Golf provides learning experiences
Many things interested me this week. But in the end, I learned the most from those who played the game with style and grace -- and in the case of one politician -- talked about the game with style. Ben Crane got his fourth win by sacking Webb Simpson, the PGA Tour's money leader, in a playoff and by playing at his own speed. Fred Couples won on the Champions Tour like he was having a casual Sunday morning stroll at a 5,000-yard muni. The Korean women keep on winning like they are the only nation of people who play the game. Michael Thompson proved that he has the 'tude to win. And Bill Clinton signs up for eight years to be the host of a Republican golf outing.
Slow is the right speed for Ben Crane
Since Crane came on the PGA Tour in 2002, the Oregon grad has been perennially known as one of the slowest players on the PGA Tour. In 2005 at the Booz Allen Classic, Rory Sabbatini thought Crane's pace was so deliberate that he walked off a green while Crane was still putting. All of that is behind the 35-year-old Portland, Ore. native, who won his fourth PGA Tour title on Sunday at the McGladrey Classic in a playoff over Simpson.
Crane, who got into the playoff by shooting a final-round 7-under 63, has poked fun at himself over the years for his sometimes glacial pace. Earlier this year he did a hilarious video on a golf course wearing a red spandex and a helmet. At one point in the video he said, "There are things that are quick about me. Like when someone insults me, I can quickly feel bad about myself."
In the same video he added, "I'm trying. It's just going to take more time."
But slow play on the PGA Tour or anywhere golf is played, is no laughing matter. It's bad for the game. Period. Yet the solution to slow play isn't super fast play. Practically all good players have a pre-shot routine that they follow, regardless of the situation or the course conditions. When the greens are slick and the wind is up, players might contemplate things a tad longer, but good pace of play is an important virtue of the game.
Crane has put together a nice little career on the PGA Tour mostly by not rushing. He should be held accountable for holding up play like any other player, but at the same time the game should encourage thoughtful and clear decision-making during the course of a round. It shouldn't take four minutes to hit a 10-foot putt, but it shouldn't take 10 seconds, either.
Same old tired news for U.S women
At the Sime Darby LPGA Classic in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Na Yeon Choi beat Yani Tseng by a shot on Sunday to win her first LPGA Tour title of the year. Choi shot a final-round 3-under 68 on the Kuala Lumpur-East Course for a 15-under par total. Last week in South Korea at the HanaBank Championship, it was Tseng who held off Neon for her sixth win of the year.
Choi's win marked the 100th victory for a player of Korean descent.
"I won my fifth tournament and a hundred times for all of the Korean players," said the 22-year-old Choi, who has 12 top-10s this year.
Brittany Lang, a 26-year-old from Dallas, held the first- and second-round leads and was one shot back of Choi going into Sunday, but faltered in her final round with a 73 to tie for fifth.
Only three American women -- Brittany Lincicome (twice), Stacey Lewis and Lexi Thompson -- have won events on the LPGA Tour this season. Proven American players such have Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr and Angela Stanford are near the top of the money list, but they haven't won any tournaments.
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With just three tournaments left in the tour's 22-event schedule, this season promises to be the worst for American women in the LPGA Tour's 61-year history. But for Tseng, it will be one of the best individual performances for a player. In 19 events in 2011, the 22-year-old from Taiwan has 12 top-10s and she has finished outside the top 25 only twice.
For the next several years Tseng's rivals will be Creamer, Michelle Wie, Thompson, Lincicome, Lewis and Suzann Pettersen, among others, but none of these players have demonstrated they can take their games to the heights that we've seen this year from Tseng.
Ultimately, the news this week that Korean women have produced 100 winners is good for the game -- Asia is golf's leading emerging market -- but it's not a good thing for the U.S.-based LPGA Tour that's been struggling for years now to lure sponsors and fans to its brand. This year there were only 12 events held in the U.S. and the prospects don't look great for more in 2012.
In the end, the survival of the women's game won't hinge on whether or not an American woman will ever dominate again, but it won't become fully secure until Americans start to consistently win their share of the tournaments. Perhaps, Thompson or Lewis can be the Tseng of 2012.
When he plays, Fred Couples makes golf look too easy
During his long career on the PGA Tour, the Seattle native had 15 wins, including the '92 Masters and two Players Championship titles. When he wasn't fighting back injuries, he could make the game appear simple. Since he began playing on the Champions Tour in 2010, Couples has overpowered golf courses. If he were fully healthy and not so preoccupied this year with being the U.S. Presidents Cup captain, he probably would have played more and been an even bigger factor on the Champions Tour. But the chronically laid-back Couples has never been the grinding, edgy sort of player to spend all of his energy.
On Sunday at the AT&T Championship at the TPC San Antonio, the 52-year-old Couples won his second Champions Tour event of the year and sixth overall. He shot a final-round 6-under 66 to beat Mark Calcavecchia by seven shots. Couples had a three-day total of 23-under par with rounds of 65, 62 and 66. The second-round 62 included 12 birdies and a double bogey.
On Saturday, Greg Norman said that Couples had made a bad decision by picking Tiger Woods for the U.S. Presidents Cup team and that if we were making the captain's picks for the U.S. side, he would have chosen Keegan Bradley, who won twice this year, including the PGA Championship.
"I can understand the name of Tiger Woods and his history of what he's done on the golf course," said Norman, who will captain the International team when the two sides meet in November in Australia. "But me, as a captain, I pick the guys I think who are ready to get in there and play, who have performed to the highest of levels leading up to it."
Norman's view is the conventional wisdom, but Couples probably always knew that he would pick a healthy Tiger, precisely because of the history that Norman mentions. Still, Couples might have grinded more over this decision, but that's not his way.
Michael Thompson is a contender
In his first PGA Tour round of 2011 at the Sony Open, the former No. 1 amateur in the world out of the University of Alabama shot a 10-over-par 80. Though he would come back with a second-round 69, Thompson admitted to me during the Humana Challenge in Palm Springs, Calif., a couple of weeks later, where he was an alternate, that he was in over his head. I had run into him in December at Q-school, where he got his PGA Tour card with a tie for 16th. Thompson looked very familiar to me, but I couldn't place him.
"How do I know you?" I asked. "My name is Michael Thompson," he said.
"Oh, yeah," I said. "Where have you been?"
In 2008, Thompson played in the Masters and the U.S. Open after a runner-up finish in the 2007 U.S. Amateur, losing 2 and 1 to Colt Knost in the finals. But after turning pro the next summer, he failed to make it through Q-school and for two years labored on the Hooters Tour, where he finally broke through last year, earning its player of the year honors.
After struggling in his first four starts this season, the 26-year-old Tucson, Ariz., native had his first good tournament with a tie for 14th at the Puerto Rico Open. Then his game went on another tailspin before he got a fourth-place finish at the Travelers Championship in June. At the RBC Canadian Open in July, he was on the leaderboard through the first two rounds, before shooting 74-76 in the weekend.
Thompson came into the McGladrey Classic at 116th on the money list, but left in 94th position after a third-place finish. For most of Sunday afternoon it looked as if he might become the 15th first-time winner of the year. At one point, he held a 3-shot lead after making three straight birdies on the outward half. Nerves probably cost Thompson makeable birdies at the 15th and 17th, but overall he had played pretty spotless golf other than a bogey at the par-3 12th. A bogey on the 72nd hole after a nasty blocked drive into the hazard knocked him out of the playoff with Ben Crane and Webb Simpson.
Still, Thompson's performance this week on the Seaside Course at the Sea Island Golf Club in St. Simons, Island, Ga., should bode well for his future. Thompson admitted before his round that he was ready to embrace the pressure. That's refreshing and this experience should help him when he gets on a Sunday leaderboard in the future.
His attitude and good composure should also serve as a useful example for his playing partner, Billy Horschel, who held a 1-shot lead early in the round before going 7 over for his last 15 holes to shoot a final-round 75 and end up in a tie for 20th. Horschel, a generally affable 25-year-old former Florida Gator star, shanked a wedge for his approach shot at the short par-4 5th hole into the hazard, leading to a triple bogey. After that, he slammed his clubs around and limped home, forcing him -- at 137th on the money list -- to have a good tournament next week at the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic in Orlando to retain his PGA Tour card for 2012.
Horschel and Thompson are buddies, competitors from their college days in the Southeastern Conference. As rookies, they have gone through many of the typical ups and downs due to playing golf courses for the very first time. They had the advantage of knowing this week's venue from their SEC days, but course knowledge can't prepare you for Sunday pressure on the PGA Tour.
By the end of the season they are no longer green behind the ears. They have seen too much and missed too many cuts to be na´ve about anything. Yet Thompson played the part of the veteran on Sunday at the McGladrey's, while Horschel looked like the rookie that he was just fresh out of Q-school.
Will Bill Clinton be shunned by PGA Tour players?
When the PGA Tour rolls around to the old Bob Hope Classic stop early next year, players will be greeted by the 42nd president, Bill Clinton, and a new name, the Humana Challenge, after the Kentucky-based health care giant stepped in to sponsor the sagging pro-am tournament for the next eight years.
Clinton's foundation will work closely with Humana during the week of the tournament to promote health and well-being. There will be a national conference on Tuesday of tournament week to discuss national health care issues.
"We're having all these fights down in Washington today about the budget. And the reason is that if you're a conservative, some of the choices that have to be made are unpalatable, and if you're a liberal, some of the choices you have to make are unpalatable," Clinton said at Thursday's announcement. "The one free choice we have is to become healthier."
Hearing all of this talk of bipartisanship from Clinton, I couldn't help but wonder how the notoriously conservative and Republican PGA Tour membership will respond to the ex-president's very prominent presence at one of their tournaments. David Duval could quite possibly be the only Democrat playing on the PGA Tour. In 1993, some Republicans on the U.S. Ryder Cup team threatened to boycott a pre-tournament trip to the White House over Clinton's tax plan that would have increased the top marginal income tax rate to 39.5 percent.
Time will tell. I just hope Clinton doesn't try to tell the players to take the bun off their In-N-Out burgers on the driving range during the practice rounds. Or ask any of the dozen or more cigarette smokers and dippers to go tobacco free. Or tell the handful of guys still with beer bellies to push away from the table.
But I shouldn't be worried. He's a masterful politician.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at email@example.com.