Aaron Baddeley back in the saddle with L.A. win
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.
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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.
An Age-Old Question
As much as many around Riviera rooted for 51-year-old Fred Couples to win his 16th PGA Tour title Sunday, there's a reason older guys usually don't finish first on the PGA Tour, writes Bob Harig. Column
Aaron Baddeley might be separated from Vijay Singh and Fred Couples by a couple of decades, but their story rings true in the fickle game of golf, writes Jason Sobel. Weekly 18
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.
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.
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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
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."
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.
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.
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.
11. Don't expect more match play
12. On the Hot Seat: Sergio Garcia
In three starts on the European Tour this season, Garcia has finished 30th or better each time, though he's failed to seriously contend down the back stretch on Sunday afternoon.
Consider it baby steps for the man now ranked 81st in the world.
Appearing in New York City this past week, Garcia talked about trying to regain his love for the game, his perception among the public and what he did on his leave of absence last year.
Q: You took an extended break late last season. How was it?
A: It was great. It was awesome. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made.
Q: What did you do?
A: I chilled, I played football -- well, soccer, the real football -- played tennis, spent time with family and friends. It was really good.
Q: You've been playing well lately. How optimistic are about your game right now?
A: It's definitely feeling a little better, but it's still a work in progress. There are still a lot of things that we have to keep getting better at.
Q: What are you working on right now?
A: I'm really trying to work on the whole game, every aspect. I'm also trying to work on the attitude and get back to enjoying the game and being out there and having as good a time as I possibly can.
Q: It sounds like you haven't been having a good time to this point. Is that a fair assessment?
A: Yeah, definitely.
Q: Why not?
A: I don't know. If I knew the reason, I would have fixed it earlier.
Q: A lot of people would say, "You're a professional golfer, you get to travel the world, playing for lots of money. It's the greatest job ever." Can you explain how that can become not fun?
A: Well, the thing is, it is great -- don't get me wrong. Like you said, it's awesome. You get to travel a lot, you get to meet a lot of nice people, but at the same time you miss a lot of things to do. What people don't realize, they look at you and say, "He's only been playing for 11 or 12 years." But it's not true. I've been traveling and missing Christmas and missing friends' birthdays -- things like that -- since I was 12. So after a while, you do need a little bit of a break to kind of see things a little clearer.
Q: Do you think the public tends to forget that you're a guy who has 18 career wins? There's a sense from most fans that you should have won more by now.
A: I think you win some that you maybe don't deserve and then you lose some that you probably deserve to win. It evens out. But at the end of the day, it's still pretty good. If you look at my career, it's not a bad career at all. I think a lot of 31-year-olds would be very pleased with the career I've had so far.
Q: Do you take solace in the fact that guys like Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington were still a few years away from their first major when they were your age?
A: It doesn't bother me what they did. I can only worry about myself and I'm trying to do it the best way possible. If it happens, great. If not, it's not going to make me sleep any worse.
13. The List
Nearly two full months after the PGA Tour kicked off its season, the developmental Nationwide circuit will get underway with this week's Panama Claro Championship.
This edition of The List examines five players to watch this year.
5. Tommy Biershenk: Longtime mini-tour veteran came within one stroke of earning his PGA Tour card at Q-school.
3. Danny Lee: Previously the youngest winner on the European Tour, he's looking to regain his game here in the U.S.
2. Won Joon Lee: Big hitter (311.5 yards per drive last year) will never be a week-in, week-out threat, but should secure a win or two this season.
1. Mathew Goggin: Just two years removed from playing in the final pairing at Turnberry with Tom Watson, if the Aussie dedicates himself to playing full-time on this tour, he'll be back in the big leagues in a hurry.
14. Stat of the Week
Since playing his way onto the PGA Tour in 1991, Phil Mickelson has never gone back-to-back years without a victory on the West Coast swing.
Why is this so noteworthy right now? Well, because he didn't win one last year and hasn't gotten one this year. The upcoming WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship will be Mickelson's last chance to avoid going two years in a row without a title on this early-season swing for the first time in his career.
History says we shouldn't bank on it, either. In 10 career starts at the Match Play, he has advanced to the weekend only one time.
It's no secret that Mickelson has cleaned up on the West Coast over the years. Starting with his Northern Telecom Open victory as an amateur in 1991, he owns 17 titles on this swing, accounting for nearly half of his career total of 38.
So should his recent run of four starts without a win be cause for concern? Not exactly.
While the lefty secured the hardware at the Bob Hope Classic prior to winning the Masters in 2004, each of his past two romps through Augusta have come without a previous West Coast victory. (In 2006, he won the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta one week earlier; last year, the Masters was his first win of the season.) While collecting trophies close to home is always nice, it's never been a major determining factor of long-term success for Mickelson.
Hey, let's remember: That old advertising slogan, "What will Phil do next?" was only created because he's so unpredictable. A second straight year of no West Coast wins for the first time in his career doesn't necessarily spell doom for impending months.
15. Fact or Fiction
Fred Couples is a serious candidate to make his own Presidents Cup team this year.
If there's one thing we've learned about Couples over the past few years it's that while he can no longer contend every week on the PGA Tour, he can certainly contend on any week.
He proved it once again at Riviera, parlaying a 36-hole lead into a seventh-place finish.
Couples will celebrate by receiving an MRI on his oft-troublesome back on Monday.
Sure, if he made his own roster for Royal Melbourne -- or even (gasp!) named himself to the team -- there's certainly a chance that Freddie could bottle some good feelings and play a vital role for the U.S. side. That said, there's as much of a chance that the long flight will cause his back to lock up and he'll be virtually immobilized come Thursday's opening matches.
Then there's the fact Couples struggled in the final round at Riviera. Now 51, he's become accustomed to playing 54-hole events on the Champions circuit and simply didn't look himself late in the tournament. Well, unlike the Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup is indeed a four-day event.
Toss in the fact -- believe it or not -- a captain actually has plenty of other responsibilities and distractions during the week of competition and it's easy to understand why Couples shouldn't be considered a serious contender to play on the team.
Believe me: It would be fun to see Freddie teeing it up for the red, white and blue one last time, so I hope I'm wrong on this. But don't count on it. Consider the above statement to be FICTION.
16. From the Inbox
I've now been doing this so long I can still remember the old days, when I'd put up a bat signal for questions, then stare at my e-mail inbox in hopes of receiving questions.
Now? A quick tweet and within minutes, I've got enough queries to fill up a year's worth of W18 columns. Let's answer a few of 'em this week ...
@DaveAndrews723 Will Yani Tseng win more events on the LPGA this season than all Americans combined? Could happen.
I realize right now it looks like Tseng will never lose another tournament, but it'll happen -- and plenty. That's not to say I don't think she'll have a fantastic year and only widen her lead as the world's No. 1-ranked player, but I just don't see her outperforming the contingent of Cristie Kerr, Paula Creamer, Angela Stanford, Michelle Wie, Kristy McPherson, Christina Kim, Morgan Pressel, Brittany Lincicome and a bevy of others. There's an awful lot of talent there. I'll take those players to triple or quadruple Tseng's overall total.
@illgolfstyleu Weekly 18Q, can you describe the situation of a player having dual citizenship in countries that compete opposite each other?
This was a popular question this week -- and for good reason, with Aaron Baddeley and Kevin Na both in the mix. After all, Baddeley was born in the U.S., but is only eligible for Australian teams; Na was born in Korea, but is only eligible for U.S. teams. It has to do with where a player's "preponderance of golf skill" was developed. In layman's terms, it's where a guy learned to play his golf and made a name for himself. In the rare case of a player who truly did so in two separate countries, one would be chosen and he would only be allowed to compete for that nation.
@TeepsO Hey Jason. What do you think about Vijay's game the last two weeks? Will this be a "comeback" year?
For most guys his age -- he'll turn 48 on Tuesday -- the questions are less about technical parts of the game and more about injuries and desire. Singh is an anomaly. He's kept himself in better shape than most pros half his age and says he is healthier now than he's been in a long time. Meanwhile, whatever fires have burned in him throughout his career still remain. And so for Vijay, it's all about putting. If he can continue to roll the rock like he did at Riviera, finishing first in the field in putts per round and second in putting average, Singh will not only hang around leaderboards this year, he'll win again, too.
@Hlas Is David Duval officially back? This is 4 straight made-cuts, three Top 25s.
I long ago figured out that I've got a better chance of figuring out rocket science than Duval's career. He's been telling us for years that he feels good and thinks he's close, but only proved such things on very few occasions, including the 2009 U.S. Open and 2010 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, finishing runner-up in each. Well, maybe we should have been listening. Duval is playing some of his most consistent golf in years -- consistently good golf, that is -- and while he might not be an impending threat to regain his No. 1 status of long ago, he is certainly a threat to contend and even win on any given week. That doesn't mean it's going to happen, but it's certainly a lot more than we could have said about his game just a few years ago.
17. Quote of the Week
"To be honest with you, you know, I don't want to sound stupid, [but] I went to see 'Social Network' because Justin Timberlake was in it. I don't even know what I watched. I don't even know what Facebook is. And then Twittering, I don't know what that is." -- Fred Couples on social media.
Look, Couples has done just fine in his 51 years on the planet without needing social media, but he and other reluctant players might want to hop aboard the information superhighway. Even though fewer than half of all PGA Tour players are on Twitter, each of the past six events has been won by someone with an active account. Hmm, maybe strong thumbs are the secret to a better golf game after all.
On a somewhat related note, here's some more info on Couples via technology: A Google search for "Freddy Couples" yields 24,800 results, while a search for "Freddie Couples" nets just 22,700. Guess that settles any debate, huh?
18. And The Winner Is ...
Shameless self-promotion: I had the opportunity to spend a day shadowing second-ranked Martin Kaymer around New York City recently for an editorial package that will run this Tuesday on ESPN.com in advance of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
At one point I asked whether he knew his opening-round draw for the tournament. Just off a plane from Dubai and still a bit bleary-eyed, Kaymer responded, "No." Or maybe he was simply saying, "Noh."
If there are no further withdrawals, Kaymer will indeed face Korean teenager Noh Seung-Yul in the opening round. It won't be an easy match against a talented young ball-striker, but if Kaymer can get past him, he might go very deep. In fact, in the year's most difficult event to predict, I like him to win it all.
Let's not forget that even though he plays full-time on the European circuit, Kaymer has a home in Scottsdale, Ariz., just 75 minutes from this week's host venue. He's obviously a strong desert golfer, as evidenced by his recent win in Abu Dhabi, so don't be surprised if the reigning PGA Championship titleholder adds yet another trophy to his ever-growing collection this Sunday.