Bunker Shots Celebrity Weekend
AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am
Summing up a strange start to the PGA Tour season:
• With Tiger Woods disappearing after tabloid media pursue stories of marital infidelity, Phil Mickelson wonders whether he was slandered by insinuations that his dalliance with a legal golf club constitutes cheating.
• Bubba Watson wins a spot on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” with the help of a remarkable trick shot into a bucket through an open door at the home he’s renting at the Bob Hope Classic. He loses the tournament by a shot, however, after laying up at the 14th hole in the final round because he thought the shot to the green was too difficult.
• Ben Crane may have become the first PGA Tour pro to win a tournament without knowing it. He putts out at the 72nd hole of the Farmers Insurance Open but doesn’t realize he has just won until a fellow player congratulates him, because Crane doesn’t look at leaderboards.
• Hardly anyone in Los Angeles realizes that Steve Stricker has just won the Northern Trust Open at Riviera because so few people attend the event. The fact that it’s Super Bowl Sunday might have something to do with it. So might the fact that PGA Tour officials substantially raised ticket prices in a recession.
With the arrival of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am this week, prepare for stranger twists.
Bill Murray, Ray Romano and George Lopez await.
Stance: Murray’s the clown prince of celebrity golf. Love him or loathe him, it’s hard to take your eyes off him. He may not be the best celebrity player in the event, but he’s the undeniable star of this format. Murray’s irreverent humor can be counted upon to irritate the sensibilities of golf’s old guard. His fans love that. The best celebrity player might be Thomas Gibson, the actor who plays special agent Aaron “Hotch” Hotchner in the CBS series “Criminal Minds.” Eddie Merrins, the teacher to the stars at Los Angeles’ Bel Air Country Club, calls Gibson a serious player. Singers Michael Bolton and Huey Lewis, musician Kenny G, actors Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle and Chris O’Donnell, and NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Tony Romo also are scheduled to play.
Takeaway: Three of the top-10 players in the world rankings will be teeing it up with No. 3 Mickelson, No. 5 Jim Furyk and No. 8 Padraig Harrington in the field. With the U.S. Open scheduled to return to Pebble Beach this summer, it’s surprising more stars aren’t playing, especially from overseas with the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship bringing so many of them over next week to play in Tucson, Ariz. Sergio Garcia, however, will be making his 2010 PGA Tour debut. It’s just Garcia’s third appearance at the tournament. If Garcia’s going to make the U.S. Open his first major championship title, he needs all the extra work he can get at Pebble Beach. His history isn’t anything special there. He tied for 35th in 2000 and tied for 59th in 2001. He tied for 46th when he teed it up at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach nine years ago, finishing a mere 27 shots behind the record-setting winner, Woods.
Bunker shot: Mickelson’s high hopes for the new year didn’t take flight in his first two starts. With speculation he might move up a spot to No. 1 by summer should Woods remain in exile, Mickelson’s going the other way, dropping to No. 3 on Monday with Stricker moving up a notch. History, though, is in Mickelson’s favor this week. He has won the Pebble Beach Tour stop three times (1998, ’05 and ’07). More than that, he has won on the PGA Tour’s West Coast swing eight of the last 10 seasons. If Mickelson’s going to win, he might have to fend off Dustin Johnson, who won the rain-shortened 54-hole event at Pebble last year. The defending champion looks more than ready after finishing tied for third at the Northern Trust Open on Sunday. There’s another star to keep your eyes on this week. The Monterey Peninsula Country Club’s Shores Course joins Spyglass Hill and Pebble Beach in the rotation after 33 years away, replacing Poppy Hills. The course features spectacular views of the rugged Pacific Ocean coastline.
The European Tour’s highly successful Middle East swing ends with the turn to India and the DLF Golf and Country Club in New Delhi.
For the first time in three weeks, the European Tour’s field won’t boast more top-10 players than the PGA Tour event the same week.
In fact, the Avantha Masters won’t boast a top-10 player at all. Actually, there isn’t a top-50 player in the field with so many of the European Tour’s best players getting ready to play a long spell in the United States with the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, the WGC-CA Championship, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Masters scheduled over the next eight weeks.
Stance: Seven of the top 11 players in the Official World Golf Ranking are from Europe. They’ll get the chance to show their lofty status is justified in a stretch of American events beginning with next week’s Accenture Match Play Championship. Want to know what all the fuss over Germany’s Martin Kaymer is about? The sixth ranked player in the world is already set up at his American base in Phoenix and plans to remain in the United States until May. He plans to play the Match Play, the CA Championship, the Shell Houston Open, the Masters, the Quail Hollow Championship and The Players before returning to Europe for the BMW Championship in Wentworth, England, May 20-23.
Takeaway: Danny Lee’s pro career isn’t going the way he imagined after he became the youngest winner of the U.S. Amateur and the youngest player to win a European Tour event, but he’ll be looking to turn that around this week. After failing to advance through first stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament last fall, he took his game to the European Tour, where he has made just one cut in five starts this season. He’s still just 19 but carrying a heavy load of expectations.
Bunker shot: Jeev Milkha Singh will revel in the spotlight in his homeland as the highest ranked player in the field at No. 59 in the world rankings. The three-time European Tour winner makes his start on a personal high after the birth of his first child, a son, less than two weeks ago. He wrote in a personal diary for the Middle Eastern Gulf News that he had tears in his eyes at the birth. His wife, Kudrat, was hospitalized for observation with trouble late in the pregnancy. The couple endured heartbreak in a previous pregnancy. “Having gone through the pain of losing our baby once, you can well imagine how even the slightest of negative news affected us,” Singh said. He’s the story this week in India.
Ace Group Classic
Tom Watson gives the Champions Tour a hard act to follow after he beat Fred Couples in a duel in Couples’ senior circuit debut in Hawaii in the season opening event.
Watson won’t be playing the Ace Group Classic at The Quarry in Naples, Fla., after yet another impressive finish at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic last weekend, where he tied for eighth, but it’s a good field in the season opener on the American mainland.
Stance: Couples makes his second Champions Tour start knowing it takes work to beat the old guys. He lost his debut to Watson despite shooting 64 in the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship. Watson beat him by a shot with a birdie-birdie finish and a 65. Bernhard Langer, Jay Haas and defending champion Loren Roberts will be looking to deny Couples again as they seek to confirm their status as the Tour’s top returning players.
Takeaway: Lee Trevino turned 70 in December, but he will be an attraction this week, if more for his rich stories and dynamic personality than his ability to contend. Ditto for Gary Player, who will turn 75 in November.
Bunker shot: Paul Azinger joins the Champions Tour this week in his debut after turning 50 on Jan. 6. The 12-time PGA Tour winner and 1993 PGA Championship winner can rival Trevino and Player with personality but fans will be turning out to see how much game he’ll be bringing to his new start. He’s part of a promising wave of new blood this season, joining Couples and Corey Pavin as rookies. Mark Calcavecchia (June 12), Kenny Perry (Aug. 10), Tommy Armour III (Oct. 8) and Ian Baker-Finch (Oct. 24) turn 50 later in the year. Fred Funk will also draw attention with his return to golf this week after right knee replacement surgery in November. He’s annoyed his name’s hardly mentioned among players to beat this season.
Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause
AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.
The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.
“I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”
Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.
As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.
“I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”
Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid
AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.
Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.
“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”
Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.
“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”
Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.
“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”
This week, let the games(manship) begin
AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.
What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.
During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.
“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”
Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.
“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].
Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.
Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.
“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”
Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.
“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”
While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.
But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.
“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”
It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”
McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”
It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.
“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.
Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.
Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana
While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.
The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.
"I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."
Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.
According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."
"I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."
Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.
Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Web.com Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.
"I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."
Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.