Blasting into the week ahead, from the wildest stage in golf to LPGA Player of the Year ramifications in Singapore . . .
Waste Management Phoenix Open
Just six weeks to the Masters, and we’re still looking for confirmation Phil Mickelson’s the man to beat at Augusta National this spring.
Coming into the season, Mickelson looked like a good bet to win his third green jacket whether Tiger Woods was teeing it up or not.
And late last fall, Mickelson added to the feeling he was more game than ever to challenge Woods in the biggest events. His win at the Tour Championship, his dazzling play at the Presidents Cup and his head-to-head trouncing of Woods in the final round of the HSBC Champions in China gave him terrific momentum heading into the new season.
Though Mickelson has yet to pick up where he left off last season – Mickelson has one top-10 finish in three starts this year – his next two starts are prime venues to begin his upswing to peak at the Masters.
Mickelson, an Arizona State graduate, has won twice at the TPC at Scottsdale and finished second there another time. He’ll be the defending champion at the WGC-CA Championship at Doral in two weeks.
Stance: There will be no preparing Germany’s Martin Kaymer for the wildest stage in golf, a.k.a. the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale. He’s the highest-ranked first-timer being introduced to the hole this week at No. 8 in the world. The 16th hole is a stadium with a 162-yard par 3 in the middle of it. “It’s like hitting a shot in the Rose Bowl,” Tom Lehman once said. For pros, playing there is like playing through a frat party.
Takeaway: Three of the top eight players in the world rankings will be playing this week: No. 3 Mickelson, No. 5 Ian Poulter and No. 8 Kaymer. Throw in Fred Couples, Geoff Ogilvy, Anthony Kim, Davis Love III and Camilo Villegas and there’s ample star power to cheer.
Bunker shot: Apologies to Mickelson, but J.B. Holmes rules the TPC at Scottsdale. He’s the man to beat this week. Combine his all-or-nothing record on that course with his recent form, and Holmes has to be favored to win his third title at TPC Scottsdale in five years. He’s coming off a tie for second at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and a tie for third at the Northern Trust Open. In the last four years of this event, Holmes has alternated between missing the cut and winning.
HSBC Women’s Champions
If Lorena Ochoa and Jiyai Shin are going to resume the close contest they waged for Rolex Player of the Year honor last season, this is a good event to make their first moves.
Two years ago, Ochoa won the HSBC Women’s Champions on the Tanah Mera Country Club’s Gardens Course in Singapore by a whopping 11 shots. She dusted runner-up Annika Sorenstam, sending a powerful message early in the year.
Last year, Shin won on the same course, beating Katherine Hull by two shots with Ochoa tying for sixth.
Stance: Suzann Pettersen wants to rise to No. 1 in the world before her career ends. She looked capable of making a quick move to the summit when she won five LPGA events in 2007, but she didn’t follow up, going winless in ’08 and claiming one title last year. With her runner-up finish to Ai Miyazato in the season-opener last weekend, Pettersen looks as if she might be ready to begin making that climb to the top in earnest.
Takeaway: Paula Creamer’s withdrawal from last week’s season opener is troublesome. She fought through the mysterious stomach ailment last year, and when she finally began feeling better, she was derailed by a left thumb injury. She aggravated the injury last Thursday, withdrew after the first round in Thailand and flew back to Detroit to see a hand specialist last weekend. She’s off to see a second specialist in Cincinnati later this week. It’s troubling news for the American women’s game, which could use a boost to rebound from last year’s poor showing. The Americans won five LPGA events in ’09, fewest in any season since the LPGA was formed in 1950.
Bunker shot: The LPGA could use a big story this week to jolt its 2010 storylines to a big start. After this weekend’s HSBC Women’s Champions finish, the LPGA will go silent again for three weeks. An American victory in Asia would elevate anticipation of the American start to the tour schedule at the Kia Classic March 25-28 at La Costa in Carlsbad, Calif.