Monday, August 31, 2009

It'll be Jack and Arnie on the first tee at the Masters

It's going to be Arnie and Jack on the first tee at the Masters next April.

Jack Nicklaus has accepted Augusta National's invitation to join Arnold Palmer as the tournament's honorary starter next year. Nicklaus had initially been reluctant to become an honorary starter but he'll be there next year with Arnie for what should be a terrific scene.

Nicklaus played 45 Masters, winning six of them, including his memorable 1986 victory when he was 46 years old.

Between them, Nicklaus and Palmer won 10 Masters and defined nearly 50 years of professional golf.

“I have had such a long-standing appreciation and love affair with Augusta National and the Masters Tournament, and this honor is a wonderful way for me to say thank you to the many patrons who have supported me over the decades,” Nicklaus said in a statement released by Augusta National.

“I am also delighted to join my longtime friend Arnold on the tee. I have always had great respect for Arnold and his legacy at the Masters, and I did not, in any way, want to infringe on the opportunity for Arnold to have and enjoy this Masters tradition for himself. He is so deserving of this honor, and thus I felt it was his time, not mine.

"Recently, I was invited by both Augusta National and Arnold to join him on the first tee, and because he enthusiastically supported the invitation, it became an easy decision for me.”

Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod began the honorary starter tradition in 1963. Later, Byron Nelson, Gene Sararzen, Ken Venutri, Sam Snead and Palmer took the role.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Nagy makes early exit at U.S. Amateur

Charlotte's Corey Nagy made an early exit from the match-play portion of the U.S. Amateur championship today in Tulsa, Okla.

Nagy, a senior at UNCC, was eliminated 5 and 4 by Canada's Christopher Ross in the first round of match play at Southern Hills Country Club.

Nagy had finished tied for 14th among 312 players in the 36-hole stroke-play qualifying portion of the U.S. Amateur.

Five questions as FedEx Cup playoffs begin

Five questions as the PGA Tour playoffs begin:

1. Will Tiger play all four playoff events?
It looks that way. The fact he's playing The Barclays this week suggests he's in for the whole thing. He'll definitely play the Deutsche Bank Championship next week (he's the unofficial host)and given his fondness for Cog Hill near Chicago, I suspect he'll play the BMW Championship.

That brings him to the Tour Championship at East Lake in another month where he can lock down a second FedEx Cup barring an upset. It won't make up for a major-less year but, hey, it's $10 million, not exactly chump change, even to Tiger.

2. If Tiger's the favorite, who's the second choice?
I'm going with Lucas Glover. He's continued to play well this summer after his victory in the U.S. Open. He was fifth in the PGA Championship and, had he been a little sharper on the slow greens at Sedgefield last week, he could have been in the fight for the Wyndham Championship.

Glover has already locked down a spot on the Presidents Cup team (Captain Couples has promised him he's on even if he doesn't qualify on points) and he's riding a nice wave of confidence.

3. Three years in, are the playoffs a hit or a miss?
More hit than miss. They've definitely helped bring some focus to the end of the summer season, which was part of the goal. Without the playoffs, the PGA Tour season would have already gone fuzzy with the approach of football season.

Tour officials keep working to tweak the format to produce a big bang finish and maybe it'll happen this year. The top five players in points entering the Tour Championship will be able to win the FedEx Cup if they win at East Lake. That means there won't be a foregone conclusion when the 30 survivors roll into Atlanta.

4. Which stars may be the first to fizzle out in the playoffs?

Obviously, Adam Scott (116th in points) is a mess right now. His game has been a wreck this year and he's taking a break from his work with instructor Butch Harmon. Scott sounds like a man who's not sure what to do next. The best idea may be to take the fall off and let his head clear out.

Sergio Garcia jumped to 89th in points after his fourth-place finish in Greensboro, a hint of encouragement entering the playoffs. But he talks like a man who doubts his ability to keep it going for any extended period of time.

5. Will anyone beat Tiger Woods for the FedEx Cup?
Doubtful. But Y.E. Yang starts the playoffs in seventh place.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Time for Wie, U.S. players to keep it going

It took three months but there was finally another American victory on the LPGA Tour.

In an otherwise miserable year for the LPGA, the U.S victory in the Solheim Cup Sunday had to feel like an early Christmas, generating some genuine interest in what was happening while remaking Michelle Wie into a star again. Now it will be interesting to see where Wie and the tour go from here.

I'm a huge fan of team golf events such as the Ryder Cup, the upcoming Presidents Cup and the Solheim Cup because they change the players and the landscape. Personally, I could do without the face-painting and tone down Christina Kim's antics but it all worked beautifully for the American team over the weekend.

For Wie, it was a potentially career-changing event. The team aspect allowed the 19-year old to be herself and, from all indications, she broke down some of the walls that have surrounded her since she hit the scene several years ago. It had to help not having her hovering parents around all the time, allowing her to immerse herself in the team.

Her game, a mess a couple of years ago, has come back and she holed some putts thanks to the wise decision to talk with Dave Stockton about her putting. Wie looks like she's regained her confidence, which is crtical. Just ask Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott, both of whom have lost theirs.

If Wie can begin to win regularly, it would help revive a tour desperately in need of a boost. Tournaments are disappearing, there's an ongoing search for a new commissioner and American-born players haven't won very often. The tour has gone flat and seems in danger of flat-lining.

This should help. With Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel, Brittany Lincicome, Wie, Kim and others, the American team showed it has compelling characters. Sure, the European team wasn't as imposing as an international squad stocked with the top South Korean players might be but it was still an important victory for the U.S.

For Michelle Wie, it may be the most important week of her still-young career.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Golf in the Olympics -- a gold medal for the game

I must admit that I've never been taken by the notion of golf returning to the Olympics, something that is all but official now that the IOC's Executive Board has endorsed including golf in the 2016 Games.

Golf has its major championships and Olympic gold, sweet as it may be, won't suddenly leap to the top of the list of most important achievements for players. Plus, I've always thought of the Olympics as a place for other sports -- track and field and swimming, particularly -- to have their moment.

Baseball and tennis, for example, have seemed awkward fits to me. Do you know who won tennis gold last year?

Having said that, golf's return to the Olympics -- it was last part of the Games in 1904 -- comes at a critical time for the sport. It's inclusion isn't so much about whether Tiger Woods wins a gold medal -- he's already the favorite in 2016 though no one's sure where the Games or the golf will be played.

Golf is more global than it's ever been and getting a spot in the Olympics only strengthens the game. It enhances its image in places around the world where it may not be front and center and it's sure to draw more people to the game.

There's a reason all of the game's prominent organizations and many of the game's top stars made an aggressive effort to get golf back in the Games -- to grow the game. Having Jack Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam speak on behalf of the Olympic effort was a strong endorsement and hearing Tiger say he'd represent the U.S. in the Games is huge.

Golf in the Olympics won't change what Augusta means in April or replace the British Open as the unofficial world championship. It will, however, bring the game to more people around the world.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Picking a PGA winner -- besides Tiger

As a prognosticator, I rank somewhere between 'Ishtar' and new Coke.

In the annual pick the winners golf pool in which I participate each year, I typically live near the bottom of the standings, sometimes in but always near what is called the POD -- pit of despair.

With that disclaimer, I have decided to take a swing at picking the winner of the PGA Championship, which begins Thursday at Hazeltine. And, to make it slightly more entertaining (I hope), I'm not going to count Tiger Woods.

He's the obvious choice. Beyond obvious. So, having said that to cover myself when he wins by six this weekend, I'll move on to my picks as if Tiger isn't playing.

1. Steve Stricker
Besides being a really good player with a putting stroke that's as good as that first cold beer after a good round of golf, he's due. He fits the mold this year, too. Like Lucas Glover and Stewart Cink, he's a veteran who's been good for a while but hasn't won the big one.
Stricks has to prove he can handle Sunday afternoon in a major but I like his chances.

2. Lee Westwood
He had a chance to win the 2008 U.S. Open before Tiger and Rocco Mediate did their little dance and the British Open was his to win last month but a couple of late wobbles cost him. Westwood is a very good player and has been for a long time. Maybe it's finally his time.

3. Hunter Mahan
Maybe the top pick behind Tiger right now. He plays well this time of year and he's growing into one of the top young American players. The biggest thing he has to do is prove he can win.

4. Phil Mickelson
I know, he wasn't a factor at Firestone and after all he's gone through recently, it's a stretch to think he can win this week. But he could.
He's Phil. He's long enough to handle Hazeltine's length and if he can get the ball in the fairway and start holing some putts early, it could all fall into place for him. And wouldn't that be a story.

5. Anthony Kim
He's shown signs of life after a lost first half of the season. When he's on -- and he seems to be getting there -- he's seriously dangerous.
Kim still has some growing up to do -- he says that -- but his game is man-sized when he gets it locked in.

Monday, August 10, 2009

It's a matter of time

I've long been an advocate for anything that will accelerate the often glacier-like pace of play on the PGA Tour.

Then the PGA Tour uses Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington to make its point on Sunday afternoon, perhaps unintentionally altering the outcome of a compelling battle between the two stars.

They had, according to tour officials, fallen 18 minutes off the pace on the back nine and needed to be nudged with those nerve-rattling words "you're on the clock." There was an open hole in front of them but, as anyone who watched knows, there was no one behind the day's final pairing.

There was no real threat Woods and Harrington would be penalized for their deliberate pace -- the tour has not imposed stroke penalties on players in nearly two decades -- but it wasn't what they needed to hear at that championship in the balance moment.

The warning obviously flustered the notoriously slow Harrington, who chopped his way to an ugly triple-bogey eight at the par-5 16th while Woods was giving us another trophy-case moment with his 178-yard 8-iron that set up the clinching birdie.

Woods said afterward that the slow-play warning was a factor in his victory, a nod to his admiration for Harrington's grinding work ethic and the fact it seemed to have a direct effect on the proceedings.

It doesn't mean the tour was wrong in pushing Woods and Harrington to hurry along. There is a set time-par in every round and obviously they were taking their own sweet time on Sunday afternoon.

Under the tour guidelines, players given a "bad time" during play aren't penalized for the first violation. However, a second bad time in a round costs them $5,000 and a one-stroke penalty.

If you're going to push for a brisker pace, you have to be consistent. That's what the tour was doing. It is on the players to handle the warning and Harrington, who compounded the problem by hitting his ball into a series of bad spots, didn't do that. He admitted he lost his focus when forced out of his comfort zone.

In this case, the nudge seemed unnecessary given the way the tournament had turned into a two-player duel that had reached the last four holes.

Both sides -- the tour officials and the players -- have reasonable points in this situation.

And Tiger has another trophy.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Greenbrier is newest kid on PGA Tour's block

As expected, the PGA Tour announced today the creation of The Greenbrier Classic, a new event beginning in 2010 that will take the place of the now-departed Buick Open.

The Greenbrier event will be played on the Old White Course, the original layout at the famous West Virginia resort, which has four golf courses. The tournament will be played July 25-Aug. 1.

The tour has a six-year agreement with The Greenbrier, which has had strong ties to professional golf through the years. It's where the 1979 Ryder Cup and 1994 Solheim Cup matches were played and the resort's two golf pros emeritus have been Sam Snead and Tom Watson.

Since native West Virginian Jim Justice purchased The Greenbrier earlier this year, efforts have been underway to land a PGA Tour event at the resort. With the departure of Buick from the PGA Tour, an opening arose allowing The Greenbrier to fill the void.

It's just one piece of a changing picture on the PGA Tour schedule. Tour officials are working with San Diego golf officials about finding a new title sponsor for what had been called the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines, a long-time fixture on the early-season schedule.

There's also on-going discussions about the future of the PGA Tour event in Milwaukee, which is seeking sponsorship, and a possible date change for the Canadian Open, which has struggled to draw a top-level field in its slot the week after the British Open championship.

Monday, August 03, 2009

For Michelle Wie, a big achievement

It may be six years since Michelle Wie has won a golf tournament but being invited to join the U.S. team for the Solheim Cup matches later this month is among her most impressive achievements.

For all Wie has -- a ton of talent, striking looks and the the potential to be an enormous star -- it hasn't been easy for her.

She brought much of it on herself, insisting on playing against the men when she hasn't been able to win on the LPGA Tour while seeming sometimes to care more about being a star than being the best player in the world. It hasn't helped that her parents have been more hands-on than they should have, particularly on the golf side of things.

Finally, though, Michelle Wie may be arriving.

She still hasn't won on the LPGA Tour and there are days when her golf game is ordinary but there seem to be more days when Wie seems on the verge of delivering on her potential. She may never be the game-changing player she imagined -- playing in the Masters, winning on the men's tour - but she's just 19.

Wie's putting has bedeviled her at times, costing her the handful of shots that make the difference in winning and finishing third. But, again, there's a tempation to fast-forward everything where Wie is concerned, in part because that's the way she's been presented to us.

When captain Beth Daniel made Wie one of her two captain's picks -- veteran Juli Inkster was the obvious other choice -- Daniel could back it up with Wie's solid resume this year. She has three top-3 finishes this year and was 13th in the points standings.

This could be a big moment off the golf course for Wie, as well. For years, she was viewed warily, a teen star jumping in and out of tour events, getting the diva treatment whether she asked for it or not. There was, it's fair to assume, some jealousy and animosity.

As a member of the American team, Wie becomes part of the circle. It will be interesting to see who Daniel pairs Wie with during the matches at Rich Harvest Farm in Illinois. Think putting Wie with Paula Creamer or Morgan Pressel would get some attention?

At a time when American women's professional golf is struggling, Michelle Wie may be just what it needs. Beth Daniel thinks so.