Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ryder Cup: The good, the bad, the ugly

   A few observations from the Ryder Cup while European fans are still singing 'Ole, Ole, Ole' outside the media center here at Medinah:
   -- It was impossible not to feel good for European captain Jose Maria Olazabal, who doesn't show much outward emotion but simmers inside. It was apparent how badly he wanted to win the Cup for Europe and to pay one last tribute to Seve Ballesteros. He got it in the most unlikely way.
  -- U.S. captain Davis Love III stuck to his plan of not playing any one more than four matches. It worked beautifully for two days. Sunday, however, was a disaster.
   "I'm sure there are a lot of great plans that sound really good the night before a game starts and then there's a fumble or a turnover or something happens and it doesn't work," Love said. "What happened (Sunday) is they played a little better than us."
   Yes, they did. The problem was the Americans needed to make them play even better and they didn't do it.
   -- What were the odds Sunday morning of Martin Kaymer scoring the Cup-clinching point? 
   No one would have taken those odds.
  -- Five players scored three points for the U.S. team: Phil Mickelson, Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner, Zach Johnson and Dustin Johnson. Only Dustin Johnson won every match he played.
   Ian Poulter was the only unbeaten European, going 4-0. Of course he did.
   Tiger Woods won half a point. Steve Stricker got blanked.
   -- It was awkward having Woods and Francesco Molinari finish their singles match after the Ryder Cup had been decided. There was an enormous greenside celebration going on while they were playing the 18th hole. Finally, Woods conceded a putt to Molinari that made the final match a draw. It changed the final score from 14-14 to 14 1/2 to 13 1/2. At that point, Woods said, the final score didn't matter.
   He was right.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Sunday pairings -- how they came to be

There's no great science that goes into setting the singles pairing for Sunday at the Ryder Cup.
   Or, if there is, it's strictly classified.
   U.S. captain Davis Love III said he and his four assistant captains sat down on the porch at Medinah early Saturday evening and put 12 guys in order after getting input from the seven or eight who hadn't already returned to the team hotel.
   Look at the American lineup and it makes sense.
   Bubba Watson then Webb Simpson then Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson.
   Bubba likes to play fast. Webb likes to be near Bubba. Bradley has been brilliant and Mickelson has too.
   Steve Stricker goes 11th and Tiger Woods goes last in case it comes down to that, which is almost certainly won't. Love said he wanted stability at the back of the lineup. Tiger against Francesco Molinari looks pretty stable.
   On the other side, Europe's Jose Maria Olazabal did the only thing he could do -- he front-loaded his lineup. Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose got out first. If Europe doesn't win early, it has no chance to win at all. That's what captain Ben Crenshaw taught everyone at Brookline, Mass., 13 years ago.
   The early matches look intriguing. Watson and Donald couldn't be more different personalities. Simpson gets Poulter's fire. Bradley and McIlroy has become the match we thought Woods-McIlroy would be when the week began.
   If the Americans continue to play as they have, they'll win the Ryder Cup comfortably. That's what I expect will happen Sunday.
  12:03 p.m.: Bubba Watson-Luke Donald
  12:14: Webb Simpson-Ian Poulter
  12:25: Keegan Bradley-Rory McIlroy
  12:36: Phil Mickelson-Justin Rose
  12:47: Brandt Snedeker-Paul Lawrie
  12:58: Dustin Johnson-Nicolas Colsaerts
   1:09: Zach Johnson-Graeme McDowell
   1:20: Jim Furyk-Sergio Garcia
   1:31: Jason Dufner-Peter Hanson
   1:42: Matt Kuchar-Lee Westwood
   1:53: Steve Stricker-Martin Kaymer
   2:04: Tiger Woods-Francesco Molinari

Mickelson/Bradley help U.S. extend lead

  With another spectacular performance by Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, the U.S. team moved out to a dominating 8-4 lead after the morning session of the Ryder Cup Saturday at Medinah.
   With a strong afternoon in the four-ball matches, the American side could set itself up to close out Ryder Cup early in singles on Sunday. Captain Davis Love III decided to rest the Mickelson-Bradley pairing in the afternoon, sticking to his plan of not having any golfers play in all five sessions.
   The Mickelson-Bradley pairing, which won both matches Friday, crushed the Lee Westwood-Luke Donald team 7&6 in foursomes play, setting the tone in the morning.
   "We've had so much fun," Bradley said. "The crowd has provided so much energy and it's brought out our best golf."
   The U.S. also picked up foursomes victories from Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson 2&1 over Nicolas Colsaets and Sergio Garcia and a 1-up victory by Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker over Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell.
   The lone American loss was suffered by Webb Simpson and Bubba Watson, who fell 1-up to Ian Poulter and Justin Rose. Simpson had a nine-foot birdie putt on the 18th green to square the match but missed.
   The afternoon four-ball pairings are:
   Dustin Johnson/Matt Kuchar vs. Nicolas Colsaerts/Paul Lawrie
   Bubba Watson/Webb Simpson vs. Justin Rose/Francesco Molinari
   Tiger Woods/Steve Stricker vs. Sergio Garcia/Luke Donald
   Jason Dufner/Luke Donald vs. Rory McIlroy/Ian Poulter.

Friday, September 28, 2012

On the first tee at the Ryder Cup

   It was chilly enough to see your breath this morning on the first tee at Medinah but with the Ryder Cup starting, it was the hottest place in golf.
  Framed by steep, overstuffed grandstands, the Ryder Cup began as only it can -- with photo ops, singing and nerves.
   Before the first players had arrived at the tee, American fans were singing 'America, the Beautiful' and European fans were answering with 'Ole, Ole, Ole.' Shortly before Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker made the walk over from the practice putting green, a worker was tossing American flags to fans. It was too early to say whether the fact many of the flags were accidentally dropped on the ground was a good or bad omen for the home side.
   When it came time for Graeme McDowell to hit the opening tee shot, the place went dead silent but for the distant whistle of a train. Then the noise returned.
   When Ryder Cup rookie Keegan Bradley ripped his tee shot down the middle, he waited a beat for teammate Phil Mickelson to catch up to him and they slapped hands.
   Before the final match began, Michael Jordan arrived on the tee, shaking hands, posing for pictures and being Michael Jordan in Chicago.
   Europe's Ian Poulter arrived at the tee with black and lime-colored shoes to match the team outfit for the day. After hitting his tee shot on the opening hole, Poulter snatched his tee from the ground like a theatrical rip.
   Tiger Woods followed with a big hook that left his partner, Steve Stricker, in trouble. 
   It was just past 8 a.m. on a cool fall morning in Chicago. A beautiful start.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Who wins this Ryder Cup?

 Now that Justin Timberlake's unfortunate recitation of a golf poem at the opening ceremony is behind us, we can get on with the Ryder Cup.
   I'm saying the U.S. wins this time.
   If you've ever seen my NFL predictions or studied my choice of stocks, you understand this isn't exactly a ringing endorsement. Still, I think the Americans are going to win the Ryder Cup.
   It's happened. 
   Maybe you remember 2008 and 1999. From there, it gets a little fuzzy.
   Six months ago, I'd have told you the European team was a heavy favorite. They haven't gotten worse. In fact, Martin Kaymer has shown signs of having rediscovered a bit of his lost magic in recent weeks.
   But the American side has filled in nicely. Tiger is ready. Brandt Snedeker is coming off an $11-million weekend. Jason Dufner has great hair.
   This is my fifth Ryder Cup and for the longest time I wondered if I'd ever see the U.S. win. We got beat in England, got waxed at Oakland Hills and got double-waxed at the K Club in Ireland. Then Paul Azinger put the pieces together four years ago at Valhalla where I finally saw an American champagne celebration.
   I didn't go to Wales so that one can't be blamed on me.
   I see Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. I see Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia. I see Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter and all the other Europeans. 
   But I see this Ryder Cup 15-13 for the U.S.

Kuchar U.S. team leader -- in table tennis

  The first official golf balls won't be in the air at the Ryder Cup until 8:20 a.m. Charlotte time Friday but ping pong balls have been clattering around the U.S. team room as usual.
   There are three tables, part of what has become an American Ryder Cup tradition, and it sounds as if there's a clear winner among the U.S. players.
   Matt Kuchar.
   "I think it's clear that Matt Kuchar is the best," Webb Simpson said. "Phil Mickelson is not quite ready to admit it. I think he's in denial. But he's pretty good."
   Kuchar proclaimed himself the best.  He called himself a "one or two handicap" in table tennis. That doesn't make him world class but it makes him good enough at Medinah.
   "On our team, I'd be the best player," Kuchar said.
   Here's Simpson's take on his teammates' ping-pong talents:
   "I think I've seen about everybody play now and everybody is really good. Zach (Johnson) is really good. Tiger is good. Bubba (Watson) thinks he's good but he just plays defense. He doesn't hit any winners or anything and once he starts hitting those defensive shots, I start laughing and he beats me."
   Simpson said his table tennis claim to fame is beating Mickelson at the Presidents Cup in Australia last year.
  "After I beat him, he said my serve was illegal," Simpson said. "Then he beat me the next five times."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Azinger: 'I see a different Tiger Woods'

I had the chance recently to talk with Paul Azinger, captain of the victorious 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team, about what he sees looking at the matches this week at Medinah.

Here's some of what Azinger, who will be part of ESPN's television crew, had to say.

On Phil MIckelson: "Phil Mickelson has always been worth at least a point a day in the team room. He's phenomenal."

On Tiger Woods: "Tiger is more reserved. Tiger's Ryder Cup record (13-14-2) is better than people think.

"I didn't have Tiger on my team. I would have loved to have Tiger in a small group. I would have put him with Boo (Weekley), J.B. (Holmes) and Kenny Perry. He'd have been in the redneck pool. What's important is to get Tiger with guys he not only gets along with but he can be an encourager, too.

On the Tiger-Rory McIlroy relationship: "It's a surprising turn of events. McIlroy said some things Tiger could have gotten mad about. I think Tiger has made a career out of wanting players to be uncomfortable with him. I think the only guy I can think of who was comfortable with Tiger and didn't change who he was Rocco Mediate. Rocco idolized him and laughed at how good he is, in his face, like, 'Oh my god, I can't believe you hit that shot. His personality didn't change head to head against Tiger.

"Tiger shows up in character. He's playing a part. When he gets out of his car in the parking lot he's a pro golfer in part. He's wearing a shirt the color of blood for a reason. He lets people know those are his power colors. He plays the role hard.

"He made a comment (at the PGA Championship) that he tried to be happy go lucky out there. What happened? That's a big change in his personality. Maybe he's looking at his life differently.

"If ever a guy has been a threat to Tiger's legacy and could rob him of a championship, it's Rory. It's a big turn of events. I see a different Tiger Woods from the one who relished in his ability to intimidate."

Monday, September 24, 2012

Celebrating Brandt Snedeker

Before moving on to the Ryder Cup, let's take another moment to celebrate Brandt Snedeker.
Not just for winning the Tour Championship and the $10-million FedEx Cup bonus but for being Brandt Snedeker. If you're still getting comfortable with Snedeker as a world-class player, here's a suggestion -- be a fan.
He does many things well.
He plays fast, which is a beautiful thing.
He talks fast and he doesn't hide his emotions. What you see is what you get, including the floppy blond hair that looks like an old-style mop.
And he gets the big picture.
When he said Sunday evening, "Of anybody that I know, I do not need $11 million," it was so refreshing to hear.
He called winning the $10-million bonus prize "crazy talk" and explained why he could use the money to help others.
"One thing my dad did really well with me is whatever you buy in your life, you need to make sure you can pay for it," Snedeker said. "Don't ever go into debt to do anything and that's what I've done my whole life.
"This obviously give me a little more freedom to do some more stuff like that."
And when Snedeker said, "I really think we can make a difference and help a lot of people out in Nashville and Tennessee and the surrounding areas," you knew he meant it.
Well played, on so many levels.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why Fred Couples is a Hall of Famer

 If you've ever watched Fred Couples swing a golf club or just walk down a fairway, you probably smiled when you heard the news that he will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame next May.
   Couples has that effect on people.
   He has that hard to define but impossible to deny quality that makes him the coolest guy in any room. It's the look. It's the swing. It's the smile.
   It's almost accidentally natural. 
   Couples is 52 years old now, two decades past his PGA Tour prime, and he'd still be on the tee with Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson if someone put together golf's favorite foursome.
   That's why he's going into the Hall of Fame and I'm all right with that.
   It's not the Hall of Achievement. 
   If that's all it was, Couples' 15 PGA Tour wins, which included one Masters and two Players Championships, may not rise to the level of acceptance. It was a very good career and for a time he was the best player in the world. 
   "I don't consider myself to be a great player but I'm a good player," Couples said Wednesday when the announcement was made.
   He left us feeling he should have won more and Couples probably feels some of that himself. But he had back that went out more than the mailman and it changed his career. Since turning 50, Couples hasn't finished outside the top 15 at the Masters, which speaks to his talent, his longevity and, if you were at Augusta or watching on television, his enduring popularity.
  Couples is like no one else, another reason he's beloved.
   His induction surprised many, who considered him a borderline Hall of Famer. It was a surprise that he went in before Davis Love III, who has 20 wins and a resume that at least matches Couples' otherwise. 
   Ken Venturi, whose playing and broadcasting careers taken together should be enough to earn him a spot, is still not in (he tied Love for second with 38 percent of the votes) and MacDonald Smith, who won 24 times in the early days of professional golf, may never get in.
   Couples was the only player elected in this year's balloting and he received only 51 percent of the vote, below the 65 percent threshold generally required for induction. But the bylaws state that if no one receives 65 percent of the vote, the highest vote getter goes in. Welcome, Freddie.
   As a matter of full disclosure, I voted for Love and Venturi this year.
   Halls of Fame are peculiar things. There's a clinical side to who gets in based solely on numbers. But sports aren't just about numbers.
   They're about feelings and personalities, too.
   Nothing against Mark O'Meara, who won two majors, 16 PGA Tour events and a U.S. Amateur, but he didn't reach beyond the scorecard the way Couples did and still does. O'Meara was a professional golfer. Couples was that and more.
   There's a worthy argument to be made about basing Hall of Fame induction solely on achievement but it denies an essential part of why we watch and why we care.
   Fred Couples proves it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Rory and Tiger: Ryder Cup preview?

When Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods tee it up together Thursday in the first round of the Tour Championship at East Lake, it will be another chapter in their buddies series that has developed in this FedEx Cup playoff.

   Rory jokes about Tiger going bald.
   Tiger jokes about Rory being short.
   They both shake their head about Greg Norman’s comments that Tiger is intimidated by Rory. Tiger may be many things. Intimidated on the golf course is not one of them.
   Ideally, they’ll duel through the weekend at East Lake for the FedEx Cup prize but eyes are already being cast toward the Ryder Cup next weekend at Medinah outside Chicago, imagining the possibility of a McIlroy-Woods Sunday singles match.
   It’s what everybody wants – even Rory and Tiger.
   “That would be fun,” Woods said Wednesday when asked about it.
   McIlroy said the same.
   “I'm not going to sit here and lie and say I wouldn't enjoy it, because I would,” McIlroy said in Atlanta.
   If this were the Presidents Cup, their match could be arranged. Captains set the pairings one by one against the other captain.
  In the Ryder Cup, it’s blind draw. U.S. captain Davis Love III will put 12 names in order in an envelope and European captain Jose Maria Olazabal will do the same.
   That means Woods and McIlroy will have to be slotted into the same spots in a blind draw.
   Maybe Love and Olazabal will send emissaries with messages to the other side that they plan to put their stars in, say, the fifth singles match on Sunday.
   Not likely.
   The Ryder Cup will be spectacular regardless. But Tiger and Rory head to head on Sunday with the Cup in the balance?
   What a sweet thought.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Chiquita Classic to become playoff event

  The new Chiquita Classic golf tournament, which will be played at the Club at Longview for the first time next week, is already making a big move.
   The tour event will be part of the tour's new four-event playoff series beginning in 2013 which will determine which players earn PGA Tour privileges the following season.
   The event will debut Sept. 27-30 at Longview and next year will move into its new role as part of a reorganized conclusion to the developmental tour's season.
  “With the introduction of this new qualifying process and four Finals events in 2013, the Tour is about to embark on the most exciting era in its 23-year history,"PGA TOUR commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement.
  “The Tour will clearly become the pathway to the PGA TOUR, with season-long performance serving as the benchmark for securing one’s TOUR card. The Tour season promises to end in a very heightened fashion next September and we are thrilled to include the Chiquita Classic as a Tour finals event.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Rory and Tiger feels right

It's been interesting to see how Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy seem to have taken to each other. Through the years, Woods has kept most of his rivals at a distance with a few exceptions, such as Steve Stricker. With McIlroy, it's different.

It's obvious Woods likes McIlroy and admires his game. One of the best things about the FedEx Cup playoffs is the way it's put Woods and McIlroy together so often, a pairing that will continue at the Tour Championship next week at East Lake in Atlanta.

Woods' self-motivation is well known but McIlroy's brilliance comes at an ideal time for Woods, who will no doubt use the challenge to continue pushing himself. Woods has played his golf in a bubble, churning on his own intensity, staring down everyone else.

In McIlroy's case, Woods has shown a warmth rarely seen in the competitive realm. It complements both of them.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Happy 83rd birthday Arnie

 This Sept. 10 being Arnold Palmer's 83rd birthday, take a moment today to raise a glass -- whether it's an Arnold Palmer or something more, uh, substantial -- to the man who remains the face and heart of golf.
   We long ago came to grips with the fact Arnie can't play like he once did and we made our peace with it long before he did.
   He's Arnie. 
   Not to diminish the green jackets he won or the way he won the 1960 U.S. Open or all the other things he did playing the game, his greatest achievement was just being Arnie. He remains the model across all sports for the way an athlete should deal with his adoring public. 
   No entourages.
   Just wink and a smile. 
   Perhaps no one has enjoyed the spotlight more than Palmer has and perhaps we've never enjoyed anyone in the spotlight as much as we've enjoyed him. 
   Have one on us, Arnie. Our pleasure.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Love adds Stricker, Furyk, Johnson and Snedeker

    In the weeks leading up to Monday’s announcement, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III said he wanted to use his four captain’s picks to find a hot player, good putters and experience.
   His four picks – Dustin Johnson, Jim Furyk, Brandt Snedeker and Steve Stricker – checked each of Captain Love’s designated boxes.
   It meant leaving off Hunter Mahan, who finished ninth in points and won twice this year, Rickie Fowler, whose game went as flat as his cap brim over the summer and Nick Watney, who I probably would have given the spot over Furyk.
   In announcing his four choices, Love called this “the deepest, strongest year of earning points” he can remember which made narrowing his choices more difficult.
   If one of the four flames out against the Europeans at Medinah next month, it will be easy to say Love made a mistake but at the moment, it’s hard to argue with his choices.
    Stricker was a lock because he’s one of the world’s best putters, a perfect partner for Tiger Woods and the kind of guy Love and others want in the team room. When it comes to team chemistry, he’s a huge asset.
   Picking Snedeker was a good move because he’s playing well, he can putt with his eyes closed and it’s his time to be on a Ryder Cup team. Snedeker has quietly become a top-level player and his enthusiasm should be a nice addition to a team with low-key personalities such as Jason Dufner, Johnson, Furyk and Woods.
   Johnson played his way onto the team over the last month after missing a big early chunk of the season due to an injury. Imagine Johnson and Bubba Watson paired in alternate shot, just for the pure awe aspect of the shots they might hit together.
   If there’s a rap on Johnson, it’s that he’s not a great putter. But he’s too talented to leave off.
   Furyk stumbled home in the U.S. Open and the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, kicking away big wins that raised questions about whether Love would choose him.  But Furyk has been on almost as many U.S. teams as red, white and blue and figures to be a calm presence in a tense event.
   But he’s 8-15-4 in his Ryder Cup career and Love will likely sit him in four-ball (best ball) competition where he’s a dreadful 1-8-1.
    Love answered one set of questions Monday. Bigger questions await at Medinah.