Thursday, March 31, 2011

Rees Jones' New Carmel South Course Is Big Time

   After an 18-month wait, the redesigned South Course at Carmel Country Club opens today, giving the Charlotte golf community another outstanding layout.

   The membership was given a hole-by-hole guide to the changes Wednesday night by designer Rees Jones, who took the best of what existed on the original Ellis Maples design, tweaked what was there and added a handful of new holes. The result is a layout capable of hosting a major event.

   The first and 18th holes are new as are the fifth and sixth holes, carved out of what was once the edge of a forest. The sixth hole, a muscular and intimidating par-4 with water along the right side, will have everyone talking.

   Jones, who had done some relatively minor modifications to the course over the years, designed flexibility into the new layout. It can play a comfortable 6,200 yards and it can stretch to 7,500 yards for any new-age bombers who want to show off their length.

   Most of the greens have openings in the front to allow players to use the ground, aided by sand-plating beneath the approach areas to help keep the turf firm. A number of trees have been removed, giving the layout a more open, airy feel and its watery four-hole finish is sure to keep the outcome of friendly games in doubt.

   It's the finishing touch to a massive project to upgrade the club that has included clubhouse improvements and the creation of a small waterpark. An impressive club just got better.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mickelson Doesn't Like His Chances -- And That's Just Fine

   Phil Mickelson doesn't like his chances in the Shell Houston Open this week and he's okay with that.

   Mickelson is playing this week -- paired with Lee Westwood in the first two rounds -- with the intention of sharpening his game for the Masters next week. And while tournament officials have done a good job on selling players to come and play Redstone Golf Club with its firm, fast greens the week before Augusta, Mickelson suggested last week that his focus will be on next week more than this week.

   Talking at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, Mickelson said Redstone "is not going to set up well for me," because of how many of the fairways get very narrow around 285 yards from the tee, pushing players to hit more 3-woods off tees than they will at Augusta. Mickelson, though, plans to rip away with his driver, working on shots he'll hit at Augusta, even if it means bringing more trouble into play at Houston.

   In other words, Mickelson is all about the Masters and that's okay.

   He's at a place in his career where only major championship victories are going to enhance his legacy. He's won four, three of them coming with green jackets, and another major or two puts Lefty is super-select company at the all-time dinner table. Mickelson loves Augusta and talked often last year about the inspiration that came with just riding down Magnolia Lane.

   He wants to be ready when the Masters starts. That doesn't mean Mickelson can't or won't win this week at Houston but it means the tournament he's most interested in starts next Thursday, not this Thursday.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Would You Take Nick Watney at 40/1 In The Masters?

   Random thoughts while waiting for Masters week:

  -- According to, Tiger Woods is the betting favorite in the Masters at 3/1. Phil Mickleson comes in at 7/1, Lee Westwood at 12/1 and Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy at 20/1.

    Nick Watney at 40/1 caught my eye.

-- There's no good time to aerate greens. I know it has to be done but, like going to the dentist, it doesn't mean you have to like it.

-- In the rush to proclaim the arrival of golf's new generation -- that includes Dustin Johnson, Watney, Martin Kaymer, Rickie Fowler and others -- it's begun to feel as if Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have been marginalized.

   Sure, they've won one tournament between them since 2009 but they're not finished. They may not dominate as they once did but they're still going to be formidable. They're going to win more tournaments and more major championships. Maybe as soon as next week.

-- Is any player more fun to watch than Bubba Watson?

   I don't think so.

-- While at the beach last week, I got a chance to play Bulls Bay again. It's a Mike Strantz design near Charleston, S.C., with fairways seemingly as wide as the sky and a collection of holes that remind you of how much fun golf can be even when the greens have been double-cut and rolled on a windy day.

  If you get invited to play there by a member, don't miss the opportunity.

   -- The LPGA's first major is this week -- the Kraft Nabisco. With only 12 events played in the United States, the tour is dealing with an identity crisis almost as serious as the struggle to find tournament sponsors. It's too bad because there's a ton of talent and compelling personalities but the tour is struggling to get noticed.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sergio, Kim Add Names To Wells Fargo Field

Sergio Garcia - AP
   Sergio Garcia, Anthony Kim, Vijay Singh, Zach Johnson and Trevor Immelman are among the latest players to add their name to the official commitment list for the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow in early May.

   They add to a list that already includes defending champion Rory McIlroy, world. No. 1 Martin Kaymer, Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney and Bubba Watson.

    Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods are likely to play but neither is expected to make an official commitment until closer to the tournament.

   Tickets are now available at a tournament kiosk in Southpark Mall as well as online at

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Sunday Of Almosts For Simpson, de Jonge

   Sunday was a day of almosts for Charlotte's Webb Simpson and Brendon de Jonge.

   Both almost won their first PGA Tour events.

   Simpson, who moved to Charlotte last August from Raleigh with his wife, Dowd, couldn't par the last hole at the Transitions Championship to force a playoff with Gary Woodland and wound up with a solo second. It wasn't the way Simpson wanted it to end but it was another experience of playing with or near the lead on Sunday and that's bound to help down the road.

    Simpson was brilliant around the greens in the final round, one-putting 13 times in a 16-hole stretch when his ball striking wasn't particularly sharp. But he couldn't save par from the back of the 18th green when he needed to -- something Woodland did from nearly the same spot to win.

   It will sting for a time, knowing there was a spot in the Masters if he won, but Simpson is getting more familiar with the Sunday afternoon heat. He had a chance in Las Vegas last fall, leading with two holes remaining only to hit his tee shot in the water on the 17th hole causing him to miss a playoff by a stroke.

   This time, he made things difficult when he pulled his tee shot into a fairway bunker at the 18th hole and it slipped away from there. But he can take plenty of confidence away from Innisbrook, knowing he has the game to win.

   It was the first week his wife and new son, James, have traveled with him and it's going to be a week he always remembers for more reasons than the golf.

   For de Jonge, it was a discouraging finish. He was tied for the lead on the back nine but made four bogeys in his last seven holes. He had an excellent year in 2010 with three third-place finishes but his final-round scoring average ranked 97th on tour.

    He ranked 16th on Sunday scoring average this year until his 73 at Innisbrook. On television, you could see the disappointment in de Jonge's body language. But he has become a very good player, a guy who plays under the radar but who is growing into a really solid PGA Tour player. He'll have better Sundays than this one.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Luck Of The Irish -- And Then Some

There’s the luck of the Irish.

Then there’s the story of John O’Malley on St. Patrick’s Day.

O’Malley is a 55-year old who relocated to Charlotte just over five years ago and who, if the economy, health and schedules accommodate, gets together with a group of buddies from around the country to play golf and watch basketball together the first week of the NCAA tournament.

This week, O’Malley and seven of his friends are in Charlotte to see Duke, North Carolina and each other.

They’ve already had their magic moment.


Playing golf at Ballantyne Country Club on Thursday, O’Malley hit his 6-iron tee shot on the 149-yard, par-3 12th hole and liked it. Looking into the sun, O’Malley and his friends couldn’t see his ball land.

His playing partners, Tom Grimm of Wilmington, Del., and Bill Lee from Cincinnati also hit good shots. When they got to the green, there were no golf balls to be seen.

One was over the green, another was in a bunker.

“I thought mine had probably hit the front of the green and bounced back in the water,” O’Malley said.

In fact, O’Malley’s ball was in the hole for his first ace.

“I was pretty excited,” O’Malley, a 13-handicap who plays mostly on weekends, said.

It was about to get more exciting.

At the 100-yard, par-3 17th hole that plays over water, O'Malley wanted to hit his pitching wedge but realized he’d left it on an earlier hole. So he choked down on a 9-iron, hit a shot past the hole then watched it roll back in the cup for his second ace in one hour.

“I literally fell down on the tee box,” O’Malley said. “It was unbelievable.”

The odds of something like that happening? Golf Digest reported an insurance company put the odds of two aces in the same round at 1 in 9,222,500.

In other words, it doesn’t happen every day.

“I’ve read stories about people who have done things like that but never actually talked to one,” Ballantyne pro Joe Maher said.

He has now.

The buzz rippled through the Ballantyne clubhouse and the bar was open – for an Irishman on St. Patrick’s Day.

“My friend Bill said my wife wasn’t going to believe it but she will when she sees the bar bill,” O’Malley said.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Paradise Valley Par-3 To Honor Ratcliffe

   Frank Ratcliffe's name may not be the first that comes to mind when people talk about the leaders through the years in the Charlotte golf community but he had a significant impact on the game and the people who play it here.

    In celebration of what would have been Ratcliffe's 100th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the opening of the now-gone Paradise Valley golf course, a ceremony will be held Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Paradise Valley Par-3 course to rename the short course in Ratcliffe's honor. The course is located off Highway 29 near UNC Charlotte.

   Frank Ratcliffe built the original Paradise Valley golf course -- nine regulation holes and nine pitch and putt holes -- as a place where golfers of all skill levels could come and enjoy the game. It was a place where beginners could come and learn to play and where regulars could gather to play 18 holes and socialize.

   The original course closed nearly 20 years ago but a par-3 course sits on a portion of that property and is operated by Ratcliffe Golf Services run his Frank's son, Del, who has been very active in promoting affordable golf.

   The ceremony is open to the public.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Golf's Generation Gap Closes

   While waiting for the Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods we remember to return -- a wait with no guarantees -- golf has gone young.

   Not Justin Bieber young but new generation young.

   It has happened through the years just as reliably as people sneezing in springtime. There was the Crenshaw-Kite-Wadkins era. The Faldo-Langer-Olazabal era. The Woods-Mickelson-Els era.

   And now, there's a new rush of fresh and fairly fresh faces at the top of the game again and that's a very good thing for professional golf. It would be even better if Woods and Mickelson can start winning again but we have reached the point where there's been another generational shift.

   Take the Cadillac Championship at Doral last week. Eleven of the 13 players who finished in front of or tied with Woods are younger than his 35 years.

   Look at the list of PGA Tour winners this year: Nick Watney. Bubba Watson. Jhonny Vegas. Luke Donald. Aaron Baddeley.

   Then throw in Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Matt Kuchar and Martin Kaymer, to name a pretty good foursome.

   The game is in the midst of a transition and it's creating new stars. Watney's victory and his streak of seven straight top-10 finishes has made him the flavor of the week in the discussion about the best American player at the moment. Kuchar remains in the discussion, Johnson reinserted himself with his play at Doral and there are others.

   Tiger's closing 66 on Sunday hinted he might be ready for Augusta. Mickelson, a non-factor at Doral, added Bay Hill to his schedule in hopes of finding what's missing.

   In the meantime, a new generation has filled in quite nicely.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

When The Stars Align -- By Coincidence Or Intentionally

   The fact that Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Graeme McDowell are paired together this week in the first two rounds of the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral is due to their order in the latest world rankings.

  It explains why Nos. 1-3 -- Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald -- are grouped together as are the other top 25 players in the world.  Scroll down the list of groups and you can pick out any number of attractive pairings, including one with Rickie Fowler, Ryo Ishikawa and Jhonatton Vegas.

   While these groupings are based on rankings, the PGA Tour has made the wise move this year of putting together a handful of powerhouse pairings at each event. Rather than let the computer scatter the top players across the tee sheet based on a formula of who's won, who hasn't and other things, the tour seeds a few groups for maximum impact.

   It's a good idea. Play to your strengths. Granted, not every event gets all the top-ranked players in the field but make it easy on fans who want to watch the best but don't want to spend part of their day trekking back and forth between groups.

   The U.S. Open annually has fun (okay fun may be a stretch) with its pairings the first two days and the Masters gets it right, too. Now it can happen at regular tour events.

   That means when the Wells Fargo Championship rolls into Charlotte in May, you can expect a couple of must-follow pairings. That's not to suggest Mickelson and Woods will play together (that's assuming both play here as they typically do) but it won't happen like a couple of years back when all the big names were placed on the same side of the draw, meaning they all played early one day and late the next.

   In the often inflexible world of golf, adding some flexibility to the pairings is a good idea.

Monday, March 07, 2011

McIlroy Makes It Official; 8 Of Top 20 Already Set At Quail

   Defending champion Rory McIlroy has officially committed to play in the Wells Fargo Championship in May, giving the tournament eight of the top 20 players in the latest world rankings with the event still nearly two months away.

   McIlroy's announcement comes as no surprise having earlier said he will be in Charlotte May 2-8 to defend his first PGA Tour victory.

   Other top-ranked players committed to the Wells Fargo Championship include No. 1 Martin Kaymer; No. 11 Jim Furyk; No. 14 Dustin Johnson; No. 15 Bubba Watson; No. 16 Retief Goosen; No. 18 Robert Karlsson; and, No. 19 Hunter Mahan. McIlroy is currently ranked eighth in the world.

   Additionally, 2011 tour winners Rory Sabbatini, Mark Wilson, D.A. Points, Jhonattan Vegas, Jonathan Byrd and Charlotte resident Johnson Wagner have also committed.

   For ticket information, visit

Who's The Masters Favorite Right Now?

   Observations after a weekend without a glimpse of golf:

  -- Nick Price was quoted last weekend at the Honda Classic saying the potential demise of the Heritage Classic on Hilton Head Island would be "a tragedy" and he went on to suggest it doesn't help that most of the tour's top players routinely take the week off.

   He's right, losing the Heritage would be a bad thing on many levels, particularly as it reflects on the PGA Tour not being able to keep one of its long-standing tournaments on the schedule due to sponsorship issues. There's still time for the Heritage to be saved beyond this year but finding a sponsor ready to kick in $8 million a year isn't easy.

   There have been suggestions that the tour and Accenture move the WGC match play event to Hilton Head, slotting it in the week after the Masters. All the top players will be in the area and Harbour Town could make for great match play. It seems like a good idea but not one that seems likely to happen.

   -- Tiger and Phil are both playing the WGC Cadillac Championship at Doral this week. I'm guessing one of them will muster a top-10 finish -- just not sure which one.

  -- If you had to pick a favorite for the Masters right now, who would it be?

      Is there a favorite right now?

      I'm thinking Martin Kaymer is probably the guy to beat but it may be Luke Donald, who has had his moments at Augusta. Somehow I'm guessing they won't be the guys getting all the attention when the world rolls into Augusta in another month.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Jack On Tiger: 'I Still Think He'll Break My Record'

   As always, when Jack Nicklaus sits down in an interview room, he has something interesting to say.

   Prior to the Honda Classic, Nicklaus sat down for what was essentially a session related to the 25th anniversary of his 1986 Masters victory (maybe it’s just me but it doesn’t seem that long ago) and the hour-long interview went in a variety of different directions.

   That meant talking about Tiger Woods.

   Nicklaus said he hasn’t talked with Woods since the Memorial Tournament last May but, despite Tiger’s struggles, he still expects to see Woods break his record of 18 major championship victories.

  “I’ve said all along, I’m surprised that he has not bounced back by now,” Nicklaus told reporters. “I think he’s got a great work ethic, or at least he did. I assume he still does…

  “He’s so determined to what he wants to do. I’m very surprised that he has not popped back. I still think he’ll break my record…

  “We’ll see. You can probably ask me the same question at the end of this year and we’ll see what the answer is – it will probably define a lot of what will be the answer.”

   As for all the talk and questions regarding Woods’ latest swing change, Nicklaus said he regularly changed his swing, often during a tournament. His most significant swing change came after a poor 1979 season. He put his clubs away for several months then in January went to work with his long-time teacher Jack Grout. Nicklaus felt his swing had become too vertical and changed it.

   Nicklaus went on to win two majors in 1980. The big difference, Nicklaus said, is Grout never went to tournaments with him, attracting the attention swing coaches get today.

   “I made changes constantly in my swing,” Nicklaus said. “That’s how you get better. If you don’t make changes, you don’t improve. I don’t care who you are because your body continually changes.

   “My body at age 46 was certainly a lot different than it was at age 25 and/or at is Tiger’s body a lot different at 35 that it was at age 25. He’s got a beautiful golf swing. He’s always had a beautiful golf swing. But you always continually tweak things that you do within that golf swing to try to improve it. Sometimes you’re successful, sometimes you’re not.
  “So are guys making changes? Yeah. And do they need to make changes? Yeah. And should they just go about doing it? Yeah. But they are under a microscope today…So it becomes more public. We made them all the time.”

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

USGA Gets It Right WIth Davis As New Boss

   In the same way Mike Davis has nailed the set-up of U.S. Open golf courses in recent years, the USGA got it right this week when it named Davis to replace David Fay as the organization's new executive director.

   Davis is the right man at the right time.

   He has the sensibilities necessary to navigate the various levels of politics, business and ego that run through golf at its highest levels while maintaining an appreciation and understanding of what the game is and should be at its grassroots level. He gets it.

   "Mike is the consummate golf person," USGA president Jim Hyler said on a conference call announcing Davis's promotion.

    Davis is a man who did what was once unthinkinable -- he softened the U.S. Open. Okay, maybe it's like dulling a razor blade but Davis realized that not every miss in an Open has to leave a scar. He introduced graduated rough. He offers a driveable par-4 where he can. He seeks fairness in a course set-up while still presenting a thorough examination of the best players' games.
   Davis was one of the people who endorsed the extensive restoration project at Pinehurst No. 2 and he loves talking about seeing both 2014 Opens played without rough. That's how different Davis sees things.

     And the players, a finicky bunch especially when greens are hard, fairways are rough and the pressure immense, have applauded Davis. That may be the ultimate endorsement.

   In succeeding Fay, Davis will take over an organization that deals with layers of issues from agronomic to equipment to television deals. He is the seventh executive director of the USGA and he has known the last five, working directly with some of them for extended periods.

    Fay had the good vision to take the U.S. Open to true public venues such as Bethpage and Torrey Pines. He softened some of the starch in the organization as has Hyler, whose guidance has greatly benefited the USGA.

   Davis will make his own mark and it's too soon to know exactly how he'll differ from Fay but he will. It's natural. The good news is the USGA decided to allow Davis to continue overseeing the set-up of U.S. Open courses. He'll surrender the duty for the Women's Open, the U.S. Amateur and the Walker Cup but not for the biggest event.

    It was a critical element in hiring Davis. He wanted it and the USGA was smart to let him continue doing it.

   "I have been public about this. I love the golf course set up part of what I've done," Davis said. "I almost mean it that I would pay the USGA money to allow me to do this. I love putting that puzzle together."

   At the same time, the USGA found the right piece for its puzzle.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Who's The Best American Golfer Now?

   The question has been asked in various corners recently and it's a fair one:

   Who is the best American golfer right now?

   And, no, it's not him or him, as in Tiger or Phil.

   That says something about the current state of both of their golf games, neither of which qualifies as sharp. Tiger's game is someplace between lost and found and Mickelson's game is missing its familiar crackle. It's just the first of March, which means the azaleas haven't begun blooming in Augusta so there's still time for them to be ready when the pollen really pops.

  Hold your breath at your own risk.

  So who's the current Yankee Doodle Dandy?

   The world rankings, top-heavy with Europeans at the moment led by the undeniably No. 1 Martin Kaymer, say the top American is No. 5 Woods with Phil at No. 6. We've already excused them from this discussion so we're still looking.

   Steve Stricker comes to mind. What doesn't come to mind with Stricker is a big performance recently. He finished tied for fourth in the season-opening Tournament of Champions but, given the field size, that was close to the middle of the pack. He's among the best but not the best.

   Jim Furyk's game is currently in a state of disobedience so he's removed from the discussion.

   That brings it down to Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson.

   So far, Johnson's season has been underwhelming. Maybe he's bothered by the great expectations heaped on his broad shoulders this year (I'm among those who expect a big year from him) or maybe he's just not getting much to happen now. He's moved away from Myrtle Beach to south Florida and maybe it's messing with his mojo.

   Kuchar just keeps rocking along, having turned into a big-time player over the past year or so. He seems intent on staying around for a while and that's a good thing. Fowler is just arriving but still needs to win a tournament though I think he's going to win a whole lot of them.

   Right now, though, I take Bubba as the best American player. He's certainly the most dramatic with all creativity and power. Maybe Bubba gets a little too creative at times but at least he plays golf with flair and he doesn't seem afraid of failure. Seeing him on a telecast is like running across 'The Godfather' on cable. You can't help but stop and watch at least some of it.