Closing holes offer rare birds in Charlotte

April, 27, 2010

The world's No. 1-ranked golfer makes his return to competition this week at Quail Hollow, an event that has become one of the marquee events on the PGA Tour in recent years. Allow me to rephrase that: It's become a marquee event because Tiger Woods has made it a regular stop on his personal tour. Clearly, Woods has an affinity for royal-blue sport coats.

Trivia question

Lorena Ochoa announced her retirement from the LPGA Tour last week. Ochoa was one of the most decorated amateurs in Mexican golf history, male or female. How many Mexican Junior National Championships did Ochoa win in her young career? (Answer below.)

In each of the past four years that he's made any starts between the season's first two majors (in 2006 and 2008, he didn't make any starts between the Masters and the U.S. Open), Woods has played in three events. In both 2007 and 2009, those starts were Quail Hollow, the Players Championship and the Memorial.

So, how has Tiger fared in perceived U.S. Open tuneups? Since 2000, Woods has made 19 official PGA Tour starts between the Masters and U.S. Open. Tiger has won four times, with three of those wins coming at Jack Nicklaus' tournament. A more striking number, though, is that he's finished in the top five 13 times during that span, or 68.4 percent of his starts. That compares favorably to his career top-5 percentage of 54.3 on the PGA Tour.

Tiger won at Quail Hollow in 2007, when the event was still known as the Wachovia Championship. He previously had started there four times in his career, never finishing worse than tied for 11th. For an event that's been around since only 2003, five appearances in eight years by Woods is a good get for the folks in Charlotte.

The closing stretch at Quail Hollow is a vicious pair of holes to navigate and is sure to produce a bit of dramatics Sunday afternoon. Last year, Nos. 17 and 18 were the two most difficult holes at Quail Hollow, playing to a combined average of 0.659 over par for the week.

There were just 67 birdies all week on the two holes combined, a 7.4 birdie-or-better percentage.

Statistically, it's typical for a closing hole to play to a high scoring average on the PGA Tour, but the 18th at Quail Hollow is particularly daunting. In 2009, it was the second-toughest closing hole on tour with a scoring average of plus-0.374. Only the 18th at Doral was a more difficult closing hole last year.

In fact, every year the event has existed (since 2003), Quail Hollow has ranked in the top four on the PGA Tour in most difficult 18th holes. Twice it was the toughest: in 2003 and 2005.

Last week, the LPGA Tour took a mammoth hit when its biggest star, Lorena Ochoa, walked away from the sport. Ochoa's interests were always wide-ranging, but this announcement had to come as a surprise to anyone who saw her as the torchbearer for the women's game for the foreseeable future.

From 2004 to 2009, Ochoa saw her star eclipse that of Annika Sorenstam in the world of women's golf. When Sorenstam retired in 2008, Ochoa had already passed her as the sport's No. 1 player. Her prime was short, but just how good was Ochoa's brief tenure as the sport's best?

First, let's compare the career of world No. 1 Ochoa to that of her male equivalent, Tiger Woods, from 2004 to '09. Ochoa made exactly 50 more starts on the LPGA Tour than Tiger did on the PGA Tour in that span. Ochoa's 27 wins during that time were five fewer than Tiger's 32.

One amazing note about Ochoa is that she didn't miss a cut from 2006 onward. Her only two missed cuts on the LPGA Tour from 2004 to '09 came in 2005.

Looking at percentages, Ochoa is one of the only golfers all time in either the men's or women's game whose win percentage is even reasonable to bring up. She won nearly 20 percent of her LPGA starts from 2004 to '09 and finished in the top three nearly 50 percent of the time.

On April 23, 2007, Ochoa overtook Sorenstam for the top spot in the Rolex Women's World Golf Rankings. Ochoa has held that position for 157 consecutive weeks. The three-year anniversary of that occasion came on the same date as the news conference in which she announced she would walk away from the sport full time.

How did Ochoa's best six-year span on the LPGA Tour compare to Sorenstam's? A look back at Sorenstam's most impressive years is a stark reminder of just how unbelievable she was from 2000 to '05.

Sorenstam won an unbelievable 48 times from 2000 to 2005. That's 21 more than Ochoa, who was dominant in her own right during the prime of her career. Sorenstam's win percentage during that time was more than double what Ochoa's was from 2004 to '09.

Sorenstam also won six majors during those five years, while Ochoa won just two. Ochoa's been great, but she's no Sorenstam.

In 2008, Ochoa met the points criteria necessary for entrance into the LPGA and World Golf Hall of Fames. However, she would need three more years of active play to fulfill the required 10 years on tour to gain full admission.

Trivia answer

Question: Lorena Ochoa announced her retirement from the LPGA Tour last week. Ochoa was one of the most decorated amateurs in Mexican golf history, male or female. How many Mexican Junior National Championships did Ochoa win in her young career?

Answer: Seven. 1990-94, 1997 and 1999.

Maybe that would be reason enough for her to return to the world of competitive golf someday. Her star shined brightly for a short period of time, and golf fans around the world hope this retirement won't last forever.

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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