Friday, April 30, 2010

Have Tiger, Phil Ever Been More Different?

Have Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson ever been further apart?

If what happened at the Masters three weeks ago didn't bring the differences in their lives into sharp enough focus, what happened over the last two days at Quail Hollow should have. They are worlds apart right now.

Mickelson is on an emotional and professional high. That doesn't diminish the reality of what his family is facing with his wife, Amy, and mother, Mary, both battling breast cancer. That is at the center of Mickelson's life but he has worked hard -- and understandably -- to keep that out of the public view.

As a golfer, Mickelson just won the Masters and outpouring of emotional goodwill. He is beloved in a way Woods never has been. It's always been a matter of personalities where they're concerned but now it has been magnified.

Mickelson has been sick since he arrived in Charlotte but he's still played himself within two shots of the lead and he's talking like a man who thinks he's going to win. He should.

Woods, meanwhile, looked like a lost soul at Quail Hollow. We can only imagine what's going on in his head these days. I once asked him what it would sound like if we could go inside his head on the course. He answered, "It's quiet."

It can't be quiet right now.

His game is a ragged mess. He couldn't figure out on Thursday which way his shots were going to fly then on Friday, his normally reliable short game betrayed him. He chipped it across the green at No. 7 and almost into a creek. Seven holes later, Woods hit a flop shot across the green and into a pond. One hole later, he four-putted.

Maybe he came back too soon. Maybe he's really bothered by what's happening in his personal life.

Maybe what we saw Thursday and especially Friday was the culmination of all the pressure that has built up on Woods over these past few months. The result was a 79 that could have been worse and a weekend at home.

Woods joked he'll spend his off time watching the tournament "to see how it's done."

What he may see is Mickelson winning another tournament. Wonder how that would feel?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Mickelson Improving But Still Feels Badly

As Phil Mickelson was walking toward the first tee Thursday to start the Quail Hollow Championship, he was still feeling bad about Wednesday.

Not about his queasy stomach, which still wasn't feeling all that great on Thursday, but about leaving his pro-am partners to play their last 12 holes with Jonathan Byrd, a sudden fill-in when Mickelson couldn't keep going.

"I've got to make it up to them," Mickelson said before going to the tee.

He'll find a way. It's how Mickelson is. That doesn't mean he'll play 18 holes with the guys he left but he won't forget about them.

After Tiger Woods shot 74 Thursday morning, Mickelson's afternon 2-under par 70 was a bonus for the tournament, which didn't want its two top stars to be fighting to make the cut on Friday. Mickelson responded, playing solid golf despite not being at peak condition.

Mickelson walked slowly around Quail Hollow and began running out of energy late in his round. He got 2 1/2 bags of IV fluids on Wednesday and he felt his energy flag climbing the hill on No. 15.

Of course, the par-3 17th hole got him again. He three-putted for a bogey there. That hole has tormented Mickelson through the years but at least he kept his tee shot out of the water there. Then he bogeyed the 18th hole. It could have been better but he wasn't complaining.

"I'll take it," Mickelson said.

Being sick isn't all bad in Mickelson's case. As he pointed out, the last two times he's gotten sick and fainted at tournaments, he's won. Strangely, it's a good omen, he said.

Maybe that's why he likes his chances this weekend.

Tiger Puts Early End To Ugly Day

After shooting a 2-over par 74 in the first round of the Quail Hollow Championship Thursday, Tiger Woods knew exactly what he needed to do.


Woods signed his card, did the obligatory post-round interviews, made a pass through the locker room and vanished from Quail Hollow to let the frustration over his ragged opening round subside. It was messy enough that Woods figured it was better to clear his mind than grind over a couple of bags of range balls.

"I'm just going to hang it up today and come out tomorrow," Woods said.

He hit four fairways -- just one in his first nine holes -- and only nine greens. He drowned a Nike ball in the water at the par-3 17th hole then put another one in the creek with his drive at No. 18 to finish his first nine holes double-bogey, bogey.

Woods tried to hold it together but the problem was he didn't know where he was hitting it. He had the dreaded two-way miss going meaning he felt like most golfers -- he'd make a big swing then look up to see which way the ball was going, not certain what he'd see.

There was no shortage of security officers around Woods during his first round. There were three uniformed policemen bolting about on their Segway scooters, others walking with the gallery and, no doubt, others blending in like fans.

Woods was treated like he always is, with plenty of applause. He complimented the galleries but admitted he wasn't listening much of the time.

"I was struggling so bad today, I didn't know which way I was going to go, whether I was going to go left or right, I didn't really hear much to be honest with you," Woods said.

Asked if it was something he could fix on the range, Woods shook his head and smiled.

"I'm not going to the range today," he said. "Hell with it."

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Five Players To Watch This Week

It's time to get the Quail Hollow Championship started.

Monday and Tuesday were about waiting, Wednesday was about Tiger returning, Phil getting sick and Freddie and Michael playing together. Now it's about business.

The dream scenario would have Woods, Mickelson, Padraig Harrington, Rickie Fowler, Camilo Villegas, Boo Weekley, Davis Love III and a few others shouldering for position on the leader board this weekend. No one's quite sure what to expect.

The golf course is in prime shape, though it's soft enough from Tuesday's rain that it may yield some low scores. The field is exceptional and the weather will be perfect for scoring.

I'm terrible at picking winners but here are five guys I like heading into the first round:

-- Anthony Kim. I know he's hurt and flew in from Korea Monday but he's making birdies by the bushel and loves this place. He's dangerous.

-- Jim Furyk. He's won twice this year. He's won here and lost in a playoff another time. He's playing well and seems to live on leader boards.

-- Jason Dufner. Tied for fifth here last year. May not be well known but he's a good player.

-- Tiger Woods. Even if he's only played one tournament in almost six months, he's still Tiger Woods.

-- Phil Mickelson. Beware the sick golfer, especially one who just won the Masters.

Woods: 'Heckuva Lot More Normal Than Masters'

After playing a leisurely 18 holes Wednesday morning in the Quail Hollow pro-am, Tiger Woods said his second golf tournament of the year feels more like normal than his return to golf at the Masters three weeks ago.

"This feels a heckuva lot more normal than the Masters did," Woods said at a press conference just after noon.

Woods' gallery grew as the morning unfolded. There were several hundred fans when he and his amateur partners teed off at 7:30 a.m. but thousands were following as they played the closing holes. There were no incidents and heckling from the gallery as Woods made occasional conversation with fans during the round.

Woods said he decided to make the Quail Hollow Championship his second event of the year because of his comfort level at the tournament.

"I'm trying to get back to normalcy," Woods said. "Charlotte has always been one of my favorite tour stops. It's always a treat to play a course like this. It's very similar to a major championship."

Asked about the reception he received from fans, Woods said, "The people here have always been very gracious. The fans really get into the event."

Woods played with Kurt Kimball and Jim Rathburn of the Compass Group. Woods' name was available when they landed the first pick in the Tuesday night draw party so they took the chance to play with him.

"I could hardly get the words out of my mouth," Rathburn said.

Despite the large crowds, Rathburn said the morning round of golf with Woods was unforgettable.

"It was the experience of a lifetime," he said. "Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd have the chance to do this.

"He's been great. He even settled me down a little bit just by talking to me. He was extremely personable."

After his round, Woods paused for about 15 minutes signing autographs. He also stopped two more times -- after a session on the practice tee and the putting green -- to sign.

A Good Start For Tiger At Quail

I'm not sure if the world was expecting anything different but Tiger Woods' arrival at the Quail Hollow Championship this morning was nice and easy.

Woods was smiling and happy, chatting with his amateur playing partners, speaking to people in the gallery, even stopping to give a signed ball to a six-year old who was skipping school and will now have the ball and photograph of his moment with Woods.

When Woods made his Monday debut at the Masters, I was near the first green so I couldn't judge the level of the reception he received at the tee. A colleague who was at both places said the reception was louder here.

There was a good crowd following Woods and his group but it wasn't enormous. It was, however, before 8 a.m. when they began and spectators were just beginning to pour in.

This should be a very good week for Woods, regardless of whether his game is razor sharp or not. It's about things getting back to normal where he's concerned and it already felt that way this morning. There's more attention than usual -- there were plenty of golf writers slogging around in the damp morning grass watching Tiger -- but it felt laid back.

It was a good way to start.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Five Things To Like About Pro-Am Day At Quail

Here's a list of five things worth watching at the hit-and-giggle part of the Quail Hollow Championship, also known as the Wednesday pro-am:

1. That Tiger Guy
You've heard of him. He tees off at 7:30 a.m. in what is sure to be a chilly morning on a damp golf course but with a lot of eyes on him. Woods has traditionally been first off on pro-am day and this year is no exception. Don't be surprised if he hangs around someplace and signs some autographs. Expect him to smile a lot and say thanks, too.

2. Phil's Back
It's been almost three weeks since Phil Mickelson won the Masters but it will probably still be fresh when he tees it up Wednesday afternoon. And expect that feeling to continue through the week.

3. MJ and Freddie
Talk about charisma. Putting Michael Jordan and Fred Couples togehter -- along with Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris -- is a can't miss hit. They tee off just after noon and it may be the rare pro-am group that requires you to walk ahead once in a while just to get a good look at what's happening.

4. He Can Drive -- A Car
Four-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, a Quail Hollow member, is playing in the afternoon. Just remember, he doesn't play golf for a living. But he has fun at it.

5. There's A Reason They're Amateurs
There are three golfers in each group. One of them plays golf for a living. The other two are just trying to act like they're not as nervous as they are.

Weather Interrupts Casual Day At Quail

It's been raining a little bit at the Quail Hollow Championship today but it's the PGA Tour's version of a casual day.

Shortly before 2 p.m., horns sounded pulling all players off the course and practice area in advance of an approaching storm.

Tiger Woods was scheduled to stop by the course he's designing near Asheville on his way into Charlotte today and Phil Mickelson was making a late departure from the west coast but there's still plenty happening today. There are multiple groups on the course -- Trevor Immelman teed off at 6:37 a.m. -- and both the range and putting green are busy between rain showers.

Putting guru Dave Stockton is scheduled to set up shop on the practice green as part of a product launch with TaylorMade. Stockton, considered one of the foremost putting instructors in the game, gets credit for adjusting Mickelson's set-up and stroke late last season, leading to the lefthander's torrid finish in 2009.

The bright spot from the Charlotte Bobcats' elimination from the NBA playoffs was the confirmation that Michael Jordan will be paired with Fred Couples and Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris Wednesday at 12:18 p.m. on Wednesday. It had been rumored for a few days but it was made official today.

As for who plays with Woods and Mickelson on Wednesday, both are up for grabs at the pro-am draft party tonight. That means their pro-am partners aren't predetermined, putting both in play for whichever two-man amateur teams happen to get the first couple of picks.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Nice Start To Quail Hollow Week

At most PGA Tour events, Monday is essentially a day off. A few pros have wandered into town and spend an hour or so putting or chipping before heading off to run errands or relax or whatever.

It's different at the Quail Hollow Championship today. There's a sizeable crowd -- big enough to make some tournaments happy if it were Thursday or Friday. A good many of the fans are following the celebrity pro-am pairing that includes Dell and Stephen Curry, police chief Rodney Monroe, NASCAR's Michael Waltrip and pro Steve Lowery.

The Currys, if you didn't know, know their way around a golf course. They're both long off the tee, almost uncommonly long, and they can score. Plus, they've got good jump shots.

Monday is a gentle prelude to what should be an exceptional week at Quail Hollow. The momentum and anticipation will build Tuesday and Wednesday morning, when Tiger Woods tees off, and after lunch when Phil Mickelson and Fred Couples are on the course, should be borderline electric.

With a good weather forecast, a good course in prime condition and an outstanding field, the pieces are in place. Today has been a nice start.

Another Reason To Admire Harrington

There are many reasons to like Padraig Harrington beyond his three major championship victories but he gave us annother one today.

Harrington, one of the premier players in the world, is teeing it up in the Monday pro-am at the Quail Hollow Championship, a day the stars typically take off.

The Wednesday pro-am is the bigger one and the one the big names are always in but Harrington took the added step of playing on Monday. That gets to the kind of guy Harrington is.

The past two years at the annual Golf Writers Association of America awards dinner at Augusta, Harrington has been honored for both his play and his personality. He has taken the time to come and speak, not just saying thank you but offering some thoughts in the process.

He works relentlessly on his game but Harrington thinks outside the golf bubble, too. Harrington may not have the star power of Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods but he has a special place in the game for many reasons.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Tiger Blogs About Augusta, Quail And His 63

In a blog posted on his website, Tiger Woods says the warm reaction from the gallery at the Masters was more than he expected and something he won't forget.

Woods says in his blog that finishing fourth after his layoff and all that has happened in his life was "pretty cool."

He reiterated his desire to control his emotional outbursts after television captured him cursing at himself during the Masters and added that he will continue to officially commit to tournaments earlier than in the past, if he can.

Woods also made a point in his blog to congratulate Phil Mickelson on his Masters victory and acknowledge Lorena Ochoa's retirement from golf.

Woods said he went scuba diving and spent time with his family after the Masters. He also shot 63 at Isleworth with his friend, John Cook, making a double-eagle in the process.

As for his upcoming visit to Charlotte, Woods wrote: "Next week, I return to competition at the Quail Hollow Championship in North Carolina. Quail Hollow Club is one of my favorite courses on tour. It's traditional, right in front of you, difficult, and you have to shape shots both ways. I managed to win there in 2007 and look forward to going back."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Quail Can't Get Much Better Than It Is Right Now

It's tough to imagine the Quail Hollow Club being in better condition than it will be for the Quail Hollow Championship next week.

I had the good fortune to play 18 holes there today and it's in spectacular condition. The fairways are nearly perfect, the rough is cut to a manageable two inches like last year and the greens are getting firmer and quicker by the day.

Almost everything is ready to go right now. There are still some plants to put around some tents for decoration and some finishing touches on skyboxes but Quail Hollow looks ready for what's coming.

And it could be the most dynamic event in the tournament's history given all the storylines coming in.

The course doesn't have many significant changes from a year ago, except there's a new tee at the par-4 fourth hole that can stretch it to more than 500 yards. I admired it as I walked 60 yards ahead to the tees where we were playing.

The bunkers have been redone, a few of them tweaked slightly, making a strong golf course even stronger.

They do a wonderful job at Quail Hollow of making the permanent structures -- the skyboxes, the bleachers, the concession stands -- fit into their surroundings. Obviously they intrude on what is typically a beautiful parkland-style golf course but the structures manage to be almost understated.

They get many things right at the Quail Hollow Championship and perhaps what they get right the best is the attention to detail. Little things are important to them and, just like the big things, they want to get the little ones right, too.

And don't ask what I shot. But if you'd like to hear about the birdie I made at No. 15...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Charlote's Nagy Named To Palmer Cup Team

Among all the honors in the career of Charlotte 49ers' golfer Corey Nagy, few can match being named to the United States team for this summer's Palmer Cup matches in Ireland.

Nagy, a three-time All-American and individual champion of the Atlantic 10, is one of eight players named to the team which will meet the best European college golfers at Royal Portrush Golf Club June 24-26.

“It’s extremely exciting,” Nagy said in a press release. “Obviously, any time you can represent your country it’s a tremendous honor. This is unique in the sense that only a handful of guys get to go. To be invited is pretty special. It certainly ranks up there in things I’ve accomplished at Charlotte. I feel very honored to be a part of the team.”

In 2008, Charlotte golfer Jonas Enander Hedin played on the European Palmer Cup team, which defeated the American team.

“This is a tremendous honor for Corey,” said 49ers head coach Adam Pry. “Being selected to represent your country is extremely special and will certainly be an experience he will remember for the rest of his life. Corey will have to delay turning professional for another month to play in the Palmer Cup but it will provide a fitting end to a very successful amateur and college career.”

Nagy, who has earned all-America honors in each of his three seasons with the 49ers and has boasted six top-five finishes this season, including victories at the VCU Shootout and the Irish Creek Collegiate, won the 2009 A-10 Championship.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ochoa's Surprising Retirement Leaves A Void

Lorena Ochoa always said the things she does away from the golf course are more important than the things she did on the course and that has become crystal clear with the surprising news that Ochoa is retiring from professional golf.

It's unclear whether Ochoa will play one more tournament -- an LPGA Tour event outside Mexico City next week -- or if she's officially finished with competitive golf. Either way, it's shocking news considering she's just 28 years old and she's the No. 1 player in the world, a spot she's held for the past three years.

Ochoa has been the LPGA player of the year the past four years but the assumption is she will spend more time with her husband, whom she married last December, with the intention of raising a family. Ochoa plans to address the media on Friday about her future.

The loss of Ochoa is a serious blow to the LPGA tour, which is struggling to regain its footing in the wake of a change in leadership, sponsorship issues and a schedule that's no longer anchored in the United States. Coupled with the retirement of Annika Sorenstam a just a couple of years ago, that's two major stars taken off the tour's roster in a short period of time.

Ochoa, who won 28 times over the past six years, has always been admired for her play and the way she gracefully handled herself. She seemed to be reluctant star, almost embarrassed by her celebrity, but Ochoa has been the tour's dominant player.

While others relied on their clothes, their style or their personalities to attract attention, Ochoa just relied on her game. Now that's going away. She'll be missed.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Davis Wins Admiration, Not Tournament

There are times when golf and its protectors can make the game more than it is, fawning over its basic reliance on honesty and self-policing.

It brings to mind the old line from the great Bobby Jones who, when asked about feeling good about calling a penalty on himself said, in effect, "You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank."

Then you see Brian Davis call a two-stroke penalty on himself on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff with Jim Furyk in the Verizon Heritage, essentially killing his chance of winning his first PGA Tour event, and it reminds you that the rules mean something in golf.

Ever see a football coach call holding on his own team?

Ever see a basketball coach admit his guy traveled?

They like to claim they're protecting their teams when they try to bend the rules to their advantage. Golf, though, is different.

You can use the rules to your advantage and should. When Jim Furyk hit his approach shot into the same 18th hole hazard Davis did on Friday afternoon, he was able to mark where his ball crossed the hazard, take his relief and wind up on the green putting for par.

When Davis thought he ticked a loose reed on his backswing while playing his third shot from the hazard, he asked PGA Tour official Slugger White to check to be sure it had happened. White, standing a few feet away, hadn't seen the violation but when he asked his colleague Mike Shea to check the replay, Davis was right.

While a few people in skyboxes began to boo when the television announced the two-stroke penalty, they apparently weren't aware Davis had called the penalty on himself.

It cost him a chance to win the tournament but it won him a world of respect.

"To be there in the battle and have an opportunity to win the tournament and then call a penalty on yourself has got to be extremely disappointing," Furyk said. "I respect and admire what he did."

It's not the first time players have done something like Davis did. Players routinely call penalties on themselves, even when it has cost them tournaments.

"It will all come back to him in spades, tenfold," White, the PGA Tour offcial, said.

It should.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Boo Has A Chance To Buy Himself A Barn

There's every reason to believe Jim Furyk will win the Verizon Heritage on Sunday because he has game built to win a tartan jacket.

He's been close at Harbour Town before, finishing second twice and fourth once and having ended a two-year winless drought earlier this year, Furyk is in a roll that makes him the favorite entering the final 18 holes with a one-stroke lead over Brian Davis.

But Harbour Town is Boo Weekley's place. He's the new Davis Love III at the Heritage -- and they're much more alike than you might think. They can go hours talking fishing and hunting and never mention golf.

Weekley's been absent for a while, mending a shoulder he wrecked last spring, and three straight rounds of 68 have him starting the final round tied for third, two behind Furyk.

If Weekley can get back to striking the ball as crisply as he did the first two rounds and the wind blows as expected, he may be the guy who pushes Furyk the hardest. He'll no doubt have the loudest gallery at Harbour Town on Sunday.

Given his success at Harbour Town, someone asked Weekley if he'd considered buying a second home in this pricey, beautiful resort.

Not happening, Boo said.

"No, I ain't buying no house out here," he said. I'm out of the house business. I might buy a barn or something. That's the next thing I'm going to buy is a barn and put me a little room in it."

A win on Sunday might pay for that barn.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Bye bye khaki. Golf clothes go bold

Whatever happened to khaki pants on the PGA Tour?

Even Davis Love III, a former king of khaki, doesn't know.

"My wife just asked me, 'Where are your khaki pants?'" Love said. "I told her they keep giving me blue pants and white pants.

"Khaki pants and white shirts like Curtis Strange used to wear are what I grew up wanting to wear."

Look for them on the endangered species list right there beside Ping Eye 2 wedges and new golf courses.

Maybe white is the new khaki on professional golfers.

Camilo Villegas, thin as a butter knife, wore all white Thursday at the Verizon Heritage. Rickie Fowler was wearing almost all white, too, accenting it with a brilliant blue belt and matching shoes with a swipe of yellow across the outside.

But it's all about color now. Golf fashion - cutting edge and as bright as Fowler's future - has gone bold.

It helps if you have a 28-inch waist, but that hasn't stopped guys from stepping out.

Phil Mickelson has been spotted wearing orange pants. Of course, to borrow Ian Poulter's line, anything goes well with a green jacket.

Then there's John Daly, who wore purple paisley pants on Thursday and papaya green on Friday, looking like Austin Powers in golf spikes.

Now golfers wear pants in colors that sound like paint swatches. Peach melba. Strawberry margarita. Island blue.

There was a time when khaki ruled.

When Retief Goosen and Mark Brooks showed up on the first tee for their 18-hole playoff in the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills, they were hard to tell apart. Both wore khakis, white shirts and white caps.

It was, in its own conservative way, a beautiful thing.

Then along came Darren Clarke, Ian Poulter and golf magazine fashionista Marty Hackel and golf grew a rainbow.

There are a few holdouts. Tiger Woods isn't likely to show up in aqua pants any time soon. Fred Couples may wear funky shoes but he's still into the classics on the course.

But that's so old school in a too-cool-for-school world on the PGA Tour.

Remember when Brian Gay won the Verizon Heritage last year? You may have forgotten he won by 10 shots but you didn't forget the lime green pants he wore with the red tartan blazer.

Gay is as soft-spoken as they come, but when he dresses for the golf course, he screams.

"I used to be more preppy, more into black and white and khaki," Gay said, "but I decided I didn't want to look like everyone else. I decided to change it up."

Gay misses the hot pink pants that were part of the Sligo collection he wore last year. He kept them around, just in case he wants to wear them this year. This year, it's more blue and green, Gay said.

Gay then looked at what he was wearing. Gray pants and a white shirt with a gray design. Not exactly Mr. Vivid. "Walking out today, my wife said, 'Is that what you're wearing? That's so boring.'"

So yesterday.

At The Heritage, It's About More Than Golf

The Verizon Heritage is only partly about golf.

Oh, there's a golf tournament going on, complete with professional golfers and scoreboards and polite golf applause.

It takes place in the middle of what feels like the official Hilton Head Spring Informal. It's full of sundresses and seersucker, cocktails and making plans for cocktails.

This one started slowly on Thursday with a nice crowd but not particularly lively. By Friday afternoon, however, the three-day weekends had kicked into gear, a big gallery was following Sergio Garcia, Stewart Cink and Camilo Villegas and a bigger crowd still was milling about, freshening their suntans and comparing notes on dinner reservations and whose boat had the coldest beer.

It doesn't hurt that the weather is better than beachfront property here. The sky can't get any bluer, the temperature stays within a degree or two of perfect and there's just enough breeze to keep the sweat away.

There's a big-time player -- Jim Furyk -- on top of the leader board and plenty of good names stacked up behind him, suggesting the weekend could be loaded with more than party planning.

There is, after all, a golf tournament going on here.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Woods Taking Next Necessary Step At Quail

Talking to Jim Furyk Thursday afternoon about Tiger Woods' announcement that he will play the Quail Hollow Championship in two weeks, Furyk said it's good to see Woods playing again then said of the announcement timing, "It's a day earlier than usual."

Told it's eight days before the entry deadine, which Woods usually pushes, Furyk realized it was a break from the norm for his friend.

"That's actually nice to get that over with and move on," Furyk said.

Then Furyk added he'd be glad when guys like me quit asking him about Tiger's return.

Me, too.

That's another good thing about Woods' early announcement he'll play in Charlotte. It's another step in the process of bringing a sense of normalcy back to his presence on the PGA Tour.

The Masters was an enormous step.

Quail Hollow is the next necessary step. It will still feel overwrought because it will be his first 'regular' tour event and it will provide access to another audience that wasn't at Augusta.

I've already had messages from people who say they're looking forward to going to Quail Hollow and heckling Woods. Sure they are. It's easy to say. Harder to do. And, really, why would you?

I suspect Woods will be treated at Quail Hollow the way he was at the Masters -- appreciatively. A few yahoos may bark something at him, especially if they have a few beers, but I think it will be very minimal. That becomes their issue, not his.

It's great for the Quail Hollow Championship that Woods is playing there. With Phil Mickelson playing for the first time since the Masters, the buzz factor will be near an all-time high at Quail.

This is a one step at a time process for Woods. He's moving along. The next step comes in Charlotte. That's a good place to take it.

Woods, Quail News Good On Two Fronts

Tiger Woods' announcement today that he will play in the Quail Hollow Championship in two weeks was good news on two fronts:

It's great news for the Charlotte tournament, which has been a regular stop on Woods' schedule. There had been encouraging signs about Woods' playing in Charlotte once he announced his return to the PGA Tour prior to the Masters.

Secondly, Woods made the announcement eight days before the commitment deadline, an indication that he is abandoning his policy of waiting until the last day or two before the deadline to announce his participation in events.

It will be Woods' second tournament since the scandal surrounding his personal life surfaced last fall and it will be his first regular tour event.

Quail Hollow officials began developing contingency plans weeks ago for Woods' possible appearance in Charlotte. Media credential applications have been closed, limiting access for non-traditional golf outlets.

In addition to Woods, the tournament is expected to have Masters champion Phil Mickelson in the field. Mickelson said last week he would "definitely" play Quail Hollow though his official commitment has not been received.

Woods to play in Quail Hollow Championship

Tiger Woods has officially committed to playing in the Quail Hollow Championship in two weeks.

Woods made the announcement on his Web site today. Tournament officials confirmed it today. It will be Woods' second tournament since the scandal surrounding his personal life erupted last fall.

Woods finished tied for fourth at the Masters last week. His announcement enhances a strong field that includes Masters champion Phil Mickelson.

- Ron Green Jr.

Choi Takes Early Lead At Verizon Heritage

Fresh off a tie for fourth in the Masters, K.J. Choi is still rolling along, shooting a 7-under par 64 Thursday morning to take the early first-round lead in the Verizon Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links.

Choi had a two-stroke lead over Mike Weir and Greg Owen after the morning wave while five-time champion Davis Love III was in a 10-player group at 67 that also included Sergio Garcia, Charles Howell III and Woody Austin.

This is Choi's second appearance at Harbour Town, the first coming in 2001. He has typically returned home to Korea after the Masters but decided to stay in the United States this year.

Choi has been one of the hottest players on the PGA Tour in recent weeks. Prior to his

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

No See-Ums Told To Bug Out At Heritage

Don't tell PETA but something very good has happened at the Harbour Town Golf Links this year.

The no see-ums, mean little bugs that bite you before you realize they're on you, have been forced to, uh, leave this year.

That's what a heavy dose of chemicals can do.

No see-ums have been as much a part of the Heritage as red tartan plaid. Spend a day or two outside at Harbour Town in April and your arms will end up looking like you have the measles if you aren't adequately protected.

And finding adequate protection is a source of some debate.

Most people favor using Avon's Skin So Soft, wiping it on their arms and necks and heads where the little buggers like to do their work. Don't ask me how someone figured out the stuff works but it does, though everyone smells faintly of the product.

Boo Weekley says splashing yourself with Listerine works. He figured that out somehow. He even experimented and learned that Scope doesn't work on the bugs, just on your breath.

Someone else said it helps to rub your arms with a branch from one of the bushes behind the first tee. If it keeps the no see-ums away, nobody will look twice at you rubbing your arms with a leafy limb.

Thanks to the generosity of Hilton Head Exterminating, the whole place got sprayed last Friday and it's expected to keep the vicious little things away for at least two weeks.

My arms, neck and head thank them.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

You Know You're At Harbour Town When...

You know you're at the Verizon Heritage at Harbour Town when:

-- You hear the palm fronds rustling in the breeze;

-- There's a grown man near the putting green wearing a knee-length red tartan jacket, cream-colored George Washington-style pants, matching socks, a straw hat and a pony tail while carrying a hickory-shafted club;

-- There's a photo on a computer screen in the media center showing Phil Mickelson, wearing his green jacket, at the drive-thru window with his children at Krispy Kreme in Augusta the morning after his Masters victory;

-- Ian Pouter and Vijay Singh withdrew at the last minute;

-- The chatter around the practice green is still about what happened in Augusta over the weekend. It's too early for the conversation to turn to Harbour Town;

-- Davis Love III is prowling the premises;

-- You look for alligators on the banks of the many lagoons that dot the golf course and the island. And, you occasionally see one;

-- Fans with clubhouse access are sitting in big rocking chairs on the back porch, watching the leisurely day come to life when they're not studying their bloody marys;

-- South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier is scheduled to play in the Wednesday pro-am;

-- The parking lots are carved out beneath enormous live oaks, dripping spanish moss off their limbs;

-- You see the lighthouse behind the 18th green.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Mickelson's Victory May Be His Sweetest

When Phil Mickelson finally calls it a career -- and let's hope that's decades down the road -- he may look back at the 2010 Masters as the sweetest week of his golf life.

The 2004 Masters was unforgettable because it was the one that proved Mickelson could win major championships, something that his 0-for-46 streak had brought into question.

It had been four years since Mickelson had won a major and he arrived at Augusta explaining why he hadn't taken advantage of Tiger Woods' extended absence. Mickelson had been decent but he's conditioned us to expect greatness.

And he found that at the Masters.

In retrospect, you could find it in his words, before the tournament started and each day it progressed. He talked about how relaxed he felt playing Augusta National and a comfortable golfer is a dangerous one.

Mickelson didn't win the tournament on Saturday but he put his victory into motion with his eagle-eagle-birdie run starting at the 13th hole. He has always been an aggressive player but that approach separated him this week. When he ripped a 7-iron into a difficult spot at the 13th on Saturday, setting up his first eagle, it was the kind of swing and shot that makes a player start thinking that maybe this would be his week.

It was for Mickelson.

He was classic Phil, scrambling for pars at the ninth and 10th holes Sunday and when he rifled a 6-iron between the trees to within four feet of the hole at No. 13 on Sunday, he was Phil in full flight.

We may never fully know how much his wife's illness has affected him. Amy Mickelson was there Sunday afternoon when her husband won his third Masters and it couldn't have been easy.

But it looked right and I imagine it felt right to the Mickelsons and to the thousands of others who have invested themselves in Mickelson's career.

Tiger Woods is awed and admired for what he can do on the golf course. Mickelson is beloved.

Perhaps more now than ever.

Mickelson's Magic Gives Him Masters Lead

With his most theatrical flair, Phil Mickelson tried to take control of the Masters midway through the back nine Sunday afternoon, making a go-ahead birdie at the famous par-3 12th hole then following it with a birdie from the trees at the 13th to lead Anthony Kim and Lee Westwood by two strokes with fiv eholes remaining.

Mickelson's lead could have been larger but he missed a five-foot eagle putt at the 13th after a remarkable shot from the trees over the creek fronting the 13th green.

Kim was trying to match Mickelson with his electric play. Kim surged into contention on the back nine, keyed by an eagle at the 15th and a birdie at No. 16.

K.J. Choi had been tied for the lead but a bogey at the 13th cost him.

Tiger Woods hopes finally ended at the 14th hole where he three-putted for a bogey, missing a tap-in for a par, leaving him six behind Mickelson, who is chasing his third green jacket.

Mickelson's wife, Amy, who is battling breast cancer, is attending her first PGA Tour event in 11 months with their three children this week.

Mickelson Takes One-Shot Lead To Back Nine

According to the cliche, the Masters doesn't really begin until the back nine on Sunday.

If that's the case, it began Phil Mickelson at 12-under par, one stroke ahead of Lee Westwood and K.J. Choi on a sunny, suspenseful afternoon at Augusta National.

Westwood, the overnight leader, three-putted the ninth hole to fall out of a tie with Mickelson, who birdied the eighth hole to pull even with the Englishman.

Fred Couples, who has hit the ball beautifully, kept himself in conteintion at 10-under par despite missing a handful of medium-range birdie putts.

And just when it appeared Tiger Woods was out of contention, he eagled the seventh hole then birdied the eighth and ninth holes to get back within three strokes of the leaders.

Westwood Keeps Lead; Phil, Choi In Pursuit

The early portion of the final round of the Masters has had its moments but it still hasn't cleared up the picture about how might ultimately win the championship.

Third-round leader Lee Westwood maintained his one-stroke advantage over Phil Mickelson through six holes but K.J. Choi has moved within two strokes of the lead through seven holes.

Tiger Woods' chances were virtually dead after three bogeys in his first five holes dropped him seven shots behind but he reminded the field of his presence by holing his second shot at the par-4 seventh hole for an eagle. Woods was 7-under par through seven holes, five behind Westwood.

Fred Couples remained in contention at 9-under par, three behind Westwood as he tried to become the oldest Masters champion ever (50).

Nathan Green and Ryan Moore both aced the par-3 16th hole though both were far out of contention.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Masters Sunday Alive With Possibilities

This is what happens when you get three of the top four players in the world rankings together on a Saturday afternoon at Augusta National, throw a little magic dust in the air and tell them there's a green jacket waiting for someone.

Three days in, this Masters has already been one of those that will be talked about for years.

The only thing it hasn't had is a conclusion.

That comes Sunday afternoon.

It's possible that K.J. Choi or Ricky Barnes might win this Masters but it's not likely. Nor is it likely that the beloved Fred Couples will become the first 50-year old winner of the Masters.

Most likely, Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods will sort things out among themselves on a Sunday forecast to be as beautiful as it is intriguing.

Woods must do the most work, starting four strokes behind, but he's the most capable of doing it. This week has already been an overwhelming success for him with his return to the public stage but if he finds a way to win, it will rank alongside his 2008 U.S. Open victory on a broken leg as the greatest win of his career.

He must hit the ball better and hole more putts than he did Saturday but if it's a battle of wills, Woods has the advantage.

Mickelson has talked like a potential champion all week. He said he's more relaxed playing Augusta National because it gives him more freedom to play to his strengths, which don't necessarily include his accuracy off the tee. He also has his family with him at a tournament for the first time in nearly a year and there's a storybook quality to what he's working on.

Then there's Westwood, who seems due to win a major. He's ranked fourth in the world and belongs there. He might buckle on Sunday but I doubt it. He's too confident and playing too well. On the other hand, no player has ever played four rounds in the 60s at the Masters. To win, Westwood may have to be the first.

It's a Masters Sunday alive with possiblities.

The best kind of Masters Sunday.

Westwood Leads; Phil One Back; Tiger Close

When the roars finally subsided near sundown Saturday at Augusta National, Lee Westwood had a one-stroke lead over Phil Mickelson entering Sunday's final round in the Masters.

Lurking four strokes behind, tied for third place, was Tiger Woods.

It was a spectacular Saturday that rollercoatered through the sunny afternoon. Westwood led Mickelson by five strokes midway through the back nine but the advantage evaporated in 30 minutes.

Mickelson gambled with an aggressive 7-iron second shot at the par-5 13th hole that set up an eight-foot eagle putt that kick-started his surge. At the 14th hole, Mickelson holed a 141-yard wedge shot for his second straight eagle, only the third time in Masters history a player has made consecutive eagles.

On a roll, Mickelson watched his 87-yard third shot miss by eight inches giving him a third straight eagle. But, coupled with Westwood's bogey at the 12th hole, it gave Mickelson a brief lead in a loud afternoon.

Westwood ultimately regained the lead with a birdie at the 15th hole and will have a chance on Sunday to win his first major championship. Westwood has posted rounds of 67-69-68.

Mickelson has three majors, including the 2004 and 2006 Masters, but he has not won a major when starting the final round trailing.

Woods, meanwhile, had an up and down day. He made two quick birdies but three bogeys in a four-hole stretch on the front side dropped him back. Woods made three straight birdies on the back nine, bogeyed the 17th, then closed with a short birdie at the 18th hole, keeping him within striking distance of the leaders.

Mickelson Electrifies Masters Third Round

Phil Mickelson has electrified the third round of the Masters, making consecutive back-nine eagles to wipe out a five-shot deficit and pull into a tie for the lead with Lee Westwood as play continues.

Westwood was five ahead of Mickelson at 12-under par but suddenly Mickelson made an eagle at the par-5 13th hole then hit the most dramatic shot of the tournament, holding a 139-yard approach from the fairway for a deuce at No. 14.

Seconds later, Westwood bogeyed the dangerous par-3 12th and the two were tied for the lead at 11-under par.

They were five clear of the rest of the field. Inconsistent Tiger Woods was tied with Fred Couples and K.J. Choi at 6-under par midway through the back nine on Saturday afternoon.

Westwood Moves Ahead In Masters

Lee Westwood has taken a three-stroke lead midway through the third round at the Masters while Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson struggle to keep pace.

Westwood shot a 3-under par 33 on the front side Saturday to move to 11-under par, three ahead of playing partner Ian Poulter, who had an up and down first nine holes.

Mickelson was 8-under par for a time but a bogey at the 10th hole dropped him three behind the virtually error-free Westwood.

Woods made an early run with birdies at the second and third holes but then made three bogeys in four holes, dropping down the leader board. He could be heard on television swearing at himeself for mistakes he made.

Hunter Mahan was making a strong move, getting to 6-under par and into a tie for fourth place through 13 holes.

Masters Winners And Losers After Two Days

As the third round begins at the Masters, let’s take a moment for a mid-tournament determination of the winners and losers to this point:

Englishmen: Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood shared the lead after 36 holes, doing the Union Jack proud. Both are ranked among the top 10 in the world and showed why.

“We’re not there by mistake,” Westwood said Friday of the rankings.

The only down side was Paul Casey’s missed cut, costing England a third man among the leaders.

Tiger Woods: He’s two shots out of the lead and it feels as though the scandal that has haunted him for months has become an afterthought. He spent 10 minutes with the media Friday afternoon and wasn’t asked about anything but golf. That’s how quickly things have changed.

Y.E. Yang: He’s proving the PGA Championship victory wasn’t a fluke.

Good manners: Other than a plane flying over Augusta National Thursday afternoon pulling a couple of snide banners about Woods’ troubles, the crowd behavior has been good enough to make Miss Manners smile.

Allergy sufferers: Early in the week, the pine pollen was so thick you could almost write your name in it the way it painted surfaces. An overnight thunderstorm Thursday helped but the only selling fasters than Masters-logo souvenirs in Augusta is Claritin,

Padraig Harrington: Thought by many to be one of the handful of tournament favorites, Padraig missed the cut, giving him a quick start on the trip home to Ireland.

The banner plane: After getting noticed by everyone on Thursday, it was nowhere to be found Friday despite reports it had planned to continue its aerial heckling. Some things just aren’t allowed at the Masters.

Khaki pants: They’re not what professional golfers wear anymore. They’re all about style now.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Poulter, Westwood Share Lead; Tiger Lurking

If you hadn't noticed the British invasion at the top of the world golf rankings, the top of the Masters leader board after two rounds should get your attention.

England's Lee Westwood, the fourth-ranked player in the world, and fellow countryman Ian Poulter, No. 7 in the world rankings, share the 36-hole lead at the Masters at 8-under par 136.

While they're good friends who will be comfortable together in Saturday's final pairing, they're far from being fitted for a green jacket.

That's due in part to the lurking presence of Tiger Woods, who is tied for third, two strokes out of the lead in his return to competitive golf. Woods, who has posted rounds of 68-70, is tied with Phil Mickelson, K.J. Choi, Ricky Barnes and Anthony Kim.

"We're not at the top of the world rankings by mistake," said Westwood, who has three top-three finishes in major championships over the past three years.

Westwood threatened to pull away from the field in Friday's sunny, breezy conditions, briefly reaching 10-under par with a three-stroke lead. But a double-bogey at the par-4 14th hole stalled his momentum.

Poulter's 4-under par 68 equalled the day's best round and was one of only three sub-70 scores on a tough second day. Known more for his striking fashion on the course than his performance for a few years, Poulter has emerged as a top-level player. He won his first PGA Tour event earlier this year, capturing the World Golf Championship-Accenture Match Play Championship.

"It's Friday so you don't get carried away but it's a nice feeling," Poulter said of his position.

Woods also likes being within two strokes of the lead with two days to play.

"Yeah, I do," Woods said.

Tiger Loves How This Masters Is Going

Sitting in the interview room after his second-round 70 left him tied for third place in the Masters, three shots behind Lee Westwood who was still on the course, Tiger Woods was asked if he liked his position on the leader board.

He paused and smiled.

"Yeah, I do," Woods said.

Woods said he hit the ball better and putted better Friday than he did in his opening 68 on Thursday but a tougher course set-up accounted for his higher score. Still, when Woods finished, there were only two players -- Westwood and Ian Poulter -- in front of him and little likelihood anyone else would jump ahead of him.

Woods said despite the fact he hasn't played a tournament since last fall, he doesn't feel rusty. He credits it to heightened focus in pre-tournament practice sessions with swing coach Hank Haney.

"It feels good to be back in contention," Woods said. "I usually put myself in contention most years here. I'm right there."

And how's this for a switch:

During his 10-minute question and answer session with the media after his round, there was not one question about anything other than his golf.

Woods Lurking Behind Masters Co-Leaders

The sartorially splendid Ian Poulter is tied for the second-round lead at the Masters with Lee Westwood but Tiger Woods is lurking.

Woods birdied the 15th hole then stuffed his tee shot within six feet of the hole at the par-3 16th hole but missed the putt, keeping him three strokes behind the leaders. Poulter, through 17 holes, is 9-under par, tied with Westwood, who has played eight holes.

The news wasn't so good for first-round leader Fred Couples, who finished with three straight bogeys, three-putting the last three holes to fall seven shots behind the leaders. Couples followed his opening 66 with a 75 on the clear, breezy day.

Phil Mickelson is at 5-under par through six holes while 60-year old Tom Watson has fallen six shots off the lead.

Fewer Fireworks At Augusta National Today

The action hasn't been nearly as dramatic early in the second round of the Masters as it was Thursday but the day is still young.

Fred Couples made the turn at 6-under par, tied for the lead with Ricky Barnes, who made two early birdies to climb up the leader board.

The colorfully dressed Ian Poulter (shown in photo) is one shot behhind after seven holes, tied with four players -- Tom Watson, Lee Westwood, Y.E. Yang and Phil Mickelson -- who haven't begun their second rounds.

Tiger Woods made an early birdie at the second hole but gave it back with a bogey at the fourth and is three off the lead after seven holes.

A cool breeze and more difficult hole locations have caused Augusta National to play more difficult today. No player is better than 2-under par in his second round today.

Friday Masters Question: What's Next?

The question today is what's next?

It seems unlikely that the second round of the Masters can go thrill-for-thrill with what happened on Thursday at Augusta National but it is, after all, a place where uncommon things occur.

First-round leader Fred Couples just started and Tiger Woods tees off at 10:35, going back to work on their strong starts.

Couples may be 50 but he seems almost bubbly about the state of his game. Throw in his love of Augusta National, his new-found fondness for putting and the good vibes the crowd gives him and I expect he'll hang around at or near the lead today.

It will be interesting to see if Woods can build on his good play Thursday. Had he putted a little better -- a common problem from him at the Masters in recent years -- Woods could have shot a seriously low score in the first round. He talked Thursday about how normal things felt back on the course and that's not likely to change.

Tom Watson tees off at 12:25 p.m. amid legitimate questions as to whether he can sustain the level of play he showed Thursday. Then again, the same thing was being said at the British Open last summer.

Phil Mickelson tees off at 1:42 and will get the prime afternoon television coverage on ESPN but keep an eye on Lee Westwood, another afternoon starter.

Don't be surprised if he winds up on top when the second round is complete.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Tiger, Masters Get Off To Terrific Start

Well, that answered some questions.

Tiger Woods' 4-under par 68 in the first round of the Masters wasn't just a triumph over nerves, rust and the residue of his personal problems.

It was also the best score he's ever shot in the first round of the Masters -- by two shots.

"Very pleased," Woods said of his first competitve round in more than five months.

It left Woods within two shots of the lead, held by Fred Couples and it made him part of a spectacular leaderboard that was stuffed with stars and storylines.

There was 60-year old Tom Watson sitting one shot behind his Champions Tour colleague Couples. Lee Westwood, the fourth-ranked player in the world, is a shot off the lead as is K.J. Choi, Y.E. Yang and a fellow named Phil Mickelson.

Then comes Woods in a group with the pastel-plated Ian Poulter, Anthony Kim and Nick Watney.

For Woods, the day was an enormous success. It began with him ripping a tee shot down the middle of the first fairway with seemingly the whole world watching. He made a solid par at the first, made his first birdie at the third hole and turned in 3-under 33 after an eagle at the par-5 eighth.

Woods made his second eagle of the day at the par-5 15th hole, vaulting him toward the front of the pack. It's the first time he's ever made two eagles in one Masters round. He had a short birdie putt on the 18th hole that missed, leaving two behind Couples.

For all the concerns about how Woods might be treated, it felt like old times. He was cheered at every hole and, other than a plane that flew over head pulling a banner that read, 'Tiger, Did You Mean Bootyism' at the start, there were no issues.

"It felt normal," he said. "The reception was incredible."

Mickelson Feels The Love At Augusta

Phil Mickelson says he always feels relaxed at Augusta National because of the way the golf course sets up for his explosive game.

But he feels even better at the Masters this week because his wife, Amy, and their three kids are in town.

Mickelson used an eagle-birdie-birdie stretch starting at the 13th hole to ignite his 5-under par 67 that gave him a share of the first-round lead with Tom Watson, Lee Westwood and Y.E. Yang.

Mickelson said it's the first PGA Tour event his family has been with him since The Players Championship last May, shortly before his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Amy was in the team hotel with Mickelson at the Presidents Cup last fall but did not go to the golf course. She did not come to the course Thursday as she continues to battle the side effects from her breast cancer treatments.

"It would be cool but tough," Mickelson said. "Just that she and the kids are here is cool."

Though Mickelson hasn't played particularly well this year, he said before the tournament that Augusta National helps him find his comfort zone. He drove it well Thursday and putted extremely well, holing a 30-foot eagle putt at No. 13 and a 40-footer for birdie at No. 14.

"It's a good start," Mickelson said. "My expectations are high. It's just one of four (rounds)."

Woods Makes His Return Look Routine

With a crowd sometimes 10 deep straining to see him, Tiger Woods made his return to competitive golf seem familiar Thursday at Augusta National.

After a five-month layoff, Woods ripped his nationally televised opening tee shot down the middle of the first fairway after being greeted with loud applause upon walking onto the tee.

As Woods walked with playing partners K.J. Choi and Matt Kuchar down the hill in front of the first tee, the applause returned as they made their way toward their second shots on the par-4 hole.

Photographers were perched near the tee and on a hillside, capturing image of the great anticpated event.

Woods, wearing black pants and a gray striped shirt, fired his approach shot 12 feet left of the hole and narrowlyl missed a birdie putt as he began his quest for his fifth Masters title and 15th major championship victory.

While Woods was making his debut, a small airplane flew near Augusta National pulling a banner that read, 'Tiger Did You Mean Bootyism?'

By the time Woods began play, he was four shots behind early first-round leader Tom Watson, who shot 68.

Waiting For Tiger, Toms, Watson Share Lead

As Tiger Woods' tee time approached, David Toms had already grabbed the early first-round lead at the Masters and Tom Watson is acting like it's the British Open again.

On a cloudy, breezy morning, the 60-year old Watson was 3-under par through 15 holes, tied with Toms who had already posted an opening round 3-under par 69. Steve Marino was also 3-under through 15 holes in what felt like the opening act to the big show that arrives with Tiger's presence on the course.

Defending champion Angel Cabrera was 3-under through 10 holes, showing no sign of easily surrendering his claim as champion.

Meanwhile, Phil Mickelson played his first nine holes in 1-under par, keeping him close to the lead. Ernie Els was also at 1-under par.

Charlotte Father And Son Get Lasting Memory

Chip Hunter and his nine-year old son, Jake, left Charlotte at 3:40 a.m. Thursday to make sure they were in Augusta in plenty of time to have a good viewing spot when Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus hit the ceremonial opening tee shots at 7:40 a.m.

They made it in plenty of time and were in the front row of patrons behind the first tee, giving them a perfect view. Jake wore his blue Arnold Palmer Invitational cap he bought off e-Bay, a testament to his admiration for Palmer. He even wrote a third-grade book report about Palmer.

The Hunters left with more than a father-son memory Thursday. Jake went home with the tee Nicklaus used to hit his first ceremonial drive, a gift from a caddie.

Old Is New Again Early At The Masters

They love to keep the old new at the Masters and there's some of that early on the first-day leaderboard.

It has a distinct '80s feel with Bernhard Langer playing his first seven holes 3-under par and the seemingly ageless Tom Watson making birdies on two of his first three holes.

It's early -- Phil Mickelson is just going on the course and Tiger Woods is still three hours away from his tee time -- but it's a nice jolt of nostalgia with Langer and Watson off to good starts.

The conditions are nice so far though the breeze has begun to kick up, throwing a little uncertainty into play. The chance of thunderstorms looms this afternoon though it's too early to know if they'll disrupt play.

By the time they do, one of the old guys may be sitting in the clubhouse with a big smile on his face.

Jack And Arnie: A Very Cool Start

It was crisp and clear Thursday morning at 7:40 when Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus met on the first tee at Augusta National.

And it was very cool.

As the ceremonial golfer he vowed years ago he would never become, Nicklaus joined Palmer for the first time as an honorary starter at the Masters. Hundreds of patrons gathered around the first tee and on the gentle hillside nearby to get a glimpse of Nicklaus and Palmer together.

After being introduced by club chairman Billy Payne, Palmer -- wearing blue pants and a pink shirt -- teed up his golf ball then glanced at the crowd and jokingly said, "Put your earmuffs on."

Palmer then made his familiar lash at the ball, sending his tee shot down the right side of the first fairway where it eventually rolled into the rough. It didn't matter where it stopped. It was the cheers that mattered.

When it was Nicklaus's turn to hit, he looked at Palmer and asked, "How'd you do that?"

Palmer answered, "Keep your eye on the ball."

Nicklaus smiled then smacked his own tee shot into the distance. Like Palmer, his ball settled in the right rough. A security guard then hustled out and kicked one of the balls about 15 yards further down the fairway.

"I hit a rookie tee shot," Nicklaus remarked afterward. "As long as we didn't hear it land, that was okay."

Nicklaus estimated he and Palmer have played at least 500 rounds of golf together. While they have been great rivals on the course and in business, they have been friends for decades, often flying together to play exhibitions and teaming to win a number of two-man events.

"We've played at least a year together," Nicklaus said.

This was different.

Having played 45 Masters, winning a record six, Nicklaus moved into a new role as an honorary starter. With his granddaughter, Christie, serving as caddie, Nicklaus seemed to embrace the role despite his 7:40 tee time.

"I've never been up this early at Augusta," Nicklaus said

Having attended the champions' dinner Tuesday night, played the par-3 event with Palmer and Gary Player on Wednesday and helping start the Masters this morning, Nicklaus planned to be far away by Friday.

He'll be fishing in the Bahamas, he said. The boat has a television and in the evening, Nicklaus said he might check to see what''s happening at the Masters.

It got off to a very good start.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Miller On Tiger: Needs 72 Or Better Thursday

Johnny Miller thinks Tiger Woods would have done himself a favor had he played one tournament -- the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago -- before he tees it up Thursday in the Masters.

Miller, who made three birdies playing in the Masters par-3 tournament, thinks Woods' first week back will be determined by what happens immediately.

“He’s going to be nervous. He’s going to want to post a number to show he’s not disjointed, physically and mentally that he’s got things sorted out,” Miller said.

“In the back of his mind, he’s probably thinking he’s got a chance to win. In the other part of his mind, he’s probably thinking I sure hope I don’t shoot 76 or 78 the first round. That’s going to be the most nervous round he’s played since he was an amateur.

“To win that green jacket he’s going to have to shoot par or better in that first round.”

Augusta chairman: Tiger disappointed all of us

Augusta National chairman Billy Payne left no doubt this afternoon that he expects more from Tiger Woods than words, birdies and bogeys.

In his annual pre-tournament news conference, Payne said Woods will be judged in the future by his actions rather than his golf scores.

In his initial comments, Payne recognized Woods' great achievements as a golfer before turning to his personal conduct.

"But as he now says himself, he forgot in the process to remember that with fame and fortune comes responsibility, not invisibility. It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here. It is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children.

"Is there a way forward? I hope yes. I think yes. But certainly his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par; but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change. I hope he now realizes that every kid he passes on the course wants his swing but would settle for his smile.

"I hope he can come to understand that life's greatest rewards are reserved for those who bring joy to the lives of other people. We at Augusta hope and pray that our great champion will begin his new life here tomorrow in a positive, hopeful and constructive manner, but this time with a significant difference from the past. This year, it will not be just for him, but for all of us, who believe in second chances."

Payne didn't offer much more about Woods other than to say the tournament has taken what it feels are adequate security measures to account for his presence and that Woods attended the annual champions dinner Tuesday night at the club.

Tiger At Quail A Good Possibilty But Not For Sure

There's still no answer as to whether Tiger Woods will play in the Quail Hollow Championship three weeks from now but it remains a good possibility.

What happens at the Masters may determine whether Woods makes Charlotte his first appearance in a regular PGA Tour event since the scandal around his personal life erupted last November. He has not made a final decision about playing Charlotte, I've been told.

A handful of factors will likely play into Woods' decision about Quail Hollow:

How he plays this weekend, how the crowd reacts to him and what else he may have going on in his life.

The crowd reaction at Augusta has been extremely positive and there's no reason to expect that will change. How Woods plays is a bigger question. No one's quite sure what to expect from him when he tees it up on Thursday. Despite his calm demeanor, he's going to feel more nerves than usual on the first tee.

If Woods does play at Quail Hollow, I expect he'll announce it earlier than in the past. Woods has traditionally waited until the last day before entries close to officially commit to tournaments. In Woods' new world, I think we'll see him adjust his commitment schedule, a nice gesture on his part.

Under The Tree Is The Place To Be

One of the best places at Augusta National is not in the clubhouse but right behind it.

Under a giant oak tree that shades an enormous patch of property is the favorite gathering spot for those fortunate enough to have access to the area.

It's where meetings are set.

"I'll meet you under the tree at noon" or "Meet me under the tree when you're finished," are among the most common things you hear.

Standing under the tree today you could see the rich, the famous and powerful. And some sports writers.

There was Tom Fazio, the course designer, talking to friends. John Solheim, the man who runs Ping golf and made the gracious and wise decision to resolve the illegal grooves issue that surfaced earlier this year, was under the tree.

Tiger Woods, having just finished a nine-hole practice round, was escorted through the area into the clubhouse but he reached out to shake hands with a friend as he passed.

Woods' agent, Mark Steinberg, was there, making small talk with people between meetings.

Around lunch time, there were plenty of green-jacketed members under the tree. Nearby, a couple dozen outdoor tables were filled with guests having lunch under umbrellas.

Occasionally, golfers would pass through under the tree. Some stopped to chat with friends. Others were headed to the practice green.

Outside the ropes, spectators watched what was happening under the tree, snapping photos and pointing.

It's a cool place to be.

At Augusta, Things Keep Getting Better

Part of the magic of Augusta National is how things can change yet seem as if they've been there forever.

That's the way it is with the new practice facility and a collection of buildings that have been built nearby. The practice facility is spectacular, as you would expect, with essentially everything a player could need to work on his game.

Nearby, there are several new buildings used for guests during tournament week, built since last spring. They're white and if you could find a subdivision that looks like these buildings, you'd line up to buy one.

I've been told that they're painted with white paint that's made to look slightly weathered when it's applied so the buildings won't look brand new. I'm not sure if it's true but at Augusta National, it sounds plausible, given the club's attention to detail and quality.

Even the new entrance for patrons is impressive. It's not just a place to get your badge checked. It looks like Augusta National, not just an entryway.

Some things, however, don't get touched and for good reason. Who'd want to mess with the pimento cheese sandwiches?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Maybe Mickelson Finds What's Missing This Week

Given the indifferent start to his season -- one top-10 finish in seven starts -- Phil Mickelson hasn't given much reason to be considered one of the favorites to win the Masters.

Except that he's Phil Mickelson.

The Masters makes him a contender.

Mickelson loves the big moment and there are no bigger golf moments than the Masters. Coming to Augusta National, feeling the spirit, can make the difference for a player like Mickelson.

Emotion is a part of his game, just like it's a part of the Masters.

Mickelson explained his season in two parts: He didn't putt well early and, once he got that figured out, he hasn't hit the ball as consistently as he wanted. Penalty strokes have been a problem for Mickelson in recent weeks but they become a smaller factor at Augusta National which gives players more room to roam than some other courses.

Butch Harmon is on site, working with Mickelson to iron out the wrinkles in his swing. And, if everything goes right, Mickelson's wife, Amy, and their kids will fly into town and be with him this week.

Mickelson has tried to downplay it but he's been wrestling with Amy's struggles with her treatment for breast cancer. The long-range prognosis is very good but the short-term effects from her treatments have taken their toll.

It's been four years since Mickelson last won a major, the 2006 Masters. That's a surprisingly long time.

Maybe all that's been missing this year is inspiration. Maybe he finds it this week.

Mickelson on Quail Hollow: "Definitely"

Phil Mickelson said this afternoon "I will definitely be there" when asked if he intends to play the Quail Hollow Championship in three weeks.

Mickelson has until 5 p.m. April 23 to officially commit to the Charlotte event. He has been a regular at Quail Hollow, playing the past six years.

Mickelson continues to split his time between the tour and being at home in San Diego with his wife, Amy, as she deals with difficult side effects from her treatment for breast cancer. He said he is hopeful Amy and his children will be in Augusta on Wednesday when he plays the par-3 tournament.

Tiger Paired With Kuchar, Choi In Afternoon

The answer is Matt Kuchar and K.J. Choi at 1:42 p.m. Thursday.

That's who Tiger Woods will play with in the first two rounds of the Masters, ending the speculation about who he would be paired with in his return to competitive golf.

After all the guesswork about whether he'd be with friends or perhaps an old-timer, Woods will be in the second-to-last pairing in the first round with two solid players, though neither is considered a star.

The tee time works well for television. ESPN's first-round broadcast begins at 4 p.m., allowing the network to show Woods playing the back nine. It will also be allowed to cut into its regular programming to show his opening tee shot.

Woods, Choi and Kuchar will play at 10:35 a.m. on Friday.

Other high-profile pairings include Ernie Els, Anthony Kim and Ryo Ishikawa at 10:13 a.m.; Phil Mickelson, Robert Allenby and Yong-Eun Yang at 10:35 a.m.; Camilo Villegas, Kenny Perry and Rory McIlroy at 12:36 p.m.; and, Fred Couples, Sergio Garcia and Shingo Katayama at 12:58 p.m.

Here's the full list of pairings.

Back To Normal At The Masters

It's Tuesday morning at the Masters and it already feels different.

Tiger's on the course, playing a practice round with Mark O'Meara and much of the edge is gone. We saw Tiger yesterday, he answered questions, he defused the tension. Today feels closer to normal.

Phil's here after flying from Houston Sunday back home to San Diego for a night with Amy and the family before coming to Augusta. Though he hasn't said much about it, you get the sense Phil is wrestling with Amy's struggles related to her treatment for breast cancer.

Defending champion Angel Cabrera teed off early today, no doubt to have time to prepare for hosting the champion's dinner tonight. Cabrera will serve an Argentinian barbecue to his green-jacketed guests.

The pairings will be released later this morning and we can all see who drew the two slots in Tiger's group. Judging from what most of the players are saying, it sounds like most of them would like to play with him.

It feels like the Masters today.

Monday, April 05, 2010

It's Time To Move On To Golf Now

There will never be official closure to the Tiger Woods' mess but Monday at the Masters came close to it.

Woods used his charm in his morning practice round and during his 35-minute question-and-answer session with the media to defuse much of the expected tension surrounding his return to professional golf.

Facing a significant challenge, Woods delivered.

He seemed relaxed on the golf course and comfortable in the media room. He didn't answer every question or provide all the details some want but it was a success on every front for Woods. It won't change the way some people think of Woods -- the impact of his actions was enormous -- but it started winning people back.

He'll still hear some comments from the gallery, though probably very few here at the Masters. But, as he often does, Geoff Ogilvy got it right when he said it seemed the fans were excited just to see Tiger playing golf again.

We all have a good idea of what happened in his life and the story has grown tiresome. Until he had a day like Monday, though, it was difficult to move forward.

Now Tiger can move forward and so can the rest of us. It doesn't mean the mess is forgotten but it can go back to being about golf for Tiger now.

Golf, Tiger said Monday, feels fun again.

Monday had something to do with that.

Tiger: "I Made Incredibly Bad Decisions"

In 35 surprisingly relaxed minutes Monday afternoon, Tiger Woods talked about how far out of control his life had gotten, how he played golf last year with a partially torn Achilles tendon and how he missed his son's first birthday because he was in therapy.

Giving his first group interview since his life began coming part last Thanksgiving, Woods called his first day back in front of golf galleries at the Masters "a great day" and said golf is fun again to him.

Though Woods has been criticized for his unwillingness to talk to the media, other than a public statement in February and two five-minute interviews two weeks ago, his question-and-answer session was not contentious.

Woods was asked about his relationship with Dr. Anthony Galea, who is under investigation for his use of human growth hormone and talked about the events that eventually led him to spend 45 days in therapy, though he declined to specify what he was in treatment for. Woods also declined to offer any more details on the auto accident on Thanksgiving weekend.

"I made incredibly bad decisions," Woods said.

Among the highlights:

-- Woods said the toughest parts of his ordeal were "having to look at myself in a light I never intended to look at myself...and how far I had gotten from the core morals my mom and dad had taught me" and "the constant harassment of my wife and family."

--He said "the fact I won golf tournaments was irrelevant" compared to the damage he did to himself and his family;

-- He acknowledged having Galea perform a platement enrichment procedure to help his recovery from knee surgery in 2008 but denied using human growth hormone or any performance-enhancing drugs. "I've never taken an illegal drug in my life," he said.

Woods said he suffered a torn right Achilles tendon in December, 2008 while rehabbing his knee. He said he has volunteered to cooperate with federal authorities if they want to interview him.

-- Asked why he waited until after the events of Thanksgiving weekend and the days after to begin changing his behavior and enter therapy, Woods said, "I hadn't hit far enough on the bottom to make myself look at what I'd done and engaged in. That's when I went to rehab."

-- Woods said he spent Christmas with his family then left for rehab, causing him to miss his son Charlie's first birthday.

"That hurt a lot," Woods said. "I vowed never to miss another one. I can't go back to where I was. It's something I regret and probably will the rest of my life."

Furyk On Tiger's Gallery: "Extremely Positive."

Tiger Woods hit some good shots, he hit some scratchy shots, he smiled, he chatted with the gallery and he seemed to have fun playing a Monday practice round at the Masters with Fred Couples and, later, Jim Furyk.

Woods' much anticipated return to golf on the public stage had plenty of respectful applause and no noticeable heckling Monday as the world's No. 1 player went 18 holes, finishing about 90 minutes before his scheduled 2 p.m. press conference.

Woods didn't stop to talk after his practice round but Couples, who played all 18 holes with Woods, and Furyk, who played the last six, both said it felt familiar being with Woods again.

"It was extremely positive. I expected it to be positive. It was probably even better," Furyk said of the gallery reaction.

Patrons were just entering the property when Woods and Couples teed off but as the day went on, their gallery swelled. Being Monday, there weren't many players on the course but it hardly seemed to matter as most of the gallery sought out the Woods group.

Woods hit a variety of shots from different spots around the course, occasionally wrestling with hitting shots to the left.

"I"m sure Tiger was a little on edge for not playing and trying to get his game sharp," Furyk said.

"I treated him like I always treat him. I didn't tease him as much as I would usually so I'll wait for the second time."

Couples was his usual laid-back self, enjoying what had the feel of a casual round of golf among friends.

"He's the best player in the world," Couples said. "He hasn't played any golf in a while but he's still the best player in the world. I love the way he plays. I think he'll do well here at Augusta.

"His intimdation factor is always there but you have to play good golf. He hasn't played much. It would be crazy for me to say he's not going to do well but it would crazy for me to say he's the guy to beat because he hasn't played a round of golf in five or six months."

Geoff Ogilvy played by himself in the group behind Woods, starting nearly 45 minutes later. Ogilvy cruised around Augusta National's first nine, took a 30-minute breakfast then finished his round, watching the large gallery ahead.

"It sounded like they were excited to watch him play golf and I think pretty soon it will be back to normal," Ogilvy said.

Woods Gets Nice But Subdued Reaction

One thing became evident early Monday during Tiger Woods' practice round at the Masters:

The curiousity factor hasn't diminshed.

As Woods and Fred Couples made their way around Augusta National Monday morning, the gallery around them continued to grow. At times, fans were stacked a dozen deep around greens as Woods and Couples played in the warm sunshine.

Woods was greeted warmly but without loud ovations. When he and Couples would approach greens, Couples tended to receive louder ovations than Woods. Anyone who came hoping to hear heckling was sorely disappointed. There was none.

However, Woods seemed noticeably more animinated in dealing with the galleries, chatting occasionally with fans, even shaking hands with a man beside the second tee. Woods looked relaxed, laughing with Couples and their caddies as they walked in the sunshine.

Four security guards walked with Woods and Couples, two walking down each side of the fairway.

Woods' play was spotty. He pulled his opening tee shot far to the left of the first fairway then hit a second ball into play. He made a mess of the par-3 fourth hole and pulled his tee shot left again on the par-5 eighth hole.

Tiger starts his day with a goatee and a smile

Tiger Woods walked into his new public world Monday morning wearing gray slacks, a pink and gray striped shirt, a goatee -- and a smile.

Playing a practice round with Fred Couples at Augusta National, Woods was in the second group on the course -- Soren Hanson beat them out there by a few minutes -- and a gallery was quickly gathering around the world's No. 1 player.

Patrons weren't allowed onto the grounds until 8 a..m., but hundreds were already around the first and second holes as Woods played his first round in front of spectators since his personal life came unraveled on Thanksgiving weekend.

On a cool, soft morning, Woods received a warm welcome. One woman shouted, 'We love you, Tiger,' after he hit his opening tee shot. Walking down the first fairway with Couples, the sound of cameras clicking could be heard. Fans are allowed to bring cameras into the practice rounds and there were plenty of professional photographs along to document the day, as well.

Augusta National chairman Billy Payne was standing in the trees off the right side of the first fairway watching as Woods and Couples walked past.

Woods was smiling and laughing with Couples and seemed to make a point to acknowledge fans watching them play. After hitting his tee shot at the second hole, Woods chatted with a couple of patrons beside the ropes, reaching out to shake hands with a man who offered his hand.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

What If Tiger Wins The Masters?

Once we get past Monday at the Masters with Tiger Woods finally coming face to face with fans and the media, we will move on to a different issue:

What if Tiger wins the Masters?

He could, you know.

If you're picking five guys with a chance, you can't leave him off the list. You could but you'd feel antsy about it.

If Tiger wins this Masters, it would be great for television ratings, great for him and great that it would give the world something else to talk about rather than whatever TMZ and the tabloids keep churning out about him.

But would it be great for the PGA Tour?

Of course it would.

There's one school of thought that if Tiger wins at Augusta, it makes everyone else playing the tour look like highly compensated chumps. He sits out nearly six months, gets filleted in public in the most embarrassing way and still comes back to win the year's first major championship.

What does that say about everyone else on tour?

It would say the same thing we've been saying about Tiger for more than a decade -- he's that once in a lifetime talent. That's what tour players have been saying about him every time he steps on their necks in a tournament. They know it better than the rest of us.

To some people, Tiger can't do anything to redeem himself. He's lost them. But I suspect that's a relatively small number of people, though a good many of them seem to be in the media.

The larger group wants to see Tiger do well again. It won't alleviate their disappointment in learning he wasn't all he was projected to be but time and action can soften that. I think the fatigue factor has also set in. Most of us are sick and tired of hearing about Tiger's private life. We get the picture. It isn't flattering but it's time to move on.

The reason we've cared about Tiger is because of the way he plays golf. He has taken the world's toughest game to conquer and come closer than anyone to conquering it.

Can he win this Masters?

What do you think?