Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Same Old Song

The American Ryder Cup team shouldn't have been surprised when the Irish crowd briefly interrupted the closing ceremonies Sunday afternoon for a rousing rendition of 'Ole, Ole,' the European fight song.
They'd been hearing it all day.
The Americans didn't just lose the Ryder Cup. They got walloped -- again.
Why does this keep happening?
It happened this time because the Europeans just played better. They always had the momentum, holed seemingly every crucial putt and played with their typical passion.
Match-play golf is built on momentum and the Americans never had any.
This Ryder Cup belonged to the Europeans from the start. Some of it had to do with talent. On the first morning, Ian Woosnam benched three players ranked in the top 14 in the world. That's how deep the Europeans were.
The Americans' best chances -- the Tiger Woods-Jim Furyk and Chris DiMarco-Phil Mickelson pairings -- weren't particularly productive. Woods and Furyk did okay but Mickelsonn and DiMarco were a bust.
The rookies didn't hurt the U.S. team. Throw them in with the two captain's picks and they produced more points than the top six players in the American lineup.
So, after consecutive wipe-outs, where do the U.S. go next?
That's what everyone is trying to figure out. It's expected that Paul Azinger will be the next captain and he's not afraid to speak his mind.
But Tom Lehman can't be faulted for his preparation. The players spoke glowingly of Lehman's captaincy. They just didn't play well enough.
They came to Ireland looking for the Ryder Cup. They left looking for answers -- again.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Without Hope What Is There?

It would be easy to bury the American Ryder Cup team right now and a lot of people probably are.
They're down 10-6 entering the Sunday singles and they've looked dull. Not disinterested, just dull.
Too many putts have burned the edges, too many chances have been wasted, too many things haven't happened.
Golf, like any other sport, is often built on momentum. It's huge in the Ryder Cup and the Americans have never, not for a second, had it.
Their only hope is to grab it Sunday and never let go -- and that may not be enough.
It's easy to point to the American failures so far. Phil Mickelson has done nothing. Chris DiMarco has done nothing. Four matches for Phil, three for DiMarco, no wins.
Tiger hasn't been too much better. He was flat Friday and lousy Saturday morning but he and Jim Furyk kept alive the Americans' slender hopes by winning the last point on Saturday.
Has Tom Lehman made all the right moves?
He should have played J.J. Henry more than he did the first two days and he should have put Phil Mickelson on the bench Saturday afternoon when it was obvious the left-hander didn't have it. Maybe he should have played Vaughn Taylor earlier, too.
Ian Woosnam looks brilliant because everything is working. That's what happens when more putts fall than for the Americans.
I expect the Americans to make a game of it Sunday. That doesn't mean they're going to win -- the Europeans are too good and too deep -- but the U.S. may give them a scare.
David Toms is a good match against Colin Montgomerie.
Sergio Garcia may be too much for Stewart Cink but Sergio's record on Sunday's playing by himself isn't too good these days.
The Jim Furyk-Paul Casey match could swing the early matches. Two terrific players going head to head.
Tiger beats Robert Karlsson then it gets tricky. But if the Americans can get up big on most of the early matches, something unexpected could happen.
When Woosnam was asked Saturday night if he was worried things could go all wrong for his team on Sunday, Woosie said, "Yes."
They probably won't. Four points is huge when the Americans need 8 1/2 to win the cup.
But it could happen.

Friday, September 22, 2006

A false start

The United States Ryder Cup team -- and everyone distantly related to it -- has a uniform for everything they do here in Ireland.

Wonder if they have a "been there, done that" T-shirt?

One day in, the Americans find themselves in a familiar spot -- trailing 5-3 after watching Sergio Garcia play like Tiger Woods and Colin Montgomerie make another putt that matters.

The Americans weren't bad and they're certainly not finished with 20 more matches to go but they need to play better than they did Friday if they want to spend Saturday night anticipating rather than dreading Sunday.

The simple solution is to make more putts. That's what captain Tom Lehman saw as the problem and there's something to that.

But it's deeper than that.

The Americans need to play better period.

That's possible, maybe even likely. Tiger Woods went 1-1 with Jim Furyk Friday and neither had their best stuff. The chances of both of them being dull on Saturday is slim.

The bigger question is whether the Chris DiMarco-Phil Mickelson team can find its mojo. Mickelson looks almost disengaged. He's not the same crisp player he was three months ago and he needs to be for the U.S. to win.

Here are some other impressions after the first day:

  • Sergio Garcia is amazing in the Ryder Cup. If he played and putted every week as well as he does in the Ryder Cup, Tiger would have a challenger at No. 1.
  • The Europeans showed their depth by getting at least one-half point from every player. That's the difference in the Euros and the Americans. Lehman still hasn't put Scott Verplank and Vaughn Taylor out. Verplank goes out Saturday morning but if things go bad in the four-balls, Taylor may not play before Sunday's singles.
  • J.J. Henry was a stud. He can make some birdies, the guys like him and it may have been a mistake for Lehman to sit him down Friday afternoon. If the Americans are going to find an unlikely hero, it may be him.
  • The Americans won the team uniform battle on Friday. Nice call on the black pants, gray shirts and gray-and-white argyle sweaters.
  • Sweetest moment of the day belonged to Darren Clarke at the first tee when the crowd roared for him and the guys he was playing with -- Lee Westwood, Mickelson and DiMarco -- each gave him a hug.
  • Two key matches for the Americans in Saturday's four-balls: Woods and Furyk must beat Clarke and Westwood, and Mickelson and DiMarco must beat Garcia and Olazabal. Otherwise, you're counting on Zach Johnson and Scott Verplank to beat Henrik Stenson and Padraig Harrington. Ummm....

Tiger does his part early

Considering his day began with a fat, pulled 3-wood into the water on the par-4 first hole, Tiger Woods' morning improved nicely as he and Jim Furyk, the new American dream team, were the only American winners in four-ball play, edging Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington 1-up.

If the Americans are going to win the Ryder Cup back, Woods needs to contribute at least four points, which is more than half his career point total. Trailing 2 1/2 - 1 1/2 after the morning wasn't a disaster but it seemed too familiar, given the Americans' recent poor starts.

The featured match with Woods wasn't spectacular, perhaps because it took nearly 5 1/2 hours to complete. Woods made the difference with consecutive birdies early in the back nine to put his team ahead. Then they held off the Europeans, neither of whom looked particularly sharp.

The sharpest American in the morning was rookie J.J. Henry, who made five birdies and has been the best U.S. player in practice this week. Had Henry and Cink won their match rather than halve it after being 3-down, it could have been the emotional spark the Americans needed.

The Phil Mickelson-Chris DiMarco pairing didn't have its Presidents Cup magic as they lost. Mickelson looked flat, making just one birdie, suggesting we may not see the Phil we see at the Masters.

In the afternoon, captain Tom Lehman made a couple of curious decisions. He sat Henry, who was the morning's top player, and he also kept Scott Verplank on the bench. Verplank was a captain's pick largely for his alternate-shot talents, where he's straight off the tee and a terrific clutch putter. It raises the question if Verplank's back is bothering him or if Lehman thought the long conditions, exacerbated by afternoon showers, worked against Verplank.

The best part of the morning was Darren Clarke. Everyone knows his sad story now, and he was greeted on the first tee by a roaring ovation. He then smacked his opening tee shot down the middle and birdied the first hole like something from a storybook.

When Clarke closed out Mickelson and DiMarco with a birdie at the last, there were tears in his eyes. As a reward, captain Ian Woosnam gave Clarke the afternoon off.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

On Your Mark, Get Set...

U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman got another thing right.
He kept the Tiger Woods-Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson-Chris DiMarco pairings together for the first set of matches in the Ryder Cup. That doesn't mean they're going to win but it means Lehman didn't ignore the chemistry lessons learned last fall at the Presidents Cup.
Play to your strengths. That's what both sides are doing.
When Ian Woosnam stuck Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie out first, he figured they'd line up against Woods and Furyk and he was right. He's hoping they can give the Europeans the same dynamite they provided two years ago when they beat Woods and Mickelson in the first match on the first day, setting the tone for the weekend.
What's different this time is Woods is at the top of his game. Two years ago, he was still working through his swing change with Hank Haney and was paired with Mickelson, who had just changed equipment companies and seemed like a man who didn't want to be there.
Woods is comfortable with Furyk, who cracks jokes under his breath at times, amusing Woods.
For both sides, a victory in the first match would be a huge boost, though it's only the first step in a long march.
The Americans have a strategy though Lehman wouldn't reveal it Thursday. It likely centers on getting off to a solid start, rather than playing themselves into a hole as they've typically done early.
In pairing Brett Wetterich with David Toms, Lehman opted to go for power on a long, wet course and temper it with Toms' calming influence. Most expected Toms to play with Chad Campbell but Lehman likes what Wetterich brings and had the pairing in mind after the team visited Ireland last month.
Woosnam chose to pair Jose Maria Olazabal with Sergio Garcia, putting the Spaniards together in hopes of recapturing some of the Ryder Cup magic Olazabal had with Seve Ballesteros. He may be on to something.
Match play golf is a different animal. You can play very well and lose or you can scrape it around and still scrape out a win. Two years ago, Woods and Mickelson shot a better-ball 31 on the first nine against Montgomerie and Harrington and were 1-down at the turn.
That's the way it goes.
There is encouraging news on the weather front here. The rain is expected to end overnight and the forecast for the weekend is good. Temperatures in the upper 60s, 15 to 20 mile per hour winds and only a slight chance of rain.
They're likely to play lift, clean and cheat because it's so muddy but it may be the only fair way to play given how muddy the course is.
The best news is it's finally time to play.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Hear Tiger Roar

The price of being Tiger Woods is waking up one morning and finding a provocative story and photos of your beautiful wife plastered across a publication, suggesting more is available if you want to comb through some porn websites.
It didn't matter that later in the day, the people in charge at The Dubliner magazine issued an apology, weakly explaining that the story -- which fired oversized darts at all the wives of the American players -- was intended to be a satire of tabloids. They had no doubt been contacted by some of Mr. Woods' legal representatives -- as they should have -- and they were doing damage control far too late.
It's true that Elin Nordegren Woods has modeled bikinis in her past. There are plenty of photos in cyberspace of her and Woods acknowledged that when he spoke out about the Dubliner story Wednesday morning.
Woods sounded noble in the way he defended his wife. He made an uncomfortable moment an impressive one.
He said what he wanted and he moved on.
This Ryder Cup is about golf, after all, even if a small hurricane is trying to ruin everything for Ireland.
It isn't just blowing over here. It's howling like N.C. State fans after a win over North Carolina. There are moments when walking straight ahead becomes a 50-50 proposition. And it's been raining buckets with no guarantee either the wind or rain will subside before the Celtic drummers take the stage for Thursday's opening ceremonies.
One day, two storms.
Just wait until the golf begins.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

"He's Just Frightening"

While following Tiger Woods make his way around Medinah Country Club Sunday afternoon, smothering the life out of every possible challenger before he made the turn, I ran into CBS announcer David Feherty who was bird-dogging Woods' round.
"He's almost perfect," I said.
"He's just frightening is what he is," Feherty said before scooting off to talk to the world.
He's right.
Woods is frighteningly good.
It was no surprise that he won the PGA Championship Sunday by five shots, though it was a shock that Shaun Micheel was his closest challenger.
Woods is -- pardon the cliche -- on his way to becoming the greatest player ever. He was brilliant at Medinah, avoiding trouble and saving himself when he did make a mistake.
Did you see the par save he made from the bunker at No. 13? He was 70 feet from the flag with a pond behind the hole and he left himself a routine three-footer for par.
"Best up and down of the year," caddie Steve Williams told his boss.
It would be the best of most of our lifetimes.
But that's what Woods does routinely. He's consistently brilliant, especially in major championships.
It's easy to say that someone, anyone, should step up and challenge the guy but, unless Woods helps them, they can't beat him.
"He's just better than us," U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy said after getting an eyeful in the first two rounds.
Woods has a vibe about him that's undeniable. Luke Donald made 16 birdies the first three days and none Sunday while playing with Tiger.
Don't think so.
Woods has 12 major championship wins now, two-thirds of the way to Jack Nicklaus's record of 18. Tiger says it will take him a career to catch or pass Nicklaus.
Perhaps -- if he intends to retire in about five years.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Never On Sunday

Doesn't this all seem so familiar?
Like deja vu all over again?
No wonder.
Tiger Woods is tied for the lead entering the final round of another major championship -- this one the Buick Open disguised as the PGA Championship -- and he always wins when he's ahead with 18 holes to play in a major.
Eleven for 11.
And soon to be 12 for 12.
How can you pick against Woods on Sunday of a major? As I've said before, he's the best closer since the guillotine.
Someone asked Geoff Ogilvy, one of my new favorites because of his thoughtfulness not to mention a wonderful game, if Woods wins because others fall apart around him. Mostly, Ogilvy said, Woods just plays better than everyone else.
That's why he's such a favorite today. His game looks as sharp as in 2000 and we know how good it was then.
He's doing a great job of managing his way around a course and with his swing dialed in, there are no weaknesses.
Asked Saturday if he was surprised, considering he missed the cut at the U.S. Open two months ago, to have won two straight tournaments and to be on the verge of a third, including his second straight major, Woods just smiled and shook his head.
"Uh-uh," he said.
Neither is anyone else.
If this is the Sunday that finally trips up Woods, it will likely be because Medinah is so soft that someone may shoot a ridiculous number and beat him. He gets beat, you know. Rich Beem did it. Others have.
Tiger loves majors where pars are what you play for and birdies are like gold. At Medinah, softened by the rain, birdies are like M&Ms at a kid's birthday party. They're everywhere.
But he can make them, too.
He knows he'll have to make a bunch on Sunday. I'm guessing he'll make enough.

Friday, August 18, 2006

It's Only Just Begun

Two days into the PGA Championship and what do we know for certain?
We know Vijay Singh missed his second straight cut in a major championship.
We know Brett Wetterich isn't going to be on the Ryder Cup team.
We know Tiger Woods is playing the third round with his buddy Chris Riley, which means he'll be chattier than usual during a major championship week.
Otherwise, this PGA Championship is still wide open, or at least as open as a major can be with Tiger sitting one off the lead with 36 holes remaining.
If I had to pick one of the four leaders -- Henrik Stenson, Billy Andrade, Tim Herron or Luke Donald -- as the most likely to still be leading Sunday night, I'd pick Donald, who has a major victory in his future, perhaps this weekend.
He's a really solid player and that wins majors -- on the rare times Tiger doesn't win them.
If I'm picking a winner right now, it's obviously Tiger. I'm not stupid. He may just win Tiger Slam II.
As for Phil Mickelson, he has two drivers in his bag and can't hit either one in the fairway. Unless he finds magic in his video session with Rick Smith overnight, Phil's won his last major this year.
And what about Davis Love? He was tied for the lead on Sunday in the PGA last year and crumbled. He needs a good weekend here in the worst way.
Maybe I'm wrong but I think he produces at Medinah. That doesn't mean he's going to win but he's going to hang in there.
Ask me Saturday night and I may feel totally different about all of this.

TGIF at Medinah

Major championships have personalities.
The Masters is outwardly genteel, painted in springtime, but it's really a demon with greens that can make grown men cry. Or four putt.
The U.S. Open is just miserable, a contest to see who can make the fewest bogeys, protecting par like Coca-Cola protects its recipe.
The British Open goes for old world style, buffetted by wind and played on brown golf courses where the ball tends to roll like a runaway marble.
And then there is the PGA, just a good tough tournament where everyone plays.
But this PGA, at least halfway through, has gone soft. Too soft.
"This isn't playing like a major championship, in my opinion and in most opinions," Arron Oberholser said. "It's just like (the) Wachovia (Championship). It looks like Wachovia. If you can keep it in the fairway, you can shoot some scores.
"This week, I dare say, is turning into a putting contest as long as you hit your driver in the fairway."
Well, then.
Of course, 60 players broke par on Thursday, the most sub-par rounds on one day in the history of the PGA Championship, which dates back before Jack Nicklaus.
It may get easier before it gets harder. It's forecast to rain overnight, which would soften already soft greens.
But it's fun to watch the best players in the world making birdies.
And, maybe by Saturday, we'll have figured out what a Henrik Stenson is.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

One Down, Three To Go

So what to make of the PGA Championship after 18 holes?
Lucas Glover and Chris Riley are tied for the lead, Billy Andrade who was at the movies on Tuesday when he found out he'd gotten in as an alternate is one back and Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have another date on Friday.
If there's a surprise, it's how easy Medinah was on Thursday. Sixty players broke par which, if that happened in the U.S. Open, could lead to the end of golf as we know it.
In addition to having soft greens, Medinah's length is diminished because much of it comes on the par-3s, which play downhill and then some. That's one reason 50-year old Fred Funk can shoot 69 and be on the leaderboard but it doesn't explain Vijay Singh shooting a 73 that probably felt like 83.
It's just a guess but Riley isn't likely to stay near the front though he has twice finished in the top five in the PGA. He's a dad now and talks lovingly about how much he likes being with his two young children.
Riley, of course, will forever be remembered for begging off one match in the 2004 Ryder Cup because he was tired. That's what Riley said then and it branded him, fairly or not.
He was tired, he said Thursday, because his new baby was less than two weeks old and he'd slept about six hours in two weeks. It's understandable but Riley may never outlive his preference to stretch out in the recliner rather than go another 18 for his country.
If you're not totally familiar with Glover, he's a genuinely likeable guy from Greenville, S.C., who desperately wants to make the Ryder Cup team. Glover is blessed with the kind of natural atheltic ability you can't fake and a good finish this weekend may convince Tom Lehman to pick him even if he doesn't qualify.

Breakfast With Tiger and Phil

It takes a while to get to the 10th tee at Medinah Country Club. It's a good 25-minute walk through what feels like a giant park but there were thousands lining the 10th fairway Thursday morning when Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Geoff Ogilvy teed off in the PGA Championship.
There were, by one officially unofficial count, 25 photographers documenting their every swing, move, smile, sneer and yawn when play began and probably another 75 or 100 semi-official types scurrying inside the ropes to get an unobstructed view of the big show.
Phil and Tiger had a brief handshake on the tee then went and stood on opposite sides of the tee waiting to start.
Woods rattled his opening tee shot off a tree, chopped out, hit a miserable third shot that missed the green, skinnied a chip shot 20 feet past the hole and opened with a double bogey that must've tasted like yesterday's coffee.
Phil, meanwhile, hit the first par-5 in two, made an easy birdie then followed with a birdie at the second, at which point he was three shots ahead of Woods and one ahead of Ogilvy, who at least had the good manners not to stick the U.S. Open trophy in Phil's face.
If you went looking for evidence of a cold war, it was hard to find. They were just guys going about the business of playing golf. As the round unfolded, Phil ran into a case of the sideways while Tiger found his rhythm, eventually matching Phil's 2-under par 34 on the first nine.
Ogilvy quietly played along, making an occasional birdie and an occasional bogey.
For seekers of high drama, it fell a little short on the juice meter but Thursday mornings are tough to get excited about.
Unless you're Billy Andrade, who occupied the top of the leaderboard most of the morning. He made it look easy.
And, if you wanted to see him play, you didn't have to fight the crowd.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Where Dreams Take Flight

The enduring memory of the 1999 PGA Championship played at Medinah may not be Tiger Woods' second career major championship victory but Sergio Garcia's spectacular eyes-closed shot from against a red oak tree to the right of the 16th fairway.
That was the one where Sergio took off like Edwin Moses, leaping into the air to see where his shot landed and, in the process, became a star.
So did the tree.
Since then, it's become a tourist attraction at Medinah, which is home to three courses and covers approximately as much acreage as Rhode Island.
Visitors playing Course No. 3 routinely go by the tree and at least take a practice swing from where Garcia stood. It gets so much action, the maintenance crew has to put down fresh sod a couple times a year.
The big tree, one of literally hundreds of gorgeous hardwoods on the property, is showing its age but has a few more years left, according to various reports.
Garcia stopped by there during his practice round this week, reacquainting himself with the tree.
Phil Mickelson, known to take a few chances in his time, said he never would have tried the shot Garcia hit.
"The shot he hit was just crazy," Mickelson said. "I would never try that. I think you should always pitch out to the middle of the fairway and hit an 8-iron on.
"What are these guys thinking nowadays?"

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Once More, With Feeling

It's a good thing Chicago has winter, otherwise the whole world might live here.
Tuesday at Medinah, site of the PGA Championship, was almost as pretty as the pairing sheet which has put Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson together (with Geoff Ogilvy) in the first two rounds which begin Thursday morning.
Perfectly sunny. Temperature nudging just over 80 degrees. The humidity on vacation in Florida. Grass green enough to get Augusta's attention.
And a major championship, too.
It wasn't long ago that the PGA Championship was that other major, the one they played in August and no one except Golf Channel junkies seemed to care about.
But now the PGA Championship is cool. It's played at great courses, understands that birdies aren't necessarily bad and annually produces a more entertaining tournament than the U.S. Open, which essentially rewards the last man standing.
This PGA starts with a grocery list of possibilities. Tiger and Phil paired together. Sergio Garcia reunited with his red oak. Vaughn Taylor trying to nail down a Ryder Cup spot.
Something's bound to happen.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

I Saw It But I Still Don't Believe It

It's going to take a while for this U.S. Open to seem real.

What happened Sunday afternoon at Winged Foot was beyond anyone's imaginaton. It was so bad it was funny.

To use the old cliche, Geoff Ogilvy didn't win the Open. The Open won him.

He's as shocked as anyone he's the winner.

Jean Van de Velde couldn't have done it better than Phil Mickelson did. All he had to do was par the last hole and the left-hander is going for the Slam. Then, before you could say Van de Velde, Mickelson is gone.

Choke? What do you think?

He hit a tent for crying out loud. He was lucky his tee shot didn't bounce over the tent and land somewhere on the other side.

There was a time when what Mickelson did would have caused us to roll our eyes and say we should've seen it coming. But we didn't see this collapse coming. It was obvious Sunday he wasn't as sharp as in some other majors but you had to love his chances needing a par to win and a bogey to play off.

Personally, I hated seeing Colin Montgomerie throw his chance away on the 18th hole. I'm a huge fan of his and would have loved to have seen him win. But, to his credit, he put on a cheery face when it was over, something he might not have done a few years back.

Seeing Mickelson tryng to explain what happened early Sunday evening was almost awkward. It was like he'd just stepped out of a bad accident. He looked emotionally devastated and he probably was.

He's said before he usually spends two or three days laying in bed after a major championship. It may be weeks before he gets up after this one.

A Hot, Sweaty March To The Finish

It's hot today at Winged Foot.

Sticky, sweaty, stay on the couch in the air-conditioning hot, with temperatures expected to top out around 95 with enough humidity that it feels like the lowcountry in August.

But it's Sunday at the U.S. Open and it's stuffed with possibilities because the USGA has made the course set-up too hard. Two-over par was the lead after 54 holes, the first time since 1974 the third-round leader has been over par. That was Tom Watson who was 4-over after three rounds at -- guess where -- Winged Foot.

The set-up is so severe that one swing can cost several shots, leaving the tournament open to anyone within four or five shots. Then there's the added pressure of someone going out in front of the leaders, shooting a good score -- 69 would be great -- and posting an early number that tells everyone what they have to do.

If, say, Luke Donald shoots 69 and finishes at 6-over par, it would reduce the wiggle room the leaders have.

Keep an eye on Vijay Singh, who won last week and is lurking three back as the final 18 holes begin. He hasn't putted particularly well this year but one good day today would change everything.

As for co-leader Kenneth Ferrie, the last Open rookie to win the championship was Francis Ouimet in 1913, which doesn't bode well for Ferrie's chances. On the plus side, though, Ouimet's victory was so inspiring a movie was made about it.

The focus, though, is on Phil Mickelson. He handled hot, miserable conditions in winning the PGA Championship at Baltusrol in August so that doesn't seem to be a qustion. He has prepared extensively for this moment and carries a notebook in pocket detailing every tee shot, approach shot, pitch shot and putt he expects to face at Winged Foot.

The heat is on.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

It's Not Over...But It's Close

The temptation is to say Phil Mickelson won the U.S. Open Saturday afternoon with two back-nine birdies that turned a dull tournament into a potential piece of history.

Temptations get you in trouble, though.

Still, I think Mickelson wins the Open today, hugs the trophy he's nearly won three times before and goes to the British Open chasing his own Slam.

It wasn't long ago we were wondering how Mickelson might mess up another chance to win a major. Now we're wondering if anyone can beat him.

Mickelson is the best player in the world right now, regardless of what the world rankings say. He's in control of his game, has a clear plan for playing Winged Foot and it's tough to imagine Kenneth Ferrie beating him today.

But Jack Fleck beat Ben Hogan and Andy North won two U.S. Opens.

If Mickelson doesn't win, don't be surprised if Geoff Ogilvy does. Steadily, Ogilvy has elevated himself among the game's best players. He's not as familiar as Sergio Garcia or Ernie Els but he's more dangerous right now.

This seemed like a perfect Open for Jim Furyk, but he began fading from the chase Saturday afternoon, falling four strokes behind. Plus, Furyk doesn't have a top-10 finish in his last five majors, a surprising stat for such a good player.

Finding David Duval

As the third round of the U.S. Open begins, it's still possible that David Duval -- remember him? -- could win the championship.


It's not likely but the fact it's still possible is intriguing enough.

Duval has been lost in the wilderness for years, wandering off in search of tee shots that went screeching sideways and leaving those of us on the outside looking in wondering how much desire remains in the tank of a man who has never let us get behind those wraparound shades.

Duval's fall from golf's pedestal to the place where double bogeys live has been one of the great crashes ever. But Duval, who still maintains his gruff streak, has been adamant in telling the world that he's happier than he's ever been and he believes his game is coming back.

It's hard to believe that Duval will stay in the chase at Winged Foot because of his problems driving the ball in play in recent years. But as he stood on a podium addressing the media early Friday evening, he didn't seem the least bit surprised he had been on the leader board much of the afternoon.

If Duval were to somehow win this Open, it would be beyond stunning. Regardless, having him show up in contention is great to see. He has been through a wickedly rough patch and he's coming out of it.

Duval has never been easy to love from a spectator's standpoint and he still seems exasperated with any question he's asked. But he's become a sentimental favorite now -- and maybe more than that.

We'll find out this weekend.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Tiger Checks Out

After careful consideration, USGA officials decided Friday afternoon to finish the U.S. Open this weekend despite the fact Tiger Woods is going to miss the cut.

The only lingering question Friday afternoon was whether anyone would make the cut. That's how tough Winged Foot has been.

Tiger's tale was a short, sorry one by golf standards.

He couldn't drive it straight and he couldn't make enough putts to save himself. It doesn't take Johnny Miller to figure out that's a recipe for trouble.

Walking around watching Woods chasing the cut line Friday morning, the gallery was almost eerily subdued. But there wasn't much to cheer about. Not just with Tiger but with everyone playing.

Winged Foot is so hard, there's no way to generate any momentum. Woods found out as harshly as anyone. He looked like a lost soul at times, slashing at shots from the rough then slumping when his ball went somewhere he wished it hadn't.

As Woods walked onto the ninth green (his final hole) Friday at lunch time, he had no real chance of making the cut and knew it. There was no standing ovation for his having tied Jack Nicklaus' record of making the cut in 39 consecutive major championships.

Instead, there was polite applause. One guy yelled, 'Go Tiger!' Then, reminding everyone this is New York, another guy yelled, 'Let's go, Jets!'

Tiger will go somewhere this weekend, maybe on a nice slow yacht ride down the east coast back to his home in Florida. The Open will go on without him. But it won't feel the same.

Who Says They're Not Athletes?

There is a portion of the population that questions whether professional golfers should be considered athletes.

They see Tim 'Lumpy' Herron and think, 'Hey, doesn't that guy work downstairs in receiving?'

They see Mark Calcavecchia and think, 'Didn't he used to be really good?"

Well, last week we were reminded again of what finely tuned athletes pro golfers really are.

Jim Furyk, who won the Wachovia Championship in Charlotte last month and may win the U.S. Open this week, was forced to withdraw from the Barclays Classic because he hurt himself -- taking an Aleve.

Only a world-class athlete can do that.

Furyk had finished brushing his teeth and popped a pill into his mouth. In his words, he "hunched over the sink and I kind of tossed my head back in a quick motion and it seems I probably pinched something in my lower neck, upper back area."

I hate when that happens.

Suddenly, Furyk's neck locked up like a bad computer and he had to withdraw from one of his favorite events on tour.

After a couple of days, Furyk's condition improved and now he's in the Open, which is a pain in the neck of a different sort.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Be Nice To Monty

For whatever reason -- most likely his personality -- Colin Montgomerie has never been a favorite of American golf fans.

And that's too bad.

Monty can be a blast. He can also be petulant, rabbit-eared and maddening. But he's great to have around.

Monty's opening-round 69 in the U.S. Open didn't just thrust him atop the leaderboard by lunch time, it put him back in the New York golf consciousness. Remember when Monty came to the U.S. Open at Bethpage four years ago, Golf Digest magazine mounted a 'Be Nice To Monty' campaign that included big red and white buttons for fans to wear.

It amused Monty, who summon a thunderstorm in his mood quicker than most people, and he laughed about it again Thursday. He has been one of his generation's best players, winning the European Tour's Order of Merit eight times. But because he has never won a major championship and struggled to win hearts, some question his eventual place in the Hall of Fame.

Monty has a way to making life difficult on himself by speaking his mind and tromping around the world's great golf courses with his lower lip pushed up like a three-year old's. He says he's softened some now and there's no question the burden of expectations has lessened for Monty, who has been one of the great players in Ryder Cup history.

Because he's Monty, the London tabloids use him like the New York tabloids use Paris Hilton. Monty can do nothing in private and his personal life, which has had its share of bumps, is prime material for the tabs.

When asked about the state of his bachelorhood Thursday, the cheery Monty played along, noting writers from two London tabs had just left the interview room.

"It's all right can ask that question," Monty smiled. "You're not getting an answer but you can ask the question. Socially, I'm very happy, okay?"

Golf-wise, he was even better -- at least for the day.

Be Nice To Monty

For whatever reason -- most likely his personality -- Colin Montgomerie has never been a favorite of American golf fans.

And that's too bad.

Monty can be a blast. He can also be petulant, rabbit-eared and maddening. But he's great to have around.

Monty's opening-round 69 in the U.S. Open didn't just thrust him atop the leaderboard by lunch time, it put him back in the New York golf consciousness. Remember when Monty came to the U.S. Open at Bethpage four years ago, Golf Digest magazine mounted a 'Be Nice To Monty' campaign that included big red and white buttons for fans to wear.

It amused Monty, who summon a thunderstorm in his mood quicker than most people, and he laughed about it again Thursday. He has been one of his generation's best players, winning the European Tour's Order of Merit eight times. But because he has never won a major championship and struggled to win hearts, some question his eventual place in the Hall of Fame.

Monty has a way to making life difficult on himself by speaking his mind and tromping around the world's great golf courses with his lower lip pushed up like a three-year old's. He says he's softened some now and there's no question the burden of expectations has lessened for Monty, who has been one of the great players in Ryder Cup history.

Because he's Monty, the London tabloids use him like the New York tabloids use Paris Hilton. Monty can do nothing in private and his personal life, which has had its share of bumps, is prime material for the tabs.

When asked about the state of his bachelorhood Thursday, the cheery Monty played along, noting writers from two London tabs had just left the interview room.

"It's all right can ask that question," Monty smiled. "You're not getting an answer but you can ask the question. Socially, I'm very happy, okay?"

Golf-wise, he was even better -- at least for the day.

The Rough Stuff

In case you haven't heard enough already about the thick rough at this U.S. Open, you're going to hear more about it as the tournament unfolds. The rough. Phil and Tiger. Brangelina's new baby. That's what everyone is talking about.

Well, there was the salacious news in one of the tabloids this week about Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan getting into an insult contest when they crossed paths at one of those places where the rich and unexplainably famous like to hang out and pretend they don't like to have their pictures taken.

But back to the rough -- which is where David Toms kept going on Thursday.

It really is manageable if you keep it in the first two layers. But if you get it in the broccoli, you're steamed.

With inside the ropes access here, the media can tromp through the thick stuff and it's like walking through the heavy sand at the top of the beach -- only not as hot. It's so long, it slows your feet down, not that many of us media types are quick afoot anyway.

But it's the U.S. Open. It's supposed to be that way.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Tabloid Tiger

The name of Tiger Woods' $20 million yacht is Privacy -- for all the obvious reasons.

But it can't hide him from the New York tabloids.

Woods is spending U.S. Open week on his yacht in a small harbor not far from Winged Foot and the New York Post found out where.

The paper had a story Wednesday morning of Woods and his boat, detailing his Tuesday morning activities. Two staff writers had a story describing Woods' on the deck of his boat at 6 a.m. playing with his border collie, Taz, before grabbing his golf shoes and heading to his Buick.

Walking to his car, Woods heard a photographer snapping photos and, according to the paper, said, "It's a little early to be taking pictures out there, isn't it?"

Then Woods took off, telling the photographer to "Have a nice day" or something like that.

The Other Teenager From Hawaii

Tadd Fujikawa is loving every minute of his U.S. Open experience.

A rising high school sophomore in Hawaii, the 15-year old Fujikawa is just loving life, since he wasn't expected to have one.

Fujikawa was born 3 1/2 months prematurely and weighed just 31 ounces. His skin was opaque and his lungs hadn't developed.

"The doctors didn't even consider him an infant," his mother, Lori Fujikawa, said. "They said, 'You have a fetus.'"

Fujikawa obviously survived and went on to become a four-time national judo champion. After winning his fourth as a 12-year old, Fujikawa decided to turn his attention to something else -- golf.

He made a 65-foot birdie putt in sudden-death to advance in the local qualifying event for the Open then he won the only available spot in the sectional qualifier in Hawaii where a certain other local teenager -- Michelle Wie -- would have played had she not been on the East Coast to play the LPGA Championship.

So Fujikawa is at Winged Foot and she isn't.

Asked who is the best high school golfer in Hawaii, Fujikawa answered, "Boys or girls?"

He doesn't know Wie, other than having said hello to her. While she gets her attention, Fujikawa is getting his this week.

He's small -- just 5-1 and weighing 135 pounds -- but he averages 280 yards off the tee and has a goal of making the cut this weekend.

"Who wouldn't be excited?" Fujikawa said. "It's the Open. It doesn't matter what age you are."

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Can Arnie Come In?

On Monday night, Arnold Palmer was the special guest at an annual Rolex dinner held this year in the Winged Foot clubhouse.

But it took Arnie a while to get into the place.

Palmer arrived at Winged Foot with a couple of business associates but the security outside the club wouldn't let them inside because they lacked the necessary credentials. After 25 minutes and several phone calls, Palmer and his party were allowed inside where they were fashionably late to their own party.

"It's easier to win the Open than to get into this one," Palmer said upon climbing out of his car.

Welcome Back Tiger

Tiger Woods spent half an hour Tuesday afternoon in the Open media center, talking for the first time about the death of his father, Earl, last month.

Woods remained composed throughout the session while talking about how much he will miss his father, who died May 3.

There were no great surprises in what Woods had to say but it was apparent there is still a sadness in him. He talked about the memories of his father that came rushing back when he went back to work on his golf game, remembering all the times he spent with his dad on practice tees and courses.

"I will miss him every day that I live," Woods said.

Woods said he went more than a month without touching a club and has had to polish the rust off his game. Before anyone dismisses his chances this week because of his nine-week layoff, it's worth remembering after his two previous long layoffs -- following knee surgery and a six-week break after the 2005 season -- Woods won his first start back both times.

Winged Foot: Dripping money, style

This looks like a U.S. Open.

Not that Pinehurst and Pebble Beach and Shinnecock Hills don't have their own distinctive and diabolical charms, but Winged Foot is one of those classic northeastern rich-guy clubs that drip money and born-into-it style.

Winged Foot is the kind of place that separates the merely rich from the wealthy. The clubhouse looks like stately Wayne Manor. The road into the clubhouse -- if you were able to get past the myriad levels of security fanned out around the place -- features two stacked-stone pillars with small bronze plaques identifying it as Winged Foot.

No doubt it looks better without all the white tents and gallery ropes required by the Open but it's still a strikingly handsome place. There are two courses at Winged Foot and the East Course is being used as a parking lot and staging ground -- and it's ranked as the 34th best course in this country.

The West Course, where the Open is being played, is all about big trees, deep rough and greens that move like a churning ocean. Perhaps it's best that Michelle Wie didn't qualify given her trouble holing putts these days. If, by the way, Wie ever figures out how to putt, the possibilities are extaordinary.

Given the USGA's fixation on par, the pre-tournament guessing game always centers on projecting the winning score. Just a guess but somewhere around 2 or 3-under par will probably be good enough to earn someone a dose of golfing immortality.