Hawk's Nest: Handicapping the Masters field

By John HawkinsApril 8, 2013, 1:20 pm

Come mid-August, I’ll be pleading for five minutes of moving air, but in Connecticut at this point in the year, golf really blows. The weatherman says 62 degrees and sunny. He neglects to mention the two-club breeze that gets old in a hurry, a nuisance for which I have no solutions a few rounds into the season.

The game can be hard enough in dead-calm conditions. When the wind is whipping relentlessly, I become preoccupied with a right-to-left ball flight, which is fine if you spend six hours a week on the practice range, bend it like Beckham or harness it like Hogan.

I do none of the above. My draw is like a 13-year-old boy – it doesn’t listen, and on those sporadic occasions when it does behave, it tricks me into thinking I can hit a bunch more just like it. This leads to a hook, then a 20-yard block, then a pathetic slice that meanders helplessly in the same gusts I had such high hopes of taming.

As the saying goes, April breezes bring swing diseases. I can’t wait to see what May has in mind. Until then, this is the perfect week to ditch my clubs, drown in my couch and overdose on the best little sporting event known to man.

LOTS AND LOTS of things make the Masters special, whether you’re playing in the tournament, on the grounds in any capacity or watching it on television. As much as there is to like about March Madness, college basketball’s grandest showcase has become a staggering submission to commercial excess. Everybody’s getting rich but the kids who provide the actual product, forging a giant hypocrisy that flies directly in the face of its original intent.

The Super Bowl is now a football game smothered in 60-second sales pitches for Doritos and Godaddy.com, then literally blanketed in smoke by a halftime show ostentatiously sponsored by a company that makes soft drinks. When a power outage halted play for 34 minutes early in the second half this year, symbolism turned into low-hanging fruit.

What happens in the game isn’t so important anymore. Not when Destiny’s Child reunites onstage for the first time in seven years.

At Augusta National Golf Club, a membership full of well-heeled men (and now two women), hosts a golf tournament at which the essence of competition and best interests of those watching – on-site spectators and TV viewers – remain extremely high priorities. That’s not to say the club has no financial motive. It just goes out of its way to cleanly disguise and/or downplay that factor.

Distractions and disruptions are eliminated at virtually any cost. No media inside the ropes, very few commercial interruptions, all bleachers and grandstands positioned away from the greens to avoid the occasional lucky carom or free drop – everything is done with a purpose. The golf is what really matters. (Video: Hawkins: Top five Masters in last 20 years)

By design, the club strictly enforces its tournament policies, very few of which are outlined or even posted. For instance, spectators are prohibited from running or even jogging while on the grounds. Cellphones? Don’t even think about it. Players aren’t allowed to hit a second or third ball during practice rounds.

When Tiger Woods birdied the second playoff hole to beat Chris DiMarco in 2005, I bolted from the media center and headed for the 18th green, where Woods had just won his fourth Masters. The gallery was at least five-deep, meaning I couldn’t see a thing, so I instinctively hopped onto the front of a nearby cart to see if I could get a better view.

A half-dozen security guys instantly converged on me – you’d have thought I’d just left a meeting with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. For about 90 seconds, I was certain they were going to confiscate my media badge, which surely would lead to a lifetime ban. Maybe those rent-a-cops just wanted to scare the hell out of me. If so, mission accomplished.

There have been plenty of times over the years when I’ve bemoaned Augusta National’s old-world thinking or questioned a bunch of laws I didn’t know existed. Much like the Rules of Golf as a whole, they don’t always make sense on the surface. Once you realize the club’s primary mission during Masters week is to preserve and protect the competitive element, bewilderment turns into respect.

Compromise has never been an option. That’s what makes it different. Nowadays, that’s what makes it really, really good.

ANY ATTEMPT TO handicap the Masters field is, at best, educated guesswork. This isn’t a Kentucky Derby, where two or three horses are clearly superior (on paper) to the 12 or 13 others. At 3-1 odds on the services I’ve seen, Woods is the obvious favorite, but that doesn’t mean much when you consider where the last six champions stood in the world ranking at the time of their Masters victory:

• 2012: Bubba Watson, 16th

• 2011: Charl Schwartzel, 29th

• 2010: Phil Mickelson, third

• 2009: Angel Cabrera, 69th

• 2008: Trevor Immelman, 29th

• 2007: Zach Johnson, 56th

And while we’re at it, this seems like an excellent time to debunk a few other Masters-winner myths.

MYTH: The course favors players with a right-to-left ball flight.

REALITY: We can talk all week about the shape of the holes and how a draw (for a right-handed player) works better, but Jack Nicklaus and his power fade did fairly well at the old ballyard. Fred Couples, who hardly ever hit a draw, has been one of the most consistent high-level performers in tournament history. In my 20 years of covering golf full-time, I’ve come to realize there are more right-to-left tour pros than left-to-right guys – but the L-to-Rs probably produce superior results.

Besides, shot shape doesn’t mean nearly as much as it once did. Equipment advances and changes to Augusta National have reduced the ability and importance of curving the ball. A venue once partial to a shot-maker’s skill and imagination is now more of a parkland-style course, conducive to position golf off the tee.

In other words, long and straight is a good idea.

MYTH: Only bombers win the Masters.

REALITY: Immelman. Johnson. Mike Weir over Len Mattiace in a playoff battle among singles hitters in 2003. Mark O’Meara (1998). Jose Maria Olazabal (1994, '99). Hey, driving it a mile is a great asset just about anywhere – one of the more valuable tools any golfer can own. The truth is, most of the top players in any era drove the ball a long way. And top players win green jackets, as the list of all-time greats who didn’t claim a Masters title is a fairly short one.

Johnson won his in ’07 by laying up on all the par 5s, which became the biggest news that week. Augusta National is the ultimate “second-shot course,” designed with an extreme emphasis on putting from score-able spots on each and every green. The lengthening of the par 5s hasn’t done a whole lot to prevent players from reaching them in two shots when weather permits. As the greens have gotten faster over the years, however, you’re better off with a flat 8-footer off a third-shot wedge than a 65-foot triple-breaker after a pair of mighty blows.

You’ve got to play smart. It’s another thing that will never change.

MYTH: You can’t win this tournament unless you have a terrific short game.

REALITY: Another one of those generalizations that applies to every golf tournament. Bubba ranked 158th in putting and 106th in scrambling on Tour last year. Schwartzel was 100th in sand saves and 102nd in putting the year before. It was often said that Nicklaus couldn’t chip, but nobody had anything negative to say when he was pouring in 15-footers. Bernhard Langer was a ball-striking machine, but not exactly money with the putter. His two Masters victories turn this theory into baloney.

Of course, Woods and Mickelson have two of the greatest short games ever – and seven wins at Augusta National to prove it. Olazabal was an absolute magician around the greens, but Steve Stricker, still widely recognized as one of the best putters in the game, hasn’t come close. You want to win a Masters? Shoot the lowest score, dude. Doesn’t matter how you do it.


Woods (5-2) – A rare case of the bookies slightly underestimating Tiger’s chances. Red Shirt’s recent history has him in a very good place mentally, and I really think he woke up one morning around Christmas and realized he needs to get on the horse if he wants to catch Nicklaus. Has done everything well at various points this season. (Video: Hawkins: Four before; one more for Tiger?)

Rory McIlroy (10-1) – I don’t like the slow starts: 73-73-72 in the first round at each of his last three tournaments. In his final tune-up at the Valero Texas Open, McIlroy’s sheer ability allowed him to make up massive ground on a star-deprived field and finish solo second, which is obviously a huge step forward, but this week is very different. This week, it’s big-boy golf, and giving away strokes on Thursday can prove just as costly as giving them away on Sunday.

Mickelson (12-1) – He destroyed the field in Phoenix and finished T-3 at Doral, but I’m not quite sure what to make of him in the here and now. Sure, Philly Mick has putted better lately, but I still make it a point not to leave the TV when he’s standing over a 4-footer. Too good not to factor, but is he too dated to win it a fourth time? Only Nicklaus (1986) and Crenshaw (1995) were older than Phil is now. (Video: Hawkins: The Phil factor at Augusta National)

Keegan Bradley (13-1) – The more I see, the more I like. A great competitor who arrives off four consecutive top-10s, and at this point, any self-doubt Bradley had about becoming one of the game’s best should be completely eliminated. This guy just doesn’t shoot many lousy scores; just three rounds higher than 71 among the 33 he’s played in 2013. If not this spring, put a green jacket on layaway.

Justin Rose (15-1) – Some might say he has “quietly” emerged as one of the best in the world, but I don’t know how quiet Rose’s rise has been. Now drives it miles longer than in previous years, ranking ninth in average distance after going 84th, 99th and 97th. Very solid 2013 statistics overall, has gone T-8, T-11 and T-20 at the Masters since squandering a nice chance to win in ’07. If he’s not on your short list, you haven’t been paying attention.

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After Further Review: Haas crash strikes a chord

By Golf Channel DigitalFebruary 19, 2018, 2:39 am

Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On the horrifying car crash involving Bill Haas ...

I spent a lot of time this week thinking about Bill Haas. He was the passenger in a car crash that killed a member of his host family. That man, 71-year-old Mark Gibello, was a successful businessman in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and a new friend.

Haas escaped without any major injuries, but he withdrew from the Genesis Open to return home to Greenville, S.C. When he’ll return to the Tour is anyone’s guess. It could be a while, as he grapples with the many emotions after surviving that horrifying crash – seriously, check out the photos – while the man next to him did not.

The entire Haas clan is some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Wish them the best in their recovery. – Ryan Lavner

On TIger Woods' missed cut at the Genesis Open ...

After missing the cut at the Genesis Open by more than a few car lengths, Tiger Woods appeared to take his early exit in stride. Perhaps that in and of itself is a form of progress.

Years ago, a second-round 76 with a tattered back-nine scorecard would have elicited a wide range of emotions. But none of them would have been particularly tempered, or optimistic, looking ahead to his next start. At age 42, though, Woods has finally ceded that a win-or-bust mentality is no longer helpful or productive.

The road back from his latest surgery will be a winding one, mixed with both ups and downs. His return at Torrey Pines qualified as the former, while his trunk slam at Riviera certainly served as the latter. There will surely be more of both in the coming weeks and months, and Woods’ ability to stomach the rough patches could prove pivotal for his long-term prognosis. - Will Gray

On the debate over increased driving distance on the PGA Tour ...

The drumbeat is only going to get louder as the game’s best get longer. On Sunday, Bubba Watson pounded his way to his 10th PGA Tour title at the Genesis Open and the average driving distance continues to climb.

Lost in the debate over driving distances and potential fixes, none of which seem to be simple, is a beacon of sanity, Riviera Country Club’s par-4 10th hole. The 10th played just over 300 yards for the week and yet yielded almost as many bogeys (86) as birdies (87) with a 4.053 stroke average.

That ranks the 10th as the 94th toughest par 4 on Tour this season, ahead of behemoths like the 480-yard first at Waialae and 549-yard 17th at Kapalua. Maybe the game doesn’t need new rules that limit how far the golf ball goes, maybe it just needs better-designed golf holes. - Rex Hoggard

On the depth of LPGA talent coming out of South Korea ...

The South Korean pipeline to the LPGA shows no signs of drying up any time soon. Jin Young Ko, 22, won her LPGA debut as a tour member Sunday at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, and Hyejin Choi, 18, nearly won the right to claim LPGA membership there. The former world No. 1 amateur who just turned pro finished second playing on a sponsor exemption. Sung Hyun Park, who shared Rolex Player of the Year honors with So Yeon Ryu last year, is set to make her 2018 debut this week at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And Inbee Park is set to make her return to the LPGA in two weeks at the HSBC Women’s World Championship after missing most of last year due to injury. The LPGA continues to go through South Korea no matter where this tour goes. - Randall Mell

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Nature calls: Hole-out rescues Bubba's bladder

By Rex HoggardFebruary 19, 2018, 2:20 am

LOS ANGELES – Clinging to a one-stroke lead, Bubba Watson had just teed off on the 14th hole at Riviera Country Club and was searching for a bathroom.

“I asked Cameron [Smith], ‘where's the bathroom?’ He said, ‘On the next tee there's one. Give yourself a couple more shots, then you can go to the bathroom,’” Watson recalled. “I said, ‘So now I'm just going to hole it and go to the bathroom.’”

By the time Watson got to his shot, which had found the bunker left of the green, his caddie Ted Scott had a similar comment.

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

“When he went down to hit it I said, ‘You know you haven’t holed one in a long time,’” Scott said.

Watson’s shot landed just short of the hole, bounced once and crashed into the flagstick before dropping into the hole for an unlikely birdie and a two-stroke lead that he would not relinquish on his way to his third victory at the Genesis Open and his 10th PGA Tour title.

“I looked at Teddy [Scott] and said, ‘You called it.’ Then Cameron [who was paired with Watson] came over and said I called it. I’d forgotten he and I had talked about it,” Watson said.

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Bubba Golf takes long road back to winner's circle

By Rex HoggardFebruary 19, 2018, 1:55 am

LOS ANGELES – Bubba’s back.

It’s been just two years since he hoisted a trophy on the PGA Tour, but with a mind that moves as fast as Bubba Watson’s, it must have felt like an eternity.

Since his last victory, which was also a shootout at Riviera Country Club in 2016, Watson was passed over for a captain’s pick at the 2016 Ryder Cup, endured a mystery illness, lost his confidence, his desire and the better part of 40 pounds.

He admits that along that ride he considered retirement and wondered if his best days were behind him.

“I was close [to retirement]. My wife was not close,” he conceded. “My wife basically told me to quit whining and play golf. She's a lot tougher than I am.”

What else could he do? With apologies to his University of Georgia education and a growing portfolio of small businesses, Watson was made to be on the golf course, particularly a golf course like Riviera, which is the canvas that brings out Bubba’s best.

In a game that can too often become a monotonous parade of fairways and greens, Watson is a freewheeling iconoclast who thrives on adversity. Where others only see straight lines and one-dimensional options, Bubba embraces the unconventional and the untried.

For a player who sometimes refers to himself in the third person, it was a perfectly Bubba moment midway through his final round on Sunday at the Genesis Open. Having stumbled out of the 54-hole lead with bogeys at Nos. 3 and 6, Watson pulled his 2-iron tee shot wildly right at the seventh because, “[his playing partners] both went left.”

From an impossible lie in thick rough with his golf ball 2 feet above his feet, Watson’s often-fragile focus zeroed in for one of the week’s most entertaining shots, which landed about 70 feet from the hole and led to a two-putt par.

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

“His feel for that kind of stuff, you can’t go to the range and practice that. You can’t,” said Watson’s caddie Ted Scott. “Put a ball 2 feet above your feet and then have to hold the face open and then to swing that easy. That’s why I have the best seat in the house. That’s the essence of Bubba golf.”

There were plenty of highlight moments on Sunday for Watson. There were crucial putts at Nos. 11 (birdie), 12 (par) and 13 (par) to break free of what was becoming an increasingly fluid leaderboard, and his chip-in birdie from a greenside bunker at the 14th hole extended his lead to two strokes.

“It was just a bunker shot, no big deal,” smiled Watson, who closed with a 69 for a two-stroke victory over Kevin Na and Tony Finau.

A player that can often appear handcuffed by the most straightforward of shots was at his best at Riviera, withstanding numerous challenges to win the Genesis Open for his 10th PGA Tour title.

That he did so on a frenzied afternoon that featured four different players moving into, however briefly, at last a share of the lead, Watson never appeared rattled. But, of course, we all know that wasn’t the case.

Watson can become famously uncomfortable on the course and isn’t exactly known for his ability to ignore distractions. But Riviera, where he’s now won three times, is akin to competitive Ritalin for Watson.

“[Watson] feels very comfortable moving the ball, turning it a lot. That allows him to get to a lot of the tucked pins,” said Phil Mickelson, who finished tied for sixth after moving to within one stroke of the lead early in round. “A lot of guys don't feel comfortable doing that and they end up accepting a 15 to 30 footer in the center of the green. He ends up making a lot more birdies than a lot of guys.”

It’s the soul of what Scott calls Bubba Golf, which is in simplest terms the most creative form of the game.

Watson can’t explain exactly what Bubba Golf is, but there was a telling moment earlier this week when Aaron Baddeley offered Watson an impromptu putting lesson, which Bubba said was the worst putting lesson he’d ever gotten.

“He goes, ‘how do you hit a fade?’ I said, ‘I aim it right and think fade.’ How do you hit a draw? I aim it left and think draw,” Watson said. “He said, ‘how do you putt?’ I said, ‘I don't know.’ He said, ‘well, aim it to the right when it breaks to the left, aim it to the left when it breaks to the right,’ exactly how you imagine your golf ball in the fairway or off the tee, however you imagine it, imagine it that way.”

It’s certain that there’s more going on internally, but when he’s playing his best the sum total of Watson’s game can be simply explained – see ball, hit ball. Anything more complicated than that and he runs the risk of losing what makes him so unique and – when the stars align and a course like Riviera or Augusta National, where he’s won twice, asks the right questions – virtually unbeatable.

That’s a long way from the depths of 2017, when he failed to advance past the second playoff event and dropped outside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking. But then, Watson has covered a lot of ground in his career on his way to 10 Tour victories.

“I never thought I could get there,” he said. “Nobody thought that Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Fla., would ever get to 10 wins, let's be honest. Without lessons, head case, hooking the ball, slicing the ball, can't putt, you know? Somehow we're here making fun of it.”

Somehow, through all the adversity and distractions, he found a way to be Bubba again.

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Spieth: 'I feel great about the state of my game'

By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:43 am

LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth is starting to feel confident again with the putter, which is probably a bad sign for the rest of the PGA Tour.

Spieth struggled on the greens two weeks ago at TPC Scottsdale, but he began to right the ship at Pebble Beach and cracked the top 10 this week at the Genesis Open. Perhaps more important than his final spot on the leaderboard was his standing in the strokes gained putting category – 12th among the field at Riviera Country Club, including a 24-putt performance in the third round.

Spieth closed out the week with a 4-under 67 to finish in a tie for ninth, five shots behind Bubba Watson. But after the round he spoke like a man whose preparation for the season’s first major is once again right on track.

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

“I was kind of, you know, skiing uphill with my putting after Phoenix and the beginning of Pebble week, and really just for a little while now through the new year,” Spieth said. “I just made some tremendous progress. I putted extremely well this week, which is awesome. I feel great about the state of my game going forward, feel like I’m in a great place at this time of the year as we’re starting to head into major season.”

Spieth will take a break next week, and where he next tees it up remains uncertain. He still has not announced a decision about playing or skipping the WGC-Mexico Championship, and he will have until 5 p.m. ET Friday to make a final decision on the no-cut event.

Whether or not he flies down to Mexico City, Spieth’s optimism has officially returned after a brief hiccup on the West Coast swing.

“For where I was starting out Phoenix to where I am and how I feel about my game going forward the rest of the year, there was a lot of progress made,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to figure out what the best schedule is for myself as we head into the Masters.”