PGA Tour comes back to New Orleans
The last time we saw professional golf in New Orleans, Tim Petrovic was adorned with Mardi Gras beads and a wide smile across his face after winning the Zurich Classic.
Boy, doesn't that seem like a decade ago?
Twelve months and one oppressive natural disaster later, the city once again will hold the event, but it has taken on much greater significance for the people of New Orleans.
The Weekly 18 begins with what we should expect this week.
Eight months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, causing destruction of more than $75 billion, devastation to thousands of families and decimation to one of the country's most popular regions, the PGA Tour will hold its annual event in the city this week.
If such a concept seems unfathomable, well, it should. Certainly, there have been more important issues in the Big Easy recently than the fate of the Zurich Classic, but tour and city officials alike believe the tournament is beneficial to the overall reparation of New Orleans, and its new motto, "The Swing Is Back," speaks to such ideals.
"It's going to be a great week, and we're glad it's here," tournament director John Subers said by phone Sunday night. "It was a lot of work, but it shows the city's resolve to have some normalcy and shows the event's popularity here."
Although the event is being billed as professional golf's triumphant return to a city in which it has had roots since 1938, some have questioned the logic of raising funds to pay golfers who might only take the money and run, rather than invest back into the community.
"Everyone on tour feels like we should do something for the city of New Orleans and the tournament," said Geoff Ogilvy, who originally was scheduled to compete in the event but has since withdrawn. "But I'm beginning to question whether giving $6 million [in prize money] to players who will take it out of the city is great for the city.
"Hopefully, they won't just see a whole bunch of rich golfers coming along and taking money away from the city. Hopefully, we can donate some of our prize money back to the city. Hopefully, the golf tournament will have a positive impact and not a negative impact. I hope we don't go there and act like a bunch of spoiled tour pros and [complain] about stuff and complain that they three-putted the last hole and run off. This has a chance to have a real positive impact."
Paying players to take money out of city limits is a rich-get-richer philosophy for sure, but Ogilvy's final notion -- that the players can make a positive impact in the community by donating prize money and other funds to the city -- is sure to be a major theme for the week. Supporters contend the affected region will benefit greatly by holding this event.
"As far as a guy leaving town with a million bucks, he's still going to pay some taxes to go to the city, so it will be good," said David Toms, a Louisiana native. "It's going to economically bring some dollars in that they would not otherwise have if we would have pulled the plug on the golf tournament. So I think it's a very, very important week."
Although many of New Orleans' golf courses have been rendered permanently unplayable and others (such as TPC of Louisiana, which hosted the event for the first time last year) are hardly in top condition, putting on the Zurich is one of the first steps in restoring the city's passion for golf. Top 10 players Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen and Toms will compete in the tournament, along with nine other players in the world's top 50.
"It's a quality field, and it shows the players' dedication and support to New Orleans and what we are trying to do as a city in the months following Hurricane Katrina," Subers told The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune recently. "The players want to show their support to a city that has given them and the PGA Tour so much for so long."
The two-month span between The Masters and the U.S. Open is considered the dog days of professional golf. Players take a little in-season respite, plan their strategy for attacking the year's final three majors and generally take things a bit easier in preparation for the schedule's long grind.
This year, though, let's hope for a star-studded leaderboard come Sunday afternoon, complete with the most dramatic finish of 2006. The city of New Orleans deserves it.
Are there palm trees in Houston? Waves crashing on the beach? Fresh pineapple and tasty mai tais on every corner? Maybe not, but for four days at least, the mostly landlocked Texas city sure felt a lot like Kapalua in Maui. That's where Stuart Appleby had claimed his previous three PGA Tour titles at the season-opening Mercedes Championships ... then had to deal with questions about his possible lack of motivation throughout the rest of the year. Unlike the previous two seasons -- when Appleby went winless after the year's first event -- he followed up his latest Mercedes victory with a win at the Houston Open, joining Tiger Woods and Mickelson as the only players with multiple tour titles so far in 2006. It was the first wire-to-wire win of his eight career victories and easily the most boring; Appleby led by two shots entering the final round and cruised to a six-stroke triumph.
Appleby's victory was the fifth this season -- and second in as many weeks -- for the PGA Tour's Australian contingent, which might not have the same quality as its South African counterparts but certainly doesn't lack quantity. It's an intriguing proposition to compare and contrast players from those two countries, so let's try it: Entering this past week, South Africa had four players ranked in the top 25 in the world (Goosen, Ernie Els, Tim Clark and Rory Sabbatini), but only had two more (Trevor Immelman and Charl Schwartzel) in the top 100. Meanwhile, there were only two Aussies in the top 25 (Adam Scott and Ogilvy), but 11 others (Rod Pampling, Nick O'Hern, Appleby, Robert Allenby, Mark Hensby, Richard Green, Peter Lonard, Steve Elkington, Aaron Baddeley, Craig Parry and Paul Sheehan) in the top 100. With all due respect to Retief and Ernie's crew, we've got to go with the mates from Down Under right now.
What's wrong with Vijay Singh? The two-time defending Houston Open champion finished T-36 this week, has dropped to fourth in the World Ranking and hasn't won in his last 18 PGA Tour starts, equaling a dubious mark he achieved three years ago. But a closer look reveals that the question we should be asking is: "Is anything wrong with Vijay Singh?" After all, he was sixth in putting average at Houston -- the flat stick is usually his kryptonite -- is second on tour in scoring average this season and owns seven top-10 finishes in 10 starts so far. Either Singh is thisclose to reeling off a string of victories as he did in 2004 or he simply has lost the knack during the stretch when he's contending. We doubt it's the latter, but Singh's performance in coming months will be interesting to watch.
Speaking of performances, Singh becomes the latest golfer to join the reality show craze this week (joining John Daly and Natalie Gulbis, who both have a behind-the-scenes series about their life), though it's not a permanent gig. Singh will join Donald Trump on "The Apprentice," playing the role of reward for the show's job applicants. During Monday's episode, a round of golf with Singh will be offered to the winning team while the losing squad heads to the boardroom to see one of its own get "fired" from the program.
Heard some comments this week taking Woods to task based on the news that he will be skipping some events to tend to his ill father, Earl. (Can the guy go a few minutes without being second-guessed and scrutinized?) Here's the thing: If Tiger played a team sport and asked ownership for time off in such a situation, it's unlikely he'd receive more than a day here and there. But as an independent contractor on the PGA Tour, Woods -- as well as every other pro golfer -- only works for himself and can therefore make his own decisions on these types of issues. Sure, fans might not want to suffer through two Tiger-less months of PGA Tour golf, but as long as he feels his standing on the PGA Tour will remain intact (don't worry, he'll keep his card) and his profit margin won't suffer too much (uh, not exactly an issue here, either), there's no reason Woods shouldn't make his own decision on the matter.
Although Woods' decision to skip possibly every event until the U.S. Open was major news, dig beneath the surface and you'll find it really shouldn't matter all that much. Of the seven events between now and then, four (Zurich Classic, Colonial, FedEx St. Jude Classic and Barclays Classic) had no chance of seeing the top-ranked player at their venue, anyway. A fifth, the Wachovia Championship, has hosted Woods in two of the three editions of its event but was no lock this time around, either. We all have to play the waiting game when it comes to when and where we'll see Tiger again -- including Woods himself, who recently said he wasn't sure when he'd return to competition -- but golf fans aren't exactly getting cheated because there is a usual lull in his schedule this time of year, anyway.
Bad news for Davis Love III, Fred Couples and any other current players who have aspirations of entering the World Golf Hall of Fame someday. Henry Picard won 26 PGA Tour events and two major championships (the 1938 Masters and '39 PGA Championship), yet didn't earn election into the HOF until he was named by the veteran's committee this week, 67 years after his last major win and nine years after his death at age 90. We'll be the first to admit that comparing players -- not to mention their stats and victory totals -- from different eras is a losing battle, but with 18 and 15 tour wins, respectively, and one major title each, the résumés of Love and Couples would seem to pale in comparison. To illustrate how Picard was overlooked for so many years, take a look at perhaps his closest statistical comparison currently in the game. With 28 tour victories and three majors, Singh's totals look eerily similar to those of Picard, yet Vijay already has been elected to the HOF -- last year, although he deferred induction until later this year.
And this week's Fred Funk Award goes to ... Richard S. Johnson. Entering the final round in Houston, Johnson was driving the ball with Funk-like precision (the seven-time driving accuracy leader did not compete this week), hitting 41 of 42 fairways the first three days. On Sunday, he was downright spraying it all over the place, reaching only 12 of 14 fairways. We kid, of course, as Johnson finished the week with a 94.6 accuracy percentage, tops in the field.
Chances to win on the PGA Tour are scarce for those who aren't elite players. We're not going to rule out Nathan Green's chances at earning one of those oversized cardboard checks, but the Buick Invitational seems like an awfully long time ago, doesn't it? After finishing fifth at the Sony Open in the premiere event of his rookie season, Green took Woods and Jose Maria Olazabal to a playoff at Torrey Pines before a pulled approach and chunked chip led to his elimination on the first extra hole. Since then, he has been extraordinarily ordinary, making five cuts in eight starts, but with no results better than T-33. In Houston, he shot 77-72 to miss the cut by five strokes.
Much has been made of Michael Campbell's inability to pursue a PGA Tour membership because of a tournament minimum requirement that he did not reach years ago, but after he played a limited schedule in the U.S. so far, one has to wonder whether the reigning U.S. Open champion is better off competing regularly on the European Tour, anyway. After contending at the season-opening Mercedes Championships (he shot a final-round 75 to finish T-4), Cambo lost in the first round of the Match Play to Ogilvy, then failed to make the cut at Bay Hill, the Players and The Masters. According to his Web site, Campbell will compete only in remaining majors and WGC events on the PGA Tour this year, but if his recent struggles are any indication, don't expect him to fare very well.
Count us among the uninitiated when it comes to the talents of second-year European Tour member Gonzalo Fernandez-Castrano, but we're getting there. On Sunday, the 25-year-old Spaniard won his second tour event, defeating Henrik Stenson on the first extra hole at the BMW Asian Open. Last year's rookie of the year, Fernandez-Castrano is 11th on the Order of Merit (European money list) and certainly will see another huge jump in his World Ranking. Last week, he moved 60 spots -- from 173rd to 113th -- after a second-place finish in the Volvo China Open; this time, it's quite possible Fernandez-Castrano could pass Miguel Angel Jimenez (currently 45th) when the new ranking is released Monday, making him the third-highest ranked Spaniard behind only Sergio Garcia and Olazabal.
If it seems too early in the year to start the PGA Tour promotion watch, well, it should, since the minor league Nationwide Tour has played only six events so far. But considering Tripp Isenhour has won two of them, he'll have the same suffix attached to his name that Chris Couch carried for much of last season; from here on in, he won't be referred to simply as "Tripp Isenhour" but as "Tripp Isenhour, who could earn an automatic PGA Tour promotion with one more Nationwide victory this season." In reality, Isenhour will be playing in the big leagues next year no matter what; should he fail to earn another penny this season, his current earnings still should be enough to keep him in the top 20 on the money list at season's end. The three-time PGA Tour member missed the cut at this week's Athens Regional Foundation Classic.
The big news surrounding Michelle Wie this week shouldn't be very big news at all. It was announced recently that the 16-year-old professional will compete in the final installment of the 84 Lumber Classic later this year. It will mark her third PGA Tour sponsor's exemption of the season, as she has missed the cut at the Sony Open already and will play the John Deere Classic in July. So why isn't it big news? Because she has played in enough men's events that simply signing on to take part in a tournament is hardly news; when she makes a cut -- and notice we said "when," not "if" -- Wie once again will be making big headlines on the PGA Tour.
Yes, you did read that tournament name correctly. The LPGA's Florida's Natural Championship took place in -- of all places -- Stockbridge, Ga., this week, which is just outside Atlanta. How did such a seemingly unnatural sponsorship happen? After lending its name to the tournament for 11 years, Chick-Fil-A pulled its support after last year's edition. As recently as two weeks ago, the event still did not have a title sponsor, but Florida's Natural, an orange juice manufacturer based in Lake Wales, Fla., stepped in and stepped up. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, both parties have an option to put the sponsorship into long-term effect after this year.
More wackiness from the LPGA, although this has nothing to do with sponsorship deals: The inaugural Ginn Clubs & Resorts Open will feature one of the year's top fields and promises to house plenty of drama. So what's wrong with that? Well, it also will carry a purse of $2.5 million, which is more than that of three of the four women's majors this season. (The U.S. Women's Open has a purse of $3.1 million; the Kraft Nabisco, LPGA Championship and Women's British Open pay $1.8 million apiece to their players.) The Ginn is one of four LPGA tournaments that will eclipse the $1.8 million barrier, which leads to an interesting conundrum on this and other tours around the world. Should the most prestigious events offer the largest purses? Or is it OK for "lesser" tournaments to feature larger purses than those that make up the Grand Slam? We say more cash should be offered during the major championships. They're more prestigious and mean more to the players; shouldn't a win mean more to their bank account, as well?
Thirteen-year-old Dakoda Dowd will garner much of the spotlight -- and rightly so -- as she competes in this week's LPGA event, giving her mother, who's suffering from cancer, a chance to see her play against the world's top golfers. But don't be surprised to see fellow competitor Andia Winslow make some headlines of her own. If the name sounds familiar, it should; Winslow is the niece of NFL Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow (and cousin of current Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen II). A Yale graduate who is freelance writer and documentary filmmaker, she will become the first African-American to compete in an LPGA Tour event in five years.
"When I tell people, they don't believe me. One guy, I had to show him my scorecard."
-- Brad Hobbs, 58, who recently made two holes-in-one in a single round at Brockton (Mass.) Country Club.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
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