One wild start to PGA Tour's 2011 season
Boy, it's too bad there's nothing to write about after the first week of the PGA Tour season.
In the opener, we witnessed defending champ Geoff Ogilvy being forced to withdraw, Camilo Villegas disqualified one day after a violation, a Shot of the Year candidate from Bubba Watson and a Worst Shot of the Year nominee from Jason Day.
Oh, and there happened to be a pretty entertaining final round at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, too, as Graeme McDowell set a blistering pace, falling short of a playoff between Jonathan Byrd and Robert Garrigus.
This edition of the Weekly 18 begins with the idea that Byrd's victory on the second extra hole was so unpredictable that we should have seen it coming.
1. Byrd is the word
Entering the PGA Tour's season-opening event, all of the punters, pickers, prognosticators and predictors tried to figure out which attribute of a player's game best suited Kapalua's Plantation Course.
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Experience? Length? Ballstriking? Turns out it was none of the above.
Strangely enough for the first event of the year, the most important aspect was momentum, as the last two men standing were the final two winners of official PGA Tour events last season.
Since moving to Maui in 1999, the champions list for this tournament reads like a who's who of the PGA Tour, with winners including Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk and Sergio Garcia. Byrd becomes -- by far -- the lowest-ranked player to win these past dozen editions of the event, but it's almost fitting.
After all, we're only a week removed from previewing the season with discussions about the game's elite players reaching new heights and its talented brigade of youngsters challenging them. Byrd's victory -- not to mention Garrigus' title contention -- serves as another reminder that today's fields are deeper than ever and any player can step up and beat anyone else on any given week.
Case in point: In his first 241 career PGA Tour starts, Byrd won three titles. He's now two for his last two, though, meaning he's either ready to break through into the next echelon or simply proving the any-given-week mantra.
The victory not only seals his place as the first qualifier for next year's tourney at Kapalua, but also punches his ticket for both the Masters and U.S. Open. (He wasn't previously in either field.) Will it launch the traditionally slow starter toward bigger and better things this season? Maybe, maybe not.
Only one thing is for sure: Even in fields featuring superstars, there's a very fine line between players of differing levels these days. Byrd didn't teach us that this week, but he did prove it once again.
In the days before his first career tournament in the Aloha State, McDowell was asked about the similarities between Hawaii and his native Northern Ireland.
"It's green, very green ... [and they] serve beer in bars," he said. "That's probably about the only similarities."
Well, the consensus worldwide player of the year from 2010 felt at home by the end of the week.
McDowell tied a Plantation Course record with a final-round 11-under 62 that included 11 birdies and seven pars, eventually leaving him in third place, a shot out of a playoff.
"When I birdied 13, 14, 15, 16, I thought, 'Hold on, I might have a little shot coming in here,'" he said afterward. "But the boys played fantastic this week and I was just happy to have a little sniff today."
After a season that included four wins and the clinching point at the Ryder Cup, on the surface he didn't need to prove anything else about his game, but McDowell made a controversial decision to switch from Callaway sponsorship to Srixon/Cleveland. It's the sort of move that has prohibited others from flourishing in the past; instead, it appears that GMac will only continue his torrid play this season.
That goes for everywhere from Northern Ireland to Hawaii.
3. LPGA Founders Cup
On the surface, the newest LPGA tournament sounds like a disaster waiting to happen -- or at the very least, a terrible precedent to set. Here's the gist: The tourney will be played March 18-20 at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Resort & Spa and will feature 132 players competing for ... nothing.
That's right. No paychecks will be handed out at the end of the week, as all proceeds will go toward the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program. There will be a "mock purse," though, meaning competitors will receive money toward their season-long earnings, though they won't actually get paid.
I'll admit that when I first heard the idea, I was more than a little skeptical. Then I spoke with LPGA commissioner Michael Whan and, well, I'm sold.
"You know, this isn't a company that you grow, then sell or give to your kids," he told me. "The LPGA is kind of a baton you get to run with for a few laps, then you hand it to the next group. We've got to make sure we hand it off better and this is an opportunity to make sure we do something that not only harkens back and pays respect to the people who put us here, but probably more importantly leaves the future of the game pretty cool.
"When I presented it to the players for the first time, I won't lie to you, I was holding my breath. They gave it a standing ovation and I remember saying, 'Before you sit down, I want you to remember next year when it's the Sunday before Founders and you're packing your bags and thinking, I can't believe I'm going to go play for no money, remember why you're standing and clapping right now. Because that's what we need you to do. One week a year, every year, let's make the game better.'"
It's a noble concept. As long as the LPGA's top players buy into it -- and it appears they already have -- it's an unconventional yet superb way to grow the game. And it could serve as Whan's legacy long after his tenure as commissioner is over.
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Entering the week, the reigning Open Championship title-holder was making headlines as one of five qualified players who chose to skip the PGA Tour's winners-only season opener. Unlike Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer, though, Oosthuizen eschewed the Pacific Ocean and palm trees to play in another event instead.
Competing in the Africa Open for the first time in his career, Oosthuizen posted a final-round 70 to join a three-man playoff with Manuel Quiros and Chris Wood. After hooking his tee shot on the par-4 18th hole -- the first extra frame -- Louie knocked his approach to 8 feet and sank the birdie putt to claim his eighth career victory at a pro.
"It's been one of those weeks where the putter was very cold, but my caddie kept me calm and said it would go in eventually," Oosthuizen said. "So I kept on trying and made that nice one on the last which I will remember."
Despite skipping the PGA Tour's first week, the man called Oosty will indeed be a full-time member for the first time this season. Red alert to those who thought he was a one-hit wonder at St. Andrews: Might want to rethink that stance.
5. Preseason injuries
You know who has a lot of preseason injuries? Football players. Between minicamp, training camp and four exhibition games, those guys undergo bumps, bruises and a whole lot worse before the games even mean anything.
Not to be outdone, a couple of high-profile golfers sustained injuries before the Tournament of Champions, too. Except, uh, they weren't exactly on helmet-to-helmet hits.
Zach Johnson hurt the big toe on his right foot when he tried to put out a fire while on vacation with his family. He later reported that the fire didn't do any damage -- other than to his toe, which developed an infection. His solution? He cut a hole in his DryJoy spikes and wrapped the open area in a plastic baggie. Wearing his shoe like that throughout the tourney, he was able to complete 72 holes and finish in a share of 23rd place.
Geoff Ogilvy wasn't so lucky. Going out for a quick ocean swim two days before the opening round, he tripped and broke his fall on some coral, cutting his right index finger in the process. The wound needed 12 stitches, knocking the defending back-to-back champion out of the event. He said he expects to return to action at Torrey Pines later this month.
While Camilo Villegas' rules violation might have been the most noteworthy of this past week, it was hardly the only one. Rohanna walked off the course after the final round of the Hooters Tour Winter Series event on Thursday believing he was the winner. He signed his scorecard -- and then came trouble. Tour official Ben Larsen explains:
"During the play of the 16th hole, Mr. Rohanna hit his tee shot [original ball] and an announced provisional ball near a similar area of out of bounds. The group searched for the balls and found a TaylorMade with Mr. Rohanna's similar markings. The other ball was not yet found. Mr. Rohanna played the hole out with the found ball and completed his round.
"In the scoring area, a formal complaint was issued by one of Mr. Rohanna's fellow competitors regarding the score he made on the 16th hole and whether the ball they had found was his original or his provisional. Mr. Rohanna believed the ball to be his original.
"Mr. Rohanna signed his scorecard and returned it to the committee for his score with the original ball. However, Mr. Rohanna, in announcing his provisional ball said he was playing a TaylorMade 5 (with his markings) and his original ball was a TaylorMade 3 (similar markings). An official was sent out to the 16th hole to search for the other ball to determine which one Mr. Rohanna had played. The official returned with a TaylorMade 3 (with similar markings), retrieved from the area in question.
"Mr. Rohanna now realized that there was a possibility that he played two golf balls with the same number and markings, as both his original ball and his provisional, and now was unable to determine which was which. In the USGA 2010-11 'Decisions on The Rules of Golf,' decision 27/11 'Provisional ball not distinguishable from original,' [it's stated] in situation 3 that 'The ball in bounds must be presumed to be the provisional ball.' So, by rule, Mr. Rohanna had signed and returned a lower score for the 16th hole and was disqualified under rule 6-6d 'Wrong score for Hole.'"
7. Sponsorship roulette
Walk into a ballpark before a baseball game and you'll invariably be greeted by the constant hum of a stadium vendor, shouting, "You can't tell the players without a scorecard!" Maybe the PGA Tour needs a few of these guys in the early part of the season.
That's because more than in any recent year, big-name players have switched equipment manufacturers, and it sounds like some wacky love triangle -- or in this case, maybe a love hexagon. Trevor Immelman switched from Nike to Callaway; Graeme McDowell switched from Callaway to Srixon; Tim Clark switched from Srixon to Titleist; Davis Love III switched from Titleist to Bridgestone; Charles Howell III switched from Bridgestone to Mizuno; Jeff Overton switched from Mizuno to Cleveland. Toss in the likes of Jim Furyk (switched to TaylorMade), Camilo Villegas (TaylorMade), Brian Davis (Titleist), Kevin Streelman (Wilson) and probably a bunch more I'm either forgetting or haven't heard about yet, and we'll need to get used to plenty of guys wearing different hats, not to mention playing new sticks and carrying new bags.
(Rocco Mediate, on the other hand, has not only eschewed all manufacturers, but has embraced the notion of playing mix-and-match, appearing in a commercial for sponsor Dick's Sporting Goods with dozens of logos appearing all over his clothing.)
On the surface, it's not a bad thing for these players. Each has likely moved onto a new company because he believes that is what's best for the long-term prospects of his game. But as we've often seen in the past, these changes don't equate to certain success right away.
Expect some growing pains for at least some of the aforementioned players. And if you see a vendor selling a scorecard of these changes, take him up on the offer.
8. I wish it made sense why Francesco Molinari was in the Tournament of Champions field.
I like Francesco Molinari. Good guy, good player. Deserves any accolades that come his way.
Except entry into this past week's field.
Actually, I don't mind him being included so much as I'm still scratching my head over why and how it happened. You see, Molinari triumphed at last year's late-season HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai, a WGC event that is PGA Tour-sanctioned, but counts as unofficial money and doesn't come with the two-year exemption granted to all other winners.
It does, however, include a ticket to Kapalua for the season opener.
Consider it the PGA Tour's version of being a little bit pregnant.
Kudos to Molinari, who unlike a handful of his international brethren, decided to make the long trip to the Aloha State and compete in the event, finishing in a share of 15th place.
It still feels a little strange, though, that his officially unofficial victory -- or was it an unofficially official one? -- comes with a Kapalua consolation prize.
My solution: If the PGA Tour wants to sanction the event, it should go all in and afford the winner all of the same rewards that come with every other title.
9. I wish the finality of signing a scorecard would change.
I'll let you click here for my thoughts on the Camilo Villegas disqualification, which came one day after the opening round at Kapalua.
As I've often stated in this space, there's no point in bringing up a problem unless you've got a solution, and there's one that has been gaining a groundswell of support in recent days.
Change the rule which states signing an incorrect scorecard is grounds for disqualification on the PGA Tour.
I couldn't agree more with this one. You see, Villegas wasn't disqualified for flicking away a loose piece of turf as his ball rolled down a slope and back toward his feet. He was disqualified because he didn't assess himself a penalty, signed his scorecard and was later found to have violated the rule.
Of course, if the signing of the scorecard wasn't sacrosanct, Villegas could have returned the next day, given himself the appropriate penalty and continued playing for the remainder of the tournament.
This is a matter of the punishment fitting the crime. When the Rules of Golf first put this one into place, there were no television graphics or live Internet scoring or even electronic scoreboards on the courses. A player's scorecard was the only efficient way of knowing a player's score.
While the USGA and R&A might want to keep this rule in place for other levels, the PGA Tour can certainly adopt its own laws when it comes to similar situations. If that doesn't make sense, consider this: If Villegas' scenario had taken place in the final round instead of the first, he wouldn't have been DQ'd afterward.
It's a silly, outdated rule that cost him 54 holes and official earnings at this tourney. It shouldn't have to cost anyone else down the road.
10. I wish for some great stories to tell in 2011.
You're a fan. You root for your favorite player and stand by him at all times, from the highs of tournament titles to the lows of Friday afternoon trunk-slamming.
Maybe he tossed you a sweaty golf glove after an otherwise forgettable practice round back in 1989. Maybe you went to grade school with his cousin's neighbor's friend. Or maybe he's just, you know, good at golf. Whatever the case, we all have a rooting interest.
Me? I'm a journalist. I root for the story. Here are 11 of 'em I'd like to see take place during the upcoming 2011 season. Full Story
11. Quote of the week
"I would play him for the presidency. I would play him for hundreds of millions of dollars." --Donald Trump on Golf Channel's "Morning Drive," when asked about the prospect of playing golf against President Obama.
Interesting idea. Of course, if the presidency was determined by winning golf matches, the United States would probably be under British control again.
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.
12. McDowell proves a point
13. Fact or fiction
PGA Tour pros should consent to wearing a microphone during competition.
No, they shouldn't consent. They should request it. Hell, they should even demand it.
This idea is all about featuring players and getting fans closer to the action. Sounds like a win-win for both parties, right? Well, it is. And yet, many players are balking at the idea of being miked up while playing. In fact, of those who were asked by Golf Channel prior to the opening round at the Tournament of Champions, every single one turned down the request. First-round leader Jonathan Byrd accepted the invitation for Round 2, but technical difficulties prevented it from happening.
Let's get something straight: I'm in favor of creativity across the board. As long as something isn't breaking one of the Rules of Golf or isn't an eyesore for the game, let's try it and see how it works out.
Perhaps those players who are opposed to wearing a microphone should be treated to a viewing party of HBO's recent "24/7" series featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. The raw, behind-the-scenes footage might not have always painted a pretty picture of life as an athlete, but it did bring viewers closer to the players and afforded a glimpse into their lives. Same goes for the long-running soundtracks of NFL Films, which has taken players largely unrecognizable on the field due to helmets and pads, and depicted them as the people they really are.
Think about it: Which golfers have gained the largest fan bases over the past year? I contend Ian Poulter, Bubba Watson, Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell are each near the top. Why? Well, they're elite players, sure, but through Twitter each has opened himself to the public and proved to be a likable personality, rather than just another name on the leaderboard.
By the same measure, all players should be willing to show a different side of themselves -- even if it comes during the heat of competition.
"I think it will work if we get some cooperation," Jack Graham, executive producer for Golf Channel, told The Associated Press. "But it's problematic. Some players will do it. Some won't."
That's a shame. In today's age, players need to market themselves -- and the game -- in any way possible. The above statement is a FACT. Hopefully, more players will see it that way soon, too.
14. The List
This past week's Tournament of Champions was a tournament to showcase, well, champions. (Yes, I figured that one out all on my own.) As the season's first full-field event, though, the upcoming Sony Open will feature many unknowns.
That includes 11 full-time PGA Tour members who have never before competed in a PGA Tour event. This week's edition of The List includes one tidbit on each of these newbies, courtesy of their official bios.
1. Keegan Bradley: Nephew of LPGA Hall of Famer Pat Bradley.
2. Fabian Gomez: Lists Tiger Woods and Diego Maradona as his heroes.
3. Scott Gordon: First car was a 1997 diesel Mercedes-Benz.
4. Sunghoon Kang: Has one brother who also doubles as his caddie.
5. Bio Kim: Youngest player on tour won't turn 21 until August.
6. Kevin Kisner: Dream foursome includes Tiger Woods, Will Smith and Megan Fox.
7. Matt McQuillan: Only listed special interest is bartending.
8. Nate Smith: Never travels without his "lucky blankie."
9. Scott Stallings: Favorite movies are "The Bourne Identity," "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum."
10. Brendan Steele: Uncle (Anthony Geary) plays Luke on "General Hospital."
11. Will Strickler: Dual major (anthropology, economics) at University of Florida.
15. Stat of the week
In 34 PGA Tour rounds since shooting 59 during the final day of last year's Greenbrier Classic, Stuart Appleby hasn't come closer than 10 strokes within that number.
Since then, he's shot 69 (three times), 70 (six times), 71 (four times), 72 (seven times), 73 (six times), 74 (three times), 75 (once), 76 (once), 77 (once), 78 (once) and 80 (once). That includes rounds of 69-75-73-72 at the Tournament of Champions, where he finished 30th in the 32-man final field.
His total scoring average over those 34 subsequent rounds? It's 72.38, more than 13 strokes higher than his magic number at the Greenbrier.
16. Hot Seat: Michael Whan
The 2011 LPGA schedule was finally released on Jan. 6. I spoke with LPGA commissioner Michael Whan about why it took so long and what the women's tour needs to do in order to find greater success this season.
Q: This year's schedule came out later than usual. What took so long?
A: Well, we had two things going on. We had a date conflict with one of our Asian events and we knew that if we moved that event, we would have to move all events in the back half of the year. It was something where I didn't want to offend anybody in the local country or here and I certainly wanted to keep the title sponsor happy, so what I said to my group was, "I may take some heat for it, but I'd rather keep the business partner happy than worry about what someone is going to say back here."
Q: One-word answer: In your first year as commissioner, was the LPGA successful?
A: Yes. I'm a guy who hates status quo, so I'm not at all happy with where we are, but if you ask, "Are we successful?" you have to get back to the mission of the LPGA. And that is to empower and inspire and educate women via the best golfers in the world. There's no doubt we're doing that. I don't care where you come from in the world and how old your daughter is, we're providing not only role models but opportunity through the game of golf and that's what we're here to do.
Q: That leads to my next question: What will make for a successful 2011 season?
A: My hope is that in 2011 we'll get to continue a little bit of what we finished 2010 with, which is this global chase to be the best player in the world and having it bounce back and forth. I mean, you know from following other sports that we have a pretty unique thing. The best players in the world all play on one tour. I mean, we show up in Hamilton Farms, N.J., and it's an Olympic event. We're going to tee off with 30 different countries and the best players worldwide. It doesn't happen three times a year on our tour, it doesn't happen occasionally. This is golf's global tour and hopefully we can continue to do that. And the other thing is that we'll hopefully get a greater group of non-golf enthusiasts to see what's really going on with the best female golfers on the planet.
Q: Name three players the LPGA needs to step up and play well this year.
A: I say this and I really believe it, but I really don't think the LPGA is dependent on any one player. I think people believe that's a negative, but I always say, "Then who's the one player the NFL is tied to? Because there's clearly not a problem with the NFL."
I have three sons and each one has a different face of the NFL in their mind. One believes it's Tom Brady, one believes it's Peyton Manning, one believes it's Drew Brees. I think that's a pretty powerful formula and we'd like to get to the same place. If you ask somebody in Japan who the face of the LPGA is, they might say Ai Miyazato; if you ask someone in Korea, they might say Jiyai Shin; if you ask someone in America, they'll say Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr or Michelle Wie; in Europe, they'll say Suzann Pettersen. I think that's awesome.
We have players who move the needle more than others, but the good news is that most of our superstars are incredibly young and have their best golf left to play. So I think I'm going to be stupid-lucky as commissioner and get to be here while the best players in the world are truly blossoming.
17. Photo of the week
Yes, I know this was taken on Jan. 4, but it's already got Photo of the Year candidate written all over it.
Sent in by competitor (and friend of the W18) Ben Herrera, this sign was posted just above a locker room urinal at the Hooters Tour Winter Series event in Haines City, Fla.
By the way, my man Herrera isn't just a burgeoning photographer. He finished T-19 in the 109-man field this week.
18. And the Winner Is ...
Well, last week's pick of Bubba Watson played well enough to grab a top-25 finish. And, uh, that's about the last I'm going to say about that.
Hey, they can't all be winners, but this week's pick can be. After all, I'm going with a guy who already has two Sony Open victories on his resume. He's also gotten one other prerequisite out of the way for my annual choice at this tournament: He's already spent a week in Hawaii.
Whether it's the jetlag, too much time staring at the sunset or maybe an infatuation with hula girls, I'd rather pick someone who's already gotten both the subtleties and luxuries of the Aloha State out of his system at Kapalua. It's not unfounded, either. Seven of the last nine Sony Open winners first played in Maui one week earlier.
And so my selection to win this week's tournament is ... Ernie Els.
Granted, those who watched the Big Easy putt all over the Plantation Course might not agree. This past week, Els averaged 32.3 putts per round, including an eye popping -- and for him, maybe eye-gouging -- 34 in the first round and 36 in the third.
The greens at Waialae are much more forgiving, though. A ball-striker's paradise, the course suits Els' game. Since his wins in 2003 and '04, he has a runner-up, T-12 and T-39 in three starts. He's also coming off a win at the South African Open just three weeks ago. So despite those recent putting woes, he isn't that far removed from playing some really good golf.