Headlines abound at Doral


DORAL, Fla. – WGC-CA Championship tournament director Eddie Carbone, the most likeable among a largely genial breed, glanced about Doral, smiled broadly and couldn’t resist, “This is awesome.”

He could have been talking about his leaderboard, a compelling slate that featured established headliners (Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington) along with a compelling sidebar (little-known Charl Schwartzel); or the crowds that finally arrived at what seemed like TPC Ghost Town for the first two days; or perhaps it was just the refreshing breeze that had made golf relevant again.

Either way, things are looking up for the little tournament that seemed overshadowed by non-stop talk of the “return” and a storm front that made Weather Channel highlights for all the wrong reasons.

Ernie Els
Ernie Els is close to his first PGA Tour win in over two years. (Getty Images)
And it all began with the 12:45 p.m. two-ball of Phil Mickelson and Camilo Villegas, one a crowd favorite from Bethpage to Pebble Beach, the other Villegas, who is Colombian by birth, south Floridian by style.

Along with the sunshine on Saturday came a burst of fresh air byway of a Phil vs. Camilo undercard. The only thing better in these parts would have been a Dan Marino comeback or a Madonna spotting. It was a shot of espumita for an event that was dealing with a 6 a.m. wakeup call.

As Mickelson and Villegas made their way down the first fairway a man with a Colombian flag draped over his shoulders ran along singing. No California flag sightings on Saturday. To be fair, Colombia’s economy is downright bullish compared to the Golden State’s budget woes.

“It was nice to see a lot of people, a lot of Colombians, a lot of Latin people, and makes it exciting,” said Villegas, who was paired with Mickelson during his first and second rounds in 2008 at Doral. “I told Phil, I said it looks like we get to play every year here, and it's been fun.”

Mickelson, meanwhile, said nothing. Bolting the scoring tent after injuring his elbow while hitting his approach shot to the last hole.

Through a statement Mickelson said he was fine and not concerned. The rest of us have plenty of angina, having already sustain 2 ½ months of Tour play without one superstar.

But if Amy Mickelson’s ongoing breast cancer therapy and a possible injury concerned the masses, it seems Lefty is fine with his plight.

“He’s doing a really good job of balancing everything,” said Sean Cochran, Mickelson’s trainer, pointing out his man began 2010 with a plan to peak at the four majors and he is still on schedule.

The main event on Sunday, however, will be Schwartzel and Els, a player who has dealt with his share of off- and on-course drama. But this Big Easy is better. Relaxed, focused, confident.

“For some reason I feel really good mentally,” said Els, who is tied with Schwartzel at 12 under, one shot clear of Harrington. “I have a little more hope than I’ve had the last couple of years.”

The South African’s manager Chubby Chandler said it’s as relaxed and driven as he’s ever seen Els, who let Schwartzel stay at his house last week in south Florida and workout at his club. “That did both of them some good,” Chandler said.

Left unsaid was how much good an Els resurgence would be for golf right now, particularly just three weeks before the Masters which has been less than kind to the Big Easy in the past.

Standing between Els and his first Tour title since 2008 is the Blue Monster, a course he’s won on before, and Schwartzel, a student poised to take down the teacher.

Should be a good show, or, as Carbone would put it, 'awesome.'