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PONDERING THE WORLD OF GOLF

September 30,  2007

By Tom Finley

AMERICANS RETAIN PRESIDENT'S CUP IN ENTERTAINING FASHION

The President's Cup that ended this afternoon in Montreal at the oldest continuous operated golf club in North America, Royal Montreal, is exactly what international team competition is supposed to be. For four days many of the greatest players in all the world came together for some friendly, congenial golf competition that was a great show of golfing skills and athletic rivalry. The American team captained by Jack Nicklaus defeated the International team captained by Jack's good friend, Gary Player, to retain the cup for the next two years. The International Team also known as the ROW, for rest-of-world other than Great Britain and Europe whom the Americans take on in alternate years in the Ryder Cup Matches, was a talent laden assemblage including the likes of Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Geoff Ogilvy, Retief Goosen, K. J.Choi, Angel Cabrera, Adam Scott and many others of equal ability. The Americans were led by Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, David Toms, Stewart Cink, Scott Verplank plus some rookies like Woody Austin and young golfing sensations Lucas Glover and Hunter Mahan. The course was beautiful with the leaves beginning to turn plus the weather after some rain showers earlier in the week turned out to be crisp and near perfect. The greens softened by the rain early on were holding iron shots so the golfers were shooting darts at the pins. This all made for a tremendously entertaining weekend of great golf.

Canadian Mike Weir was the home grown favorite of the crowd and he kept this enormous throng of 30,000 per day cheering with magnificent golf and especially on Sunday when he knocked off the number one player in the world, Tiger Woods after Tiger conceded on the 18 th green. When you get right down to what made this event so special it had to be the combination of great golf and congeniality. All the golfers seemed to be having a good time, most smiling and enjoying each other's company. As a result the overall score seemed less important, the individual matches more important. It was, as if, they all got together in a large room beforehand and decided to go out and put on a really good show for the Canadian fans and those watching on TV from around the world. Woody Austin, a 43 year old American rookie was the star of the week after he fell into the greenside pond at the 16 th on Friday attempting to extricate his ball from a submerged lie. As he swung at his ball he lost his balance and fell backwards into the water. He quickly was given a nickname by Mickelson and became “AquaMan”. On Sunday he donned swim goggles as he strolled up the 16 th fairway. He claimed Barbara Nicklaus had put him up to it. “AquaMan” seemed to define the entertaining environment so prevalent during the week.

Woody will no doubt become an attraction on Tour next season as his gutsy style of golf and his newly found stardom will bring out the fans. Something else happened during this week for the Americans. Lucas Glover and Hunter Mahan, two other rookies and captain's picks, acquitted themselves really well. Lucas might have made more birdies than any of his teammates. In the Saturday afternoon Four Ball match he was teamed with Charles Howell III against local crowd favorites Mike Weir and Ernie Els. Lucas' score was posted on every hole as he ran off an eagle and five birdies for a six under par 64 on his own ball. Howell helped him on two holes but they went down to defeat. This kind of experience in the limelight showed great promise but better things to come for Mahan and Glover. Glover was particularly impressive.

Also impressive was Phil Mickelson's play which has not been the case in recent international team competition for Lefty. He looked much more in charge of his game. Tiger who also has struggled in team competition played very well except for his defeat on Sunday at the hands of Weir. So just maybe the Americans are learning the way to be more competitive in international team play. Perhaps Captain Nicklaus has shown them the way. Relax, have some fun and just go out and play golf. One more thought; it seems that the Europeans in the Ryder Cup display more attitude and, in fact, tend to wear it on their sleeves whereas the Internationals are more low key under Captain Gary Player's leadership. By the way, in case you are interested, the Americans won 19½ to 14½.

September 16, 2007 - TIGER WINS, THEN WINS AGAIN

Well what did you expect? Today, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods, a native of California and the World went out on this gorgeous fall day and polished off the Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta then collected a second trophy as the winner of the first FedEx Cup. The first title paid just a bit over $1.2 million while the second title was worth $10 million in retirement annuities. The rich get richer. Tim Finchem of the PGA Tour must admit the FedEx didn't work this year as a way to excite golf fans and especially the world's elite golfers. To put it another way, it was a flop. We knew from day one who would win it and…he did. So it is back to the drawing board for the top brass at The Tour. He needs to get acceptance from the players who make it worthwhile.

The victory today was Tiger's second in two weeks, seventh of the year and 61 st of his career and he continues to totally dominate worldwide golf. He finished a whopping eight shots ahead of second place finishers Mark Calcavecchia and Zach Johnson who signed cards at -15 to Tiger's -23 or 257 total. As for the FedEx, Steve Stricker finished second and learned he would have $3 million waiting on him when he retires at age 65 while Phil Mickelson came in third to put $2 million in his retirement coffers. Why are these guys playing for retirement money?

Tiger will surely win Player of the Year and all other year end awards as he usually does. Hopefully he will have enough interest left to lead the American contingent against the International team in the upcoming President's Cup Matches in Montreal . International team competition is an area where Tiger could improve. He is a great player destined to break all of the existing records in Tour golf. He dominates, no he crushes the competition. But, the fans keep coming out, more and more want to catch a glimpse of this golfing genius. The biggest challenge for Tiger, now, is to decide how to spend his money. You can only buy so many beach front estates, planes, helicopters or yachts. Obviously, more and more will go to charity.

The most interesting competition in golf this weekend was the Solheim Cup from Sweden . The American distaff golfers knocked off the Europeans with terrific play in singles matches on Sunday to bring back the cup. In singles the Americans took eight matches to pull away. It was pleasing to see Julie Inkster win 2 ½ points and to get her first Solheim Cup win in Europe . And how about teenage sensation, Morgan Pressel, besting Annka Sorenstam in singles. Way to go ladies, that was great golf in wintry conditions!

September 4, 2007 - LEFTY LEVELS TIGER IN BEANTOWN

Phil Mickelson can finally exhale; relax a bit in the solace of knowing he can, indeed, stand his ground in hand-to-hand combat with Tiger Woods. After struggling against Tiger in previous years when paired with Woods, Lefty traded punches right down to the final bell and came away with a two shot margin of victory at the Deutsche Bank Championship in Norton , Mass. The win catapults Lefty into the catbird's seat atop the FedEx Cup standings with two playoff events remaining. Tiger is in the third spot behind Steve Stricker headed into the BMW at Cog Hill in Chicagoland. Mickelson built a big lead early after birdies at 2, 4, 5, 7 and 10. He tried to help his pursuers with a double bogey at 12. Tiger made his patented charge down the stretch with birdies at 14, 16 and 18 but Lefty, showing resolve against his rival, matched him with birdies of his own at 16 and 18. After the tournament, Tiger remained number one in the world while Lefty moved up to second. Tiger finished in a tie for third with two more Americans, Brett Wetterich and Arron Oberholser.

For the media and golf fans around the world, it is somewhat soothing to the golfer's soul to know that Tiger is not and will not win every event he enters. For periods of time each year it seems that he gets on these runs where no one can compete at his level. I fully expect for there to be many other similar stretches in Tiger's career ahead but when we have one of those rare shootout, challenge matches, like yesterday, we know now that the challenger does have a chance. This makes for great theater, greater and more vocal fan support. Both Tiger and Lefty have great numbers of loyal, vociferous fans. This is good for the game just as Smokin' Joe was good for the legend of Muhammad Ali. One thing more about Tiger, He never seems to get beat in his own mind. Afterwards, he gave no credit to Mickelson for good play but instead analyzed how he had lost the tournament with poor putting.

Lefty speaking to the media after the tournament suggested he might choose not to play at the BMW even though he feels an obligation to the Tour to be there. He has conflicts with family matters at home plus he seems to be involved in some sort of disagreement with Tour commissioner, Tim Finchem. If he does show up he will be paired with Tiger and Steve Stricker for the first two days giving us all an opportunity to watch more of this rivalry unfold. Only 70 golfers are left now in the Tour Playoffs. After Cog Hill the number drops to 30 for the final event in Atlanta the following week. Mickelson is assured of making the final 30 so should he bypass Chicago he will still have his shot at the FedEx Cup and the many millions still on the table.

August 26, 2007 - FEDEX CUP 101

This whole playoff thing has not taken root in my own golf fanatic mind. Okay, I watch the tours religiously and love the game…but…I don't want to take the time to sit down and learn what it is all about. Do you? I suppose I need a course in FedEx Cup 101 where the basics of this playoff system are taught. One needs to get excited about all of this, I suppose, but I am struggling. Honestly, I don't have a clue as to how this thing is suppose to work.

Okay, Tiger Woods has 100,000 points, right? He has won five times this season and only four or so others have at least two wins on Tour. So, how can anyone be close to Tiger? This might explain his absence this weekend from the first “playoff” tournament at the Barkley held at Westchester Golf Club in the New York area. By the way a great guy on Tour, Steve Stricker won for the first time in over a decade as he edged playing companion K.J Choi. It was a tearful scene at the closing hole as Stricker closed out the tournament after nailing a birdie putt. So I would guess now that Stricker is leading the pack for the $10 million prize at the end of the rainbow in Atlanta at the Tour Championship. What I do know is that 24 golfers were eliminated from the field and now we are down to 120 golfers going for the big money. The remaining contenders now head to Boston for the next round at something called the “Deutsche Bank Championship” which, I believe, is named after a German bank.

One thing that is for sure, I heard it said this afternoon, is the first pairings in Boston include a threesome with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh. Now that will be worth watching. Apparently the golfers next weekend go out in threesomes based on their FedEx point standings. The Woods group will be the second from last off the tee just ahead of Stricker, K.J Choi and Rory Sabbatini. I can't remember how many face elimination next week but we will head into the final round of the “playoffs” in Atlanta with 30 golfers.

Today's final round was fun to watch as Choi and Stricker battled to the wire plus other golfers with familiar names such as Mickelson, Ernie Els, Geoff Ogilvy, Rich Beem and Hunter Mahan made a run for the lead. You had better be excited about this “playoff” because the PGA Tour is counting on it! Personally, I'm looking forward to the Presidents Cup and the Masters.   

August 12, 2007 - WHAT'S A GOLF FAN TO DO?

In the age of Tiger Woods, what's a golf fan to do? Do you find yourself rooting on a guy by the name of Woody Austin hoping he will catch Tiger Woods in the final round of the PGA Championship? Austin , of course, is the 43 year old vagabond American tourist with a couple of wins under his belt but a stranger to major championship play. Woody got the fans excited on the back nine in the final round of the PGA but to no avail. Today at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Tiger finished off his thirteenth major victory and took home the Wannamaker Trophy for the fourth time. So do you cheer on the great champion or root for the underdog trying to find his day in the sun? Both golfers were bringing the fans to their feet. Woody Austin finished second after making a game effort to catch Tiger down the home stretch. After the 14th where Tiger made bogey, Austin was within a shot of the lead, but Tiger “powered up like super heroes generally do” made birdie to re-establish his two shot lead and swat away his pursuers like annoying flies. Ernie Els was also making a run at Tiger as he went four under to move within reach, but no, he could not get the job done. Ernie finished third, three back. Tiger began the day with a three shot lead but gave his closest competitors a chance to catch him but no one could pull it off.

So what is a fan to do? I suppose you do what fans did years ago. You cheer on great golf. When Bobby Jones and Walter Hagan were winning everything people turned out to cheer them on. When Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan were locks to win folks came to see them dominate. The same goes for Arnie then Jack. So nothing is new! You cheer for the best, the greats of the game because you love to see perfection in sport. Tiger represents the dominate champion of his age. Cheer him on folks and enjoy watching him in action!.

Congratulations Tiger, you are a true champion destined for glory and history. Folks will be talking about you 100 years from now. I do wonder if anyone will be capable of challenging him in our era.

August 5, 2007 - TIGER TAKES INTERNATIONAL FIELD TO WOODSHED!

What is it about the World Golf Championship events for Tiger Woods? He just will not let anyone else win. Today at Firestone Country Club in Akron , Ohio he picked up his 14 th WGC win in 25 tournaments. Keep in mind that only the very best in the world qualify to play in the WGC events. Tiger won at Firestone for the sixth straight time. He not only won today he simply annihilated the rest of the field. On what was a very difficult layout at Firestone, long, narrow with large hardwoods, lightning fast greens and deep rough (I know, I've played it) Tiger shot a five under 65 to run off and leave the entire field far behind. Conditions were not good as it rained most of the day making the deep rough even more formidable. When it was all said and done, Tiger had come from one shot behind to win by eight over Justin Rose and Rory Sabbatini who finished at even par.

Sabbatini had made it known following his defeat at the Wachovia in Charlotte that he wanted some more of Tiger saying the number one player in the world was “as beatable as ever”. Tiger had shrugged that comment off by saying he had three wins in 2007 to Sabbatini's three wins in his career. Today Sabbatini had his chance to go head-to-head against Tiger once again but he got taken to the "Woodshed" and made to look like a fool for running his mouth. Final score, Tiger five under, Sabbatini four over. Rory learn to keep your mouth shut, and let your game do the talking!

There is a widening chasm in golf between Tiger Woods and the best that the rest of the world has to offer. Jim Furyk ranked second in the world this week had to withdraw with back problems but third ranked Phil Mickelson played and finished a whopping 21 shots behind Tiger. There doesn't appear to be anyone in the world that can compete with this man week after week, year after year. Oh, in a given week somebody can jump up and beat the best but look at the WGC results, 14 of 25, wow! Either Tiger has got to fall back through sheer boredom or some teenage sensation must arrive on the scene to stop this attack on world golf records by the great one. By the way, this was Tiger's first win as a dad. Personally, I don't see anyone who we know about right now being capable of taking their game to such a higher plateau that they can compete with Tiger head-to-head on a regular basis over the next five years. Beyond that it becomes hard to predict for some young phenom might come along who was brought up similarly to Tiger. Don't forget, Tiger Woods was hitting 300 balls a day when he was in grammar school.

So it is on to Southern Hills in Tulsa this week for the PGA, the last major of the season. Can anyone stop Tiger? Maybe, but you can rest assured of one thing; Tiger will be in the hunt.

July 22, 2007 - IT WAS A MIND GAME AT CARNOUSTIE AND HARRINGTON PREVAILED

Can we assume that sometimes it just comes down to the mind and how it behaves when playing championship golf? Ask Andres Romero, the unknown golfer from Argentina , who found himself in the lead at The Open as he played his second shot on the 17 th today at Carnoustie. This man had been in the ubiquitous “zone” with six birdies on the inward nine as he was honing in on a claret jug. At this point the blinders came off, the mind, we can assume, began to think about what was happening as Romero pondered his shot from waist deep fescue from well over 200 yards away. His mind, pumped with adrenalin, said, “Andres, hit a two iron to the pin”. Andres pulls his two iron, swings, the hay wraps around his hossel and he promptly hits his ball dead right and out of bounds. After a double bogey followed by a bogey at 18, he retreated to the aforementioned, "no name" category.

Padraig Harrington who was in his own zone playing his heart out found himself at 18 with a one shot lead over Sergio Garcia, the leader throughout the event, playing one hole behind. Padraig who had been totally focused to this point might have let his mind wonder a bit back to the exploits of one Jean van de Velde, the Frenchman, who had blown a three shot lead in 1999 on the last hole by hitting into Barry Burn, a tidal creek that snakes it's way through the course. So what does Padraig do? He pulls his driver and immediately knocks his drive into Barry Burn. What does he do next? He drops his ball with penalty then hits his third shot into Barry Burn (does that qualify for third degree burns and life suport?). He goes on to double bogey the last and allow Garcia to catch him with a par at the 72 nd .

Garcia himself had led throughout the week and was really on his game with his new belly putter giving him the confidence he had needed to finally win a major championship. But something happened along the way today. He missed a putt for par on the fifth hole, one the length that he had been making all week and suddenly his mind begins to wonder. He asks himself, perhaps, “have I lost my putting touch; is my belly putter not working anymore?”

Last week I wrote a column entitled “Losing is Easy” and wrote about how difficult winning can be versus throwing in the towel, seeking a quite, dark place away from the “maddening crowd”… and losing. Garcia made his par at 18, just missing a birdie on a really good putt to force a four hole playoff. During the short break before the playoff Harrington spoke briefly with a sports psychologist then strutted to the first tee as if he had already won waving his hat to the cheering fans. The Irish in the stands greeted him with a great ovation. He went on and birdied the first playoff hole to Garcia's bogey, then goes on to take his first major and the 2007 claret jug.

It becomes a mind game in the majors watched by billions around the world. Focus is everything. Sometimes you must let your body do what it has learned to do in all those many hours of practice without the help of “thought” then just go out and act like you're the winner.

One thing for sure, Garcia and Harrington will both become forces in major golf for years to come. One other thought, Americans are lagging behind in international golf competition.

July 20, 2007 - FRIDAY NOTES ON THE OPEN

Carnoustie has calmed down considerably from the raging fury of the 1999 Open when survival was the key thought among the players that lived to talk about it. It seems a bit more green and the rough areas not as quite as thick or formidable. Sergio Garcia shot par today to maintain his six under score and the lead after two rounds. KJ Choi now ranked 12 th in the world after his two victories on the PGA Tour this year is playing very steady and is two back at four under. Canadian Mike Weir shot the day's low round with a three under 68 and is tied with Miguel Angel Jimenez for third at three under. Boo Weekley and Jim Furyk are tied for fourth at -2 to best the American entourage in quest of this coveted trophy. The cut will come at four over par with the low 70 and ties qualifying for the final two days at this magnificent venue hard against the North Sea in Angus , Scotland .

Tiger Woods got off to a rugged start when he pull hooked his three iron tee shot at number one into the burn left some 50 yards off line. I would imagine it was the worst shot Tiger has hit in his adult life. He went on to make a double and spent the balance of his day trying to get back to even overall but came in at 74, three over and one over for the tournament. Tiger was last seen pounding balls on the practice tee with Coach Hank Haney close at hand.

Lefty Mickelson hit into the burn off the tee on 18 and made a double to finish at six over for the two days and failing to make the cut. It has gotten to the point where you expect Mickelson to get into trouble off the tee at 18 on any golf course. To me it is somewhat paradoxical that British Open golf which requires imagination and creative shot making doesn't seem to bring out the best in Mickelson. Just the opposite is the case here. The problem seems to always be his inability to keep his ball out of trouble and especially off the tee. He is without a doubt one of the most daring golfers in the world with incredible skill with his short game. He is perhaps the most creative shot maker in American golf. Yet, he can't get it done across the pond. So much for the world's number two golfer as he wings his way back to America.

Sergio just might have found the solution to his putting. The belly putter has worked for two days now. His putt for par on 18 today from ten feet was solid and straight to the bottom of the hole. He looks confident with this longer club which might be all he needs to get over the hump in major golf competition. Many consider his ball striking ability to be as solid as anyone but he never has had the shot game to win the big ones. He has six tour wins in America and 10 others internationally so he can play. Maybe his time has come. To win he will have to battle the elements with wind and rain in the forecast for the weekend plus he will have to watch a very systematic type golfer alongside as he will go off with KJ tomorrow afternoon. Choi is like a machine when he is on his game seldom making a mistake. He will keep the ball in play and make putts. Sergio should not be intimidated in the least by his playing partner. However, if a Tiger comes stalking tomorrow that could make things much more interesting for the leaders.

July 14, 2007 - LOSING IS EASY!

If you caught the finish of the Scottish Open this morning from Loch Lomond you watched Phil Mickelson, third ranked golfer in the world, who had led from day one, find a way to throw away another title. Coming down the stretch on the back nine in the final twosome with a Frenchman, Gregory Havret, Lefty pulled his driver out three too many times. The result, he let Havret catch him in regulation then beat him in a sudden death that lasted one hole. Lefty simply could not put his driver in play. Once he went long right, then big to the left into the long stuff bordering the loch. The Frenchman, ranked three hundred and something in the world simply had to keep his ball in play to win. It is simply amazing to me that Mickelson can't find a coach or driver that will enable him to hit the ball in the fairway. Personally, I believe that Lefty is stubborn. He wants to do it his way or nothing else. There is something in his makeup that will not allow him to adjust that part of his game. He is ranked third in the world, yet, there are probably a thousand or more golfers around this world that hit their driver better than he. Don't you think? Anyway the Frenchman wins the trophy by making par.

Across the pond in Silvis , Illinois , at the John Deere, two golfers found a way to lose. Nathan Green, an Aussie, had led this event from the second round. Today he couldn't keep up with the crowd behind him, watching Tim Clark of South Africa overtake him. Clark played superbly early in his round and was in control. But coming home down the stretch, he found a way to make two bogies. Along comes the American and former Clemson All-American, Jonathan Byrd making a couple of birdies coming home and suddenly Byrd wins for his third time on Tour. As a result he is now planning his trip to Scotland to play in the British Open next week. Don't think for a moment that I don't believe Byrd deserved to win, quite the contrary, as he played four rounds at 67, 68, 65, 66 to get to 18 under par. Jonathan has now won more tournaments than any other American under the age of 30, with three, which isn't many.

So losing is a lot easier than winning. It can happen so quickly. If I were Lefty, I would rationalize and say “I really didn't expect to win the week before The Open; I just wanted to get my game in shape so I will be prepared to win next week.” If I were Tim Clark or Nathan Green I would probably say something like, “Well, I had a good run at victory and will take this as a learning experience which should prepare me to win more often in the future.” Do those excuses sound okay to you? This week the golfers move on to Carnoustie and the British Open. It was at Carnoustie in 1999 that one of the greatest collapses by a leader occured when Frenchman, Jean van de Velde threw away a three shot lead on the final hole and then lost in a playoff. You win some, you lose some!

July 13, 2007 - FINLEY'S BACK!

I write that as if someone noticed. Okay, my wife and I took a couple of weeks off after the US Open to just relax and “piddle around”. Is that a word, “piddle”? I think it means doing as little as possible. We did spend a few days at the South's great resort in Ashville, The Grove Park Inn and Spa. We try to go at least once a year to play our annual Backgammon face-off, eat and “piddle”. So after some wonderful time doing as little as possible, it's back to golf and writing about my thoughts on the subject. Aren't you excited?

Probably the largest event of the summer has been the birth of Tiger's child, Sam. Sam is a very pretty little girl. She would have to be with those handsome folks that made her. Tiger says he was called Sam by his dad so that is from which the name came. Tiger has played once since her birth, at his own new event at Congressional in D.C., but he couldn't pull off a win in honor of his new family member. K.J. Choi won for his second big win of the season. Woods made a terrific charge on the last day but he fell short. So the real question now is…can Tiger be distracted? Nicklaus played through the birth of a bunch of kids and continued to set records, so, we must wonder, if Tiger, can do the same. For the first time in his career, Tiger is faced with greater priorities, perhaps. We'll see how he responds. The Open at Carnoustie might be his first real challenge.

We've had two first time tour winners this past month or so and both were Americans. How about that! Hunter Mahan of Orange , California won at the Travelers in Connecticut and Brian Bateman of Louisiana grabbed the trophy at the Buick in Michigan . The best player on tour right now might be the Korean, K.J. Choi. With the AT&T victory coupled with his victory at Jack's Place in May he is a two time winner this season. The best player on any tour right now just might be Jay Haas, the senior is playing fabulous golf on the Champion's Tour.

Phil Mickelson is currently one shot back in the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond after two rounds. This is a sign that perhaps his ailing wrist is feeling better which is timely with The Open next week. So, just maybe, Lefty is getting back to his level of play he had in May at The Players, but I don't see how he can control his shotmaking well enough to win on those hard and fast courses in the British Isles. Carnoustie is probably the most difficult. Accuracy is required! If he can win across the pond at an Open venue, he has come a long way, baby!

Michelle Wie chose not to play at The John Deere or anywhere else, that I can determine. I suppose she is still recovering from a wrist injury. Hopefully that is all that is bothering her. She seems fragile right now, or, perhaps, less interested in golf. We'll see if she can get it together this summer and put a trophy on the mantel at home. Have you noticed the onslaught of oriental, mostly Korean, golfers on the LPGA? At the Owens Corning Classic in Toledo the leader is Se Ri Pak whom we all know as a leader in women's golf. Others on the leaderboard include Jin Young Pak, Aram Cho, Christina Kim, Jeong Jang, Na Ri Kim, J. Yang, Candie Kung, Seon Hwa Lee, Jimin Kang, Ji-Young Oh, Yu Ping Lin, Jee Young Lee, Aree Song, Irene Cho, In-Kyung Kim and on and on and on. My spell checker is sounding an alarm. The LPGA is quickly becoming a Korean or oriental tour. Even Michelle Wie is of Korean descent and don't forget about K.J. on the men's side. Good chance this group didn't dine on the chili hotdogs at Tony Packo's last night in Toledo.

So here we are with two majors left this summer. The Fed Ex Cup has not excited me nor has the new tournament line up. It seems we have weeks go by without a name player in the field. The time I was off was very well timed as there was a lot of very boring golf being played. I dislike writing about boring golf. The Champion's Tour might be where the real action is in the year 2007. Keep it going Jay, it is fun to watch!

June 17, 2007 - "DON'T CRY FOR ME ARGENTINA"

Those are the lyrics from "Evita" in the Broadway musical and probably the words of the new US Open champion, Angel Cabrera. It was all about Argentina and it was again, today, at the US Open. Argentine, Angel Cabrera, golfed his ball to one under 69 which was enough to pull off the biggest win of his career, the US Open championship. He won with a five over score for the 72 holes. Tiger Woods had a chance to catch him but he couldn't pull it off.  Tiger failed to birdie the 17th and the 18th and finished behind by one shot. Aussie, Aaron Baddeley, the third round leader, who went out in the final twosome with Tiger, collapsed, triple bogied the first hole and ended up shooting a plus ten. This was a week when we had too much cabbage and too much greens (slick ones) on the side. This was the most difficult national championship set up perhaps in the history of American golf.

Personally, I can't get over an Argentine winning our national championship. I'm bothered by it. Cabrera is not one of the top players in the world. At best he is an average European tour player but not much else. The USGA needs to review where we are with the national championship and perhaps do some tweaking.  This idea of making the Open courses the most difficult possilble is ridiculous. Let's get away from that and go for golf at it's best on golfable courses. The USGA seems, for some reason, to know better than anyone else. This needs to change!

Beating the best golfers in the world into the ground is not what we want to do with the Open. Let's start a trend of having fun with The Open. Changes need to be made. Watching five over win is not my cup of tea. Let' s put the best in the world back in the mix.

Don't think that I am trying to down play Cabrera's triumph. I'm not, for he held off and defeated the number one player in the world in one, Tiger Woods. What I am saying is that the way the USGA sets up an Open course it invites marginal golfers to step up and pull off the big upset. It happens because they get fortuitous bounces and a bunch of luck. Angel Cabrera is a good example! Let's see how many more majors he will win in his career.

WOODS MAKES OPEN WORTH WATCHING

After two days of watching the world's greatest golfers seemingly trying to play a national championship in a grocery store parking lot next to a wheat field Tiger Woods finally put on a display of golf at it's best and made storied Oakmont Country Club, near Pittsburgh, look playable. Thanks to the USGA officials who decided Friday afternoon that something needed to be done to make this place more like a golf course than an airport runway. So they went to work watering the greens and actually watered them three times before play began on Saturday. Even with the watered surfaces only two players were able to break par but we did get to see a few putts made. However when you see a world class golfer hit a high iron approach to a front pin placement then see it hit softly next to the hole you don't expect to see it end up 50 feet away. I saw that several times Saturday. This is when you realize how little control the golfers have over their ball and where it ends up when approaching the putting surfaces. For me it takes the fun out of watching. This is why world class golfers like two time Open champion, Ernie Els is at +13, defending champion, Geoff Ogilvy is at +14, Masters champion Zach Johnson is at +16, former US Open champion, Michael Campbell is at +15 and, of course, Phil Mickelson who missed the cut at +11.

Thanks to Tiger, Aaron Baddeley and a couple of others we got to see some really fine golf displayed in the third round. Tiger was nearly perfect tee to green missing only the 18 th in regulation as he posted a one under 69. He had several attempts at birdie but he couldn't find the hole as these greens are so difficult to read and gauge the pace and break. Baddeley, the Aussie, with a third round 70, even par, came in at plus two for the tournament and leads Tiger by two shots. Paul Casey of England , Stephen Ames of Canada , Justin Rose of England and Bubba Watson, an American are all tied at five over, three shots back. American, Jim Furyk has sight of the leaders at six over, four back. Paul Casey who lives in Arizona , went to college in America and married an American girl is still remembered as the golfer who described Americans as “ignorant people”, is not my choice. Big Bubba, a good old Southern boy whose best friend is fellow golfer Boo Weekley, had the lead at one over for a short while until he blew up and made triple bogey on the inward nine. Bubba is the longest hitter on tour but also has displayed great talent in other parts of his game including putting.

With Tiger in the last group with Baddeley you have to believe he will win yet another major championship. He has never come from behind to win a major in twenty something tries but this looks like one where it will happen. I look for former US Open champ, Jim Furyk to go out and make a run for the lead ahead of Tiger and the others. He has the kind of game that will allow for that at an open site like this one at Oakmont. Jim will have some fans in the gallery as he spent a number of years in Pittsburgh and is a big Steelers fan.

Let's hope they are playing a golf course today and not an asphalt parking lot. We need to see birdies possible today if anyone is going to mount a charge from back in the pack otherwise those who are chasing will need disaster to strike the leaders. That's not really the way you want to see it happen.

June 11, 2007 - BUSY GOLF WEEKEND COMPLETE AS US OPEN LOOMS

With the US Open coming up this week at grand old Oakmont, near Pittsburgh, interest in golf begins to peak worldwide. The word in golfing circles is that Oakmont will be more difficult to play than ever before which is what we have come to expect from the United States Golf Association. As usual the course has been tweaked by USGA officials which will require participants to have all parts of their game working. Word here is that the masochistic members like the course exceptionally tough so the combination should be really scary. The rough will require accuracy off the tee with the driving clubs of choice, the iron game will be tested as ball placement on these super fast and undulating greens is essential. Putting will be critical as there will be numerous opportunities during play to get the ball up and down for par from off the greens but they will probably be rolling at a foreboding 13 on the Stimpmeter. Oakmont is well bunkered so sand play will definitely come into play. Woody Austin, the winner at Memphis and one who really likes US Open setups says he would not be surprised if the winning 72 hole score was as high as three to four over par. In recent Opens par has been a contending score. Defending champ Geoff Ogilvy suggested it might be 10 over par after a practice session.

Back to the busy weekend; how about Woody Austin's final round 62 to win this third Tour title? He started the day four back of leader Adam Scott but he finished the tournament nine shots better than Scott. Is that taking it to the leader or what? It just shows how much a tournament can turn in the final round. Scott later said he had been distracted on the back nine as his mind began to navigate to thoughts of Oakmont and the Open. Austin on the other hand was trying his best to finish as high on the leaderboard as possible as he has had a really terrible year to now. He got his final round rolling with an eagle at the third and he went on to play a magnificent round of golf. Austin 's last win came in 2004 at Hartford . Now his mind is navigating forward to Oakmont and the Open with renewed hope and confidence, as again, he likes Open course setups.

Norwegian Suzann Pettersen fended off a surging Karrie Webb on Sunday's inward half to capture her first major and second tour win at the McDonald's LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace, Maryland. Webb finished second for the second straight year and unknown, 18 year old Na On Min of South Korea held up to finish third alone. 19 year old American, Morgan Pressel, who had contended through three rounds failed in her attempt to win the first two legs of the ladies grand slam with her final round 73. Pressel had won the Nabisco earlier this spring. With Michelle Wie finishing last after closing with an 83-79, we all must wonder what's happening. Is she just rusty from her long layoff or is she still recovering from her injured wrist or perhaps she has lost her confidence and desire to be the world's female golfing prodigy. Should it be the latter then as we have written many times, Michelle must learn to win with the ladies before anything else. That should be her only priority this summer; to get a LPGA trophy to put on her mantel. Surely, she will do it; it must be just a matter of time.

If you live in the state of South Carolina and especially in the Upstate around the Greenville area and you are a golf fan then you had to like the way the weekend went. Jay Haas captured his third win on the Champion's Tour this season at West Des Moines , Iowa . He is the only multiple winner on the senior circuit this year and he has established himself as the dominant player on this tour. Haas now has won nine times as a senior. On the Nationwide Tour, Easley , SC native and former golf star at the University of South Carolina , Kyle Thompson, finally got his first win after 120 other attempts on the Nationwide. This payday will put him in the top 15 on this Tour's money list which could lead to a pass to the “Big Show”. Kyle who comes from a golfing family has always shown great promise but couldn't get over that proverbial hump leading to the winner's circle.

Now let's all let our minds navigate towards thoughts of the Open. Let's hope for a shootout.

June 3, 2007 - WHAT'S HAPPENING AT JACK'S PLACE? KOREAN K.J.CHOI!  

So last week I was really ticked that the Americans were not to be found at Hogan's Alley in Fort Worth . I vented my frustrations about how international players are dominating our PGA Tour in America . I was also upset that so few of our top golfers had traveled to Fort Worth . Well, fast forward to a week later and this time the Tour has moved up to Ohio to Jack's place, Muirfield Village in Dublin . All of America 's and the world's top players showed. What happened? Well, another International player triumphed as K.J. Choi of Korea shot a seven under par 65 to make up a five shot deficit to win his most important American title.

This week I'm not pissed. First, I like K.J. Choi who was the first Korean ever to win a PGA Tour card plus he is so likable. His smile wins friends and it is fitting that he wins at Jack's place as he learned to play by watching Nicklaus videos and reading his books in between hitting countless balls at the only practice range in his native country. This was K.J.'s fifth American win to go with six international wins in Asia and Europe . He played spectacular golf on the front nine then scrambled beautifully on the way to the house. This was significant for K.J. and just could propel him into that elite circle of world class golfers. We will have to see.

I was also pleased to see some American grit. First, former US Amateur and NCAA champ Ryan Moore in his second full year on Tour made five straight birdies on the backside and fired a six under 66 to post a -16 in the clubhouse. He finished alone at second. Hats off to you Ryan and let's see more of that kind of play. Kenny Perry of Kentucky fired an almost unbelievable nine under 63 and moved into contention before finishing in a tie for third. Stewart Cink and Sean O'Hair played sub par golf to tie for fifth. Tiger Woods made up some strokes with a five under 67 to post a -9 good for a tie for 15 th . So Americans showed they can play which is a good sign as we approach the US Open in a couple of weeks.

Muirfield Village was defenseless with the pick, clean and place rule in effect with wet conditions plus the greens were in immaculate condition. You usually don't see the pros go as low on this course as they did this week. I have not heard how serious Phil Mickelson's hand/wrist injury has been diagnosed. If you didn't know he removed himself from play in the opening round with an apparent wrist or hand injury. Hopefully he will heel and be ready to go by Open time. Woods showed signs today of getting his game ready for that same, special event. We need everybody firing on all cylinders when they tee it up at the US Open.

May 27, 2007 - I'M PISSED OFF!!

I am sorry for the language but it seems to describe my emotional state right this moment. Not too sure what the term means but it seems to work for me. Where are the American golfers? We are getting our butts whipped by golfers from all around the world. I'm pissed off.

Here we are playing one of America 's oldest and most revered tournaments honoring the late and great Ben Hogan and our top players from the good old USA are not to be found. The Colonial is played at one of the best tournament courses anywhere and it honors the great Hogan who was one of the top three or four greatest golfers in the world, all time, and the best are not there. Tiger Woods must have been cruising on his million dollar yacht while Mickelson is probably eating a designer French dish in Paris . Where is Davis Love, Justin Leonard and Chad Campbell. Somewhere far down the list of finishers. Where is Zach and Sean? Where are the top golfers in the world? They should be at Hogan's Alley. Only Jim Furyk, ranked number three in the world was on hand and he tried to stand up for America on this Memorial Day weekend but he lost in a playoff to South African, Rory Sabbatini. I'm embarrassed and ticked!

What else can I say but this is one of America 's oldest and most prominent events and yet the top players in the world are on vacation. Except, of course, for Furyk. We go into a playoff and one American is trying to fend off two international players? German, Bernhard Langer, got into this tournament by asking for a special sponsor's exemption which was granted. Langer who is 49, shows up the Americans and goes to a playoff. Did you get that? He is not eligible to play, requests an exemption, then nearly wins the tournament and at his age. Come on, where are the Americans?

Where are the young Americans? Do we not have anyone coming along who can compete? Lucas Glover was near the top then went belly-up. D.J Trahan was challenging until he hits into the water at 18. Who are the Tom Watsons and Lee Trevinos of the future? Come on folks, where are the Americans? We have Woods, Mickelson and Furyk and then, apparently, not much else, week in and week out. The youngsters need to step up and make themselves known as competitors in world golf. International golfers are dominating on all tours, around the world. Also they need to honor our greats of past like Hogan, Nelson, Arnie and Jack. Maybe the Americans will show up at The Memorial.

I'm pissed!

May 13th, 2007 -LEFTY TAMES TPC AT SAWGRASS

What a difference a few weeks can make in the golfing life of Phil “The Thrill” Mickelson. After winning at Pebble Beach early in the year he fell back into a swing funk that was displayed so prominently at Winged Foot last summer at the US Open. After a poor showing at the Masters he put his long time swing coach, Rick Smith, on the bench and sought out much heralded teaching pro, Butch Harmon to help him find a swing that would hold up in tough competition on tough golf courses. The new coach seems to be getting the job done as Lefty went out this week and won his first Players Championship at the newly renovated TPC at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach leading almost throughout. He entered today's last round one shot behind Sean O'Hair with whom he was paired but wasted little time in catching and then surpassing O'Hair. He birdied the first hole to pull even and played steady golf making only one bogey which came at the last hole. Lefty kept the ball in play off the tee and never really struggled as he had on Friday when he was all over the course. Lefty posted four rounds at par or better and finished with back to back 69's on the weekend which allowed him to reach 277, eleven under par. He actually made it look easy.

The world's elite, all gathered at Sawgrass, never really threatened except for Sergio Garcia who fired a final round 66 to post a nine under 279 to lead in the clubhouse. He finished two shots behind Mickelson but took second place money. The other top players were no where in sight as Tiger Woods finished tied for 37 th , Jim Furyk finished tied for 28 th spot, Vijay Singh came in tied for 44 th and Ernie Els was tied for 37 th . Unfortunately for the 24 year old Sean O'Hair, he dumped two balls into the water at the dreaded 17 th island green which dropped him to 11 th overall. Those two water balls cost O'Hair about an unbelievable $750,000. This win for Lefty vaulted him into the second place ranking in the World and a close second to Tiger in the FedEx Cup standings.

As the week began with Mickelson shooting a five under 67 to tie for the lead, he was eight shots ahead of Tiger Woods who went three over on day one. Tiger who had won nine of his last 12 PGA events would surely come back and make a run for the lead down the stretch. It occurred to me that this was the ultimate test for Tiger. It also occurred to me that Lefty would probably falter as the week progressed especially if a Tiger was on the prowl. I was wrong! Tiger never made a run and, in fact, almost missed the cut and Lefty never faltered. His short game was incredible and saved him on Friday as he sprayed the ball off the tee and on approach shots then on the weekend his long game kicked in after lengthy practice sessions with his new coach. Perhaps we are seeing a new Mickelson evolving, one that can play at the top week in and week out. It certainly would be good for the game in America . Phil is enormously popular with the golf fans around the country. Golf fans everywhere want to see Tiger challenged.

Update: Mickelson told the press later that this win was up there with his three majors in importance. Lastly how about the job of rebuilding the TPC course and the clubhouse all in one year. Amazing results by what had to be a battalion of workers to get this property totally rebuilt without missing a day of tournament play. Good job PGATour!

April 29, 2007 - VERPLANK WAS DESTINED TO WIN AT BYRON'S TOURNEY

In life, certain things are meant to happen. In golf, certain things happen because they were meant to be. That was the story this weekend at The EDS Byron Nelson Golf Championship played in Las Colinas, Texas near Dallas .

Years ago Byron Nelson befriended a young golfer he had heard about and over time became his guiding light, his mentor of sorts. That young golfer was Scott Verplank who grew up in the Dallas area, not too far from Byron's ranch, and became known for his golfing ability at an early age. Today, Scott Verplank won the most important tournament he could possibly imagine winning. He won Byron's tournament at the Four Seasons Resort at Las Colinas something he had tried but failed to do in 20 other attempts. This was the first playing of Byron Nelson's tournament since his passing last year and it was a very special event this year for most, if not all, of the touring professionals. Everybody wanted this title but no one wanted it more than Scott Verplank and…he came from a shot behind today, overtaking third round leader Luke Donald and won it by a margin on one stroke.

It seemed strange this weekend at Byron's tournament, without him greeting each golfer who finished the 18 th and walked to the scorer's tent. Since 1968, Lord Byron has been there to greet the golfers as they left the course. Being a big fan of Nelson, it was a weekend mixed with sadness and joy for me. In my opinion, CBS Television did a very good job in a presentation with Peggy Nelson, Byron's widow, reminiscing about Byron and his accomplishments as she played the piano she so often played for Byron. Byron was a wonderful individual, a man of great integrity, honor and sportsmanship. He, like Bobby Jones, before him, represented what the game of golf is all about which can best be described as being about gentlemanly qualities.

Byron Nelson accomplished a great deal in his career. He won the 11 straight tournaments in 1945, the same year he won 18 in total. He went 65 straight tournaments finishing in the top 10, which is unheard of in today's golf world. He won several majors but he might be best remembered in these parts as the host of this tournament. The Byron Nelson Golf Classic has raised more money than any other on tour and represents 10% of all the charitable donations ever made by the PGA Tour.

Scott Verplank shot a final round 66, four under par to finish in first at 267. Donald was second at 268 followed by a quartet tied for third including Phil Mickelson (65), Jerry Kelly (64), Rory Sabbatini (65) and Ian Poulter (66).

April 8, 2007 - A DIFFERENT SORT OF DAY AT AUGUSTA ON SUNDAY

After three days of harrowing conditions with the fast track, cold weather and wind today Augusta National Golf Club came back to life. It was still a very difficult challenge at the 71 st Masters but a few red numbers appeared on the leaderboard and the crowd finally had a reason to cheer. The wind subsided somewhat, pin placements were a bit more friendly plus the thirsty greens had been fed some water prior to play on Sunday. There were several eagles and birdies being made and the scores went down. During the day five different golfers had or shared the lead including Retief Goosen and Tiger Woods who lurked from the first tee. But in the end a gutsy 31 year old midwesterner from Cedar Rapids, Iowa , Zach Johnson had the focus, the game plan and the belief to win.

Johnson fashioned a final round 69 with clutch birdies on 13, 14 and 16 and a sensational par saving chip at 18. His one over par 289 tied as the highest winning score in Master's history but it was a win. This was Zach's second win on the PGA Tour and his second in the state of Georgia. His first win came at the Bellsouth Atlanta Golf Classic in 2004. On Friday, the former Nationwide Tour Player of the Year had a chance to take the lead at four under with a birdie putt at 16. He proceeded to three putt then went on to bogey at 17 and 18 to fall back to even. Many would have folded the tent and gone home. Not this young man with great determination and nerves of steel. He persevered as if his collapse never happened and ended Sunday with a major championship and a green jacket in his locker at Augusta . While playing 15, Johnson could hear the loud roar from nearby 13 as Tiger holed an eagle putt to pull to within two. Tiger then hit it close at 14 but as he missed his birdie putt Zach was starting to close the door by sinking an eight foot birdie putt on 16 to go even par. Johnson made bogey at 17 then missed the 18 th green short right. His cross green chip was struck with the perfect speed and his ball came to rest next to the hole for a tap-in par and the 289 finish. Tiger came up short on his approach at 17 and made a bogey that killed his chances. Tiger was done snapping his opportunity for a third straight major title.

Tiger finished in a tie for second with Retief Goosen and Rory Sabbatini. Sabbatini had excited the gallery early in the day with his lengthy eagle putt at 8. Justin Rose and Jerry Kelly finished three back at 292 while the leader going into Sunday, Stuart Appleby, playing with Tiger, shot a final round 75 and ended the day tied for seventh at 293.

American golf fans now have a new champion and someone with great promise to be a contender week after week and in the majors. This was a difficult Masters to watch the first three days with the fast conditions and cold weather but our hat is off to Billy Payne and the leadership at Augusta National for their decisions on watering greens and pin placements for the final round that put the roar back in the Masters. Once again, we had great drama on Sunday.

April 8, 2007 - 71 ST MASTERS AKIN TO A TRAIN WRECK

Yesterday as the golfers left the eighteenth green at Augusta National they each had a similar look. It was like a dazed look with eyes glossed over and lips pursed. Some had trouble articulating what had just happened to them. It was if they each had just witnessed a tragic accident. Some seemed near tears. One or two might have been diagnosed with post traumatic syndrone. Augusta, in the history of the Masters, had never played more difficult with hard, fast greens, swirling wind and bone chilling temperatures. These players are the best in the world and yet they had been made to look like rank amateurs. Conditions could even get worse as they prepare to go back out today in the final round. The weather will again be cold and blustery. These kind of drying conditions will certainly have the greens playing like parking lots.

So who will survive this, the 71 st playing of the Masters? What kind of preparation did these players make overnight to prepare them for the challenge ahead? Some must have prayed, others certainly practiced self hypnosis, others just tried to relax and forget what had happened to them at least for the few short hours they had over Saturday night. Others probably decided on a “who cares” approach to try and relieve the tension, adopting a “I'll just do the best I can and then go home” mind set.

There is still a Masters tournament to be won. Someone will find a way to get it done for one of them will don a green jacket by days end. The golfer who perseveres will be a person who has found a way to relax, relieve the tension and the immense pressure and just play golf one shot at a time. This will require tremendous mind over matter control and personal discipline. We all know how well Tiger Woods can control his emotions and he is in the last group with Aussie Stuart Appleby.Tiger is going for his fifth Masters title and his third consecutive major championship. Appleby leads at +2, Tiger is at +3, Justin Rose at +3 and Padraig Harrington at +4 are the second to last group. Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen are within reach at +6. From my vantage point, Justin Rose seems to have the mental side under control. We'll see if he can maintain his cool for another day. Today will be an interesting study of human behavior and psychology, more so than technique and skill. Dress warmly and buckle up.

April 7, 2007 - SO WHO'S TO BLAME AT AUGUSTA ?

In case you've been on your way back from the space station and haven't heard, only three golfers are under par at the Masters after 36 holes. Those surviving the best and staying in the red numbers were Brett Wetterich, Tim Clark at two under and Augusta native, Vaughn Taylor at one under. Two under is the highest leading score in 25 years. This was a day that saw Tiger Woods spending much of his time in or around Rae's Creek and Phil Mickelson deep in the woods yet both are still in contention. Woods came home with a remarkable 74 to put him at three over and five back while Lefty managed to some how post a one over 73 and finish at five over par and seven back with 36 to play. Sixty golfers made the cut which was plus eight the highest cut line in years. The course remained a fortress with the wind and the hard and fast greens. All the players seemed puzzled and disbelieving of what their shots were doing or where they were ending up. Let's examine what happened to Zach Johnson toward the end of his round as an example of the day's play. Johnson hit a terrific tee shot at the par three, 16 th that finished a short three or four feet above the pin. A birdie would put him at four under par and give him the lead outright. His putt broke sharply, completely missing the hole, leaving a four footer coming back which he missed. He walked to the 17 th tee with a bogey and he was back at two under. Obviously stunned, he proceeded to bogey 17 and 18 to finish even par and two back. It happened so fast!

As I sit at the keyboard, sipping on a cup of coffee, I am trying to decide if this kind of goofy golf is what Master's Chairman, Billy Payne is striving to achieve. Have all the tweaks and lengthening of Augusta National made over the past ten years or so finally caught up with the world's greatest players? Can they no longer go out and shoot a number to the delight of roaring galleries echoing through the tall pines? Have the world's greatest golfers gotten to a point where they are walking to the first tee backwards? After two rounds of this Masters it looks more like a US Open being played in front of hushed golf fans who have little or nothing about which to cheer. My first tendency was to blame Billy Payne, Hootie Johnson and the powers that be at Augusta . Then you say, no, no, no, they don't control weather conditions. Oh yes they do! They have their hands on the Irrigation System Control Box and with one twist of the switch the course could be made softer and more playable. So, what to think? I am of the old school who likes to see the eagle chances and great putts for birdie and especially on Sunday down through Amen Corner and on into the clubhouse. Those great finishes are some of my favorite memories of professional golf.

So with two rounds to go it looks like luck could determine the next Master's champion. The way the ball is bouncing around and rolling it might come down to a lucky bounce. Anybody left in the field can win, it appears, at this moment. There are several big names lurking including Vijay Singh at even par, two back; Padraig Harrington, Stuart Appleby and Geoff Ogilvy at one over and Jim Furyk at two over. Of course Tiger lurks always and he is only five back; Lefty is seven back. Let's all hope they ran the sprinklers Friday evening.

April 5, 2007 - WHO'S LEADING THE MASTERS? WHAT….?

So how did the world's leading golfers fare on the first day of play at Augusta National? Northern Ireland's, Darren Clarke, star of last fall's Ryder Cup coasted home to a plus 11, 83; the Big Easy, Ernie Els of South Africa fired a 78; defending champion Phil “Lefty” Mickelson managed a four over 76 as did Fred Couples, Colin Montgomerie, Retief Goosen and Sergio Garcia. Adam Scott of Australia shot 74, as did Jose Maria Olazabal while Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh posted plus one, 73's. Who would have ever thought that the top 10 finishers would include Justin Rose, Brett Wetterich, David Howell, David Toms, Tim Clark, Vaughn Taylor and Rich Beem among others? So what happened?

The answer must lie in the weather conditions. Augusta was extremely dry, almost negligible humidity plus the wind was blowing creating hard and fast greens. It appears that the weekend will see a continuation of fast drying conditions with no rain in sight. So will the scores continue to go up? Probably to the point that even par for the 72 holes will be a very good score to post. Of course when you consider how good these golfers really are, they could adjust to the faster conditions and catch up with the course. But after day one the course is like a fortress.

I will try not to make any further predictions as I picked Ernie Els to win. I don't believe he can come back from a six over 78. I will state that it appeared that Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh were playing well enough in round one to contend over the weekend. Friday will be very important for some big names as they try to avoid the cut and get back into contention. Lefty says he is still in contention but another 76 and he flies home to the west coast. With these fast conditions this year's Masters could look like another US Open where par is king. Let's at least hope to see a shootout on Sunday when a few eagles and birdies on the back nine will determine the winner.

April 4, 2007 - CAN YOU SMELL THE FLOWERS?

It is all about the senses. At this time of the year you must let them guide you. My goodness, this time of year is so wonderful. Let me try and paint you a picture. Close your eyes and imagine. The smell is of freshly mown grass, the blooms of dogwood, azalea, pine, wisteria; the sound of robins, cardinals, wrens and an occasional hawk in the distance. Now imagine the smell of fresh white bread sandwiches of pimento cheese or chicken salad, perhaps a boiled ham with mayo. Can you smell the weiners cooking? The sight is of the color green, everywhere, grass so lush,closely mown and precise; tall, stately pine trees swaying ever so slightly in the breeze, the majestic magnolias, azaleas a blaze with rich colors. If you look closely you might see the pollen drifting through the air. Then comes the sound of a crowd roar echoing through the tall pines, followed by a hush through the valley beneath you. Folks, you are at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia . It is Masters Week! Open your eyes!

Okay here we go again, the single most important golf tournament to the players of the world. So when they tee it up tomorrow to get it going who most likely will win this coveted spring event? Obviously all the writers are picking Tiger Woods as he is the number one player in the world. Others believe that Phil Mickelson can win his third title at Augusta in the past four years. Vijay Singh, a former winner here, is hot having won two PGA events this season already to put him in the lead of the new, FedEx Cup. Ernie Els is regaining his form and should have a run at the title as he is playing very well. Augusta native, Charles Howell has had a strong start to his new season. Perhaps all of his work with Ledbetter over the winter has prepared him for this, his hometown championship. Sergio Garcia has played well this spring and could get it going if his putter works for him. Henrik Stenson who has played incredibly well this young season surely is one who could possibly don the green jacket.

No doubt, whoever walks up the eighteenth fairway with the lead on Sunday will have to make a putt to win in front of the world. It is exciting like no other golf event, and in my opinion, like no other sporting event.

Brett Quigley, who flew home late yesterday to be at his wife's side as she delivered their first born, a bouncing baby girl at just past 2:00 AM this morning. He returned later today from Florida by private jet in time to make tomorrow's tee time in his first Masters. He will play in his debut event with the likes of Vijay Singh and Hideto Tanihara.

In my opinion the Australians are playing very well right now and I will not be surprised to see an Aussie win another major. Tiger will be in contention, no doubt, but my pick is Ernie Els. I believe it is his time.

March 26, 2007 - TIGER WINS ANOTHER WGC EVENT, WETTERICH HANGS TOUGH

Once again Tiger Woods is a winner at a World Golf Championship event, this one the CA Championship played at Doral. This was Tiger's 13 th WGC triumph in 24 starts which is simply unbelievable, but true. You would think playing against the world's greatest players someone else could challenge and win against Tiger. These stats alone prove Tiger's dominance of the game. Then you look at 56 tour wins plus all the majors and, my goodness, he stands alone at the top. You might imagine that a Henrik Stenson has arrived to challenge Tiger then he goes four over in three days and is out of sight, out of mind. Tiger is delighted to have a win under his belt as he travels up to Augusta to prepare for the Masters in two weeks. He is feeling confident as the year's first major gets closer. Most of the analysts on the tube over the weekend seem to think that Tiger is a certain winner at the Masters.

What's this sycophantic reporting by NBC's Jimmy Roberts about Tiger Woods friendship with tennis player, Roger Federer? Jimmy, I don't understand why this means so much to you. Tiger is entitled to a personal life. Maybe Roberts needs to try out for Entertainment Tonight or something similar and report endlessly on Anna Nicole Smith and others. Who cares Jimmy?

Were you as impressed with Brett Wetterich as I. He held his own playing in the last pairing with Tiger and actually bested Tiger, his fellow Ryder Cup teammate, over the weekend by two shots but still came up two shots short of catching the world's top player. Wetterich who is only a number of months beyond the Nationwide Tour is making a name for himself. He had two very makeable birdie putts on 17 and 18 that could have gotten him in position to catch or surpass Tiger but he missed each. We should expect to see this long hitter contend often in the months and years ahead. He's a player.

Phil Mickelson, who has won two of the last three Masters, was off the radar screen at Doral. As all the pundits predicted Tiger to win in Augusta one wonders what Lefty must be thinking. After a horrendous start at the CA Championship, posting a five over 77 in round one, he righted the ship and came home with 72, 70, 69 to get back to even par. On Sunday he made seven birdies to go along with five bogies. He has to feel like he is at least headed in the right direction as Augusta grows near.

One last note from the weekend, Mexican Lorena Ochoa picked up another win on the LPGA Tour by winning at the Safeway at Superstition Mountain in Arizona . She is establishing herself as the one to beat on the distaff tour. When some people learn to win they just want to keep on winning and she is definitely proving that she is a winner.

March 18, 2007 - VIJAY WINS IN ORLANDO BUT "WHO'S ON FIRST?"

I don't know about you but I feel as if I am learning the PGA Tour all over again. It has been a strange start to the season for me but I'm getting older and having trouble adjusting to all the changes Tim Finchem has initiated. This week they played the Arnold Palmer Invitational which for years we've known it as the Bay Hill Classic by Mastercharge or something like that. Personally I am pleased that the PGA Tour is giving Arnie the top billing in his tournament because he has meant so much to this game, but why do we have to keep changing the names of each event?

For the past two weeks I don't know where we've been; places like The Honda in North Palm Beach and the Pod something at Tampa Bay . Personally, I couldn't get excited about those spots and especially since the top guns weren't showing up. It is a new season with lots of changes and it will take some getting use to. What we need is tournaments that will draw the top names in golf and we had one this week. Next week we go to Doral in Miami for another blockbuster event where most top names in the game will show up. That event is called something like the CA Classic (isn't that the old Doral tournament) which makes me ask, “who's on first; what's on second.” Remember the old Abbot and Costello routine on baseball?

I really like that Vijay won his 31 st tournament victory this weekend at Arnie's place and got his name on that trophy finally. He has always coveted a victory at Bay Hill and he finally got one. He just sort of took things in his own hands midway through the final round and went on to win with a final round 67 (-3) and a total of -8. His best challenge down the wire came from 44 year old Rocco Mediate who shot a three under 67 to finish at -6 overall and alone in second to Vijay. Vaughn Taylor, who started the day in first, finished third at -5.

This was the first event of the season since the match play that the top players in the world gathered to go against one another. Vijay is the only one who played well. Tiger Woods, who flirted with the lead at times, fell back to plus three after a final round six over 76. Phil Mickelson never really competed as he finished at plus six after a final 74. To make it all come together and mean something, Vijay now leads the FedEx Cup with a lot of golf left to play. Sooner or later we will get to the Masters and make some sense out of this “new” season. Perhaps we all need a GPS navigation system to tell us where to go next.

By the way, all the big names were present in Orlando for Arnie's Bash. We didn't hear much from them and Tiger looked really off his game. It all reminds me of the new “American Idol” talent show, which isn't showing us much either.

 

February 23, 2007 - TIGER LOSES TO O'HERN

The number one seed in the Accenture World Match Play Championship, Tiger Woods, lost on the second extra hole today as Aussie Nick O'Hern held his ground and defeated the world's top ranked golfer ending Tiger's PGA tournament win streak at seven. Many in the golf media had felt that Tiger was going to break Byron Nelson's record 11 tournament win streak of 1945. Other observers, myself included, felt that Tiger's losses over the winter in the Orient had ended his streak. In any case, the world was focused on this event being played at the Gallery Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Arizona . Tiger actually blamed his defeat on a blemish in the green that deflected his ball off line as he putted for the win on the 19th hole. He told reporters afterwards that he should have seen the ball mark and repaired it but his focus on the line of the putt was so great that he didn't notice the mark. He called it a mental mistake. Still in the match, O'Hern went on to close out Tiger on the 20th hole with a par to Tiger's bogey. Actually Tiger had struggled much of the early part of the round as he made two double bogies as a result of wayward tee shots. His driver was “go right happy” and he found himself in some nasty places out in the Arizona desert. Meanwhile O'Hern was steady and down the middle on most shots and played really good golf for much of the round. Tiger was down by four holes in the early part of the match but fought his way back to level with a birdie on the 18 th . This was the second time that O'Hern has defeated Tiger in the Accenture Match Play. He bested Tiger in an early round match in 2005.

With Tiger's loss all of the top seeds have now gone down to defeat. The only American surviving is Chad Campbell who ousted fellow countryman, David Toms, one up. O'Hern will play Henrik Stenson of Sweden tomorrow. Other matches will feature Englishman, Justin Rose against South African, Trevor Immelman; defending champion, Geoff Ogilvy of Australia versus Paul Casey of England ; Campbell will take on Canadian, by way of Trinidad , Stephen Ames. The weekend matches should be exciting to watch even though the top seeds have left the scene. I am sure the TV sponsors are saddened by Tiger's departure but there is still a lot of great golf left to be played. Golf is truly an international sport in this day and age and those of us from America need to get use to not seeing an American at the top of each and every tournament. Tiger can't win them all!

February 18, 2007 - CHARLES HOWELL III MOVES TO A HIGHER ECHELON

A couple of years ago about this time I projected that Charles Howell III would have his break out year and have a multiple winning season. Well I was about two years early in my prognostication. Most American observers of the game had seen his tremendous potential since he won the NCAA Championship as a junior at Oklahoma State in 2000. He joined the tour on sponsors' exemptions in 2001 winning $1.5 million. In 2002 he broke through as a winner at the Michelob Championship at Kingsmill in Virginia but not much has happened since. He has been a very competitive member of the PGA Tour having finished second on nine occasions, always a threat, but not a champion since 2002.

Before the beginning of this new season he had sought out David Ledbetter, his long time teacher since childhood who he abandoned for a while and set himself to get his game ready for the next level. Prior to this weekend he had placed second at both the Sony and the Buick and was off to a great start. Today, he might have grown into a champion as he shot a dazzling six under 65 to catch red hot Phil Mickelson and win the Nissan Championship at Riviera in Los Angeles on the third hole of sudden death. CH III made a nerve racking 5 foot putt on the 72 nd hole for par then waited as Lefty finished. Mickelson, the winner last week at Pebble Beach and leader throughout this tournament's four days slipped on a banana peel coming home and made bogey at 18 to fall back into a tie with Howell. Lefty made bogey again at the third playoff hole against Howell's par and suddenly Howell is a champion and the new leader of the FedEx Cup race with Mickelson close behind. (Photo of Charles Howell courtesy of PGATour.com)

This might be the break that Howell has needed to jump into the higher stratum of world class golf. You could see he had the game he just needed to believe he could do it and perhaps now, having caught and defeated a world class golfer such as Mickelson he might be convinced in his own mind that he belongs at the top. We need all the great ones we can find in this era to Tiger. As for Lefty, he shot rounds of 66-65-69-68 on a tough layout. Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Robert Allenby tied for third. Looks like Howell and the world's higher ranked players are ready for the Accenture World Match Play Championship coming along this week. Tiger and Lefty have the top two seeds in the 64 man field.

February 11, 2007 -  LEFTY'S LESSON!

Phil Mickelson taught all of us a lesson this weekend. The lesson: don't ever consider him down for the count. Just as he had the media and many of his fans wondering about his capacity to comeback from his devastating finish at Winged Foot last summer, he puts on a birdie barrage and runs away with the AT&T National Pro-Am. He did it at one of this country's best and most difficult tests of golf, Pebble Beach. Sharing the lead with Kevin Sutherland at -14 to start the day, Lefty posted nine birdies to go with a bogey and a double to fashion a six under 66 to coast in at -20 and a five shot win. Sutherland birdied the last hole to sneak into second alone at -15. Rookie John Mallinger, fresh out of Q School and playing impressive golf, came in third at -14. Jim Furyk, ranked second in the world behind Tiger and four spots ahead of Lefty, finished nine shots back at -11 tied for sixth. Mickelson's game has never looked better!

This win was his third at the "Crosby" Pro-Am. It was also his 30 th career win putting him in a tie with Vijay Singh and Leo Diegel. Only 15 golfers are ahead of Phil and Vijay in all time wins. One more win for either will put that golfer in a tie with Jimmy Demaret at 31 career triumphs. With the win Lefty is now in seventh place in the FedEx Cup point standings, one point ahead of Tiger Woods.

Mickelson had become almost an after thought since last summer's collapse on the final hole in the US Open. He had appeared tired and uninterested. He took the last four months of the season off except for the Ryder Cup where he scored a ½ point in five matches. He was off to a horrible start to 2007. Suddenly he exorcised the demons from his mind, found his swing and putting touch and like a stroke of lightning, he is back on top. We should have known better than to think of Lefty as finished. No one should lose faith in the ability of a world class athlete. We should have known his wonderful talent would return and his desire to win would rebound. Now it will be interesting to see how his rankings will change. Is he better than sixth in the world? Thus far this season, the new season of the FedEx Cup, Tiger has won, Vijay Singh has won and now Mickelson. Ernie has challenged on the European tour but hasn't won. Adam Scott has not won nor has Furyk. So does Phil jump over anyone?

We won't know for sure about his recovery until later in the season, perhaps after Augusta . Will he be able to carry this talent displayed on the Monterey Peninsula further into the year? Let's hope so because a competitive Phil Mickelson is good for the game.

February 9, 2007 - IS MICKELSON MAKING A COMEBACK?

Since letting the US Open championship slip away on the last hole last summer at Winged Foot, Phil Mickelson has been in a golfing funk to say the least. At the time he was going for his third major in a row but in that final round he couldn't keep his ball in play and paid the price as Geoff Ogilvy carried the trophy back home to Australia . In the days gone by since that debacle Lefty has teed it up in eight tournaments plus the Ryder Cup. He tied for 65 th in the Cialis Western Open, tied for 22 nd in the British Open, missed the cut at The International in Castle Pines, tied for 16 th in the PGA then tied for 54 th in the World Cup at Firestone. His play at the Ryder Cup was uninspiring. He then chose to take off the rest of the year. In 2007 he has tied for 45 th at the Hope, tied for 51 st at the Buick Invitational near his home while Tiger was winning another then Lefty missed another cut at the FBR near his former home area of Tucson. So in about six months his world ranking has dropped like a meteor from second to sixth in the world. So can he come back from this fall? Can he regain his winning form? I have wondered if the personal devastation suffered at the Open had caused incurable damage to his confidence and desire.

As I write today he is currently playing Pebble Beach in his second round of the AT&T National Pro-Am. Through four holes he is two under on his round and nine under on the tournament and leading. He shot a seven under 65 at Poppy Hills yesterday. I thought it interesting that Doug Ferguson of the AP left any mention of Mickelson out of his coverage of the first day. Maybe he was disbelieving. Anyway is Lefty showing that his funk is over and is ready to be a contender again. We have been told that he worked hard during the winter layoff to get himself in better physical condition which was certainly necessary in my opinion. Supposedly he has converted 25 pounds of fat into muscle. The first three tournaments didn't show us an improved game so maybe all the hard work is kicking in and he is ready to go after Tiger, Furyk, Scott and others ranked ahead of him. For his sake perhaps he has regained his ability to hit a driver down the middle. Last year he also had trouble getting the ball close on par 3's. On several occasions I saw him make a splash on par 3 water holes. When you think back to last season and two weeks in Georgia when he went back to back at Atlanta and Augusta you know how good he can be. Maybe we will see some more of that type of play from him in the days and months ahead.

Note: This paragraph was written several hours later. Lefty finished his round at 67, five under at Pebble Beach to put him at -12 overall and tied with Jim Furyk. Furyk shot a nifty seven under at nearby Poppy Hills and is also at -12. This sets up what could be a very interesting shootout over the weekend by two of the games top ranked players. Furyk is second ranked in the world while Lefty has slipped to sixth but is obviously trying to move up.

January 29, 2007 - NEW YEAR OFF AND RUNNING: WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?

Now that we have gone from the prime time golf from Hawaii and moved to the mainland the new season is off and running full speed ahead. What can we learn from these first few weeks of the new season trumpeted by the PGA Tour as the beginning of the new FedEx Cup era? Off the top of my head I'd say not much is new. Vijay Singh won early in the Islands as he captured the Mercedes. Tiger won his third Buick Invitational in a row and his seventh straight PGA Tour event. Some say he is approaching the record of 11 straight held by Byron Nelson in his great year of 1945 when he won 18 times.

I think what Tiger is doing is phenomenal but I have a bone to pick with his attempt to dethrone Byron and his record of 11 straight. We are now in the era of international play, world golf might better describe it. Tiger participates in World Cup play and plays all around the globe. When he did not win at the HSBC in China last fall his streak was broken, in my opinion. Even Tiger has said his streak was broken. When Byron played we did not enjoy a “world tour”. The best golf in the world was played week after week right here in America . When Byron went 11 straight he did it between March 8 th and August 4 th in 1945. There was a two month break in play in April and May of that year. In other words, Byron won 11 times in three months. You do the math. He played every week, no layoffs except for that mid-season break and no loses elsewhere. During Tiger's streak he has taken several weeks off and has traveled to play abroad. He passed up the Tour Championship in Atlanta to play in China . To make a long story shorter, I'm not as excited about his seven wins versus Nelson's 11 as other scribes seem to be for the aforementioned reason. However, we must salute the Great One for his triumph in San Diego and a rip roaring start to 2007.

Well Lefty Mickelson looks about like he did following last summer's debacle at Winged Foot. He is just not competing. He does look somewhat slimmer and in better condition but his game has not returned as yet. That mistake on 18 at the US Open really had to do major damage to Lefty's psyche. It could take months for his game to return. It does appear he is working hard on his game and that he cares so just maybe we will see him contend again later this season. Retief Goosen looked sharp as he won on the European Tour at Quatar. Fellow countryman, Ernie Els also contended.

It's been fun to watch some of the youngsters on Tour go for the gold. Last week Brandt Snedeker, Andrew Buckle, Bubba Watson, Jeff Quinney and Bill Haas all made a run for the top spot until Tiger wrestled control. The Nationwide Tour keeps on turning out terrific young players. Maybe at some point one of these young turks will believe that he can challenge Tiger, then prove it. My guess is that will not happen anytime soon. Tiger still is, for the most part, unbeatable. Even with Tiger winning every week I think we will have an interesting year as everyone seeks that $10 million FedEx Cup payoff at the end of the rainbow.

January 17, 2007 - HAS MICHELLE WIE PEAKED?

I refuse to come down hard on Michelle Wie following her failure to make the cut, again, at the Sony in Honolulu . My first instinct is to not write about her at all. Actually I am beginning to feel sorry for the 17 year old despite the fact that she makes $ 20 million a year in endorsements. My thoughts after the first two rounds at Waialae were more along the lines of questions about her mental state. I must admit that I began to wonder if she has peaked while still a teenager. She appears to have lost some of her ability as her scores have gone up over the past couple of years as she continues to strive to make a cut on the male circuits around the world. She has now failed in seven straight men's tournaments and, again, the scores are going up. In two rounds last week she went 78-76, 14 over par which was third from last place. You have to think that the inability to meet her lofty goals is wearing on her psyche. Now I, well probably all of us, realize she is still a youngster. We know that she is trying to achieve something that most women golfers throughout history have not attempted and especially while still in high school. Having big sponsors, big contracts along with the big media hype the pressure she feels must be immense.

Perhaps it is time for Michelle to relax and concentrate on the LPGA Tour. She can win there and it will certainly take the pressure off and help to rebuild her confidence. She will become a winner in time and I think her first win will come in 2007 unless the damage done to her confidence has been too great to overcome without more time. We have been afraid of a shut down for two years now as my columns will attest. Too much has been expected of her while still a child.

Even though Michelle slipped the Islanders still had reason to cheer as the 16 year old, Tadd Fujikawa, of Hawaii, playing as an amateur, was simply amazing with rounds of 71-66-66-72, five under and only nine shots behind the winner. This youngster is something at only 5'1” and he looked more like a 12 year old as he strolled the fairways on Sunday next to Jim Furyk. It looks like the Islands have begotten another teenage golfing phenom.

Lastly it was fun to see Paul Goydos win his first tournament in 11 years. He has been a struggling professional for many years now but he still keeps at it because as he put it afterwards, “this is what I do”. He also said with a smile that his goal is to win in every decade. Way to go Paul, you are two for two.

December 30, 2006 - MY MOST LINGERING THOUGHTS FROM 2006

As I ponder the past year in professional golf there are some thoughts and memories that are more vivid recollections than others. Some jump out at me like a Vegas neon sign ever blinking on and off while others wane like the setting sun. Here are some that linger on within me.

I will never forget how impressed I was as Geoff Ogilvy played the World Championship Match Play with such terrific ball striking and a seemingly laid back demeanor. He was awesome in this early event in 2006 and I remember saying to my self this man can be a superstar. Well it was only a few short months later that he won his first major with his par at the 72 nd hole at Winged Foot in the US Open while everybody behind him struggled in with bogies and double bogies. I am calling Geoff Ogilvy my surprise player of the year as he certainly made a splash in '06.

My second most glaring memory of this past season was Mickelson attempt to win his third major in a row at Winged Foot at the US Open. His collapse will forever be engrained in my mind especially the way he played the last hole finishing with a double bogey. The strangest thing about his game at Winged Foot was a total lack of success with his tee shots. He couldn't hit the broadside of a barn with a bazooka at 20 feet. Makes you wonder why he continued to get endorsement contracts for his Callaway driver. Wow!

The way Tiger Woods dominated world golf from the British Open on through the rest of the season was simply amazing to watch. No one in the world could keep pace with him as he was in a league all by himself. Once he got through the grieving over the loss of his father he came back with a vengeance as if to show his Dad he could still do it. The way he ran the table down the last half of the season will linger on in my mind for many days and years to come.

I was delighted to see Jay Haas win his first major of his career when he grabbed the Senior PGA at Oak Tree in Edmunds , Oklahoma . Jay edged out his major challenger, Brad Bryant in a three hole playoff. Jay went on to win the player of the year award for the Champions Tour.

Lastly, I remember how well Darren Clarke played in the Ryder Cup just a few weeks after the death of his lovely wife. He showed great heart which seemed to motivate his teammates as they crushed the Americans yet again. It was very difficult to pull against a man like Clarke with his great passion for the game and especially international team competition.

As we look ahead to 2007 we must wonder if anyone will ever defeat Tiger Woods again. He is on a roll and just might win everything in sight. Of course with a pregnant wife his priorities might need to change a bit. That's right she is pregnant. We must wonder if Phil Mickelson will ever be the same after his collapse at the US Open. He finished the last half of the season as if totally disinterested. Who will be the next Geoff Ogilvy who will step up and show world class talent? Will Michelle Wie get her first win in the new year? My best guess is yes. In fact she should be a multiple winner in 2007.

Happy New Year from FinleyonGolf.com and keep that little white ball down the middle.

On Golf Today - MASTERS STILL MAJESTIC - MICKELSON WINS BACK TO BACK MAJORS - 4/09/06

On Golf Today - THE SINGLE GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENT IN AMERICAN GOLF HISTORY - 12/18/07

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