Even pros need to clean out the cobwebs
PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- It is the time of year when the Masters is on their minds.
Players often talk about the Florida Swing as the run-up to the year's first major championship. The conditions might not necessarily approximate those they will find at Augusta National in three weeks, but these tournaments do help frame their competitive mindset.
Steve Stricker said he begins to think about shots he will play around the storied venue. Adam Scott discussed trying to figure out the best way to go into the tournament. Ian Poulter will be off after this week's Transitions Championship to prepare for the Masters.
None of them would ever recommend showing up at Augusta National not having played a tournament -- which is exactly what Tiger Woods will be attempting to do next month.
Woods announced Tuesday that he will make his first start of the year at the Masters. The fewest times he had ever played as a pro heading to the tournament was the three events he played last year.
"I would imagine he's going to be a little rusty," said Stricker, who is the second-ranked player in the world and is playing this week's tournament at Innisbrook as well as the Arnold Palmer Invitational next week.
"He has not played a round of golf since November. Doesn't matter who you are. You are going to be competitively under the gun. You're going to be a little bit rusty.
"How long is it going to take? Who knows? It could take nine holes for him to get back into it. It could take him a couple of holes. It could take him a couple of rounds. He's a great player, great competitor, and so I expect him to be there at the end."
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Woods has never played the Transitions Championship, a tree-lined, undulating course that has more of a North Carolina look than a Florida one.
But the greens are fast and there is pine straw off the fairways. Fourteen of the top 25 players in the world are here for a course that offers a competitive test that can't be found at home.
Nonetheless, Woods has had success after long layoffs in the past, six times winning his first tournament of the year. Perhaps most impressive of all was when he went more than two months between the 2008 Masters and U.S. Open -- and barely having practiced because of knee surgery -- and still won the Open at Torrey Pines in a playoff.
"He's had long stretches off in the past and he's come back and won the first week out," said Kenny Perry. "I don't see how people do that. I really don't understand that. I cannot process that in my head. It's like a billion dollars; that doesn't compute with me. He's going to astound us all if he goes out there and wins the thing."
Among the difficulties Augusta presents are, among other things, speedy greens and the need for precise second shots plus excellent chipping.
"I think it's a tough place to start," said U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin. "But if anybody can be successful coming back at Augusta after a period of time off, it would be Tiger. Any major is going to be tough. But the precision you need at Augusta I think is the greatest of any major. The touch, the feel you need. It's a very difficult place to play at any time, without having a layoff."
The competitive aspect is another matter. No player since Ben Hogan in 1953 has made the Masters his first official start and won. Probably no other player would try.
"Obviously, this whole Florida stretch that I'm playing is geared to just start playing well, get my game in shape for Augusta, just get rounds under my belt," Stricker said.
Poulter is looking ahead, as well.
"Although I'm not thinking of Augusta yet, it is there, and I have got practice plans for the next two weeks to try and work out my best way to get around Augusta National," Poulter said.
Scott said he is playing this week because he likes the course and wants to get into contention and find some form heading into the Masters. He also will play in Houston the week before the year's first major.
"I think I've figured out over 10 years of playing that there is no one way to do it," Scott said. "There isn't, really. At least, I haven't.
"[Tiger] might be the closest guy to have figured it out. Who knows the course better than him? It's hard to think he's never got a chance."
Padraig Harrington was at Innisbrook on Wednesday morning showing off the gift he was taking to Washington, D.C., for his visit with President Barack Obama as part of a St. Patrick's Day celebration.
Before leaving for the airport, Harrington was in the locker room with a brand-new Wilson bag that had the presidential seal embroidered on the outside. Inside was a brand-new set of Wilson clubs -- irons, woods and putter. And they were left-handed, in honor of the first golfer.
Harrington noted that Wilson, which has been his longtime sponsor, is based in Chicago, where the president got his start in politics.
The three-time major champion was on his way to the White House to meet Obama along with an Irish delegation. He was due to return to Florida late Wednesday night and, much to his delight, has an afternoon tee time Thursday for the opening round of the Transitions Championship.
Harig's head-scratcher of the week
The PGA Tour's announcement Wednesday that CA would be dropping its sponsorship of the World Golf Championship at Doral was not a surprise. The company was in the last year of its four-year deal to sponsor the WGC tournament, and typically these things get resolved before the event is played for the final year of the contract. The fact that it didn't was a strong indication that CA would not be sticking around.
The tour not only has a sponsorship hole to fill but has a big one, given the extra cost of sponsoring a WGC. Regular tour events typically run in the $7-8 million range per year. A WGC can be more than $10 million.
So what does the tour do? The first guess is that it will try to find a sponsor that will simply fill the hole in Miami. But what if a potential title sponsor would rather move the event around from year to year or simply play it somewhere else?
There is nothing that says a WGC event has to be located in Miami. The tour could elect to move it someplace else, which is not as easy as it sounds. An existing tournament sponsor would be required to pony up more cash for the event. And there is the question of who would run the event, given that the WGCs are under the umbrella of the PGA Tour.
And then there is the future of a PGA Tour event in Miami, period. It is hard to comprehend a tour schedule without an event there. Doral has been home to an event every year since 1962, and the Blue Monster is now part of the TPC network, making it all the more likely that everything will be done to get a new sponsor on board.
So you want to play
Innisbrook. You'll have your choice of four courses on the resort property, including the Copperhead, home to the Transitions Championship. Most rates are inclusive of a resort stay. For example, a condo with a round of golf on the Copperhead is going for $308 per night, based on double occupancy. Rates vary based on the season.
The resort's Island course, where an LPGA Legends Tour event is played, is where Phil Mickelson won one of his three NCAA individual titles while playing for Arizona State in 1990.
The Copperhead has been home to PGA Tour golf since 1990, when the former mixed-team JCPenney Classic was played at the course through 1999. The event then became an opposite-field PGA Tour event before getting its own date in 2003 for what was then called the Chrysler Championship. This is the fourth year the event is being played in the spring, the second with Transitions as sponsor.
For more information, visit www.innisbrookgolfresort.com.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
Birdies and Bogeys
1. Ernie Els. The Big Easy's victory at Doral in the year's biggest tournament to date was a welcome win in the golf world.
2. Charl Schwartzel. The South African gave his countryman Els a good fight before faltering down the stretch. He all but locked up his PGA Tour card if he wants it.
3. Tiger Woods. The speculation about his return is finally over.
1. American golfers. It wasn't a very impressive performance by Americans at Doral. The World Golf Championship event ended with just two Americans in the top 10 -- Matt Kuchar (T3) and Bill Haas (T6).
2. Phil Mickelson. Lefty has been far from awful, just not as impressive as we expected after the strong end to last season. He hit just 20 fairways at Doral, last in the field. His wife's cancer treatment could be taking a toll, so you can't jump on Mickelson too much. We just figured he would be off to a faster start. He has added next week's Arnold Palmer Invitational to his schedule to try to work out the issues.
3. Ratings. According to Sports Business Journal, golf's weekend television ratings are down 18 percent from last year for the first 10 weeks of the season. The interesting thing to note is that Tiger Woods did not play on the weekend for the first 10 weeks last year, either, so last year's numbers were not enhanced by his presence.
• The Transitions Championship has attracted its best field since the tournament moved from the fall to the spring in 2007. It has four of the top 10 players in the world and 14 of the top 25.
• There has yet to be a multiple winner this year on the PGA Tour, with 12 events having been played. The last time the PGA Tour went this far into a season without multiple winners was 2004, when Phil Mickelson became the first to win for a second time in the 15th week.
• The Copperhead course was one of just nine on the PGA Tour last year to yield a stroke average of more than 1 stroke over par.
"When I finally got into a position to think about competitive golf again, it became apparent to me that the Masters would be the earliest I could play."
-- Tiger Woods, in his statement this week announcing that he would return to golf at the Masters.
Catching up with the '09 champ
Retief Goosen captured his seventh PGA Tour title -- and second at Innisbrook -- when he won last year's Transitions Championship by shooting all four rounds under par. The victory was his first in nearly four years on the PGA Tour. He went on to finish 11th on the PGA Tour money list with more than $3.2 million in the bank and was 18th in the final FedEx Cup standings.
Goosen, 41, got off to a good start this year with three top-6 finishes in his first four events, including a fourth at the Sony Open in Hawaii. He is coming off a tie for 56th at the WGC-CA Championship at Doral.
Transitions Championship picks
Horse for the Course. Charles Howell. He is playing the tournament for the eighth straight time and has two top-10 finishes, including a tie for second last year.
Birdie Buster. Sean O'Hair. The 2008 winner of the tournament is coming into the week after shooting 66 on Sunday at Doral, his best round of the year.
Super Sleeper. Ryo Ishikawa. The Japanese phenom spent last week at his high school graduation.
Winner. Stewart Cink. The British Open champion is coming off a 65 on Sunday at Doral and gets his first post-major victory.