Hawk's Nest: Masters greats; McIlroy's good move


My bracket is a mess and the taxman is knocking, but I’m happy. We’re playing golf in the Northeast, swinging and cussing, and then exchanging Hamiltons and Jacksons over adult beverages and cigar smoke. It wasn’t so much a harsh winter – it was a late one. Still, our season has begun in March for the second consecutive year.

I’ve stuck a peg in the ground on many of the finest courses in the land, but for me, it’s not where you play, but with whom you play. I hadn’t seen my golf buddies in a few months and had plenty to yap about, but the conversation still turned to pro golf as we approached the sixth green.

“You know what you should write about?” Scully proposed, at which point I thought he’d pitch something irrelevant, perverse or worse. “How come every time a European guy gets to the top of the world ranking, he loses the No. 1 spot so quickly?”

I’ve got a 30-footer for birdie on greens that were covered in snow 10 days ago, which is no time to be taking questions, but this was a terrific one. I tried to explain that changes made to the ranking’s mathematical formula in recent years had resulted in more volatility, but the longer I talked, the more I realized I wasn’t really answering the query.

Luke Donald has since fallen to fourth, Lee Westwood to 13th, Martin Kaymer all the way to 31st. Along with Rory McIlroy, who recently relinquished the top spot to Tiger Woods, those four Euros were ranked first, second, third and sixth at this point a year ago. You can’t blame math for a decline like that. Actually, you can, but it’s the type of arithmetic largely frowned upon in golf – you add up the scorecard and realize you’ve turned a 68 into a 71.

American players have won all 13 events played on the PGA Tour in 2013, leaving me to wonder if a couple of those former No. 1s, all of whom now spend a significant amount of time in the United States, were getting fat on ranking points against those thinner international fields. The U.S. may not win many Ryder Cups, but they’ve got the most good players. Period.

Speaking of losing the top spot….

CADDIES ARE SUPPOSED to show up, keep up and shut up, but when veteran looper J.P. Fitzgerald spoke up to Rory McIlroy about the state of his game in Houston, the Irish lad listened. The result is a win-win that has McIlroy playing in the Valero Texas Open – the smartest thing he’s done as a golfer in 2013.

As one might expect, McIlragged’s poor start this season has been a consistently hot topic on the live chats I’ve hosted on this website. The kneejerk among theorists has been to blame his financially lucrative equipment switch from Titleist to Nike, but I haven’t bought into that simple explanation. Not yet, anyway.

My response has been the same all year: McIlrust needs to play more competitive rounds. Fitzgerald clearly saw the same thing, which led to this week’s unexpected commitment – a significant boost for a tournament that has struggled to gain attention and lure anything resembling star power during the FedEx Cup era.

Rory’s emulation of Tiger Woods has been well-documented in recent years, and we all know Woods plays a rather select schedule. I think McIlreplicate decided he should do the same thing to remain atop the world ranking. His first start of ’13 was at Abu Dhabi after a two-month layoff, and he missed the cut. Then he took another four weeks off and got bumped in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play.

He headed straight to the Honda Classic, where he walked off after 26 holes, then played for a third consecutive week at Doral, where a final-round 65 earned him a soft T-8. It was the first time McIlroy had played a full event on any tour in 3 ½ months. So what does he do? He takes another two weeks off.

You can hit those new clubs on the range all day, but at some point, you have to make money with them. When you look back on McIlready’s brief career, you see that his best golf has come during periods of high activity. When he’s away from the game for a month, which has been the case a couple of times, he takes a while to get going again.

Kids. They’re so hardheaded sometimes, even the good ones. Why hasn’t McIlrational noticed this trend? Greatness is a hard thing to manage on a day-to-day basis. You get people offering you $200,000 to show up here and $300,000 to show up there, and the next thing you know, you’re quitting on a Friday morning because your wisdom tooth hurts.

AFTER A STRETCH of clunkers, the Masters has produced three consecutive riveting tournaments. Here’s to hoping next week gives us something as good as this collection: my version of the five best Masters in the last 20 years, presented here in reverse order.

• 2011: It’s fifth in my countdown solely on account of its remarkable finish, a 90-minute homestretch full of remarkable play and constant shifts atop the leaderboard. Charl Schwartzel became the first man ever to birdie the final four holes and win, knocking off five or six other guys who were almost as good. A classic case of somebody shooting lights out to win a big tournament, not a handful of others finding a way to lose it.

• 1997: The polar opposite of two years ago; an overwhelming display of dominance that will forever remain one of the landmark performances in golf history. Woods didn’t just break Masters records – he basically rewrote the entire book. To open the week with a front-nine 40, then win by 12 shots at 18 under par is almost unfathomable. In retrospect, it was pro golf’s equivalent to the Beatles landing at JFK Airport in February 1964. 

• 1995: Ben Crenshaw’s second Masters triumph was the feel-great of feel-good stories: The aging, slumping ex-star pulling off the improbable shortly after the death of Harvey Penick, his coach since childhood? Who knew Augusta National also writes movie scripts? Crenshaw’s swing was a mess at the beginning of the week, but caddie Carl Jackson saw something that fixed it, turning Gentle Ben into the player he’d once been.

• 1998: Just a great tournament from start to finish, featuring a leaderboard stacked with big-name Americans and Mark O’Meara’s 18-footer at the buzzer to beat Fred Couples. What made this Masters super-duper, however, was the Sunday charge by 58-year-old Jack Nicklaus. Walking the grounds that afternoon, I will never forget the depth of the gallery roars as Nicklaus tore apart the front nine and worked his way into the hunt. I got married a week later, which was almost as good.

• 2004: I’ve covered Super Bowls, Final Fours, Wimbledons and a Winter Olympics, but this might be the best sporting event I’ve ever been to. Phil Mickelson’s heroic charge and game-winner on the 18th green ended a decade of questions about his ability to get it done at the biggest events. Get this: Ernie Els led by three on the 14th tee, played par golf over the final five holes and still lost in regulation. The final two hours that Sunday turned into an extended display of shot-making fireworks. I could live another 50 years and not see golf any finer.