Spotted the tour a five event head start and inside of three weeks jumped ahead of Ernie Els and a little more than $50,000 behind Mike Weir on the money list, which you know hell win for the fifth straight year. Were it not for a Saturday 73 at Riviera, he might have gone three for three. Short game looks even better than ever, if thats possible. Pours damn near every four and five footer dead into the heart. When he misses, its usually an aggressive lip out. Lag putts beautifully. And whens the last time you saw Tiger run a chip shot 15 feet past, or chunk a pitch 10 feet short? His work in bunkers - loved the shot on the 35th at La Costa to close out Toms - and from tough lies just off the green is so exceptional that often times were thinking, just as he is, that it has a legitimate chance to go in. Also demonstrated the ability to play a wide array of shots. At La Costa, so many of the hole locations were at the back of the putting greens and with the turf so wet, 120 yard wedge shots were spinning back much too far, leaving guys often times in three-putt territory. Tiger took great pride in hitting 8 iron from 120 or 6 iron from 150 to take the spin off the ball. And it the trend of toughening up golf courses on the PGA Tour continues, then Tiger may win 90 percent of his starts, or something crazy like that. Grow the rough and make accuracy the most important factor and hell hit the stinger two-iron in play all day. Let the rough around the green get thick and clumpy, whos better with the impossible than this guy? Make four footers for par mean something, Tigers your man. Of course, if you go the opposite route and back off on the challenge where guys can uncork driver with virtually no penalty, I seem to remember that he obliterated St. Andrews as well as the old Augusta layout, and thats just the short list of courses that he grabbed by the collar and tossed aside with frightening ease. Pebbles a legendary track, isnt it? He brought Pebble to its knees. In a U.S. Open for goodness sakes.
Bottom line is this: people in their quest to anoint a rival to Tiger or to suggest that the gap on number one has closed, fail to recognize that Tiger, too, is improving. Really. He just turned 27. Hes in command of his skills as or more confidently than any other golfer Ive ever seen over a sustained period of time. Total, unquestioned belief in his every move. If theres doubt, he self corrects very quickly. If the physical rhythm is off, hell hang in so as never to shoot himself completely out of a tournament. If you get the chance, follow him in person someday. Between the powerful golf swing and the meteoric flight of his shots and his delicate hands around the greens and his championship, athletic walk, Tiger Woods is absolutely spectacular to watch. Am I gushing? Yes. I followed him this week at La Costa. Tigers a mindblower.
Ernie strangely and fortuitously for golf fans I suppose swooped in during Tigers absence as he recovered from knee surgery and just cast this huge shadow over the world of golf. He was THE STORY for the first 5-6 weeks. I mean if Joe Durant had won two in Hawaii, you wouldnt have said, Tiger rival! But with Ernie winning twice in Hawaii, and then just dotting the globe with several more virtuoso performances, golf fans genuinely got stoked. The big man was asserting himself. The big man had cast aside his Tiger demons. At Muirfield last summer, hed gotten the major he needed to kick start what really amounts to his second career. Hed won his two U.S. Opens either before or just as Tiger was starting his career. In the true reign of Tiger, from 1999 to the present, Ernie had been mostly haunted by the guy. By winning the British, he removed a sizable psychological hurdle, at least as this theory goes. And then to close the season with an exciting win before his countrymen at the Nedbank gave added hope that 2003 would be the beginning of more great things from Ernie in phase two of the career. The phase where hes ready to seriously challenge Tiger.
So he blows us away inside of a month and a half this year. Stunning. Mind boggling with not one but two scoring records on the two best tours on the planet. Tighter golf swing. Better mindset. New driver and ball combo. Serious added length off the tee. But--and this is the odd part'Tigers never there. And when he does show, Ernie bows out after one quiet round to Phil Tataurangi at The Match Play. Of course Tiger lost to Peter OMalley in round one last year. Its match play. It can happen. Im only suggesting that this Ernie tease will play out a little longer, until Bay Hill. Then theyll be together, over 72 holes. Each improved. Each confident. And yet, only one guy still with something to prove to us. Thats Ernie. He has to prove he can handle this guy on a reasonably regular basis. Handle him not just at Bay Hill or The Players, but at maybe two majors this year. Dominate as Tigers dominated. If Ernie does that, then we can say with certainty that the gap has closed.
I get asked on call in radio shows if I think its good or bad for golf to have such a dominant player. Its a no lose situation. If Tiger keeps going unchallenged, were privileged. To be watching Ruth. Jordan. Gretzy. You know. Art for art sake. If Ernie or someone else wants to take Tiger the full 15 rounds, to be Frazier to his Ali, then we win in that case as well. I hope Ernies the guy. I still maintain youd be hard pressed to find a more likeable, down home superstar athlete in any sport than the Big Easy. Ernie Els. What a start to the season. Hes got us looking forward to Bay Hill and beyond.
The little lefty proved hes long haul legitimate. He laid a big egg last year. Fell hard. Not a single top 10. It looked to some like he might be just another guy whod caught a three year run but couldnt sustain it. That happens. But Weirsy'if youre Canadian its nearly mandatory that you add the y'returned to some basics hed gotten away from, notably the pre-shot waggle thats distinctly his. He wins twice, in two totally different worlds, too. The world of birdies and bad jokes'The Bob Hope'and the world of old school shotmaking'Riviera. Whats more, Mike doesnt get enough credit for being a classic gentleman as golf purists might define it. Hes polite. Gracious. Just right for golf. And golfs strong in that department, by the way. Were in an era of gentlemanly greats. Tiger, Toms, Ernie, Mike Weir, Phil Mickelson. You could make the case that golfs best are the least irritating, least boastful, least in-your-face set in all of sports.
Davis Love III
Made a statement that hes not ready to recede into the realm of the competitively irrelevant. Hitting the ball at times very well. Finished as a major contender? I dont think so. Born Masters Sunday 1964, he still seems Crenshaw destined for a special moment at Augusta. Remember, Davis, like Crenshaw, was close with Harvey Penick. In 1995, Davis had to win New Orleans to make the Masters field. He did. Harvey passed away. The funeral was early during Masters week. The veteran, Crenshaw, advised Davis to stay behind and prepare for The Masters instead of going to the funeral. Crenshaw served as a pallbearer. He returned to play Augusta and with Harvey as his 15th club, Ben won his second green jacket. Davis finished second.
The powerful Fijian looked ready to roll, but the injury took just a little luster off the shine. Assuming he returns fully fit, Vijay quietly looms as just as worthy a threat as Ernie. Why? Like Ernie, psychologically Vijays as strong as Ive ever seen him. Hes driving it off the earth. And straight. If he continues to improve his putting, hes formidable. His Sunday 63 to win Phoenix was impressive. I thought hed win again out west. But the injury'an aggravated pectoral muscle--stalled him out of the gate. With his length and management skills, I like a strong return at Bay Hill and The Players.
Sergio using a long putter? Hes too young at 23 to be turning into a head case on the greens. I know hes emotional and a much different kind of artist, but that seems extreme. Sergio seemed edgier on the coast, not as carefree. Too many missed putts will do that, I guess. But relative to where he was a year ago when he won The Mercedes, Sergio seems further away from Tiger than ever. I know if he heard that hed bristle. As he should. But thats just the way it looks at this moment. I like Sergio playing well. He adds a healthy firecracker to the proceedings. Hes too young and too talented to definitively judge, so lets just hope he puts away any and all thoughts about a belly putter or long putter and clears his mind to play the way he knows how.
Jose Maria Olazabal
Not to pick on the Spaniards, but Ollie, like Sergio, looked very good at this same time a year ago. Now hes lost. Completely. His form is awful. But hes also a classic Spanish feel player, prone to these wild swings. Hes capable of finding it, and when he does, hes quite dangerous thanks to the magic hes able to work around the greens. But heading to Florida, hes in heavy search mode. Not a great place to be.
I put Phil on this list with some hesitancy. Hes had a lot on his mind. Amys pregnancy has been difficult. Granted, Phils not the first guy whose wifes had a baby. But if your wifes been through it you know how consuming it can be. Still, Phil opened his mouth and got into trouble with Nike, showed no concrete signs that hed tightened up his tee ball and just looks at this point like hes lost some ground to Tiger. Thats all. Phils a wildcard heading to the important spring stretch. It may be difficult to focus on golf. On the other hand, maybe if expectations are lowered, Phil will free wheel himself into a big victory. However it goes, Phils interesting to observe.
Charles Howell III
I put Charles on only because he wouldnt want to be stroked for getting into position to win at Riviera. He wouldnt want praise of the variety that says, Oh hell learn from the experience. No, I think losing a Sunday lead at Riviera, missing the short putt in the playoff and just not getting the job done is disappointing. Hell have to demonstrate that with quality opposition like Weir and Nick Price, on a strong test as Riviera is, he can deliver. He, too, wants to run with Tiger. He knows that Tiger doesnt let those situations get away. Do I think CH 3 will rebound from it and win impressively? I do. He works very, very hard. Hes smart. Hes got a team behind him, lead by David Leadbetter, thats nurtured major champions. Maybe Im being hard on Charles because if he holds on at Riviera hes on the winners list. But my guess is Im not being as hard on Charles as he is on himself.