Florida Swing equals March Madness in golf

Now that we know Gary McCord has no interest in returning as a CBS announcer at The Masters, it's time to start lobbying for that other original voice whose dulcet tones should be allowed to reverberate through the towering pines of Augusta National Golf Club -- Dick Vitale.

Only problem is, how will he know who to root for? Hey, Dickie baby, you want Diaper Dandies? Check out J.B., Bubba and Camilo. You want some Prime Time Players? Pencil in Tiger, Lefty and Vijay. You want March Madness, Dickie? It's called the Florida Swing, baby.

Perhaps the most entertaining segment of the PGA Tour is the four Florida events that lead up to The Masters. Everyone has rounded their game into form out West, or overseas, and now they sand down the rough edges as they prepare for the first major of the year. And what better places to do it: The Ford Championship at Doral; the Honda Classic; the Bay Hill Invitational; and capped by The Players Championship on the Stadium Course at TPC-Sawgrass as the tour creeps up the coast of the Sunshine State. Doral proved once again how much fun it is when Tiger Woods is in the field, and Honda reminded us how riveting the PGA Tour is even when Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh sit one out.

The slope-shouldered greens at The Country Club at Mirasol and the swirling wind of South Florida gave the Honda the survival-of-the-fittest feel of a major championship. J.B. Holmes and Bubba Watson joined Woods, Mickelson and Singh among the missing, and Villegas never really got into the mix the way he did at Doral. But the guys who did battle it out on Sunday made the watching well worth it. Luke Donald, Geoff Ogilvy and David Toms may not be Woods, Mickelson and Singh, but it's hard to imagine the other threesome could have provided a better finish than these guys did at the Honda.

Toms, who seemed to play his way out of it with a 76 on Saturday, suddenly popped back into the picture when his eagle on the par-5 17th moved him within two strokes of the lead. Ogilvy made a birdie at No. 16 to pull within one. But Donald simply would not cave. He made a stout up-and-down on No. 15 to save par, and then had to lay up out of the rough on the 16th hole and made a 17-footer to save par there. When Toms got in the clubhouse at nine under par, and Ogilvy followed at 10 under, it was up to Donald to play the final two holes even par for his first win on the PGA Tour since the 2002 Southern Farm Bureau Classic.

A perfect drive and second shot that ran through the green, placed Donald in the back bunker in two on the par-5 17th hole. He was short-sided and the sand was well below the green surface. Donald caught the ball a little heavy and left it on the fringe, 17 feet short of the hole. The two-putt par almost felt like a bogey on the very reachable par-5. Now he had to protect a one-stroke lead on a challenging finishing hole. All he did was stripe his drive right down the middle and then hit his approach from 199 yards to four feet to wrap up the tournament. That was proof positive you don't always need the big names for a big-time finish.

Next up is Bay Hill, which always has a strong field, in part as a sign of affection for tournament host Arnold Palmer. After that it is onto The Players Championship, which has grown into the best tournament outside the four major championships -- and on some years it is even better than one or two of the Grand Slam events. The Players has the same thing going for it that makes the Masters unique among the majors: It is played on the same great course year after year. Augusta National Golf Club is the only course to play host to a major championship every year. The other three events rotate their venues. It is a simple fact of familiarity breeding respect.

As it is with the Masters, where TV viewers are riveted knowing by heart the great holes to come, such is also the case at The Players Championship. Because we have seen the Stadium Course year after year for a quarter century now, we know what to expect. And there are few human emotions more intense than anticipation. Happiness, it is said, is having something to look forward to. And during the Players we start looking forward to that incredible finish of the par-5 16th, the island-green 17th and water-protected 18th as soon as the broadcast comes on. And the Players has become one of the tournaments that rarely lets us down.

Next year, the Florida Swing gets even better. Honda will kick it off, meaning the quality of its field will likely improve significantly, especially since its move to the Champions Course at PGA National, and its association with the Nicklaus Children's Foundation, which means Jack will help get big names there. Honda is followed by Tampa Bay, Bay Hill and then Doral, which becomes a World Golf Championship event in 2007. The Players Championship moves to May, exactly midway between the Masters and the U.S. Open.

That seems to be a schedule in perfect balance. It's Match Madness, Dickie baby!

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine. His book, Every Shot Must Have a Purpose: How GOLF54 Can Make You a Better Player, written with Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, is now available.