From an hour of soul-searching with Ernie Els in the players' lounge at Kapalua to 15 precious minutes with Tiger Woods at the Tour Championship, covering pro golf has never been more interesting than in 2005. Superstars remain accessible and story lines plentiful, and, for all the talk about blowing up the end of the season to devise a four-week playoff series, the PGA Tour might be wise to define its health by measures other than wealth.
That $10 million FedEx Cup payoff, be it in retirement bonds, Uncle Sam's cabbage or S&H Green Stamps, won't buy anyone a Claret Jug. The crazier prize money gets, the more each major will matter. As much as the tour wants a product that will rival the majors in terms of relevance, you can't hold 10 Miss Universe pageants every year and expect to double the number of beauty-contest fans.
Some of my fondest memories of '05 could be found in the strangest places, many at tournaments some might classify as insignificant. Let's just say you won't get five minutes with Miss Argentina in the men's room at the TPC at River Highlands.
10. There's no telling what you'll get when interviewing Phil Mickelson. At the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, it was all you can eat and everything you can ask -- Mickelson drove colleague Tim Rosaforte and me to an In-N-Out Burger for a late-afternoon feast of gristle and gripes, one being the length of the season. After 27 victories, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
9. Hanging in the fitness trailer at The Masters with Fred Couples -- the only guy on earth who can have three conversations at the same time and make you feel like the only person in the room. Regarding the Mickelson-Vijay Singh spike controversy, Couples indicted both men on charges of turning a molehill -- one that could have been flattened easily with the sole of a putter -- into a mountain.
8. In Dallas gathering thoughts on U.S. Open setups, I was pleasantly surprised by the candor of 2003 champion Jim Furyk, whose responses are usually no farther from the center of the fairway than one of his tee shots. Furyk lambasted the USGA's management of our national championship, admitting he was "embarrassed" on several occasions. I'd expect criticism from a bomber who has no chance to win the event, but Furyk, a guy I'd worked long and hard with to establish trust? He made my week.
7. As Tiger Woods headed to the British Open awards ceremony, swing coach Hank Haney could be found standing alone, tears leaking down his face. This was a guy who had basically been taken to the woodshed because the world's best player asked to work with him. I like Haney, and if you knew him, you'd like him, too, especially 10 minutes after you shook his hand, at which point you'd be wearing out the clubface.
6. The hour with Els was riveting. His complete recall of the 2004 Masters loss (to Mickelson) was as honest and detailed as any interview I've ever done. After Els' lousy 2005, which began with him blowing a chance to win the Mercedes (he hit his drive out-of-bounds on the 72nd hole) and ended with knee surgery in July, I can't help but wonder if his memory is too good for his own good.
5. Catching up with Olin Browne on the range at the Deutsche Bank Championship. For a half hour, Browne bemoaned the competitive "crisis" that might face the tour's rank and file after the 2007 schedule realignment. Four days later, he won his first tournament in more than six years. Talk about problem solving.
4. The human hysteria that envelops Woods is nothing new, although the chaos Friday at the Tour Championship was the worst. Maybe 50 people stuck around for an autograph, 90 percent of them adults, but as Tiger headed to the clubhouse, everyone started behaving like 6-year-olds on Christmas morning. Four security guards were there to "protect" Woods on his side of the railing; not a single rent-a-cop was assigned to monitor the crowd, where the frenzy turned dangerous. A kid is going to get seriously injured one of these days. It's not a story I'm looking forward to writing.
3. John Daly hitting golf balls with a cigarette in his mouth. I know smoking is hazardous to your health, but it will keep you from coming out of the shot.
2. Everybody loves a winner, especially Brad Faxon in Hartford. An hour after his victory, Fax was still neck-deep in media obligations -- and I hadn't gotten him one-on-one. Thank goodness he had to use the bathroom, where we chatted for five minutes, uninterrupted by a tour official, 1994 pro-am partner or radio guy.
1. Saturday evening at the U.S. Open, I was on the range minding my own business when Woods' caddie, Steve Williams, lit into me for spending 10 minutes with Woods on the practice green Tuesday. I was too flabbergasted to respond, but eventually I realized Tiger had missed about a half-dozen putts inside five feet through the first 54 holes. If I had any common sense, I'd tell Michael Campbell he owes me dinner.