Hawk's Nest: Picking apart Digest; picking a champ


So I’m at the 1995 Final Four in Seattle, covering college basketball for the Washington Times, with a flight to Georgia early the next morning to do the Masters. There’s a layover in Pittsburgh, however, and just as we’re about to touch down on the runway, the pilot suddenly veers the jet back into the sky.

We circle the airport for another 15 or 20 minutes. A few of the passengers are freaking out, but for the most part, the cabin is full of silent concern and bewilderment. When you’re flying a Boeing 757, you really shouldn’t need a breakfast ball, but we do land safely, at which point I head straight to a pay phone.

“I’m not going to Augusta,” I tell my editor.

“What do you mean?” he replies.

“I’m never flying again. I’ll walk home from Pittsburgh if I have to. I’m still in pretty good shape.”

“You can’t not go to the Masters,” Gary reasoned. “And besides, it’ll probably be another seven or eight years before something creepy happens again.”

Logic is kind of like ice cream – it comes in a bunch of different flavors, including Rocky Road. I boarded my connection and ultimately saw Ben Crenshaw claim one of the most emotionally stirring victories in tournament history, so the next time a man begins sobbing after successfully reaching his destination, don’t just write him off as some fragilely composed sissy.

You never know how difficult the journey might have been.

GOD BLESS THE LPGA. It is a league that earns respect in modest doses, going about its business while barely appearing on the mainstream-sports radar. This causes some uneasy tension when a local media power (such as Golf Digest) runs a picture of Wayne Gretzky’s daughter, who doesn’t play professionally, on its April cover.

We call it eye candy, a commercially driven art form popularized by Maxim and scores of other print publications. For decades, pretty girls have sold magazines, and that’s what this is all about. It has nothing to do with how many majors Inbee Park has won or how good Lydia Ko is going to be. It’s just business, man.

Few businesses have gotten tougher in recent years than the industry that relies on the printed word. The outcry of protest over Digest’s Paulina Gretzky cover feels more like a case of misdirected frustration than an argument built on sound reason – you go home and kick the dog because your boss gave the promotion to someone else.

“If a magazine called Golf Digest is interested in showcasing females in the game, yet consistently steers away from the true superstars who’ve made history over the last few years, something clearly is wrong,” LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said in a statement last Friday. “Growing the game means a need for more role models, and in these exciting times for women’s golf, the LPGA is overflowing with them.”

Actually, you could make a case that a hot blonde with a high handicap and 300,000 followers on both Twitter and Instagram is more valuable to the game’s growth than, say, Natalie Gulbis (188,000 on Twitter) or Paula Creamer (28,000 on Instagram). Still, that’s not the point. Growing the game is not Golf Digest’s primary mission. Selling copies of their product is.

As for the superstar factor, the LPGA doesn’t have one. The two best players of this generation (Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa) retired early, leaving a void that hasn’t been filled for any extended period of time. Besides, monthly magazines operate differently than a news-based weekly or a golfcentric website.

How to play, where to play, what to play. That’s what appeals to many recreational golfers, and that’s what Golf Digest sells. The competitive element among tour pros is not a high priority, although generating buzz is. As chagrined as the LPGA may be over the Paulina cover, its public disapproval will only help newsstand sales in the coming month.

IN CASE YOU haven’t noticed, I love the Masters. And if you’re Matt Kuchar, who has fumbled great chances to win on each of the past two Sundays, you should love it, too. Phil Mickelson is the only player in the last 50 years to claim a green jacket after winning the previous week – he pulled it off in 2006.

Tiger Woods arrived at Augusta National in 2001 having won his prior two starts (Bay Hill and The Players), but he’d skipped the BellSouth Classic, his customary week off before a major. Here’s a list of all Masters champs since 2000 and how they fared in their three tournaments leading in (results in reverse order).

2013: Adam Scott T-30, T-3, T-33
2012: Bubba Watson T-4, 2, T-17
2011: Charl Schwartzel T-30, T-47, T-24
2010: Phil Mickelson T-35, T-30, T-14
2009: Angel Cabrera MC, MC, T-32
2008: Trevor Immelman MC, T-40, T-48
2007: Zach Johnson T-9, T-42, T-14
2006: Phil Mickelson 1, T-14, T-12
2005: Tiger Woods T-53, T-23, 1
2004: Phil Mickelson 10, T-3, T-24
2003: Mike Weir MC, T-27, T-14
2002: Tiger Woods T-14, 1, 2
2001: Tiger Woods 1, 1, T-13
2000: Vijay Singh T-33, T-29, T-50

All this data means as much or little as you want it to mean, but the fact of the matter is, hot golfers don’t win many green jackets. Woods just won a lot, period, and Mickelson hasn’t done too badly himself, but Bubba is the only guy in recent years who came in playing really well, then culminated that stretch of outstanding play with a major title.

Kuchar should be in a great spot mentally. Yeah, that water ball on the 72nd hole in Houston wasn’t a great idea, but Matt Jones holed a ridiculous chip on the first playoff hole to beat him, and San Antonio (the week before) was kind of a mess for everybody. It’s stupid to think that failing to close the door will help him win a Masters, but you don’t want to sniff the azaleas with a brand-new winner’s check in your back pocket.

MY PICK? I’LL take the Irish Lad. A closing 65 in rainy Houston was the perfect uptick for Rory McIlroy, who has a history of not performing well in lousy weather. He’s too talented and too driven to not contend at some point, and he comes into the week a little under the radar, at least by the usual standards.

As Paul Azinger once told me, “The average golfer hits his long irons too low and his short irons too high. A tour pro wants to do the opposite. Long irons high, short irons low. Especially at Augusta National.” McIlroy might be the best in the game at the high-low thing, and his enormous length off the tee should earn him scoring opportunities that aren’t available to others.

I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that Sergio Garcia is my sleeper. You could look at the results in Houston and think I actually know what I’m talking about, but I don’t like how he finishes. He gets a lead and it looks like something’s bothering him. He leaves putts 6 feet short seven or eight holes into a rainy day – that’s more of a tentative (or nervous) trait than slow greens.

As much improvement as Garcia has shown us in recent months, he still looks agitated by, and therefore vulnerable to, the quirks of competitive golf. The game is hard enough when your blood pressure is steady. If it’s bouncing all over the place? You finish T-37.

TAKE A CLOSE look at the new Web.com commercial featuring Jim and Tabitha Furyk. The ad is shot from two different viewpoints, and when husband and wife are shown at the same time, Tabitha’s hair is parted on the left. On the close-up shots of Tabitha, her hair is parted on the right.

Back to the wider angle – left to right. Another tight shot – right to left. These are the types of very important things you notice when you’re an experienced golf writer, or when you have a next-door neighbor with one of the keenest eyes in the game.

As for Jim, who isn’t wearing a hat, there is no such problem. No hair, no part to worry about, but the guy can move it left to right, or right to left, virtually upon command.