Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What's wrong with golf?

It's a singular question, but there's no shortage of answers.

We're only 10 days removed from assessing the PGA of America's blunder in the Dustin Johnson is-it-a-sand-trap-or-isn't-it embarrassment at the PGA Championship, and already the LPGA Tour and PGA Tour have found ways to hog the stupidity spotlight.

I suppose Dustin Johnson should at least be grateful the dimwit tour officials didn't disqualify him at the PGA for failing to realize that the sandy waste area where his ball came to rest on the final hole of the final day was in fact a bunker, and that he wasn't allowed to ground his club before striking the ball. I wonder where he got the idea it wasn't a bunker? You think maybe it was the hundred or so spectators standing in said sand trap?

I don't know about you, but where I come from (reality), spectators aren't allowed to stand in a sand trap. And if they are, all bets are off.

All Johnson got was a two-stroke penalty, but that was enough to knock him out of a potential three-man playoff at the year's final major. Long after people have forgotten who won (German Martin Kaymer, and much praise to him), golf fans and even casual observers will remember what morons the PGA of America officials were for blindly adhering to a particularly specious judgment call.

Juli Inkster and Jim Furyk, who between them have 45 years of professional golf experience and more than 60 tournament wins, weren't as lucky as Johnson. In the past week, both were DQ'd for violations that can only charitably be described as insane. The disqualifications cost both players dearly, revealing yet another problem with golf: Quite often, punishments far exceed the crime. In golf, jaywalkers get life without parole.

Inkster's DQ from the Safeway Classic in Oregon last week would be comical if not for the fact that the 50-year-old "grande dame" of the LPGA Tour had just shot a second-round 67 that moved her to within three shots of the lead. Her crime? While waiting out a delay midway through her round, Inkster tried to stay loose by taking practice swings with a swing weight attached to her 9-iron.

This is a violation of the United States Golf Association's Rule 14-3 in the USGA's "Rules of Golf," which prohibits the use of practice devices during play. I'm not going to argue that this is a stupid rule. I get that the USGA is concerned with giving any player an unfair advantage.

But let's set the rule aside for a moment. How did LPGA Tour officials know Inkster had violated Rule 14-3? Had a fellow touring pro observed her doing this and informed tournament officials? Nope. Did a tournament official see it for themselves? Nope. A spectator at the golf course? Wrong again.

None of these scenarios happened, I'll bet because none of them were aware of Rule 14-3's prohibition against using a swing weight during play. Inkster certainly wasn't aware of it; if she were, she wouldn't have done it. Let's add this context: Juli Inkster has won 39 tournaments as a pro, 31 on the LPGA Tour since joining in 1983, including majors Kraft Nabisco Championship, LPGA Championship and U.S. Women's Open twice each, and the du Maurier (Canada's top event) in 1984 when that event was still considered a major. She's a member of both the World Golf Hall of Fame and the LPGA Hall of Fame, and she won the U.S. Women's Amateur (an event, like the Women's Open, run by the USGA) three straight years before turning pro.

It's a safe assumption that Juli Inkster has a pretty good understanding of the rules of golf. However, my guess is she can't quote the "Rules of Golf" chapter and verse. I imagine there are no more than five people in America who know the USGA rules by heart, and all five have a 5-iron up their butt. It was Inkster's misfortune that one of those anal-retentives spied her on the Golf Channel's coverage of the Safeway Classic, then (continued cranial-rectal thinking here), e-mailed the tour event to call Inkster on her egregious error.

It was at this point that the LPGA Tour folks could have, should have taken this information and said, "Thank you, but get a life." Instead, they viewed footage of the Golf Channel coverage with, one imagines, the seriousness of Congress poring over the Zapruder film of Kennedy's assassination. Satisfied that Inkster "cheated," they DQ'd her.

And isn't upholding the integrity of golf what it's all about? No sport but golf allows Joe Blow at home to affect the outcome of a sporting event. A know-it-all who felt obligated to share his "vast" knowledge was rewarded. These kind of people should be ignored, and whoever had to tell Inkster in person that she was DQ'd should be ashamed.

Furyk, meanwhile, was DQ'd from the Barclays Championship, this week's PGA Tour event in New Jersey, for doing nothing on the golf course. All he did was oversleep and show up late for his tee time in the Wednesday pro-am that precedes the event scheduled to start Thursday. He relied on his cell phone alarm to wake up, and was delayed when the phone's battery died. I'm hoping that's the last time he does that.

Again, that's not really the point. It's the subsequent DQ, why the PGA Tour felt it was necessary, and why it's so stupid. In an effort to cut down on tour pros begging off pro-ams with questionable illnesses or injuries, the PGA Tour a few years ago decreed that anyone who fails to show for a pro-am would also be DQ'd from that week's tour event.

Now we're talking about something not even addressed in the rules of golf. This is a corporate entity doing what it can to protect itself financially. The ams in pro-ams are mostly CEOs of companies that sponsor VIP tents and tournaments themselves. What tour officials could have, should have done was to fine Furyk, but let him finish the pro-am and compete in the Barclays this week.

That Furyk made every effort to get to the golf course and probably would have missed, at most, one hole of the pro-am, was rejected. Rules are rules, and, by golly, we gotta have rules.

Furyk's a big boy, he makes good money and probably won't suffer lasting harm from this episode. Heck, he might even get an alarm-clock endorsement contract.

But the PGA Tour will suffer for shooting itself in the foot. It's not a smart thing to do, especially since the tour is already suffering from investing so much time and effort (too much time, if you ask me) in continued promotion of its one-time golden boy, Tiger Woods.

Corporations, though, are not real good at big-picture perspective. Witness the blunders of BP following the Gulf oil spill.

And the PGA of America, the LPGA Tour and PGA Tour are corporations. They'd like to think they enhance the game, but the truth is they just as often muck it up.

To them, golf is a business. To me, it's a game.

I went golfing on my birthday this week. On a day in which the mercury reached 106, it seemed like I had turned back the clock 25-30 years, to when I could really play. I was 3 under par on my first nine holes and still 3 under with four holes left, but bogeyed three of the final four to finish at even-par 72. Despite the obvious disappointment over my collapse, which I attribute in no small part to the heat, I was excited by the way I played.

Good play will keep me coming back, just as it does for most golfers. It's the search for the great drive, the well-struck iron, the perfect putt.

There's not much wrong with golf. Sometimes, there is something wrong with the folks that claim to administer the game.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sad end to a great major

I should feel pretty good about the fact that one of my 12 pre-tournament picks - young German Martin Kaymer - won the PGA Championship, the year's final major.

I should feel pretty good that, coupled with Phil Mickelson's victory in the year's first major, the Masters, I had correctly predicted two of the four major champions this year.

I should feel pretty good that my 12 picks for the PGA included three of the top seven, four of the top 12 and six of the top 23 finishers.

All I really feel is sad.

Sad for Kaymer, a 25-year-old who won his first major championship and became only the second German to win a major, behind his icon, two-time Masters champ Bernhard Langer. Sad because Kaymer's incredible play down the stretch (just two bogeys in the final 55 holes, more than offset by 13 birdies), will forever be overshadowed by the way the tournament ended.

Sad for American Bubba Watson, whose daring play on the final day produced three birdies in a four-hole stretch of the back nine, an all-or-nothing approach in the subsequent three-hole playoff with Kaymer that ultimately cost him big-time, and an 11-under 277 total in regulation that, were it not for Kaymer calmly holing a 15-foot par-saving putt at 18, would have produced big-hitting Bubba's first major championship.

Sad, also for American Zach Johnson and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, both of whom finished tied for third at 10 under, a stroke out of the playoff. Johnson, who won the Masters in 2007, is a short-hitting pro who somehow managed to string together rounds of 69-70-69-70 on the ridiculously long layout. McIlroy, who turned 21 in May, showed a youthful bravado with 21 birdies during the four days but couldn't come up with the one shot or putt he needed most.

But sad, mostly, for American Dustin Johnson. In a scenario a bit reminiscent of Australian Greg Norman's in 1986, when the Great White Shark led after three rounds of all four majors but won just the British Open that year, Johnson played in the final group of two majors in 2010, the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and last week's PGA at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis.

At Pebble Beach, Johnson led by three shots after three rounds, but he blew up with a disastrous final-round 82. At the PGA, he wasn't the leader after 54 holes; Nick Watney had that distinction. Dustin Johnson, though, stood at the 72nd hole at Whistling Straits, alone at 12 under and needing only a par to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy.

In a sequence of events that can only be described as a perfect storm, disaster struck Dustin. His tee shot on the par-4 was well right, the ball coming to rest in a sandy waste area where hundreds of spectators had been standing. Johnson surveyed the scene, then hit a shot left and beyond the green that was not spectacular but, considering what he had to work with, not bad, either. His pitch from high grass left him with less than 10 feet to save par, but he missed the putt to the right, falling back into a tie with Watson and Kaymer.

For the briefest of moments, it seemed the fans at Whistling Straits and those of us at home watching on TV would be treated to a fascinating, three-man, three-hole playoff between an unflappable German and two long-hitting Americans. It looked for all the world like a tantalizing glimpse ahead to October's Ryder Cup. Watson, 31, and Johnson, 26, will be representing Team USA; Kaymer will line up for Team Europe. These three are among a new crop of pros that are the fearless future of men's golf. Watson, for that matter, may one day replace Mickelson as the best Lefty on tour.

But even before Watney and Dustin Johnson left the 18th green Sunday at Whistling Straits, a rules official for the PGA approached the pair, telling Johnson there may be a problem with him grounding his club in a bunker and thus incurring a two-shot penalty.

Johnson's reaction? "What bunker?" he says he told the rules official.

It seems that the waste area well right of the 18th fairway was, in fact, a bunker, one of the more than 1,000 sand traps at Whistling Straits, set along the western shore of Lake Michigan. Johnson was in shock. He says it never occurred to him that the waste area where he struck his second shot was a sand trap. People were standing there when his ball landed; many were still standing in the "bunker" when he hit his second shot.

You can bet the folks who run the Masters would never allow such behavior by fans at Augusta National; one would assume the stuffed-shirts at the United States Golf Association wouldn't put up with that at the U.S. Open; and heaven help any lad cheeky enough to try that at the British Open. Royal and Ancient Golf Club officials would boot them faster than you can say Macbeth.
Yet the penalty for Dustin Johnson stood, and the ashen-faced pro flipped his pencil around, erasing his final-hole 5 and replacing it with a 7 that dropped him into a tie for fifth at 9 under. And just like that, what was shaping up to be one of the most exciting majors in history took on the bitter taste of bad meat.

The three-hole playoff was anticlimactic, although Watson and Kaymer did their best to reinvigorate the proceedings. Watson birdied the first hole, the short par-4 10th, and Kaymer drew even with birdie at the second playoff hole, the par-3 17th. Back at the sadistically tough 18th, Watson hit into the water with his second shot and wound up with double-bogey, allowing Kaymer to win with a simple two-putt bogey.

Dustin Johnson was gone long before the playoff. He took questions from the press before exiting and handled himself with remarkable calm. I'm guessing he was still in shock, but, admirably, he didn't try to shift blame.

There was plenty of blame to go around, starting with Johnson himself, and his caddie. The responsibility falls to them to determine where they are at all times on the golf course. And if there was a question about whether or not Johnson's ball was in a bunker, they only had to ask for a ruling. The bigger blame, in my opinion, goes to the PGA of America, which took the coward's route by hiding behind a rules sheet posted in the locker room before the tournament alerting the players that all of the more than 1,000 bunkers would be treated as such, meaning no grounding of your golf club before hitting the ball.

That rule only works if the people running the tournament also treat all of the bunkers as such. Here's a simple, common-sense rule: if you want to call them bunkers, you don't let fans stand in them, walk through them, roll their strollers through them, essentially obliterating them to the point where they no longer resemble bunkers.

It was alternately amusing and irritating to hear the TV talking heads' reaction to Johnson's predicament. The make-no-waves CBS team mostly swallowed PGA officials' explanation without question, although David Feherty, to his credit, later stood among a throng of spectators in the area where Johnson struck his second shot, dumbfounded as to how the area could be described as a bunker. Over on the Golf Channel, a couple of former touring pros, Frank Nobilo and Brandel Chamblee, came down on opposite sides of the discussion. Nobilo, like Feherty, was perplexed by the explanation that the waste area still qualified as a bunker after fans were allowed to stand in it; Chamblee played the PGA apologist, saying blame began and ended with Dustin Johnson.

Johnson paid a high price for his mistake, but the PGA suffered, too.

Mopping up my 12 pre-tournament picks: In addition to picking Kaymer, McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, I also had Mickelson, who tied for 12th at 6 under; Steve Stricker and Ernie Els, tied for 18th at 4 under; Retief Goosen, tied for 55th at 2 over; and Rickie Fowler, tied for 58th at 3 over. My four others, Padraig Harrington, Lucas Glover, Ryo Ishikawa and Sean O'Hair, all missed the cut.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Looking good for final day at the PGA

My pre-tournament picks for the PGA Championship didn't look great at the halfway point, but entering the final round of the year's final major, some of them are looking really good.

I had eight of my 12 make the cut at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., not bad. Even better, two of them, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, were tied for second, three shots behind surprise leader Nick Watney.

Johnson is the tall, long-hitting American who self-destructed at the U.S. Open this year by taking 82 in the final round at Pebble Beach. McIlroy is the 21-year-old phenom from Northern Ireland who followed a scorching 63 in the opening round of this year's British Open at St. Andrews with a second-round 80. Through three rounds at Whistling Straits, they had matching cards of 71-68-67 for 10-under 206 totals.

Another of my picks, German Martin Kaymer, was in a three-way tie for fourth after rounds of 72-68-67.

My other five picks: Ernie Els, a three-time major champion from South Africa, tied for 16th at 211 on rounds of 68-74-69; American Steve Stricker, tied for 19th at 212 after carding 72-72-68; another Amerian, Rickie Fowler, tied for 41st at 214 after shooting 73-71-70; four--time major champion Phil Mickelson, tied for 48th at 215 after rounds of 73-69-73; and Retief Goosen, a two-time U.S. Open champ from South Africa who had inconsistent rounds of 76-68-74 to stand at 218.

It's a new world, Tiger

Those anxious for Tiger Woods to win another major championship better pack a lunch for that wait.

And anyone who thinks Woods will ever dominate pro golf again is seriously deluded. It's over, folks, just like that. He may yet win another major (I personally don't see it happening; maybe I'm a glass-half-empty kind of guy), but his days of dominance are done.

And it's not (just) because his personal life came unraveled last November when he cracked up his car in a late-night decision to go for a drive in his pajamas.

The first real sign of weakness in Team Tiger came last August, when a South Korean named Y.E. Yang stared down the world's No. 1 player for 18 holes and won the PGA Championship. Even that, however, was not the beginning of the end.

If you really want to know, it came in July 2003, and probably no one knew it at the time. Ben Curtis, an unheralded tour pro born in Columbus, Ohio (Jack Nicklaus' birthplace, by the way, and there's a certain symmetry to that), captured the British Open at Royal St. George's in Sandwich, England.

It was significant for a lot of reasons. British bookies gave 300-1 odds on Curtis. Also, he became the first golfer in 90 years to win in his first appearance at a major, when Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open at Brookline, Mass. In hindsight, though, the most significant number is 26, Curtis' age at the time. That made him the first person younger than Woods to win a major since Woods joined the PGA Tour in 1996. (Curtis' DOB: May 26, 1977; Woods' DOB: Dec. 30, 1975.)

Tiger mastered the Masters at 21, winning by a dozen shots in 1997, his first full year on the PGA Tour. In the next 25 majors, a span of more than six years, Tiger would win seven more majors, and the other 18 were all won by players older than Woods. At 24, he throttled the field in the U.S. Open by 15 strokes and the British Open by eight shots. He also won five other majors before Curtis' 2003 British Open victory.

Since 2003, though, seven different golfers younger than Woods (now 34) have won majors, including four of the past six: Lucas Glover (30) at the 2009 U.S. Open, Graeme McDowell (31) at this year's U.S. Open, Louis Oosthuizen (27) at this year's British Open and Martin Kaymer (25) at this year's PGA Championship.

Kaymer's victory Sunday in a playoff over Bubba Watson at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin came while Woods was basically running in place for four days, as other players (mostly younger, and, a few older) were moving past him up the leaderboard. Sunday's play at the PGA completes the changing of the guard on the PGA Tour.

Tiger will be 35 in December. Nicklaus won the Masters and the PGA the year he turned 35, plus four more majors after that, including a record sixth and final Masters at 46 in 1986.

Woods has 14 majors, four behind Nicklaus' 18. That Tiger would eventually catch and surpass the Golden Bear once seemed a slam-dunk. Now, it's not so certain. The fact that Tiger won six more majors after Curtis' British Open win in 2003 is testament to how strong a golfer Woods once was. But that's past tense. The present, for Tiger at least, is not pretty.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Halfway through the PGA

The beauty of the PGA Championship this year is that fresh faces abound on the leaderboard. At one point early in Saturday's third round at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., 20 of the top 23 players were golfers who had never won a major championship.

Also, there were more than a dozen players within three shots of the lead. Ten players were tied for fifth at 5 under par, just three shots behind Matt Kuchar, the 36-hole leader at 8 under. Among that logjam were two of my 12 pre-tournament picks, long-hitting American Dustin Johnson and Northern Ireland's young phenom, 21-year-old Rory McIlroy. Both opened the year's final major with identical scores of 71-68.

Next among my choices was Martin Kaymer. The German, who led early in Thursday's first round before falling back with a 72, rebounded with a 68 to stand at 4 under.

Two of my players, with a combined seven major championships between them, were knotted at 2 under, but they arrived at that number heading in different directions. South African Ernie Els, who won the U.S. Open in 1994 and 1997 and the British Open in 2002, followed his opening 68 with a miserable day on the greens for a second-round 74. Phil Mickelson, Masters champion in 2004, 2006 and again this April and winner of the PGA in 2005, fought back from an opening 73 with a 69.

Three of my players reached the halfway point at even par. Rickie Fowler followed an opening 73 with a 71. Retief Goosen, another South African who like his countryman Els has a pair of U.S. Open crowns, raced back from a disastrous 76 with a second-round 68. American Steve Stricker held true to his steady persona with two rounds of even-par 72.

That gave me eight out of 12 players who made the cut, not a bad batting average. It might have been better, though, if Padraig Harrington of Ireland, a three-time major champion, had not taken double bogey on his final hole to shoot 75-71 and miss the cut by a single shot.

Also out after two rounds were Lucas Glover, last year's U.S. Open champion who never got anything going at 74-73, 18-year-old Japanese sensation Ryo Ishikawa (76-74) and American Sean O'Hair (75-75).

Because of Whistling Straits' length (7,500 yards, with wind conditions adding to that), I like Dustin Johnson's chances.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Off and running at the PGA Championship

One round down at the PGA Championship, and two story lines emerge:

The rumors of Tiger Woods' demise are a bit premature. The same guy who couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat last week in Akron, Ohio, birdied three of the first four holes to quickly get on the leaderboard and finished with a 1-under-par 71. It could have been better, no question, but he looked a little more comfortable than the guy who shot over par all four rounds in Akron.

The year's final major, which sets aside about 20 spots for club professionals - the guys who give us hackers lessons on the practice tee - also has taken on an international look. American Matt Kuchar led at 5-under 67 in a first round completed Friday, and 16 other Americans were also under par, but those who bettered Whistling Straits' par of 72 included pros from 15 other countries. Overall, the field of 156 included players representing 22 nations, from South Africa to South Korea, Canada to Colombia, Australia to Argentina, France to Fiji.

Thanks to fog along Lake Michigan that delayed the start of play Thursday and Friday, just under half of the golfers didn't finish their first round until Friday morning. But already there's been a lot of solid golf. A total of 42 players broke par, almost a third of the field.

Behind Kuchar, the foursome at 4-under 68 included an American (long-hitting Bubba Watson), a South African (Ernie Els), a South Korean (Seung Yul Noh) and an Italian (Francesco Molinari, the younger of two Molinari brothers playing in the PGA).

Els, by the way, leads my team of 12 players to beat this week. Only two others I picked broke par in the first round, American Dustin Johnson and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, both at 1-under 71.

I also had German Martin Kaymer, who got off to a hot start with birdies on three of his first four holes, but cooled off considerably after that and wound up at even-par 72. Also at that figure was one of my six Americans, Steve Stricker.

My other seven players were all over par. Phil Mickelson, looking to add a second major this year after taking the Masters in April, and fellow American Rickie Fowler shot 73; another U.S. pro, 2009 U.S. Open champ Lucas Glover, shot 74; three-time major champion Padraig Harrington of Ireland and American Sean O'Hair carded 75s; at 76 were Japanese teen sensation Ryo Ishikawa and South African Retief Goosen, a two-time U.S. Open champ who birdied two of the first three holes and promptly double-bogeyed the next two holes.
My guys at par or better need to pick it up a bit in the second round. Those several shots over par likely will need a round in the 60s in order to make the cut for the final two rounds.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

12 players to beat at the PGA Championship

Who will win the final major championship on the men's tour this year? Will it be someone with a history of winning majors, like Phil Mickelson, who added to his trophy case by taking the Masters in April? Or will it be a third straight first-timer, following U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland and British Open champ Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa?

Experience counts for something, but probably not as much as you'd think. Newcomers winning a major is almost a 50-50 proposition. Every year since 2001, at least one of the majors has been won by a golfer who had not won a major before.

In 2003, all four majors were won by first-timers: Canadian Mike Weir at the Masters and Americans Jim Furyk at the U.S. Open, Ben Curtis at the British Open and Shaun Micheel at the PGA. By the way, none of those four has won a major since then. Likewise for other 21st century major champs David Duval (2001 British), David Toms (2001 PGA), Rich Beem (2002 PGA), Todd Hamilton (2004 British), Michael Campbell (2005 U.S. Open), Geoff Ogilvy (2006 U.S. Open), Zach Johnson (2007 Masters), Trevor Immelman (2008 Masters), Lucas Glover (2009 U.S. Open), Stewart Cink (2009 British) and Y.E. Yang (2009 PGA).

Since 1991, roughly half (40 of 79) of the majors were won by first-timers. Thirty of those 40 winners have won no other major.

So the key to predicting a winner seems to be picking the right mix of players who have been to the winner's circle before, players on the cusp of greatness and players likely to catch lightning in a bottle.

With that in mind, I am approaching the PGA Championship, which starts Thursday at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., with four players from each of these three categories.

The multiple-major winners: Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Padraig Harrington.

The up-and-comers: Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Lucas Glover, Ryo Ishikawa.

The one-timers: Dustin Johnson, Martin Kaymer, Sean O'Hair, Steve Stricker.

Mickelson, who didn't win his first major until 2004 (his 13th year on tour,, when he was almost 34), seems to be making up for lost time. A win this week would be the 40-year-old Lefty's fifth major title in seven years. Els, also 40, hasn't won a major since the 2002 British Open, but he's playing some of the most inspired golf of his career this year, and he tied for fourth in the 2004 PGA when it was last held at Whistling Straits.

Goosen, 41, a two-time U.S. Open champion, has 12 top-10 finishes in majors this decade, and a win this week would not be a major surprise. Harrington, who will be 39 on Aug. 31, is seeking his fourth major title in the past three years, and he's the only player in the past 12 years other than Tiger Woods to win more than one major in a single year.

Among the up-and-comers, Glover barely fits. For one, he's 30, nine years older than McIlroy and Fowler, 12 years older than Ishikawa. Also, he's already won a major, last year's U.S. Open when everyone else seemed to find ways to lose. But I'm not sure he's done winning majors; he has a great temperament and enough game to pull off another.

McIlroy, currently ranked No. 8 in the world, could be either the next Tiger Woods, and win a bunch of majors, or the next Sergio Garcia, all promise and no major victories. I'd like to believe he's going to win at least one major, and probably several. The only problem is, it seems that every year the talent pool gets so deep that it's harder and harder to stand out.

Fowler is a bit of a wild card here. He's only been a pro a short time, has no tour wins and the PGA is just his fourth major championship appearance. But he also has the ability to put up low numbers, and I like his approach to the game ... fearless.

Ishikawa is a prodigy, pure and simple. He won't turn 19 until September, and he won on the Japan tour before his 16th birthday. He's already got eight pro wins, seven on the Japan tour, and shot a 58, lower than anyone has ever gone on the PGA Tour, in winning a Japan tour event in May.

The one-timer label is kind of a backhanded compliment, guys I believe good enough to win a major, but not two. When he grabbed the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open in June at Pebble Beach, I thought Dustin Johnson might be one of those up-and-comers, but he blew his chances in a big way on the second and third holes of the final round. At the second hole, the right-handed Johnson ridiculously tried to hit a recovery shot left-handed and nearly whiffed; at the third hole, he hit his tee shot so badly the ball was lost in a grove of trees as he and a couple hundred spectators couldn't locate the ball.

Now, I think Johnson may be in the one-timer class. He's still an impressive player, with the length to tackle any course (Tiger says Johnson is "stupid long" off the tee). John Daly was once known for being mostly a bomber, but even he won two majors, so I think Johnson is good for one. Whether it's this week or not is speculation.

Stricker, meanwhile, would be fortunate to qualify for the one-timer category. He's a veteran, has 17 pro wins, nine top-10 finishes in majors and currently is ranked No. 4 in the world, behind Woods, Mickelson and Lee Westwood. Also, he might be a crowd favorite this week since he grew up in Edgerton, Wis., 130 miles away from Kohler where the PGA will be contested. That's the upside. The downside is that he's never won a major, and he's 43. Tom Kite won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 1992 at 42, and Julius Boros was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA, but Stricker's opportunities may be running out.

Kaymer, 25, grew up in Dusseldorf, Germany, mostly plays the European Tour and is little known in the U.S. However, he's finished in the top 10 in three of the past four majors and has exceptional talent. He won a pro tournament as a 19-year-old amateur and once shot a 58 in another event, playing the final 16 holes 14 under par.

O'Hair, 28, could also be considered a darkhorse. He has just three PGA Tour wins, but one came in 2005 when he was named the tour's rookie of the year. That's an encouraging sign, though, since eight of the past 19 rookies of the year have won majors.

That's my dozen picks for the PGA this week. Will one of them win? Who knows, but the process of selecting them has been an exquisite challenge.

Stop blaming Tiger

It's time to stop blaming Tiger Woods.

Not for the mess that has become of his life and golf game ... for that, he gets full blame. His soon-to-be-ex-wife, Elin Nordegren, is reportedly in line to get at least $100 million in a divorce settlement. And anyone who saw Tiger play at Firestone Country Club in Akron last week got a glimpse of something equally ugly, the No. 1 player in the world sleep-walking around the golf course, taking little time between shots and probably wishing he were somewhere else, anywhere else.

He seemed to take more care on Sunday signing an autograph on a golf glove for the fan he struck in the face with an errant shot. His 72 holes at Firestone included 10 birdies, 22 bogeys and three double bogeys. He did not match par any day and finished at 18 over par, beat one pro in the 80-player field and wound up 30 shots behind Hunter Mahan.

Tiger enters the year's final major, the PGA Championship starting Thursday at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., still the No. 1 player in the world (technically), but far from the best player in the field right now. Blame him for all of that.

But stop blaming Tiger for all the attention lavished on him in the nine months since he cracked up his Escalade at the end of his driveway in Florida last November. No, the blame must be shared: by anyone who has continued to care what a so-so golfer is doing week in and week out; TV networks that continue to waste air time on a guy who looks a lot like me when I'm hacking my way around the local muni; lazy reporters and columnists with so little initiative that they ignore real news in the world of golf; people who don't immediately turn off the TV and do something more meaningful with their lives, like mow the lawn; and folks who buy those tabloid rags at the supermarket check-out stand looking for the latest juicy gossip on a fallen hero.

I hate to say it, but that means the blame falls on almost all of us.

We need to get beyond Tiger Woods. Until he becomes a world-beater again on the golf course, he's yesterday's news.