Wednesday, August 10, 2005

PGA Championship

With Ernie screwing up his knee a few weeks ago, I will definitely not make the mistake of picking him for this major (unlike the first two of the year). Once again, Tiger is clearly the favored based on his two majors this year, but several other players are hitting their stride. Vijay held Tiger off a few weeks ago at the Buick plus he does have two PGAs to his name and Goosen posted a W this past week at the International. I always like to see guys win a few weeks before majors. I will continue to include Mickelson in the mix just because is one of the best players of all time (even with only 1 major) and is in his prime, but don’t really expect him to win. Baltusrol has been stretched out to 7,392 yards and will play to a par 70. That immediately makes you think that a long hitter will win (Whistling Straits was over 7,500 yards last year), but in 1993 Lee Janzen won the US Open despite being an average length hitter. I think this year it will be a player who is at the top of the list in fairways in regulation and greens in regulation, i.e. leading in total ball striking. That usually brings three names to my mind, David Toms, Scott Verplank and Chad Campbell. Toms seems to be lurking this year. He won the Match Play in convincing fashion earlier this year but hasn’t quite put it together in the majors. Verplank is definitely a short hitter but is always in play and can probably hit enough greens in regulation to give him a legit shot at getting to 10 or 12 under. Campbell hasn’t done a whole lot lately but I think his game is built for the old style course that puts a premium on accuracy. One other name that I would throw in there is Jim Furyk just because he won a US Open, he has been playing better of late and he can flat roll it. Notice that I did not include any European players in the mix. Well, there is good reason. Sometimes the numbers speak for themselves. No European player has won a Major since Paul Lawrie at the 1999 British Open and the last year a Euro won the PGA was in 1930! Yes, 1930. So good luck to Darren Clarke and Sergio Garcia, you are going to need it.

One last thing, Baltusrol is a Par 70 that has two par 5s, #17 and #18 that measure a combined 1,204 yards. I am not aware of another course in the world that has only two par 5s that also happen to be the last two holes. You might think that this would lead to some fireworks coming in with players going for the greens in two, but 17 measures 650 yards which even today might be unreachable.

Developmental Tours

Developmental Tours

This weekend while the PGA Tour was in Colorado using the Modified Stableford scoring system, I was focused on the Nationwide and
Futures Tour. The Nationwide Tour is getting a lot of publicity this year with the emergence of Jason Gore. I have written in the past about Jason, but need to add the next chapter to his story. After a mediocre 1st round of 71, Jason came back with a 59 which puts him in some elite company with Al Geiberger, Chip Beck, David Duval, Notah Begay and Annika Sorenstam. Jason was able to parlay his 59 into a win which was his third consecutive on the Nationwide Tour. He now will be exempt on the PGA Tour for the rest of this year and next. Look for big things from him probably starting next year.

I was also out at the Futures Tour event in Beltsville MD on Saturday. I was impressed with the play of the field on a golf course that was playing very hard and fast which is a departure from their typical course conditions. I was out following a friend who is exempt on the tour for the season. She has been struggle some this year but had two good rounds that provide some encouragement for the last few events.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Tiger, Wie and Gore

Tiger’s performance this past weekend was quite impressive mainly because of his ball striking. He did hit a few wide rights, but for the most part hit nearly every shot exactly how he intended. The scary thing is that he won going away, but he really didn’t make any putts all weekend. Lots and lots of two putts. Of course, several of those were two putt birdies. He clearly has gotten his swing to where he wants it. The only thing stopping him from going on another run is his putting. He would have won the US Open if he had made anything. Instead he finished 2nd despite being at the bottom of the field in putting. When he starts making putts, look out. He might again become unbeatable.

As most know, Michelle Wie was competing this past week in the US Amateur Public Links. That’s the Men’s USAPL. I was impressed that she qualified for match play especially after she was T84 after the first round. I was surprised that she made it to the quarterfinals. Getting three victories in match play was a total shock to me. I did notice that in her matches that she was shooting around even par and in the match she lost her appoint (and eventual champion) was 4 under. I think that is where she will struggle if she goes against the guys full time. She seems to be able to make par after par on very difficult courses but I have yet to see her go deep on a relatively easy course. The guys she is playing against have the capability of going on runs and making 4,5 or 6 birdies in a row. I’m just not sure she has that in her game right now. She may develop it, but until then she should concentrate on junior and womens events. She’s got a good 25 years to challenge the guys.

Lastly, Jason Gore who became a fan favorite at the US Open has continued his excellent play. In the last two weeks, he has passed on sponsor’s exemptions on the PGA Tour to focus on the Nationwide Tour and it has paid off. He has gotten back to back victories and secured his Tour Card for 2006. He will now focus on getting that third win and the battlefield promotion. He will probably also play a few PGA Tour events now that he knows he will be out there next year. Congrats to Jason, he is a good dude who hopefully in 2006 will find his permanent home on the PGA Tour.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The OPEN

The Open starts tomorrow at 1:30am ET and I barely have had a second to even think about who I think might win. Obviously, the Big Five is on the top of the list. Despite Goosen’s collapse at the US Open, I think he will play well this week. Tiger has to be considered the favorite given that it’s a major and it’s at the Old Course. I do not expect a no-name like Ben Curtis or Todd Hamilton (at least he had won on Tour first) will win this week. Tiger is my pick but a few other players I expect to be there are Mickelson, Lee Westwood and Sergio (he can hook it all the way around like Daly did). I would have included Paddy Harrington, but his father passed away and he has withdrawn from the tournament. My two dark horses for the week are Luke Donald and Tim Clark. I can’t give you a good reason other than they are two young players with a lot of international experience and games that I think should hold up well in majors.

The British Open might be my second favorite major behind the Master for the simple fact that I can roll over at 8am, turn on the TV and not get up for about 6 more hours. I look forward to a lazy Saturday and Sunday morning.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Sex Appeal

Not too long ago, Ty Votaw (LPGA Commish at the time) wanted to add some sex appeal to the LPGA in an attempt to draw more crowds and more TV viewers. He took a lot of heat for it because many felt that the quality play should carry the LPGA Tour. Well, the quality of play as increased but the dollars haven’t rolled in. Forbes recently published the top 5 woman with the highest income in sports. The top 4 were tennis players followed by Annika. The top earner was Maria Sharapova ($18M) who is not only a Wimbledon champion, but is very sexy. There are a few young players to join the tour in the last couple years who have started to add some sex appeal to the LPGA. Here are some of my favorites, unfortunately Ms. Paula Creamer does not have a website yet.

Natalie Gulbis
Erica Blasberg
Jill McGill
Paula Marti

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Annika's Run

I’ll go on record right now and say that Annika’s current run will be more impressive that Tiger’s run from 2000 through 2001. Not only that, I think that Annika will be able to sustain her run longer than Tiger did. If you look purely at the numbers, there was about a 24 month stretch where in 39 tournaments Tiger won 4 majors (out of 8 including the Tiger Slam), 10 other titles, finished in the top 10 another 12 times and never finished worse than T29. He also won six consecutive starts and set several scoring records in majors. Since the start of 2004, Annika, in 26 starts, has won 14 times, finished 2nd 5 times, finished top 10 another 4 times and finished no worse than T13. And let us not forget that she has won 3 of the last 6 majors. In both cases, they were chasing record books. Tiger was after Nicklaus’s 18 majors and Annika is chasing Kathy Whitworth’s 88 career titles.

The difference is that Annika has another level of golf to stride towards. When Tiger reached the top, it was at the top of the ultimate tour. There was nothing great for him to look towards. Annika has dominated the LPGA but she will always have the guys on the PGA Tour to chase. I’m not necessarily talking about playing on Tour, but just learning the game from them. It’s clear that the men and women play different games. The men play long, hard golf courses that require the players to hit every shot, especially the around the greens. The women tend to play shorter courses with greens that are softer and flatter. Last year Annika realized this. She bulked up (started a couple years ago) to add distance and she started playing with Tiger and other PGA Tour players in her off weeks. She learned how to hit every shot. Shots that she may never need to hit in an LPGA Tour event. Now she leads in driving distance at 274 yards (2nd is 268 yards), G.I.R. at 75.3% (2nd at 71.9%), rounds under par at 86.7% (2nd is 65.6%) and scoring average at 68.60 (2nd at 70.65). She is also 2nd in putts per G.I.R. at 1.72 and 8th in putts per round at 28.70 Yes, Tiger had similar dominating stats in 2000-2001, but he had no one to stride for, at least not anyone who was still playing. Whenever Annika needs a challenge, she can call her PGA buddies in Orlando, step back to 7,000 yards and get after it. I wouldn’t be surprised if we are still talking about her run well into 2007.

Michael Campbell???

Despite having to work on Thursday and Friday and being in New Orleans over the weekend for Mr Irrelevant’s bachelor party, I did get to see a fair amount of the coverage including the entire final round. After Thursday, it was looking like the Big Five were all going to be in contention. Then Phil and Ernie shot themselves out of the tournament on Friday. After 54 it appeared that Vijay and Tiger were too far behind to catch Goosen. I was fairly confident that a two time US Open winner with a 3 shot lead on the field and 5 shots on any big name, would be able to hold on to the lead. Midway through the front nine it was looking like Goosen was going to be caught by Tiger and Vijay. Then Vijay makes double on eight and disappears. Midway through the back nine, Goosen was done and it looked like Tiger was going to pounce on Campbell. But Campbell remained solid. Tiger made two terrible bogeys on 16 and 17. If Tiger is a little closer to the lead, I wonder if Campbell would have birdied 17 to put it away. Campbell shot a 69 on Sunday to finish at level par (280) which usually gets you right there at the US Open. His play was solid at day and he, like most winners, rode a hot putter to victory.

There was a lot of analysis of Tiger’s swing. I have to say that he needs to work out the squat at the top if he is going to be consistent. His swing use to look so much more effortless and efficient. Now he looks like he is trying to muscle the ball. He did absolutely pound the ball on Sunday and he did lead the field in greens in regulation this week. Maybe he was right for the second time to change a swing that looked pretty damn good before. If he could have made anything he would have stolen Annika’s Slam Thunder at least until this weekend. Now as I said earlier, Tigers bogeys were terrible, especially the three putt. The ‘old Tiger’ would have never bogeyed two holes that late in a Major. This is the second time this year he has done this. Because Tiger birdied 18 in a playoff to win, I think a lot of people forget that he bogeyed 17 and 18 at the Masters to give DiMarco a chance. Tiger had the 54 hole lead at the Masters and for the first time when leading a major, his playing partner out played him the final round (68 to 71) I’m curious to see how he finishes the last two majors of the year if he is in contention. Is this the start of a trend or am I reading into things too much.

And lastly, I’ll stop picking Els to win. He’s 0 for 3 this year when I pick him. He did nothing this week. My other pick Toms, was looking like he could make a run. He was only 5 back going into Sunday, but like almost everyone on top of the board, he shot in the high 70s to finish well back. I think that he will get another major again soon. Maybe the PGA in August or maybe next year.

Monday, June 13, 2005

US Open

It has been a long two months but the US Open is finally here. This year’s US Open is probably the most anticipated of the last decade because of a few storylines. First, whenever Tiger wins the Masters there will always be immediate talk of him winning the Grand Slam. Tiger is not going to ever do it; not with his competition elevating their games they way they have over the past two years. There will be a Slam this year but it will be by Annika (look for comments at a later date). Second, Pinehurst is probably the most unique course in the world because of the greens. It is definitely not a typical US Open course, not with the greens that are compared to an upside down bowl or with the Bermuda grass rough. Third, the champion from the last US Open played at Pinehurst, Payne Stewart, tragically died in 2000 in a plane crash. There will obviously be many articles and TV stories about the events surrounding his death and the impact it had on his family and the golf world.

When looking at the field, everyone is going to pick someone who is putting well. I can’t disagree with this but I think that it will be someone who’s striking it well, particularly their short irons. It’s a major so you have to be stupid not to think that Tiger, Phil, Vijay, Els and Goosen will be in contention. Outside of those five, the couple names that come to mind right now are David Toms and Chris DiMarco. Toms may have the best iron game on Tour. He has a major under his belt and he has been playing well most of the year. DiMarco just seems to be there at every major lately. I’m not sure if two consecutive playoff loses in majors helps or hurts him. But the guy is deadly with his irons. So if I’m picking right now, I’ll take Els out of the Big Four (plus Goosen), Toms and DiMarco and give you the field. If I can only take one guy, it would be Toms. I have been picking Els a lot this year and he has yet to get a win, so I'm going with Toms.

Booz Allen

I made it out to the Booz Allen Friday morning with Mr Irrelevant. We checked out a few of the big names including Couples, Garcia, Els and Mickelson as they played the front nine. We also stopped by the driving range to catch the guys warming up for the afternoon. I even got a chance to chat with Tag Ridings for a few minutes. He had a rough first round but rebounded on Friday with a 66. He mentioned to me that he shot 66-69 at the US Open qualifier on Monday and didn’t get it. That’s pretty unbelievable that 135 didn’t qualify. Anyway, my picks for the week didn't fair too well. Couples missed the cut and Els was in contention until he took a ride on the bogey train on Sunday. I think the most interesting story from Sunday was Sabbatini and Crane on the last couple holes. Sabbatini is one of the fastest players and Crane one of the slowest. Crane caused them to get timed and it pissed Sabbatini off. I’m not going to excuse Sabbatini for being an ass on the last two holes, but I will say that there are a handful of players out there who need to pick up the pace.

Bombs Away

Victor Schwamkrug made his first appearance of 2005 on the Nationwide Tour this week. For those of you who don’t know Victor, lets just say that he F’ing kills the ball. I know that when you talk about long hitters the conversation is limited to John Daly, Tiger (pre swing change #1 in 1998) and Hank Kuehne. Well, Victor hits it further than any of them and it’s not even close. And he is trying to hit it further everyday. In 2004, he led the Nationwide Tour in driving distance at 327 yards. That was his average driving for the year. This week he advantaged 331.8 yards for two days. But the numbers don’t really tell the story.

In 2002, at the Knoxville Open, I witnessed the awesome power that is Victor Schwamkrug. On Monday afternoon, we were on the range getting ready to play a practice round while Victor was hitting some drivers. He started getting into a rhythm. Most of the players on the range were hit drivers that rolled out at the end of the range to the base of a row of pine trees. Behind the row of pine trees was a second row. Then there was a house. As Victor started getting into a groove, he started flying them in the pine trees. Then he started flying over the pine trees. Then he started pelting the house. I pulled out my laser and measured the base of the house at 363 yards. The next day we got to the range and saw a sign that said to aim away from the house because 3 second story windows were broken the day before. That’s 363 yards, two stories up! He is by far the longest hitter in professional golf. If you get the chance, see him play. I pray that he makes it to the PGA Tour one day.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

LPGA's Million $ Bonus

Next year the LPGA Tour will institute a playoff for their last tour event the ADT Championship (similar to the PGA Tour’s Championship which features the top 30 on the money list) but there will be one major difference. The top two players after 54 holes of stroke play will play an 18 hole match for $1.0M. The Tour is trying to capitalize on the success that other sports have with their post-season in a manner that is similar to NASCAR’s Race for the Cup. There will be various ways to qualify for the 32 woman field with the emphasis being on majors, the Asian swing and consistent play in the lesser events. The LPGA is implementing this playoff system to boost the end of the year rating but more importantly to get their stars to play a more diverse group of tournaments throughout the year. Even more so that the PGA, the LPGA desperately needs their big guns to play some of the smaller events to boost ratings and secure the future of their tour. The LPGA has struggled to find an identity and this might be one step to help. Given that the average winner’s prize is about $200k a week, I think a $1.0M bonus might get the stars to play a few more tournaments a year.

Congo!

This week is by far the best field the Washington DC Tour stop has seen since the early 1980s. The field has 3 of the Big Four and 8 of the top 10 in the world. The list includes other favorites at next weeks US Open including Goosen, DiMarco, Garcia, Furyk, Appleby, Cink, Janzen, Leonard and Harrington. Congressional is a great, old traditional course that use to host the Kemper Open every year and has hosted a PGA, a US Open and a Senior Open. This week I think that a player who has won on this course before will win again. That means that I’m talking about either Els or Couples. Couples won the Kemper way back in 1983 when it was played at Congo. Els won the 1997 US Open. The course will be set up hard but not nearly like an Open. Couples played too good not to win last week. Els has probably played the worst of the Big Four, but I think the comfort of Congo will help him get his game in shape.