Posted on: April 12, 2008 11:52 am

Tiger's door Grand Slammed shut?

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Yesterday, after spending a good bit of the day hunkered down and combing through the Masters record book, I unearthed some amazing numbers about how players finished relative to their position after 36 holes at Augusta National.

So, on a gloomy Saturday morning, we went even deeper. However you slice it, if Tiger Woods manages to win after starting the third round in 13th place, he'll be making some major history.

If anybody can do it, Woods is the most qualified, but for perspective, consider these irrefutable facts culled from the records at the lone major championship course that is used every year, which clearly adds validity to the trend:

* Since 1970, only four players who began the third round outside the top 10 have won at Augusta (Gary Player in 1974 and '78, Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, Bernhard Langer in 1986 and Jack Nicklaus in 1986).

Yikes. To some degree, the ever-increasing difficulty of the course has clearly cut down on the fireworks and heroics, because all five of the aforementioned instances were more than two decades ago. 

* In that same span, 31 of 38 winners stood in fifth place or better after 36 holes.

* Looking forward to the situation heading into Sunday, 35 of the 38 winners since 1970 were in fifth place or better after 54 holes.

In other words, Woods needs to make a move and probably needs some help from above if he is to give himself a realistic chance on Sunday. For whatever it's worth, by 11 a.m. on Saturday morning, rain had already begun to fall, which might or might not make his task easier.




Category: Golf
Posted on: April 11, 2008 8:10 pm
Edited on: April 11, 2008 8:12 pm

Couples' historic streak ends

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- This time, nobody would have guessed that the streak would end this year.

Fred Couples' record-matching streak of 23 consecutive made cuts in succession at Augusta National ended by the slimmest of margins on Friday when he missed a 10-footer for birdie on the 18th hole, effectively sealing his fate and sending him down the road for the first time.

Couples, who shares the record with Gary Player, was one of many top-tier names to finish one shot above the magic number at 4-over. At Augusta, the low 44 and those within 10 shots of the lead play on the weekend. Yet nobody saw it coming since Couples had finished fourth last week in Houston and seemed to have rediscovered his game.

"To make the cuts, to be quite honest with you, I don't consider that great of a deal," he said. "Playing well in this tournament I think is my

goal. And even as well as I played last week, you know, I think I set my sights a little high yesterday and I went out and I struggled and I tried to hit better shots than I could, and I went from 2-over to 3-over to 4-over, and you're kind of done.

"So, going out today my goal was certainly to make this cut. I don't think I'm going to make it, but I don't know anyone who goes to a tournament where they're hoping to make the cut. I'm not going to make it; I'm kind of disappointed in that. But I'm really disappointed with the way I played."

Same for the other guys at 4 over, which included Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald, Aaron Baddeley, Charles Howell and Michael Campbell.

Category: Golf
Posted on: April 11, 2008 5:57 pm

Leadbetter: 'I saw it coming'

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- David Leadbetter is not surprised.

His biggest question is why it took so long.

Trevor Immelman's medical setbacks ruined his 2007 season, the details of which are splashed across every newspaper and website in America today. Even though the 28-year-old had failed to finish better than 40th in any stroke-play event this year while putting the pieces back together, Leadbetter could sense something welling up in his promising client.

"Honestly, we have been expecting him to play well any week now," Leadbetter said after Immelmon jumped atop the 36-lead at Augusta National on Friday. "He's looked good in practice for at least the last month. He just hasn;t put everything together.

"A lot of that is just pure momentum. When you have injury and illness, especially like he has, you lose that rhythm."

Foremost, putts have finally begun to fall. Immelman has a swing that Gary Player likened to that of Ben Hogan, but his putting is another matter. Immelman finished 183rd in putting last year.

"It's a great week for that to happen," Leadbetter said.





Category: Golf
Posted on: April 11, 2008 11:25 am

Casper and the kid

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It is, without question, the coolest thing about the Masters.

Tradition is a word that gets tossed around rather casually hereabouts, but when the old guard annually turns out to partake in the Augusta National festivities, greeting the familiar faces of past champions ranks at the top of my list of favorite Augusta indulgences.

Sure, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer played together in the par-3 contest on Wednesday, stealing the show. But my favorite personal moment of the week came when I ran into Billy Casper outside the Augusta National pro shop. Billy and I have some history, you see, though it had long since been expunged from his memory bank.

When I was 16, my little brother and I attended Casper's summer golf camp in San Diego. Every year, at the end of the camp, Casper plays one hole with every kid who enrolled in the weeklong session. Those who par a hole get a golf ball. Those who beat him get a signed golf glove. For years, the Wilson Pro Staff ball that I earned from Casper for making a par on the Torrey Pines North Course occupied a place of extreme prominence in my house.

So, after Casper had finished doing an interview with a U.K. news outlet, I stuck out my paw and told him I had attended his camp roughly 30 years earlier. Amazingly, the guy lit up like an airport runway. 

Understand that pros are forever enduring stories from people who put the arm on them and say, "Hey, Billy, I played in a pro-am with you at the Bob Hope tournament in 1967, do you remember me?" It happens every day. So, I was intent on not belaboring the point or making a fool of myself.

"So, do you still play?" he asked.

"Oh, yeah, you gave me the bug, brother," I said. "Even better, I have been a golf writer for the last 10 years or so."

With that news, he flashed what might have been the biggest smile seen all week.

Some believe that Casper is the most under-rated player of all time. He finished his career with 51 victories, the seventh-best tally ever, but he played  in the shadow of the aforementioned Big Three and never got his true due. Casper has always had a humanitarian side that few have seen and Billy has kept mostly secret, because he doesn't want to make a big deal of it -- his family has adopted several kids over the years.

Later this summer, the 76-year-old will be honored at the Buick Open in Michigan, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Casper won the tournament's first title, way back when, and said he intends to attend, even though he rarely makes public appearances these days.

Know what? Maybe I'll go, too. 




Category: Golf
Posted on: April 11, 2008 10:49 am

Woods needs to take 5

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Forget the odd wayward drive, slightly rusty short game and mediocre pitch shots that Tiger Woods hit in the first round.

Cutting to the chase, they all contributed to his so-so 72 at Augusta National. But if this Grand Slam ship is going to actually sail, he must better take care of business on the par-5 holes.

Last year, Masters champion Zach Johnson played the par-5 holes in a scintillating 11 under for the week. Woods was uncharacteristically ineffective on the three-shot holes Thursday, finishing 1 under, thanks entirely to a chip-in eagle on the 15th.

The two missed chances on the front nine might, depending on how the rest of the week plays out, hurt him. A few details on holes that Woods has historically destroyed:

On the par-5 second hole, Woods left himself a fairly straightforward pitch to the green for his third shot, but left himself a sidehill putt from approximately 15 feet and missed.

On No. 8, he crushed a drive and intentionally bombed his 3-wood second shot into the grandstands behind the green, figuring he'd get a drop or a decent look at the flag, which was on the back of the putting surface. Instead, the shot caromed off a metal pole in the bleachers and landed in a closely mown area to the right of the green. Faced with a delicate shot, Woods tried to putt the ball close to the hole from the fringe, but three-jacked for another par.

He hit a seemingly perfect 4-iron into the green at the 13th, but it rolled off the back and into a greenside swale. His chip shot caught a ridge and rolled off the green, and he failed to get up and down, making bogey on a hole that averaged 4.67 shots on Thursday, the easiest of the day.

Odds are pretty good that he'll square the ledger Friday. Over his career, Woods has averaged roughly 4.5 strokes on the par-5 holes and has always ranked near the top of the PGA Tour leaders in that category.



Category: Golf
Posted on: April 8, 2008 4:11 pm
Edited on: April 8, 2008 4:48 pm

Phil goes for the gold

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Phil Mickelson as Lord of the Rings?

OK, before anybody has any nightmarish visions of Phil on the parallel bars or wearing a rhythmic dance outfit, rest assured we're talking about golf, here.

The second-ranked player in the world said Tuesday that he would not only welcome the inclusion of golf in the Olympics, he would gladly play as part of the United States contingent.

Heck, he'd sing the national anthem if asked. For years, there's been a dialog about whether the game should be included in the games, and there are good arguments on both sides as to whether it's necessary. Some question what format should be used if it ever happens, be it a team, match-play or stroke-play affair.

But from Lefty's perspective, adding it to the game might be the most important push the game has received globally in years. No question, he makes some good points.

"I think that the game of golf has to grow on an international level, and as soon as it becomes an Olympic sport, a lot of those Olympic foundation (developmental) revenue dollars will be going to get kids from other countries involved in the game of golf so that they are competitive at the Olympics," he said Tuesday. "I think that would be the biggest step we could make in helping growing the game.

"We seem to be stagnant in the growth; we lose as many golfers as we gain each year in the United States. If we could make this an Olympic sport on the international stage, I think golf could really grow as a sport."

Say this for Mickelson -- he might do some dunderheaded things at times, but he knows where his bread is buttered. If not who needs buttering up.

The chairman at Augusta National, Billy Payne, was the major domo at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996. I don't know what the most ideal format has been. I do think that having golf become an Olympic sport is a very important thing for the game of golf, and I would definitely play if given the opportunity to represent my country.

Category: Golf
Posted on: April 7, 2008 4:25 pm

Zach comes back

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- His welcome-back moment wasn't quite what most people would envision.

Unlike many of his famous brethren, like Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson didn't make any offseason trips or fly in for a sneaky practice round at Augusta National.

Nope, the newest guy to gain a green jacket didn't come back to the site of his greatest victory until Sunday night at 6 p.m., right when player registration was closing for the day. As a result, the defending champion's drive down famed Magnolia Lane wasn't what it might have been. True, things felt a little different coming back as the champion, but not for the reasons you might think.

At least, not initially.

"It was different because the baby was crying and had strawberries all over his face and I had to go to the bathroom real bad and wanted to get there before registration closed," Johnson said Monday.

But when he turned onto the street that led to the famed clubhouse, he felt a little bit better about everything.

"I was very stressed before I pulled in here," he laughed. "It de-stressed me. Is de-stressed a word? All of a sudden, the headache went away."

The Iowa native will host the annual Masters dinner, open only to past champions, on Tuesday at the club, serving up Midwest beef and corn, and some seafood. Though he's the man of honor, he has no grand presentation planned.

"I'm just going to wing it," he said.



Category: Golf
Posted on: April 1, 2008 9:02 am

Monty's complaint rings oh-so-true

No prominent world-class player has consistently whined louder and at a higher pitch than the warbling Scotsman, Colin Montgomerie. But that doesn't mean he's always wrong.

Monty, who failed to qualify for the Masters next week despite adding a series of U.S. events to his spring schedule in hopes of cracking the world top 50, said the event continues to offer international exemptions to lesser players purely for financial reasons.

He is absolutely right. It's farcical.

"I were the only person in the country, à la China, I might get in," he told reporters overseas this week. "It is a strange way to make up a field for a major championship – television rights. They are quite open about why. They were when I missed out last time in 2005 when they picked Shingo Katayama, who was 67th in the world, and I was 51st. They picked him over me for the Japanese rights. And they have done the same with Thailand and China this time.

"I am not the only one who feels that way and not just because I am not in. In or not, I'd be saying the same thing. It is a strange criterion to pick a major field.

"The Masters is the only one you can get invited to. At the Open, the U.S. Open and the U.S. PGA you have to qualify. But the Masters have their own rules so we will leave them to it. It would be easier to swallow if no one was invited and it was done on sporting and not commercial criteria."

I've said it before and it bears repeating -- this is partly why the Masters is the easiest tournament for a top player to win. The field is ridiculously thin (about 100 players in all) and laden with past Masters champions with zero chance of winning. Now the Masters brain trust keeps issuing transparent exemptions to less-heralded players from China, India and other Asian outposts as a means of commanding rights fees and driving ratings overseas.

Augusta National does plenty of things right. This isn't one of them.

Granted, having players from emerging countries helps grow the game developmentally, but staging a quality event ought to be the club's first priority, period. Better yet, why not just add another dozen players to the field? It's an autonomous invitational and ANGC can do whatever it pleases with the field size.

Former club chairman Hootie Johnson was asked in 2004 about an exemption issued at the time to a Chinese player, when several other more deserving and accomplished Asian pros were skipped over. Augusta National had just inked a broadcast deal with China, mind you.

"We felt that it was good for the game of golf to extend a hand to the most populous nation in the world," Johnson said, in his imperious manner. "He is a good golfer and we thought it was entirely appropriate."

As for whether the TV deal with China played a part, well, you can guess what Johnson said.

"I don't talk about our business, but I'll answer that question -- no," Johnson said.

And I'll add this comment: R-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-ght.

Category: Golf
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