Tough Business Picking Major Champs These Days

By Rex HoggardAugust 12, 2010, 4:12 am
2010 PGA Championship

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Some call it parity, but the unfiltered truth is that what’s erupted in golf over the last 12 months borders on competitive anarchy.

First, the hard numbers: Five of the past six majors have been won by first-time Grand Slam champions. The trifecta atop the world’s golf marquee (Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood) has combined for just two PGA Tour titles this year and in an ode to recent form the last competitive cards signed by those three added up to 77-78-WD respectively at Firestone.

In short, Nos. 1 (Woods), 2 (Mickelson) and 3 (Westwood) are either on a couch, or should be.

Perhaps not since 1997 when Woods made history with his maiden Masters title have the prognosticators been so utterly powerless in predicting a champion.

Even the experts in the United Kingdom betting houses flirted with the idea that Woods, along with Mickelson, should be an 8-to-1 co-favorite when play gets underway here at Whistling Straits for the 92nd PGA Championship. But then again, Woods played the final 18 at Firestone like an 18-handicap and the line was reset on Woods to a meek 16-to-1 behind Lefty.

Gone are the days when round pegs went into round holes on Sunday. All that seemed to end, at least metaphorically, at this championship last year when little-known Y.E. Yang did the unthinkable and ran down Woods on Sunday at a major.

“The days of no-names getting in contention on Sunday afternoon and backing up, it doesn’t really happen anymore,” Graeme McDowell said.

McDowell should know, he had only one gear at Pebble Beach, stormed past Dustin Johnson and never gave any mind to Ernie Els (No. 6 in the world) on his way to his first major championship.

The what, in practical terms, is simple enough. On Thursday at Whistling Straits 156 players will tee it up and no fewer than 100 have realistic title dreams. The why, however, is a little more cloudy.

Without question Woods no longer holds the mental edge over the field like he used to. He may still be No. 1, but he no longer takes the tee with a 1-up edge based on pure moxie.

Whether all that changed on Nov. 27 or the subsequent chapters is impossible to tell, but what is real among the frat brothers is that Superman no longer seems bulletproof. Not after going eight starts without a victory, the second-longest title drought to start a season. Or after 18 over par at Firestone, a course he’s owned in the past.

“I’ll be honest the feeling in the locker room is slightly different,” Paul Casey said. “Guys feel that this is very much, with the way (Woods) played the past week, this is wide open, and that’s not a feeling that a lot of guys have had before.”

There’s little doubt Woods will rediscover his mojo, but the rank-and-file – more so than those atop the ranking – seem intent on making the most of the lull in the storm.

And Woods is not the only alpha male misfiring when it matters.

Mickelson has had at least a half dozen chances to overtake Woods atop the world ranking with no crown to show for it. Sunday’s unsightly 78 at Firestone may have been the most high-profile miscue, but since his Masters victory Lefty has just three top 10s and has finished T-48, T-46 in his last two starts.

Westwood, on the DL for at least four more weeks with a calf injury, has been the most consistent player on the planet yet has just a single victory this year (St. Jude Classic) and was unable to keep pace with little-known Louis Oosthuizen at the Open Championship.

Even Els has not been as commanding as he was when he won twice earlier this year in Florida.

Yet what the headliners seem to have lost in cache’ those playing from the pack have used that void to fuel a collective confidence boost that has been years in the making.

“A top-50 tennis player in the world takes on Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, they have absolutely no chance,” McDowell said. “The No. 50 player in the world could beat Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson or Steve Stricker or Lee Westwood any given day.”

Try 110th. That was Yang’s ranking when he won last year’s PGA. Or 54th, Oosthuizen at St. Andrews, or even McDowell’s relatively lofty spot in the world (36th) when he outlasted all at Pebble Beach.

Picking a winner on the PGA Tour has become hazardous duty, with a Ouija board and tarot cards every bit as helpful as a media guide and performance charts. The days of penciling Woods or Mickelson into an office pool have gone the way of three-shot par 5s and square grooves.

“This could very well be a Shaun Micheel type year,” said one longtime Tour observer on Wednesday at Whistling Straits. “A player that the public might consider a fluke but that we know is a very good player.”

Oh yeah, Micheel. Now he wouldn’t be a bad pick.

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HOFer Stephenson: Robbie wants to play me in movie

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 4:20 pm

Margot Robbie has already starred in one sports-related biopic, and if she gets her way a second opportunity might not be far behind.

Robbie earned an Academy Award nomination for her work last year as former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding in the movie, I Tonya. She also has a desire to assume the role of her fellow Aussie, Jan Stephenson, in a movie where she would trade in her skates for a set of golf clubs.

That's at least according to Stephenson, who floated out the idea during an interview with Golf Australia's Inside the Ropes podcast shortly after being announced as part of the next class of World Golf Hall of Fame inductees.

"We've talked about doing a movie. Margot Robbie wants to play me," Stephenson said.

There certainly would be a resemblance between the two Australian blondes, as Robbie has become one of Hollywood's leading ladies while Stephenson was on the cutting edge of sex appeal during her playing career. In addition to several magazine covers, Stephenson also racked up 16 LPGA wins between 1976-87 including three majors.

Robbie, 28, has also had starring roles in Suicide Squad and The Wolf of Wall Street.

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Azinger: 'Can't see anybody beating Tiger' at his best

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:44 pm

There's a new world No. 1, and a fresh crop of young guns eager to make their mark on the PGA Tour in 2019. But according to Paul Azinger, the player with the highest ceiling is still the same as it was when he was walking inside the ropes.

Azinger was named Monday as lead golf analyst for NBC Sports, and on "Morning Drive" he was asked which player is the best when all are playing their best. The former PGA champion pondered new world No. 1 Brooks Koepka and former No. 1 Dustin Johnson, but he came back around to a familiar answer: Tiger Woods.

"I just can't see anybody beating Tiger when Tiger's at his best. I just can't see it," Azinger said. "He's not his best yet, but he's almost his best. And when Tiger's his best, there's more that comes with Tiger than just the score he shoots. That crowd comes with Tiger, and it's a whole 'nother dynamic when Tiger's at his best. And I'm just going to have to say that when Tiger's at his best, he's still the best."

Woods, 42, started this year ranked No. 656 in the world but had a resurgent season that included a pair of near-misses at The Open and PGA Championship and culminated with his win at the Tour Championship that ended a five-year victory drought. For Azinger, the question now becomes how he can follow up a breakthrough campaign as he looks to contend consistently against players from a younger generation.

"That's why we watch, to see if he can maintain that. To see what he's capable of," Azinger said. "Now longevity becomes the issue for Tiger Woods. In seven or eight years, he's going to be 50 years old. That goes fast. I'm telling you, that goes really fast."

When Woods returns to action, he'll do so with a focus on the upcoming Masters as he looks to capture the 15th major title that has eluded him for more than a decade. With bombers like Koepka and Johnson currently reigning on the PGA Tour, Azinger believes the key for Woods will be remaining accurate while relying on the world-class iron play that has been a strength throughout his career.

"I think he's going to have to recognize that he's not the beast out there when it comes to smacking that ball off the tee. But I'd like to see him try to hit a couple more fairways periodically. That'd be nice," he said. "If he can drive that ball in the fairway, with that putter, we've seen what his putter is capable of. The sky's the limit, boys."

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Spieth drops out of top 10 for first time since 2014

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 2:08 pm

As Brooks Koepka ascended to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking, a former No. 1 continued a notable decline.

Jordan Spieth didn't play last week's CJ Cup, where Koepka won by four shots. But Jason Day did, and his T-5 finish in South Korea moved him up two spots from No. 12 to No. 10 in the latest rankings. Spieth dropped from 10th to 11th, marking the first time that he has been outside the top 10 in the world rankings since November 2014.

Since that time, he has won 12 times around the world, including three majors, while spending 26 weeks as world No. 1. But he hasn't won a tournament since The Open last July, and this year he missed the Tour Championship for the first time in his career. Spieth is expected to make his season debut next week in Las Vegas at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

Updated Official World Golf Ranking

Koepka and Day were the only movers among the top 10 on a week that saw many top players remain in place. Sergio Garcia's rain-delayed win at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters moved him up four spots to No. 27, while Gary Woodland went from 38th to 30th after finishing second behind Koepka on Jeju Island.

Koepka will tee off as world No. 1 for the first time this week at the WGC-HSBC Champions, where new No. 2 Dustin Johnson will look to regain the top spot. Justin Rose is now third in the world, with Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler and Day rounding out the top 10.

With his next competitive start unknown, Tiger Woods remained 13th in the world for the fifth straight week.

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Pavin's season nearly ends after slow-play penalty

By Will GrayOctober 22, 2018, 1:50 pm

Corey Pavin's season on the PGA Tour Champions nearly came to an end because of a slow-play penalty.

Penalties for pace are often discussed or threatened, but rarely doled out on either the PGA Tour or the over-50 circuit. But that changed Sunday during the final round of the Dominion Energy Charity Classic, where Pavin was told by a rules official after completing his round that he would receive a 1-stroke penalty for slow play.

The penalty was on the surface rather harmless, turning an even-par 72 into a 1-over 73 and dropping Pavin into a tie for 15th. But this was the first event of a three-tournament postseason for PGA Tour Champions players, and only the top 54 in points advanced to this week's Invesco QQQ Championship.

Full-field scores from the Dominion Energy Charity Classic

Pavin, who has two top-10 finishes in 20 starts this season, barely held on at 53rd place after the penalty was enforced.

Slow-play discussions came up earlier this season surrounding Bernhard Langer at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, but Golf Channel analyst Lanny Wadkins expressed his surprise on the telecast that it was Pavin who got a shot added to his score.

"Of all the things to happen with all the times I have played - I can't even count the number of rounds - I never thought Corey Pavin was a slow player," Wadkins said. "All the guys we know are slow players have never been penalized out here. Where has this been for the last 15 years?"

The subject of the penalty also raised an eyebrow from Stephen Ames, who finished alongside Pavin in 15th place while Langer finished second behind Woody Austin: