I spent Monday and Tuesday at the Phoenix Open doing some very preliminary research and had a good time reconnecting with the tour, players, caddies and officials after the holiday season.
Rather than fight my way through the hordes to get a sound bite from Phil Mickelson or Sergio Garcia, I spent time with some other players whom I wasnt as familiar with, as well as a few favorites who could give me the skinny. Here are some random observations.
JAY HAAS: Always a favorite of mine: friendly, open and fun. We talked about Fred Couples and his on-air work in Hawaii. He thought Fred was outstanding, and I agreed. I knew he was approaching Champions Tour eligibility, so I asked him when he would turn 49. He said last December. His putting instructor Stan Utley (whos assembling quite a nice stable of players) laughed and said if he had Jays bag for two years on the Champions Tour he could retire. We all laughed, but seriously, watch out for Jay Haas in 2004.
PAT BATES: Another Utley disciple, the pro with the flowing golden locks looked at young James McLean and said, That guy needs a haircut. More on McLean in a moment. Id never met Bates before, but I found him to be a personable young man who crushed the ball. He made six birdies on the back nine. He proved his mettle on the Nationwide Tour last year and on Tuesday, he helped Lee Janzen win the front, back and overall against a couple of pretty good Davids (Toms and Gossett).
HAL SUTTON: The 2004 United States Ryder Cup captain worked hard on his game over the holidays and feels like hes found some answers. He only missed one drive on the back nine Tuesday then went back to the practice tee for more work on the rock pile.
JOEY SINDELAR: One of the truly good guys on the tour. Hes been off for 2 1/2 months and is trying to get rid of the rust. He said hes not confident hitting anything more than a 6 or 7-iron. I saw him hit a 1-iron off the first tee. He then hit a nice gentle draw that wound up in the left center of the fairway. Not bad for a rusty old pro hitting the most difficult of clubs.
BRANDEL CHAMBLEE: Another great guy who is having a ball during this home game. It's a 10-15 minute commute to the course, and hes looking forward to joining the ABC announce team this spring. He will be a huge success in that role. But I sense that hed rather win an event and regain his status than make a permanent move to the TV arena. Hes too young for retirement.
JAMES MCLEAN: This kid was on the practice putting green for hours on Monday. He looked like a young Richard Gere with longer hair and a foreign accent. He wore those clothes that would have gotten you beaten up on my block in New York, yet so many of those young golfers seem to be able to pull them off nowadays. Anyway he was at the practice area all day Monday and most of Tuesday. When I didnt see him I figured he had burned out in the desert sun, but lo and behold he was playing a practice round on the back nine hitting multiple balls and working on his game with a fervor. Vijay Singh may have some competition for the range rat of the year award.
DAVID TOMS: Rob Aiken has worked with David Toms and David Gossett for years. In 2000 Toms won the International the same day Gossett won the U.S. Amateur at Pebble. Not a bad day for a teacher. Rob told me that he considers Toms consistency to be the key to his game, specifically his iron play. He had Toms at his teaching facility in Memphis where theyve recently installed a piece of equipment that measures the elapsed time from take-away to impact. It helps determine tempo and timing and the consistency of a swing under pressure. Toms hit 20 consecutive shots with identical timing to the thousandth of a second. That kind of repetition will make a player a champion. It did for David Toms.
DAVID GOSSETT: Call me crazy, but I walked with a group that included two major champions, a new player on the PGA Tour and a kid who finished 86th on the money list last year. I was there to see the kid. Ive always liked David Gossetts style: intense, aggressive, polite, athletic and talented. I liked what I was seeing, then his father joined us with about four holes remaining and we had a wonderful conversation. Larry Gossett was a fighter pilot who took to the game late in life. My conversation with Mr. Gossett included a story about young David that showed me that my first instinct was correct. Mr. Gossett took David to the Masters when David was in his early teens. He saw the wheels turning in Davids head but the two didnt really talk much about what David was thinking. Six years later, David won the Amateur and qualified to play at Augusta. As they prepared to go to the tournament, with David staying in the crows nest, Mr. Gossett offered to go to the merchandise area and buy a Masters umbrella. David told his father that he already had one. Mr. Gossett said, Where in the world did you get a Masters umbrella? David showed him an umbrella that he had kept unopened in his closet for six years. He had bought it as a teenager, but he wouldnt allow himself to enjoy it until he had earned his way into the tournament. How can you not love a kid like that?
Those are a few of the nuggets mined in the desert this week. There will be plenty more for use during updates or the Grey Goose 19th Hole with Kelly in February. Make sure you tune in: Were going to have fun, tell some stories, debate a little, and have mystery guests dropping by. It should be enjoyable.