Copperhead proves a difficult transition

March, 16, 2010

The Masters is less than a month away, and though each PGA Tour event on the docket has its own independent merits, even the most stoic links purist knows what the Florida Swing really is: tuning up for Augusta.

Trivia question

Who was the last winner of the Transitions Championship to go on and win a major in that same calendar year? (Answer below.)

Along the road to East Georgia, recent champions haven't exactly come into the tournament with guns blazing. None of the past four Masters winners won any event on the Florida Swing that preceded the year's first major. The last man to don the green jacket after capturing an event in the Sunshine State was Tiger Woods, who won at Doral in 2005 before his most recent Masters title.

Three of the eight winners on the Florida Swing the past two years missed the cut at Augusta. Of the 20 who won events prior to the Masters from 2005 to 2009, only six finished in the top 10 at Augusta that year.

This seems like just a microcosm of golf's usually unpredictable nature. There is almost never an enactment of the "hot hand" theory -- the nature of the game dictates that even the hands of the hottest golfer are lukewarm at best.

Look at the past two Masters champions: Angel Cabrera and Trevor Immelman. In their three events immediately preceding the Masters, Cabrera had two missed cuts and a T-32 finish while Immelman went MC, T-40 and T-48.

In 2007, Zach Johnson finished T-9 at the WGC-CA Championship, the best finish in the past three years for any Masters winner in his three starts preceding the season's first major.

The Copperhead course -- host of this week's Transitions Championship -- has historically been among the most difficult on the PGA Tour. Recent years have been no exception.

The venue has played to more than a shot above par in four of the past five years. Each of the past two years, the course has been among the 10 most difficult on tour in terms of average score over par.

In 2009, only five non-majors played to a higher score above par than the Copperhead. Among the four tournaments on the PGA Tour's Florida Swing, it's the only one to have played to an average score higher than 72 each of the past three years.

If whomever you have in your strictly-for-fun-and-not-money pool jumps out and birdies or eagles the first hole on Thursday, temper your excitement. Only seven opening holes on the PGA Tour a year ago were easier than Copperhead's starter last year, which played to more than a quarter of a shot below par.

No. 1 saw nearly 36 percent of players make either birdie or eagle. A closer look at the easiest three holes on the course last year to the left shows the specifics.

Now flip the script and look at the most trying holes at Copperhead. The dogleg-right sixth hole had a birdie-or-better percentage of just 5.8 percent, with only 25 birdies made the whole week.

The par-4 second hole features a narrow, elevated green that gave players fits to the tune of a 4.274 scoring average last year. Last year's winner, Retief Goosen, played the three toughest holes on the course -- Nos. 2, 6 and 16 -- at 2-over for the week.

The two men who finished a shot back of Goosen, Charles Howell III and Brett Quigley, both played them at 3-over.

Speaking of Goosen, he currently stands at 19th in the Official World Golf Rankings. Goosen has been on the cusp of winning several times this year already, advancing to the "Elite Eight" in the WGC-Match Play. He also finished T-6 and 4th in the two events in Hawaii to start the year. Add a T-9 at the Qatar Masters to that résumé, and you have an impressive four top-10 worldwide finishes in six starts in 2010.

A win this week would make Goosen the first three-time winner in the abbreviated history of this event (K.J. Choi has also won twice). Last year, Goosen was the only player in the field to post four rounds under par, and ranked T-7 in the field in greens in regulation (68.1 percent).

Goosen will have to play much better than he did last week at Doral, where he had a roller-coaster first round and wound up finishing in the bottom 15 in the 68-man field. He endured a bizarre stretch in Round 1 when he started on the back nine and went bogey-birdie-bogey-double bogey-eagle from holes 15 to 18 and No. 1 on the front nine.

Goosen could be priming for a good week, though. He played a bogey-free round of 70 on Sunday, and it's hard to pick against a player of his caliber who has played so well at this venue.

Ernie Els found himself in the winner's circle for just the second time in the past six years on Sunday at Doral. He's back among the world's top 10, and at age 40, could be looking for the kind of career resurgence that one of his peers found himself in a few years ago.

Vijay Singh entered 2003 a couple of months from his 40th birthday with nine PGA Tour wins and two major championships in tow. Over the next three years, Singh was the most prolific winner on tour, and had his best season as a professional in 2004, when he won a staggering nine times and earned Player of the Year honors. Only three men have ever won more than nine PGA Tour events in a calendar year -- Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, and Ben Hogan (twice).

Singh's 30s were nothing to sneeze at -- he's been one of the elite players in the world for going on 15 years now -- but his 40s have moved him into the all-time echelon of international golfers. Could Ernie Els replicate what The Big Fijian has accomplished?

For fun, let's see what the first seven years of Els' 40s would look like if they followed the same proportional path as Vijay's. Els' 30s were about as impressive as Vijay's. While Singh won two more times on The PGA Tour in his 30s, Els finished in the top-10 in 20 of 40 majors, nearly twice as frequently as Singh.

If he exactly replicated the relative rate of success Singh has had from age 40 to 47, Ernie would win 18 more times on the PGA Tour, finish in the top 10 nearly 55 percent of the time he tees it up and finish in the top 10 in about 17 major championships (if he played all 28 majors in that span).

An additional 18 victories in that span would give him 34 for his career (taking into account the one he's already won in his 40s on Sunday).

Does the number 34 seem familiar? Well, that's how many career tour wins Singh has -- the most for any international player, all-time.

Trivia answer

Question: Who was the last winner of the Transitions Championship to go on and win a major in that same calendar year?

Answer: Vijay Singh won in 2004 and went on to capture the PGA Championship that year -- his fourth career major.

Obviously, this is just an exercise in grandiose prognostication, but fun to think about.

Justin Ray has been a studio researcher for ESPN since June 2008 and is the lead researcher for "The Scott Van Pelt Show." He is a 2007 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where he studied convergence media. Send comments and suggestions to





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