Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Tracking Tiger and some new grooves

It’s time to sort through the clutter of an emerging golf season and look at a handful of things, such as:

- The announcement on Tuesday that the PGA Tour will return to the Washington, D.C., area on July Fourth weekend with the Tiger Woods Foundation as the centerpiece of a new event looks like a win-win for the tour.

It fills the sudden hole left on the tour schedule by the sudden disappearance of The International and it gets the soft-spiked circus back in the nation’s capital.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s another thread tying Tiger and the tour together. Some have speculated recently that Woods might choose to play his own global schedule rather than conform to the 15-event minimum required by the tour. That’s not going to happen. Woods is going to play the overwhelming majority of his golf on the PGA Tour with a likely July stop in D.C. on his future schedule.

- The USGA announced this week new guidelines on the shape of grooves on irons that will go into effect in 2010. It has the usual complicated and mind-numbing language about technical components, but the basic idea is to make it harder for players to spin the ball out of the rough with their wedges.

An extensive study revealed what we already knew - it’s less important than ever for good players to hit it in the fairway. There was a time when there was a direct correlation in winning PGA Tour events and hitting fairways in regulation. Not anymore.

Combined with urethane-covered balls (like the Titleist ProV1), good players can spin the ball exceptionally well from the rough. For average players who hit Surlyn-covered balls (which account for two-thirds of all golf ball sales), the change will have limited impact.

The new rule will be in effect for many competitions in 2009, but don’t worry if you just bought a new wedge or set of irons. They’ll be grandfathered in for several more years.

- The PGA Tour begins its Florida swing this week at the Honda Classic, a turn in the schedule that’s more than geographic. Coming to the East Coast begins the serious run-up to the Masters.

What did the West Coast swing tell us? That Tiger is still Tiger and Phil is still Phil. We learned that Jeff Quinney is one good Sunday away from winning, that Charles Howell III is back and match play is as quirky as ever.

The pick this week at the Honda is Nick O’Hern and not just because he beat Tiger last week. He’s going to win sometime and now is as good a time as any.

- If you have any golf questions or comments, send them my way through the link here or to my e-mail at

Monday, February 26, 2007

Golf's new world order

It’s not as if Americans invented golf or the country club. We just contributed motorized golf carts, six-hour rounds and John Daly.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise to see that the PGA Tour, once as red, white and blue as the golf shoes I owned in the mid-1970s, has gone global.

The latest evidence came Sunday when Sweden’s Henrik Stenson beat Australian Geoff Ogilvy in the finals of the Accenture World Match Play Championship while the last American standing – Chad Campbell – was losing the unnecessary third-place match to South African Trevor Immelman.

Americans still occupy the top three spots in the world golf rankings – Tiger’s No. 1 followed by Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson – but the rest of the list is filled with players from around the world.

Last week in Tucson, the 64-player field – taken from the latest rankings –included just 23 American-born players.

In 2000, the PGA Tour had just 19 foreign-born players. This year, there are 24 Australians on the tour, 76 international players.
Does this mean the American-made golfer is withering away?
Not necessarily.

What it means is golf is truly global and, given the money, the facilities and the opportunity to accumulate vast amounts of world ranking points, the best international players have decided to play the PGA Tour.

Stenson is just the latest to pose with a trophy. Now No. 5 in the world, moving Ernie Els down to No. 6, Stenson will play at least 15 events here this year (including a likely visit to the Wachovia Championship).

It wasn’t many years ago that we had to wait until the major championships to see the best players from outside the United States. We’d scratch our heads at the unfamiliar names on the British Open leader board, not because they weren’t quality players but because we weren’t familiar with them.

All that has changed now.

Many of the best young players in the game – Luke Donald, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, Trevor Immelman – are not American-born.
It’s not a trend. It’s golf’s new world order.

- Ron Green Jr.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Put brackets around this week on PGA tour

Peter O'Malley is why match play golf is so captivating.

He's not the only reason but a good one.

O'Malley is the guy you'd never heard of in 2002 when, as the 64th seed in the Accenture Match Play Championship, he bumped off No. 1 seed Tiger Woods in the first round of the closest thing the PGA Tour has to a March Madness style tournament.

The Match Play starts again today -- without O'Malley but with Woods chasing an eighth consecutive PGA Tour victory. J.J. Henry gets the first chance today to be golf's ultimate bracket buster, facing Tiger in the first round.

The short list of the best things about golf includes, among other things:

  • Sunday afternoon at Augusta;
  • The par-4 eighth hole at Pebble Beach;
  • Carts on the fairway;
  • And, match play.
The Scots, who created the cursed game, believe it's the way golf should be played and they're right about most things golf-related (and wrong about haggis).

In one sense, the Match Play is easier to win than other tournaments because a player only has to beat six other players, not a field of 144. The danger, though, is running into another player's hot round. Tiger could shoot 66 today but if J.J. Henry shoots 65 and wins 1-up, the streak goes poof.

Here's a real leap of faith -- I'll take Tiger this week but it won't be easy for him. If he handles Henry today, he gets the winner of the Robert Allenby-Tim Clark match tomorrow.

Best match today?

It's probably Sergio Garcia against Darren Clarke, the winner advancing to meet the Stuart Appleby-Charles Howell III winner.

There's only one name missing from the field of 64.

George Mason.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Mr. Howell finally gets off the island

It has been easy - and justifiable - to write off the lost generation of twentysomethings on the American golf scene.

They’ve had the misfortune of being born at the wrong time - the age of Tiger Woods - but, beyond that, they haven’t distinguished themselves. Make a list of the best players under 30 and it’s populated by names like Adam Scott, Luke Donald, Geoff Ogilvy and Sergio Garcia, none of whom are American-made.

Charles Howell III may be coming to the rescue, finally.

Even before Howell showed up several years ago wearing shiny white pants with a green stripe down the side in his Masters debut in his hometown of Augusta, Ga., he has been ticketed for superstardom.

Still just 27, Howell has been good, sometimes very, very good, but not as good as expected. The past couple of years, Howell - who once stood out in his edgy clothing - began to fade into the crowd, a victim of overanalysis, a dodgy touch on his short shots and, of course, great expectations.

But winning the Nissan Open Sunday in a playoff over Phil Mickelson, Howell showed us something. He showed us he could make putts when he needed them. He showed us he could hang in against one of the two best players in the world. He showed us the scar tissue built up by nine runner-up finishes since his only other victory hadn’t paralyzed him.

By his own admission, Howell has been guilty of being too technical with his swing. Golf is ultimately about feel and management more than mechanics and Howell seems to be moving in that direction.

Many of us expected Howell to be the best player of his generation and it can still happen. With two second-place finishes and a 24-carat victory at Riviera, Howell has made a huge leap back into relevance.

It’s harder than any of us know to win on the PGA Tour and Howell has the scars to prove it. But now Howell has another trophy - the scars belong to Mickelson this time - and reason to think there will be many more.

A generation thanks him.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Riviera the PGA Tour's star this weekend

This is one of those weeks on the PGA Tour when the course - in this case Riveria Country Club - is as much a part of the event as the stars sprinkled across the leader board.

Forget that Tiger Woods skipped Los Angeles this week and all the conspiracy theories that he’s plotting his schedule to maximize his shot at breaking Byron Nelson’s 11 in a row streak.

It isn’t about Tiger this week. It’s about Riviera, one of the coolest places the PGA Tour goes.

I’ve been to Riviera twice during the Nissan Open and loved the look and feel of the place. It smells of eucalyptus and, with its big clubhouse sitting atop a hill overlooking the course, Riveria has the feel of someplace important. And it is, if for no other reason than Hogan won there.

Along one side of the course, houses are stretched along a bluff overlooking the property. Locals can tell you which famous person lives in which one. The last time I was there someone pointed out what they said was Mel Brooks’ house. I nodded a quick thanks in Brooks’ direction for ‘Young Frankenstein’ and ‘Blazing Saddles,’ still the funniest movie ever made.

As a golf course, Riviera proves you don’t need water hazards to make it difficult. Like Pinehurst No. 2 and Shinnecock Hills, there are essentially no water hazards in play.

The par-4 second hole is a monster and the 312-yard par-4 10th is one of the great short par-4s anywhere. It dares players to drive the green that’s cut diagonally between two bunkers and is about as wide as Heidi Klum’s waist.

Then there’s the famous 18th, playing uphill toward the clubhouse. Television - even high definition ones - can’t do justice to the daunting challenge of hammering a tee shot up and over the hill on the closing hole.

It’s too bad the tour doesn’t play more courses like Riviera. It gets to special places like Harbour Town, Quail Hollow, Westchester and Cog Hill but over the course of a year, plenty of tournaments are played on layouts that aren’t particularly memorable.

This is a week to appreciate the place as much as the players.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Mickelson's generous gesture should be lauded

If you need another reason to like Phil Mickelson, here’s one:

After learning about the difficulties encountered by former NFL player Conrad Dobler and his family, Mickelson – who’s never met any of the Doblers – has offered to pay the college tuition for Holli Dobler, a sophomore at Miami of Ohio.

Mickelson didn’t do it for the attention. He politely declined to talk specifics recently when Golf World’s Bob Verdi asked him about his actions. It’s not about doing something for publicity. It was about doing something nice for someone in need – and Mickelson has done it more often than we know.

Dobler’s story is this: The former NFL tough guy’s wife fell out of a hammock nearly six years ago and has been paralyzed since. With six children and no retirement money coming from the NFL, Dobler’s finances have been stretched to the extreme.

Mickelson heard about it, took care of Holli Dobler’s tuition and the families will finally meet at The Memorial Tournament in Columbus, Ohio in May.

It was an extraordinarily generous gesture by Mickelson.

And since we’re on the subject of Mickelson, he’s the choice to keep his roll going this week at the Nissan Open in Los Angeles.

I almost got it right last week at Pebble Beach where I picked a left-hander – just the wrong one.

Maybe I’ll get the right Lefty this week.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Mickelson shines at Pebble Beach

Thank you Phil Mickelson.

We missed you.

By winning at Pebble Beach Sunday afternoon, then getting the customary armful of kids on the 18th green, Mickelson finally took the focus away from Winged Foot last summer and brought it back to how good he can be.

The PGA Tour desperately needs Mickelson to win regularly. He is already a first-ballot Hall of Famer and, regardless of what the world rankings say, Mickelson is the player best suited to challenge Tiger Woods as ruler of the golf universe.

That’s not to say Mickelson is going to bump Tiger from his throne. Not happening.
But it would help if someone were there to push Woods and Mickelson is perfect for the job. Lefty is beloved, even if it’s never been entirely clear why he generates so much affection.
Like Tiger, Mickelson is capable of jaw-dropping displays, both good and not so good. Like Tiger, he makes you want to watch him.

Before this season began, Mickelson talked about dealing with the aftermath of his Winged Foot wipeout, of his new slimmed down, muscled-up body and his new emphasis on driving the ball in the short grass.

Nothing happened for a while but it all came together at Pebble Beach. Mickelson has won 30 times on tour, an extraordinary career already.

Mickelson returned last week at Pebble Beach. It’s nice to have him around again.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Instead of Bill Murray, we get Sidney Lowe

Consider this fair warning -- if you were planning on sinking into your favorite golf-watching chair Saturday with something cold and wet to keep you company -- you're going to be disappointed unless you're excited about watching the N.C. State-Georgia Tech basketball game instead of the third round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

The golf tournament is being bumped off WBTV (Ch. 2 on your local cable outlet) by the Wolfpack and the Yellow Jackets on Saturday.

Trading Phil Mickelson, Bill Murray and Pebble Beach for Engin Atsur and Paul Hewitt is a bad deal.

As much as I like golf -- hint: I might know Pierre Fulke if he walked into the room -- there are some tournaments we don't need to see. But Pebble Beach is one that absolutely needs to be seen.

Before you light up the switchboard at WBTV this weekend, it's worth knowing two things -- the final round will be seen as scheduled on Sunday and the local station can't switch the golf to another cable station.

Shelly Hill, director of marketing and programming at WBTV, said the station is bound by contract to air certain ACC games that were chosen before the PGA Tour broadcasts were set. When the station realized the overlap (this isn't a new thing), it contacted CBS officials so the network might move the golf to another station in the viewing area. That's all WBTV can do, said Hill, who understands the frustration of golf fans.

CBS didn't choose to offer the golf on another outlet so, if you really want to see Bill Murray and George Lopez and Andy Garcia and all the real golfers -- not to mention all those panoramic shots of Pebble Beach that never get old -- you're going to have to catch the highlights on The Golf Channel.

The good news is the golf won't be bumped off any more this season.

And, who knows, maybe the State-Tech game will be better than you think.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

No Tiger? No More International

The end of modified Stableford scoring as we’ve come to know it came officially Thursday morning in Denver when The International was removed from the 2007 PGA Tour schedule.

Officially, the cause of death was the lack of a title sponsor.

Unofficially, it was the lack of Tiger Woods.

For 21 years, The International was played at Castle Pines, a glorious-looking layout framed by the Rocky Mountains. They counted points, not strokes, in the tournament, giving it a quirky charm between the inevitable lightning delays that interrupted play.

But with a Fourth of July weekend date, no title sponsor and no likelihood Woods would come back after last playing the event in 1999, tournament founder Jack Vickers decided he’d had enough and called the whole thing off.

Golf tournaments are expensive to run, approaching $8 million annually. That’s why a title sponsor is imperative.

If Woods were a regular at The International, this wouldn’t have happened. Potential title sponsors may have been forced to wait in line to make their case to tournament officials.

Asked by an Associated Press reporter if Woods’ presence would have changed things, Vickers said, “I’d have to say, yeah, if he shows, everything changes. But I also know in fairness to him, he can’t be everywhere. He can’t be everything to everybody.”

Vickers went on to say his tournament could have lived without Tiger from time to time. Three appearances in six years would have been OK, Vickers said.

But there were no promises.

And now there’s no International.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Of Bill Murray, Pebble Beach And The Other Lefty

It's tough to say what's best about the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am -- watching celebs like Ray Romano, Tom Brady and Bill Murray chop their way around the golf course or marveling again at the majesty of Pebble Beach.

Either way, this is one of the most entertaining weeks on the PGA Tour schedule and not just because of what Murray may or may not do. Even when the weather is predicted to be lousy on the Monterey Peninsula -- as it is this week -- it's still fun to kick back and watch.

If you've never been to Pebble Beach, it's hard to describe how spectacular it is. The cliffs, the water, the seals, the greens fee -- they all make you gasp.

So who's week is it at Pebble Beach?

I like a left-hander -- and not Phil Mickelson, who is off to the worst start in his 14-year pro career and hasn't had a top-10 finish since Winged Foot last June.

The pick is Mike Weir, who hasn't done anything particularly exciting this year but seems to come alive when he pulls onto 17-Mile Drive. He has six top-10s in his last seven starts in this event, including four straight top-4 finishes.

Got a better idea? Post it in the comments below.

Monday, February 05, 2007

You can't buy a game

Salvation from your slice is available again for only $400 or so.

Heard that one before?

Thought so.

Another round of golf club wizardry is hitting the market, this time in the curious shape of square-headed drivers that look like something your 3-year-old might play with in the yard.

They’re all the rage, or will be once winter leaves and most of us start playing golf again.

Their magic is in (pardon my use of a scientific term here but it’s necessary even if I’m not quite sure what it means) the moment of inertia, which sounds like something you should talk to your doctor about.

With more technology than most space flights have, golf club makers have found a way to make your mis-hits go straighter. They promise.

That’s important because a round of golf isn’t defined by the quality of your good shots. It’s the quality of your misses that matters most.

There’s a better way, however, than plunking down four bills on a new driver.

Spend it on lessons from a good teaching pro.

New technology doesn’t fix bad swings. I have the used equipment to prove it.

Teachers – and practice – do.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Could Tiger chase record at Quail Hollow?

It’s possible – and there’s a John Daly-sized difference in what’s possible and what’s probable – that Tiger Woods could come to the Wachovia Championship in May attempting to win a PGA Tour-record 12th straight tournament.

Dealing in hypotheticals is dicey, but so is hitting a 4-iron over water, so let’s take a swipe at it.

Tiger has won seven straight PGA Tour events, four shy of tying Byron Nelson’s seemingly unassailable record of 11 in a row. Now the question is where he’ll play and if he’ll keep winning.

For Tiger to go for No. 12 at Quail Hollow, it would probably have to happen this way, with the mind-bending assumption that he keeps on winning:

  • He would have to skip the Nissan Open in Los Angeles, an event he’s played every year since 1996. But he played coy last weekend when asked if he would play Riviera this year, raising doubts about his appearance there.
  • If he passes on L.A., Tiger goes for No. 8 at the Accenture World Match Play Championship.
  • Then he goes for No. 9 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in his backyard.
  • No. 10 would be at Doral.
  • If it reached that point, it would send Tiger to the Masters trying to tie Nelson’s record – and everyone likes Tiger’s chances at Augusta.
  • If Woods got to 11 in a row (without playing L.A.), the question is whether he’d go for No. 12 at the EDS Byron Nelson Invitational in Dallas or wait until the next week and chase history at Quail Hollow where he’s likely to play. Tiger has been loyal to Nelson’s tournament through the years – because of Mr. Nelson. He’s not fond of either of the two courses used at the Nelson but, if he were in such a history-making situation, would Woods skip the event honoring the man whose streak he’s attempting to break? It would be tough to do, especially in the first playing event since Nelson's death last fall. But it could happen.
Imagine the Wachovia if Tiger were chasing No. 12.

And if you’re wondering, tickets ( are almost gone already.