Hawks Nest: Mickelson's brilliance outshines Woods, Westwood

By John HawkinsJuly 22, 2013, 3:20 pm

Nothing beats a big old blast of hyperbole in the dead of summer, just to remind us that some hot air is actually quite cool. Phil Mickelson is seen leaving Merion General Hospital with his ego in a sling and pieces of his heart falling out of his back pocket. He flies over to the Land of Warm Beer and wins his fifth major title with a performance longtime caddie Jim Mackay calls the “best round I’ve ever seen him play.”

Lefty birdies four of the last six holes at Muirfield, which is like striking out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and whoever else Carl Hubbell fanned that day in 1934. Now that he’s won a British Open, Mickelson can cross that one off his bucket list. Next up? Get a haircut.

Not that you can measure such things, but the Home of Golf has become the home of golf’s best major-championship storylines. A couple of those Sundays lit up the bummer meter – Tom Watson coming so close in 2009, Adam Scott last year – but deep plots don’t always come with a bouquet of roses.

Padraig Harrington’s back-to-back British Open wins were thrillers. Both came over a notable co-star scorned by history: Sergio Garcia in ’07, Greg Norman in ’08. Darren Clarke’s victory at Royal St. George’s (2011) leaned hard on the feel-good theme; so other than the Louis Oosthuizen rout three years ago, we’ve been getting our money’s worth.

This one? I’m almost out of breath, but I’ve only written four paragraphs. You want someone who leaves it short? Go talk to Tiger Woods.

BEST ROUND EVER. Three very big words, but when a man as intelligent as Mackay speaks, I either grab my notebook or tell my kids to shut up so I can hear the television. This time, however, I did neither. Instead, I called my numbers guru in Orlando, a young man named Reed Burton, a research guy at Golf Channel and one of the sharpest minds I’ve had the pleasure of stealing from.

If you’ve won five majors, you’ve obviously played a lot of good golf in your life. Was the 66 Mickelson fired Sunday to win by three strokes better than his final round at the 2004 Masters – the day he yanked Magilla Gorilla off his back and stuffed him in a trash can? It’s easy to look at something that happened nine years ago and think it has been eclipsed by a more recent accomplishment. Especially when recent just happened.

That was a big one, folks. Philly Mick’s first major. Five birdies on the final seven holes at Augusta National to beat Ernie Els by a stroke. “Both were fantastic rounds under incredible pressure on a very difficult golf course, but the two rounds were very different,” Burton says. “Almost like opposite sides of the same coin.”

In ’04, Mickelson shared the 54-hole lead with Chris DiMarco, then shot 38 on the front nine. Those five late birdies made for one of the most dramatic finishes the game has ever produced, but when he got to the scoring trailer, it still added up to 69 – no lower than his leap for joy after the birdie at the 18th. In fact, Els and Garcia both posted better numbers on a day when the field scoring average was 72.55.

At Muirfield, Lefty became just the seventh British Open champ since 1892 to enter the final round trailing by five strokes or more. You need help from above to overcome such a deficit, and Mickelson got it by virtue of Lee Westwood’s 75, but his 66 was a whopping 7.21 strokes better than the final-round average. It also matched low round of the week, which is extremely rare on Sunday at a major.

In other words, it’s not even close. The Muirfield fury was considerably stronger than the fireworks-filled finish in ’04. So good that Mickelson took late dramatics out of the equation – turns out he might have won without those two final birdies.

BURTON AND I would ultimately get into a discussion about Mickelson’s fascinating career: a mix of highs and lows that have seemed to catalyze one another throughout the years. In 2007, for instance, Philly Mick ended his relationship with swing coach Rick Smith after driving the ball poorly at the Masters – an extension of the long-club issues that killed him on the 72nd hole at the U.S. Open 10 months earlier.

He immediately began working with Butch Harmon, and just as quickly, Lefty righted himself. After contending deep into Sunday in Dallas and Charlotte, Mickelson won The Players Championship. Upon the completion of 2003, probably the worst year of his career, Mickelson bore down in the offseason and came out blazing, winning the Bob Hope in his first start of ’04, then amassing six top-10s in his next seven starts before winning the Masters.

A lot of people laughed in the spring of 2006, when Mickelson added a second driver to his bag the week before the Masters. Chuckle, chuckle? Lefty won in Atlanta by 13 strokes, then claimed the second of his three triumphs at Augusta National seven days later. Seven years later, Mickelson did it again at Castle Stuart and Muirfield.

It really doesn’t matter that Castle Stuart, home of the Scottish Open, isn’t an official PGA Tour event. Binges of brilliance amid stretches of insignificance. Ladies and gents, that’s Philly Mick in a 12-ounce can.

RARELY DO I waste my energy analyzing the telecast of a golf tournament or the people who talk during those live telecasts. Having done TV for four years, most of it on one studio show, I greatly appreciate the challenges of such a job and the utter impossibility of pleasing every viewer. Like any golf fan, I have my favorites.

There also is an obvious conflict of interest involved, but as the term “unforced error” gets used more and more, I feel compelled to file a complaint. “Unforced error” is tennis jargon, and the last thing golf should be doing is mimicking tennis. Secondly, “unforced error” refers to a clearly defined opponent (on the other side of the net) sending back a shot that should be easily handled but is not.

In golf, the ball isn’t moving. You could call the course an “opponent,” but it really isn’t. It is simply the playing field. When the wind is blowing 15 miles per hour, the fairways are “biscuit brown” and the greens are in no mood to receive a tour pro’s 7-iron – when 8 over after 36 holes gets you to the weekend – “unforced error” is an unforced error when it comes to analysis.

OK, I’m feeling better now.

CALL ME A moron – some people need no prompting – but I really thought Lee Westwood would finally get it done at Muirfield. A two-stroke lead going into Sunday, but just as significantly, the way he holed several big putts down the stretch Saturday, led me to believe the man’s time had finally arrived.

A closing 75 and Mickelson’s great round killed Westwood’s bid to become un-major-less, and this armchair psychologist wonders if the pressure of being a top-tier British sportsman comes with a high competitive price. We saw it most notably with Colin Montgomerie, something of a Scottish-English mix.

When the going got tough, Monty turned into cherry Jell-O. His sordid U.S. Open history isn’t quite as famous as Mickelson’s, but it’s close. Westwood has a different personality, both on and off the course, than Montgomerie, but exteriors can be deceiving. Somewhere underneath, the duck paddles furiously.

The British are so passionate, at times even desperate, when it comes to their sports heroes. Tennis star Andy Murray felt the breath on his neck for years. If Monty is the best player of the modern era never to win a major, Westwood, so to speak, is trying to catch him.

Maybe I’m grasping – or maybe the claustrophobia has him gasping.

FOR ALL THE Tiger stats we’ve been fed over the last week or so, for all the hemming, hawing and guffawing over his inability yet again to win a 15th major, I have a few thoughts that add up to nothing more than reasonable observations from a fair distance:

Can you ever remember Woods looking so perplexed by the speed of the greens in the final round of a major? I’m talking about animatedly puzzled. I don’t care if they dumped a bucket of peanut butter on every putting surface, then rolled them in chocolate icing. Whatever happened to the Woods who made such great adjustments on the competitive fly?

Red Shirt’s misery from the start of Sunday’s final round was obvious. He had the profanity going very early. After complaining about the slower greens Saturday evening, there was no indication that he altered his stroke. Again, Tiger at 80 percent of his peak effectiveness is still better than a vast majority of his fellow competitors, as we’ve seen over and over, but the woe-is-me thing at majors? It’s kind of new – and getting old fast.

If you ask me, Mickelson won the 142nd Open Championship because he converted two 6-foot par saves early in the round, then got up and down from a difficult spot Sunday at the par-3 16th. He’d struck what looked like a perfect tee shot, maybe 25 feet below the pin, but it tracked backwards and tumbled down the false front, leaving him a pitch from about 25 yards.

The microphone on the tee picked up Lefty’s response – more bemusement than bewilderment – and he proceeded to go about the business of making a 3. Every player dealt with weird, unfairish stuff the entire week. Muirfield was links golf under the influence, so to speak, and Johnny Law was the leaderboard.

Mickelson didn’t let it get to him. His healthy attitude was a byproduct of sheer resiliency, which generated the determination to finish off the finest round of his career in style. ESPN analyst Paul Azinger, meanwhile, pointed out something I’ve been saying on my live chats for a while: Woods’ pronounced body language suggests golf has become a chore.

Pardon my French, but I’d call such behavior an unforced error.

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Copycat: Honda's 17th teeters on edge of good taste

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 12:37 am

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The Honda Classic won’t pack as many fans around its party hole this week as the Phoenix Open does, but there is something more intensely intimate about PGA National’s stadium setup.

Players feel like the spectators in the bleachers at the tee box at Honda’s 17th hole are right on top of them.

“If the wind’s wrong at the 17th tee, you can get a vodka cranberry splashed on you,” Graeme McDowell cracked. “They are that close.”

Plus, the 17th at the Champion Course is a more difficult shot than the one players face at Scottsdale's 16th.

It’s a 162-yard tee shot at the Phoenix Open with no water in sight.

It’s a 190-yard tee shot at the Honda Classic, to a small, kidney-shaped green, with water guarding the front and right side of the green and a bunker strategically pinched into the back-center. Plus, it’s a shot that typically must be played through South Florida’s brisk winter winds.

“I’ve hit 3- and 4-irons in there,” McDowell said. “It’s a proper golf hole.”

It’s a shot that can decide who wins late on a Sunday, with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line.

Factor in the intensely intimate nature of that hole, with fans partaking in libations at the Gosling Bear Trap pavilion behind the 17th tee and the Cobra Puma Village behind the 17th green, and the degree of difficulty there makes it one of the most difficult par 3s on the PGA Tour. It ranked as the 21st most difficult par 3 on the PGA Tour last year with a 3.20 scoring average. Scottsdale's 16th ranked 160th at 2.98.

That’s a fairly large reason why pros teeing it up at the Honda Classic don’t want to see the Phoenix-like lunacy spill over here the way it threatened to last year.

That possibility concerns players increasingly agitated by the growing unruliness at tour events outside Phoenix. Rory McIlroy said the craziness that followed his pairing with Tiger Woods in Los Angeles last week left him wanting a “couple Advil.” Justin Thomas, also in that grouping, said it “got a little out of hand.”

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So players will be on alert arriving at the Honda Classic’s 17th hole this week.

A year ago, Billy Horschel complained to PGA Tour officials about the heckling Sergio Garcia and other players received there.

Horschel told GolfChannel.com last year that he worried the Honda Classic might lose some of its appeal to players if unruly fan behavior grew worse at the party hole, but he said beefed up security helped on the weekend. Horschel is back this year, and so is Garcia, good signs for Honda as it walks the fine line between promoting a good party and a good golf tournament.

“I embrace any good sporting atmosphere as long as it stays respectful,” Ian Poulter said. “At times, the line has been crossed out here on Tour. People just need to be sensible. I am not cool with being abused.

“Whenever you mix alcohol with a group of fans all day, then Dutch courage kicks in at some stage.”

Bottom line, Poulter likes the extra excitement fans can create, not the insults some can hurl.

“I am all up for loud crowds,” he said. “A bit of jeering and fun is great, but just keep it respectful. It’s a shame it goes over the line sometimes. It needs to be managed.”

Honda Classic executive director Ken Kennerly oversees that tough job. In 12 years leading the event, he has built the tournament into something special. The attendance has boomed from an estimated 65,000 his first year at the helm to more than 200,000 last year.

With Tiger Woods committed to play this year, Kennerly is hopeful the tournament sets an attendance record. The arrival of Woods, however, heightens the challenges.

Woods is going off with the late pairings on Friday, meaning he will arrive at Honda’s party hole late in the day, when the party’s fully percolating.

Kennerly is expecting 17,000 fans to pack that stadium-like atmosphere on the event’s busiest days.

Kennerly is also expecting the best from South Florida fans.

“We have a zero tolerance policy,” Kennerly said. “We have more police officers there, security and more marshals.

“We don’t want to be nasty and throw people out, but we want them to be respectful to players. We also want it to continue to be a fun place for people to hang out, because we aren’t getting 200,000 people here just to watch golf.”

Kennerly said unruly fans will be ejected.

“But we think people will be respectful, and I expect when Tiger and the superstars come through there, they aren’t going to have an issue,” Kennerly said.

McDowell believes Kennerly has the right balance working, and he expects to see that again this week.

“They’ve really taken this event up a couple notches the last five or 10 years with the job they’ve done, especially with what they’ve done at the 16th and 17th holes,” McDowell said. “I’ve been here a lot, and I don’t think it’s gotten to the Phoenix level yet.”

The real test of that may come Friday when Woods makes his way through there at the end of the day.

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Door officially open for Woods to be playing vice captain

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 20, 2018, 11:50 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Thirteen months ago, when Jim Furyk was named the 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, one of the biggest questions was what would happen if Furyk were to play his way onto his own team.

It wasn’t that unrealistic. 

At the time, Furyk was 46 and coming off a season in which he tied for second at the U.S. Open and shot 58 in a PGA Tour event. If anything, accepting the Ryder Cup captaincy seemed premature.

And now?

Now, he’s slowly recovering from shoulder surgery that knocked him out of action for six months. He’s ranked 230th in the world. He’s planning to play an 18-event schedule, on past champion status, mostly to be visible and available to prospective team members.

A playing captain? Furyk chuckled at the thought.

“Wow,” he said here at PGA of America headquarters, “that would be crazy-difficult.”

That’s important to remember when assessing Tiger Woods’ chances of becoming a playing vice captain.

On Tuesday, Woods was named an assistant for the matches at Le Golf National, signing up for months of group texts and a week in which he'd sport an earpiece, scribble potential pairings on a sheet of paper and fetch anything Team USA needs.

It’s become an increasingly familiar role for Woods, except this appointment isn’t anything like his vice captaincy at Hazeltine in 2016 or last year’s Presidents Cup.

Unlike the past few years, when his competitive future was in doubt because of debilitating back pain, there’s at least a chance now that Woods can qualify for the team on his own, or deserve consideration as a captain’s pick. 

There’s a long way to go, of course. He’s 104th in the points standings. He’s made only two official starts since August 2015. His driving needs a lot of work. He hasn’t threatened serious contention, and he might not for a while. But, again: Come September, it’s possible.

And so here was Woods’ taped message Tuesday: “My goal is to make the team, but whatever happens over the course of this season, I will continue to do whatever I can to help us keep the cup.”

That follows what Woods told reporters last week at Riviera, when he expressed a desire to be a playing vice captain.

“Why can’t I have both?” he said. “I like both.”

Furyk, eventually, will have five assistants in Paris, and he could have waited to see how Woods fared this year before assigning him an official role.

He opted against that. Woods is too valuable of an asset.

“I want him on-board right now,” Furyk said.

Arnold Palmer was the last to serve as both player and captain for a Ryder Cup – in 1963. Nothing about the Ryder Cup bears any resemblance to those matches, other than there’s still a winner and a loser. There is more responsibility now. More planning. More strategy. More pressure.

For the past two team competitions, the Americans have split into four-man pods that practiced together under the supervision of one of the assistants. That assistant then relayed any pertinent information to the captain, who made the final decision.

The assistants are relied upon even more once the matches begin. Furyk will need to be on the first tee for at least the first hour of the matches, welcoming all of the participants and doing interviews for the event’s many TV partners, and he needs an assistant with each of the matches out on the course. They’re the captain’s eyes and ears.

Furyk would need to weigh whether Woods’ potential impact as a vice captain – by all accounts he’s the best Xs-and-Os specialist – is worth more than the few points he could earn on the course. Could he adequately handle both tasks? Would dividing his attention actually be detrimental to the team?

“That would be a bridge we cross when we got there,” Furyk said.

If Woods plays well enough, then it’s hard to imagine him being left off the roster, even with all of the attendant challenges of the dual role.

“It’s possible,” Furyk said, “but whether that’s the best thing for the team, we’ll see.”

It’s only February, and this comeback is still new. As Furyk himself knows, a lot can change over the course of a year.

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Furyk tabs Woods, Stricker as Ryder Cup vice captains

By Will GrayFebruary 20, 2018, 9:02 pm

U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk has added Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker to his stable of vice captains to aid in his quest to win on foreign soil for the first time in 25 years.

Furyk made the announcement Tuesday in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., site of this week's Honda Classic. He had previously named Davis Love III as his first vice captain, with a fourth expected to be named before the biennial matches kick off in France this September.

The addition of Woods and Stricker means that the team room will have a familiar feel from two years ago, when Love was the U.S. captain and Furyk, Woods, Stricker and Tom Lehman served as assistants.

This will be the third time as vice captain for Stricker, who last year guided the U.S. to victory as Presidents Cup captain. After compiling a 3-7-1 individual record as a Ryder Cup player from 2008-12, Stricker served as an assistant to Tom Watson at Gleneagles in 2014 before donning an earpiece two years ago on Love's squad at Hazeltine.

"This is a great honor for me, and I am once again thrilled to be a vice captain,” Stricker said in a statement. “We plan to keep the momentum and the spirit of Hazeltine alive and channel it to our advantage in Paris."

Woods will make his second appearance as a vice captain, having served in 2016 and also on Stricker's Presidents Cup team last year. Woods played on seven Ryder Cup teams from 1997-2012, and last week at the Genesis Open he told reporters he would be open to a dual role as both an assistant and a playing member this fall.

"I am thrilled to once again serve as a Ryder Cup vice captain and I thank Jim for his confidence, friendship and support," Woods said in a statement. "My goal is to make the team, but whatever happens over the course of this season, I will continue to do what I can to help us keep the cup."

The Ryder Cup will be held Sept. 28-30 at Le Golf National in Paris. The U.S. has not won in Europe since 1993 at The Belfry in England.

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Watch: Guy wins $75K boat, $25K cash with 120-foot putt

By Grill Room TeamFebruary 20, 2018, 8:15 pm

Making a 120-foot putt in front of a crowd of screaming people would be an award in and of itself for most golfers out there, but one lucky Minnesota man recently got a little something extra for his effort.

The Minnesota Golf Show at the Minneapolis Convention Center has held a $100,000 putting contest for 28 years, and on Sunday, Paul Shadle, a 49-year-old pilot from Rosemount, Minnesota, became the first person ever to sink the putt, winning a pontoon boat valued at $75,000 and $25,000 cash in the process.

But that's not the whole story. Shadle, who describes himself as a "weekend golfer," made separate 100-foot and 50-foot putts to qualify for an attempt at the $100K grand prize – in case you were wondering how it's possible no one had ever made the putt before.

"Closed my eyes and hoped for the best," Shadle said of the attempt(s).

Hard to argue with the result.