- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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And the award for Best Drama goes to ...
The Ford Championship at Doral!
After a lackluster beginning to the PGA Tour season -- only four of nine events were in doubt heading into the final hole -- a return to the Florida swing once again lived up to the hype.
And then there was Phil Mickelson, who held a lengthy cameo in Miami, but in the end didn't receive the accolades he would have liked. The Weekly 18 starts with a look at Phil's season to date and what the future may hold.
1. Is Lefty all right?
If you're Mickelson, how do you analyze your season so far? If the proverbial glass is half full, then 2006 has been just peachy during the first two-plus months. Mickelson owns five top-12 finishes in six starts and has shot par or better in all but four of 21 stroke-play rounds.
Then again, the world's elite players -- of which Mickelson certainly qualifies -- base their success on victory totals alone, and Lefty has yet to earn a trophy this year. Is there reason to fret? Possibly. In his five previous seasons, only once did Mickelson fail to claim a trophy this far into the calendar. That was 2003, when he pulled an 0-fer, failing to win for only the third time in his 15-year PGA Tour career.
Perhaps equally deflating is the fact that, much like some of his upper-tier peers, Mickelson has failed to outplay Woods in any pairing on a grand stage over the past few years. They were previously matched in the final rounds of the 2001 Masters, '03 Buick Invitational and last year at Doral; in each instance, Woods was declared the event's champion at the end of the day.
This time their pairing came during the third round Saturday, and the result was very much the same. Woods shot a 4-under 68, while Mickelson could manage only an even-par 72. He followed that with a final-round 73 that left him at T-12 for the week.
Ask Phil and he'll likely say it was the flatstick that let him down again this week. Despite a respectable ranking of eighth in putting average entering Doral, Mickelson called it the most lacking part of his game prior to the event.
"I've putted very poorly, and I've got to get the ball rolling in the hole better," said Mickelson, who ranked 22nd in putting average at Doral. "I've hit some good shots and played well in a lot of tournaments, but I haven't been making the 4- or 5-footers and I have not been making the 15- and 20-footers that I've been making the last couple of years."
What does that mean for Mickelson? Once again, he's on the outside of the winner's circle looking in. Unless the putter comes around soon, we could see a repeat of 2003.
2. Tiger by the numbers
Current score: 34-3. No, it's not a football game-turned-blowout; that's Tiger's closing record. Woods has held or shared the lead entering the final round of a PGA Tour event 37 times in his career and won 34 of 'em. That's a .919 winning percentage. To borrow a line from one of Tiger's career-best putts, that's "better than most" in case you were wondering. Some other unbelievable Tiger stats: He now owns 48 PGA Tour victories in 189 career starts (more than 25 percent); he has multiple wins in eight of 10 full seasons on tour; and he's won an unfathomable $57,803,760 in career earnings. Woods' numbers in the last two events at Doral are almost as staggering: In those two wins, he has played the course in 44-under-par over eight rounds, with a scoring average of 66.5.
3. If it wasn't for good luck ...
Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. But every time, it's best to be both. Yes, Woods outplayed the field at Doral, but he wasn't without his share of good bounces. On the par-5 605-yard 12th hole in the final round, Tiger hit a 3-wood for his second shot from the right rough that landed right in the middle of a greenside bunker ... and bounced right out and onto the green. The result? A two-putt birdie. One hole later, Woods let go of his 5-iron on the follow-through during his tee shot on the par-3 hole. Expecting the ball to hook way left, instead TV cameras panned to the green, where his ball took a couple of hops and landed some 20 feet from the hole. From there, Tiger made par. The record books will show he won Doral by one, but they won't notate how close it all came to unraveling during that two-hole stretch.
4. It takes a Villegas
The Weekly 18 doesn't like to toot its own horn. And we're not real into I-told-you-so proclamations. So bear with us when we make this one claim: We told you so. Before the season started, you read right here that Villegas would make a big splash on the PGA Tour and win Rookie of the Year. Well, six events into his first year, the 24-year-old Colombian has a pair of T-2 finishes (at Phoenix and Doral). Clad in an all-white outfit with the obligatory orange belt/wristbands/shoes accentuation on Sunday, Villegas shot a final-round 5-under 67 to solidify his status on tour for next season. "My main goal is to have fun and keep learning," he said after the round. "I'm not going to rush anything. I'm not going to push anything. And hopefully, I'll have fun." His fans certainly did. Villegas is quickly becoming a gallery favorite on tour and acknowledges that he feeds off of the fans' energy, saying, "They motivated me, and that was awesome."
Speaking of Villegas, you might have noticed he's sponsored by Cobra Golf. While not the biggest maufacturer around by any means, the Carlsbad, Calif.-based company is certainly getting some bang for its buck this season. In addition to Villegas, Cobra also has Match Play winner Geoff Ogilvy and FBR Open champ J.B. Holmes among its stable of five PGA Tour pros (Ian Poulter and Kevin Na are also Cobra guys, and we wouldn't be shocked to see one of them win this year, either). Though it's undoubtedly spending much less for these five players than some companies are shelling out one for top-10 guy, Cobra is giving TV viewers quite an eye-full so far.
6. ROY boys
So, who's your Rookie of the Year through the season's first two months? Is it Villegas, with the aforementioned two T-2 finishes? Or Holmes, who has the early inside track on the award after winning in Phoenix? Maybe you like Bubba Watson, who leads the tour in driving distance and has a pair of top-five finishes to his name? Or Nathan Green, who took Woods and Jose Maria Olazabal to a playoff at Torrey Pines? Whatever the case, the race for ROY has a chance to be the best since the award was first handed out (to Robert Gamez) in 1990. And here's one more name to remember: Troy Matteson. Last year's leading money-winner on the Nationwide Tour, Matteson already has four top-40 results in seven starts. Want our pick? If the season ended today, we'd have it: 1. Holmes; 2. Villegas; 3. Watson. When it's all said and done, however, we see it as: 1. Villegas; 2. Holmes; 3. Matteson.
7. Ex-ROY boys
Of course, winning the Rookie of the Year award doesn't necessarily equate to lifelong success. Last year's winner, Sean O'Hair, finished T-48 at Doral -- only his fourth time in the money in eight starts this season. His only top-25 came at last week's Match Play, where he won in the first round then lost the next day to finish T-17. Meanwhile, 2004 ROY winner Todd Hamilton, who claimed the British Open and Honda Classic titles that year, is struggling even more. After finishing 134th on last year's money list, Hamilton missed the cut in his first five events this season before grabbing a T-66 at Doral.
8. The other ones
While most golf fans were fixated on the weekend battle between Woods and Mickelson, the other Big Fivers showed why they're always ringing up big checks. Entering the final round, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen were T-15, T-49 and T-54, respectively; they finished T-7, T-15 and T-15. Despite 10 consecutive pars to finish his round, Els shot a bogey-free 69 to move into the top 10. Singh, king of the back-door top finishes, shot a Sunday 67 to earn some decent cash. And Goosen made the biggest jump of anyone in the field, reeling off eight birdies during his round of 6-under 66.
9. Another one bites the dust
Poor Daniel Chopra. He was so close to a big finish at Doral this week, possibly his best career finish on tour (which was previously a T-4 at the 2004 Deutsche Bank Championship). And then Villegas had to go and double-bogey the final hole of the third round. What does that have to do with Chopra? Well, it meant Chopra -- not Villegas -- would play in Sunday's final pairing with Woods and it meant, without much doubt, certain failure. Not that Chopra would concede such a thing, of course. "It's just a name," he said of Woods before the final round. "He's just a person. He's just a human being." Uh, sort of. Instead, it was Chopra who looked truly mortal on Sunday. After shooting 66-67-68 in the first three days, he was hanging steady at even-par through 12 holes in the final round, but pushed his tee shot way right on the par-3 13th hole and wound up making triple-bogey. From there, he finished with two more bogeys, ending with a final-round 77 that left him in a share of 20th place.
10. Long Ridings
Not all of the big bombers on tour these days are youngins. Nestled amongst Watson, Holmes, Adam Scott and Villegas among the top-five in driving distance this season is Tag Ridings. At 31, he's the only one of this quintet not in his 20s. Always a long hitter, Ridings has stepped it up a bit this season; last year, he ranked 20th on tour with an average drive of 300.2 yards, but this year, he increased that number by 7 yards. The results? They are hardly the equivalent of his long-driving cohorts. Entering Doral, he had made the cut in three of six starts this season -- with a best finish of T-44 at the Bob Hope -- but with an average driving distance of 310.8 (fourth in the field), Ridings earned a T-5 at the Blue Monster.
11. If the Glove fits ...
File this one under the early-birdies-gets-the-worm category: When NBC's coverage came on the air at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday, Lucas Glover's name appeared just behind Woods' on the leaderboard. Last year's Disney champ entered the day three strokes behind the four co-leaders, but a bogey-free front-nine of 4-under 32 vaulted him past many others who were just getting underway. And as soon as Glover got near the top, he fell right off, making four bogeys over his next six holes to shoot 71. The good news for Glover? He came back to shoot a 3-under 69 on Sunday, finishing in a share of fifth place.
12. Beem him up
If you can figure out Beem, call us. Please. There's no telling when the former PGA Championship winner will spring up onto a leaderboard, as he did throughout the weekend at Doral, eventually finishing T-7. Entering the event, Beem had made the cut in three of five starts this year, with no result better than T-35. It's not the first time he's done this type of thing, either. Last year, Beem had finished in the money in only three of his first eight events, but reached a five-man playoff at the BellSouth Classic. After that, he proceeded to miss the cut in 12 of his next 15 events before a third-place result at Disney. Just your typical 26-start season with only eight made cuts and two top-three finishes.
13. Weekly Ryders
Astute observers of the Weekly 18 may recall our previous attempts to describe the possible inefficiencies of the new U.S. Ryder Cup points system. (Previously, unheralded players Holmes and Arron Oberholser found their way into the top-10 after winning events.) The most recent ranking (pre-Doral, that is) shows perennial Ryder/Presidents team member Chris DiMarco slipping to No. 9. But that's hardly the biggest surprise. That honor goes to Kirk Triplett, who defeated a weak field in Tucson (opposite the Match Play) and ascended all the way to 11th in the ranking.
14. May days
Quick quiz (and no peeking): Entering this week, which player led the PGA Tour in the all-important greens in regulation percentage statistic this season? If you guessed Bob May, you've been spending entirely too much free time researching golf statistics lately. But indeed it's May, who has hit 75.7 percent of all greens in regulation (109 times in 144 total holes) that tops the list. Having played his first two events since injuring his back at the 2003 Byron Nelson Classic, May has shown unusual iron skills so far, considering he's hitting only 58.6 percent of fairways, ranking 106th on tour. The 2001 PGA Championship runner-up didn't play Doral, but is two-for-two in making cuts this season, with a T-56 at Pebble Beach and a T-30 in Tucson.
15. I am Sam
Just in case youngsters like Villegas, Holmes and Watson aren't entertaining enough for you, here's one more next generation player to keep an eye on: Sam Saunders. Don't know the 18-year-old Florida high school student who will attend Clemson next year? Maybe that's because he doesn't have the same last name as his maternal grandfather -- Palmer. Yes, as in Arnold Palmer. Saunders, still very much an amateur, will tee it up in his first PGA Tour event in two weeks at grandpa's Bay Hill tournament. But this is no nepotism-gone-wrong situation. Just a few weeks ago, Saunders won the men's club championship at the course by 17 strokes. He'll have plenty of eyes watching his game when the tour comes around.
16. Wie bit of a problem
For those who think that Michelle Wie's debut at No. 3 on the Women's World Ranking -- and her subsequent jump past Paula Creamer into the second position -- show the clear misguidings of the new point system, the Weekly 18 is with you. But for those taking things one step further -- we've heard conspiracy theory rumblings that the women's game created the system solely to bring more attention to Wie and other young players -- we don't buy it. The LPGA and other world tours have too much invested in their current members to cater only to future ones. That said, the rankings are clearly imprudent and should perhaps be shelved until a more worthy system is unveiled.
17. LPGA goes Hollywood
Want a private golf lesson from Natalie Gulbis? How about an autographed picture of Cristie Kerr? Or maybe just a VIP pass to any LPGA event this season? No problem. All you have to do is become a big-time Hollywood star and these perks could be at your disposal. The LPGA supplied gifts in each Academy Awards Presenters Gift Bag, which is distributed "exclusively to celebrity presenters, performers and key show executives" at the event, the tour said in a statement. Every gift bag promises a VIP package good for any LPGA event and includes a photo/biography of one player, reedemable later for one free lesson. In addition, six players -- Creamer, Gulbis, Jimin Kang, Cristie Kerr, Christina Kim and Stephanie Louden -- were scheduled to join commissioner Carolyn Bivens at Oscar after-parties on Sunday night.
18. Quote of the week
"I was joking with [my caddie] Stevie [Williams] and [Mickelson's caddie] Bones [Mackay], maybe we could order pizza, see if they could be here in 30 minutes or less. We were out there for a while. Probably would have got it when we were on the fairway."
-- Woods, commenting on Villegas, playing in the group ahead of his, taking 25 minutes to play a shot on the final hole during Saturday's third round.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
Phil Mickelson owns five top-12 finishes in six starts this season. But he's missing his characteristic early victory.