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Weekly 18: Lights, Camera, Matches!

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Four weeks ago, Kyle Stanley carded a triple bogey on the final hole of regulation at Torrey Pines, then lost a playoff to Brandt Snedeker. The result could best be described as startling.

One week later, Stanley quickly made retribution for those foibles, lapping Spencer Levin in Phoenix to claim his first career title. It was thrilling.

That was followed by Phil Mickelson being paired in the penultimate twosome with Tiger Woods at Pebble Beach, posting a flawless 8-under 64 to win. The most proper adjective was scintillating.

And then this past week, Mickelson and Keegan Bradley drained unlikely birdie putts on the final hole of regulation, only to be outdone by a lengthy birdie by Bill Haas on the second extra hole to claim the title.

The overall performance can be characterized as entertaining, exciting, exhilarating and electrifying. It’s also exactly what the PGA Tour has needed.

If you’re scoring at home – and trust me, executives in Ponte Vedra Beach certainly are – that’s four consecutive weeks of fantastic finishes.

This edition of the W18 begins with an examination into why some players win big events and why others simply don’t.


1. Making the Difference

There is no magic number. No singular statistic that separates the wheat from the chaff. (The wheat is the good stuff, by the way.) Driving distance is always important, but then again so is keeping it in play. A strong greens in regulation percentage means a player is giving himself chances. And of course, everyone out there is putting for dough. The flat stick is a money-maker.

So what is the biggest variable between those who come through in the clutch and those who don’t?

That’s easy. It’s guts.

Maybe I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know, but that premise was on display once again this past week at the Northern Trust Open. A neophyte fan could have known nothing about the contenders, but still presumed based on their final-hole pressure-packed birdies that Mickelson and Bradley both had the stuff to be major champions – and they would have been right, of course.

Haas, who prevailed in last year’s FedEx Cup thanks to some heady play down the stretch, has the right stuff, too. Under high-tension circumstances, he hit his second shot into the second playoff hole – the short par-4 10th at Riviera – to the fat part of the green, then drained a 43-foot birdie putt to eventually clinch the win.

There is no measurement for a player’s nerves under such stressful situations, other than prior performance. For as much as we discuss physical attributes and technical soundness, mental fortitude is – and always has been – the most important aspect to winning golf tournaments.

Sunday’s final round was just the latest reminder.


2. What I Learned

I learned that sometimes life really does imitate art. For years, Sergio Garcia appeared surly, sulky and sullen on the course – and his putter wasn’t much fun to be around, either. Over the past few months, a happier Sergio has emerged and perhaps not coincidentally, he’s been holing putts like never before. Always one of the top tee-to-green ball-strikers in the world, he proved once again with an 8-under 64 in the final round of the Northern Trust Open on Sunday – which included two eagles and five birdies – that he’s finally figured out the flat stick. That just might result in a season of “major” proportions for Garcia this year. It also recalls something another pure ball-striker once said on the big screen: “Happy learned how to putt! Uh-oh!” And if you don’t think “Happy Gilmore” qualifies as art, well, maybe you’re a little too surly, sulky and sullen yourself.

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


Three Up

Yani Tseng

3. Yani Tseng

I’m a big sports fan, though I don’t pretend to know everything about every sport out there. So maybe there’s a pole vaulter or a bobsledder or even one of those X Games athletes who reigns as the most dominant athlete in the world today.

Of those of whom I’m aware, though, of those well within the public consciousness, there is no current professional athlete who is more superior in their respective sport than Tseng, who notched her first worldwide win of the year on Sunday after claiming a dozen titles last year.

Through one round of the Honda LPGA Thailand, it appeared this year may be a little more difficult than last. Tseng posted a 1-over 73, leaving her six shots off the lead. No problem. She simply posted scores of 65-65-66 in the final three rounds to edge Ai Miyazato by a single shot.

The win will only extend her already sizable lead in the Rolex Rankings. All of which leads to the question: Why isn’t she a bigger superstar?

My theory is that it’s because we’ve already been there and done that. Prior to retiring, Annika Sorenstam was not only the LPGA’s most dominant golfer, but one of the world’s most dominant athletes. After her, Lorena Ochoa took that mantle. And now, Tseng is a conquering hero – the third on the women’s tour in the past half-decade.

It may not be rare for one player to be this superior over her peers on the LPGA, but that shouldn’t diminish Yani’s recent feats. There aren’t many athletes – or maybe even any athlete – as dominant in the world of sports today.

4. American golfers

It was less than a year ago when so many experts were bemoaning the apparently decrepit state of American golf, what with international players claiming each of the year’s first three major championships and the top four on the Official World Golf Ranking each coming from elsewhere around the globe.

That was then, this is now.

Through the first seven events of the PGA Tour season, U.S.-born players are seven-for-seven, the longest such streak to start a campaign since taking the first eight back in 2001.

Sunday’s playoff included three players from the good ol’ U.S. of A., including Haas, who moved from 22nd in the Official World Golf Ranking to 12th – and became the fifth-highest American player on the list.

That should all serve as good news to Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, who unlike his predecessors should have a bevy of talented, accomplished players from which to choose for his wild-card picks come September, meaning several excellent candidates will be left off the roster.

5. Support for Peter Curran

Many of those in the field at the Northern Trust Open adorned their hats with the letters “PC” this week – and for very good reason.

Peter Curran, the father of mini-tour golfer and former Vanderbilt All-America selection Jon Curran, passed away on Wednesday after a lengthy bout with cancer.

His death especially hit home with Keegan Bradley, who is roommates with Curran. In fact, Bradley was the player who spearheaded the cause to get his fellow competitors to include the initials on their hats.

“A bunch of the guys put PC on their hats for Peter Curran,” Bradley said on Saturday after taking a share of the third-round lead. “I kind of feel like I've got some good luck on my side. I know they're all watching. I'd love to go out there and play well for him and the Curran family.”

He no doubt made them proud with his runner-up finish.


Three Down

Paul Casey

6. Paul Casey

After injuring his shoulder in the offseason, Casey was hopeful that he would be able to return at this week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

Instead, doctor’s orders have him still on the shelf.

But let’s give credit where credit is due: As a resident of Scottsdale, Casey could have elected to show up in Tucson on Monday and Tuesday, tried to give it a go, then either withdrawn prior to the first round or – in a very sneaky move – after teeing off in the first round, essentially giving himself a T-33 paycheck and the world ranking points which come with it.

Instead, he bowed out of the tournament a week ahead of time, in part to give alternate George Coetzee a chance to set up travel arrangements and prepare himself for competing in his first U.S.-based event as a professional.

That’s a strong move by Casey. If karma has any say in results – and it often does – expect him to get a few good breaks his way once he returns to action.

7. Tim Clark

He shot 76-82 and finished dead last out of 141 players who completed two rounds at Riviera – and afterward, Clark was ecstatic.

No, the 2010 Players champion hasn’t lowered his standards. It’s just that in his first start since last year’s edition of that event, he played 36 holes without any pain in his right elbow.

“I was quite surprised with how my body actually felt,” said Clark, who had surgery last August to repair a torn labrum. “Quite happy with that. Obviously, there’s a lot of rust there. I wasn’t able to score at all, but in terms of the arm, how I felt, I was quite encouraged. I didn’t know what to expect. The fact that I could get through 18 holes without having any pain was quite nice.”

He told reporters that he plans to make his next scheduled start at the upcoming Transitions Championship.

8. Patrick Cantlay and Jordan Spieth

In a move that rankled many fellow players and opened some eyes of many in the golf industry, two-time champion Mike Weir was passed over for a Northern Trust Open sponsor’s exemption, as collegians Cantlay and Spieth were among those given a place in the field instead. 

As the top two amateurs in the current world ranking, it’s not as if these exemptions were without merit. Cantlay, especially, has ties to the area, growing up in Southern California and attending UCLA. (Spieth attends the University of Texas.) The inclusion of each also undoubtedly helped drum up some interest for this year’s NCAA Championship, which will also be held at Riviera. 

It didn’t turn out to be the best of weeks for either one, though. 

Cantlay posted scores of 78-72 to miss the cut for the first time in seven career PGA Tour starts. Spieth birdied the 16th and 17th holes of his second round to get inside the number, only to double-bogey the last and miss the cut, as well.

Even so, it’s difficult to fault the thought process behind offering the exemptions. As other tournaments have found – I’m looking at you, Travelers Championship – when a young, up-and-comer is given a place in the field, he oftens rewards that event by showing up annually once he’s a full-fledged PGA Tour star.


9. Fact or Fiction

I’d rather have 40 career PGA Tour wins and no majors than four major wins and no others.

The hypothetical question of, “Which would you rather have?” surfaced this past week, with Phil Mickelson at each of those numbers right now.

It’s a matter of opinion and, really, there’s no right or wrong answer. But personally, I’d take the 40 career victories in a tight race because it shows a greater body of work over a lengthy period of time and it’s rarer than the other alternative.

While there are 26 players who have claimed at least four major championship titles in the history of the game, there are only 10 who have reached the 40-win milestone.

Of course, one doesn’t often come without the other. Of those 10, only Billy Casper and Cary Middlecoff don’t have four majors; they each own three. 

Still, it remains good fodder over a cold beverage at the local 19th hole. I say the above statement is FACT – but if you buy the next round, you might be able to change my mind.


10. Quote of the Week

'Phil Mickelson's got to carry his gonads around in a wheelbarrow.” – Butch Harmon on Jim Rome’s radio show.

Interesting mental imagery there. But one question: Isn’t that Bones’ job? Click for more Quotes of the Week.


11. Video Mailbag

Win McMurry and I answer your questions from Twitter on this Grey Goose Internet Extra.


Three Wishes

Keegan Bradley in the Northern Trust Open final round

12. I wish there weren’t so many complaints about the current state of the professional game.

On Sunday, while in the midst of witnessing yet another dramatic final round, my Twitter feed was flooded with criticisms of slow play, spitting and anchored putters. Sure, there was the odd tweet about the excitement permeating TV screens around the country, but the positive ones were outweighed by the negative.

The slow play mantra is old and tired. Yes, you play quicker at your local muni than guys do on the PGA Tour – as well you should. Here’s guessing, though, that you’d also spend more time on your work if you had a million bucks riding on your cubicle performance.

If you’re a fan, isn’t watching golf an enjoyable experience? All of the usual complaints feel like they’re coming from the same people who tell their spouse to hurry up each night so they can fall asleep quicker. I’m just not buying the correlation that amateur golfers see a player take his time to hit the ball, then decide to impart such deliberations within their own game. If anything, criticisms should be leveled less at the players and more at television producers who may cut to them well before they are ready to hit the ball.

As for spitting – which appeared to be a crucial aspect to Keegan Bradley’s pre-shot routine throughout the day – I get that it may be a bit uncouth, but is it really worth getting so enraged over?

Baseball players spit approximately every 3.4 seconds on the diamond. Yes, I understand that as a “gentleman’s game” golf should be held to a higher standard, but it’s not exactly like Bradley was hawking loogies at fans and protruding saliva on the clubhouse floor. There are enough issues in this game already. Let’s not create one that doesn’t need to exist.

Lastly, I get the uproar over anchored putters. I really do. They may not provide an “advantage” for certain players, but they’re certainly against the spirit of the intended rules.

That said, they’re legal right now. Get over it. Employing an anchored putter is no more cheating than using a hybrid club. Until that rule is changed – if it’s changed – players are well within their right to use these putters. And if they continue to use ‘em after such a rule is enacted, don’t worry – you’ll be able to phone in the “cheaters” from a mile away.

As I wrote in the beginning of this column, the past four weeks on the PGA Tour have provided plenty of thrills and entertainment. I fully expect both the comments section at the bottom of this piece and my email inbox to be filled with irate responses to what I’ve just written, but think about it: If you’re still finding things to complain about, well, that’s probably a “you” problem more than anything else.

13. I wish President Clinton will continue to use golf as a vehicle to promote various causes.

Last month, the 42nd president served as host of the Humana Challenge for the first time, using his role to advocate health and wellness.

This past week, he attended the Nationwide Tour season-opening Pacific Rubiales Colombia Championship in an effort to promote economic and social development projects within that country and other neighboring nations.

'When I became president, Colombia was our best ally in South America and is the oldest democracy in South America,” he said during a Tuesday night dinner. “Thirty-five percent of the land was in the hands of narco-traffickers. During my time as president, we passed Plan Colombia to help this country. This country still has some problems, but the country belongs to the people of Colombia again. That's a great tribute to the people of Colombia.'

Almost every former president turns his attention to humanitarianism upon leaving office, however few – if any – have chosen to employ golf as a vehicle for touting their causes. Clinton’s involvement with the game can only be viewed as a quid pro quo positive for both his efforts and the game.

14. I wish the player who finished T-61 in the 70-player Honda LPGA Thailand event this past week wasn’t receiving more headlines than those who actually contended.

Call me a prude if you’d like, but it isn’t true. The fact is, I have absolutely no problem with Natalie Gulbis or any other athlete showing off their body in revealing photographs. That is a person’s individual choice and we should all respect it.

What I do have a problem with is Gulbis posing for Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue in nothing but body paint and garnering more attention than any of her peers have received for playing golf fully clothed.

Yes, I know. Sex sells and we shouldn’t expect birdies to come before, um, booties.

While Gulbis isn’t struggling to make headlines, she is struggling with her game. In addition to that low finish in Thailand, she was 51st on last year’s money list, thanks to being outside the top-30 in driving, ball-striking and putting.

If she had played well this past week, the headlines would have been even more plentiful. Instead, she continued receiving attention for reasons much different than her golf game.


15. Stat of the Week

Fred Couples made his 30th career appearance at the Northern Trust Open this week. That means he’s been playing the tournament longer than 39 of his fellow competitors in the field have been alive.


16. Photo of the Week

Top Photos

Two birds, one with a fish in its beak, are seen on the 13th tee box during the first round of the Pacific Rubiales Colombia Championship. View all Photos of the Week.


17. From the Inbox

This week’s Twitter question is newsworthy, as the NBA descends upon Orlando this coming week for its annual All-Star Game.

@Tizzle0303: I’m sure it's been thought of already but how would an 'All Star Game' work in golf? @JasonSobelGC Skills comp? Match play?

I’m in favor of it, but the format and date would have to make sense from a number of perspectives. Actually addressed this question in a column a few years ago. Still believe what I wrote then, so here it is with just a few changes to keep up with the times.

Anything that brings the game's best players together in a televised, informal setting that would show off their personalities is certainly worth consideration. There need to be a few caveats, though:

1. The top players have to buy into it. The NFL’s Pro Bowl is less genuine when the elite players skip the festivities. If the likes of Tiger, Phil, Luke and Rory decide not to partake, consider the idea dead before it ever lived.

2. It has to be conducted during the season. Skills competitions and other fun-filled events have long been part of the Silly Season schedule. Not many fans watch those and no one will watch this, either, if it takes place in November and airs on tape delay. 

3. It can't disrupt the flow of a tournament. If the PGA Tour were to ever decide to play three rounds of an event, then have a day of skills competitions and an 'all-star game' prior to the final round, the only question is whether the outrage would be louder from the fans or the players.

So when and how would such an idea work best? I'm just spitballing here, but maybe the Tour could either hold this on Wednesday of The Barclays, its opening FedEx Cup playoff event, or conclude the tournament on a Saturday, then have something like this on Sunday of that week, with the game's top players involved in everything from a driving distance challenge to a putting contest, followed by a Ryder Cup-style match.


18. And the Winner Is…

Sergio Garcia

The No. 1 rule for picking winners at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship is to forget about matchups. Don’t worry about which player is the higher seed – all of which is negligible anyway – and don’t consider previous occurrences of head-to-head play.

Instead, go with players who are in form, have shown a propensity for playing well in the match play format and – most importantly – can roll their rock.

Based on that last one, the following pick may sound way off-base, but stick with me here.

I’m taking Sergio Garcia to win. 

For too long, Garcia has been known as a world-class ball-striker who couldn’t putt his ball into a bucket. Not any longer. As he proved once again during the final round of the Northern Trust Open, Sergio has figured out some things with the flatstick.

It all goes back to a long-standing theory within golf’s inner circles. Happy players make putts. Garcia appears much happier and more comfortable in his own skin right now than he did even just a year ago – and it’s carried over to the greens.

To steal from another guy who struggled with the putter: “Happy learned how to putt! Uh-oh!”

It should portend success at the Match Play this week. And it very well could mean a “major” breakthrough for Garcia this season.