In a perfect world, every PGA Tour event would seem like a big deal. The game’s best players would show up almost every week, not less than half the time. Those gatherings would be held at the game’s most hallowed venues, not the TPC at Bulldozer Mounds.
Instead of having two major tours – one of which allows a golfer to make more money for entering a tournament than winning it – the leagues would merge and create a dynamic international presence. The season would be trimmed (40 weeks) to maximize player incentive and increase pro golf’s mainstream market value. Isn’t the NFL so successful because every game really matters?
Back when he was preparing to rule the earth like no one else in the game’s history, Tiger Woods played in six of the eight stops on the 1999 West Coast swing. In the last 15 years, however, Woods and basically every top-tier player have dropped one or two of those events to spend part of the early season on the Persian Gulf.
Even Phil Mickelson, a native San Diegan and a homebody if ever there was one, has journeyed to Abu Dhabi twice in the last four years.
This collective migration has weakened the local product. In the simplest of terms, the PGA Tour has suffered because its own players are getting paid to perform for the European Tour, which makes it a rival company. Given the amount of money being exchanged these days, that amounts to an obvious conflict.
Since the players are independent contractors, there’s not much anyone can do. The PGA Tour has added four World Golf Championships and a playoff system to bring the top golfers together more often, but that has hurt the West Coast swing, too. Playing a bunch of early-season events doesn’t have a huge effect on your overall position in the FedEx Cup derby, as the last few years have shown.
Dating back to 2010, those in the top 10 in FedEx Cup points after exiting the West Coast remained there just 27.5 percent of the time. Some of that has to do with the fact that the Mark Wilsons of the world aren't given $200,000 just for traveling to Abu Dhabi – middle-class players aren’t offered the same financial rewards as those in the game’s top tier. Still, that doesn’t do anything to make the appearance-fee premise seem less corrupt.
Woods could begin his PGA Tour season in March, win four or five events and finish atop the regular-season points race by a comfortable margin. Perhaps Camp Ponte Vedra should consider it a blessing that both he and Mickelson will be at Torrey Pines this week. After all, Woods did skip the Farmers, a tournament he has won seven times, to play in Abu Dhabi in 2012.
Blood is thicker than water, and money is stronger than common sense.
TWENTY YEARS LATER, Mickelson rarely ceases to amaze me. His third-round 63 in Abu Dhabi was outrageously good – three strokes better than anyone else in the field. It vaulted him squarely into the mix Sunday, and Mickelson responded with a 68.
There was just one little problem.
He tripled the 13th hole. In typical Lefty fashion, it was as good a triple as you’re ever likely to see.
His 3-wood off the tee landed squarely in a bush left of the fairway. After pondering a drop that would have cost him a penalty stroke, he took a right-handed swipe at his ball with a long iron and double-hit it, leaving him in no better shape than he’d been. At that point, Philip did take relief, so now he’s lying 4 and still has nothing.
He managed to slap a ground ball into a nearby bunker, where the lie wasn’t very good. At this point, Phil’s chili was running a bit hot. Without further ado, he struck his sixth shot (he appeared to be about 100 yards from the green) to the fringe – and holed out a 20-foot chip for a 7.
“If I could just get the ball to go 10 feet, I would have been fine,” Mickelson said of his second shot. “I make my bogey and try to make up ground later on.”
Now there’s a lot to examine and discuss here, some of it relevant to the situation. Some media reports have depicted Mickelson’s decision as reckless, at best overly risky. Anyone who saw the sequence knows that simply wasn’t the case. His options included going back to the tee, which tour pros rarely do, playing the ball as it lay, or accepting the penalty and taking relief as far back as he wanted while remaining in line with the flagstick.
That final option was a non-starter – the entire area behind Mickelson was full of unplayable brush. The verdict? Lefty got unlucky. In golf, bleep happens. When you’ve won 42 Tour events and five majors, it seems to happen quite often, but when you pull off more crazy stuff than just about anyone in golf history, you occasionally wrap your arm around failure’s shoulder.
This situation was remarkably similar to one in the final round of the 2012 Masters, when Mickelson missed the green left at the par-3 fourth and tried to play a shot with one hand and his back to the hole. That one also led to a triple bogey, but of course, Philip had already won the Masters three times by then.
He can play in that tournament until he’s 100 years old if he wants. By finishing T-2 at Abu Dhabi, Mickelson has no obligation to return as the defending champion. He can show up at the Humana Challenge and help a tournament that could really use some star power.
BACK TO 1999. It was a year of memorable performances, none more spectacular than David Duval’s victory at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. Duval’s final-round 59 has to be one of the five greatest rounds in golf history, majors included. Not only was it the first time someone shot the magic number on a Sunday, it wiped out a seven-stroke deficit and allowed Duval to beat Steve Pate by a single stroke.
Having spent more than a decade in search of his long-lost form, Duval might be more popular as golf’s most famous hardship case than as one of the game’s best players. His collapse and repeated attempts at a comeback are among the most consistent topics on my live chats. A valiant performance at the 2009 U.S. Open (T-2, two strokes back) fueled optimism and thickened the plot, but since the start of 2012, Duval has made just five cuts in 28 starts.
Like a lot of golf fans, I find Duval’s persistence remarkable, but it appears his attempts at a career revival are nearing an end. His status has all but evaporated. Last year’s changes to the Tour’s qualifying process and the wraparound schedule have made it more difficult for unproductive veterans to get starts.
Duval continues to write letters to tournament directors, searching for sponsor exemptions, but at some point, hope collides with reality. “You shouldn’t have to ask for help year after year,” he told me this past weekend. “You have to prove yourself on the golf course. You have to take care of business.”
We don’t talk as often as we once did, but my relationship with Duval has survived nicely through all his ups and downs. No way could I have envisioned the level of perseverance he has shown over the years. There was a time during his prime when he almost seemed bored with the grind of tournament golf – he made it clear during one of our conversations that he could walk away from pro golf and not feel an ounce of remorse.
Go figure: He still sees his game a work in progress 11 years later. A terrible start last season led Duval to swing coach Chris O’Connell, whose work with Matt Kuchar has become one of the modern era’s more notable reclamation projects. O’Connell was able to restore many of the nuances of the unorthodox-but-successful swing that made Duval so good in the old days.
Then, something weird happened. “My putting just got completely disastrous, which is something I’m not used to,” Duval said. “There were weeks when I should have been in 20th place after two days and I’m sitting on 67 putts – no pro golfer can survive that way. At the McGladrey I’m 1 or 2 over and I’ve got 36 putts. Get me back to 29 and I’m right there.”
For all his struggles, Duval’s optimism has remained unyielding – almost too unbreakable when you consider all he’s gone through. I think he originally saw his downfall as a great personal challenge, a chance to show himself what he was made of. As the years went by and things didn’t get better, the guy basically told himself he’d invested too much time and energy in the fight to simply walk away.
He might get into a couple of tournaments before the Masters – the only sure things at this point are the Puerto Rico Open and British Open, which he won in 2001. I’m perplexed as to why the people who run the Humana Challenge (formerly the Hope) denied Duval’s request for a sponsor exemption for a second consecutive year.
Take a look at the names in last week’s field and tell me he didn’t deserve a spot.