Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ryder Cup Pairings: Is U.S. In Trouble Already?

When U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin announced his pairings for Friday morning's four-ball matches to start play, he went with three solid and unsurprising teams and one real shocker.

It was no surprise that Pavin matched Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson; Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker; and, Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar.

The eye-opener was Jeff Overton and Bubba Watson together. They're both rookies with a lot of nervous energy that could work well or blow up. Obviously, Pavin is counting on it to produce magic.

It also meant sitting Jim Furyk and Hunter Mahan in the morning along with rookie Rickie Fowler and Zach Johnson. That's the tough part of captaining a Ryder Cup -- telling four guys they can't play during each of the first four sessions.

Here's my take on the opening set of matches (on at 2:30 a.m. on ESPN if you're up that early/late):

-- Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson vs. Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer: Talk about a strong start. The Phil-Dustin pairing has been in the works for a while. They get along, they play long-ball and when they get on a roll, watch out.

They're going up against a formidable pair of Europeans, who aren't likely to make many mistakes. Westwood hasn't played a tournament in about two months but reportedly made eight birdies in a practice round at Celtic Manor. Tough to pick a favorite in this one.

-- Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar vs. Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy: You get the feeling European captain Colin Mongomerie is banking on the boys from Northern Ireland to be his stallions this weekend. This is a match the Europeans expect to win. Cink is sneaky good in these events, though, and he'll be a perfect calming influence for Kuchar.

-- Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker vs. Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher: This is a must-win for the Americans. Woods and Stricker were invincible together in the Presidents Cup last fall and need to be that way again if the U.S. is to retain the Cup. Woods gets good vibes playing with Stricker but both have struggled with their putting in recent weeks. That's a concern. A loss in this match could be potentially devastating for the U.S.

-- Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton vs. Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington: Could the two pairings be more different? The Euros have two classic grinders while the U.S. is throwing out power and emotion. This one could swing wildly in either direction. How will Watson and Overton handle the moment? Can Harrington find his missing form? I give the edge to Europe in this one.

It's important for the U.S. to stay even or get a lead early. At first glance, getting out of Friday morning tied 2-2 would feel like a win for the Americans.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Five Ryder Cup Questions With Paul Azinger

Paul Azinger, captain of the victorious 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team be part of ESPN’s 11-hour coverage on Friday. Before heading to Wales, Azinger talked with me. about what happened two years ago and what he expects this time.

Q: You had 12 PGA Tour wins including a PGA Championship. Where does being captain of a winning U.S. Ryder Cup team rank among your career achievements?

Azinger: It’s head and shoulders above anything else I ever experienced. To take on a leadership role and to represent the United States and those players, it was a gift, really.

Q: You had great success by putting players into four-man pods during the Ryder Cup, matching players with similar personalities. Is that evidence of how influential a captain can be in these matches?

Azinger: I believe the captain can set the tone and create the environment. My priority was to give them ownership. I didn’t feel it was my priority to dictate anything to them.

I asked them to prepare in small groups. I told them there are no short cuts to success but they were the best in the world.

I also told them to be aggressive and to show off for the crowd. I told them they were all big boys and I wasn’t going to be holding their hands.

Q: Do you agree with the perception that the U.S. is an underdog entering these matches?

Azinger: I do believe we’re underdogs for numerous reasons but not because of one glaring reason or one player. We’re playing in a different time zone and they’ll definitely have a home-course advantage.

I think our selection process got our best players there. I can’t argue to take one guy off our team but you could argue that you could take two players off the European team to put two others on.

Q: Some people questioned whether Tiger Woods belongs on the team. What do you think?

Azinger: I saw what some fans were thinking but he absolutely belongs. He’s the No. 1 player in the world. Colin Montgomerie was criticized for leaving the No. 7 player in the world off his team. When (Woods) is not at his best, he still beats virtually everybody.

Q: What are the three things that you’ll be looking closely at as the matches get underway?

Azinger: The first thing is the height of the rough. We have assembled what I think is the longest-hitting Ryder Cup team ever but they maybe aren’t the most accurate team. If the rough is high, it will neutralize their power.

The second thing is the significance of a good start by the American team. If that doesn’t happen, the hole they dig may be too deep.

And third, whoever is behind, I’ll look to see what kind of adjustments they make and will they be enough.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Area golfers advance in Mid-Amateur

Steve Harwell of Mooresville advanced to the round of 16 in the U.S. Mid-Amateur championship with a 1-up victory Tuesday against Tom Krystyn of Denver, Colo., at Atlantic Golf Club in Long Island, N.Y.

Harwell will face Anthony Barrera Wednesday. Barrera advanced with a 6 and 5 victory against Charlotte's Brent Landry.

Rick Cloninger of Fort Mill also advanced, defeating Brian Atkinson of Chicago 1-up. Cloninger will face Greensboro's Scott Harvey Wednesday.

-- Ron Green Jr.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Four Locals Advance In US Mid-Am

Charlotte-area players continue to make a strong showing in the U.S. Mid-Amateur championship with four of them advancing into the second round of match play at Atlantic Golf Club on Long Island, N.Y.

Mooresville's Steve Harwell rolled to a 6 and 4 victory over Tripp Davis of Norman, Ok., the most lopsided victory for local players on Monday.

Charlotte City Am champion Brent Landry advanced by defeating Michael Brown of Cheltenham, Pa., in 19 holes; Huntersville's Joe Jaspers moved on with a 3 and 2 win over Tom Weikmeister of Grand Rapids, Mich.; and, Fort Mill's Rick Cloninger stayed alive with a 3 and 2 win over Robert Gregorski of Appleton, Wisc.

Charlotte's Nolan Mills failed to advance, falling to Bill Jeremiah of West Grove, Pa., 6 and 5.

Play continues on Tuesday.

Locals Make Strong Showing At U.S. Mid-Am

The 64-player match-play bracket in the U.S. Mid-Amateur championship this week bears a strong local presence.

Nolan Mills and Brett Landry of Charlotte, Joe Jaspers of Huntersville, Rick Cloninger of Fort Mill, S.C., and Steve Harwell of Mooresville each survived the windy weekend conditions in Bridgehampton, N.Y. to earn spots in the match-play bracket.

Mills is the most unlikely of the group to advance because until last Thursday, the Charlotte real estate executive wasn't in the field. He got a call on Thursday telling him a spot had become available if he wanted to play and, after shooting 7-over par in two qualifying rounds, Mills moved on to match play.

The match-play bracket is being played at Atlantic Golf Club on Long Island.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

SAS Championship As Good As Advertised

This is my first visit to the SAS Championship at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary and it's as good as I've been told.

It's not a major championship -- the Champions Tour already has too many of those -- but it feels like a big event. The course is strong enough to challenge the players, there's plenty of room for people to move around and the whole thing feels right.

Part of the charm of the Champions Tour is that it's a smaller version of the PGA Tour, allowing fans to get closer to the players. There's a comfort level that's hard to come by at big tour events. At the SAS Championship, everything feels relaxed and comfortable.

It's too bad football season smothers golf because this time of year is ideal golf time. The SAS Championship had a terrific field this week and good-sized galleries. It was hot Friday and Saturday but it finally felt like fall on Sunday.

And if you were at the SAS Championship, it was a nice place to be.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Els Into The Hall Of Fame: It Was Automatic

Ernie Els got what he deserved this week -- a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

There's a solid case to be made against inducting players still in the relative prime of their careers into Halls of Fame but, that aside, Els was a lock to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I voted for him.

He's been among the game's best players for the better part of two decades, winning three major championships, threatening in many more and piling a collection of trophies from around the globe. Could he have won more had he spent less time hopscotching the globe and settled in one place? Probably but he chose a jet-lagged path and he's made the most of it.

His record shows 18 PGA Tour victories including two U.S. Opens and a British Open as well as more than 40 other worldwide wins. Once he turned 40, the threshold for Hall for membership, Els' selection was a foregone conclusion.

Els got the official word in a phone call two weeks ago but didn't tell anyone, even his family "because I knew my daughter, she wouldn't be able to keep it quiet," he said. He broke the news to them Monday night before heading to Atlanta.

A win in Atlanta at the Tour Championship would probably lock down the player of the year award for Els, stacking it on top of his early-season wins.

"Obviously, this makes the year," Els said. "It makes you feel very good about what you've done. You'd like to think you could have done more and can still do more but, obviously, (I'm) very, very honored to be inducted."

Els wil be enshrined May 9, 2011 along with Doug Ford, Jock Hutchison and former president George H.W. Bush. Ford and Hutchison was selected in the veterans category while Bush was honored in the lifetime achievement category.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

More Masters TV; Lehman Gets Nice Honor

Sorting through the shag bag:

-- If you can't make it to the Masters in person next year, you're going to be able to see more of it on television.

Tournament officials announced they will extend coverage by one hour on Thursday and Friday -- from 3 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. -- on ESPN. I'm just glad the Masters doesn't go wall to wall like too many events do. It's one of the ways the Masters remains special.

-- Nice move to honor Tom Lehman with the Payne Stewart award. Lehman has been one of the game's good people for many years and he seemed genuinely touched to receive the award given for sportsmanship, integrity and giving back.

-- Commissioner Tim Finchem said the PGA Tour's television ratings for 2010 are down two percent from 2009. Finchem pointed to the absence of Tiger Woods early in the year, huge ratings for the Winter Olympics and strong NFL ratings as contributing factors to an early dip in the television numbers.

-- Finchem said he expects some form of designated tournaments to be adopted at a November board meeting but he declined to get into specifics. The commissioner said several options are on the table for a plan that would push players to add tournaments they don't traditionally play once every four years.

"We're looking at different ways to accomplish what we want to accomplish," Finchem said.

-- The FedEx Cup playoffs may get tweaked again but no decision has been made. Here's why more changes are needed:

Steve Stricker entered the playoffs in second place, is the only player with three top-10 finishes in the three events, and he's fallen to fourth in the points.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Two-Week Race To The End Of Golf Season

The professional golf season has two meaningful weeks left before it submerges again, waiting to surface in HD images from Kapalua next January.

Sure, there are tournaments to be played in the PGA Tour's Fall Series, the place where guys go to save their tour cards against weaker fields but they're lost under football season, the baseball playoffs and the new season of 'Mad Men.'

The next two weeks, however, have plenty to offer, particularly around here where the Champions Tour is making its two-week tour through the SAS Championship in Cary and the Ensure Classic at Rock Barn in Conover.

The primary attention is on the Tour Championship at East Lake, which begins Thursday with 30 players chasing the $10-million FedEx check someone will win. My guess is Matt Kuchar wins the playoffs, capping a storybook season for the Georgia Tech kid. He reinvented his golf swing a few years back, making it flatter than west Texas, and he's become one of the world's best players.

That's what happens when we spend most of our time watching and wondering what's happening with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Suddenly, here's Matt Kuchar doing what they have typically done. And right beside him, there's Dustin Johnson, who has the season's most compelling story.

This is the fourth year of the FedEx Cup playoffs and they still haven't created the wow factor tour officials wanted. Are they better than what came before them? Sure, but then, before the playoffs the season just gradually faded away like Chris DiMarco. Regardless of who wins this weekend, it won't be the chatter around the office on Monday morning unless Phil shoots 58 to win.

The Tour Championship is just a prelude to the Ryder Cup, which, to me, is the most entertaining event in golf alongside the Masters. Match play is fascinating, especially in the Ryder Cup, which is golf's version of a daytime soap opera.

I still like the Europeans to win but I'll hold off a prediction until next week.

If you're around Cary this weekend or around here next weekend, it's worth a ride to check out Fred Couples, Bernhard Langer, Jay Haas and the Champions Tour guys. After a few down years, the Champions Tour has bounced back in a big way. Couples is a huge part of it, of course, but the 50-somethings still have some magic.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dustin Johnson: Closing In On Player Of The Year

If the vote were taken this week, Dustin Johnson is my player of the year.

I'm leaving a little wiggle room because it's possible Matt Kuchar, the leader prior to the BMW Championship, could nail it down next week with a victory at the Tour Championship at East Lake, a place with which he's very familiar.

Johnson, though, has become a compelling figure for both his golf and the way he's handled a borderline nightmare season. The Sunday meltdown at the US Open would be enough to mentally cripple most guys but not Johnson. Then the wrenching events on the 72nd hole at the PGA Championship could have destroyed him.

Instead, Johnson kept grinding, showed he could shake it off and now he may win the big $10 million prize next week in Atlanta.

Even if he doesn't, he's won an immense amount of respect for his game and his handling of a potentially devastating season.

If the question is where does golf go if Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods don't return to their former glory, the answer may be Johnson. With his power, he's capable of dominating almost any course. He's not the best wedge player in the world but he's good enough and sure to get better.

Before the Open and PGA, Johnson was a tough guy to get a read on. The talent was apparent but he's quiet and, therefore, he didn't jump out as a character. After his summer of discontent, Johnson has emerged as a star and an increasingly popular one.

When the American team heads to Wales in three weeks, Johnson is going to be central to captain Corey Pavin's plan for keeping the Ryder Cup. There's plenty of speculation that Pavin will pair Johnson with Mickelson. Regardless of who Johnson is with, he'll be impossible to ignore.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Fowler A Ryder Cup Risk -- But Worth It

Captain Corey Pavin said he went with a gut feeling in naming 21-year old Rickie Fowler to the U.S. Ryder Cup team, the most surprising of his four captain’s picks announced Tuesday.

He picked Fowler over Lucas Glover, Anthony Kim, Ben Crane, Ryan Palmer, Charley Hoffman and who knows how many others for the final spot on the squad. That’s assuming that Tiger Woods, Stewart Cink and Zach Johnson were virtual automatics.

By the way, did anyone seriously think Charley Hoffman was going to make the team based on one great putting Sunday?

The Fowler pick is a risk. He still hasn’t won on the PGA Tour and when he’s been in contention – most notably the Waste Management Phoenix Open – he played it safe which seems contrary to his style.

But it's a risk worth taking.

Pavin now has two players – Jeff Overton is the other – who have never won a PGA Tour event. Is that a big deal? Only if the U.S. loses in which case everything is a big deal.

Fowler has been making cuts but no noise since his second-place finish in The Memorial more than three months ago. However, Fowler had a 7-1 career record in the Walker Cup, which speaks to his knack for match play.

Fowler gives Pavin five rookies on his team but that may not be a huge issue considering the European team has six rookies.

I can see Pavin pairing Fowler with Phil Mickelson in much the same way Paul Azinger put Kim and Mickelson together two years ago. Other than risking a charisma overload, it would give Fowler a Ryder Cup veteran alongside in Wales.

Others have suggested Mickelson with Dustin Johnson. Not bad, either.

It's a fresh canvas for Pavin, considering how different this Ryder Cup roster is from the last one. Only one pairing at Valhalla -- Mickelson and Hunter Mahan were together in the Saturday afternoon four-ball match -- can be dupllicated at Celtic Manor.

Unless Pavin just likes to be contrary, he'll put Tiger with Steve Stricker because both of them like it that way and they laid waste to the International team together in the Presidents Cup.

Would Pavin dare put Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson together for one match? Jim Furyk, Stewart Cink and Zach Johnson are ideal complements to the newcomers.

This is likely the first of many Ryder Cup teams of which Fowler will be a part. If he can handle wearing the team uniforms, he can handle the golf.

A month ago, the European team looked like an overwhelming favorite. Not anymore.

Friday, September 03, 2010

And The Four US Ryder Cup Captain's Picks Are...

On Tuesday, it's Corey Pavin's turn to be second-guessed, not that the past couple months of his Ryder Cup captaincy haven't been on the turbulent side.

The whole Tiger Woods question has been silly and Pavin managed to fuel the fire whether he meant to or not. Now he has to pick four players to complete his Ryder Cup team and, no matter how justifiable the picks may be, he's going to criticized for at least some of his choices. It's the nature of the beast.

His counterpart, Colin Montgomerie, got roasted last week when he picked Edoardo Molinari, Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington because it meant he left off Paul Casey, the eighth-ranked player in the world, and Justin Rose, the 23rd-ranked player. But if he left Harrington off the team -- admittedly the three-time major champion hasn't played well in a while -- it would have provoked some criticism

Then again, whatever Monty does provokes criticism from the British press.

Pavin is getting plenty of advice so he doesn't need mine but if I were adding four players to this Ryder Cup team, here's who I'd add:

-- Tiger Woods.

He's the No. 1 player in the world. He belongs on the team.

Maybe he hasn't cared about the Ryder Cup as much as some players in the past but he'll care this time. I don't buy the notion that he'd be a distraction in the team room. I think guys want him there. If you could have Tiger Woods playing for your team, you'd take him, too.

-- Zach Johnson.

A virtual lock, I'm thinking. He's been super-steady all year. He won at Colonial, he tied for third at the PGA Championship and he's made nine straight cuts entering this week.

He can partner with a variety of different players, he's a good putter and he belongs.

-- Stewart Cink.

After a really slow start to the season, Cink has played better the past couple of months. He's had three straight top-20s coming into this week and he's among the most experienced players on Pavin's list.

With a roster that includes rookies Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar, Cink brings seasoning. That will come in handy in Wales.

-- Fred Couples.

It's a long shot, for sure. But what Freddie brings goes beyond his golf, which has been outstanding this year. He brings camaraderie. He brings that Freddie vibe.

He's played a million of these team events and he captained the President's Cup team last year. if Pavin goes predictable, Couples will be playing the Champions Tour at Rock Barn the first weekend in October. If he goes unpredictable, Rock Barn's loss will be Pavin's gain.

So who does that leave out?

It leaves out Lucas Glover, who was inside the automatic qualifying line until the end. Personally, I want him to make it but he missed the cut at the PGA , withered with the lead over the final nine holes at Greensboro and missed the cut last week at The Barclays. The good news is Pavin spent two hours watching Glover play in Thursday's pro-am outside Boston and Glover was striping it.

It also omits Anthony Kim, who desperately wants to make the team and would have had he not had thumb surgery in the spring. Since returning after the PGA, Kim's game hasn't been sharp enough, which is understandable. It's really hard to leave him off but maybe Pavin take steal a page from Monty's captain's manual and add Kim as an assistant, similar to the role Sergio Garcia has on the European team this year.

Rickie Fowler will be a Ryder Cup player, just not this year. Bo Van Pelt deserves consideration. Ben Crane. Justin Leonard.

Captain Pavin has options. It's a question of which ones he chooses.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Can The PGA And Wells Fargo Event Co-Exist?

Now that the 2017 PGA Championship is official, there are a few things to consider. Among them:

-- It will look and feel very different from the Wachovia/Quail Hollow/Wells Fargo Championship if for no other reason than it will be played in August. It's going to be hot, humid and crowded.

The PGA isn't afraid of heat. It was over 100 at Southern Hills in Tulsa a few years ago and it's going to be a blast furnace in Atlanta and Kiawah Island the next two years. The larger worry here in 2017 may be afternoon thunderstorms, which if they get cranked up on a consistent basis can be a serious problem.

One of the charms of the PGA Tour event here is the weather. Even if it's warm, it's not dead of summer hot. It's easy to be outside. It will sweatier work to watch golf in 2017.

Plus, there will be thousands more spectators. There's no definitive word yet on how many fans will be on site daily but it's likely to be in the 45,000 range, a bump of 10,000 over the maximum on site during the Wells Fargo Championship.

-- Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris believes the club can keep its PGA Tour event if a sponsor is willing to sign on but it will mean moving it away from Quail Hollow in 2016 and 2017. He's suggested Pinehurst No. 2 as an option and, on the surface, that's a good idea. There are a million details to consider -- would Pinehurst even be interested is one, corporate hospitality sales are another -- but keeping the PGA Tour and its date here long-term is worth pursuing.

Word is PGA Tour officials weren't thrilled by the PGA announcement on Tuesday but they couldn't have been surprised. If there was a surprise, it's that the news of the deal finally being done didn't leak sooner. It wasn't completed until recently but it's been in the works for months.

-- There is some concern that the Wells Fargo Championship will feel devalued now that there's a major championship on the calendar. I don't think so.

It's one of the special events on the PGA Tour schedule and long before it rolls around next May, the focus and the excitement will be redirected at what's here, not what's coming. One of the reasons the PGA is coming to Quail Hollow is because of what's there now. If anything, the PGA announcement should enhance the spring tournament.

-- If you're wondering, ticket sales and volunteer sign-ups are years away. Corporate sales don't typically start more than three years out and tickets usually go on sale after that.

If you're considering calling the Wells Fargo Championship office to get on any early list, don't. They run the PGA Tour event and have nothing to do with the PGA Championship at this point.