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Weekly 18: Els, Augusta and exemptions

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Prior to the Transitions Championship, armed with the knowledge that a victory would once again move him to No. 1 in the world, I asked Luke Donald if such an ascendancy was as much of a priority considering he’d already reached that level in the past.

“I don't know if getting to No. 1 was that hugely important to me. I've always focused on putting myself into contention to try and win tournaments,” he explained. “You know, it's nice being No. 1. I think there's a few bragging rights. The prestige is great. But it's not what I'm really focused on.”

That’s some excellent foreshadowing from a guy who would not only win the tournament four days later, but reclaim that top ranking as well.

It couldn’t have come at a better time, either. As this edition of the Weekly 18 begins, the anticipation for the year’s first major continues to grow every single week.


1. Augusta dreamin'

So … anyone getting excited about the Masters?

We’ve got exactly one fortnight until the festivities kick off in Augusta, but if there’s been a better run-up to the tournament in recent memory, I don’t remember it.

Maybe in 2001, but that was different. That year, all eyes were on Tiger Woods, who was in hot pursuit of what would be coined the Tiger Slam.

This time, all eyes are on, well, almost everybody.

There is Donald who will hold the No. 1 world ranking over Rory McIlroy by the slimmest of margins entering the week, with each player posting a victory in the month prior. They both also own some history at Augusta, with the former seriously contending last year and the latter leading after each of the first three rounds and going into the back nine on Sunday before finishing in a share of 15th place.

There is Phil Mickelson, seeking a fourth career green jacket, already with a victory and a playoff loss on his resume this season. Nobody gears himself up for the Masters quite like the mercurial left-hander. It’s tough to imagine a Sunday leaderboard in a few weeks that doesn’t have him in the mix.

There is Bill Haas, Hunter Mahan, Justin Rose, Kyle Stanley and Brandt Snedeker – all PGA Tour winners thus far, all extremely talented, all varying degrees of youthful and all capable of contending at Augusta.

There is a bevy of top talent who have seen a share of solid play this season, from Lee Westwood to Martin Kaymer to Dustin Johnson to Webb Simpson.

And, of course, there is the omnipresent Woods, a four-time winner of the event who is easily the greatest wild card in the equation, capable of winning his fifth Masters title, missing the cut or bowing out with an injury.

Tally ’em all up and you’ve got one of the most anticipated Masters in years.

So, yes. Get excited. Get very excited. The year’s first major is just two weeks away – and the storylines are building every single day.


2. What I Learned

I learned that Ernie Els has more demons than a Wes Craven film. OK, so maybe I was acutely aware of this fact before he finished bogey-bogey at the Transitions Championship to go from a one-shot lead to one shot out of the playoff, but his inefficiency down the stretch once again reared its ugly head.

The Big Easy missed a couple of short, easy putts on Nos. 16 and 18, his bugaboo throughout the second half of his career. Afterward, he looked completely shellshocked, like he didn’t even know what had taken place over the final 30 minutes of his round. If he ever reviews the tape, he’ll see a man with a lot more weighing on his mind than the next shot and one who lost all confidence when it came to crunch time.

That’s a shame, because in a tournament that featured a fun, frenetic final round with a four-man playoff that was won by Luke Donald, the lasting image will be that of Els, still wondering what happened to the title he was supposed to win.

For a more complete look at What We Learned, click here.


Three Up

Yani Tseng

3. Yani Tseng

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Tseng won an LPGA event on Sunday.

Yeah, I know. It’s getting to the point where we should be more surprised when she doesn’t win. On Sunday, Yani held off fellow top-10 players Na Yeon Choi and Ai Miyazato at the LPGA Founders Cup to win her second title of the young season and 14th worldwide since the beginning of last year.

Of course, putting those players in the same category as Tseng is a huge disservice to her. Right now, there is Yani – and there is everyone else.

I’ve said it in this space before, but I’ll say it again: One of the main reasons she doesn’t garner as much attention for her success as she should is that it comes right on the heels of Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa similarly dominating the ladies’ game.

That doesn’t mean we should take Yani for granted, though. In fact, it’s just the opposite. We should celebrate the fact that the LPGA has been lucky enough to have three absolutely dominant superstars in the past decade. Tseng proved once again on Sunday that she’s more than worthy of being included in such company.

4. Sang-Moon Bae

Of the four men involved in Sunday’s playoff at the Transitions Championship, nobody should have been surprised at the inclusion of Donald. Same goes for Jim Furyk, who despite not having won since 2010 is hardly a stranger to success. And Robert Garrigus has proven himself worthy of contending on any given week.

Then there was Bae, the subject of much whispering entering the season. After all, he was ranked 30th in the Official World Golf Ranking, but an unknown commodity on the biggest stage. Since earning his PGA Tour card through Q-School, though, he is showing that he’s got what it takes to succeed against the world’s best.

In eight starts so far, he’s cashed every time, including a T-5 at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and the T-2 this past week.

“Great week. I did my best,” he said after nearly holing a 20-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole. “My driver, iron shots came back and the putter – everything good.”

Indeed, everything is good for Bae right now.

5. Julien Quesne

OK, so maybe he isn’t the next Larry Nelson or Y.E. Yang … but he could be.

Like those major champions, Quesne didn’t play golf as a youngster, only picking up the game at age 17 and turning professional six years later.

Now 31, Quesne (pronounced KANE) is a European Tour champion, submitting a sublime final-round 64 at the Open de Andalucia to claim his first career victory.

“It’s the best day of my life,” the Frenchman said. 'It’s not easy because you have Matteo Manassero, Miguel [Angel Jiménez], Pablo Larrazábal – they all played good, so I just tried to play shot after shot and do my best.”

His best wasn’t bad for a guy who has played the game his entire life. It was even better for one who has been playing for fewer years than he didn’t play.


Three Down

Ernie Els

6. Augusta National's special invitations

The membership at Augusta National has already offered a special invitation to this year’s Masters to Ryo Ishikawa, who may not even need it if he remains inside the top 50 on the Official World Golf Ranking.

I don’t agree with that decision, but I get it. Tournament officials are very conscious of wanting to grow the event in Asia, and Ryo is the biggest star from that part of the world. They have the best interests of the game at heart, so it’s difficult to argue too heartily about that selection.

But here’s one we can argue: Ernie Els should be granted a similar exemption.

In fact, the last non-Asian to be offered a special invitation into the Masters field was Greg Norman exactly one decade ago. If the Shark was given a spot in order to have one more legitimate chance to attack a course on which he’d left so much blood, sweat and tears, then a precedent has clearly been set – and Els should be offered one for the very same reason.

In 18 career Masters starts, Els owns a half-dozen top-10s, including runner-up finishes in 2000 and 2004. At one point during the final round on Sunday, it appeared he was pulling a Pedro Cerrano, essentially telling Augusta organizers, “I do it myself.” However, potentially earning his way into this year’s field had to be weighing on his mind down the stretch at Innisbrook – and it was pretty obvious that it affected his play.

Els desperately wants to play next month. If Ishikawa gets that chance and – more importantly – if Norman was given that chance 10 years ago, then Ernie should also be teeing it up there this time around.

7. Critics of Tiger Woods coverage

It happens all the time. The media give special attention to Woods and the public accuses us of providing too much coverage.

Personally, I hear this argument all the time – through Twitter, emails and elsewhere. And my answer is always the same: It's the law of supply and demand.

Simply put, more people want to read and hear about Woods than any other player, so we provide more content on him. 

The latest example occurred this past week. I wrote a short – and by short, I mean five paragraphs – update on Tiger's status, based on his tweet about the Achilles injury.

As of the time I'm writing this, the article had 1,098 user comments at the bottom. Now, I'll be the first to acknowledge that content shouldn't be provided based on the reaction it may receive, but that number also serves as a valid barometer for how interested readers are in a subject. Even if the comments are voiced to complain about overanalysis of Woods, it still fuels debate and shows intrigue in the topic.

After all, there's a reason users clicked on the article in the first place – and it likely had everything to do with Woods' name in the headline.

As long as he continues to be the most polarizing person in the game, the media will continue to update and analyze – any complaints notwithstanding.

Hey, it’s simple supply and demand.

8. Exemptions for John Daly

Congrats to Long John for making the cut in his 2012 PGA Tour debut, posting rounds of 69-72-70-71 to finish T-51 at the Transitions Championship.

Actually, congrats are in order just for finishing.

Through injury and apathy, Daly has struggled to finish what he’s started in recent years. He’s not in the Three Down section for anything he’s done, though; it’s for what he was handed.

Once again, he was given a sponsor exemption into an event for which he didn’t qualify. If you don’t like it, don’t get mad at Daly. Get mad at the sponsor who handed him the exemption. It’s analogous to a Major League Baseball player getting paid $10 million to hit .220 with six homers; it’s not his fault, it’s the fault of team management for overpaying him.

Daly still brings out the fans – as evidenced by those at Innisbrook carrying large cutouts of his face throughout the gallery – and I still maintain that if he, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were each tied for the lead with nine holes to play on a Sunday afternoon, J.D. would own the majority of support. And it wouldn’t be close.

That’s why he keeps getting offered exemptions. At some point, though, it would be nice to see him earn it again, rather than simply having it handed to him. Maybe if he did start earning his way into fields, we’d finally see the talent that we know he owns.


9. Stat of the Week

Luke Donald has finished in the top-10 in 18 of his last 25 official PGA Tour starts. In his previous 25 before this, he had just seven top-10s.


10. Quote of the Week

“I don't remember yesterday, really.” – Scott Piercy, when asked if he had ever been in a playoff at any level.

Click for more Quotes of the Week


Tiger Woods

11. The List

This week’s PGA Tour event is the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which took that name in 2007 to honor its longtime host.

Of the current crop of active players, which ones could someday have their own names in tournament titles? This edition of The List examines that query.

5. Padraig Harrington. Even though it’s not a European Tour-sanctioned event, Harrington annually competes in the Irish Open not only to prep for the Open Championship, but because he feels a responsibility to play his country’s national open. It’s not inconceivable that the event’s name would someday be altered to honor the three-time major champion.

4. K.J. Choi. Another big-time player who competes in a small-time event each year. Choi always takes part in the SK Telecom Open in his home country of South Korea, twice winning the title. For everything that Se Ri Pak has meant to the women’s game for people of that nation, Choi has had a similar impact on the men’s side.

3. Phil Mickelson. Annually a presence at Torrey Pines for his hometown Farmers Insurance Open, it would make sense for the event to someday officially honor the man who will soon be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Mickelson has even offered to redesign the North Course for free; perhaps his payment will come with extra notoriety.

2. Miguel Angel Jimenez. He was a financial backer for this past week’s Open de Andalucia, so it only seems sensible that the Mechanic could someday have his name attached to the event in an official capacity. Or maybe they could instead simply call it The Most Interesting Tournament in the World.

1.Tiger Woods. Much like Palmer, Woods has long hosted his own PGA Tour event – doing everything but having his name as part of the signage. It wouldn’t be much of a leap for the AT&T National to someday capitalize on Woods’ name, using him as more than just a presenting sponsor.


Three Wishes

12. I wish the annual PGA Tour caddie tournament was televised.

One of the most talked-about events within PGA Tour circles is taking place on Monday – and no, I’m not referring to the Tavistock Cup.

The annual caddie event will be held at Bloomingdale Golfers Club once again, run by Tour member Michael Bradley and his caddie Noah Zelnik. Even for guys who read greens for a living, it will be a challenge. Last year, one player had been at Augusta National just days before this tourney and called Bloomingdale’s greens – at 13 on the Stimpmeter – much trickier than those on which the Masters is contested.

The event will feature four flights, with the talent level ranging from pro-level to, well, not-exactly pro-level. Last year’s winner was D.J. Nelson, who loops for Heath Slocum. Zelnik told me his winning score of 68 would have been top-5 if a PGA Tour event was being held on Bloomingdale that day.

Sounds like a fun watch and it’s now officially on my bucket list.

And to answer your most pressing question: No, there is no pool there. If so, there certainly would have been free swimming for the caddies from 1:00-1:15.

13. I wish nothing but the best for the Petrovic family in the coming months. 

I spent Tuesday afternoon of Transitions Championship week talking with Tim and Stephen Petrovic as they played a nine-hole practice round in preparation for the event.

They wound up posting scores of 72-71 to miss the cut by two strokes, but that’s hardly the worst news for the brothers of late.

Stephen has been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a treatable yet dangerous form of cancer. If there’s a positive to come from the situation, it’s that he and Tim – a PGA Tour veteran – have become closer than ever in the aftermath of the diagnosis.

Here is my story on the Petrovics.

14. I wish anyone who cares about golf’s legends gets a chance to read our recent series.

If you’ve clicked on this site or tuned into our network over the past week, you’re aware of our “1912” project, featuring numerous fresh articles on Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead – a trio of Hall of Famers who each would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year.

Within our office walls, we’re very proud of the series – editorially, contextually and artistically.

There’s a lot to it, so don’t feel badly if you haven’t gotten to it all yet. But do yourself a favor and bookmark the link. Really, I don’t mean to brag, but this was a team effort. It’s an intriguing look at the three men – the history of their success, the intricacies of their relationships and the effect of their impact.

Here is the link.


15. Tweet of the Week

@Mardilou68: We need to start penalizing,paint balling,or f..k it just shoot the slow players on the LPGA. 5.40 to play this course is a f..king joke.

That would be LPGA pro Mardi Lunn, now caddying for Lindsay Wright, who didn’t pull any punches in announcing her displeasure with pace of play at the LPGA Founders Cup.


16. Photo of the Week

Squirrel

View all Photos of the Week.


17. Fact or Fiction: Tiger Woods shouldn't play the Tavistock Cup or Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Just eight days after withdrawing mid-round from the WGC-Cadillac Championship, Woods will tee it up in competition once again, playing at Lake Nona on Monday and Tuesday, then Bay Hill starting on Thursday.

That decision has obviously been the subject of much debate recently, as many believe he should rest the strained left Achilles rather than risking further damage prior to the Masters.

In fact, while co-hosting 'Morning Drive' on Friday, I was asked what advice I would give to Tiger if he asked. My answer: Absolutely nothing.

Let’s face it, if Woods is seeking my advice, he’s got more trouble than we even know. More seriously, though, he knows his own body and has consulted with his doctors. If he feels ready to play and has gotten the green light, it’s really not anyone else’s place to say he shouldn’t do it.

That’s not to say Woods can’t or won’t suffer a flare-up of that injury this coming week, but even such a result wouldn’t mean those who say he shouldn’t compete are proven right. It’s his call. If he thinks playing is in his best interests, then he should play.

Consider the above statement to be FICTION – unless Tiger himself says otherwise.


18. And the Winner Is…

Charles Howell III

I’ve enjoyed about as much success picking PGA Tour winners this season as I’ve had actually winning PGA Tour events myself.

I do, however, know a trend when I see one. And the trend so far this year is that nary a week goes by without not just a solid champion, but a terrific storyline, too.

Now it’s just a matter of figuring out which story will surface at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

I’m tempted to take Ernie Els, but the carnage of Sunday afternoon is still fresh. Vijay Singh would be a great story, but he’s out of form. Sam Saunders? Awesome one, but don’t see it happening.

Instead, give me Orlando resident Charles Howell III, who is already on the list to head back to his hometown of Augusta in two weeks. Howell has always been a favorite of Palmer and winning just prior to the Masters would provide another excellent storyline entering the tournament.