MARANA, Ariz. – The PGA Tour could have skipped the West Coast swing and gone straight to the Match Play Championship, which provided a perfect snapshot of everything going in the world of golf.
Europe looked as strong as ever.
Martin Kaymer showed why he is No. 1 in the world ranking. Lee Westwood made people wonder why he was.
Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler, when they’re not making videos for Twitter, offered more evidence that their homemade golf swings are just as compelling as their fashion accessories.
And has anyone seen Tiger Woods?
Europe has been the strongest continent in golf over the last year, and Dove Mountain was no exception. Luke Donald of England and Kaymer (Germany) reached the championship match, the second straight year for an all-European final.
Donald was so good that he never trailed after any hole in any of his six matches, and wound up playing fewer holes (89) than the winner of the Bob Hope Classic (92). Who would have guessed that?
After winning, Donald said European golf was going through a “purple patch.”
For the Americans, it’s more black-and-blue.
Only two Americans have reached the championship match in the last five years – Woods and Stewart Cink in 2008. One year ago, Americans were Nos. 1-2-3 in the world ranking. Europe now occupies the first four spots in the ranking for the first time in nearly two decades. Woods is the highest-ranked American at No. 5, his lowest position since the week before he won the 1997 Masters.
Before anyone writes the Americans off too quickly, they have had six winners on the PGA Tour this year. Then again, their average ranking when they won was No. 171. Watson at Torrey Pines was the only winner inside the top 75.
The best American at the moment? Good question.
Mark Wilson has won twice, at the Sony Open and Phoenix Open, which doesn’t exactly make him a favorite at the Masters, where he will be playing a major for only the fourth time.
Wilson advanced to the second round of the Match Play, and that was noteworthy for whom he beat – Dustin Johnson.
There was little debate that Johnson was the most promising young American going into 2011, if not one of the emerging talents in the world. Two months into the season, however, he has only made news because of Natalie Gulbis and Jim Gray.
He was linked romantically to Gulbis until the LPGA star said that Johnson was handling their PR. Meanwhile, Gray was sent home by the Golf Channel for asking Johnson in the middle of his round why he was late to the tee for a two-shot penalty.
Speaking of tardiness, the Match Play Championship renewed talk about the pace of play.
One week after Kevin Na nearly turned Riviera into a five-day tournament, J.B. Holmes took some of the shine off a riveting match because he was so deliberate. Watson rallied from 5 down with eight holes to play to square the match on the 18th and win it on the 19th. But the match took nearly five hours to play, and not all of that is down to rulings from the desert on the final two holes.
The opening match of the tournament between Cink and Ian Poulter took over four hours before it reached the 18th hole. Part of the delay was when they each made double bogey on the par-3 sixth, prompting rules official Stephen Cox to tell Poulter on the next fairway, “Look, I realize you’ve both taken a trip to In-N-Out for a double-double, but I’d appreciate it if you would pick up the pace.”
Watson and Fowler won’t get accused of slow play.
Both of them bring old-school qualities to the game, and both are reaching the point where they can move the needle.
Watson, with the pink shaft in his driver and a $525,000 watch he sported from a Richard Mille endorsement, came within one hole of winning the PGA Championship last year. He held off Phil Mickelson to win at Torrey Pines, and showed off his tremendous shotmaking at Dove Mountain. He’s always had raw talent. Now he is getting comfortable with the spotlight.
Fowler, dressed in pink from his shoes to his cap, hit two of the most impressive shots all week with his 4-iron to 15 feet for eagle on the 11th and a 4-iron to 2 feet for eagle on the 13th to hand Mickelson is worst loss ever in the event.
Fowler went down the next day, not unusual at this tournament. He has all the tools to be a star except the most important asset, which is a trophy. But as Mickelson said in defeat, “I think he’s going to do a lot for American golf.”
Mickelson remains an enigma. He played six straight weeks, from Abu Dhabi to Dove Mountain, with only one chance at winning.
That’s still one more chance than Woods, who remains the biggest mystery in golf.
There is not much to say about the former No. 1, although that didn’t stop TV commentary from gushing that swing coach Sean Foley said Woods’ spin rate and launch angle were leveling out. Good to know.
He lost on the 19th hole to Thomas Bjorn with a swing Woods had to rehearse too many times and a 3-wood into the desert. It wasn’t as awful as it looked, for the right side of the fairway is the best angle to make birdie. Even so, he would have been better off missing the 8-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole that forced overtime than losing the way he did.
Johnny Miller compared Woods with Mike Tyson, not because of Iron Mike’s criminal behavior and outrageous comments, but because he was never the same after losing to Buster Douglas.
The longer Woods goes without winning, it’s not unreasonable to wonder about that.