Originally Published: February 20, 2011

Aaron Baddeley back in the saddle with L.A. win

Sobel By Jason Sobel
ESPN.com
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Auto racing and golf have absolutely nothing in common. Or do they …?

There were 15 caution flags at the Daytona 500. The final groups during weekend rounds at Riviera played like they were under a caution flag.

There were a few major wrecks down the stretch of the race. Tournament leaders each hit the wall, too, crashing and burning on Sunday afternoon.

Fresh-faced Trevor Bayne earned the trip to Victory Lane, an unlikely hero among superstars. Former phenom Aaron Baddeley clinched the win while contending alongside some of the game's biggest names.

OK, so maybe they do have a little in common.

Here's one more: Once a driver has shown he knows how to win, it's difficult to ever count him out of contention. Same goes in golf, where it was proven once again this week that talented players never completely fade away.

1. Never say never

Great golfers don't retire. If they're like Vijay Singh, they just keep digging for secrets in the dirt. If they're like Fred Couples, they just keep hoping for another magic dusting from the golf gods.

We were treated to yet another in a long line of reminders this past weekend at the Northern Trust Open, where Singh finished solo second and Couples grabbed a share of seventh place. Their coinciding performances might not have been as dramatic as those of Jack Nicklaus winning the 1986 Masters or Tom Watson losing the 2009 Open Championship, but the song remained the same.

Never discredit the chances of a one-time great.

This is a fickle game. I don't know what exactly separates the best surgeon in the world from the 100th best or the best plumber from the 500th best, but in golf there's very little between those at the very elite level of the profession and those journeymen still scrambling to make the big time.

To refresh a theme from last week's column, players such as Lee Westwood and Steve Stricker were once very, very good, then -- to put it bluntly -- they weren't. And then they were again. I guess the moral of the story is to never say never when it comes to waiting for accomplished competitors to reach that apex once again.

Read into that, if you'd like, some context on guys like Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia. If they were paying attention on Sunday, they witnessed another player -- not Singh or Couples -- who was an elite talent at a young age, but never quite brought his talents to fruition.

Check that. Maybe he's just now doing it.

Aaron Baddeley earned just his third career victory exactly a dozen years after claiming the Australian Open title as an amateur. Baddeley has never sunk to truly troublesome levels -- he's finished in the top 125 on the money list in each of his first eight seasons -- but at No. 224 on the Official World Golf Ranking, he wasn't exactly lighting it up, either.

The stories of Baddeley, Singh and Couples are eminently distinctive and yet ultimately they boil down to the same message: Once a player knows how to climb a leaderboard, we should never be shocked to see his name on one ever again.

Three up

2. Aaron Baddeley

What a strange season 2010 was for Baddeley.

Check some of his numbers and it looks like a very solid campaign. He made the cut in 21 of 26 starts and reached the second level of the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Take a look at some others, though, and you'll find a guy who struggled. He posted only two top-10 results and just two others in the top 25 while qualifying for only one of the four major championships.

It was a far departure from his back-to-back winning seasons in 2006 and '07, when he collected nearly $5 million in earnings for those two years combined. Much of Baddeley's resurgence he credits to leaving the stack-and-tilt theory of instruction and teaming up once again with his childhood instructor Dale Lynch.

"Dale and I, we had an end product that we knew what I was working towards and I knew I was going to get there," Baddeley said after winning by two strokes Sunday at Riviera. "Whether it took another year that might have been frustrating, but at the same sense, I knew what I was working towards. Even though I got frustrated at times and discouraged at times, I knew my end goal, so I was able to be patient. That was the key. ... I really feel like there was a lot of character that was being built over the last couple years."

Baddeley won the tournament just in time to become the sixth player in his 20s with at least three career titles. He turns 30 exactly 25 days after claiming the trophy. Sounds like the perfect time for a resurgence.

3. Yani Tseng

[+] Enlarge
Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty ImagesYani Tseng has teed it up four times in pro events in 2011 and brought home the victory each time, including in the LPGA season opener on Sunday in Thailand.

It's difficult to compare any golfer to Tiger Woods during his most successful periods, but Tseng has earned such a comparison during the year's first two months.

Following up victories at the Taifong Ladies Open, Women's Australian Open and ANZ Ladies Masters, the world's No. 1-ranked player made it 4-for-4 in 2011 by taking the LPGA season-opening Honda LPGA Thailand by 5 strokes on Sunday.

And yes, the streak recalls Woods, the last player to pull off such a feat on a major professional tour. In 2008, the erstwhile No. 1 in the men's game started his season with wins at the Buick Invitational, Dubai Desert Classic, WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational.

"It feels really good," Tseng said after a final-round 6-under 66. "I have lots of confidence and I'm looking forward to next week to see if I can win."

Yes, she will tee it up in Singapore next in her drive for five, the point at which Woods finally succumbed to the competition three years ago, finishing a mere fifth at Doral.

If Tseng can claim yet another title, well, it might be time to break open those record books. It isn't easy to research how many players have won in their first five starts in a season when those tournaments are spread out on different tours -- her four wins have come in events sanctioned by a total of four different tours -- but you can bet that number isn't very great at all.

4. Blair O'Neal

One professional golfer was featured in the recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Well, sort of.

O'Neal may not have been one of the magazine's swimsuit models, but she was featured inside wearing a bikini, thanks to a full-page advertisement from Cobra Golf.

After playing at Arizona State, she took time off from the game to focus on modeling for three years. Winning Golf Channel's "Big Break" program rekindled her competitive juices, though, and she's now looking to clinch an LPGA Tour card.

Make no mistake: O'Neal isn't simply a professional model who plays some golf on the side.

"I'm a golfer who models," she told me. "My passion is to play golf. I love competing; I love competitive golf. I think it was a good thing to take some time off. It gave me some time to explore another career. I took a different path than a lot of the players that are out there, but I came back to the game a little more grown up and more experienced -- and that shows in my golf game, too."

O'Neal, who owns no LPGA status despite reaching the final stage of Q-School last year, said she will likely make her season debut at the Kia Classic, barring any last-minute exemptions for anything sooner. She hopes to Monday qualify and receive sponsor's exemptions for LPGA tourneys, while playing LET and Futures Tour events during the season, as well.

She also understands there might be some backlash from her more accomplished counterparts who haven't exactly been elevated to full-page bikini status yet -- and she's OK with that.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't expect to see or hear any of that, but that's just a part of life in any career," she said. "Anytime someone reaches some success, there will be people who are supportive and positive, then people who aren't -- and that's fine. I know that going in. As long as I'm aware of it, that's fine."

As if you needed further proof at O'Neal's dedication toward her current craft, I asked whether she's rather win an LPGA title or score a multi-million dollar deal as the next big-time supermodel. She didn't even hesitate with an answer.

"I would choose to have the longevity on the LPGA Tour," she explained. "I know that I can compete on that level and have the game. This will be my first year where I'm going to have some opportunities to do that."

Three down

5. Luke Donald

Even though he was one of the last full-time PGA Tour members to make a start this season, Donald was a popular fantasy pick going into the Northern Trust Open.

And for good reason. In his last three starts at Riviera, he finished sixth or better each time, including a solo second place one year ago, when he closed 2 strokes off the pace set by champion Steve Stricker.

So it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise when Donald jumped right into the thick of things in his first round of 2011, firing a 3-under 68 on Thursday to get into the mix.

What happened next is the reason nobody gets rich prognosticating golf tournaments.

After opening with a birdie in the second round, Donald played the final 17 holes in 9 over, posting a 79 that left him 2 shots shy of the cutline.

"I didn't do much well today," the world's ninth-ranked player told Reuters. "I didn't scramble well, I didn't make the putts when I needed to and I hit a few bad tee shots. & I just wasn't in sync and everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong."

Considering it was Donald's first start of the season, this one round shouldn't be cause for alarm. But you've got to wonder whether next year he'll make an attempt to at least get one appearance under his belt before heading to a venue at which he's played so well in the past.

6. Bubba Watson

On the same week a supercomputer named Watson summarily dismissed human "Jeopardy!" opponents, its golfing namesake suffered a hard drive malfunction.

Less than three weeks removed from winning his second career title at Torrey Pines, Bubba was hampered by a pulled oblique muscle entering the Northern Trust Open that was so bad he made two emergency room visits prior to the opening round.

Following a 5-over 76 on Thursday, the non-computerized Watson was forced to withdraw from the tournament in hopes of remaining healthy enough to tee it up at the upcoming WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship for the first time. He later tweeted, "I just need some rest, 125 mph golf swing does not help with pain!!!!"

Even though Watson wants to give it a go in Tucson this week, with his card clinched through 2013 and Masters and U.S. Open invitations already earned, he would be well served to heed his own advice and rest up until fully healthy.

As for that other Watson? I like Iron Byron to unplug him in match play.

7. Henrik Stenson

Four years ago, Stenson won six straight matches at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, defeating Geoff Ogilvy in the final to ascend to No. 5 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

This week? He's the last man in.

Stenson was originally knocked from the field when he dropped to 65th in the world two weeks ago, the culmination of a disappointing 12-month span that began with him in the top 10. (He's since replaced 64th-ranked Toru Taniguchi, who withdrew with a back injury.) So far this season, he's played just the three Middle East events, finishing T-42 in Abu Dhabi before missing the cut in Qatar and his adopted home city of Dubai.

What's been the problem? Well, just about everything. Let's compare Stenson's stats on the Euro Tour from that '07 season to his numbers so far this year:

In '07, he averaged 300.7 yards off the tee; this year, he's down to 289.3. In '07, he hit 57.88 percent of fairways; this year, he's down to 50. In '07, he hit 70.88 percent of greens in regulation; this year, he's down to 62.50.

All of which has led to this result: In '07, he compiled a scoring average of 71.63 strokes per round; this year, he's up to 72.75.

Perhaps all he needs is another chance. Considering his record at this event -- he also finished third in 2008 -- Stenson could make some noise this week once again.

Three wishes

8. I wish trying to prognosticate this week's upcoming event wasn't impossible.

Trying to predict golf tournaments is an exercise in futility, but trying to predict the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship might be the literal definition of "inexact science."

And yet, that doesn't mean we can't employ some prior knowledge in an attempt to prognosticate what might take place this week outside Tucson.

Let's break down the four brackets to help with those annual office pools -- for, uh, entertainment purposes only, of course. Full story

9. I wish there was a better name for Tiger Woods' recent incident than "Spitgate."

A quick history lesson for the young pups reading this column: In 1972, the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, located on the sixth floor of the Watergate Hotel, were burglarized. The ensuing investigation revealed that high-level officials in the Nixon administration had authorized the break-in and tried to cover it up.

Since then, just about every scandal imaginable has been branded with the "-gate" suffix, even the 99.9 percent of which that have nothing to do with the Watergate Hotel.

And so it happens that after Tiger Woods hocked a loogie -- or, if you prefer, "hawked a loogey" -- on the 12th green during the final round in Dubai last week, it was instantly hailed worldwide as "Spitgate." Let it be known for the record, though, that there is no Spitgate Hotel anywhere in that city.

Of course, this branding is hardly my only pet peeve about the entire episode. I find it rude and a little gross that Woods chose that exact moment to expectorate on the putting surface, but I'm hardly outraged. As one former major champion told me, "As long as [he] tamped it down, I'm fine with it." And yes, he did tamp it down.

I'm more outraged -- actually, "amazed" is probably a better word -- at the ensuing media coverage that was given to the spit seen 'round the world. It's hardly uncommon for golfers to release a little saliva on the course. And yet, this one triggered a legitimate 72-hour global news cycle, in which even entities like CNN were breaking down the incident like Kramer and Newman after their accusation of Keith Hernandez.

It just goes to show once again that there's a zero tolerance policy when it comes to Woods -- especially since his personal scandal of the past 16 months. Whether it's right or wrong, the guy's got to be on his best behavior at all times. This situation was simply one more reminder of that truth.

10. I wish the PGA Tour would have gone further with its new mobile device policy.

Kudos to Tim Finchem and friends for this past week's announcement that PGA Tour ticket-holders will now be allowed to attend tournaments armed with cell phones. Quite simply, the tour was losing fans who couldn't afford to be out of pocket for extended periods of time while watching the pros tee it up. As stated in the press release, people have become accustomed to placing their ringers on silent in places like movie theaters and restaurants; it won't be difficult to have that translate to the golf course, too.

What will be difficult is trying to enforce a policy that bans social media and amateur photography. This isn't exactly breaking news, but phones are no longer just for phone calls; they serve as an outlet to the world in various communicative forms.

Instead of letting fans ride the bike without the training wheels, the PGA Tour should have encouraged the use of all cell phone applications at its tournaments. Think of the possibilities: Fans could tweet news from the course. They could post favorite photographs to Facebook. They could even blog about the experience while still having the experience.

To its credit, the PGA Tour is supporting initiatives for such interactivity starting at the upcoming WGC-Cadillac Championship. Prior to the event, there will be a Twitter scavenger hunt and social media happy hours; during the tournament rounds, there will be a social media zone where fans will be encouraged to spread the word. In each instance, however, they must first join the tournament's social media network in order to participate, meaning the PGA Tour will be able to control the message throughout the event.

Let's face it, though: The fact is, people are going to do these things anyway -- whether the tour likes it or not. Officials are kidding themselves if they believe they can allow fans to use their phones, but police fans in the limitations of how they're actually used. It's great that people will be trusted to use cell phones on the course, but they should be able to do so without the training wheels. After all, they're going to ride those bikes wherever they'd like anyway. The PGA Tour might as well support it.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.

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