Monday, February 7, 2005
Mickelson just another repeat winner
By Jason Sobel
Throughout the Philadelphia Eagles' Super Bowl run, the team's fans held up signs reading things like, "Mickelson. Red Sox. Now it's our turn." in reference to some long-time losers who finally won a championship.
But does Phil Mickelson really belong on that list? Sure he was 0-for-forever in majors before breaking through at the Masters last year, but he's a proven winner on the PGA Tour.
As such, it was an ironic twist on Sunday, when the player Eagles' fans used as inspiration wiped the floor with the rest of the FBR Open field while Philly's football hopes faded in Jacksonville. The Weekly 18 begins with Mickelson and the tour's four other winners this season -- they've all got something in common.
|Mickelson earned a five-stroke victory at the FBR Open on Sunday.|
Cream of the crop
Other sports don't work like this. In other sports, even the bottom-feeders play hard-to-get at the beginning of the season. In other sports, the first month of the season hardly sets the tone for what we'll see at the end. In other sports, the cream takes time to rise to the top.
Golf, and the PGA Tour specifically, are unlike other sports -- at least this year. We're five events into 2005 and all five winners who have punched tickets to Kapalua next year will be return visitors. Top-five players Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh have already been victorious, with the popular Stuart Appleby and Justin Leonard taking the other two events. That quintet is joined by perennial favorites Ernie Els, Jonathan Kaye, Charles Howell III, Scott McCarron and Stewart Cink in the top 10 on the money list.
Which is all great news for the tour.
Coming off a season in which no-names Andre Stolz, Vaughn Taylor and Ryan Palmer earned victories, the tour was in danger of becoming a free-for-all.
You know, On any given week ...
It's the same problem the NFL ran into a few years ago. Wanting a level playing field for all teams, perhaps the league got more parity than it had bargained for, with the Super Bowl champ becoming entirely unpredictable.
The PGA Tour is now more MLB than NFL, with some definite haves and have-nots. The top players are thinking in terms of wins. The have-nots? They're just trying to turn a profit.
That's not to say there won't be some surprises on tour this year. They just haven't happened yet. And when they do, you can bet they'll be hard-earned victories.
With the top players at the top of their games, 2005 could go down as the Season of Champions.
He may not be the best golfer in the world, but nobody can go low like Mickelson. At the FBR, Phil shot a second-round 60 just months after firing a 59 to win the unofficial Grand Slam of Golf. What's next? Golf purists, cover your eyes -- Mickelson could shoot a 58 one of these days. After all, it's been said (by Mickelson himself) that breaking the 60 barrier is tougher mentally than physically. Now that he's done it once in competitive play, don't be surprised to see the Masters champ aim for the record books someday soon.
It's time for the FBR to steal a page out of the Deutsche Bank Championship's manual. Traditionally played Super Bowl week, the FBR falls victim to a lack of media and fan focus on anything but the big game, with the final putt dropping not long before kickoff. Our solution? Move the tournament to a Friday through Monday format, like the Deutsche Bank which takes advantage of the long Labor Day weekend to cash in on its non-traditional finish. A Monday final round would give the FBR the sports spotlight for a day and be an obvious cure to the post-Super Bowl blues.
Na Na Na Na, hey hey hey ...
Hello! Last season Kevin Na was the youngest player on tour. This year, well, he's still the youngest. But at 21, Na is now a seasoned veteran and his maturity is starting to show in his play. The co-second round leader at the FBR, he finished T-2 and earned some valuable experience playing alongside Phil Mickelson for 36 holes during the weekend.
Adding result to injury
Na's play this week was especially impressive considering the setbacks he has incurred in recent weeks. Hampered by a wrist injury at the beginning of the season, Na was involved in an automobile accident after the first round of the Bob Hope Classic. The car was totaled (his manager was driving) and his mother fractured a vertebrae, but Na escaped basically unscathed.
Tiger needs cash
Anybody got an extra $313 they could loan Tiger Woods? It's not that the world's richest golfer needs to fill his wallet, but that's now the difference between Woods and leader Vijay Singh on the money list. With a T-11 finish at the FBR, Singh earned $100,100 to once again claim the top spot from Woods.
No Casey at the bat
The FBR seemed like the perfect place for Paul Casey to get back in touch with the American golf fans. In his adopted hometown of Scottsdale (like Mickelson, Casey attended Arizona State), Casey may have been given the benefit of the doubt by the raucous galleries. In turn, this could have set the tone for his season; if he doesn't get booed at the FBR, that could carry over to the next week and the week after that, until his somewhat anti-American comments are all but forgotten. Instead, Casey was a no-show this week, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of fans who may have forgiven him.
Beemer running on empty
Whatever happened to Rich Beem? The 2002 PGA Championship winner finished last in the field at the FBR with scores of 83-76 that included a quadruple-bogey, a triple-bogey, two double-bogeys and only two birdies in 36 holes. After starting the season with a T-38 at the Sony Open, Beem has two missed cuts and a WD to his record. That's coming off a season in which he made the cut in only 14 of 28 starts and failed to register a top-25 finish all year.
It's been 23 years since Jerry Pate won the inaugural Players Championship using an orange ball. Until now, that was just about the last we've seen of the non-traditional golf ball. Then Cink, Leonard, K.J. Choi and Rory Sabbatini each walked up to the FBR's 16th tee and pulled out the new Nike One Black ball. Those four players (each of whom has a sponsorship deal with Nike Golf) played the black ball with gold and silver lettering each day, but only on the par-3 16th. As Cink said, "The first time you see that black ball up on the tee it looks a little weird, but I just told myself to trust my swing and hit a good shot." He played the hole in even-par for the week, making birdie, bogey and two pars using the ball.
Rookie James Driscoll may have shot 81-75 at the FBR to miss the cut for the third time in four tour events this season, but he can take solace in the fact that his wind-aided 397-yard drive was the longest of the week. So far this season, that bomb trails only 400-yarders by Woods and Els at the Mercedes Championships.
Nationwide is on his side
After opening the season in Panama, the Nationwide Tour had the week off, giving its players plenty of time to think about things. Specifically, how the heck are we going to beat Bill Haas? The 22-year-old phenom used sponsor's exemptions on the PGA Tour in each of the last three weeks -- he was the only player in the FBR field to receive such an exemption -- and proved he's good enough to hang with the big boys. Prior to missing the cut in Scottsdale, Haas finished T-34 at the Bob Hope and T-18 at the Buick. The $92, 831 he's earned would place him in 77th on the money list if he was an official member of the tour. But alas, Haas has no status on tour and with only four sponsor's exemptions remaining, he's off to the Nationwide to work his way on full-time. Don't be surprised to see Haas pull off a battlefield promotion (three Nationwide wins) to the tour.
Former European Ryder Cup captain Bernhard Langer announced this week that he will not continue in that position at The K Club in 2006, but rather will try to make the team as a player. And don't count him out. Langer was among the leaders at the FBR after a second-round 66 before falling to T-49. He finished fifth and T-23 in the previous two weeks. If and when Langer decides to play more Euro Tour events to boost his Ryder Cup points, expect him to fare well on the less-competitive tour.
Jack is back
Jack Nicklaus entered the Wendy's Champions Skins Game with the idea that his play would be a gauge for how often he'll compete this season. If that's true, based on his 11 skins (compared to five and two for young old-timers Craig Stadler and Tom Watson, respectively, and none for Arnold Palmer) and a career-high $340,000 payout, we may see plenty of Jack in 2005.
Keep on Tryon
You know the story of Ty Tryon. Turned pro before finishing high school. Earned a PGA Tour card at 17. Never hit the big time. Fell flat on his face. Or did he? This week Tryon won his first career professional tournament in the NGA/Hooters Tour winter series. Only 20, he's already been through the PGA Tour, Nationwide Tour and Canadian Tour, as well as other worldwide tours, but still has plenty of time to become the golfer he seemed destined to be only a few years ago.
Separated by thousands of miles, Australia's Royal Melbourne Golf Club and North Carolina's Pinehurst No. 2 seemingly have very little in common. Not so, as many international players who competed in this week's Heineken Classic can attest to. Those players found plenty of plateau greens surrounded by swales of short rough on the Royal Melbourne course. Among the clubs used from around the green were wedges, putters, fairway woods and hybrid clubs. It was a good reminder that this year's U.S. Open champ is going to have to be pretty creative.
Pulling an all-nighter
For all those insomniacs, there's nothing like live golf in the wee hours of the morning to help you through the night. Craig Parry defeated Nick O'Hern on the fourth playoff hole of the Heineken at about 4:30 a.m. ET. In case you missed it -- and you should be kicking yourself if you did -- Parry's win was hardly the stuff of Doral last year. Rather than holing out for eagle, Parry made a 15-foot birdie putt to clinch the win.
Changing of the guard
Another week, another star is born on the European Tour. Even though he didn't come through with a victory like young Nick Dougherty at the Caltex Masters a week earlier, 23-year-old Australian Jarrod Lyle hung with the likes of eventual champ Parry and three-time defending champ Els at the Heineken. You may recall that Dougherty turned away proven winners Colin Montgomerie and Thomas Bjorn, meaning the young guns across the pond aren't backing down to the big names.
Quote of the week
"This is judgment day at this hole."
-- unidentified fan on the TPC of Scottsdale's rowdy 16th hole
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com