Friday, May 29, 2009

N.C. State's Hill in rare company

It would be enough that N.C. State sophomore Matt Hill won the NCAA men's golf championship Thursday in Toledo, Ohio, adding his name to a list that includes Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Curtis Strange, Jay Haas, Ben Crenshaw and Justin Leonard.

But that's just part of what Hill did at Inverness.

Hill won seven of the last eight tournaments he played, a remarkable run by any standards. He finished tied for fifth in his other start this spring, an event in which he was the defending champion.

"It seems like a fairy tale," said Richard Sykes, the N.C. State coach.

Hill became just the second player to win his conference championship, a regional championship and the NCAA championship in the same year, joining Woods who did it in 1996.

Sykes said he sensed he had a special player when he signed Hill but didn't expect him to be so consistently dominant. Like almost every college player, Hill is exceptionally long but he also plays with a style Sykes calls "cautiously aggressive."

In other words, he doesn't try to do too much.

"Since he walked on our campus, he's played great," Sykes said. "He's so steady that eventually he at the top of the leader board at the end. Everyone else seems to fall away. He doesn't."

Hill has said he intends to get his degree, which suggests he'll be around Raleigh for another two years. His next major challenge is trying to play his way into the U.S. Open, something he'll do in two weeks in Columbus, Ohio.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The broken-hearted Sergio

Maybe the reason Sergio Garcia’s golf game has gone missing is the simple fact that his heart hasn’t been in it.

Garcia suggested as much this week when he told reporters at Turnberry that his March break-up with Morgan-Leigh Norman, daughter of Greg Norman, has been at the, uh, heart of his problems.

Sergio said it was the first time he’s ever been in love and when Norman called it quits – it was her decision not his, he said – the hurt stayed with him.

He said the two haven’t talked since their break-up, which he’s finally getting over.

It wouldn’t be the first time relationship problems have scuttled a golf game. Nor the last.

Reading through Garcia’s comments at Turnberry, he was surprisingly open about his private life. Maybe he was looking for pity. He’s unfortunately played that card before.

But this time, it seems, he’s just a guy talking about having his heart broken.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Baker-Finch gives it another go

When last anyone noticed Ian Baker-Finch playing golf -- not announcing it -- his game was a mess.

And that's being kind.

By his own admission, the former British Open champion lost his confidence back in the 1990s and it showed in his scores. It bottomed out with a 92 in the British Open at Royal Troon in 1997, which propelled him into competitive retirement.

It was a wicked fall for a genuinely nice man.

He handled it with grace and moved on to become an outstanding golf commentator.

This week, however, Baker-Finch has decided to play the PGA Tour one more time, teeing it up in the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial 20 years after he won the title there.

In interviews, Baker-Finch has made it clear this is not a comeback. He wants no part of that. But he enjoys playing again and wants to put himself and his game under the gun again.

Few players have fallen so far so fast as Baker-Finch did. David Duval comes to mind, of course.

I can't imagine Baker-Finch playing a PGA Tour event if he weren't comfortable with his game. No one's expecting a miracle.

It would be nice to see him play well. His playing career didn't end well but for an extended period of time, he was among the best players in the game. That's what people should remember about him.

This week is about fun for him. That's a victory in itself.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Lancaster Golf Club comes up aces

Aces were wild Thursday at Lancaster Golf Club.

It started in the morning when Richard Harris, a club employee, made a hole-in-one with a pitching wedge on the 100-yard fourth hole.

About the same time, Joe Swift of Charlotte aced the 155-yard, par-3 13th hole with a 4-iron.

Clyde Adams, the club’s general manager, was in the pro shop congratulating Harris on his ace when Swift walked in and broke the news he’d made one, too.

It wasn’t long afterward that Carl Bradford from Santee, playing in a seniors’ golf match, made the second ace of the day at the 13th hole, using a 5-iron.

“All of it happened by about 2:30 in the afternoon,” Adams said. “I kept saying wouldn’t it be nice if someone made another one.”

Three turned out to be the magic number Thursday at Lancaster Golf Club.

“If you come to Lancaster and play golf, the hole will just get in your way,” Adams said.

Nagy leads Open qualifier, one more step to go

Charlotte 49ers golfer Corey Nagy continued his roll of good play Thursday by leading the local U.S. Open qualifying event at the Carolina Country Club in Spartanburg.

Nagy, who will play in the NCAA championship next week at Inverness in Toledo, Ohio,
shot 68 Thursday to lead six players who advanced to sectional qualifying next month.

For Nagy to earn a spot in the U.S. Open at Bethpage, he will have to be among the top finishers in the sectional event, which typically include a number of PGA Tour and professional mini-tour players.

Also advancing were Daniel Carver of Spartanburg, S.C.; Ben Martin of Greenwood, S.C.; Daniel Obremsky of Conway, S.C.; Jarrett Grimes of Columbia, S.C.; and Paul Butler of Gaffney, S.C.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Amy Mickelson diagnosed with breast cancer

Amy Mickelson, wife of Phil Mickelson, has been diagnosed with breast cancer.

The news was released this morning after Mickelson had undergone extensive testing. According to the release, more testing is scheduled but major surgery is expected, perhaps within the next two weeks.

Phil Mickelson has suspended his PGA Tour schedule indefinitely.

Amy Mickelson, who married Phil in 1996, has been a huge part of her husband's career. Whether watching a tournament with their three children or taking an active role in a variety of charitable causes she and Phil have been involved with, Amy Mickelson brings an uncommon charm with her.

A former Phoenix Suns cheerleader, Amy can light up a room. Whether it's been a day, a month or a year since she's seen someone she knows, Amy makes a point of reconnecting with friends and acquaintances.

In the same way her husband draws fans to him, Amy has her own legion of fans.

And we're all wishing her well though this.

Lookabill gets a well-deserved honor

If you've been around Charlotte long enough, you know the name Gene Lookabill.

For decades, he's been one of the top players in the area and he'll receive a nice honor this weekend when he's presented the Jess Sweetser award at Biltmore Forest Country Club in Asheville.

Lookabill's list of accomplishments runs on and on. He won or finished second in more than 100 events, not bad for a self-taught player who took up the game as a 13-year old and got his first set of clubs from Johnny Palmer.

Lookabill won the prestigious Biltmore Forest Country Club Invitational in 1957 and 1958, one of the events in the region. He won the Carolinas Golf Classic three times, the Clayton Heafner Memorial, the Carolinas Four-Ball, the Mecklenburg Four-Ball and many other events.

A former University of North Carolina golfer, Lookabill won 15 individual championships over the years at Carolina Golf Club and he played in two U.S. Amateurs.

The honor is well deserved.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Haas takes an encouraging step forward

Wrapping up the golf weekend:

-- It’s nice to see Bill Haas have a good finish again. He’d like to have the 17th hole over, no doubt, but a tie for third is his best finish in too long a time.

Haas had the can’t-miss look about him when he came out on tour but it hasn’t come easily to him. He’s struggled with the putter, which can be a drain on anyone’s psyche and definitely affected him.

He’s put some good rounds together this year – enough to make you think he’s on the right path – but hadn’t strung four together. Maybe this is the start of something big for him.

-- As of right now, Zach Johnson is the PGA Tour’s player of the year.

He’s won twice, threatened a handful of other times and looks as comfortable on the golf course as anyone these days.

Had he had made a terrible mess of the relatively routine par-3 second hole at Quail Hollow in the final round, Johnson might have another victory to his credit.

Obviously, he didn’t let it affect him too long.

In a day when bombers seem to rule, Johnson proves that you can still win the old-fashioned way – but hitting good shots and putting the lights out.

-- Michelle Wie tied for third at the Sybase Classic over the weekend, another encouraging finish, though she was never a serious threat to win.

Will she win on the LPGA Tour this year?

Not until she becomes a better putter. Now that she’s worked through the swing issues that nearly scuttled her career a couple of years ago, Wie needs to solve the mystery of putting.

If and when she does that, watch out.

Remember, she’s still a teenager. She just seems older.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Forget the pants, has Big John found his game?

Checking out the golf scene:

-- There’s always been a clown quality to John Daly but now he’s wearing the pants to prove it.

In case you haven’t seen the new duds Big John is wearing while he tours Europe, they apparently come from the Ringling Brothers collection. They are as bright and outrageous as Big John’s career has been.

What’s more interesting is the possibility that Daly has relocated his lost game. When he finished tied for second at the Italian Open last week, it was like a blast from the past. Granted, the field wasn’t very strong – the best players were at The Players Championship – but it was a big step for Big John.

He got off to a good start in the Irish Open this week and there’s reason to think Daly may be serious about his golf again. He’s been working with swing coach Rick Smith, who may have more success with them than Butch Harmon did.

Daly has lost weight with the help of surgery and says he’s intent on being a player again. We’ve heard it before. Maybe this time it’s true.

He intends to play a full schedule in Europe until he can return to the PGA Tour in June. That’s a long time in Big John’s world.

-- When Rory McIlroy said this week that making the European Ryder Cup team is “not a huge goal for me” and he considers the matches to be “an exhibition at the end of the day,” it naturally stirred a pot that’s never far from a boil.

McIlroy was making the point that his emphasis is on winning tournaments, not the Ryder Cup. He did add that if he makes the team – he’ll make it, no doubt – he’ll enjoy it.

Two things about what McIlroy said:

He’s right about where he puts his emphasis. It’s the same for every other player who plays the Ryder Cup;

And, when he plays in a Ryder Cup, he’ll feel differently about it. Just ask Hunter Mahan and David Duval, both of whom made similar remarks then found themselves swept up in the emotional tide the matches create.

-- Bob Rosburg, a familiar voice for years on golf telecasts, died on Thursday after a fall in California.

Rosburg, 82, had been battling cancer.

A former PGA champion, ‘Rossie’ was among the first on-course reporters during golf telecasts and he wasn’t shy about finding a player’s golf ball in the rough and saying, “He’s got no shot” or “that’s the worst lie I’ve ever seen.”

It became part of Rosburg’s gig.

The best may have come in 1976 when Rosburg said Jerry Pate was laying up on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open at Atlanta Athletic Club only to see Pate rifle a famous Open-winning 5-iron shot to within three feet of the hole.

Golf lost a classic on Thursday.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Don't forget to say thanks once in a while

The next time you find your golf ball sitting with a nice lie in the fairway remember to say thanks to the course superintendent.

They’re the ones who catch all the grief when the greens are splotchy or they’ve been aerated. It’s their fault if the bunker sand isn’t just right or there are bare spots on the tees.

They get blamed for more things than the liberal media.

And when it’s good, they probably don’t get enough thanks.

There’s an art and a science to growing grass and course superintendents do a lot more than that.

Course conditions are so much better than they used to be and with the abundance of rain around here recently, this may be a big year for thick rough.

Don’t blame them for the rough. Learn to hit it straighter.

Recently, more than $55,000 was raised for turfgrass research at N.C. State and Clemson through an on-line auction called Rounds4Research sponsored by members of the Carolinas Golf Course Superintendents Association.

These are the people who give us the greens we putt on. It’s not their fault if we 3-putt.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Feherty made a bad joke -- and he's sorry

CBS golf commentator David Feherty went too far with his humor in an article that appeared recently in a Dallas magazine in which he wrote of soldiers’ support for former president George W. Bush “if you gave any U.S. soldier a gun with two bullets in it, and he found himself in an elevator with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Osama bin Laden, there’s a good chance that Nancy Pelosi would get shot twice and Harry Reid and bin Laden would be strangled to death.”

Feherty has apologized for the comment, which was part of a story he wrote for D Magazine about the former president moving back to Dallas near where Feherty lives.

It was a mistake – a wisecrack gone wrong -- but it shouldn’t be career-threatening. CBS Sports and the PGA Tour quickly issued statements distancing themselves from the comment and Feherty’s image has been dented.

Feherty, a native of Northern Ireland who is now an American citizen, has spent the past two Thanksgivings in Iraq entertaining U.S. troops and he’s been active in fund-raising for the Troops First Foundation which aids soldiers returning home, many without limbs.

When he talks about what living here and becoming a citizen of the United States means to him, it’s powerful and genuine. I’ve talked to him about it more than once.

He’s inspiring.

And, no doubt, sorry for what he wrote.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Will Tiger be ready for the U.S. Open?

The question now isn’t what’s happened to Tiger Woods’ golf game, particularly on Sunday afternoons. Obviously, it’s frayed around the edges.

The larger question is whether his game will be ready for the U.S. Open at Bethpage next month.

You didn’t need to watch the final round of the Quail Hollow Championship or Sunday’s closing 18 holes at The Players Championship to know something’s not right. Just look at the scores.

A 72 at Quail Hollow ending with 10 straight pars? A choppy 73 at The Players that seemed worse than that?

He’s become mortal.

And that’s what bothers us.

We want Tiger to be, well, Tiger.

We want fist-pumps and four birdies in a row. We want to see him saving par from places Special Forces couldn’t help you. We want shock and awe, not aw, shucks…or something that sounds like that.

We’re getting Tiger talking about hitting “spinners,” which is a fancy word for heel/neck cut shots that are prone to producing bogeys.

There’s speculation about whether he’s going to split with teacher Hank Haney (I seriously, seriously doubt it); whether he’s gotten too big (his biceps didn’t seem to bother him at Bay Hill); and whether the doctor fixed his knee but messed up his golf game.

Oh, by the way, Sunday was his 17th consecutive top-10 finish worldwide.

And we’re asking what’s wrong.

Nothing against Henrik Stenson, who’s probably among the 10 best players in the world, but his nearly perfect final-round 66 won that him The Players Championship couldn’t quite overshadow the questions surrounding Tiger.

We’ve come to expect Tiger to deliver every time he’s in position to do so. When he beat Sean O’Hair with a birdie on the 72nd hole at Bay Hill, everybody knew he was going to make it. He’s trained us to believe it just like he’s trained himself.

Now that it’s gone a little sideways on Tiger, we’re left to wonder if he can fix what’s wrong.

Of course he can.

Unless you’re at Tiger Jam this weekend, you won’t see Tiger again until he plays The Memorial in a month. It’s fair to assume he’ll play Jack’s tournament two weeks before going to Bethpage and we should have an idea then if Tiger’s worked through his issues.

He said Sunday that he knows what’s wrong. If you play golf, you understand. You can know what you’re doing wrong but fixing it, especially on the course, can be tougher than trigonometry.

The U.S. Open is where Tiger’s focus is now and Bethpage is no place for a guy spraying his tee shots. It’s a beast and as unforgiving as the New York crowd that will be there.

Watching Tiger chasing his golf swing around the Stadium Course with its baked-out greens was a reminder of how tough the game can be – even for him.

How weird was it to see Tiger in the final pairing on Sunday afternoon and the tour suits waiting for him and Alex Cejka to finish so they could get on with presenting Stenson his trophy?

It was different, no doubt.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

O'Hair the best of twentysomethings

There are three regulars on the PGA Tour under the age of 30 with at least three wins on their resume – Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott and Sean O’Hair.

Of those three, the one mostly likely to win a major championship is O’Hair.

Not only does that say something about the sagging state of both Garcia and Scott’s golf games, it speaks to how good O’Hair is and is likely to become.

Garcia has a semi-major to his credit with his win at The Players Championship last year and he’s flirted with the real thing several times. His playoff loss to Padraig Harrington at Carnoustie in 2007 and another loss to Harrington at the PGA Championship last August have earned him the distinction of BPNTHWAM – best player never to have won a major.

But Garcia’s disposition, especially with a putter in his hands, makes me wonder if he has too many demons running around in his head. When he lashed out after the Masters about how he doesn’t care for Augusta National, it was a blend of frustration and immaturity.

Sergio believes the golf gods – and the media – are against him. Neither is true but if he believes it, he’s looking in the wrong places.

Scott also has a Players win to his credit but he’s typically a shadow in majors. He’s played 32 of them and has just four top-10 finishes, the best being a quiet tie for third at the 2006 PGA.

He seems to have it all – including a new $40-million jet – but his game has left him. Scott has missed four straight cuts while working on a swing adjustment in hopes it will click in by the U.S. Open.

Whereas Garcia has proven he can consistently challenge in majors, Scott has not. That’s his next step.

That leaves us with O’Hair, whose toughness and resiliency are as impressive as his golf swing. At this moment, he’s easily the best of the twentysomethings.

He’s a guy who could be paralyzed by scar tissue but he’s not. Instead, he’s emerging as America’s brightest young player. Just 26 but a pro for nearly a decade, O’Hair has steadily climbed the golf ladder to the point he’s now among the top players on tour.

There was nothing flukey about O’Hair’s victory at Quail Hollow last week.

He’s here to stay.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Five reasons to love the Players Championship

Forget that The Players Championship isn’t officially a major championship.

It doesn’t need to be.

The Players (that’s what the PGA Tour wants us to call it) has its own special place in the game.

Here are five reasons to love The Players:

1. It’s Part Two of the best two-week stretch on the PGA Tour schedule.

Putting the Quail Hollow Championship and The Players back to back on the schedule makes May a big month on the tour schedule. Playing Quail and the Stadium course on consecutive weeks is like having steak and lobster.

2. Everybody Plays

The tour loves to trumpet the fact that The Players annually has the best field in golf but it ain’t bragging if you can back it up. John Daly’s not there but if you’ve seen those clown pants he’s wearing these days, that’s a good thing.

3. Paul Goydos

The tour’s ultimate everyman nearly won The Players last year, losing in a playoff to Sergio Garcia.

Goydos may never be a big star but he’s as real as it gets on the tour. Other players get paid to wear corporate logos on their cap. Goydos wears a Long Beach State cap.

4. It’s Familiar

Because it’s played across the same reclaimed swamp land every year, The Players has a history.

It’s where Jerry Pate jumped in the water after winning and took commissioner Deane Beman with him. It’s where Hal Sutton said, “Be the right club, today,” where Fuzzy Zoeller toweled off a record-setting Greg Norman and where Craig Perks pulled off a stunning upset.

That’s what you want.

5. The 17th Hole

I know it’s contrived and gimmicky. I know it’s unfair when the wind is howling and there’s an artificial feel to it.

But I know it’s great fun to watch, whether you’re parked on one of the viewing areas around the hole or on your couch at home. Mention The Players Championship and it’s the first thing that comes to mind.

Play the golf course and the first question anyone asks is ‘What’d you do on No. 17?”

They’ll be asking the same question to players this weekend.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Are you good enough to play Quail?

Do you want a shot at playing Quail Hollow?

The best players in Mecklenburg County will get that opportunity later this summer if they can advance to the final round of the Charlotte City Amateur championship.

On-line registration has opened for the 2009 event at

The tournament is open to any legal resident of Mecklenburg County with a handicap index of 6.4 or less.

This year's 54-hole event will begin Aug. 14 at Carolina Golf Club. The second round will be played Aug. 15 at Myers Park Country Club and the final round will be played Aug. 16 at the Quail Hollow Club. The field will be narrowed after each round with only the low 24 advancing to the final round.

First, you have to qualify. There are two opportunities -- July 13 and July 24 at Pine Island Country Club.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Ogilvy: It's better to make pros think a little bit

Count Geoff Ogilvy, one of the most thoughtful players on tour, as a fan of the course set-up at Quail Hollow last week.

“It’s much better. It’s more interesting to play and I’m sure it’s much more interesting to watch. It’s not about the length of the (two-inch) rough. It just needs to be unpredictable," Ogilvy said.

“When it’s always a good lie it’s not good and when it’s always a bad lie it’s not good. It makes a guy have to make smart decisions. Anything that makes us think is good. Less rough and firm greens makes us think more.

“It’s got to be better for golf to try to get pros to use their brains a little bit.

“Normally, it’s just pull out whatever club and wail it straight at the pin. Golf is better when you have to think about where you miss it. That knocks back to the tee shot. You have to put your tee shot in the right spot to make the second shot easier to get under the hole. It just makes it a more interesting game.”

Asked if Quail Hollow was good enough to host a major championship, Ogilvy said, “It’s a lot better than some courses we play majors on.”


A few post-Quail Hollow thoughts

A few thoughts as the 2009 Quail Hollow Championship comes to an end:

-- Overall, it was one of the best events in the seven-year history at Quail Hollow. Maybe 2007 when Tiger and Michael Jordan played in the pro-am and Tiger won the event gets slightly higher marks but not by much.

From the way the golf course played to the quality of the field to the ease of operation, it was exceptional. For all the pre-tournament angst about the title sponsor issue, it was a non-factor during the week.

The tournament reinforced its place among the elite events in golf. That's not just me saying it. From players to agents to visiting media, the same thing is being said.

-- We're just now seeing how good Sean O'Hair can be. So much of what we've known about him is from his backstory with his father but O'Hair is superb talent. He's long, plays smart and can handle tough greens.

He was nearly flawless tee to green, proving that putting doesn't always win tournaments. In what may be a first, O'Hair did not make a putt longer than 10 feet in the tournament. As it turned out, he didn't have to.

-- David Feherty proved again Sunday why he's brilliant. He was able to kid with Tiger -- calling him a loser -- and get away with it.

Woods had to be running a little hot after his round but Feherty disarmed him with his humor. Woods was great with the media afterward on Sunday, taking plenty of time to talk about his game and what did and didn't work last week.

He's still too streaky, he said, and it showed. He played great shooting 65 on Thursday but closed with 10 pars on Sunday when he needed something more to win.

Maybe next year.

-- For all the talk about the tournament possibly ending in 2014, it's worth remembering that's just when the current contract runs out. There's only one PGA Tour event with a contract that goes past 2014 so it's not as if Quail Hollow is any different than other events.

It's conceivable that Quail Hollow could continue to host a PGA Tour event and a major championship in the future. They are not mutually exclusive. Nothing has been decided and it's not likely to be determined any time soon.

Friday, May 01, 2009

A peek inside the Quail Hollow locker room

If you've wondered what it's like in the Quail Hollow locker room during tournament week, here's a glimpse:

It's a great locker room, filled with tall wood lockers with cushioned bench seating in front. Each player uses one of the member's lockers during the week with their own brass nameplate afixed.

Tiger Woods has a corner locker. Of course, he does.

The first thing players see when they come in is the big bar that's like the control center of the locker room.

There's a scoring computer at one end and almost every player stops to check what's happening in the tournament.

On the bar, there are at least four different daily newspapers -- the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today and the Charlotte Observer. There's also a small medicine cabinet with pain-killers, sunscreen, etc, if the players need it.

In the middle of the room, there are a couple of leather sofas and card tables positioned around a television.

Players come and go through the locker room, changing into their workout clothes before or after their rounds but barely spending much time there.

Their hang-out place is the lunch room in the back of the locker room. That's where they had a chef preparing made-to-order pasta today plus a sandwich and salad bar.

There are several tables where players sit together and talk or watch one of the three televisions mounted side by side. They're usually tuned to ESPN, a financial station and a local station.

If they want, there's an ice cream cooler stocked with Ben & Jerry's treats. Some guys can't resist.

It's a nice place to hang out for a week.

And even better place to hang out the rest of the year.