Weekly 18 - Race against the clock

By Jason SobelJanuary 23, 2012, 3:02 pm

Mark Wilson isn’t very intimidating. At  5-foot-8, 145 pounds and with a perma-smile attached to his face, he doesn’t exactly look like a guy who will cut your heart out on the course.

If you ever needed further proof he isn’t the stone-cold, steely-eyed killer type, it came on the 18th tee box Sunday afternoon at the Humana Challenge. With a one-stroke advantage, he stood there laughing and talking to his playing partners about – believe it or not – mashed potatoes.

And in case you couldn’t guess, he isn’t exactly a bomber, either. At one point on the back nine, he covered 117 yards with a pitching wedge, then hit the same club a mere 112 just a few minutes later as the temperature started dropping.

No, Wilson isn’t a lot of things, but what he is, is a really, really good closer, as evidenced once again in the desert, where he won his third PGA Tour title in the past 13 months.

This week’s edition of the Weekly 18 examines Wilson’s win and plenty more around the world of golf.

1. On the Mark

The question was a joke, really. Just a little icebreaker to kick off a phone interview.

Mark Wilson had just won last year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open, his second victory in his first three starts of the season, coupling with a Sony Open title that sandwiched a T-61 at the Bob Hope Classic.

Sure, we were going to chat about how everything was going right for him, how his career as a journeyman had seen a metamorphosis in less than a month. First, though, I threw him a friendly curveball and asked what went wrong in the desert to prevent a three-for-three start to the season.

Wilson laughed, then explained that he felt he had played just as well in that second tournament as he did in the two victories, but simply didn’t get the putts to fall and didn’t get a few breaks.

'You know, it's timing,” he said at the time. 'It's having a little luck. Things went my way and I took advantage of some good breaks.”

I don’t know if Wilson is the most underrated PGA Tour player, because we’d all have to rate him pretty low and have him exceed those expectations. I also don’t know if he’s only a terrific early-season player, as all five of his career wins have come in the first three months on the calendar.

What I do know is that – much like I wrote in this space about Johnson Wagner last week – when Wilson gets the opportunity to win, he has proven himself to be an excellent closer. That’s a good thing for obvious reasons, but less conspicuous ones, too. One win gets a player into the Masters and the next year’s Tournament of Champions, clinches a two-year exemption, guarantees a boatload of cash and raises status in the Official World Golf Ranking.

It can easily be argued that one or two wins per year and a bunch of other unexciting results – much like Wilson had last season – is more profitable in every way than a series of consistent 12th-place finishes.

What’s the difference between winning and just claiming one of those nice results? If you ask Wilson, it may only be a few putts hanging on the lip and a few breaks going your way.

2. Three Up

Bubba Watson 

Bubba Watson

He wasn’t in the Humana Challenge field this week, but Watson still came up a winner.

As you’ve probably heard by now, Bubba from Bagdad won an auction to purchase the original General Lee car from the “Dukes of Hazzard” television series.

What you may not know is that he didn’t simply buy it on a whim. This is one trophy that Watson has waited a while to win. Here's the real story.

3. Branden Grace

It’s one thing to win your first career European Tour title. It’s another to back it up with No. 2 just one week later.

But it’s something else altogether for that second victory to come in a playoff against your two biggest childhood heroes.

That was exactly the case for Grace on Sunday, as a birdie on the first extra hole vaulted the 23-year-old to a Volvo Golf Champions victory over fellow South Africans Ernie Els and Retief Goosen.

'I'm really ecstatic,' said Grace, who started the year at 258th on the Official World Golf Ranking, but is now inside the top 100. 'It's a dream come true to win such a big event – pretty much the best tournament I've played in so far.'

4. Larry Nelson

He owns three major championship titles and 40 career worldwide wins, but the Hall of Famer accomplished something this past week that he had never done before.

Nelson’s last round of golf before the Champions Tour season opener at Hualalai was the final round of the SAS Championship back in September. Since then, he installed a Dynamix Golf simulator in his home, practicing exclusively indoors.

In his first full round under the sun since last year, the 63-year-old bested his age by a stroke, posting a 62 in the tournament’s pro-am.

Though he could only come within a half-dozen shots of that number during the tournament rounds, Nelson has expressed a goal of becoming the Tour’s oldest winner ever, something he’d like to achieve this year.

5. Three Down

Dustin Johnson 

Dustin Johnson

It seemed like an ambitious comeback for Dustin Johnson to so swiftlyreturn from offseason knee surgery, but less than three weeks afterfirst touching a club again, he was in the field at the HumanaChallenge.

It didn’t last.

Johnson withdrew after nine holes in the second round, but his reason was only partially linked to that surgery.

“My knee is OK. I’m not worried about it,” he explained. “My lowerback is really stiff and hurting, which I think is from the way I amwalking or the fact that I have not walked a lot since the surgery.[Thursday] was first time I walked 18 holes.”

Unlike some former champions who feast on the early-season West Coastevents – DJ has twice won at Pebble Beach – he has also shown strongform late in the year, so an early setback shouldn’t inhibit hislong-term prognosis very much.

6. Port Charlotte Golf Club

As if water hazards and bunkers don’t provide enough of a challenge on the course, Port Charlotte has been overrun by a peril of another kind.

Dismembered cats.

According to a Sarasota Herald-Tribune report, several mutilated felines have been found on the course in the past month. Originally, detectives were canvassing nearby homes in search of a person or group responsible for outbreak.

However, this past week employees found large paw prints in a fairway, leading to speculation that the cat killer isn’t human, but rather some type of predatory animal.

7. Nicolas Colsaerts

What a wild, roller-coaster week for Colsaerts at the Volvo Golf Champions.

He opened by posting a sublime 64 to set a new course record at venerable The Links at Fancourt. The next day, though, he tied for the worst score in the field, dropping from atop the leaderboard with a 76. He bounced back in the third round to tie for the lead once again, but on Sunday he made a bogey on the par-5 closing hole to finish one shot out of the three-man playoff.

All of which could earn the Belgium native a new nickname: The Belgian Waffler.

What, too syrupy? Don’t worry. Colsaerts is an emerging talent who is sure to pancake plenty of competitors this season.

8. Quote of the Week

“Golf is dope. It’s like the heroin of sports.” – Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Smokey Robinson, who played in the Humana Challenge pro-am this past week.

9. YouTube Clip of the Week

John Daly doesn’t like ties. No, I mean, he really, really hates them.


10. Three Wishes

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson 

I wish the oddsmakers would turn this into a prop bet.

During my Friday appearance on “Morning Drive,” I discussed with hosts Gary Williams and Erik Kuselias the chances of Phil Mickelson reaching 50 career PGA Tour victories.

Currently tied with Gene Sarazen and Tom Watson at 39, his next win would make him the 10th ever to reach the Big Four-Oh. Can he get 11 more? Just as I asserted on the show that I believe with renewed motivation toward reaching that monumental number Phil can accomplish that goal, Kuselias countered with an intriguing question that could hit the boards at a sportsbook near you.

He asked: “Which will happen first: Phil Mickelson reaches 50 career PGA Tour wins or Tiger Woods reaches 19 career majors?”

Even though I believe Mickelson has a very good chance of getting to 50, I still agreed with both hosts that Woods will break Jack Nicklaus’ record either easier or quicker.

Agree or disagree, it’s one heck of a prop bet.

11. I wish Tiger Woods would be more honest…

In case you missed the big news for this upcoming week, Woods will skip the PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines – a venue on which he has won six Farmers Insurance Open titles and a U.S. Open – in favor of competing in Abu Dhabi instead.

When asked his thought process for making such a decision, Woods recently claimed that he’s always enjoyed desert golf and likes playing different courses.

That’s B.S.

Yes, a Brazen Stonewall.

The fact is, Tiger is a creature of habit and actually hates going to different venues. And if he likes desert golf so much, why has he never once played in the Humana Challenge?

No, there are likely two-to-three million reasons why Woods is making his season debut in Abu Dhabi. And that’s OK. The main objective for any person in having a job is to earn money and provide for their family. I would never castigate a professional golfer – Woods or anyone else – for taking a guaranteed appearance fee that helps achieve that goal.

All I’m asking for is a little honesty. Woods doesn’t have to disclose monetary figures, but if he simply told us he’s starting the year in Abu Dhabi instead of Torrey Pines because it offers a better bottom line in his bank account, it would be so much easier to respect the decision.

12. ... I wish Tiger Woods was always this honest.

In a telephone interview with ESPN.com on Thursday, Woods was asked about Hank Haney’s upcoming book “The Big Miss,” in which he writes of working with him for more than a half-decade.

'I think it's unprofessional and very disappointing,' Woods said, 'especially because it's someone I worked with and trusted as a friend. There have been other one-sided books about me, and I think people understand that this book is about money. I'm not going to waste my time reading it.'

Whether you agree or disagree with Woods’ pointed comments, they should serve as a departure from the norm for the ultimate fence-sitter. Those who have grown weary of Woods’ recurring self-analysis such as, “It is what it is,” and “It’s a process,” should be pleasantly surprised with the honesty he showed this week.

It’s easy to criticize Tiger for failing to divulge his true feelings over the years, but when he does vocally display some raw emotion, he shouldn’t similarly be chastised for doing the opposite.

13. Fact or Fiction

Mark Wilson will be on this year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team?

Prepare yourselves, because this is about to become a weekly query. Well, every week in which an American player wins, at least.

It happens every even-numbered year. Whenever a guy from the U.S. claims some hardware by finishing atop a tournament leaderboard, the topic comes up as to whether that player is worthy enough of clinching a spot on the team.

In fact, within minutes of Wilson’s victory this week, I had already received a number of tweets from fans lobbying for him to be on the roster.

It would be a sweet trip for the Humana Challenge champ, who was born and raised in Wisconsin, but makes his home in Chicago, where the biennial competition will be held at Medinah later this year.

That said, it’s a long season. Wilson is a very good player, but is he amongst the top 12 that captain Davis Love III will have in the team room that week? I don’t think so.

The biggest reason is that he’s been underwhelming in major championships, making the cut in just two of the seven he’s played, with a top finish of T-26. With those events carrying double points, it’s tough to see Wilson making the team on his own merit, which would mean he’d need to finish in the top eight on the points list.

It’s tougher than you may realize. Think about it: Last year Wilson won twice, but still was on the outside looking in for the Presidents Cup points list, which went 10 deep, not eight.

And if he doesn’t make it on points, well, would DL3 really choose him over a group that may include players such as Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson, among others? I just don’t see it happening.

Consider the above statement FICTION, though I’d be happy to see Wilson prove me wrong.

14. Stat of the Week

David Duval 

In the final round of what was then the Bob Hope Classic, David Duval posted a 59 to win the 1999 edition of the event.

At the same tournament this past week, he finished DFL of those who played three full rounds. Even so, Duval is actually trending upward at the site of his historic victory.

In his first four starts at this event following that 59, he had a scoring average of 68.37 with 15 rounds in the 60s. In his next four starts, his scoring average was 73.22 with just five rounds in the 60s. But in his last four starts – including this past week – his scoring average has dipped to 70.25 with 10 rounds in the 60s.

15. Punch Shots

It’s not often Tiger Woods volunteers information about personal matters, but that wasn’t the case Thursday when he spoke out against former swing coach Hank Haney in a phone interview with ESPN.com. Haney’s book “The Big Miss” is due out March 27 and chronicles his time coaching Woods.

Woods may not agree with Haney’s decision to write the book, but should he have spoken out about his displeasure or simply left it alone? Rex Hoggard and I weighed in with our Punch Shots.

16. Photo of the Week

Humana Challenge

Strong winds wreaked havoc during Saturday's third round of the Humana Challenge, bringing down trees, scoreboards and hospitality tents. Played was eventually suspended for the day because of danger. View all Photos of the Week.

17. And the Winner Is…

After Charles Howell III posted yet another runner-up finish at the Sony Open, I said on one of our Golf Channel studio shows that he almost has to win one by accident pretty soon.

For his career – which is now remarkably in its 12th season already – Howell owns 13 second-place results, but only two victories and none since 2007. He’s too good not to win again soon and Torrey Pines seems like the perfect place for it to happen.

In nine career starts at the picturesque home of the Farmers Insurance Open, CH3 owns six finishes of 14th or better, including a pair of those aforementioned runners-up. Here’s saying he goes one better this week.

18. And the Other Winner Is...

With the top four players in the Official World Golf Ranking in the field, along with Tiger Woods and a bevy of other accomplished stars, it’s difficult to believe a lesser-name player will win this week’s Abu Dhabi Golf Championship.

If you look at the stats, though, it’s difficult to believe that anybody except Martin Kaymer can win it.

The world’s fourth-ranked player won last year’s edition of the event. And the year before that. The year before that, he was merely runner-up. But the year before that – you guessed it – he won.

That’s a tidy little 1-1-2-1 performance chart for the Germanator over the past four years. I’ll pick plenty of darkhorses in this section throughout the year, but gotta ride a thoroughbred once in a while, too. Kaymer has obviously figured out Abu Dhabi Golf Club. Expect him to prove it once again this week, as he goes for the three-peat.

Getty Images

Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

Getty Images

Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

Getty Images

Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

Getty Images

Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”