Europeans and Their Chances at the Masters
My Masters Picks
I have to start this weeks column with the Masters Tournament, one of my favorite weeks of the year. Having attending Mercer University in Macon, Ga., I have a special affinity with the Peach State and its most famous sporting event. Indeed, I was lucky enough to be a patron of the tournament through-out my university years and a couple beyond, but ironically since joining the GOLF CHANNEL Ive not been able to make the pilgrimage. However, I am looking forward to joining Vince Cellini in the studio for our late night 'Live From the Masters' specials. On Thursday youll see my interview with Englishman David Howell, which was shot at Doral ahead of the WGC-CA Championship. To me, Howell is a British favorite at Augusta. He has a solid short game and says himself that Augusta represents his best chance at a major title. With two top 20 finishes in as many appearances at the tournament, hes certainly shown he can perform on the demanding lay-out. During our interview, among other things, he talks about playing with Tiger on Saturday in 2005, during his first appearance in the event.
As for other European hopefuls, Justin Rose is certainly keen to put his back problems behind him, excuse the pun. I watched him for all 18 holes at the Tavistock Cup last Tuesday, and his outward 29, although a touch lucky at times, was extremely impressive. The only worry from Roses point of view is being out of the competitive game for such a long time; his last outing was the Accenture Match Play at the end of February. Hell have his old caddie in Mick Doran on the bag; the pair captured two wins in 2002 before Doran moved to work for Lee Westwood and then Howell. Dorans first steady employer was Costantino Rocca, giving him a front row seat when the Italian was paired with Tiger Woods for the final round of his win for the ages in 1997.
Paul Casey is also one to watch. The Englishman didnt qualify for the tournament last year, so coach Peter Kostis made him watch video of the tournament to inspire a return to Georgia this season. The motivation worked and now Casey is one of my European favorites. His length and scoring ability is second to none; its just a case of putting it all together at the right time.
Henrik Stenson is also a hot favorite. My only worry with him is whether hes had enough experience in the big-time to come through and take the title at a place like Augusta. Realistically, only since his run through the desert swing of 2006 has the big hitting Swede been put on the world map.
And finally, a quick shot in the dark: Jose Maria Olazabal. He wasnt a favorite in 1999; hes not a favorite this year by any means, but he finished tied for third last season, he knows Augusta terribly well, has two green jackets and when the tournament begins, maybe hell turn back the clock and surprise us all.
But theyll all be playing for second, my true Masters tip . Tiger, of course.
Pablo Martin has, for sometime now, been on the GOLF CHANNEL radar. My colleague, Steve Burkowski, who covers the amateur and collegiate games has been singing the young Spaniards praises ever since he stepped onto the scene in the United States a couple of years ago. A student and golfer at Oklahoma State University, Martin is now surely the best amateur golfer on the planet. Somewhat surprisingly, following his victory at the Estoril Open de Portugal on Sunday, he has decided to remain an amateur; although Burkowski told us on our 'UK Golf Central' show on Monday that Martin told him hes planning to forego his senior year in preference to a switch into the professional ranks. Raphael Jacquelin finished second to Martin at Oitavos Golfe. The Frenchman has, in my opinion, one of the smoothest swings on the tour and hopefully he will use this finish to build on his solitary European Tour victory.
Ross McGowan was a front runner for most of the week, but fell away with a final-round 76. I had the pleasure of playing quite a bit of amateur golf with Ross; we were both members at Walton Heath in Surrey for a while before McGowan turned professional and turned his attention to his original home club of Banstead Downs. At 24, McGowan, who only turned pro late last year, was somewhat of a late convert to the professional ranks but with a huge amount of experience as an amateur, including four years at the University of Tennessee. He certainly did his time, as they say. McGowan has a Challenge Tour card this year but relied on sponsors' exemptions to play at Madeira and Oitavos last week.
A Truly Impressel Performance
The first major championship of the year is done and dusted. Congratulations to Morgan Pressel, who I think has developed as a player and a person exponentially since turning professional 15 months ago. Bitter disappointment for Suzann Petterssen, whose double bogey at the 16th cost her dearly. The Norwegian has now had the chance to win for two weeks running but hasnt managed to come through with a trophy. My hope is that Petterssen will learn from these two second places and capture a victory or two before the end the season. Shes battled injuries in her career but now seems to be fit and healthy. The Europeans will certainly need her to be at her most productive for the Solheim Cup in September. Dont forget Catriona Matthew. I think Im right in saying the Kraft Nabisco was not aired in the United Kingdom and so Matthew didnt receive all the camera-time from the American CBS broadcast she possibly deserved. Had her 6-foot par putt on the last dropped we could have been talking about a British major winner. This was only Matthewss second tournament back since the birth of her daughter, so a truly marvelous achievement for the Scotswoman.
On a personal note, may I take this opportunity to wish Renton Laidlaw a very speedy recovery. Renton has been in extremely poor health since suffering a heart attack during an operation for prostate cancer a couple of weeks ago. Hes currently at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. I, like many of you, always enjoy Renton and Warren in the mornings during our European Tour coverage. His style is unique, his knowledge of European golf second to none. Although Rentons family appreciates your well wishes tremendously, they have asked for cards and flowers not to be sent to the hospital at this time.
Tom Abbott will host GOLF CHANNELs live coverage of the Ginn Open beginning at 9 p.m. BST on Thursday 12th April. GOLF CHANNEL can be found on Sky Digital 423.
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G-Mac has Ryder Cup on mind with Genesis in grasp
LOS ANGELES – Graeme McDowell is four years removed from his last start in a Ryder Cup and golf is more than seven months away from this year’s matches, but then it’s never too early to start daydreaming.
Following a third-round 70 that left him tied for third place and just two strokes off the lead at the Genesis Open, McDowell was asked if the matches are on his mind.
“I feel like I've got a lot of things to do between now and getting on that team,” he said. “Standing here right now it's probably not a realistic goal, but if I continue to play the way I'm playing for the next few months, it may start to become a realistic goal.”
McDowell began his week at Riviera Country Club fresh off four consecutive missed cuts and has drifted to 219th in the Official World Golf Ranking. But his play this week has been encouraging and the Northern Irishman has always relished the opportunity to play for Europe.
“Deep down I know I'm good enough, but I've got to show, I've got to put some results on the board, I've got to take care of my business,” he said. “The greatest experience of my career bar none, and I would love to play another couple Ryder Cup matches before it's all said and done.”
McDowell does have a potential advantage this year having won the French Open twice at Le Golf National, site of this year’s matches.
Bubba on McGrady block: 'Just trying not to get hurt'
LOS ANGELES – A detour to the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game didn’t keep Bubba Watson from leading this week’s Genesis Open, although an on-court brush with Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady nearly derailed his chances for a third tournament win.
Watson enters the final round at Riviera with a one-shot lead over Patrick Cantlay after firing a 6-under 65 in the third round. The day before, the southpaw left the course around lunch time and headed across town to participate in the All-Star festivities, where during the celebrity game he tried to score 1-on-1 over McGrady.
Watson’s move into the lane went about as well as you’d expect given their five-inch height disparity, with McGrady easily blocking the ball into the stands. According to Watson, he had only one thought as McGrady came barreling towards him across the lane.
“When I saw him, all I saw was, ‘This is my moment to get hurt,’” Watson said. “This big tank is about to hit me, and I was like, ‘Just knock it into the stands. Just don’t touch me.’ So it worked out, he didn’t touch me so it was good.”
Watson’s attempt went against his wife Angie’s advice to avoid the paint area, but it provided a fun moment for a player used to carving up fairways and greens – not to mention the guy who played 15 seasons in the NBA.
“Well, he’s got like just under 800 blocks for his career, so I gave him one more, you know?” Watson said. “It was just, it was a blast. I wanted to see how good he was, see if he could miss it. He hasn’t played in a while.”
Watson took some heat on Twitter from his PGA Tour peers for the rejection, but few were still laughing as he rocketed up the leaderboard Saturday with five birdies and an eagle. Now he has a chance to win this event for the third time since 2014 – even if he doesn’t plan to go toe-to-toe with McGrady again anytime soon.
“Some guys wanted to try to win MVP, so I was trying to pass it and let them have their fun and their moment,” Watson said. “I was just trying not to get hurt.”
Spieth on third-round 69: 'Putter saved me'
LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth has spent the last few weeks talking about his putting for all the wrong reasons.
Two weeks ago when he missed the cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open he lost 3.76 shots to the field in strokes-gained putting, and last week he wasn’t much better.
It looked like more of the same at the Genesis Open when he lost about a half stroke to the field on Day 1 with 29 putts, but since then his fortunes on the greens have gotten progressively better.
“I thought each day last week I progressed,” said Spieth, who needed just 24 putts on Friday and moved into a tie for 20th after taking 26 putts on Day 3.
Spieth said he started to feel things turn around at Pebble Beach after working with his swing coach Cameron McCormick and Steve Stricker, who has become something of a putting sounding board for players on Tour.
“I got set up really nice. I got really comfortable on the greens even though they were very difficult to putt last week and this week,” said Spieth, who rolled in a birdie putt of 14 feet at No. 12 and a par putt of 35 feet at No. 14. “Any putt, I either made it or I left it just short today. It was one of those days that with the way I struck the ball, it was an off day, but that putter saved me and allowed me to shoot the lowest score so far this week.”
Spieth’s third-round 69 is his best of the week and moved him to within seven strokes of the lead, which is held by Bubba Watson.
Bouncing back: Watson seeks a third Riviera win
LOS ANGELES – Yeah, but can Tracy McGrady smoke a 7-iron from 203 yards to kick-in range for eagle on Riviera Country Club’s opening hole?
The way Bubba Watson’s mind drifts there’s no telling if, as he began his day at the Genesis Open, he revisited his play from Friday night at the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game. If he did, it would have been an apropos conclusion after McGrady sent his weak floater into the cheap seats midway through the second quarter.
Either way, Watson made it clear playtime was over on Saturday. The eagle at the opening par 4 ½ sent Watson on his way to a third-round 65 and the outright lead at the Left Coast event that’s starting to feel like a second home for the lefthander.
In 11 starts at Riviera, Watson already has two victories. A third on Sunday could get folks talking about renaming the layout Bubba’s Alley. Or not.
What is certain is that Watson has emerged from a funk that sent him tumbling outside the top 100 in the world ranking and he’s done it in quintessential Bubba style.
If Friday’s detour to the celebrity game received worldwide attention it was only a snapshot of Watson’s Tinseltown itinerary. He taped a segment for Jay Leno’s Garage show, visited with Ellen DeGeneres and watched a taping of The Big Bang Theory. You know, L.A. stuff.
Oh, and he’s curved and carved his way around Riviera with signature abandon.
“You've got to hit shots from every different angle, you've got to move it right to left and left to right, so it's just fun,” said Watson, who also led by one stroke when he won here in 2016, his last victory on the PGA Tour. “Then the greens are the equalizer so it makes me look like I putt as good as the other guys.”
He “hammered” a 7-iron from 203 yards at the first to 1 ½ feet for his opening eagle, chipped in at the sixth to begin a run of four birdies in five holes and played the three par 5s in 3 under to move into a familiar spot after enduring his worst season on Tour in 2017 when he failed to advance past the second playoff event.
That he’s turned the tide in Los Angeles is as predictable as it is peculiar. Despite Watson’s record at the Genesis Open, Riviera wouldn’t seem to be the tonic for all that ails Bubba.
Ask a player - any player will do - the keys to playing Riviera and the answers range wildly from it being a bomber’s course to the need for ball-striking precision. But the word that comes up with regularity is "patience."
“Patience and pretty much just not being stupid, to be honest,” Justin Thomas said when asked the key to his third-round 67 that left him tied for eighth place. “Just stop trying to hit at pins with 5-irons and 6-irons, and when I hit in the rough, realize just try to make a par. When I get in places, when I'm out of position, realize that sometimes even bogey is what I need to make.”
While that thought dovetails with conventional wisdom, Watson’s not exactly known for his patience.
“Oh, for sure I do. Haven't you seen me in the last 12 years?” Watson laughed when asked if he had patience on the course. “The tougher the golf course, the more focus I have. The tougher the shot, I've been able to focus better. When I get my mind on something, I can focus and do pretty well at the game of golf.”
While Bubba drifts between artist and antagonist with ease, both on and off the golf course, his primary challenge on Sunday is the picture of thoughtful composure.
Patrick Cantlay, who returned to the Tour last season after struggling with back issues for years, began the third round with a share of the lead but quickly faded on the front nine. He rallied on the closing loop with birdies at Nos. 10, 11 and 18, where he capped his day with a 54-footer that assured him a spot in Sunday’s final threesome. Although he’s just 25 and playing his first full season on Tour, Cantlay’s approach to the game is patently different from Watson’s.
“I feel like if I can just engage and not worry about where I am on a particular hole or what's going on and I just engage and stay present in whatever I'm doing at that particular time, it all turns out better than what you would expect,” explained Cantlay, who attended nearby UCLA and played dozens of practice rounds at Riviera. “Making sure you stay present and having that confidence in yourself that if you just click in and focus, it all will be good and that's kind of the head space I'm in.”
It will be a clash of wildly contrasting styles on Sunday – Watson, who admitted he “(doesn’t) focus very well,” and Cantlay, whose approach to the mental side of the game borders on the clinical.
One player relishes the challenge of hyper-focus, the other is Bubba, but that’s not to say Watson is void of patience, only that he needs to be properly motivated.
“Like last night when Tracy McGrady was coming at me, I was focused on not getting hurt and I didn't, so it worked out,” Watson smiled.
And besides, T-Mac can’t bomb it like Bubba.