Tuesday, March 21, 2006
Love will rule (again) at Players
By Brian Wacker
"Bless his heart, he's got to be the sickest man in America," Verne Lundquist exclaimed late in the third quarter of Super Bowl XIII when Dallas Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith dropped what would have been a tying touchdown pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cowboys went on to lose 35-31.
Fast-forward 27 years and you have Greg Owen, who looked as though he needed one of those airsickness bags after having two putts lip out on the final two holes of the Bay Hill Invitational. He lost by one. Credit Owen, however, for his classy handling of the aftermath. He was gracious in defeat and gave plenty of time to the television and print media before moving on to pick up the pieces, which he hopes to do at this week's Players Championship.
Speaking of which, can we stop all the talk about the Players being a fifth major? Yes, it boasts arguably the best field in golf. Yes, the TPC at Sawgrass is one of the toughest tracks these guys will see (especially if it continues to be dry in Jacksonville, making conditions firm and fast). And, yes, players have come to love this tournament so much that by 4 p.m. Monday, 89 of the 144 in the field were already in Ponte Vedra, Fla., practicing or playing. But there are only four majors. This isn't the Champions Tour, and besides, four is a nice, even number.
It seems as though every PGA Tour player from Australia is playing well this year. Specifically, Geoff Ogilvy, Rod Pampling, Robert Allenby, Nathan Green, Adam Scott and Stuart Appleby have won or contended. And they've done it on courses ranging from Kapalua to Riviera to Bay Hill. This week probably won't be any different, given the track record Aussies have at the Players. Scott and Steve Elkington have won here, as has Greg Norman.
Of that group, Allenby, Scott and Green haven't won on the PGA Tour this year. They've been close, though, and Allenby could be coming on at just the right time: He led the field at Bay Hill in greens in regulation. He has had mixed results at the Players -- opening with a 75 and missing the cut last year after finishing T-4 in '03 and T-11 in '02. But when Allenby finds consistency with the putter, the rest of his game is more than good enough to win here.
Another player to watch this week: Chad Campbell. He's off to the best start of his career. Campbell hasn't missed a cut this year and has three top-fives, including a win at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. Now, the courses that hold the Chrysler are about as similar to TPC-Sawgrass as Terrell Owens is to humility, but don't be surprised if Campbell has a moment here much the way Scott did two years ago. It would go a long way toward validating the expectation everyone has had of Campbell since he won the Tour Championship in 2003.
If you're wondering why I haven't mentioned anyone from the Big Five, it's mostly because they haven't exactly dominated this elite field in recent years. In fact, Tiger Woods is the only member of the group who has won the Players -- in 2001.
Vijay Singh, who lives at the back of the driving range, spends as much time practicing there as the grass does growing, yet he has just two top-10s -- a runner-up in '01 and a T-8 in '96.
Phil Mickelson has a pair of top-10s -- he tied for third in '04 and for eighth in '98 -- but he also once shot an 83 at Sawgrass (in 2000).
Ernie Els tied for eighth in '96, 10th in '97 and 11th in '98, but hasn't seen the top 10 since. Neither has his countryman, Retief Goosen, whose best result at the Players is a T-12 last year.
A player who has had success here before, '98 champ Justin Leonard, seems to be stuck in reverse these days. At 41st and fading in the World Rankings, he has missed the cut at the Nissan, lost in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play to Ben Crane, shot a pair of 75s on the weekend at Doral and missed the cut at the Honda. No wonder he took last week off.
Item that might interest only me
Here's a clue why Mickelson is still looking for his first win of '06: He's ranked 102nd in final-round scoring, with an average of 72. Only twice in his career has he failed to rank in the top 100 in this category -- in 2003 and 1999, his only winless seasons as a professional.
Pick to win
Unlike a lot of tournaments, this is one event anyone really can win. The players can thank visionary Pete Dye for that. "A short hitter could win it, or a long hitter can win it. It's one of those golf courses, a bit like Riviera, that's
demanding without sticking hundreds of yards on it," Lee Westwood said. "It tests every aspect of your game." That said, I'm going a bit old-school this week and taking Davis Love III, who has six top-10s here, including two wins (in '03 and '92). He hits it as long as anyone, but he hits it as high and soft as anyone, too. Winning the Players takes good ball striking and plenty of poise, and when Love putts well, he can be as good as anyone.