Don't count out Hamilton (again)
Since when did covering the international golf scene turn into something more like an assignment for Teen Beat magazine?
This week alone, 18-year-old Paula Creamer earned her sixth top 10 of the season, 17-year-old Morgan Pressel petitioned the LPGA Tour to drop its age minimum just for her and 15-year-old Michelle Wie came within two strokes of making us rename this column the Wie-kly 18.
All of which makes 22-year-old John Deere Classic winner Sean O'Hair seem like a grizzled veteran.
But the Weekly 18 starts with defending British Open champion Todd Hamilton, a guy who left his youth long ago but may still have his best golf -- believe it or not -- ahead of him.
He earned an exemption into last year's third major just before the event began. He played solid, mistake-free golf for four rounds and then went toe-to-toe with Ernie Els in a playoff and won.
And yet, is there a less heralded Open champion in recent memory than Hamilton?
Think about it: Ben Curtis was the guy who came out of nowhere, Paul Lawrie reaped the benefit of Jean Van de Velde's folly and Ian Baker-Finch was an up-and-comer when he grabbed the Claret Jug. But Hamilton simply scooped up his first major title and then took the large silver cup back home to Texas, showed it to some friends and kept going about his usual business.
So it goes without saying that if you're searching for a dark horse to sneak up on the world's elite and contend at St. Andrews, look no further than ... Todd Hamilton.
While 30 of the world's top 32 players eschewed the PGA Tour this week (only No. 10 David Toms and No. 16 Stewart Cink competed), most in favor of honing their game in Scotland, the 44th-ranked Hamilton was busy toiling away near his boyhood home in Silvis, Ill., finishing T-13 at the John Deere. It's the same winning strategy that he used last year, when a T-59 at the pre-British event gave no clue that Hamilton was on the verge of something major.
Here are some other numbers that aren't exactly screaming back-to-back British Open champion: In 20 events on tour this season, Hamilton has reached the weekend 14 times but owns only four top 25s and, astonishingly, no top 10s. In fact, his T-13 at the John Deere was his top finish so far this season.
Still, don't count him out. While you'll hear plenty about prohibitive favorite Tiger Woods, fan favorite Phil Mickelson and fate favorite Els this week, Hamilton's still the champ until somebody knocks him off. Besides, we kind of think he likes being the dark horse. It's worked for him before and just might again this week.
Are you sick of the ongoing Wie media coverage that's been evident throughout the past week? You ain't seen nothing yet. Maybe. That's because Wie is competing this week in the U.S. Men's Amateur Public Links championship. A win in the 154-player field traditionally earns an exemption into the next year's Masters Tournament. What in the name of Martha Burk will Hootie and the boys down in Augusta do if this possibility becomes reality? You've got to think they'd embrace the young superstar for earning her way into the major rather than risk a PR nightmare by failing to issue an invitation.
Outgoing LPGA Tour commisioner Ty Votaw finds himself in a precarious predicament these days. One of several talented amateur teens in women's game, Pressel petitioned the tour this week to allow her to join prior to her 18th birthday, which is the current age minimum. There's no reason Pressel won't be granted this exemption -- after all, two years ago Aree Song was given a similar dispensation as a 17-year-old and Pressel has shown equal or better poise both on and off the course. The next question is, when does the cycle stop? Some recent reports have said Wie will turn pro after her 16th birthday this October. She's obviously shown she is capable of competing on tour and would surely be a boost to its marketing appeal. But how about Carmen Bandea, the 15-year-old wunderkind golfer and tennis player who like Pressel has already issued a petition of her own? Or the next up-and-coming 12-year-old who decides to make a go of it on the professional circuit? It will be interesting to see if the tour continues to see these issues on a case-by-case basis. Its other options are simply to adhere to the current age requirement (which would mean Wie could not be a full-time member until 2008) or abolish it altogether, paving the way for all teens to compete on tour.
Speaking of Pressel, she sounds wise beyond her years and makes a terrific case for why she should be allowed to play full-time on tour. "People go to college to figure out what they want to do and get a decent job," she told Trey Wingo on SportsCenter this past Saturday. "I can get a great job right now, right out here because this is what I want to do with my life." Perhaps if prep superstars like Greg Oden and O.J. Mayo made similar claims to NBA commish David Stern, they would be able to petition that league's recent age requirement, too.
We're guessing it will be a pretty happy birthday for O'Hair on Monday. He'll wake up as the owner of more than $1.7 million on tour so far this year, the leading contender in the race for rookie of the year and, perhaps most importantly, has secure employment through the 2007 season. His win at the John Deere comes less than two months after losing at the Byron Nelson by one stroke. How did he do it? By finishing third in driving distance, T-7 in driving accuracy and T-2 in greens in regulation. He also made only three bogeys in four rounds (and nothing worse than bogey all week) and eight birdies, 16 pars and no bogeys in his final 24 holes.
We've said it before and we'll say it again: If anyone can figure out Hank Kuehne, call us. Please. One of the longest bombers on tour, Kuehne's game looked like it was rounding into form during the '04 season, as he finished 99th on the money list and kept his card for the second straight year. Then the calendar changed and, well, it seemed Kuehne's game changed with it. Entering the John Deere, he had entered 20 events, missing the cut in 12 and withdrawing from two others. His highest finish was a T-21 in New Orleans and he ranked a dismal 180th on the money list. That's when he came to the TPC at Deere Run and seemingly found his game again. Kuehne's T-2 finish was enough to garner $352,000 -- or roughly $213,000 more than he made in his previous 20 starts. With just one more top 10 finish he'll just about be able to secure a card for '06, too.
Kuehne's finish may be surprising, but at least he's a PGA Tour member. How about the play of Wes Short, Jr., who grabbed a share of fourth place with rounds of 67-67-71-66 at Deere Run? In five previous tour events this season, Short missed four cuts and withdrew once. In fact, he hadn't made a cut on tour since last season's Buick Open more than 11 months ago. The top 10 finish automatically qualifies Short for this week's B.C. Open. Played opposite the British, the Endicott, N.Y.-based event features a less accomplished field, meaning Short could earn some major coin once again.
On Tuesday, prior to the start of the John Deere, Wie played a practice round with tour pros Craig Bowden, Zach Johnson and Aaron Baddeley. Perhaps she showed them a thing or two. When play began two days later, Bowden shot a scorching 6-under 65 to get to two off the lead, Johnson was five shots back after a 68 and Baddeley got it to 2-under before shooting an even-par 71 to lose to Wie by a stroke for the day.
In related news, perhaps there was karma in the air on Thursday, as former playing partners of females were faring well all over the place. In addition to Wie's practice partners, Dean Wilson and Aaron Barber, who each played with Annika Sorenstam at the 2003 Colonial, had very successful days. Wilson shot a 67 at the John Deere (he finished 70th for the week) and Barber led the Nationwide's Pete Dye Classic after a 64 (he finished T-17).
Until last year, Peter Jacobsen's greatest success in a major was, well, fictional. The winner of the U.S. Open in the movie Tin Cup, Jake's best finish in the four majors on the regular tour was a pair of third-places in the 1983 and '86 PGA Championships. Upon turning 50 last season, he claimed the U.S. Senior Open and on Sunday earned his second senior major in two years, grabbing the Senior Players Championship by a stroke. With the Champions Tour losing weekend viewers to the increasingly fun and youthful LPGA Tour, there aren't many players who can keep fans from clicking away. Short of Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus coming back to the senior circuit, Jacobsen is the most popular guy around.
It's somewhat ironic that Hale Irwin was guest speaker at a clinic prior to the Senior Players Championship, entitled "Teeing Off For a Healthy Stomach." After missing a birdie putt on the final hole to lose by one stroke to Jacobsen, Irwin's stomach couldn't have felt very healthy at all. Still, Irwin, who turned 60 a few weeks ago but hardly looks a day over 40, is doing a good deed with his work. While many of the golfers on the 50-and-over circuit often feel the aches and pains of the rigorous golf schedule, he has spoken out against the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofin and aspirin, as they are known to cause stomach ulcers in people over 60.
We've been singing the praises of Tim Clark for quite some time and on Sunday he claimed another victory, albeit not his first on the PGA Tour. Clark won the Scottish Open, as he out-Clarked fellow same-surname golfer (although with a different spelling) Darren Clarke with a final-round 67 to win by two. Although the Loch Lomond course that Clark won on hardly plays like St. Andrews, a Scottish victory has recently been a harbinger of good things to come. Last year, Thomas Levet was victorious and then grabbed a share of the first-round lead at Royal Troon en route to a T-5 finish.
For those of you who were worried you've never see that lovable lug Jason Gore again after his dismal final-round 84 on Sunday at Pinehurst, fret no more. Gore won his fourth career Nationwide Tour event at the Pete Dye Classic, besting his U.S. Open Sunday score by 16 strokes and earning $108,000 in the process. The victory vaults Gore into the top 10 on the Nationwide money list (he was previously 57th). The top 20 at the end of the season earn a PGA Tour card for 2006.
His first name is spelled the same way as Elvis Presley's middle name, but don't expect Aron Price to be living in Heartbreak Hotel anytime soon. A recent Georgia Southern grad, Price had the Grey Goose Gateway Tour all shook up following a win in his first professional event two weeks ago. Since then he has finished T-20 and missed the cut in his next two tournaments, but don't be cruel -- that win was no fluke. How long until we see the Australia native on the PGA Tour? He'll likely have to make it through Q School later this year, but our guess is it won't be too much.
Here's another nugget from the Grey Goose Gateway Tour that is bound to impress: John Douma made not one, not two but three holes-in-one this week at the tour's Desert Summer Series in Anthem, Ariz. OK, so the first one didn't really count, coming in a practice round on Saturday, but the aces on the 17th hole on both Wednesday and Thursday sure did. The truly remarkable part of the story is that after these three notations of "1" on the scorecard, Douma now has a career total of ... five holes-in-one. Alas, some of his shots actually didn't go in the hole this week. He finished T-43 in the event.
As a former world-class shotputter, Randy Barnes knows strength and he knows distance. So it's no surprise that he can hit a golf ball a pretty long way, too. Barnes, who won a silver medal at the '88 Olympic Games and a gold in '96 and still owns the indoor and outdoor shot put world records, recently won the Men's Open Division at the LDA Tour event in McKees Rocks, Pa., crunching a ball 408 yards. Barnes used an SMT Spectrum driver and -- yes, folks -- it's USGA legal.
How much difference can one player make in a sponsor's bank account? During the same week that John Deere organizers watched Wie play on a sponsor's exemption to help generate greater ticket sales, the Safeway Classic -- an LPGA event merely featuring the likes of Sorenstam, Creamer and Open champ Birdie Kim -- announced that two free tickets would be given away to any Safeway Store customer in the Oregon/Southwest Washington area that spent at least $15 in the store. Fifteen dollars!? While some may look at it as a bargain price to see the world's top woman golfers, it also tells us that the LPGA Tour has a long way to go to bring fans to its events and still make a profit.
"On the LPGA, I made my cut on my fourth try. You know, my fourth try [on the PGA Tour] is coming up, so I'm really looking forward to that."
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
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