Els Tiger Brewing Up a Real Rivalry
Now its six and counting. In case you havent noticed, none of Uncle Sams golfers have won on Uncle Sams tour in the last six events. The year 2003 has been a complete washout for those born in the United States, as was the last two events of 2002. Through two tournaments in Hawaii, one in Phoenix and now near Palm Springs, and the final two last year, the results have been the same - anyone can win as long as he doesn't have an American passport.
The past three years it has been the LPGA with Swede Annika Sorenstam, Korean Si Re Pak and Aussie Karrie Webb winning most of the events. Now the men are doing it, too.
South African Ernie Els won the first two. Vijay Singh, born in Fiji, won Phoenix, and Mike Weir, a native of Canada, got the other. And Els, for one, shows no signs of backing down.
Outwardly, the only thing different this year from the last is a new driver and ball. That combination has added nearly 40 yards on his tee shots. He is swatting it nearly 320 yards per whack this year, up from 281 last year.
Of course, every player has access to that same driver and ball. So that fact alone cant be the difference. Maybe its his putting ' he stands 10th on the PGA Tour in this important category after finishing 35th last year. But should those statistics alone account for this kind of difference in the tournaments he has entered?
It has to be a little bit of the inward difference, too. You dont win the first two events on the U.S. tour, finish a stroke out in Singapore, and win again in Australia without some serious head games going on. Thats three wins in four tries, with the other a second in perhaps the easiest event yet ' the Caltrex Open. Methinks ol' Ern has begun to believe in himself.
Actually, this whole thing started at the end of last year. Ernie won the Cisco World Match Play in late October. Then he won the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa - by eight strokes. Both have only 12 players, but the small fields are filled with pretty good players. You have to play some pretty impressive golf to win them, even if you only have to beat 11 other players. Els marched though them all in the match play, then blew away the field in the Nedbank.
Still, the hubbub at the end of last year wasnt overly unusual. But winning the first two events on the PGA Tour this year IS unusual. The Mercedes Championships didnt have Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, and neither did the Sony. But, hey ' he beat everyone who showed up. And when he went on the road to a near-miss at Singapore and a victory last week in Australia at the Heineken ' whoa, Nellie! This is getting downright serious, dont you think?
Obviously, the first thing you point to is ' no Tiger. Hes down in Orlando recuperating from knee surgery. He wont be back for a couple of weeks. For the record, he hasnt been present for any of Els five victories. So lets get that excuse out of the way at the outset.
Having said that, maybe we ought to start looking a little more closely. Maybe weve got something here ' maybe Woods is about to get a serious challenge for the U.S. money title. Its especially critical the first month or so when Tiger will undoubtedly be getting his rust-proofing in order. By the time Woods is in full stride in Florida and ready to go, Ernie may have a money lead that is impossible to overtake.
There is one caveat, of course. Els is not going to play in the U.S. any more than Tiger, even with Tigers reduced scheduled. Els is determined to play around the globe, and he will play his usual complement of European Tour events. The fact that he plays in Australia, the Far East, South Africa and Europe as well as America stretches him awfully thin. Els has to do a burn-out somewhere in mid-season. Uh ' doesnt he?
Ernie has put in his magical three-month splurge, interestingly, just after the birth of his son. That gives him two children now, proof again that you dont have to be single to be a great golfer. Much has been made of the fact that Tiger hasnt wed, and a lot of fellas held out hope he would one day be undone by marriage. Els would seem to suggest that such a prospect is merely hogwash. You can be married and have children ' and be among the worlds best. See Els and Mickelson for proof. See, Duval, David, for another side of the same equation.
For the moment, Els is the best golfer on this planet. Woods himself has definitely noticed. Tiger has undergone the knife and is coming back. But if he doesnt come back ready to go, will he have started too far back? For the first time in four years, Tiger may have competition.
Day: Woods feeling good, hitting it long
Jason Day says Tiger Woods told him he feels better than he has in three years, which is good news for Woods a week ahead of his return to the PGA Tour at the Hero World Challenge.
Day, a fellow Nike endorser, was asked about Woods during his news conference at the Emirates Australian Open on Wednesday. "I did talk to him," Day said, per a report in the Sydney Morning Herald,"and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years'" Day said.
"He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great. I said to him, 'Look, it's great to be one of the best players ever to live, but health is one thing that we all take for granted and if you can't live a happy, healthy life, then that's difficult.'"
The Hero World Challenge will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in the Bahamas and broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC.
Day, who has had his own health issues, said he could empathize with Woods.
"I totally understand where he's coming from, because sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me 10 minutes to get out of bed, and for him to be in pain for three years is very frustrating."
Woods has not played since February after undergoing surgery following a recurrence of back problems.
"From what I see on Instagram and what he's been telling me, he says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is, because from what I hear, he's hitting it very long," Day said.
"And if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.
"There's no pressure. I think it's a 17- or 18-man field, there's no cut, he's playing at a tournament where last year I think he had the most birdies at."
Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA
Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.
Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.
Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.
With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.
Ko told GolfChannel.com Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.
“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”
Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.
Ko released this statement through the LPGA on Wednesday:
"It has been my dream since I was young to play on the LPGA Tour and I look forward to testing myself against the best players on a worldwide stage. I know it is going to be tough but making a first win as an LPGA member and winning the Rolex Rookie of the Year award would be two of the biggest goals I would like to achieve next year."
Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return
Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.
Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.
Piller declined an interview request when GolfChannel.com sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.
Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.
“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.
As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar
Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.
With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.
That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.
That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.
And that’s a magic word in golf.
There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.
Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.
The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.
Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.
A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.
The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.
Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.
For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.
The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.
The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.
“It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida. “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’
“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”
And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.
“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”
The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.
Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.
The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.
Parity was the story this year.
Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.
Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.
The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.
The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.
“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”
If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.
Parity was the theme from the year’s start.
There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.
This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.
Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.
Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.
She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.
The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.