Forget about players making birdies in bunches. Disregard the field going bananas at tournaments like the U.S. Open.
For one day, at least, golf became difficult again.
With a playoff bogey, Sean O’Hair won on the PGA Tour. With a final-round 77, Alexander Noren won on the Euro circuit.
Hey, maybe this game isn’t so easy after all.
There’s something else we learned, too – for about the millionth time. As the Weekly 18 begins, players may burn out, but they never fade away.
1. Tales of Redemption
Kris Blanks was hanging out on the practice green at Muirfield Village prior to the Memorial Tournament, working on his game, but not exactly “working” in the strictest sense of the word. Despite having missed the cut one week earlier and in three of his previous five starts, he appeared upbeat and hopeful that he was ready to turn the corner and begin posting solid results.
By Friday afternoon, that optimism had dissipated along with his game, as Blanks posted scores of 74-80 to finish well below the cut line.
And so it happened that a few hours after he had finished that disappointing second round, my phone bleated with this text from the pro: “Not a big fan of golf right now.”
Sean O’Hair (pictured above) knows just how he was feeling. For much of his first half-dozen years on the PGA Tour, he enjoyed solid, consistent results, winning on three occasions.
That model fell apart this year.
Sometimes there’s no specific thing that eludes a player when he doesn’t play well. It can be a combination of factors. For O’Hair, perhaps it was working with and eventually splitting from swing coach Sean Foley. Or needing to spend more time at home after the birth of his fourth child.
Whatever the case, the results weren’t there, as O’Hair missed the cut in 10 of his first 17 starts entering the Canadian Open.
That O’Hair and Blanks played so well this past week speaks to the resiliency of golfers and the ever-pending stories of redemption in this game.
The two players who stood on the 18th hole in anticipation of Sunday’s playoff may have looked like golf’s version of the Odd Couple, but their season-long journeys are one and the same. Between them, they had competed in 33 events this year with just one top-10 – and that was a T-10 finish by Blanks at Colonial.
Some 10 minutes after they teed it up to determine a champion, O’Hair’s bogey beat Blanks’ double to earn the trophy and the tears in his eyes showed how much it meant to him.
“It means a lot, for all the hard work to come around and finally pay off. This win means something different for me than the other three did,” he said. “This is my seventh year. I played well the first six and had no real struggles; that’s what makes this so much sweeter. I’ve worked harder than I’ve ever worked this year. … To win this week, I can’t even explain it.”
Sure, someone has to win and someone has to lose, but the stories of O’Hair and Blanks remain intertwined, comeback tales that make this game so enjoyable to follow and teach us to never count out anyone – even those for whom success seems a long way off.
2. Fifth major winners
The Senior British Open may not be the old guys’ fifth major, but it’s one of five. And the Evian Masters isn’t yet the LPGA’s fifth major, but it will be starting in 2013.
Keep that in mind and you’ll find that Russ Cochran earned his first career major win on Sunday, while Ai Miyazato remains without one – even though she won, too.
The lefty from Kentucky looked like he was going through a walk in the park around Walton Heath, posting weekend scores of 67-67 to defeat the American major champion triumvirate of Mark Calcavecchia, Corey Pavin and Tom Watson.
"It's a big hump I've got over there,” said Cochran, whose only PGA Tour win came at the 1991 Western Open, but now has three Champions Tour victories. "To do it in a major and on this golf course means so much.”
Meanwhile, Miyazato will not retroactively be given credit for a major championship title once the Evian becomes one, but that didn’t seem to bother her after the win.
“This is my favorite tournament, so I’m really happy that I could win this tournament again,” said Miyazato, who also won this event two years ago. “Especially right now. In Japan we are having a really tough time, so I’m just really happy that I could do some very good news (for) Japan.”
3. Augusta State’s men’s golf team
No, this isn’t a leftover section from six weeks ago, when the Jaguars defeated the University of Georgia in the NCAA final.
But it’s once again worth pointing out what an upset that result really was – or at least how anything can happen in match play.
How talented was that Bulldog team this year? At the time of the final, Russell Henley had already won the Nationwide Tour’s Stadion Classic on his home course. Since then, Bryden MacPherson won the British Amateur, earning a spot in the Open Championship field last week, and on Sunday the school boasted its second Nationwide winner this season, as Harris English took the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational, posting a birdie on the final hole to win by a stroke.
Here’s how unlikely those victories were: Prior to Henley and English finding the winner’s circle, only one amateur – Daniel Summerhays in 2007 – had ever before won on the developmental circuit.
For the record, Henley and MacPherson each won their matches in that final against Augusta St., while English lost a close one to equally impressive Patrick Reed by a score of 2 and 1.
4. Alexander Noren
Here’s the situation: Guy enters the final round of a tournament with a lead, but shoots a 5-over 77 on Sunday afternoon.
Here’s the typical reaction: What a choke. Dude obviously couldn’t get it done when the pressure was on.
Well, that was the scenario at this week’s Nordea Masters, except that rather than choking away his lead, Noren’s well-over-par round gave him an easy seven-shot victory.
That’s how tough conditions were at Bro Hof Slott GC, as only one player (Richard Finch) broke par, 20 shot in the 80s and two pros didn’t even break 90.
Meanwhile, Noren just cruised around the windy course, with bookend birdies on the first and last holes flanking a double and five bogeys. That’s the kind of luxury an 11-stroke advantage can give a guy through 54 holes.
"I've never seen wind like this in Sweden,” he said afterward. “Every hole was super tough and even downwind it was hard to choose the clubs."
Noren’s win comes seven weeks after he took the Wales Open title and it was the fifth win at this event by a Swede.
5. Michelle Wie
If a golf-enthused alien landed on our planet and was briefed on everything about the game here on earth, here are two of the first things he would say: 1. “Man, this gravity stuff is really killing my average driving distance,” and 2. “Why is everyone hating on a 22-year-old college kid who’s ranked 11th in the world?”
I may not be from a galaxy far, far away, but I’m still always confounded as to the pessimistic attitude continually foisted upon Wie, who has reached the game’s upper echelon as a part-time player during her Stanford days.
That said, if there was ever a time to heap criticism upon her, I suppose the time is now.
After starting the year with three top-seven finishes in her first four starts, Wie has struggled during the part of the season when logic says she should fare better – since school has been out of session.
After a T-72 at the Wegmans LPGA Championship, she needed a long birdie putt at the U.S. Women’s Open to make the cut on the number, eventually finishing T-55.
This week, she missed the cut at the Evian Masters, posting scores of 76-73, but it was one club in her bag that raised some eyebrows. At 98th of 148 ranked players in putting average, she experimented with a long putter in France, but still needed 32 putts in each round.
Perhaps this is the beginning to a solution, though. Wie remains one of the game’s best from tee to green. If she can figure out the flatstick, maybe she can finally answer the questions from aliens, earthlings and, well, everyone else.
6. John Riegger
After an opening-round 71 at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational on the Nationwide Tour, Riegger played eight holes on Friday in 2 over par, then was forced to withdraw from the event.
Hey, it happens. Of course, it happens to Riegger more than anyone else.
Since 2000, he has now withdrawn from PGA Tour-sanctioned events on 28 separate occasions. If you’re not sure where that stacks up against other numbers, consider this: During that same time frame, John Daly has WD’d from a mere 26 events.
For the year, Riegger has made the cut in just two of eight Nationwide starts, with three MCs and – you got it – three WDs.
7. The Woods/Williams partnership
Whether you side with Tiger Woods, Steve Williams or don’t have a cat in the fight in the increasingly curious case of “Player v. Caddie,” you can admit the following reeks of irony.
Woods divorced from Williams only after the caddie wasn't faithful to him and started seeing another player.
Here’s everything we know about what went down: When Woods announced that he wouldn’t be competing in the U.S. Open, Adam Scott – who had recently fired his caddie, Tony Navarro – asked Williams if he would temporarily serve in the role for him. The looper received his boss’ permission and was on the bag at Congressional, where Scott missed the cut.
Two weeks later, Williams again caddied for Scott at the AT&T National, helping the player to a T-3 result before Woods summarily dismissed him from his day job on Sunday of that week.
8. I wish I knew the identity of Tiger Woods’ next caddie.
I wish I even had the faintest clue. I’ve heard rumors about This Guy, or That Guy, or The Other Guy. I’ve even heard the one about Ol’ Whatshisface and another about Neverheardofhim.
For now, though, the names on my list remain the same as those on most other lists.
One thing I do know: Whomever is getting the job already knows it.
9. I wish patience would prevail when discussing the future of golf.
After I posted my recent column on what golf “needs,” many commenters were quick to point out that Open Championship ratings were down without Tiger Woods in the mix.
Well, yeah. Other than Rory McIlroy, none of the next-gen would-be superstars have ascended to that level yet, so there’s a reason why their collective Q-rating isn’t higher.
If we’re patient, though, and allow for them to grow as players and people, we could be on the verge of an era featuring not just one dominant golfer, but many top-level pros who will win multiple championships before their careers are over.
10. I wish people didn’t take Darren Clarke so literally.
Following his Open Championship victory, I wrote about Darren Clarke’s propensity to celebrate early and often.
When asked if he’ll still compete in the Irish Open in two weeks, Clarke maintained, “I will be in Killarney. I may not be sober for the Irish Open, but I will be in Killarney.”
Yes, Clarke hoisted a few pints in victory. No, he won’t go on an extended bender where he literally isn’t sober for weeks on end.
It’s called hyperbole, folks. Makes for a great quote, but don’t try to overread that putt.
11. Stat of the Week:
Prior to contending at the Canadian Open, Kris Blanks finished T-34 at last week’s Viking Classic, earning $18,990. It was enough to move him into 333rd place on the all-time PGA Tour money list – one spot ahead of Arnold Palmer.
With his playoff loss, Blanks earned $561,600 and moved into 301st all-time, moving ahead of “merely” Tom Weiskopf.
12. On the Hot Seat
Greg Norman didn’t feel a whole lotta love on Valentine’s Day this year. That was the day he underwent shoulder surgery, from which he is still recovering.
Norman is hoping to compete in the Australian Open, Australian PGA and Shark Shootout later this year – he just started chipping balls and putting on Thursday – but that doesn’t mean he isn’t paying close attention to the game in his absence.
Norman sat down on the Hot Seat to discuss Tiger Woods and his caddie issues, the Presidents Cup and his continuing relationship with Omega:
Q: There are so many elite players from all corners of the globe right now. Were you ahead of the curve when it came to the idea of the World Tour and do you still think it would work today?
A: Well, I think I was the player that saw the benefits of where the game was going globally, because I was traveling so much at the time and saw where the game was headed. It’s the responsibility of all the tours to promote the game. When I looked at the international players and the quality of them – Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Nick Price, Fred Couples – it was more of a global quantity of players. I still think it would work – even more so today because of the domination of global players right now, from Asia to Europe to Australia.
Q: Which is more surprising: Six straight first-time major champions or six straight from outside of the U.S.?
A: I don’t think it’s surprising that we’ve had six straight from outside the U.S. I think it’s surprising that we’ve had six straight first-time winners, no question. You have to look at what’s happening outside the United States. I’ve become a bit more of a Frank Nobilo, to a degree, in that I’m an observer of different regions. This is fantastic for the game of golf around the world, which I keep a keen eye on because my business is global. Golf in America has hit a brick wall due to the economy; golf has suffered here for that reason, but there’s a lot more to it. The other factor is that the Tiger Woods era is gone. The guys who were always there, always threatening, winning around the world, are starting to get the deserved publicity that they should have been getting for the past five or six years and that gives them confidence to go out there and perform. I watched with much interest the Masters this year. Tiger came on strong on the front nine and none of them got intimidated. Adam Scott, Jason Day, Charl Schwartzel – he just blew by Tiger on the back nine. They don’t have that fear factor anymore, even when he’s healthy.
Q: Speaking of Tiger, what are your thoughts on him right now?
A: I really can’t make a comment, just an observation. He’s a different person, a different player. I’d like to see Tiger loosen himself up a bit, become more of a personable type of player, because he is such a daunting figure. I’d just like to to see him more accessible. When you reach the top of the heap, you have to accept some give and take. I feel for him; it’s harder for him to come out and show that side of himself even more. I just hope he gets it sorted out quickly. I don’t think he’ll dominate golf like he once did, but I do think he’ll come back and win again.
Q: Steve Williams was your caddie for quite a while. What will Tiger lose not having Steve on his bag anymore?
A: Well, Steve’s first caddie job was for me at the Aussie Masters when he was 15 or 16 years old. He stayed with me for over 10 years and was a great kid to groom – very assertive, very confidential in respect to the boss. To me, he was the vital hub to a lot of my success and the same for Tiger. But there are a lot of great caddies out there now who can help him. I can think of one in Tony Navarro. I would like to think Tiger would take advantage of one of the best caddies in the game. As good as Steve was for me, Tony Navarro was far better as far as being a professional caddie. I think Tony would be wonderful for Tiger; he would push him just a little bit and get the confidence going again.
Q: Have you spoken with Tony recently? Do you think he would want the job?
A: I have spoken with Tony. That’s a question you need to ask him. I asked if he would be interested and he said of course he would. Any caddie would, whether he was playing wounded or at his peak. The opportunity is there and the rest is Tiger’s decision.
Q: We’re still four months away from the Presidents Cup, but how is your International team rounding into form?
A: It’s forever changing, to tell the truth. The young players are really coming up, guys like Jason Day, who has really impressed me. I like it; I like the strength of my team right now. I’m a bit concerned about some of the veteran players – Ernie Els and Retief Goosen haven’t really had the results lately that I’d like to see. But, you know, the Presidents Cup is different than stroke play. You don’t have to rely on shooting 16 or 18 under. So these veterans are vital to the success of the International team and I think my balance of young, enthusiastic players is there.
Q: Tell me about your relationship with Omega.
A: It’s a fantastic relationship. Omega’s commitment to golf has been huge over the years; they’ve been entrenched in golf long and hard. We saw an opportunity for Omega to be the watch or clock company for the PGA Championship, so we worked very hard with Joe Steranka, because we could see it would be the perfect fit for them. Joe is extremely intelligent and understands the power of marketing – so does Omega, so it’s a perfect fit. As for me to be associated with Omega alongside individuals like George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, it’s just out of this world. Obviously, I’m doing work in China and they want to get to the grassroots of the growth of the game there. They recognize that, so we focus in on that market, as well. This is a tremendous opportunity that we both have taken advantage of.
13. Tweet of the Week
@StuartAppleby: Yes we struggle to get a spark together us Aussies, but we've enjoyed taking your women over the years, some fine ladies in the US of A.
14. Fact or Fiction
John Daly is ready to consistently start contending at tournaments.
There are two things I know about Daly: One is that on any given week, with the right amount of desire and preparation and mental fortitude, he can play as well as anybody out there. (And no, it’s not just because he hits the ball a long way; JD has always had excellent hands, which is so important with shots around the green.)
The other thing is that “consistently” never has and never will be part of his vocabulary.
This is the same player who most recently made headlines for what was originally thought to be an 18 at the John Deere Classic, only to have it scaled back to an 11, then – finally – a 13.
On Sunday, he shot even-par 72 to finish in a share of ninth place at the Canadian Open. His journey to the leaderboard was a great story for the week, but it marked his first top-10 on the PGA Tour since losing to Tiger Woods in a playoff at the WGC event at Harding Park six years ago.
One week does not a comeback make – at least in this case. Even at his best, Daly was never consistent. Can he still play some inspired golf? Absolutely. Can he do it on a week-in, week-out basis? No way. Consider the above statement to be fiction.
15. The List
Just call it “The Year of the Amateur.”
If it seems like non play-for-pay players are dotting the landscape more than ever before, well, that’s because they are.
We’ve seen amateurs not only competing with the world’s best, but beating ‘em, too.
In fact, in examining the world’s best amateurs, two-time U.S. Junior Am winner Jordan Spieth and NCAA champion and this week’s Nationwide Tour runner-up John Peterson don’t even make the top-five list.
Who does? Here you go…
T-4. Harris English and Russell Henley: Tough to separate these two recent University of Georgia graduates, each of whom won Nationwide events already this year.
3. Peter Uihlein: The son of Acushnet’s CEO is the reigning U.S. Amateur champion and recently made the cut at the Open Championship.
2. Tom Lewis: The only non-American on this list, he was opening-round co-leader at Royal St. George’s before finishing in a share of 30th place.
1.Patrick Cantlay: With a top-10 result at the Canadian Open, this year’s Jack Nicklaus Award winner has now played in four PGA Tour events and finished in the top-25 at all of them.
16. Stat of the Week II
In the opening round of the Nordea Masters, the 581-yard par-5 13th hole played to an exact 5.00 scoring average. Same number in Round 2, as well. In the third round, it dropped below par, to 4.88. Then in the windblown final round, it ballooned to 6.11.
That’s right – a par-5 hole playing more than a full stroke over par in a professional event. Can’t say I remember that happening anywhere recently.
And here’s the real story: It didn’t even rank as the toughest hole of the day! That “honor” goes to the par-3 17th, which played to a stroke average of 4.32, with just three birdies, 32 pars, eight bogeys, 22 doubles or worse, including an even dozen from Fredrik Andersson Hed.
17. Quotes of the Week
"I didn't win the tournament, but I still beat all the pros." – John Peterson.
“I feel like I won." – Kyle Reifers.
Dave Shedloski of GolfWorld magazine tweeted each of those comments after what was a wild finish on the Nationwide Tour this week.
With a final-hole birdie, amateur Harris English won the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational, aided in part by a bogey from playing partner and fellow amateur Peterson.
The reigning NCAA champion wasn’t completely correct in his assessment, though; there was one pro he didn’t beat. That was Reifers, who despite tying for second place, earned first-place money of $144,000 to move from 52nd to fifth on the money list, ensuring he’ll be a full-time PGA Tour member next year.
18. And the winner is ...
In case you don’t recall, the inaugural Greenbrier Classic last year was the very definition of “birdie-fest,” as evidenced by Stuart Appleby’s final-round 59 to win.
Here’s more proof: Brendon de Jonge posted scores of 65-68-65-65 – and only finished solo third.
Entering this past week, de Jonge was the PGA Tour leader in total birdies with 301.
Factor in a guy who makes birdies in bunches, playing a course on which he’s had prior success, with top-13 finishes in his past two starts and it could all add up to his long-awaited first victory in the big leagues.
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