Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Before there was Tiger, there was Seve

Much is made of Tiger Woods' chase of the record 18 major championships held by Jack Nicklaus. But Tiger, with 14 majors, has less in common with the Golden Bear than with a third golfer who also had a track record of brilliance at a young age: Severiano Ballesteros.

Tiger is almost nothing like Nicklaus, on or off the golf course. One is a happily married family man with a stable home life; the other probably should never have gotten married. One dominated with relentless good play and little interaction with the crowd; the other more recently dominated with masterful shots while playing up to the audience.

In this respect, Tiger is the modern-day version of Seve Ballesteros. Like Tiger, Seve was an imposing force, intimidating with his ability to make magic on a golf course. Like Tiger, a showman who didn't hide his emotions. And, like Tiger, prone to bouts of wildness off the tee, with an ad-libber's talent to recover spectacularly.

Until fairly recently, Tiger was thought of as intimidating on a golf course. Seve was no less fearsome. In Ryder Cup play, his record was 20-12-5. Backing down from a challenge was not in his DNA. An oft-repeated quote of his: "I look into their eyes, shake their hand, pat their back, and wish them luck, but I am thinking, 'I am going to bury you.'"

Seve could - to some extent, Tiger still can - do things beyond the skill of other players. Two examples of their genius: En route to winning the British Open in 1979, then 22-year-old Seve, trying to maintain a two-shot cushion, drove into a parking lot on the next-to-last hole, somehow found the green with his next shot and holed the putt for birdie when bogey, or worse, seemed likely. In his 2005 Masters win, Tiger faced a tricky chip from the back of the green at the par-3 16th. Analyzing the surface as if it were a billiard table, he hit a delicate attempt that initially went away from the hole, then tracked slowly downhill, hung on the lip of the cup for what seemed an eternity, then fell into the hole for birdie.

Seve Ballesteros, now only 53 but retired and long-removed from his prime, even bettered Tiger in some respects. He turned pro at 16 in 1974, was second at the British Open in 1976 at just 19, won his first PGA Tour event (Greater Greensboro Open) at 20 in 1978 and his first major, the 1979 British Open, at 22. He won a total of five majors, but he's almost as well known for the tournament he never won: the U.S. Open.

Ballesteros probably knew he was never going to win the U.S. Open when he finished his final round of the 1987 Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

Ballesteros, the dashing Spaniard who by the age of 27 had already won the Masters (1980, 1983) and British Open (1979, 1984) twice each, came to San Francisco as a 30-year-old with plenty of game, but no answer for the riddle that is the U.S. Open. The tournament set up by the United States Golf Association has always rewarded patient, almost plodding play, putting a premium on accuracy and making those who stray pay dearly.

Not exactly Seve's strengths. His magician's ability to recover from strange places worked perfectly in the British Open, where creativity is always a valuable skill. His deft touch with a putter fit the Masters and Augusta National's wickedly slick putting surfaces.
At a U.S. Open venue, though, even Houdini couldn't escape from the arm-wrenching rough. Somehow, Seve always found himself in trouble. He would go on to win the British Open a third time, in 1988, and had a total of seven top-10 finishes in that event, along with eight top-10s at the Masters. In 18 tries at the U.S. Open, he had no wins, missed the cut five times, was disqualified once, and finished in the top 10 just three times.

At the Olympic Club in 1987, he wound up third, five shots behind winner Scott Simpson. Not bad, but, unlike most players touring the ridiculously short, brutally penalizing course, he gave away too many shots in the trees and thick rough.

He even offered some sarcastic advice for the sadists at the USGA. "I'd like to see the fairways more narrow. Then everyone would have to play from the rough, not just me."

U.S. Open review

Well, my picks for the U.S. Open weren't as successful as those for the Masters, but really, you can't always expect to get the winner when you project a dozen out of a field of 156.
At the Masters, I had the top three picks (winner Phil Mickelson, runner-up Lee Westwood, third-place Anthony Kim), along with Tiger Woods, who tied for fourth, and a total of eight players out of 12 (67% batting average) who made the cut.
While I had more players make the cut at the U.S. Open (11 of 12), I didn't get the winner, and my best finish was Mickelson again. He tied for fourth with Woods, who wasn't among my pre-tournament favorites this time. The winner at Pebble Beach Golf Links was Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell; I picked a countryman of his, Rory McIlroy, but I guess I just got the wrong chap from Northern Ireland.
McIlroy didn't even qualify for the weekend rounds, but he was the only one I missed in that regard. The others:
Dustin Johnson, the 54-hole leader, who looked like a prescient pick for 55 holes, until he played the 500-yard, par-4 second hole on Sunday's final round. That's when he hallucinated that he was an extra in "Tin Cup" and went Kevin Costner stupid, hitting a ball left-handed near a greenside bunker and nearly whiffing the next shot before taking a triple-bogey 7. His drive on the next hole was well left into the trees and, with several thousand spectators all around, never found the ball and embarrassingly had to return to the tee box for his third shot. He never found his game again, ballooned to an 82 (after a 66 the previous day) and wound up tied for eighth at 289.
England's Westwood and American Jim Furyk, who matched even-par 71s on Sunday and wound up tied for 16th at 292.
American Ricky Barnes, who never was really out of it (but also never broke or even matched par any day), finished tied for 27th at 294.
Australian Robert Allenby, tied for 29th at 295.
Japanese teen Ryo Ishikawa, a contender for three days until a fat 80 on Sunday left him tied for 33rd at 296.
South Korea's K.J. Choi and England's Ian Poulter. Not only did they tie for 47th at 298, they had identical rounds of 70-73-77-78. Weird, huh?
Americans Steve Stricker and Nick Watney, who never really got out second gear. Stricker tied for 58th at 299, Watney 76th at 305.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Tiger vs. USGA?

I didn't think I'd be rushing to Tiger Woods's defense about something anytime soon, but at least this one's about golf.

On Saturday's television coverage of the U.S. Open, the executive director of the USGA, David B. Fay (not sure why they always have to add the "B" ... must be some "Caddyshack" entitlement/caste system angle to that), was asked about criticism of Pebble Beach Golf Links, especially the greens. Depending on where they put the flag, the par-5 14th is almost unplayable, but the real daggers were about the poa annua greens, which to the untrained eye (i.e. non-golfer) might look like some kind of disease.

Fay noted how two players on Thursday had used the word "awful" in regard to putting at Pebble Beach. From Fay: "World No. 2 said he putted awful; World No. 1 said the greens were awful." Clever how Fay didn't mention No. 2 (Phil Mickelson) or No. 1 (Woods) by name. But his point was clear ... you can criticize your own play, but not the golf course.

It's not the first time Tiger has taken issue with Pebble Beach and its poa annua greens. Many believe it's the reason why he hasn't played there for the wintertime AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am for eight years. But that's just part of it. The AT&T event is staged over three golf course on the Monterey Peninsula and has too much of a circus atmosphere for Tiger, who tends to want to control his environment as much as possible.

But his words Thursday were no doubt stinging to the people who run the U.S. Open; they also tend to want to control their environment as much as possible. The USGA takes seriously its role in the running of national golf championships, and welcomes debate like Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To Fay and the USGA, there's no such thing as constructive criticism.

Fay also said a player is entitled to his opinion, but not the facts. Well, buddy, these are the facts: This is a links (seaside) layout, and as such, it's more open to the elements than most golf courses. Mother Nature will do what she wants to the land, and all the agronomists and golf course superintendents in the world can do only so much to keep the course in shape.
Nobody said the course was unfair, because it's not. Pebble plays the same for everyone. I think Tiger's point was the putting surfaces were imperfect, and they are. I'm not a big fan of the phrase, but Fay and the USGA needs to "own it." He can say, "yes, we did all we can, but it is what it is."

I won't criticize Mickelson for his diplomacy, but I wouldn't begrude Tiger his opinion, either.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

12 players to beat at the British Open

Looking back at my pre-tournament picks for the year's first two major golf championships, the Masters and U.S. Open, I noticed that there were only six players on both lists. In keeping with this pattern, I'll hang on to half of my choices from the U.S. Open and stick with them in the British Open, which begins Thursday at St. Andrews, Scotland.

But I'm not going with an equal number of Americans and non-Americans, as I did with the first two majors. I'm convinced someone from the U.S. is not likely to win at St. Andrews, so I'll only take Americans Phil Mickelson and Ricky Barnes, both risky picks and longshots but for different reasons. Yes, Mickelson, despite his win at the Masters this year, is a darkhorse to win the British Open, and I'll explain why.

The rest of my dozen picks this week will be foreigners. Included in that group are earlier picks Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, K.J. Choi and Robert Allenby. But I think the vast majority of Americans will struggle, and I'm sorry to say that includes established U.S. stars like Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker.

Here's how my new lineup looks:

Keeping: Mickelson, Poulter, Westwood, Choi, Allenby and Barnes.

Dumping: Americans Furyk, Stricker, Dustin Johnson and Nick Watney, plus Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Ryo Ishikawa of Japan.

Adding: Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Tim Clark, Sergio Garcia, Graeme McDowell and Justin Rose.

This shakeup of my dozen picks gives me three South Africans (Els, Clark, Goosen), three Brits (Poulter, Westwood, Rose), one from Northern Ireland (McDowell), a Spaniard (Garcia), an Australian (Allenby) and a South Korean (Choi).

And, if you're counting, that's five Europeans. Which would certainly be going against recent history. In the past 20 years, only three Europeans have won the British Open: Ireland's Padraig Harrington (2007, 2008), Scotland's Paul Lawrie (1999) and England's Nick Faldo (1990, 1992).

Why these 12, you say? And how come Tiger Woods, who won the British Open the last two times it was held at St. Andrews, is not on this list?

Conventional wisdom says Tiger should not only be the favorite this week, he should win. Many thought he would win the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach last month, since he had dominated the U.S. Open there in 2000, winning by 15 shots. But Tiger's fondness for the course was always a love-hate affair; especially irksome to him were Pebble's unpredictable poa annua putting surfaces.

St. Andrews, on the other hand, is truly in Tiger's wheelhouse. Asked earlier this year if he was excited about 2010, with the first three majors at Augusta (Masters), Pebble Beach (U.S. Open) and St. Andrews (British Open), Tiger clarified by saying he'd like to play "St. Andrews, St. Andrews, St. Andrews."

Tiger played well at Augusta considering his long layoff, not quite as well at the U.S. Open, and wound up tied for fourth at both majors. But I don't think he's there yet with his game. He might win, and I'll agree he's the favorite. I just don't see it.

As for my dozen, only four (Mickelson, Els, Goosen, McDowell) have ever won a major, and only one (Els) has won the British Open. Mickelson, by comparison, has an abyssmal record at the British Open, with only one top-10 finish and three missed cuts. But I feel like Phil, at 40, has learned a bit from his beat-downs at both the U.S. Open (five runner-up finishes) and the British Open.

Els, also 40, and Goosen, 41, view the British Open with the same reverence that Americans do the U.S. Open. Els won the 2002 British Open in a four-man playoff and has 11 other top-10 finishes in the event. Goosen has never hoisted the Claret Jug, but he has seven top-10 British Open finishes.

McDowell is a mostly sentimental pick, because I liked the way he handled himself down the stretch to capture the U.S. Open in June. Plus, anybody who can win at Pebble Beach has got to have some game.

The other foreigners? Poulter, 24, and Rose, 27, are the future of golf in England. Westwood, Clark, Garcia and Allenby, all in their 30s, are considered among the best players without a major title. Choi is looking to follow in the footsteps of countryman Y.E. Yang, who won last year's PGA Championship.
That leaves us with Barnes, maybe the darkest of my darkhorses. He has no PGA Tour victories and has played in only seven majors in seven-plus years since turning pro in 2003. But he was the runner-up at the 2009 U.S. Open and 10th at the Masters this year. Plus, he plays without fear and can hit the ball a mile.

That sounds a bit like a lovable, long-hitting guy from Arkansas who won the 1991 PGA Championship after having won nothing else on the PGA Tour. By the way, that guy, John Daly, also won the British Open, 15 years ago. At St. Andrews.

So dream on, Ricky Barnes. It can happen.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Halfway home and my guys are right there

Saturdays are called "moving day" on the pro golf tour, when players get themselves into position to contend for a title.
Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els decided they couldn't wait that long. The two tour veterans, both 40 and with a combined seven major championships between them, put themselves into contention on Friday in the second round of the U.S. Open.
Mickelson, winner of three Masters and a PGA Championship, fired a 5-under-par 66 at Pebble Beach Golf Links. He birdied four of his first six holes and had nine 3s on his card. Els, the tall South African who has two U.S. Open trophies and a British Open title to his credit, came in with a 3-under 68. The two of them are tied for second with Dustin Johnson and Japanese teen Ryo Ishikawa at 1-under 141, two shots behind Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell, who backed up his opening 71 with a second-round 68.
And though I felt pretty good about my pre-tournament picks halfway through the Masters in April, I can't believe my good fortune at the midway point of the U.S. Open. Of my 12 players to beat, 11 made the cut. Three, Mickelson, Ishikawa and Johnson, are in the top 5, and, having picked South Korea's K.J. Choi and England's Ian Poulter, tied for 10th at 143 are identical 70-73 starts, I have five of the top 12.
Lee Westwood is my sixth-lowest player, tied for 16th at 3-over 145. Two others, Jim Furyk and Nick Watney, are tied for 37th at 147. Australian Robert Allenby and Ricky Barnes, at 148, are tied for 48th. Steve Stricker, at 149, was tied for 59th and just made the cut.
The only one of my pre-tourney predictions who failed to make the cut was Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy. The 21-year-old got schooled by the 18-year-old Ishikawa and 60-year-old Tom Watson in one of the most unusual pairings of the tournament. While McIlroy was shooting a sour 77 and going home at 152, Ishikawa and Watson were matching 71s to earn the right to play the weekend.
Oh, yeah, I hear Tiger Woods is also playing at Pebble Beach this week. In fact, you can't stop hearing about him on ESPN and NBC, and the official website guys (imagine fingernails on a chalkboard) at are flapping their gums about a Tiger comeback. Considering their anointed one hasn't broken par either of the first two rounds and is seven shots back at 146, they better pack a lunch for that wait.
My money's still with Mickelson. He and Els are the only ones in the top 15 who have already won a major. It should make for an interesting weekend.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

One round down ... and we're looking good

You can't win a major championship, or any 72-hole golf tournament for that matter, on the first day. But you sure can make it tough on yourself, and a few of the guys I picked as pre-tournament favorites stumbled a bit in the first round of the U.S. Open.
The opening round of the 110th U.S. Open is history now, and as you might expect, par was a fabulous number at Pebble Beach Golf Links. A trio leads at 2-under-par 69: England's Paul Casey, little-known Brendon de Jonge of Zimbabwe and American Shaun Micheel. Casey's a budding star, but the other two are typical of first rounds at the Open, where just about anyone could be a star for a day. Micheel's only PGA Tour victory was in a major, the 2003 PGA Championship, and de Jonge has just one win, too, but on the Nationwide tour, the PGA Tour's minor-league circuit.
A half-dozen players were at 1-under 70, including three of my 12 pre-tourney picks: England's Ian Poulter, South Korean veteran K.J. Choi and 18-year-old Japanese sensation Ryo Ishikawa. The sartorial Poulter usually is the flashiest dresser on the course, but Ishikawa, decked out all in pink, gets the award for boldest fashion statement. If his game is as confident as his choice in clothing, he'll still be in the hunt on Sunday.
Another of my picks, Dustin Johnson, the winner of the 2009 and 2010 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, was in a group of three players at even-par 71, while two more of my choices, Americans Jim Furyk and Ricky Barnes, were in a 15-player logjam at 1-over 72.
That's half my 12 picks right there up near the top of the leaderboard. The other half? Two were tied for 47th, Lee Westwood of England and Australian Robert Allenby, who joined Woods (who I left off my "12 players to beat" list) and 16 others at 3-over 74; Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy were among 24 players at 4-over 75; and Nick Watney, my admitted longest of longshots, was tied for 90th at 5-over 76.
In review, none of my 12 guys is out of it, certainly not like poor Blaine Peffley, a 25-year-old Hooters Tour player from Pennsylvania. His card showed 86, with a half-dozen 5s, two 6s and a fat 8 on the treacherous par-4 8th. He'll be checking out of his hotel on Friday.
Some of my guys, especially, Mickelson, Stricker, McIlroy and Watney, will have to pick it up a bit on Friday to not be in danger of missing the cut. A total of 60 players, and ties, and anyone within 10 shots of the leader, will get to play on the weekend. That 10-shot rule could be important, because it doesn't look anyone will be able to run away with it, and right now, 141 players (out of a field of 156), are within 10 shots of the lead.

USGA's web commentators stink

Before jumping into the first-round results of the U.S. Open, I want to take a moment to talk about how bad the commentators were on the official tournament website.
Pitiful. Pathetic. Awful. Amateurish.
In an effort to see some of the golf while at work but unable to view it on TV, I resorted to, and the site's live web coverage. While the video was fine, the commentary was not. They had a "feature group" in the morning, and another in the afternoon. The latter was the threesome of Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Lee Westwood. Makes sense, but little did I know the guys calling the shots were more in love with Woods than his 14 girlfriends.
These numbskulls kept going on about how great Tiger was playing, and how poorly Els was doing. Crappy Els shot a 2-over 73; Terrific Tiger came in at 3-over 74, without a single birdie. Did you guys watch the golf, or were you too busy marveling at the sound of your own voices? That's another thing; they seemed to think it was their responsibility to fill every second with their pointless drivel.
More annoying was the endless blather about how much Tiger had to overcome this year. Excuse me, but Tiger is the one solely responsible for whatever it is he's "had to overcome." I was waiting for one of these idiots to blame Elin Woods for Tiger's serial infidelity.
Just for good measure, they threw in a couple off-color jokes about how difficult pro golf can be on your marriage. I'm not a prude, but this is the USGA's official website. I know this is just the Web, where decency is an afterthought and the search for truth is replaced by "close enough is good enough," but come on. Hey USGA, give these clowns some guidelines.
Or are these guys the best the USGA could come up with?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

12 Players to beat at the U.S. Open

It's time to make my picks for the U.S. Open. Considering my success at the Masters (I had winner Phil Mickelson, along with runner-up Lee Westwood and third-place Anthony Kim), I'm feeling a bit flush this week. BTW, the guru also had Tiger Woods, who tied for fourth at Augusta.
This week, though, I'm taking the contrarian highway, and Tiger isn't anywhere along the route. I know, it seems borderline blasphemous to rule out the guy who won the Open by a record 15 shots the last time it was contested at Pebble Beach, in 2000. However, much has changed in the past 10 years (Bill Clinton was president back then and the Twin Towers in New York City still stood), and anyone who thinks Tiger is as dominant today as he was back then is seriously deluded.
Nevertheless, how, you ask, could Tiger not be in the top 12? The British bookies have installed him and Mickelson at 8-1, leading the contenders. I think they've got it right with Lefty, but not Righty.
There are at least a dozen top pros, some of whom weren't even on the tour in 2000, with more game than Righty right now. I'll take Europeans Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood, Japan's Ryo Ishikawa, South Korea's K.J. Choi and Australian Robert Allenby. In addition to Mickelson, U.S. players I figure to finish ahead of Tiger include Jim Furyk, Ricky Barnes, Steve Stricker, Nick Watney and Dustin Johnson. The last guy, incidentally, has an affinity for Pebble Beach. He's played the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am the past three years, where two of the four rounds are contested at Pebble, and all he's done is finish seventh in 2008 and first in 2009 and 2010.
A lot is made of the fact that Tiger blew away the Open field with a 12-under 276 total in 2000, but it's clear that he's not as good as he was then, and the course is way tougher.
For starters, there won't be anyone 12 under this year. This is not the Phoenix Open, and the stuffed shirts at the USGA don't take kindly to anyone making mincemeat of their layouts.
We'll know early on if any of these assessments are on target. You always hear players say that they tune out what their playing partners are doing, but it doesn't hurt to have a good grouping. Mickelson's paired the first two days with three-time major champion Padraig Harrington and Y.E. Yang, who captured the PGA Championship last year in a head-to-head stare-down with Woods. I like that pairing for Lefty.
Other good groupings: Stricker, one of the best putters on tour, with Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey. A proud American going off with two European Ryder Cup regulars is going to bring his "A" game. Furyk is in a threesome with multiple-major champions Retief Goosen and Angel Cabrera. I'll admit Watney and Barnes are longshots, but they're paired together and may just pull each other along with good play. Among the non-Americans I'm picking, the 21-year-old McIlroy and Ishikawa, 18, who won tournaments on two continents the same day back in May, are paired today and Friday with 60-year-old Tom Watson, a clever arrangement by the USGA. Westwood may have the toughest pairing, with Woods and Ernie Els, but I think he'll be up to it. Allenby may have the easiest pairing of any, teeing it up for two days with fellow Australians Adam Scott and Geoff Ogilvy.
Take Tiger, if you want. Nobody will call you crazy. But it's also not a very inspired choice. If Woods wins, I'll be the first to say bravo. I just don't see it.