Thursday, September 16, 2010

Bobby Jones' slam and the near-misses

This year marks the 80th anniversary of Bobby Jones winning golf’s grand slam. In 1930, Jones captured the U.S. and British Open tournaments, and the U.S. and British Amateur championships. Today, the two amateur championships are no longer considered golf majors, having been replaced by the Masters and the PGA Championship.

In 1930, though, there was no Masters (it started in 1934, after Jones, a Georgia native, helped build Augusta National), and the PGA Championship was then a lesser-known, 14-year-old event involving mostly club professionals at a time when pro golfers were considered second-class citizens to the great amateurs of the day.

Whatever you may think of Jones’ accomplishment, it’s worth noting that no golfer since 1930 has won the four majors (Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA) in a single year. But who were some of the other golfers who came close?

Tiger Woods’ name immediately jumps to the fore, no pun intended. His 2000 season is considered by some the greatest single season in modern golf. That year, he won the U.S. Open by 15 shots at Pebble Beach Golf Links. Ernie Els of South Africa and Miguel-Angel Jimenez of Spain were a distant second.

Woods then won the British Open at St. Andrews in Scotland by eight strokes, with Els again sharing second, this time with Thomas Bjorn of Denmark. Woods closed out his stellar season by winning the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Kentucky in a three-hole playoff with Bob May. In the first major in 2000, Woods was fifth at the Masters, six shots behind winner Vijay Singh.

Woods’ remarkable 2000 campaign drew extra attention after he won the 2001 Masters to simultaneously hold all four majors, although not in a single year. It has become known as the Tiger Slam.

Here are some of other notable near-misses:

1945: Byron Nelson won 18 tournaments that year, including 11 in a row, both tour records. However, due to World War II, there was only one major championship held that year, the PGA, and not surprisingly, Nelson won it. Plus, Ben Hogan, his chief competition, was away at war for the first six months of the year.

1953: Ben Hogan put together arguably the greatest single season between Jones’ in 1930 until Woods’ in 2000. The Texas native played only six events that year but won five, including three majors, the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. He was unable to compete in the PGA because it was held at the same time as the British Open. And, oh yeah, he was 40 years old that year.

1960: Arnold Palmer, as Hogan did in 1953, won the Masters (his second of four Green Jackets) and the U.S. Open (his only win in that event), but wound up second at the British Open, one shot behind Kel Nagle. He also tied for seventh in the PGA, the only major he failed to win in his illustrious career.

1974: Gary Player, like Hogan a man of modest stature with fierce determination, won the Masters and British Open that year, tied for eighth in the U.S. Open and finished seventh in the PGA.

1975: Jack Nicklaus, who finished in the top 10 in a remarkable 35 out of 40 appearances in the majors in the 1970s, won the first and last majors that year, the Masters and PGA, and finished seventh in the U.S. Open, two shots back of Lou Graham, and tied for third in the British Open, one stroke behind Tom Watson. Nicklaus also won the Masters and U.S. Open in 1972, finished second in the British Open and tied for 13th in the PGA.

1977: Tom Watson, the gap-toothed boy wonder often hailed as the man who would dethrone Nicklaus, fulfilled a great deal of his promise with four top-10 finishes in the majors. He won the Masters and the second of his five British Open titles. He tied for seventh in the U.S. Open and tied for sixth in the PGA.

1982: Watson again caught fire, winning two majors and placing in the top 10 in the other two. He captured the U.S. Open with a master stroke by holing out a delicate chip for birdie on the next-to-last hole at Pebble Beach, then birdying 18 to beat Nicklaus by two shots. He also won the British Open a fourth time, tied for fifth in the Masters and tied for ninth in the PGA.

2005: Woods’ season was nearly as remarkable as his 2000 assault. He won the Masters and British Open, tied for second in the U.S. Open, two shots behind Michael Campbell, and tied for fourth in the PGA, two strokes behind Phil Mickelson.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ryder Cup teams finalized

It's been assumed that Team Europe captain Colin Montgomerie took the risky route and Team USA captain Corey Pavin played it safe with their respective captain's picks for the Ryder Cup.

The truth is, Monty's choices aren't as daring as it might seem, and Pavin's aren't as predictable, either.

Each team for the Ryder Cup, set for Oct. 1-3 at Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales, consists of a dozen players. However, inconsistent selection criteria left Monty with three wild cards and Pavin with four.

First, a look at the automatic qualifiers for each team:

Team Europe: Englishmen Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher; Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland; Martin Kaymer of Germany; Francesco Molinari of Italy; Peter Hanson of Sweden; and Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain.

Team USA: Phil Mickelson, Hunter Mahan, Bubba Watson, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson, Jeff Overton and Matt Kuchar.

Monty made his wild-card choices on Aug. 29, selecting Padraig Harrington of Ireland, Edoardo Molinari of Italy and Luke Donald of England. Pavin's picks, made Tuesday, were Tiger Woods, Stewart Cink, Zach Johnson and Rickie Fowler.

Scotland's Montgomerie was derided in some circles for bypassing a pair of high-ranking Brits, Paul Casey and Justin Rose. Casey is ranked No. 9 in the world, and Rose has already won twice this season on the PGA Tour. However, Harrington has something neither of those two have, a major championship. In fact, he has three, having won the British Open in 2007 and 2008 and the PGA Championship in 2008.

Molinari, the older brother of Francesco, is arguably one of the hottest players on the European Tour (he was en route to winning a tournament the day Monty made his picks). Donald, meanwhile, is ranked 10th in the world, just behind Casey, and has a 5-1-1 record in two previous Ryder Cups.

Although Harrington has not won on the PGA Tour since his PGA crown in 2008, he is a no-brainer for Monty's team, half of which will be playing in the Ryder Cup for the first time. Harrington is a veteran of match play, having competed in three Walker Cup competitions (the amateur equivalent of the Ryder Cup) and now six consecutive Ryder Cup squads.

The lesser-known Molinari gets the nod over Casey and Rose, in my book, for two reasons. First, he has shown greater support for the European Tour than Casey and Rose, who divide their time fairly equally between the PGA and European tours. Second, it will be impossible for Monty to resist pairing the Molinari brothers together in the foursome and four ball competition.

Unlike Montgomerie, who was saddled with an embarrassment of riches in making his three captain's picks, Pavin probably would have relished making just three wild cards, or perhaps even just two. As silly as it sounds, the Euro team is easily as deep as the U.S. with Ryder Cup talent. I'm not sure how Team USA can win the Ryder Cup. Team Europe has always wanted it more; now they have the talent to back up their desire.

You could say the U.S. Ryder Cup team has never been so weak.

When Tiger Woods returned to pro golf this spring following a five-month layoff and didn't immediately start winning, and then continued to look lost in subsequent tournaments, there was a low-level buzz that he would be left off the Ryder Cup squad. The fact that most of these people wouldn't know a sand wedge from a sandwich is beside the point.

As long as Tiger Woods had a pulse, Pavin was going to pick him, as well he should. It's not like there's a long line of Americans pushing him out of the spotlight. Tiger Woods at 80 percent of his potential is still better - and, sorry to say, way more marketable - than nearly all other U.S. tour players.

The only other obvious choice for Pavin was Zach Johnson. He is a former Masters champ and has played well this year, showing himself to be a true warrior by overcoming a lack of length off the tee to finish tied for third - one shot out of the playoff between Kaymer and Watson - in last month's PGA Championship at overly long Whistling Straits.

After Woods and Johnson, Pavin could have picked anybody and no one would have a right to complain. Cink won last year's British Open but has done little since, and probably got the nod over Lucas Glover, last year's U.S. Open champ, only because Glover has played even worse since then.

As for Fowler, he's a prime example of the meager pickins' for Pavin. Fowler is 21, played in the Walker Cup just last year and has not even been a pro for a full year. He and Overton are the first U.S. Ryder Cup rookies ever without a PGA Tour victory.

It's not just because the Ryder Cup is in Wales that Team Europe will be favored. Pavin will have his hands full between now and Oct. 1 coming up with a lineup that can compete.