Monday, April 12, 2010

Pretty good batting average

Prior to the Masters, I picked 12 players who could win the tournament. I'll admit I went with mostly frontrunners, such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. But even I was surprised with my success.
Mickelson won, Tiger tied for fourth, but I also picked runner-up Lee Westwood and third-place Anthony Kim.
My other choices?
Ian Poulter struggled on the weekend but wound up tied for 10th.
Ernie Els tied for 18th.
Steve Stricker tied for 30th.
Retief Goosen tied for 38th.
Four others - Paul Casey, Jim Furyk, Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy - missed the cut.
I'd be thrilled to do as well predicting the U.S. Open.

Masters ... sadly anticlimactic

The 2010 Masters is in the books, and Phil Mickelson, with his wife and daughters watching from behind the 18th green, earned his third Green Jacket with a bogey-free closing round of 5-under 67, capped by a short birdie at the 72nd hole.
As wonderful as it was for Phil and Amy, who's battling breast cancer, and for anyone who roots for Lefty, his 3-shot victory seemed sadly anticlimactic. Others who could have given Mickelson a run for his money all shot themselves in the foot at one time or another on the final day.
Such as:
  • Lee Westwood. The unflappable Brit was one of only five players in the field to break par all four days and led for much of the tournament. But he bogeyed three of the first nine holes on Sunday to fall out of the lead and never held it again. He's had several near-misses now in major championships. Let's hope he doesn't become his generation's Colin Montgomerie, the dour Scot and one of the best players to never won a major.
  • Anthony Kim. The 24-year-old hailed by some as the successor to Tiger played the final six holes 5 under par to finish with a flourish at 65 and grab third alone. But in a tournament where players seemingly were putting up birdies and eagles every couple of minutes, he had a stretch of 22 holes - from early in the third round until nearly midway through the fourth - where he played 1 over par. In other words, Kim took too long to get it going.
  • Tiger Woods. He gave us everything we've come to expect from the world's greatest golfer, such as 17 birdies and four eagles and, perhaps most surprising for a guy who hadn't played a round of competitive golf in five months, four straight rounds under par at Augusta National. However, the rust caught up with Tiger, and at times his game - and his temperament - were ragged. He offset some of his sterling play with 14 bogeys, eight more than winner Mickelson, and yet wound up just five shots back.
  • K.J. Choi. The 39-year-old Korean had a share of the lead for a brief while on Sunday, but his Waterloo began at Amen Corner, where he went 3-6-5 at the 12th, 13th and 14th holes, when Phil was going 2-4-3.
Mickelson won by staying out of trouble and by not trying to bite off too much, which for him is pretty grown up. He also realized the essential nature of Augusta National, a mostly forgiving golf course with some treacherous approaches, and greens that need to be managed with chess-master intelligence. Some of the shots he hit at Augusta would have cost him dearly at a U.S. Open, where accuracy is Rule No. 1.
Augusta is more Mickelson-friendly, and I'm pretty confident he's not done winning there.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Hits and misses

Handicapping golf tournaments is kind of like predicting the weather. You're bound to be right on some things and just as likely to be way off on others.
In a blog previewing the Masters, I said there were really only 12 players who could win the tournament, even though almost 100 teed it up on Thursday. And, like the weatherman, I was spot-on with some of my selections and out of bounds with some others.
I had Phil Mickelson and Lee Westwood in my top 12, and both opened with solid 67s. Tiger Woods, showing little effects of the 5-month layoff for personal reasons, opened with a 68, as did Ian Poulter and Anthony Kim. Ernie Els, who turned 40 last October, was in the hunt at 71.
That's half of my picks under par, not bad.
But I was slightly less accurate going with Steve Stricker (73), Padraig Harrington (74), Rory McIlroy (74), Retief Goosen (74) and Paul Casey (75), and grossly off the mark with Jim Furyk (80).
Furyk, who's had four top-10 finishes in his 13 previous Masters appearances, already had won a tournament this year and looked to be ready. His first-round collapse was puzzling. I certainly didn't see that coming.
I also wouldn't have predicted some startlingly solid play by some others. I had written off several former Masters champions and should have known better. Fred Couples, the 1992 champ, led with a 66. Two-time winner Tom Watson (1977, 1981) shot 67, not bad for a 60-year-old who is trying to become (by 14 years) the oldest Masters champion ever. Sandy Lyle (1988) had a credible 69, and Bernhard Langer (1985, 1993) came in at 71.
Update: Lyle, one of the early starters on Friday, is quickly giving it all back. The Scottish golfer who had missed the cut at the Masters 12 of the past 21 years, including the year after his victory 22 years ago, was 14 over through his first 14 holes. Sorry, Sandy.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

12 players to beat at the Masters

A field of 98 golfers tee off Thursday in the Masters. But only 12 have a chance of wearing the Green Jacket on Sunday. And here's why:
  • Two (Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus) are only ceremonial entrants and will hit an opening tee shot and then pick up. That leaves 96.
  • There are 17 players making their first Masters appearance. Fuzzy Zoeller was the last guy to win the Masters in his first visit. That was in 1979. The odds of a first-timer winning in 2010, especially this crop of rookies, should be astronomical. That takes it down to 79.
  • While we're at it, let's go beyond the first-timers. History says, on average, Masters winners have had just over seven tries at Augusta before breaking through. Of the remaining 79, there are 43 who have played in six or fewer Masters. And I'm eliminating all but four (who I will defend later). Now we're left with 40.
  • We'll go in the other direction and cut the veterans who don't have enough game for this course any more. I see nine players in this category, and I feel bad about this, because all nine are former Masters champions. But if any of you want to take Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Craig Stadler, Fred Couples, Mark O'Meara and Larry Mize, you're welcome to them. Otherwise, we're down to 31.
  • Next to go are the guys who, I think, have had their shot and it's just not going to happen for them in a major. You know who I'm talking about here: Sergio Garcia. But he's not alone. I'd put Robert Allenby (55 majors, 0 titles), Kenny Perry, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Scott Verplank in this group. That leaves 26.
  • Another cut that hurts are former major champions who aren't solid enough any more to top this field over four days. This club includes Vijay Singh, Justin Leonard, Mike Weir, David Toms and Michael Campbell. Now we're at 21.
  • The last nine out of the running? Angel Cabrera, the defending champion, is too inconsistent, as is Rory Sabbatini. Stewart Cink hasn't done much of anything since beating Watson in a playoff at last year's British Open. Trevor Immelman won the Masters in 2008 but is only now coming back from a wrist injury. K.J. Choi might be a contender, but he'll have to deal with the madness of playing with Tiger Woods for at least the first two days. Shingo Katayama is a good player, but it took him seven years at Augusta before he was able to break 70. David Duval would be my sentimental pick, but I'm not convinced he has the mental toughness needed to deal with the course's nerve-wracking greens. Aussie Adam Scott is playing better than his miserable 2009, but he's never broken 70 in 28 rounds at Augusta; plucky South African Tim Clark hasn't won any PGA Tour event, and I don't see it happening on golf's grandest stage.
  • The final 12? Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker, Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Jim Furyk, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy, Anthony Kim and Retief Goosen. As noted above, four have limited experience at Augusta. Casey and Poulter will each be making their sixth Masters appearance; Casey already has four top-20s at Augusta. McIlroy and Kim will each be playing in their second Masters, but both are fearless competitors, and Kim won last week's Houston Open.
And who do I think will win? I'm pretty confident it will come from my 12 finalists. Half of them (Woods, Mickelson, Furyk, Els, Harrington and Goosen) have already won major championships. Woods, despite his long layoff, probably should be the favorite, but I think it might come down to the European contingent (Brits Westwood, Casey and Poulter, Ireland's Harrington and Northern Ireland's McIlroy) battling the big South African, Els. The last European to win the Masters was Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999, the eighth European champion at Augusta in a 12-year span.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A little less conversation ... a little more action

Like many golf fans - and, yes, fans of Tiger Woods - I watched Monday's "press conference" featuring Tiger and 200 reporters. For the record, there were 48 questions and not quite that many answers in the 34-minute session at Augusta National.
I'm sure there were times when Tiger felt uncomfortable, but I was surprised at the muted tone of the questioning. No one brought charcoal to this grilling. Punches were not only pulled, a lot were never even thrown. There were very few follow-up questions to some of Tiger's answers, and shockingly little curiosity. Then again, these are golf writers ... a largely sympathetic audience ... and nothing I heard out of them made me think of Woodward and Bernstein.
OK, Tiger hasn't done anything that rises to the level of a president trying to deceive the American public, but there's been a violation of trust, even if that trust was misplaced. He carefully presented an almost impossibly perfect image and was found to have feet of clay. Shame on him for fooling us. But people who base their lives on what celebrities say or do may have a bigger problem than Tiger. Shame on those who believed in him in the first place.
I never bought a Buick because Tiger looked good in one. I never reached for the Nike gear on Tiger's word. Truthfully, the stuff's overpriced, and while we're at it, in light of Tiger's transgressions, the whole "Just Do It" campaign takes on a seamy meaning.
And seamy is the only thing we can take from the Tiger Tragedy. Bottom line, it's an issue between a husband and a wife, and the longer we wish to be a part of it, the more we look like voyeurs. I thought I would want to know what questions were asked of Tiger, and what he would say in response. But the longer the Q&(almost)A went on, my overriding feeling was one of nausea.
I'm finally sick of the story. "Going forward" was a phrase Tiger used often Monday, and in the spirit of cooperation in his ongoing therapy, I promise to do my part not to feed this ugly beast any more. Way too much time and energy has been spent talking about one golfer's life away from the course, and not nearly enough about the sport itself.
The worst thing that could happen to golf is for this story to hang like a cloud over the game. The best thing would be for golf to lose some of its sycophantic "fans" who just want to get drunk and yell "You da man!"
I'm getting back on the golf course, and I can't wait for Thursday's first round, to see Tiger, yes, but also all the other players. The weather has been exceptional in Augusta this year, and the first major of the year is upon us.
If you want to talk golf, welcome. If you want something else, I'm not sure you were ever a real fan to begin with.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Tiger Fallout

It's been a while since I contributed to this blog, but the events of the past few months have brought new (mostly unwanted) attention to the game and, specifically, the straw that stirs the drink that is golf.
For more than a decade, Tiger Woods has been the face of golf for most people, certainly to casual fans of the game. Just as the charismatic Arnold Palmer had done 40 years earlier, but on a much grander scale, Tiger elevated golf from country club to mainstream, from snobs sipping 25-year-old scotch to beer-drinking buddies who would have laughed at golf and pro golfers B.T. (before Tiger).
Corporate America also noticed the dollars to be made riding Tiger's coattails. Nike, Gatorade, General Motors, Accenture, Gillette, Tag Heuer, AT&T, Electronic Arts, etc. With each new endorsement deal, Tiger seemed less like a person and more like a product.
He also has made it possible for other golf pros to enjoy a comfortable living. A revenue stream flooded the PGA Tour, and his fellow pros accepted the fact that he was almost impossible to beat, because, hey, second place paid a whole lot better than it used to.
It also didn't hurt the pro tour and the corporations that this near-perfect pitchman was himself a multicultural product (African American father, Asian mother), married to a beautiful blonde Swede (Elin Nordegren) with two children (a boy and a girl, natch).
The image seemed certain, rock-solid: Perfect athlete, perfect family, perfect life.
To borrow a golf term, it was the perfect lie.
Last Thanksgiving weekend, the facade came crashing down. A bizarre, late-night car accident - at the end of his driveway? - was the first public sign that Tiger might be something other than he appeared.
Then came revelations that Tiger was carrying on affairs/liaisons/trysts/one-night stands with a number of women, all while dominating the world of golf and managing to appear to be happily married. We had all heard about Tiger's incredible ability to remain focused. Now we knew why.
Almost overnight, Tiger became a punch line. "He's no longer Tiger. Now, he's a cheetah."
It's not a huge surprise that he strayed from his marriage vows. Ridiculously rich athletes and entertainers have access and opportunity. What is surprising is how long Tiger was able to keep this cauldron of debauchery from boiling over.
Now that we know Tiger is as fallible as anyone else, how do we feel?
Angry? Maybe, but the only people entitled to that emotion are those who really know him, starting with his wife.
Sad? Certainly. Even if Tiger and his wife are able to repair their marriage, damage has been done to him personally and professionally.
In his rare public comments, Tiger has said he is sorry for the hurt he has caused his wife and family, and apologized to friends and the many people who see him as some sort of role model.
You can believe he's sincerely remorseful, or not. But don't think you know him any better now than you did before last November.
Fast-forward five months, and, on the eve of the Masters, where Tiger makes his return this week, what will happen at Augusta National is open to speculation.
Will Tiger get a warm welcome? Will he be able to compete?
Will he still be a punch line?