Friday, March 30, 2012

Simpson on Masters: 'I'm hoping to win'

Webb Simpson of Charlotte plays in his first Masters next week, and he spent this past Monday at Augusta National, prepping for the tournament with his caddie Paul Tesori.

Simpson first played Augusta National as a 12-year old in 1998 -- you can read about his pre-teen visit there in my Sunday story about it in the Observer -- and he's been back a handful of times since. It's different, though, when it's Masters week. Tesori, who has caddied in 10 Masters, is a perfect partner for Simpson, focusing on what they need to do on each shot rather than letting their minds wander.

The first challenge next week, Tesori said, is understanding the nerves that will be dancing. "He's going to be more nervous than he has been," Tesori said this week. "It's Augusta and we've all been watching it since we were five." Tesori related a story from when he caddied for Sean O'Hair in the 2010 Masters and they played a practice round with Phil Mickelson.

In explaining his approach to playing Augusta National, Mickelson told O'Hair to fight the urge to try to be perfect. Just play. Know where not to miss it but don't get upset if you miss a shot. It's going to happen.

"I have to fight trying to be too perfect," Simpson said.

With three top-10 finishes already this year, Simpson has kept his momentum from 2011 going. He had a disappointing 78 in the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational last Sunday, but a recent swing tweak has solved some inconsistency that had crept into his driver.

Simpson said he'll go into the Masters expecting good things. "I'm definitely showing up hoping to win," Simpson said.

(We'll have full coverage from Ron Green Sr., Tom Sorensen, Taylor Zarzour and myself starting on Monday).

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bradley latest to commit to Wells Fargo event

   PGA champion Keegan Bradley is the latest player ranked among the top 20 in the world to add his name to a list of players officially committed to play in the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club. The list also includes Webb Simpson, Hunter Mahan, Bill Haas, Bubba Watson, Nick Watney and Johnson Wagner, among many others.

   Official commitments will increase in the coming weeks and tournament officials are optimistic that Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood will be among those who play in the 10th annual event April 30-May 6. None of those four has officially committed yet.

   Asked specifically about Woods Thursday, tournament executive director Kym Hougham said, "We've had good indications but we had good indications last year (when Woods missed the event due to injury). We're sure hoping he comes. Until his name is on the commitment list, we don't take anything for granted."

    TICKET UPGRADE: Ticket sales are ahead of last year's pace (the event was a sellout in 2011) executive director Kym Hougham said Thursday and there's a new twist on tickets sales at Southpark Mall.
   Patrons who purchase their tickets at the mall will be eligible for a drawing on April 16 that will award upgrades to clubhouse and lawn access.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Wells Fargo tickets available at SouthPark

  You can tell the Wells Fargo Championship is getting close when the ticket kiosk opens in SouthPark mall.

   The SouthPark option begins Wednesday, offering golf fans the opportunity to purchase tickets for the PGA Tour event at the Quail Hollow Club April 30-May 6. All ticket packages, from single-day tickets to premium tickets with hospitality are available at SouthPark.

  The SouthPark kiosk allows patrons to save a $10 shipping and handling fee and have their tournament tickets in hand. The kiosk will be open 11 a.m. until 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.

   Weekly ticket books cost $140 apiece and does not require the same individual to use the ticket each day. Practice packages, good Monday through Wednesday when patrons are allowed to bring cameras, can be purchased for $25. Individual day tickets for each of the four tournament days are also available.

   Children under 12 are admitted free in the company of a paying adult.

   Among the players are committed to the Wells Fargo Championship are defending champion Lucas Glover, Webb Simpson, Johnson Wagner, Bubba Watson, Jim Furyk, Hunter Mahan and Bill Haas.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Tiger sets Masters stage perfectly

Maybe the early spring has taken most of the azalea blooms around Augusta National but the Masters arrives in one week with the game -- and Tiger Woods -- in full bloom.

Woods' victory Sunday in the Arnold Palmer Invitational was as impressive as it was overdue. Having gone 924 days between PGA Tour victories, Woods nailed down No. 72 at Bay Hill with a performance that thundered in its impact and execution.

Healthy, in control of his game and in command of the tournament, it felt like five years ago. After a 2 1/2-year interlude, we now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

For months, Woods has been saying he's close, if he could just stay healthy long enough to pull all the pieces together. Words turned his words into a trophy Sunday.

"Pure joy," is how Woods described it.

Nice words because you wonder how much of that he's had the past couple of years.

When it all starts for real next Thursday at Augusta National, after Jack and Arnie and Gary have slapped the ceremonial tee shots into the hill in the first fairway, Tiger goes after his fifth green jacket and and 15th major championship. It's been a long, long time since Torrey Pines in 2008.

Woods hasn't won at Augusta since 2005 but he'll arrive as co-favorite with Rory McIlroy, who exited there a year ago with a final-round 80 that collapsed his chances. Since then, McIlroy has been brilliant and now, it seems, Woods is in a good place again.

The Masters won't be just about McIlroy and Woods. Phil Mickelson inhales inspiration driving down Magnolia Lane. No. 1 Luke Donald is relentless. Lee Westwood still wants a major.

It's a week away. Bring it on.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The PGA Tour, like it's never been before

If the PGA Tour's adoption of the interesting but hard to calculate FedEx Cup playoffs a few years ago seemed borderline revolutionary, the tour's next step may be more dramatic.

Q-school? Going away, at least as we've known it.

Starting in January? Too late. Think October.

Surrendering the fall to football? Not anymore.

Good ideas?

Yes and no.

It's tough to summarize in a couple of sentences what the PGA Tour intends to do starting next year but here goes:

Under a new model, the PGA Tour season will still end with the Tour Championship at the end of the FedEx Cup playoffs in late September, points having been accumulated as they have in recent years. Somebody will still pocket $10 million for winning the playoffs plus their Tour Championship booty.

That will end the 2013 PGA Tour season. Players who finish 126 to 200 on the tour money list will move into a three-event 'mini playoff' with the top 75 players from the 2013 Nationwide Tour. They will play for 50 PGA Tour cards over those three events.

That will be decided concurrently with the FedEx Cup playoffs. When the Tour Championship is over, the 2014 season will begin although it will still be October, 2012.

See what I mean about complicated?

What are now the fall series events will stay in the same basic spots on the calendar but be the start of a new tour season, awarding FedEx Cup points (but perhaps only half as many as other regular events). The idea is to keep sponsors of fall events happy. You'll sense a theme here.

Qualifying school will be turned into a path to the Nationwide Tour. Forget someone like John Huh showing up at Q-school, earning his card then winning a PGA Tour event in February. It won't work like that anymore.

Why is this happening?

One reason is Nationwide's tour sponsorship ends after this year and commissioner Tim Finchem and his associates are desperately seeking a new name for their second-tier tour. The new model is intended, among other things, to raise the profile of what is now the Nationwide Tour.

"I like it," said Johnson Wagner, who played his way onto the PGA Tour via the Nationwide Tour. "I don't think six rounds at Q-school is the best test.

"It's unfortunate for the select few who would make it all the way to the tour without having any Nationwide status but it's good for the guys who have played the tour for a while and maybe a had a down period. A three-tournament set is better."

There are, as you might expect, many details to be finalized.

What to do with a guy who wins two Nationwide events and finishes first on the money list? Does he go into the mini playoffs with no advantage over a guy who finished 70th on the Nationwide Tour? How will players be seeded?

What about the guy who is 126th on the PGA Tour? Does he have any advantage for coming, perhaps literally within one stroke of keeping his tour card?

What about the admission when the FedEx Cup playoffs were created that golf can't compete with football in the fall? Now it wants to start its season in the middle of football season?

Again, why all of this?

"Any time you make a change, human nature is , why are we changing?" Finchem said in his announcement Tuesday. "You know, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. There's another way to look at things that when things are going pretty well, that's the time to get better. That's the philosophy we have embraced."

As we know, change isn't always easy nor pretty.

In this case, it didn't seem necessary. But here it comes.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bruce Springsteen: He's still alive out there

   Thirty-one years ago in the Greensboro Coliseum, I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play live for the first time, which put me slightly -- but not terribly -- behind the coolness curve. He had me, as the cliche goes, at "Hello, Greensboro."

   Thirty-one years later -- Monday night -- I saw Bruce and the band again in the Greensboro Coliseum and, to borrow a Springsteen-like sentiment, my faith has again been rewarded. I didn't want it to end.

   If it had to end, having him close the show with 'Thunder Road,' 'Land of Hope and Dreams' (a new Springsteen anthem), 'Born To Run,' 'Dancing In The Dark,' 'Rosalita' and 'Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out' was the way to send us out the door after nearly two hours and 45 minutes of new music, old favorites and a coming to grips with the reality that Clarence Clemons isn't coming back but the magic of the E Street Band isn't going away.

  Springsteen is 62 years old but seems at least 20 years younger. He doesn't play the marathon shows he did in his youth and he only slid across the front of the stage one time Monday night, splashing water on his jeans to make sure he made it last. But the magic of Bruce and the band is in the feeling as much as the music and that remains.

   He's touring in support of a new CD, 'Wrecking Ball,' a collection of songs about the recession-induced problems that have wobbled our country. The new songs are strong and angry and pointed, an odd mixture of rock, folk, Irish and gospel sounds that somehow works together. Played live, the new music -- particularly 'Jack Of All Trades' and 'Rocky Ground' -- soars in spots.

 The thing about a Springsteen show is the joy it brings, not just to the audience but to Bruce and the band. The Coliseum was full and most of the audience was like me, well into mid-life with mortgages, soft bellies and gray creeping in. A Springsteen show is a gathering, one where I saw friends was Washington, Charlotte and Columbia before the lights went down.

Springsteen's concert joy is contagious. He said in an interview a few years ago that he'd come to realize that being on stage with his band is what he's meant to do. When you think he can't give you more, he always does. It's why I have friends who've seen him more than 100 times and why, having seen him close to 15 times myself, I'm hoping he'll add a Charlotte show this fall when he and the band return from a summer in Europe. 

This tour is different because the Big Man is gone, his role on the sax replaced brilliantly by his nephew Jake Clemons, the band's new star. During 'My City of Ruins,' Springsteen alluded to the loss of Clemson and Danny Federici a few years earlier. "If you're here...and we're here...they're here," Springsteen said as chill bumps filled the big arena. I know there were chill bumps on my arms, anyway.

When he closed the show with 'Tenth Avenue,' his song about meeting Clarence, the band went quiet when Springsteen said, "This is the important part" and sang the line about a change being made uptown when the Big Man joined the band.

For more than a minute, the music stopped as Springsteen held the microphone in the air and listened to the cheers. They were for Clarence but they were also for another night like Monday night.

Photo: Bruce Springsteen performs with the E Street Band during the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas on Thursday, March 15, 2012.(AP Photo/Jack Plunkett) 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Furman Bisher, a master himself

The news Sunday evening that Furman Bisher had died came as a shock, which is a bit surprising given Bisher was 93 years old when his heart stopped.

But Furman -- it seems impersonal to call him Bisher -- seemed as if he might go on forever.

He had plans to cover his 63rd Masters next month, where he's been as much as part of the place as Amen Corner and pimento cheese sandwiches. He wasn't there at the start but he came along soon after, bringing his own style, voice and presence.

In our business of writing about the games people play, Furman was a giant. He could be gruff but he had earned that right over 70 years in the writing business. More often, though, he was a softie, Southern to the soul. To sit with him, in a press box or at lunch during a golf tournament, was often the best part of a day.

From Ty Cobb to Tiger Woods, Bisher saw the greats and shared what he saw with his readers. He had a way of pulling readers in and keeping them close.

He was born in Denton, not far from Lexington and attended North Carolina. While a student there, Bisher covered his first golf tournament, the 1938 Greater Greensboro Open. Writing about Byron Nelson, Bisher referred to him as 'Lord Byron,' a nickname that came to define one of the game's most elegant men.

Bisher worked at the long-departed Charlotte News for several years before heading to Atlanta where he wrote for 59 years for the Journal-Constitution. In the fall of 2009, Bisher pounded out another column on his Royal typewriter, handed it in and announced he had retired. Sudden and simple and on his 91-year old terms.

He kept coming back to the Masters, where he was honored with a parking place that chairman Billy Payne said was closer to the clubhouse than his own. It was a gesture that spoke to who Furman was and what he meant, at Augusta and beyond.

Furman had planned to watch golf on television Sunday afternoon but fate had other plans.

I'd love to hear what he had to say to St. Peter.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A season starts -- with a birdie

   Having covered my last college basketball game for the season, my last NASCAR race until May and having endured all the winter we didn't have during my three-day stay in Portland, Ore., last week, golf season has arrived.
   At least my personal golf season.

   I understand there are few things more nap-inducing than hearing someone go on about what they did or didn't do on the golf course but one of the original rules of the game commands that 'A player may only  offer personal commentary on his (or her) round of golf if said player is willing to listen in equal measure to another player's story.'

   That's why beer and dry roasted peanuts were invented.

  It's not as if Saturday was the first time I'd played golf this year but it had been a while and it was the first time in a while that it hadn't required layered clothing. To acquire a golfer's tan, one must be in the sunshine which explains why my legs were the color of out of bounds stakes, a condition I hope soon passes.

   Warm enough to send a trickle of sweat down your cheek, it was a beautiful early spring day. The bermuda grass fairways were already turning green even before the first full weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament was complete, another suggestion the global warming believers are on to something. Pretty soon, they'll have mowers on them again, tractors having gone dormant with the bermuda for months.

   One of the cruel realities of springtime golf here is that just when everyone wants to enjoy the game and the weather again, they aerate the greens. That means for a couple of weeks-- or longer if they're slow to heal -- we're forced to putt on nature's shag carpet, pock-marked by a million little holes and frosted by a coating of sand. Like a teenager at the beach.

   There is a good side to putting on aerated greens. It takes the pressure off. It can't be your fault you missed again from four feet. Look what you were putting through. It's like putting through a potato field.

   And still, I hit my opening tee past the three teenagers in my group, each of whom has college golf in their future. Then I floated my wedge shot inside their three approach shots.

   After they had missed their birdie putts, I knocked in my four-footer for three. Not a bad way to start.

   I'd go on but that would require beer and peanuts -- and listening to how you played. We'll get to that later.


Monday, March 12, 2012

Clemson's Glover finally ready to go

After a couple of false starts, Lucas Glover is ready to get his 2012 season underway this week at the Transitions Championship in Tampa. Glover hasn't played on tour this year after spraining his knee windboarding in Hawaii prior to the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions. He planned to play in Puerto Rico last week but wasn't certain he could handle five or six days of walking so he opted for one more week of rehab. Now, Glover is ready to go. "One hundred percent with the knee," Glover said Monday on his way to Tampa. "I'm in good gym shape. I've just got to see what kind of golf shape I'm in now. "I've been practicing the last five or six weeks as much as I could, but the walking thing was the only thing that held me back...I feel like the knee is 100 percent but I've got to put my body through the week." Glover will be in Charlotte to defend his Wells Fargo Championship title in early May, by which time he hopes to have a handful of tournaments behind him. After the Transitions, he plans to play the Shell Houston Open, the Masters and the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head. "I haven't had to make a putt that matters for anything since the first week of November so I'll be anxious and interested to see how I handle it," Glover said. "I haven't forgotten how to play or forgotten how to compete but it's just one of those things where it might take some time to get in the right frame of mind." Glover is among the early commitments to the Wells Fargo Championship, joining a list that includes Webb Simpson, Bubba Watson, Hunter Mahan, Bill Haas, Johnson Wagner and Nick Watney among others. Tickets are available at

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Rory McIlroy gets what he deserves

Rory McIlroy made official with his victory in the Honda Classic what we already knew -- he's the best golfer in the world.

When McIlroy ended Luke Donald's impressive 40-week run as the official No. 1, it was the culmination of a relentless climb by the former Wells Fargo Championship winner. Like a sunrise over the ocean, you could see it coming for a while.

The question is how long might McIlroy remain the man?

He's going to be there a while.

But Tiger Woods will have something to say about it.

When Woods shot a closing 62 to finish second to McIlroy at the Honda Classic, his best final round on the PGA Tour, it was the strongest evidence yet that his talk about "being close" is genuine. Pebble Beach suddenly seemed a long time ago.

It's McIlroy, though, who has assumed the place Woods occupied for more than a decade.

There's a purity to McIlroy, both in how he plays and how he carries himself. There's still a hint of boyishness about McIlroy and a grace that seems to come naturally. Watching him hit shots, it appears effortless. He doesn't fight the game the way so many players seem to do.

McIlroy's spectacular 62 at Quail Hollow almost two years ago was a thing of beauty. It was also a welcome to the future moment.

Even when McIlroy failed on Sunday at the Masters last year, shooting a final-round 80 that made him seem momentarily both young and fragile, he responded with his record-setting victory at the U.S. Open two months later.

If there were questions about either his talent or his toughness, they were answered in 72 holes at Congressional.

Not unlike Woods in his prime, McIlroy changes the expectation level.

Remember how much fun that was?

We got a reminder on Sunday and, if we're lucky, a hint of things to come from both of them.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Monkees, Jimi Hendrix and Charlotte

  I wish I remembered more about July 11, 1967 in the original Charlotte Coliseum than I do but I remember enough.

   I remember going to see The Monkees in concert that night, the first concert of my nearly 11 year old life, and I remember the thrill of seeing Michael, Peter, Mickey and Davy -- live and in person as the signs used to say -- and hearing the screaming noise of the kids amazed by what and who they were seeing and occasionally, hearing..

   Most of us didn't realize we were witnessing a small piece of rock and roll history, catching one of the seven Monkees shows in which Jimi Hendrix, Mr. Purple Haze himself, was the opening act. Had I known then what I know now (how many times have we all said that) I would have appreciated the opening act more than I did but, to be honest, I wasn't there to hear Hendrix.

   I, of course, think of his after hearing of Davy Jones' death Wednesday. I liked the Monkees and I still do. They were playing a reunion show outside Washington, D.C., when I was at the U.S. Open last summer and I considered going. I didn't and now I wish I had.

   Two things I remember about Hendrix that night:

   The first is walking around the Coliseum (it's now Bojangles Arena) where the stage doors are located as my mom told me that the Monkees would probably look a little different in person than on television. It was at that moment -- maybe 20 feet away -- Jimi Hendrix stepped out of a limousine.

   Not realizing at the time that Hendrix was part of the show, I momentarily wondered if Mickey Dolenz really did look that different.

   The other memory is the sound of Hendrix' guitar when he threw it to the ground and stomped off stage, obviously irritated that a bunch of kids weren't interested in hearing him play (though he'd been invited by Dolenz to join the tour). We were all waiting to 'Take The Last Train To Clarksville.'

   That's what the Monkees played when they took the stage. I'm guessing they didn't play more than 30 or 45 minutes. Their catalog wasn't particularly deep at the time but for a kid who loved watching them on television, seeing them in person was a thrill.

   I still listen to The Monkees once in a while.When 'Daydream Believer' or 'Valeri' comes on the 60s station on my satellite radio, I quietly sing along.

   I have 'Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow' and 'Pleasant Valley Sunday' on a couple of playlists for when I'm exercising.

   (Just so you know, I've moved on to a degree. I'm heading to see another Springsteen show in Greensboro in a couple of weeks).

   My friend Ron Smith still has his ticket stub from that July night in 1967 and he posted it on his Facebook page this week. I wish I'd been smart enough to keep my ticket.

   It's gone and now, so is Davy Jones and Jimi Hendrix, too. But the memories live on, happily.