Rise and fall of WGCs

By Rex HoggardMarch 11, 2010, 4:20 am
 DORAL, Fla. – One can pinpoint the precise rise and fall of the World Golf Championships experiment just as surely as ShotLink can cull the good putters from the bad.

It began in October 1997 with the promise of globalized golf born of altruistic motives and misplaced optimism. It was build it and they will come stuff.

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Tiger and Phil marched step for step in 2005 at Doral, before Tiger prevailed by one shot. (Getty Images)
While the end – which may be at hand or off-handily off the mark, depending on who you ask – can be traced to a glorious spring Sunday in south Florida when the cosmic tumblers aligned and even dogs and cats paused to enjoy the proceedings.

What the world wanted Doral delivered – a mano-e-mano showdown between Alpha Dog No. 1 (Tiger Woods) and Alpha Dog No. 2 (Phil Mickelson) when it mattered, on a Sunday at what was then the Ford Championship.

“2005 was like the last day at Augusta,” recalled Jim McLean, who has been fixing swings at the far end of the Doral practice tee for 20 years. “They were 15 (people) deep down both sides of No. 1. It was the most people I’d ever seen at Doral. The most I’d ever seen at a golf tournament.”

It was the day when Woods and Mickelson shared a Sunday tee time with Tour gold on the line. When the game’s best were at their best and the ending wasn’t written until Mickelson’s chip at the last hole rolled to a climactic stop.

It was the perfect storm and as one walked the property late Wednesday afternoon it seems like a lifetime ago. Less than 24 months after the Tiger-Phil Doral bout, the south Florida Tour stop was pulled into the neatly packaged WGC brand and things have never been the same.

“It’s a different tournament as a world event,” McLean said. “They want it to be a major, before it was like a South Beach party.”

Make no mistake, this week’s CA Championship offers plenty of promise – even without Woods and, as of late Wednesday, Mickelson. Solid field, respected golf course, South Beach, but it’s not the same.

David Toms was there in 2005, 45 minutes and eight strokes clear of the Woods-Mickelson show but that was close enough to get a taste of something special.

“I was playing really good and looked around and there was nobody,” Toms said. “They were all on No. 1 watching. At the time the Tour had been waiting for that showdown for a long time.”

Toms, who played his first event at Doral in 1992 and has missed whatever version of the tournament was on the calendar just four times since, has watched the event transition from “the unofficial start of the Tour season” to, well . . . something else.

“When I used to come here it was like a Sony Open feel to it,” Toms said. “I’d bring my family and really enjoy the week. It certainly has a different feel to it now.”

Which cuts to the essence of the WGC dilemma. The question is not whether the experiment – which has evolved into four events that stretch from Shanghai to south Florida – has delivered on the promise of a brave new world, but whether the four WGCs are better off with the prefix than they were without?

Doral certainly draws a consistently stronger field as a WGC, but ask any player the $1 million question and the answer is almost always the same – it’s just different.

The Bridgestone Invitational has been a Tour staple since 1962 whose list of pre-WGC winners includes Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Greg Norman. All the WGC did for Firestone is clear room for the likes Yuji Igarashi, who I’ve been told is a household name in Nagano.

The HSBC Champions was won by Mickelson its first year in the WGC fold (2009), the same guy, by the way, who won it in 2007 before its title went alphabet soup (WGC-HSBC) and its purse through the roof.

While at Doral the local flavor has fallen victim to a Tour that, unlike Ben & Jerry’s, offers just a single option – vanilla. The international field may look good on paper, but 90 percent of the golf public couldn’t tell Soren and Anders Hansen from the Hanson Brothers of “Slap Shot” fame.

The Match Play Championship, however, may be the lone exception to the WGC rule, having technically replaced the second-tier Tucson Open, albeit on a less-than-renowned golf course located some 30 miles southwest of the middle of nowhere.

Of course, the measure of success or failure at any Tour event comes down to sponsorship dollars and this Sunday when CA’s four-year deal ends the word around campus is they plan to take their check book and go home.

Accenture recently extended its sponsorship of the Match Play through 2014, but given the company’s high-profile parting with Woods late last year it’s not a stretch to say Tim Clark’s days of taking down the world No. 1 and busting brackets in the Arizona desert have come to an end.

The WGC shingle comes with a $12 million annual price tag and for what? A field heavy on passports at venues that were just as good, if not better, before the circuit pulled its WGC eminent domain?

And what of the original WGC mission to bring the game to the four corners of the globe, but have largely found only the four corners of the continental United States? The Tour will stress that the images from Doral this week will be broadcast across the globe, thus growing interest in the game. So was last week’s Honda Classic.

Of the 34 official-money WGCs played since 1999, the first year of the experiment, six have been played outside the United States. Proponents will argue that Tour players and big sponsorship dollars don’t travel well.

“It’s certainly easier with all (the WGCs) here for us because we all live here,” said Clark, an Arizona resident by way of South Africa. “But I felt they should move around. It would mean a lot to any country. Look at what the (2003) Presidents Cup did for golf down in South Africa.”
Woods’ cameo at last year’s Australian Open is perhaps the most compelling reason for Tour types to open the atlas. Galleries lined every hole at Kingston Heath and, more importantly, interest in the game peaked.

“Since Tiger came to Australia last year tee times at public courses are through the roof,” said Dale Lynch, a U.S.-based Australian swing coach. “It was huge because golf in Australia had been in decline since Norman went into decline.”

It was the great WGC promise, an idea with unlimited potential co-opted by the low-hanging fruit of great events turned into good events. It is the Achilles’ heel of the WGC project, and in many ways it all started at Doral five years ago when a great clash marked the beginning to the end.
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Bjorn '85 percent' done with Ryder Cup pairings

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 25, 2018, 11:45 am

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Practice-round groups at the Ryder Cup typically give fans a sense of what to expect when the Day 1 pairings are announced on Thursday afternoon.

Though European captain Thomas Bjorn said that “not too much” should be gleaned from his groupings during the first official practice round on Tuesday, he also doesn’t want to waste valuable time as players get adjusted to Le Golf National and each other.

Here were the three practice groups for the Europeans:

  • Sergio Garcia, Alex Noren, Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose
  • Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Paul Casey and Thorbjorn Olesen
  • Tommy Fleetwood, Francesco Molinari, Ian Poulter and Tyrrell Hatton

“You get some of the new guys out with somebody with a bit of experience so they can talk the way around," Bjorn said, "but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are pairing up together."

It's worth noting U.S. captain Jim Furyk made similar remarks, that each of his three groups had at least one player who had seen Le Golf National previously.

“I don’t feel like I’ve given away anything in what’s happening on the golf course today,” Bjorn said.  

Still, Bjorn said that he’s “80 or 85 percent” certain of the pairings he’d like to use this week.

“I’m pretty set in my mind,” he said.

Asked where he was in his own process, Furyk joked “86 percent” before saying that he has a “really good idea” of his plan for Day 1 fourballs and foursomes.

“I think coming in here we both were going to have a plan of exactly what we wanted to try to do,” Furyk said. “There’s always going to be a reaction to what you’re seeing on the golf course, what you’re feeling, options to branch off of, but I’ve got a really good idea of what I’d like to do for Day 1.”

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Six players named in the race for Tour Player of the Year

By Rex HoggardSeptember 25, 2018, 11:26 am

The PGA Tour announced six nominees for the PGA Tour Player of the Year Award on Tuesday; although, to many, it won’t be a competition.

Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Francesco Molinari, Justin Rose and Justin Thomas have been nominated for the Jack Nicklaus Award.

DeChambeau won three times this season, including the first two playoff events; Johnson was also a three-time winner and had 12 top-10 finishes; Molinari had two victories, including The Open; Rose won the FedExCup, and Thomas had three victories. But if player reaction last week at the Tour Championship was any indication, they are all vying for second place behind Koepka.

Although Koepka only had two victories they were both majors, the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, after missing a good portion of the season with an injury.

The Tour also released the five nominees for the Rookie of the Year Award, although that race appears to be a foregone conclusion as well. Aaron Wise was the only member of the rookie class to advance to the Tour Championship and also won the AT&T Byron Nelson.

Voting for both awards ends on Oct. 1.

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Promise kept as Poulter - and his fire - return to Ryder Cup

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 25, 2018, 11:14 am

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – In December 2016, in one of his lowest moments as a pro, Ian Poulter sat on stage at a PGA of America dinner and fielded questions from the audience.

One of the queries was this: What’s left for you in golf?

“I feel I’ve got more wins in me,” he replied that day. “And I’m going to make the team in Paris.”

That much appeared in doubt. 

Earlier that year, Poulter underwent foot surgery and missed the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine. Relegated to a vice-captain role, he could only watch as the Europeans got dismantled and saw their three-match winning streak come to an end.

Poulter’s own game suffered, too. Before the injury he’d already slipped outside the top 75 in the world – his lowest position since 2003 – and his freefall continued into early 2017, when he plummeted all the way to No. 207.

Then came a surprise runner-up finish at The Players that helped him secure his PGA Tour card for the next season, and then, at age 42, he enjoyed one of his best years. In April he won the Houston Open for his third PGA Tour title (and first since 2012) and then posted solid finishes at The Players, U.S. Open, Canadian Open and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Though he lacked the necessary points to qualify for the European team automatically, he was as much a lock for a captain’s pick as a healthy Tiger Woods on the U.S. side.

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“There’s a little voice in the back of your head that says: ‘You might not get back to as good as you once were,’” he said. “But that’s been a goal for the last 20 months. It’s been something that has kept me going from a motivational standpoint.

“It was difficult being a vice captain last time, knowing how much I’ve helped the team in the past, and I wanted to help the team in any way I could. But I felt like this time around, I really wanted to make the team. I’m pretty proud.”

Poulter and Sergio Garcia are the heartbeats of the European side, veterans have who seen everything in the Ryder Cup, who have plenty of pull in the team room, who know how to handle the most stressful situations.

With a 12-4-2 record, no European Ryder Cupper has a better win-loss mark than Poulter. At Medinah, he seemed to single-handedly bring the visitors back from the dead, teaming with Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy to win three matches, then capturing a point in singles, as well, as the Europeans matched the largest final-day comeback in tournament history.

“He’s a legend,” said European teammate Tyrrell Hatton.

Poll any U.S. team member, and Poulter is still the guy they most likely want to beat – not necessarily because he’s the best player on the European side, but because his success seems to fuel his teammates.

“I take it as a huge compliment,” Poulter said. “It’s a daunting position to be in to know that everyone really wants to take you down, but quite frankly, I want to take them down just as much.”

Poulter was the first European player out on the range on Monday – he didn’t qualify for the PGA Tour’s season-ending Tour Championship – and captain Thomas Bjorn joked that Poulter “wanted to go midweek last week, if he could.”

“He looks forward to this,” Bjorn said. “We all know Ian’s history and feelings about the Ryder Cup. He wanted to get out there. He’s that type of guy. He’s certainly ready to go.”

Some brave reporter asked Poulter whether he’s preparing for this to be his final home Ryder Cup, whether he’s trying to “drink it all in.”

It was a reasonable question – he will be 46 during the 2022 matches in Italy – but Poulter stared a hole through him.

“It won’t be,” he said flatly.

Then he softened.

“I’d like to think I’ve got more in me, I’ll say that,” he said. “I think how I’ve played this year is hopefully the start of me kicking forward again to play in some more. The reason I answered it that way is I don’t want to think this is my last hurrah.”

But if it is, well, you can guarantee that Europe’s fieriest player will try and go out in a blaze of glory.

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Molinari reflects on beating Woods at Ryder Cup, Open

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 25, 2018, 9:11 am

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Francesco Molinari might be a useful resource for the European Ryder Cup team.

He’s already beaten Tiger Woods, head to head, at a Ryder Cup and a major.

Molinari was in the anchor match at the 2012 Ryder Cup when Woods conceded on the final hole to give the Europeans an outright victory in the incredible comeback at Medinah. He said the last hole was a “blur,” and it remains the last Ryder Cup that both Molinari and Woods played.

“I’ve improved a lot as a player since 2012,” said Molinari, who lost his previous singles match against Woods in 2010, 4 and 3, “and I hope to show that on the course this week.”

The proof is the claret jug that he now keeps at home.

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To win his first major he needed to not only endure the circus that a Woods group brings, but he needed to outlast the 14-time major champion and a host of other worthy contenders to prevail at Carnoustie.

Reflecting on that momentous day Tuesday, Molinari said he initially was dreading the final-round date with Woods.

“If I’m completely honest, I wasn’t exactly hoping to be paired with Tiger, not because I don’t like to play with him, but because, obviously, the hype and with him being in contention in a major, it’s going to be noisy and it’s going to be a lot of people," he said. 

“So the most challenging part was probably that moment when the draw came out, but then I quickly managed to think, You know, whatever. I don’t really care. I’m here to do a job, and they can’t really influence how I do my job.”  

To thrive in that situation gave Molinari a lot of confidence – especially heading into a pressure-cooker like the Ryder Cup.

Asked whether it’s more pressure trying to win a major or a Ryder Cup – since he’s now done both – Molinari said: “You won’t believe me, but it’s nowhere near. Carnoustie was nowhere near Medinah or in any matching ways. It’s hard to believe, but it’s probably because you play for a team; you play for a continent in our case, and you know about the tradition and what players have done in the past.”