Golf doesn't relish underdogs

By John FeinsteinMay 14, 2014, 8:52 pm

Twenty years ago on Mother’s Day, legendary CBS golf producer Frank Chirkinian sat in his production trailer reviewing the final day of the BellSouth Classic.

John Daly had won the tournament, birdieing the 18th hole at Atlanta Country Club to beat Brian Henninger and Nolan Henke by a shot.

“Guarantee you we did a big number today,” Chirkinian said. “Daly in the last group, winning it on 18, we’ll double our normal rating for this event.”

He was right.

I had walked all 18 holes with Daly on Saturday and Sunday. He had been paired in the final twosome each day with Henninger.

Henninger was playing in the Tour’s 126-150 category, and having a chance to win a tournament or even finish in the top three made the weekend the biggest of his career – until a year later when he was in the last pairing with Ben Crenshaw at the Masters.

Henninger was the classic underdog: the little guy (5-8, 150 pounds) with a baby face who was trying to earn a fulltime spot on the PGA Tour. There wasn’t a soul – outside of me, his caddie, his wife and his infant daughter – who cared about Henninger that weekend. As far as 99 percent of the fans and media watching were concerned, Daly was playing alone.

“I felt invisible,” Henninger said when it was over. “There were a couple of security guards who made sure I could get from each green to the next tee. I knew (wife) Cathy and (daughter) Carlin were outside the ropes somewhere and I had (caddie) Chris (Mazziotti). That was it. No one else even knew or cared that I was there.”

Knowing all this, I asked Chirkinian why no one was pulling for the underdog.

Chirkinian smiled and said, “Golf’s not like other sports. In other sports, people love a good underdog story. When we (CBS) do the U.S. Open (tennis) and we’ve got a high seed in trouble we know the entire stadium is going to be pulling for the underdog. Golf’s different. People don’t mind if someone they’ve never heard of leads on Thursday or Friday or Saturday. But never on Sunday. They want the names on the leaderboard and, preferably, they want them winning.”

While Chirkinian spoke, I flashed back 13 years to 1981. John McEnroe had just won Wimbledon for the first time, beating Bjorn Borg in the championship to end Borg’s five-year, 41-match winning streak at Wimbledon. Two months later, ranked No. 1 in the world for first time, McEnroe walked on court to play his first-round match in the U.S. Open in a stadium about 10 minutes from where he grew up.

His opponent was Juan Nunez, a qualifer from Chile who was ranked 227th in the world. Somehow, Nunez won the first set in a tiebreak. Everyone in the stadium was on their feet screaming when Nunez hit a winner on set point. Their glee didn’t last very long: McEnroe won the next three sets easily.

“I don’t get it,” McEnroe said after the match. “I know there are some people who don’t like me because of my temper but there were 20,000 people screaming their heads off as if they were related to the guy and an hour earlier they’d never heard his name.”

Would the crowd have stayed behind Nunez if he’d had a real chance to beat McEnroe? You bet. Tennis fans respect their stars but they love upsets. The same is true in team sports. The 1969 Mets are still one of history’s most beloved teams – except in Baltimore. When Butler made the men’s NCAA basketball championship game in 2010 and 2011 no one – other than fans of their opponents, Duke and Connecticut – wasn’t pulling for the Bulldogs.

Several years ago, I wrote a book on the 2003 majors called “Moment of Glory.” The idea came from the fact that three of the four major winners that year had never seriously contended in a major before: Mike Weir won the Masters (beating Len Mattiace in a playoff); Ben Curtis won the British Open while ranked 396th in the world and Shaun Micheel, who had never won on Tour (and hasn’t since) won the PGA. The only well-known player to win a major that year was Jim Furyk. And he had never won a major.

I found the stories of all the players – winners and runners-up – fascinating. When the book came out, Dan Jenkins, the greatest golf writer of our time, asked “Why in the world would you write a book about the worst year in the history of the majors?”

Guess it all depends on your perspective.

Jenkins’ feelings about 2003 may explain why there appears to be near panic in the golf world now about the fact that Tiger Woods is hurt and no one knows when he will return; Phil Mickelson doesn’t have a top-10 finish all year and Rory McIlroy hasn’t won in the U.S. since 2012. About the only result this year that seemed to excite golf fans was Bubba Watson’s win at Augusta. Imagine what people would be saying about 2014 if Jonas Blixt had ended up with the green jacket. (Jordan Spieth would have been a different story because that would have been historic).

Even so, with Woods not playing and Mickelson missing the cut, television ratings took a drastic hit.

There’s a difference in every sport between an excellent player and a star. In golf, Woods is a transcendent star on a completely different level than everyone else. Only Woods brings non-golf fans to golf. Mickelson, McIlroy, Watson, Adam Scott (now that he's a major champion) and Spieth – if he can win a major – occupy the next level. Sergio Garcia, even though he hasn’t won a major, is a star, too, just because he’s been on the radar for good and bad for so long.

Players like Furyk, Justin Rose, Jason Dufner, Martin Kaymer, Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell and Dustin Johnson fall into another category: names everyone who follows golf recognize but not the kind of names that will drive ticket sales, sponsor sales, TV ratings or media attention – unless Johnson decided to have his fiancée, Paulina Gretzky, caddie for him.

And so, 2014 to date is being labeled the year of the underdog and the groans can be heard from Augusta to St. Andrews and back. People who follow golf don’t want another 2003, they want a Tiger Slam. They don’t want Furyk and Dufner battling it out on the back nine at the PGA Championship, they want Mickelson shooting 66 at Muirfield to rocket past Woods and everyone else on the leaderboard.

They want their stars to contend and to win. They take it personally when they don’t win. Which may explain why Jenkins sat at a table on Saturday night at the Masters this year, looked at the leaderboard and said, “Please don’t make me write about Jonas Blixt tomorrow.”

Blixt is not only a fine player but he’s an extremely nice guy who loves to talk hockey. But I have no doubt Jenkins spoke for the majority. I would have loved to have seen Blixt win. But then, I’m a lifelong Mets fan.

Rose falters down stretch, Fleetwood wins Race to Dubai

By Associated PressNovember 19, 2017, 1:16 pm

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Tommy Fleetwood was crowned the European Tour's Race to Dubai champion Sunday after his nearest challenger, Justin Rose, faltered on the back nine. 

Rose appeared to be on track for a third win in as many starts, getting to 19 under after 11 holes Sunday without any trouble at Jumeirah Golf Estates. But his round unraveled after that with bogeys on the 12th, 14th and 16th holes to finish with a two-under par 70 and a share of fourth place.

With Fleetwood struggling to make birdies and finishing way behind in a tie for 21st place at 11 under, Rose needed to finish in sole possession of fourth to win his second Order of Merit title.

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The season-ending tournament was won by Spain's Jon Rahm, who fired a final-round 67 and a 19-under total.

Ireland's Shane Lowry (63) and Thailand's Kiradech Aphibarnrat were tied for second at 18 under.

Rose was T-4 with Masters champion Sergio Garcia (65) and the South African duo of Dylan Frittelli (69) and Dean Burmester (68).

Battling mono, Kaufman tied for lead at CME

By Randall MellNovember 19, 2017, 2:05 am

NAPLES, Fla. – Kim Kaufman’s bout with mononucleosis might leave fellow tour pros wanting to catch the fever, too.

A couple months after Anna Nordqvist battled her way into contention at the Women’s British Open playing with mono, and then thrived at the Solheim Cup with it, Kaufman is following suit.

In her first start since being diagnosed, Kaufman posted an 8-under-par 64 Saturday to move into a four-way tie for the lead at the CME Group Tour Championship. It was the low round of the day. She’s bidding to win her first LPGA title.

“I’ve been resting at home for two weeks,” Kaufman said. “Didn’t do anything.”

Well, she did slip on a flight of stairs while recuperating, hurting her left wrist. She had it wrapped Saturday but said that’s mostly precautionary. It didn’t bother her during the round.

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“I’m the only person who can take two weeks off and get injured,” Kaufman joked.

Kaufman, 26, left the Asian swing after playing the Sime Darby Malaysia, returning to her home in South Dakota, to see her doctor there. She is from Clark. She was told bed rest was the best thing for her, but she felt good enough to make the trip to Florida for the season-ending event.

“We had some really cold days,” Kaufman said. “We had some snow. I was done with it. I was coming down here.”

How does she feel?

“I feel great,” she said. “I’m a little bit shaky, which isn’t great out there, but it’s great to be here doing something. I was going a little bit stir crazy [at home], just kind of fighting through it.”

Kaufman made eight birdies in her bogey-free round.

New-look Wie eyes CME Group Tour Championship title

By Randall MellNovember 19, 2017, 1:32 am

NAPLES, Fla. – Michelle Wie is sporting a new look that even has fellow players doing double takes.

Bored during her six-week recovery from an emergency appendectomy late this summer, Wie decided to cut and die her hair.

She went for golden locks, and a shorter style.

“I kind of went crazy after being in bed that long,” Wie said. “I just told my mom to grab the kitchen scissors and just cut all my hair off.”

Wie will get to sport her new look on a big stage Sunday after playing herself into a four-way tie for the lead at the CME Group Tour Championship. With a 6-under-par 66, she is in contention to win her fifth LPGA title, her first since winning the U.S. Women’s Open three years ago.

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Wie, 28, fought her way back this year after two of the most disappointing years of her career. Her rebound, however, was derailed in late August, when she withdrew from the final round of the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open to undergo an emergency appendectomy. She was out for six weeks.

Before the surgery, Wie enjoyed getting back into contention regularly, with six finishes of T-4 or better this season. She returned to the tour on the Asian swing in October.

Fellow tour pros were surprised when she came back with the new look.

“Definitely, walk by people and they didn’t recognize me,” Wie said.

Wie is looking to continue to build on her resurgence.

“I gained a lot of confidence this year,” she said. “I had a really tough year last year, the last couple years. Just really feeling like my old self. Really feeling comfortable out there and having fun, and that's when I play my best.”

You Oughta Know: LPGA's Sunday scenarios

By Randall MellNovember 19, 2017, 1:17 am

NAPLES, Fla. – The CME Group Tour Championship is loaded with pressure-packed subplots Sunday at Tiburon Golf Club.

Here’s what You Oughta Know about the prizes at stake:

Race to the CME Globe

Lexi Thompson and Sung Hyun Park are 1-2 in CME Globe points. They are best positioned Sunday to take home the $1 million jackpot in the season-long competition.

Thompson and Park are tied for fifth in the tournament, one shot off the lead. If either of them wins, she will take home the jackpot.

The way it’s unfolding Thompson is a good bet to take home the jackpot by merely finishing ahead of Park, unless they both stumble badly on Sunday.

Ariya Jutanugarn is tied for the lead. She must win to take home the jackpot, but she would also need Thompson to finish ninth or worse and Park to finish eighth or worse and nobody else among the top 12 in points to make a bold Sunday charge.

Stacy Lewis is one shot off the lead with a longshot chance at the jackpot. She must win the tournament while Thompson finishes 26th or worse, Park finishes 12th or worse and nobody else among the top 12 in points makes a bold Sunday charge.

So Yeon Ryu, Shanshan Feng and Brooke Henderson are among others who still have a shot at the $1 million prize, but they have fallen back in the pack and need bold Sunday charges to take home the jackpot.

Rolex Player of the Year

The Rolex Player of the Year Award remains a four-player race.

Ryu (162), Feng (159), Park (157) and Thompson (147) all have a chance to win the award.

Park and Thompson are best positioned to make Sunday moves to overtake Ryu.

Park needs to finish sixth or better to win the award outright; Thompson needs to win the tournament to win the award.

It’s simple math.

The top 10 in the tournament will be awarded points.

1st - 30 points

2nd – 12 points

3rd – 9 points

4th – 7 points

5th – 6 points

6th – 5 points

7rd – 4 points

8th – 3 points

9th – 2 points

10th – 1 point

Vare Trophy

Thompson took a 69.147 scoring average to Naples. Park needs to finish nine shots ahead of Thompson to have a shot at the trophy.

Money-winning title

Park leads the tour in money winnings with $2,262,472. Ryu is the only player who can pass her Sunday, and Ryu must win the tournament to do so. Ryu is tied for 32nd, five shots off the lead. If Ryu wins the tournament, she also needs Park to finish worse than solo second.

Rolex world No. 1 ranking

World No. 1 Feng, No. 2 Park and No. 3 Ryu are separated by just three hundredths of a point.

Because they are so close, the scenarios for overtaking Feng are head spinning.

At No. 4, Thompson is a full average ranking point behind Feng, but she could become the sixth different player this season to move to No. 1. Thompson, however, has to win Sunday to have a chance to do so, and then it will depend on what Feng, Park and Ryu do. Again, the scenarios are complex.