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.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Unlikely Champ

I don’t think there was any point during the final round that anyone not related to Bart Bryant thought he was going to win. When you look at the list of players within two shots of the lead after the front nine, you probably would have picked Bryant and Green to finish the worst of the group. Usually in prestigious tournaments like The Memorial, the big names shine. And there were a few big names, like Tiger, Couples, Sluman and Toms. They all have a major and at least 6 wins each on tour. Granted Couples and Sluman haven’t been in the middle of the action on Sundays much lately, but when the are hitting it well, they have tons of experience to carry them to the top. On the back nine it seemed that Couples was destined to win. After he staked it on 15, it looked like he had a two shot lead, but he missed the eagle putt. Then he bogeyed 16 and Bryant birdied 17. An instant later, Couples hits an awesome approach on 17 out of an impossible lie while Bryant is getting a huge bounce with his tee shot on 18 that eventually finds the water. As surprised as I was that Couples missed his birdie, I was down right shocked that Bryant made par from the hazard. Congrats to Bart Bryant, that was one hell of a finish.

Most may ask what happened to the big names on the back nine, especially Tiger and Toms. When these guys made the turn and saw so many players within two shots of the lead they knew that they had to get to 15 or 16 under to win. So they started pressing. They started firing at pins and when they started missing greens they found themselves in the wrong spots. They walk a fine line between letting the game come to them and pressing to try to make birdies. That’s why you see a Tiger or Toms make 3 or 4 birdies quickly but then all of a sudden make a double. They are going for broke with every shot.

Before the tournament I predicted that Perry, Toms and Goosen would all be in contention. Well, Perry finished middle of the pack and Toms was leading early in the final round. Goosen wasn’t in the field which was a bit of an oversight on my part. In the future, I’ll be sure to pick players in the field.

The Booz Allen is this week. I will preview the field and the course this week. I plan on attending on Friday.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Gearing up for June

It is finally June which means its time to start gearing up for the next major, the US Open. I am not a big fan of the two month wait between the Masters and the US Open. There are some good tournaments in between (Byron Nelson, Colonial and Memorial) but the Tour needs to rearrange the schedule. The change is simple, move the Players Championship from two weeks before the Masters to mid-May. The Players Championship has long been considered the 5th major, so why not give it May and use it to keep the momentum rolling from the Masters into the summer. The Commish has done an amazing job with the Tour (it’s that Richmond J.D.) but this change will help boost the Players and take out a mid spring lull.

We have a great stretch of golf coming the next 3 weeks. The Memorial is the week and all the usual suspects will be there. In previewing this tournament, I will go back to comments I made a few weeks ago after the Colonial. I think Kenny Perry will win. This course sets up well for him and he is playing awesome. This course favors the players who kept the ball in play off the tee and hit lots of greens. If you check out the Ball Striking stats (combination of driving accuracy, driving distance and greens hit in regulation) I think you will see who will be in contention this week. The three names that stand out to me are Perry, David Toms and Retief Goosen. Perry is #1 in both total driving and G.I.R. which is amazing. Toms is one of the purest ball strikers on Tour and given his final round last week, he might be ready for another win. Goosen is one of my favorite players. He is hitting it well and hopefully that putter is heating up. When he is making putts inside 10 feet, he is virtually unbeatable.

Next week is the Kemper (sorry, Booz Allen Classic) at Congressional CC in Potomac, MD. This tournament is in my hometown and is one that I have been attending for the last 15 years. In my teenage years, I volunteered as a standard bearer. You know, the kids who carry the signs behind the players with that group’s scores. Normally this tournament has a weak field because it is between the Memorial and the US Open and it’s played on a dog track known as Avenel. This year the field will be the best that I can remember because it is played at Congo (host of the 1997 US Open) the week before the US Open and is only about 5 hours from Pinehurst. Tiger won’t be there but Els, Mickelson and Singh are expected to play. They field won’t be released until Friday night, but I would expect to see a good 25 of the top 50 in the world teeing it up.