynamic young champions that started with Anthony Kim and included Sean O'Hair and McIlroy.

   -- No surprise that the par-3 17th hole played as the most difficult on Thursday. It averaged 3.417, barely edging the par-4 12th as the toughest hole. One of the next three days, look for the tees to be moved forward on the 17th hole, letting players hit 6 and 7-irons into the green, softening some of its potential bite.

  -- Lucas Glover is looking for a good week. He doesn't have a top-10 finish this year but the 67 he shot Thursday -- despite a sick stomach -- was an encouraging sign. He's been working through a swing adjustment and personal issues for a few months and is due to have a breakout performance.


Five Questions As The Wells Fargo Championship Begins

   Five questions as the Wells Fargo Championship begins:

  1. How much fun was it having Arnold Palmer play the pro-am?

     That will be remembered for a long time. It didn't matter that Arnie didn't finish every hole. What mattered was that he was here, wearing a pink shirt, and he's still Arnie after all these years.

  2. How tough will Quail Hollow play?

   It will be about like always. They don't set it up to be overly hard. The goal isn't to have the winner shoot 5-under par. Something about 12-under is ideal. It means fans get to see plenty of birdies and guys who play well are rewarded.

  3. What should we expect from Phil Mickelson?

   He's been off for three weeks, two of which he didn't play any golf at home or on vacation. He said he's spent some time with Dave Stockton and Dave Pelz, who work on his putting and short game, so maybe that's sharp.

    Mickelson has done almost everything but win here. Maybe this is his year.

  4. How much fun is Bryan Bigley having?

    He must be having a blast. Most weeks he's mowing greens at Raintree. This week he's driving a silver Merecedes and teeing it up against the best in the world. Making the cut should be one goal. The goal should be to soak in as much as he can from this week.

   5. Who's going to win?

    After a run of three straight young-gun winners, it may swing this year. My top three picks are:

  -- Phil Mickelson
  -- Dustin Johnson
  -- Rory McIlroy

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Bubba On Tiger: "(He's) Going The Wrong Way"

   Bubba Watson isn't one for swing coaches or sports psychologists.

   And he thinks Tiger Woods may be better off simplifying his approach to golf.

   "I'll just go ahead and say it, I think Tiger is going the wrong way," Watson said today at Quail Hollow. "I think he's so mental right now with his swing.

   "Just go out there and play golf. He used to hit shots, used to bomb it, used to do all that stuff. In 2000 and '97 I think he did pretty good. He won the Masters by 48 shots or whatever he won it by. But I think sometimes he gets carried away on that."

   Woods, of course, is transforming his swing with the help of coach Sean Foley. Watson, meanwhile, has won three times in the past year, doing it in his own unique way. It wouldn't work for everyone but it's working for Bubba.

Harris Anticipates One-Year Extension For Wells Fargo Event

Quail Hollow Club president Johnny Harris said today he anticipates a one-year extension to the current contract between the club, Wells Fargo and the PGA Tour to extend the event through 2015.

The contract expires in 2014 and there have been questions about what happens to the event with the PGA Championship scheduled in 2017 at Quail Hollow.

“As we go forward in preparation for 2017, the one year that sort of isn’t decided is 2015,” Harris said.

“With the success we’re having with the tournament and the enthusiasm Wells Fargo has for this event now, I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t have the opportunity in the not too distant future to discuss a one-year extension that gets us through 2015.

“Long-term, we don’t know what happens after the PGA Championship but we look forward to that too. We want to continue to bring the best players in the world to Charlotte. That’s what this tournament is about.”

Harris said a variety of options will be considered when officials gather to decide what will happen long-term to the Wells Fargo Championship. Harris has said the tournament won’t be played at Quail Hollow in 2016 and 2017 so changes can be made to the course in preparation for the PGA Championship.

That doesn’t mean, however, the tournament will go away entirely. It could be moved for two years.

“You have to figure out who is going to be the sponsor of the tournament. It would be unusual for it not to involve a lot of the same people who are here,” Harris said.

“There’s been a great deal of discussion, not so much between us and the PGA but other people interested in golf about where you might play and keeping it in North Carolina.

“We’ll certainly have some discussions about some of the local courses here. You also have a wonderful opportunity to go to the best golf course in North Carolina. I think we could go to (Pinehurst owner) Bob Dedman and those guys at Pinehurst and maybe play there. That would be a great change and you’d be absolutely assured of a great field. That might be an alternative.

“You don’t want to go into anybody else’s backyard. I don’t think it would negatively affect Bobby Long’s tournament in Greensboro and we don’t want to do anything that affects the Heritage. In fact, we want to help everybody.”

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Simpson Trying To Look Forward After Rules Issue

Two days removed from a rules violation that resulted in a one-stroke penalty that played a major role in denying him his first PGA Tour victory, Webb Simpson is trying to look forward.

But with USGA officials admitting on Monday that golf officials are considering revising the rule that cost Simpson, the issue won’t quickly go away.

“Somebody told me they had already been thinking about making a change to it. I don’t know what’s going on but I’d obviously be on the petition list,” Simpson said Tuesday after playing a practice round at the Wells Fargo Championship.

Simpson had a one-stroke lead on the 15th hole in the final round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans when his ball moved on the green as he prepared to tap-in a short putt. Simpson’s putter didn’t touch the ball but under the rules, a player is penalized if he is deemed to have addressed the ball and it moves.

Tom O’Toole, vice president of the United States Golf Association, said rules officials from the USGA and the Royal & Ancient in Scotland, the game’s two ruling bodies, have been considering a change to that rule for months.

If it’s clear that the ball moved due to wind or gravity, not because of the player, there would be no penalty if the new rule is adopted. O’Toole said Monday the rule could be amended in the coming months.

It won’t change the effect on Simpson, who lost the tournament to his friend Bubba Watson on the second playoff hole. Simpson said he has tried not to dwell on what happened.

“I’m a big believer that God has a plan for me and before I teed off he knew every shot I was going to take. Knowing that gave me great peace,” Simpson said.

“It still stung but I knew it was already written. I’ve always tried to have the mindset that whatever happens, try to learn something from it, even if it’s a bad thing. If you learn something from it, it’s going to help you in the future. We’ll take that and see how it can make me better.”

Monday, May 02, 2011

Bigley Goes From Mowing Fairways To The PGA Tour

Bryan Bigley mows fairways, rakes bunker and cuts greens at Raintree Country Club while keeping his golf game sharp enough to think about what could be.

The course maintenance worker gets his big chance this week after winning the final spot in the field for the Wells Fargo Championship by capturing a sudden-death playoff Monday in the qualifying event at Carolina Golf Club.

Bigley was one of four players to shoot 4-under par 66 and his birdie-birdie performance in sudden-death earned him the final spot, keeping North Carolina golf coach John Inman out of the tournament.

Kyle Thompson (64), Willie Wood (65) and Lanto Griffin (65) also earned spots in the field at Quail Hollow this week.

“You need to catch a break and this is a break. Who knows where it can lead?” Bigley said Monday night.

A former college golfer at Siena, Bigley has worked for three years at Raintree. His father is a course superintendent in Albany, N.Y., and Bigley has been taking care of golf courses since he was 14. He plays some mini-tour events when he can but Monday was only his third competitive event of the year.

He played with long-time PGA Tour players Eric Axley and Ted Purdy during the qualifier.

“I looked at their games compared to mine and I could see that they’re similar,” Bigley said.

Charlotteans Corey Nagy and Kevin Silva shot 67 to miss qualifying by one stroke while Jeff Curl, another local, shot 68.

McIlroy Returns: "A Lot Of Great Memories"

Rory McIlroy spent Monday morning playing the front nine at Quail Hollow Club, getting some work done on his golf game, knocking the edge off any jet lag and remembering what he did here last year.

“It’s great. A lot of great memories,” McIlroy said after finishing his round.

“(We were) talking about hitting some shots from here and from there…Talking about holing a putt from here. It’s great to be back.”

McIlroy arrived in Charlotte Sunday from his home in Northern Ireland where he had a session with his swing coach Michael Bannon last week. He also had one session with putting guru Dave Stockton here, just to trade some thoughts.

McIlroy said he doesn’t know if he’ll do more with Stockton but was interested in hearing what he had to say.

Later today, McIlroy and a few of his friends on tour are planning to play a little soccer before getting down to more serious preparation.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Simpson Proved Himself To Be A Winner In New Orleans

   Webb Simpson did the right thing Sunday afternoon and while it may have cost him the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, it won't cost him in the long run.

   Simpson, who moved with his wife,  Dowd, to Charlotte last August, was leading the New Orleans tournament by one stroke over his friend Bubba Watson Sunday when his ball moved as he addressed a six-inch par putt on the 15th hole. The rule may not be fair -- Simpson didn't cause the ball to move, the wind apparently did -- but golf's rules are sacrosanct so he paid the one-stroke penalty and ultimately lost to Watson on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff.

   It was one of those moments the player gets it right no matter how painful the cost. Simpson was trying to win his first PGA Tour event but he saw the violation immediately and called for a rules official. He had a stroke added on the 15th hole, turning a par into a bogey, and it was the difference in holding his first trophy and the accompanying Masters invitation and a second-place finish to a friend.

   That's the thing about golf. It's about calling your own violations. It's not like basketball or football where players and teams are always trying to influence officials to make a call -- or not make a call -- without getting it right. Golfers, the overwhelming majority of them anyway, want to get it right. The game gets easier with a clear conscience.

   Simpson has been close a few times now and hasn't yet won his first tournament but he won a legion of admirers Sunday for how he handled a difficult situation. Hopefully, he knows how much of a winner he was on Sunday in New Orleans.