Bunker Shots Real Season Begins


Blasting into the week ahead, from 'Lefty's Alley' to another big week in the Middle East . . .

Northern Trust Open

Thursday might actually feel like Opening Day for golf.

Nine of the top 10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking will tee it up, albeit it on different sides of the planet, with four of them at the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles and five at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in the United Arab Emirates.

Everyone in the top 10 except you-know-who will be playing this week.

That’s more stars playing than any week so far this season.

No. 1 Tiger Woods won’t be playing the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles as he remains in self-imposed exile, but he hasn’t played there since 2006 anyway.

Stance: The two highest ranked players in the world available to play will make appearances at Riviera this week. No. 2 Phil Mickelson and No. 3 Steve Stricker should be factors given their histories there. They finished 1-2 last year. Mickelson has won the last two years at Riviera and is seeking to become the first player in the 84-year history of the event to win it three consecutive years. If he does, they might have to begin calling Riviera Lefty’s Alley instead of Hogan’s Alley. Seven players have won back-to-back at Riviera’s PGA Tour stop (Macdonald Smith, 1928-29; Hogan, 1947-48; Paul Harney, 1964-65; Arnold Palmer, 1966-67; Corey Pavin, 1994-95; Mike Weir, 2003-04; Mickelson, 2008-09).

Takeaway: Jim Furyk and Padraig Harrington make their 2010 debuts. They both left ’09 on nice little rolls. Furyk finished T8 or better the last five times he teed it up, including his unofficial victory at the Chevron World Challenge. After issues with swing changes much of ’09, Harrington’s last six PGA Tour starts ended like this: T2, T10, T2, T4, T6, T4.

Bunker shot: The 2010 PGA Tour season is all about strident noise. The wonderfully rich sounds golf typically brings us, the smattering of applause when greens are hit, the chirping of birds in the still before shots are played, have given way to squabbling. From PGA Tour players and tournament directors grousing about international waivers depleting their fields to the cheating accusations tossed around in the groove debate, golf feels like one big argument this season. You can toss in the numerous debates over what Woods should and shouldn’t do before he returns to golf. Has the game ever been noisier?

Omega Dubai Desert Classic

At 20, Rory McIlroy’s the buzz at Emirates Golf Club, but so is Tom Watson at 60.

McIlroy’s the defending champ. Watson’s coming off that rousing victory in a duel with Fred Couples at the Champions Tour’s Mitsubishi Electric Classic two weeks ago in Hawaii. His brilliant run at the British Open before losing in a playoff to Stewart Cink at Turnberry last summer adds to anticipation of his first appearance in the event. Watson’s 12th in the latest U.S. Ryder Cup standings. His next PGA Tour start will be the Masters in April.

Stance: Lee Westwood got off to a sluggish start in his 2010 debut at Abu Dhabi, but he rebounded with a third-place finish at Qatar last week. At No. 4 in the world rankings, Westwood is the highest ranked international player in the world, though that doesn’t necessarily make him the best. Padraig Harrington’s three majors give him that honor. After winning the Dubai World Championship and Race to Dubai last fall, Westwood will be looking to make this his big year in the world’s biggest events. He’s already a strong contender for the title nobody covets: best player without a major championship title.

Takeaway: Watch out for Henrik Stenson this week. He’s a member at Emirates Golf Club and won the Dubai Desert Classic in 2007.

Bunker shot: Europe may not have the best young talent in the world, but it sure looks like it. European youth win more than American youth. American devotees will argue that PGA Tour events are tougher to win and the world rankings reward European success too heavily. Given that, here are the facts: Martin Kaymer and Charl Schwartzel are both 25 and they’ve each already won five European Tour titles. Sean O’Hair leads Americans under 30 with three PGA Tour titles. Eight European Tour players under 30 rank among the top 50 in the world. They’ve combined to win 21 European Tour titles. Five Americans under 30 rank among the top 50 in the world. They’ve combined to win nine PGA Tour titles.

And also this week . . .

The Nationwide Tour’s second event of the year is the Moonah Classic, scheduled to begin Thursday at Moonah Links in Fingal in Victoria, Australia. American Robert Gates won the season-opening Michael Hill New Zealand Open in his Nationwide Tour debut. He’s back in this week’s field looking for back-to-back titles.