All Montys Men
“I have a good feeling about tomorrow. That's all I'm gonna say.”
In retrospect, if Gentle Ben knew a secret it was that the European lineup, a group that had built a commanding 10-6 lead through team play at the 1999 Ryder Cup, had more holes in its bullpen than the Pittsburgh Pirates.
For two days European captain Mark James had deftly played around what some considered his liabilities in the team portion of the competition, but in Sunday singles there was no protection for the likes of Jean Van de Velde, Jarmo Sandelin and Andrew Coltart.
All three went out early on Sunday at Brookline having watched from the sidelines for two days and suffered convincing losses that helped spur the American side to the greatest comeback in the history of the matches.
Brookline was hardly an aberration. The theory went that after the European stalwarts of Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal and Lee Westwood the bench was thin. In short, Europe was top heavy.
It’s a problem with which current captain Colin Montgomerie is utterly unfamiliar. How far has the pendulum swung for the Europeans? Consider that if Monty had to pick his team today he would have to split his three captain’s picks between the likes of Paul Casey, Justin Rose, Padraig Harrington, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia.
All total, there are nine Europeans in the top 50 in the World Ranking who are not currently on the team via two separate points lists, including three in the top 20 (Casey No. 8, Harrington No. 17 and Rose No. 18). And that equation ignores Welshman Rhys Davis, who at 50th in the World Ranking is a statistical long shot but would be a sentimental favorite considering the site of this year’s matches at Celtic Manor Resort in Wales.
“I could pick two teams that could beat each other on any given day,” Montgomerie boasted on Tuesday. “Our players have performed brilliantly worldwide, so much so that there are a number of issues that have to be addressed in the fact that these picks, right now, you'll see there's a number of world stars, and I mean world stars, that aren't already qualified within that team.”
It is a measure of Monty’s depth that Harrington, a team staple since 1999 who has a 7-11-3 record in 21 matches, is not only on the wrong side of cut line with one major to play but is something of a long shot based on his current form.
“It just depends how (Harrington is) playing at the time. On current form, maybe not,” Graeme McDowell said. “There's a lot of players needing a pick. Paul Casey obviously could get himself on the side, and there's a lot of top, top players, Henrik Stenson. So there's a lot of stuff to happen between now and the picks, and I'm sure Monty was wishing maybe he had an extra pick at the minute.”
The current European team would include Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, McDowell, a four-ball and foursomes dream pairing for Monty, and Luke Donald from a list based on the World Ranking; and Ian Poulter, Martin Kaymer, Francesco Molinari, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Ross McGowen off a list based on the Race for Dubai points list.
Fortunately Monty has over a month before he must make any decisions and a major and a World Golf Championship that could help simplify his choices. But right now that does little to solve a puzzle that currently has far too many pieces.
As unthinkable as a European Ryder Cup team without the likes of Garcia or Harrington may seem – Europe has not fielded a side without the two in more than a decade – the current structure of the points system and landscape may require that Monty make some difficult decisions.
“Those picks right now are the biggest headache we have, but a very positive headache at the same time, a very positive one,” Montgomerie said. “We have never had so many champions, world stars, top 20 players in the world, that aren't on the Ryder Cup team and that proves how strong we are.”
But then Monty’s woes are trivial by comparison to the angina that American captain Corey Pavin must be having as the matches inch closer. Sunday’s leaderboard at St. Andrews was dominated by Europeans, with the continent taking six of the top 10 spots, and the final tally at the U.S. Open – four Europeans among the top 10 – was almost as dominant.
Individual accomplishments mean little when the independent contractors take the pitch to play for country and points (see Woods, Tiger), but following his disappointing loss to Louis Oosthuizen on Sunday at the Open Championship it was impossible for Casey to hide his optimism about the home side’s chances in October.
“We're already going to have an unbelievable team. We're going to have a great team. It doesn't guarantee a victory, but I think we'll be pretty good,” said Casey with a knowing smile that, like Gentle Ben in 1999, suggested he knew the answer to a question most of us haven’t even asked.
Country singer Owen shoots 86 in Web.com debut
Country music star Jake Owen struggled in his Web.com Tour debut, shooting a 14-over 86 in the opening round of the Nashville Golf Open.
Owen, who played as a 1 handicap earlier this year while teaming with Jordan Spieth at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, put three balls out of bounds over his first nine holes, including two en route to a quadruple-bogey 9 on the par-5 18th hole. After making the turn in 46, Owen came home in 40 without making a single birdie.
Owen is playing as an amateur on an unrestricted sponsor exemption, the same type used by NBA superstar Steph Curry on the Web.com Tour last year and by former NFL quarterback Tony Romo this year on the PGA Tour. Curry missed the cut after rounds of 74-74 at the Ellie Mae Classic, while Romo shot 77-82 at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship.
Owen tallied nine pars, six bogeys, two doubles and a quad in his opener and was the only player from the morning wave who failed to break 80. The closest player to him in the standings was two-time major champ Angel Cabrera, who opened with a 79.
While Owen struggled against a field full of professionals, he took the setback in stride and even took to Twitter in the middle of his round to fire back at some of his online critics:
No prob Doug. I’m +11 now and tweeting during my round. I’m playing as hard as I can. I have 8 holes left if you want to come out and kiss my ass. https://t.co/UMeFWFKLVP— Jake Owen (@jakeowen) May 24, 2018
New putter propels Hoffman to Fort Worth lead
After sitting at home last week, Charley Hoffman decided it was time for a change.
The veteran estimated that he has been using the same version of a Scotty Cameron putter for the last five years, but heading into this week's Fort Worth Invitational he wanted to shake things up.
"I had an idea on Sunday literally coming out here that I wanted to have a little more weight in my putter," Hoffman told reporters. "I went with one that was sort of in my bag of putters at home that I could add some weight here."
The swap provided immediate results, as Hoffman opened with a 7-under 63 while picking up more than two strokes over the field on the greens to take a one-shot lead over Emiliano Grillo, Jhonattan Vegas and Andrew Putnam. It was an all-around effort Thursday for Hoffman, as he missed only two greens in regulation and never faced a par putt longer than 5 feet.
"I was able to knock in some mid-range putts and played very solid," Hoffman said. "It was a nice, very stress-free round. It was fun to play."
Hoffman had one of the best seasons of his career in 2017, capping it with a Presidents Cup appearance and a runner-up finish at the Hero World Challenge in December. While he has made nine cuts in 12 starts this year, his T-12 finish at the Masters remains his best result as he has struggled to turn top-20s into opportunities to contend.
Hoffman is making his seventh straight appearance at Colonial, where he tied for 10th in 2015. But he had never shot better than 65 before Thursday, when his decision to switch to a heavier Scotty Cameron model seemingly put a magnet on the bottom of the cup.
"Putting is a fickle part of the game," he said. "So hopefully the good mojo continues."
McIlroy shoots 67, two off BMW PGA lead
VIRGINIA WATER, England – Rory McIlroy walked off the 18th green in disgruntled fashion, shaking his head and looking down at the ground.
Shooting a 5-under 67 at Wentworth can rarely have felt so unsatisfactory.
The four-time major winner pushed his approach shot from the middle of the fairway into the overhanging trees at the par-5 last, saw his chip clip the flag pole, then missed a 3-foot putt for birdie for a disappointing end to his first round at the BMW PGA Championship on Thursday.
McIlroy also missed out on a birdie on the par-5 17th, too. Hence his unhappiness immediately after his round, although he was only two shots off the lead held by Lucas Bjerregaard (65).
''Walking off the 16th green and going to No. 17 at 5 under par, it was good after being 1 over after three (holes),'' McIlroy said, before diverting away from revisiting the end of his round.
''I played really well, gave myself plenty of chances, drove it well, for the most part hit my irons a lot better than I have done, so it was nice to get off to a good start.''
McIlroy is playing the European Tour's flagship event for the first time since 2015. He won it in 2014, the year he won The Open and the PGA Championship – his most recent major victories.
After bogeying No. 3, the former top-ranked McIlroy reeled off seven birdies in 13 holes and later said the greens were in the best condition he'd seen them.
Bjerregaard, whose only win came in Portugal last year, made seven birdies in a bogey-free round – his last at No. 18 giving him the outright lead over South Africans Dean Burmester and Darren Fichardt.
Burmester earlier played his last eight holes in 6 under par – including making eagle at the 15th – to draw level with compatriot Fichardt, who was also bogey-free.
Kiradech Aphibarnrat finished 7-6 on the two par 5s to drop from the outright lead at the time to 4 under.
Stricker opens with 65 at Colonial despite back pain
After four holes of the Fort Worth Invitational, things were looking bleak for Steve Stricker.
The ageless veteran was already 1 over when he tweaked his back playing his approach to No. 13, his fourth hole of the day at Colonial Country Club. He ended up making another bogey, but at that point his score took a backseat to the health of his ailing back.
"I tried to hit a pretty solid 6-iron and got right into the impact area, and actually felt my lower back crack right where I had surgery back in 2014, pretty much right on the spot," Stricker told reporters. "Tried to walk to the green and that wasn't going so well. Kind of tightened up on me. I thought I was going to have to stop and just stand there for a minute, which I did a couple of times. It didn't look or feel very good for a while."
Slowly but surely, Stricker's back began to loosen up, and with it came a turnaround on the scorecard. Stricker had a four-hole stretch in the middle of his round that he played in 5 under, highlighted by a hole-out from the greenside bunker for eagle on the par-5 first hole. Despite the rocky start, he ended up shooting a 5-under 65 to sit two shots off the early pace set by Charley Hoffman.
"I just kept plodding along," Stricker said. "I knew there were some birdie holes out here if you can get it in the fairway. There are some short irons."
Stricker had a spot in one of the marquee early-round groups, but his score bettered both Jordan Spieth's 1-under 69 and defending champ Kevin Kisner's 2-over 72. Stricker told reporters that he planned to get his back checked after the round.
Stricker continues to straddle both the PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions while crafting a unique schedule, and his appearance this week in Fort Worth came at the expense of skipping the Senior PGA Championnship, a major on the over-50 circuit. But Stricker won at Colonial in 2009 and has now played four straight years on what he described as one of his favorite courses.
"I like to play here. I know I'm going to play John Deere, another favorite tournament of mine, and FedEx St. Jude looks like I am going to try to play in a couple weeks, try to get in the U.S. Open," Stricker said. "So it's just kind of picking them as I go, and seeing where I want to go and seeing what feels good to me at the time."