Hawk's Nest: Long road back for Stenson, Immelman


When Bernhard Langer missed a 6-foot putt with everything on the line at the 1991 Ryder Cup, he was widely perceived as a gritty competitor faced with a task you wouldn’t wish on your mother in-law. It remains one of the most pressure-packed moments in golf history. The look of anguish on Langer’s face after burning the right edge remains embedded in countless memories.

When Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk missed putts of very similar length in similar situations last fall at Medinah, they were branded as aging failures. Many were quick to blame U.S. Ryder Cup skipper Davis Love III for spending half his captain’s picks on a pair of over-the-hill veterans. Another chink in the buddy system, another loss for the big, bad United States.

It’s funny how perspective works. As legend would have it, Langer won the very next week on the European Tour, making him a nominee for the Toughest Man Who Ever Lived. In a far less sexy twist to the same storyline, Stricker shot 63-67 over the final 36 holes at TPC Boston this past week, which earned him a spot on next month’s Presidents Cup squad.

Yes, I know. It’s just the Presidents Cup. The knockoff of knockoffs – a glass of powdered milk to wash down grandma’s finest batch of freshly baked cookies. Have you taken a look at Nick Price’s team? No wonder the visiting captain stumbled through a brief interview on NBC’s final-round telecast. These Internationals should be called the Irrationals.

Oh, I know. It doesn’t really matter. The United States looks like the ’27 Yankees in this event, then plays like the ’76 Expos when Europe shows up. Maybe you don’t care how much Stricker cares, but Stricker cares a lot. About making the team despite playing a reduced schedule. About getting another chance.

You put the right stuff in it, a glass of powdered milk can taste pretty damn good.

IT WAS A very interesting weekend for a pair of once-upon-a-time phenoms, two guys who haven’t come close to reaching the expectations strapped to their backs in the late 1990s. As Tiger Woods prepared to rewrite the laws of dominance at the start of the 21st century, Europe, South Africa and Australia each boasted a mega-talented teenager capable of undercutting the Woods Dynasty.

Sergio Garcia. Trevor Immelman. Adam Scott. Thirteen years later, only Scott has asserted himself as a consistent, top-tier player, and that didn’t happen easily.

Immelman’s victory in the inaugural stage of the Web.com Tour Finals was easy to overlook but remarkable in terms of ironic value. Here’s a guy who had done virtually nothing for five years, a 33-year-old fallen prodigy whose triumph at the 2008 Masters was the beginning of the end in a pro career that never quite took flight.

He beat three heralded members of the outstanding amateur class of 2011 – Patrick Cantlay, John Peterson and Bud Cauley – three hotshots in their early-20s whose own pro careers have featured bumpy takeoffs. Immelman secured his 2014 PGA Tour card after losing it a couple of weeks ago. Cantlay, Peterson and Cauley all put themselves in excellent position to do the same, but a lot of people would expect talented young guys to advance.

Hardly Ever Trevor? For all the grief Garcia has gotten for being a sourpuss or an underachiever, he does have eight Tour victories and played on six European Ryder Cup teams. Immelman has two U.S. wins and made two Presidents Cup squads for the Internationals, once as an eyebrow-raising captain’s pick by fellow countryman Gary Player.

Not to pick on the guy, but Immelman’s biggest victory in Europe came at the 2004 SAP Open, where Ernie Els, another South African, was openly critical of a 24-year-old winning the tournament with a long putter. I’ve always considered that the spark that ignited the revolt. Immelman did win his lone major title with a standard-length flatstick – the Masters in which 54-hole leader Brandt Snedeker came unglued and couldn’t make a putt to save his life.

“They definitely should be banned,” Els said of the broomsticks in ’04. “I believe nerves and the skill of putting are part of the game.” Seventeen of the 25 players polled that week in Germany agreed with Els, who swiped the 70th and last seat on the FedEx Cup playoff train Monday at TPC Boston while using a ...

Immelman went back and forth between long and short for years, which is another way of saying neither got results. In 105 starts since the beginning of 2009, he has three top-10 finishes – two of those in the 2011 Fall Series. Injuries played a part, but he has gotten into at least 24 events in each of the past three seasons, so he hasn’t been that hurt.

“You know, you never want to lose your job in any walk of life,” Immelman said. “It was so disappointing to lose my card. I’m not going to lie. I’ve struggled since 2008. I’ve been wondering if I can get back to playing the way I know I can play.”

There was a time when I thought Camp Ponte Vedra should do more to expedite the growth of young players, perhaps even limit the number of Q-School appearances for guys over 30. The old system is gone, however, replaced by this four-tournament battle for big league status, and there’s nothing about the new format that I don’t like.

The competition is based on cumulative results, and if it lacks the spontaneous drama or massive-pressure factor we saw before, this is a better way to award Tour cards. Immelman earned his ticket back to the bigs fair and square. He won a golf tournament. Winning may not be everything and it certainly isn’t the only thing, but it’s still the clearly defined purpose for every tour pro who tees it up.

HENRIK STENSON IS a bad man. First on the Tour in greens hit, sixth in driving accuracy despite hitting it longer than Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Webb Simpson and a fair number of other power-based players. Get this: Hennie Stennie ranks eighth in GIR from inside 75 yards, first in GIR from 175-200 yards and second in GIR from outside 200 yards.

The dude must soak his irons in Moet & Chandon.

What’s crazier, Jack Nicklaus’ grandson catching three touchdown passes in one game or Stenson winning the FedEx Cup overall title? The spikey-haired Swede didn’t even qualify for the WGC event at Doral back in March. He crept into the world ranking top 50 at the end of that month, sneaked into the Masters without a week to spare and has since spent most a majority of his year burning down golf courses of all shapes and sizes.

I find two things particularly astonishing about his victory at the Deutsche Bank. One, he didn’t hit his ball into a bunker all week until the 71st hole, and then holed out on his lone trip to the sand. Two, he won on a venue saturated by rain, which doesn’t happen very often when you hit it higher than anyone on earth.

You see, Stenson also ranks first on the Tour in “hang time,” which simply measures how long your ball stays in the air. At 296.7 yards per measured drive, he’s fourth in carry distance, which is a huge asset on fast tracks (the British Open comes to mind) but not so much of an advantage when your ball is plugging in the fairway.

One might expect low-ball hitters such as Stricker and Garcia to contend at TPC Boston, given the conditions, and contend they did. More roll generally leads to more rough, so when it’s soggy, the low-ballers don’t have to worry about being as precise. When you strike it as efficiently as Stenson has been striking it, however, every day is a sunny one.

His T-5 earlier this year at The Players makes sense. His runner-up finish to Mickelson at the British? Makes sense. The solo third last month at the PGA? Perfect sense – Oak Hill is a ball-striker’s massage parlor. This victory showed me a different dimension to a very talented player. If he continues to make his share of putts on a regular basis, he will contend as often as he pleases.

I’VE NEVER BEEN one to tell Tour pros which tournaments they should play in – nobody tells me when to go upstairs and try to write something. Seeing how Stricker said Monday night that he’d postpone a hunting trip to play in the BMW Championship next week, I certainly hope he postpones the excursion again to participate in the Tour Championship a week later.

Seriously, $10 million can buy a man lots of arrows. “I’d like to do both,” Stricker said, “but it’s not possible. I got [an email] from one of my buddies and he’s like, ‘remember, you’re elk hunting,’ but he knows if I have a chance to win going into Atlanta, I’ll probably [go to East Lake].”

There’s that perspective thing again. When Woods or Mickelson skipped playoff events a few years back, both were vilified. If Stricker puts away his clubs and grabs a bow, nobody will say a word, although I have given the matter some thought.

Won’t those elk be even bigger, fatter and easier to shoot in mid-October?