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Weekly 18: Yankee Doodle

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What would Labor Day be without a major traffic jam? Things were bumper-to-bumper in Norton, Mass., on Monday, but not on the roads – on the Deutsche Bank Championship leaderboard.

When the dust settled, it was Webb Simpson who was pulling into victory lane for the second time in three weeks.

With the title came plenty of questions, though. As the Weekly 18 begins, it says a lot about the state of the game that certain things can change so quickly these days.

 1. A tangled Webb is weaved

Webb Simpson

Following Simpson’s victory at TPC Boston, I asked golf fans on Twitter to propose some questions to be answered in a later section of this column. I don’t know if it speaks more to the short-term memories of those in Twitterland or the ever-morphing fortunes of the world’s elite, but here is a sampling of some of the more popular queries from the masses:

“Is Webb Simpson the best American golfer right now?” “If your life depended on one player making a 10-foot putt, would you pick Webb Simpson?” “Do you think Webb Simpson is the best golfer in the world?”

Take nothing away from Simpson for his playoff triumph over Chez Reavie, but this is a guy who, as of a few weeks ago, was known more for a few close calls and plenty of unfulfilled potential. Prior to winning the Wyndham Championship in his third full PGA Tour season, he owned a dozen career top-10 finishes, including a pair of runner-up results earlier this year that each included their fair share of heartbreak.

And now? With two wins and a top-10 at a very timely spot on the calendar, Simpson has started to separate himself from other young up-and-comers while joining the upper crust of the world’s best golfers.

I don’t fault any of the tweeters for asking such questions, either. Is he the best American player right now? Only a few others have won multiple titles this season, let alone in the past month. Is he the one guy you’d want to make a putt for you? Well, he’s looked positively Stricker-ish in not only holing putts, but holing important putts, which is a trait many of his peers are lacking. Is he the best player in the world? OK, let’s not go overboard here.

The point is, with so much parity among the professional ranks right now, all it takes is a few great weeks for one player to make such a grandiose leap within the consciousness of the fans and his fellow players.

If Simpson had won two out of three, say, three years ago, there would have been no denying that Tiger Woods was still the best player from the U.S., closely followed by Phil Mickelson and anyone calling for a player other than those two or their elite brethren to make a putt with their life on the line surely didn’t value their existence very much.

The game is now wide open, however, for any player to make such lofty headway.

Simpson started the year at No. 213 in the Official World Golf Ranking, but despite no finish of better than T-14 at any of the majors – which hold the most ranking points – he has now ascended all the way to 14th, a number that will only get better if he continues his current stretch of play.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. There’s a great chance that over the next month, another player will step up and play his best golf, leaving us to ask similar questions about his status so soon after we were asking them about Simpson.

Such is the current state of the game right now. Unlike in years past, a few triumphant weeks can not only bring the spoils of success, but elevate a player into a whole new level.

 Three Up 

Rahil Gangjee

2. Rahil Gangjee

It’s a story he’ll tell his grandkids about someday – or maybe just the guys at his local 19th hole.

None of them will believe him, but this whopper is absolutely true.

Gangjee aced the 15th hole in the final round of the Mylan Classic on Sunday, which doesn’t sound all that unbelievable until you consider that the 15th is a par-4. Playing at 316 yards, the Nationwide Tour rookie used a driver to find the front of the green, then watched as his ball rolled very much like a putt right into the bottom of the cup.

'I was just trying to get it on the green; that was it,” Gangjee said. “When it's a driveable hole, you think you can get it close and maybe make eagle but a hole-in-one, nobody thinks about that.'

Perhaps more shocking than his recent ace is the fact that he has some company. Chip Beck and Richard Johnson have each also posted holes-in-one on par-4s on the developmental tour in the past decade, while Andrew Magee remains the lone PGA Tour player to have one in the record books, as he aced the 17th at the 2001 Phoenix Open.

3. Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk

A pair of longtime Presidents Cup participants – one on each side of the competition – are making last-ditch attempts to qualify for this year’s edition of the event with only two weeks left in the automatic selection process.

Singh, who has never missed a Presidents Cup since it started in 1994, moved into 13th place on the International team standings with his T-3 finish at last week’s Barclays, up from No. 17 the week before in an effort to break into the top-10 spots which qualify for the event. He remained at 13 after the Deutsche Bank.

After an injury-riddled season, Singh had finished in the top-five in his two starts prior to a missed cut at the Deutsche Bank, thanks to recent back treatments that have left him without pain.

“I can be more aggressive and not really worry about how I'm going to wake up the next morning, and if I can play or not,” said Singh, who owns a 16-15-9 record in eight appearances at the event. “So I've been struggling with this for two years, so it's the first time I feel really comfortable to go out there.”

On the United States side, Furyk remained the last man out entering the Deutsche Bank Championship, ranking 11th on the points list.

Furyk has competed in every Presidents Cup since 1998, compiling a 15-10-3 overall record. He started the week 138,663 points out of the 10th position, which was held by Bill Haas. But a sixth-place finish at the Deutsche Bank Championship moved him into ninth.

4. FedEx Cup advancements

It’s the tournament within the tournament, and there’s no denying how much players want to advance to the next round of the playoffs, if for no other reason than getting another chip at the table in hopes of pulling a win.

On Monday, we witnessed three players make clutch shots with their playoff lives on the line to squeeze into the BMW Championship field.

Chris Stroud knocked his second shot on the par-5 final hole to three feet and made the putt.

“We went out there and hit a great drive down there, great little 3-iron, perfect hybrid in there, three feet, eagle,” he said. “It was a great way to finish.”

Needing birdie on the 18th hole to advance, Ernie Els chipped past the hole, but sank his five-foot comebacker to get into Chicago.

“I’ve been struggling all year, especially with the putter,” he explained. “I think the putts I made today will help me in the future. … I was happy to make those clutch putts and hopefully I can play a lot better in Chicago.”

And just minutes later, Geoff Ogilvy found himself in nearly the exact same predicament, needing to hole his six-foot birdie to keep his playoff hopes alive.

“It's nice to get to Chicago,” he said. “I don't feel like I played well enough today to actually earn it, but I get another chance to get to Atlanta, I guess.”

 Three Down

5. Clown suits

This is one of my favorite stories of the year. Not because an intoxicated man stole a golf cart and drove away with it – read the local papers and you’ll see this happens more than anyone would think.

Clown suit

No, it’s because of how the man was described to local authorities.

According to a report, “The Genesee County sheriff says his department received a report that someone dressed as a clown was operating a stolen golf cart on the streets of the western New York town of Batavia.”

See the attached photograph, though, and you will notice the man was dressed more for a day on the links than under the big top, looking like a more conservative version of John Daly.

So the next time you see a golfer in some ostentatiously loud attire, don’t forget to ask where the nearest carnival is located.

6. Retief Goosen

Here’s a handy little guide for professional golfers. Getting an article about you in Golf Digest: Good. Getting an article about you in the Journal of Accountancy: Bad.

Let’s face it, the journal doesn’t feature people based on their stellar tax-paying records.

Such was the case for Goosen, who showed up in there this past week for his 2002-03 tax returns. As the article stated:

“After an audit, the IRS reallocated the on-course endorsement fees as 100% personal services income and recalculated the U.S.-source portion of it by the number of U.S. tournaments he played divided by the number of tournaments he played worldwide. The IRS also reallocated Goosen’s tournament bonuses as U.S.-source income if they were in connection with a U.S. tournament and reallocated 25% of the off-course royalties as U.S. source.

“After negotiations, Goosen and the IRS still disagreed on the relative proportions of personal services and royalty income from on-course endorsements and the amount of royalty income that was U.S.-source.”

Hey, it could have been worse. Those audits could have come for the years directly before and after the allotted time period, when Goosen won his two U.S. Open titles and likely earned more money, both in direct winnings and endorsement numbers.

7. Kevin Na

After missing the cut at the Deutsche Bank Championship, the last man out for the field at Cog Hill is Na, who ironically has benefited from the playoff system in recent years.

Two years ago, he entered the playoffs at No. 23 on the points list. He finished T-24, T-11 and T-8 in the first three events, but it was enough to qualify for the festivities at East Lake, where he finished dead last in the 30-man field.

Last year, he entered in 41st position on the points list prior to the playoffs. Once again, Na got semi-hot at the right time, finishing T-36, T-33 and T-3 at the first three events to secure his place in the Tour Championship.

The difference between reaching the field at East Lake and failing to do so is huge, as Na can attest. Not for the monetary value, but for the other treasures that inclusion brings, most notably entry into the four major championships and the WGC event at Doral.

“If you don’t have a win and you get to the Tour Championship, you’ve had a good year,” Na told me prior to The Barclays. “That’s the way I look at it. I did it the last two years and got into the majors. It’s great. You can set your schedule up.”

That won’t be the case for him next season, though. For the time in a few years, Na will enter with plenty of uncertainty on his calendar.

 Three Wishes

8. I wish we could understand the long-term impact of Phil Mickelson using a belly putter.

When Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson recently won consecutive events with longer-style putters, many fellow professionals went into copycat mode and tried out the broomsticks and bellies for themselves.

One of those players, of course, was Phil Mickelson, who employed a belly putter for the first time at the Deutsche Bank Championship.

This is major news, not only because a well-known star made a major equipment change, but because of the impact it could have on the manufacturing industry.

While Scott, Bradley and Simpson each turned some heads with their flatsticks, the effect most resonated within PGA Tour locker rooms and other close-knit golf circles. However, if a major player like Mickelson finds success using this club, it could open the floodgates to longer putters becoming more common amongst the commoners.

With drivers maxing out at 460cc and irons so proficient that they need to be changed out less than in years past, there isn’t much innovative equipment that is driving consumers to the local pro shop for the newest “must-have” item. Many amateurs believe longer putters either look or feel strange or aren’t in the spirit of the rules, but if a 14-handicap wants to become a single-digit and sees this as his opportunity, you’d better believe he’ll pony up the cash to improve his game.

Mickelson’s decision to begin using this club will help ease the sentiment that longer putters are gimmicky, designed only for those with the yips or ailing backs. If he finds success with one, don’t be surprised if in the not-too-distant future you show up for your weekly four-ball game and the other three players have longer putters sticking out of their bags.

9. I wish everyone could understand the impending effect of Tiger Woods’ precipitous drop in the World Ranking.

After losing his No. 1 ranking last Halloween, Woods started the year at second on the OWGR. Today he is 44th – and it’s only getting worse.

It’s mathematically impossible for him to drop outside the top-50 this coming week, but that’s only because most of the game’s elite players have a bye week during the FedEx Cup playoffs.

It’s highly conceivable, though, that Tiger could find himself below that watermark in two weeks’ time, which would mean he couldn’t qualify for his own Chevron World Challenge later this year.

That would likely be the first event on his schedule that Woods wanted to play and couldn’t because of his ranking, but others could soon be on the horizon if he doesn’t reverse direction in a hurry.

In fact, it’s very possible that come February, if his game doesn’t rebound in his few expected starts before then, the three-time WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship winner won’t even get into that field as one of the top 64 players in the world.

10. I wish players weren't written off as soon as they often are.

Thomas Bjorn was done. Finished. His successful career was buried somewhere in the six inches between his ears, as he once walked off the course during the first round of a tournament citing “demons” with the mental part of his game.

Fast forward to the present and it’s hard not to picture an image of Bjorn in full smile, considering that’s been his standard visage following back-to-back European Tour victories.

While many believed Bjorn was past his prime at age 42, it’s very possible that he’s just now entering that time.

Don’t believe me? Ask a guy who knows.

In fact, I did. Prior to the Players Championship last year, I was working on a piece about some of the game’s biggest stars turning 40. Ernie Els had just reached that milestone; Jim Furyk got there that week; Phil Mickelson joined them one month later. I asked Padraig Harrington what he thought a golfer’s prime age is, and a big smile came across his face.

“You know, maturity is very important in the game,' he said. 'So probably your prime age is 40, as long as you're physically still there.'

When I reminded the three-time major champion that he was still 38 and asked if he had yet to reach that point in his career, he responded, 'I don't believe I've hit my prime, no.'

Bjorn is the most recent example, but hardly the only one to support Harrington’s theory. Mickelson won the Masters just before his 40th birthday last year; Els won two events; and Furyk won the FedEx Cup.

All of which should bring another smile to Harrington’s face. After all, he just turned 40 this past week. Sounds like a prime number to him.

 11. Stat of the Week:

NFL star Chris Johnson agreed to a 4-year/$53.5 million extension with the Tennessee Titans last week. That contract alone would place him fourth on the all-time PGA Tour money list, behind only Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson.

 12. Punch Shot

Phil Mickelson played this week's Deutsche Bank Championship with a belly putter for the first time in competition and nearly missed the cut. But he followed that with a third-round 63. Should he chalk it up to an experiment gone awry, or should Mickelson stick with the belly putter at BMW Championship?

 13. Tweets of the Week

As always, you can reach me at @JasonSobelGC. This week’s batch of tweets includes a cameo appearance from a certain well-known tweeter…

@justinbgreen what has been the best indicator of success this year on the tour? Preemptive strike: Other than having the lowest score.

Excellent question – and one that required a bit of research on my part. Obviously, things like scoring average, birdie percentage and the all-around ranking are always great barometers of stellar play, but here’s one for the folks who claim it’s all about the flatstick. The top three in average distance to the hole from inside 100 yards are perhaps the three most consistent players around in Nick Watney, Steve Stricker and Luke Donald; the next three are all winners in Jonathan Byrd, Brendan Steele and Scott Piercy; and the red-hot Webb Simpson isn’t much further down the list at 23rd. Yes, putting is important, but the short wedge game may be the most important key to playing great golf this season.

@QSTJHoops Has Webb Simpson overtaken Keegan Bradley as the Player of the Year frontrunner?

The current POY race is like the weather this time of year: If you don’t like it, just wait a few hours and it’ll likely change. Simpson became the sixth multiple winner this season with Monday’s victory and barring a player outside that half-dozen making waves in the final two FedEx Cup events – certainly not out of the realm of possibility – you’d have to think the award-winner will come from that group. As for Simpson vs. Bradley, it all comes down to what you want to reward more: A major championship win or consistent play throughout the year. I’ll take Webb and his four top-two finishes by a nose, but more importantly, I think his peers will, too. The players vote on all postseason awards and Simpson is a popular guy who will no doubt receive a groundswell of support from the membership.

@NativeTexanCB @JasonSobelGC Question: Is the long-putter winning phenomenon a 12 month up-cycle or is it here to stay?

Um… yes. Can it be both? While the longer-than-standard putters are becoming all the rage on the PGA Tour these days, it’s important to remember that of the recent winners who have brandished one, all have been using it for a while and none are new to the situation. So while long putters may not equal instant victory, don’t expect the players who are winning with them to switch ‘em out anytime soon, either.

@bubbawatson Q: how pretty am I????

Pretty ugly! I kid, I kid. But parlaying the 54-hole lead into a T-16 finish wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty. That final-hole eagle putt from 53 feet away was gorgeous, though.

 14. On the Hot Seat

Sergio Garcia

I spent some time with Sergio Garcia earlier this year and many of the criticisms that have persisted throughout his career appeared true. He seemed angry, had more than a small chip on his shoulder and was putting up a me-against-the-world façade.

It’s difficult to absorb a golfer’s entire mindset in a brief chat, but when I sat down with Garcia again last week during The Barclays, he looked and sounded like a different person, confident in himself and happy with the way his on- and off-course life was progressing.

Garcia sat down on the Hot Seat to speak about this mentality and various other topics.

Q: You seem like you’re more comfortable and in a better frame of mind these days. Do you feel that way?

A: Yeah, I feel much better about myself. Obviously, I’m playing well, then playing bad here and there, but I feel like I try not to take things as seriously. Don’t get me wrong – that doesn’t mean that I’m not trying and I’m not giving it my best out there, but that’s how I’m taking it. I give it my best and sometimes my best is not that good. I’ve just got to deal with it. And then when my best is in good shape, then I’m out there contending like we’ve done this year in four or five tournaments. I’m excited about it. I’m obviously enjoying the game a lot more than I probably did the last couple of years and I’m just looking forward to keep going in this same direction.

Q: How do you define success on the golf course?

A: It’s different for everybody, but for me it’s not only scoring well. I think that if I’m comfortable, if I’m happy, if I’m enjoying what I’m doing out there, the rest comes with it, because that’s the way I’ve always played and that’s the way I’ve always tried to be. The day I stop enjoying the game, I’ll probably walk away from it. It got to some points where it was close in the past couple of years and I’m happy that we figured something out to get back to that enjoyment. It’s obviously helping me to play freer and play better golf.

Q: You say you were close. Were you actually close to walking away from the game?

A: Well, I mean, there were points where you think, “Should I take a long break and miss the game and see if something clicks to help me out?” I did take a bit of a break last year, but I thought about some things and we figured some things out with my family and friends and things like that, and we felt like it was helping and was definitely in the direction that we wanted to go.

Q: You’ve told me before that the break was one of the best things you’ve ever done. Still feel that way?
A: Oh, definitely. I was able to do things that I wanted to do without thinking about the outcome. I was able to reconfigure what I was doing with my golf game. I’m not going to deny it. It definitely helped.

Q: You’re not on Twitter anymore. What was behind that decision?

A: Well, I think when I started tweeting, I enjoyed it. I could obviously tell things to my fans, but at the same time, I felt like I wanted to be able to read tweets that fans are telling me. The way I am, I can’t handle some guys just busting you all the time. So I knew that at some point in time, I was going to explode and start saying things to those guys who are just saying things to kind of get you out of your comfort zone, because they probably don’t have anything better to do. That wasn’t going to help me. I felt bad for my good fans, for everybody that supports me, but at the same time, I don’t want to see myself telling these haters what I’m thinking.

Q: You just didn’t want to deal with them?

A: At the end of the day, this is one of the reasons I’m happier now than I was. I know myself and I’m not going to do something because they asked me to. I’m going to do it because I want to and because I feel comfortable with it. What I’m not going to do is tweet, then not read anything and not care about what they say and not even look at it. To do that is pointless. I’d rather spend an extra 10 or 15 minutes signing autographs.

Q: You’re wearing new shoes out on the course. Tell me about ‘em.

A: I’m very excited. They’re the ATV Tour 360s from Adidas, we’ve been testing them for a while now and they’re great. I love the colors, a little bit brighter, which is great. They’re going to come in six different colors. They feel very good, very stable. Obviously, with some of the new improvements you get even more grip than you did before. I’m excited to play with them and hopefully get some good results.

Q: Can a player’s footwear really help improve his game on the course?

A: Yes, I think that wearing the right shoes can help. You have to like the way they look, which is no problem for me. You have to feel comfortable. But what I like about these is that they’re comfortable and at the same time they’re very stable. They’re pretty much made for any lie you can think of. You know you’re going to get good grip and good stability. All of those things are going to help you be more comfortable out on the course and think more about the shot you’re going to hit and not worry about slipping or your feet hurting or anything like that.

 15. The List

No Tiger. No Phil. No Ernie. No Vijay.

You could have gotten good preseason odds on any of the current POY contenders, as it’s becoming abundantly clear that someone is going to win for the first time in his career.

Who are the candidates? Here’s how I handicap the field with two playoff events remaining:

5. Luke Donald: World No. 1 has been most consistent player, but no stroke-play wins can’t equate to a POY award.

4. Steve Stricker: Strange stat – 14 of his 17 starts have been top-25 results, but only five of those 14 are top-fives.

3. Nick Watney: Clearly a breakthrough season, but a couple of close calls keep him from running away with the honor.

2. Keegan Bradley: The winner of this award isn’t often a player without a major, but Bradley is the only strong candidate right now from the four champions.

1. Webb Simpson: With two wins and two runners-up, he’s the frontrunner, but nothing better than T-14 at a major is still troubling.

 16. Photo of the Week

This trashed golf cart was recently found in Moammar Gadhafi’s compound. That's what we call a tough lie. In a definite hazard. Click here.

 17. Quote of the Week

“I was laying up no matter what. I mean, even if I had a 7-iron in my hand, I was probably going to just lay it up and make a par. That's all I had to do, and there was no risk in that unless you hit a wedge over the green.” – Chez Reavie.

It’s a decision that will be Monday morning quarterbacked – OK, Tuesday morning in this case – but needing a par on the final hole of regulation to win, Reavie hit driver on the par-5 final hole, then opted to lay up before airmailing the green with his third shot, then chipping on and two-putting for bogey.

Reavie can stick to his claim that he was laying up all along, but in that case, why even hit driver off the tee? He had an opportunity to hit his second shot where his third wound up – against the mesh material covering the bleachers – from which he could have done the same chip and two-putt for a par.

It’s easy to second-guess, because the strategy seemed way too conservative. On a hole that ranked as the easiest on the course with a 4.500 scoring average on Monday, this bogey will endure as a poor decision, no matter what Reavie maintains afterward.

 18. And the winner is ...

Phil Mickelson

Looking for a champion this week? It’s a tie between the PGA Tour and sports fans.

We can criticize having a bye week in the middle of the FedEx Cup playoffs – it hurts momentum for both players and the series itself within mainstream consciousness – but not going opposite Week 1 of the NFL season should only be viewed as a positive.

If the BMW Championship were being played against the first slate of professional football games, not only would ratings and ticket sales decrease, but overall nationwide interest in the tournament, as well.

The real trick now, is to build on that momentum one week later. When the playoff series was first introduced, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem contended that one of the main goals was to not only give players more of an offseason, but step aside from the spotlight once football season was in full swing.

Avoiding an overlap turned out to be an impossibility. For one week, though, not competing with America’s new pastime should be viewed as a positive.