Sunday, January 30, 2011

What If Mickelson Had Made It Happen?

Maybe it looked like a hot dog move Phil Mickelson pulled Sunday afternoon when he sent his caddie, Jim 'Bones' Mackay ahead to the 18th green at Torrey Pines and had him tend the flagstick while Lefty tried to hole a 72-yard wedge shot to force sudden-death with Bubba Watson.

But it was a great moment, a perfectly Phil moment, and that's why he's popular like no one else.

No one else would send their caddie to hold the flag on a wedge shot from the fairway even if they thought about it. But Phil did and he almost pulled off the most talked about shot since he ripped a 6-iron out of the Georgia pine straw last April in Augusta.

Mickelson needed to make a three to tie Watson and he had already laid up with his second shot because he didn't have a club he felt he could get on the green from where his ball was. His hybrid wouldn't clear the pond and his 3-wood would go too far,

So Mickelson took the conservative route and when Watson holed what turned cut to be the winning birdie putt Mickelson had no choice but to try to hole his wedge shot. He walked to the green and read the break from behind the hole like a man who believed he had a legimate chance at holing the shot.

Then he almost did it.

Mickelson explained it by saying he hits the flag a dozen or so times a season with his wedge and, most often, the ball goes skittering away from the hole so he wanted to eliminate that possibility. The very thing happened to Charles Howell III there a few years ago, costing him a chance to win.

As it turned out, Watson won by a stroke, reinforcing the a notion he's growing into his talent, But Mickelson gave everyone watching one of those "are you kidding me?" moments.

He didn't pull it off but he made us believe he might. That's part of his gift.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Finally, A Ray Of Sunshine In The New Golf Season

Maybe it’s the fact the temperature around here has finally nudged 50 degrees, the sun has come calling and you can almost see the blooming forsythia from here.

Or maybe it’s seeing Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson walking Torrey Pines while the Pacific Ocean glimmers in the distance.

It felt this week, for the first time this year, like golf is coming to life again.

That’s not to suggest what Martin Kaymer did in Abu Dhabi last week or Jhonny Vegas did in Bob Hope’s former playground didn’t matter. It did, both for Kaymer’s continuing dominance and Vegas’ bringing the story of Venezuelan golf to light.

But until this week, golf had been held hostage by rules violations, busybody television viewers, a cheating scandal in Europe and the announcements by Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy that they plan to let the PGA Tour’s Players Championship party go on without them in May.

It was a mid-winter cocktail of controversy with a dash of politics thrown in. It was relevant – especially if the spate of television induced disqualifications leads to a rules change – but it wasn’t as compelling as what the game itself can give us.

The good news is there now seems to be a consensus of opinion that disqualifying players for rules violations discovered after they’ve signed their card and had their dinner isn’t fair, especially given the disproportionate amount of television time the stars get as compared to the Roland Thatchers of the world.

The players still need to know the rules and if they mess them up, they should pay the price as Elliot Saltman will after being found guilty of continually mismarking his ball in a European Tour event last year.

But going dimple by dimple in evaluating the inadvertent violation committed by Padraig Harrington two weeks ago helped expose the need to reevaluate what’s happening.

In other words, use a little common sense.

Then again, we’re talking about golf and its rules and rulemakers who treat the game’s 34 rules like the Ten Commandments.

Speaking of common sense, it seems to have gone missing in the situation that will keep Westwood from both The Players Championship and the Wells Fargo Championship here. He’s limited to 10 PGA Tour events – 11 if he includes The Players because it gets special treatment – but he can’t add Quail Hollow without cutting something else out of U.S. schedule. So he’s missing both.

Who wins when the best players in the world can’t play the top events?

If you’re ranked in the top 10 in the world, you should be able to play when and where you want. It’s not my idea but it’s a good one.

There’s all this talk about growing the game and boosting television ratings (though PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem is doing his best to downplay ratings now) but there seem to be unnecessary barriers.

Then you see Torrey Pines on television and a leader board with familiar names. You catch a glimpse of Sergio Garcia playing well in Bahrain. You sneak in 18 holes this weekend, knowing it might not be golf weather again around here for a while.

In the bar, you talk about the 7-iron shot you stung from the mud or watch as Tiger settles in over a 20-footer. You wonder if this is the year Anthony Kim wins a major and smile when you hear Amy Mickelson walked 18 holes watching her husband on Thursday.

The Masters is just 10 weeks away.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Getting A Glimpse Into Tiger's Backyard

   Ever imagined having your own private practice facility at home?

   A place where you could slip out the back door, hit a few balls or chip and putt when you wanted?

   Tiger Woods has that now.  Just a little 3.5-acre practice area in Jupiter Island, Fla., with four greens, seven bunkers and more options than Starbucks.

   Woods has posted a glimpse of his new facility on his website -- -- and it looks like every golfer's dream. It was designed to allow Woods to practice virtually any shot he wants and in varying conditions, including privacy.

   The bunkers are shaped differently and have four different kinds of sand. Let's face it, the sand at Quail Hollow is different than the sand at Royal St. George's.

   He can practice from thick rough, medium rough and, for the days he's hitting it straight off the tee -- no rough. He can practice bump and run shots with a firm green and he can even set up a par-3 course.

  The facility has TifEagle putting surfaces, TifDwarf green surrounds, 419 bermuda fairways and 419 and Celebration bermuda rough.

  As backyards go, it's not bad.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Tiger, Phil Make This Week The Real Start Of 2011

   Officially three weeks old, the 2011 PGA Tour season really starts this week when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson arrive at Torrey Pines for the Farmers Insurance Open.

   Much has been made about the fact Woods has now fallen to third in the world rankings behind Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, who seems to win every time he tees it up, but Mickelson has fallen out of the top five, now occupying the sixth spot.

  Nothing against Johnny Vegas and his orange shirt winning the Bob Hope on Sunday, but getting Tiger and Phil back changes the landscape. Woods is a curiosity now. He didn't win last year and lost a playoff to Graeme McDowell the last time we saw him. Now it's 2011 and a fresh start.

   Suppose Woods wins this week. He will immediately become the favorite to win the Masters in April and there will be plenty of chatter about how he's back. If he wins, it will be interesting to see what the reaction is from fans and what Woods says about it. With no NFL playoffs this weekend, the television ratings will also get close attention if Woods is in the chase.

  If he scrapes it around again, unnecessary alarm bells will ring.

   Mickelson, meanwhile, returns from a so-so week in Abu Dhabi still searching for the form that was missing for a good portion of last season. He needs to jump start his 2011 season and Torrey Pines would be the perfect place to do it.

   It's nice to have them back.



Thursday, January 20, 2011

Westwood Sends A Message

Lee Westwood's announcement this week that he will not play in the Players Championship in May also means the current world No. 1 won't play in the Wells Fargo Championship either.

It's not that Westwood doesn't want to play here but new PGA Tour rules limit him to 10 starts and he's chosen not to make the Players one of them.

If you get a whiff of politics in there, you should.

Westwood's announcement in Abu Dhabi didn’t come as a shock. It had been hinted at for weeks. But it’s a shot at the PGA Tour which desperately wants the Players Championship to be considered the equal of the game’s four major championships.

When No. 1 chooses to skip the event, it stings.

“I’d go over for the Players if I could play in the tournament the week before (the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow), but I don’t want to pitch up at the Players cold, having not played for four weeks since Augusta. So, I’ll play a couple of tournaments on the European Tour instead,” Westwood told reporters in Abu Dhabi.

Because Westwood surrendered his PGA Tour membership in 2008 which required him to play 15 events annually, he’s now limited to 11 events. It was originally 10 events but tour officials offered some wiggle room when it became apparent Westwood may skip the Players.

Westwood plans to play the four major championships, the three World Golf Championship events, Houston the week before the Masters, Honda in Florida between two WGC events and Memphis where he’s the defending champion.

That’s 10.

Allowing an 11th spot for the Players wasn’t enough, not without making Quail Hollow available also.

Though he hasn’t said so officially, Rory McIlroy has indicated he may pass on the Players, as well.

McIlroy is expected to play here as defending champion but he’s not a fan of the TPC Stadium course and, with his starts also limited after choosing not to keep his PGA Tour card this year, McIlroy could be absent from the tour’s sparkly event.

The European Tour also raised its minimum number of appearances to 13 this year.

At a time when professional golf is fighting to maintain its audience, making rules to keep the best players out of top tournaments doesn’t make much sense.

Westwood’s announcement helps bring that into focus.

Monday, January 17, 2011

On Wilson, Warm Weather Golf and Where's Phil?

   Sorting through another golf weekend with patches of snow on the ground:

  -- Nice win for a nice guy. Mark Wilson, winner of the Sony Open in Hawaii, isn't the most recognizable guy on the PGA Tour but he's a guy who seems to have things figured out. He and his wife have worked on various charity projects, lending their time to help others.

   A former North Carolina golfer, Wilson earned his first trip to the Masters with his victory.  If you don't think the Masters is all that different from other tournaments, just look at how quickly first-time qualifiers bring it up.

  -- Even though it wasn't classically Hawaiian last week, watching golf where it's warm and green only adds to the desire to play.

   I know some guys who played over the weekend here despite snow cover on the shady edges of some fairways and greens. I admire the commitment, muddy shoes and all.

   Does anyone around here remember what it feels like to swing a club without being wrapped in sweatshirts and turtlenecks?

   -- Keep an eye on tour rookie Ben Martin, a recent Clemson graduate. He has a chance to have a very good career.

  -- Looking for Philly Mick?

   You can find him playing in Abu Dhabi this week. Being the devoted San Diego Chargers fan he is, wonder what his thoughts are on Ron Rivera coming to the Panthers? Mickelson knows his football. He can take you through the Chargers' depth chart if you ask.

   -- Interesting to see Dustin Johnson issuing a statement denying he's dating Natalie Gulbis. I'm not sure what to make of it but obviously all the chatter made him uncomfortable.

  -- LPGA commissioner Mike Whan made the right call last week when he denied the petition by 15-year old Alexis Thompson to play more than six tour events via sponsor exemptions.

   It's a tough call to make given the budding star power she brings to a tour desperately in need of any attention but allowing her the asked-for 12 spots would undercut the tour qualifying process. She'll still play a relatively full schedule because the Opens don't count toward her six-event limit and by opening Monday qualifying to her, Whan found a way to give something.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Byrd Flies High; Time To Fix The TV/Rules Mess

   A few thoughts on a snowy morning about what happened last week in Kapalua:

  -- Jonathan Byrd  has gone back to back, winning his last two starts including his walk-off ace victory in the playoff at Justin Timberlake's Las Vegas event late last year. He now has five PGA Tour victories and if you want start counting, that puts Byrd ahead of many of his more famous colleagues. Camilo Villegas, for example, has three tour wins.

   Byrd doesn't draw attention to himself but his collection of trophies is beginning to do that for him. Until Kapalua, Byrd's wins hadn't come in high-profile events but this win was different, even if it came against a small field. This may be the year when Byrd puts himself in a new class on tour.

  -- Obviously Villegas made a bone-headed mistake when he flipped a divot out of the path of his golf ball last week, earning himself a disqualification at Kapalua. But having a rules breach called in by a television viewer -- it's hardly the first time -- and leading to a DQ is unfair.

    It's unfair because not every player in the field has television cameras focused on his every shot. Most players spend the tournament off camera where any potential rules violations wouldn't be telecast to a television audience. It's an uneven playing field in that regard.

   Tour officials didn't notice the violation and accepted his scorecard. Had they noticed the violation, they could have tacked on two shots before Villegas signed his card and been done with it. Instead, he gets DQ'd because the penalty wasn't assessed until the next day when it was discovered.

   It's not unlike trying to undo what happened in a football game because of a missed call.

   I like the idea that's been tossed out of having a tour official monitor the telecast, almost like a replay official in football. If there are any potential rules questions during the telecast, they can be dealt with immediately. We've all heard the expression 'protect the field.' They should protect the players, too.

  -- Charlotte residents Brendon de Jonge, Webb Simpson and Johnson Wagner get their 2011 seasons started this week at the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Moore, Clanton Capture Player Of Year Honors

   Charlotte's Patty Moore and Rockwell's Cydney Clanton have been honored as 2010 players of the year in their respective categories by the Carolinas Golf Association.

  Clanton, a senior at Auburn, was named women's player of the year for the second straight year. Ranked No. 3 among women amateurs in the latest Golfweek rankings, Clanton won the Women's North and South Amateur last summer. She also played in the U.S. Women's World Amateur team, reached the quarterfinals in the Women's Public Links championship and the round of 32 in the U.S. Women's Amateur.

   Moore was named senior player of the year for the seventh straight time, edging Garner's Pat Brogden in a season-long points race.

   Raleigh's imcomparable Paul Simson was named men's senior player of the year after becoming the first player in history to win the U.S., British and Canadian amateur championships in the same year.

   Fayetteville's David Chung, a junior at Stanford, was named men's player of the year. He won two college events, was runner-up in the U.S. Amateur and is ranked second in Golfweek's national amateur rankings.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Masters, Tiger Now Linked Via Video Game

   The Masters is coming to a video game near you.
   The tournament and Augusta National Golf Club will be featured in the new Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 game scheduled to hit the market on March 29. It is the first time the club has been included in a video game.

   The goal, according to Augusta National chairman Billy Payne, is to expand the game worldwide and to use the club's net proceeds from the game to help fund the Masters Trust Foundation, which invests in golf development programs worldwide.

   "Our desire to help grow the game of golf throughout the world is sincere, and it is that commitment that first led us to EA Sports more than three years ago," Payne said in a statement. "EA Sports, Tiger Woods and the PGA Tour have developed an extremely successful franchise that responds to one of the popular entertainment choices of kids today.

  "We hope our inclusion will foster an appreciation for the history and traditions of the Masters and inspire the next generation of golfers. Equally important is its ability to help further the mission of the Masters Tournament Foundation with the entirety of its proceeds."

   In his time as chairman, Payne was worked aggressively to expand the game worldwide, using the Masters as a way to help raise awareness and interest, particlarly among young people. By including the Masters in Woods' enormously popular video game, it's another way to reach a younger audience.

   It also speaks to Woods' status that Payne and Augusta National chose to work with him and EA Sports after the chairman's pointed remarks about Woods' behavior last spring following the scandal in his personal life.