At halfway point, FedEx race lacks excitement
How was that for a busy sports week, Dallas residents?
The Cowboys traded out of the NFL Draft's first round (before trading back up), allowing the Cleveland Browns to choose Brady Quinn; the Stars were knocked out of the NHL playoffs; the Mavericks were put on their heels by the Golden State Warriors in the NBA's first round; and Sammy Sosa continued to pile up home runs.
The Weekly 18 begins by examining a point in the schedule many fans -- and players -- didn't even realize we had reached.
Other sports signify the occasion by making note of it in their schedule. A brief respite. Some all-star festivities. Maybe a few more days off to recharge the batteries before digging in for the long haul.
At the halfway point of the PGA Tour's inaugural FedEx Cup regular season, however, the defining moment looks very much like any other week: A champion is crowned, the clubs are packed up and the tour heads off to yet another location without even a mention of the midway mark.
In fact, ask most touring pros and you'd be hard-pressed to find one who even knows the Byron Nelson Championship was the 18th of 36 regular season tournaments. And therein lies the major difference between the PGA Tour, which will include 144 players in its first playoff event, and that of other sports leagues. Players will take the note of their position only when it starts to matter most -- and that, evidently, won't be for a while, considering so many already know they'll be included in the playoff festivities. Heck, even the NHL doesn't let 12 dozen teams into its postseason. (It only seems like it.)
For those scoring at home, Vijay Singh is your points leader halfway through the FedEx Cup regular season. Meanwhile, entering the Nelson, Kenny Perry had barely squeezed into the top 144, while Steve Lowery found himself on the outside looking in. If that doesn't send you racing to the message boards to discuss the futures of those on the bubble, don't fret; you're not alone.
The lack of excitement dates all the way back to the first round of the season at the Mercedes-Benz Championship, after which Singh said of the FedEx Cup, "I'm tired of listening to it, you know."
Chances are, he hasn't been hearing much lately, because nobody is talking about it. Halfway through the seasons of most other sports with a year-end playoff system, predictors and prognosticators try to interpret how first-half results will equate to those at the end of the season, how the standings may be rearranged in coming months.
Let's face it: Too many players will reach the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup playoffs this year. Luckily, the format is still a work in progress. At this time next year, perhaps, we could be discussing the race for the playoffs.
Prior to winning the Byron Nelson Championship, Scott Verplank had gone almost six full years since his last PGA Tour victory. (We couldn't believe it had been that long, either.) That's 138 tournament starts between victories, which included six runners-up and 30 top-10s. Pretty solid stuff from a guy who's often been injured but has hardly missed many weeks. He's played in at least 20 events in each of the previous 10 seasons and 17 of 20 since becoming a full-time touring pro in 1987. Verplank should also provide inspiration for any current down-on-their-luck touring pros; saddled with an elbow injury in 1991, he made only one cut in 26 starts, then followed with only one more made cut in 13 starts the next season. That's $4,955 earned in two full years. On Sunday, he made $1.134 million. Talk about coming a long way.
Fun note from one of our friends at the PGA Tour: The Official World Golf Ranking was introduced 20 years ago this week and five players who originally ranked in the top 200 on the list are currently there. Fred Couples, Bernhard Langer, Corey Pavin, Jeff Sluman and -- hey, whaddya know? -- Verplank make up the Fab Five. (And yes, we were shocked that Mark Calcavecchia wasn't one of 'em.) Verplank was 68th on the ranking prior to winning the Nelson, but should leap into the top 30 following his victory.
He led after the second round. He led after the third round. And Luke Donald was about to lead entering the back nine of the Nelson on Sunday. Instead, he made double-bogey on the ninth hole, surrendered his spot atop the leaderboard to Verplank and never regained it. "I'm very disappointed," said Donald, who shot a final-round 68. "I've had two good chances this year and I've come up in second place both times, so it's not what I was looking for." Donald was also runner-up at the Sony Open and has five total top-10 results in 10 starts this season.
In his first official tournament with Butch Harmon employed as full-time swing coach, Phil Mickelson finished T-3 at the Nelson. So can you tell us what, exactly, you and Butch were working on this week? "I'd rather not." Uh, well, do you like the changes? "I'm pleased so far, yeah." Uh-huh, and does your swing feel any different? "Yeah, it feels good." Glad we got that squared away. For the week, Mickelson hit 55.4 percent of fairways (down from 58.4 percent this season), drive the ball an average of 294.5 yards (down a miniscule 1.7 yards per drive) and reached 61.1 greens in regulation (down 3.5 percent). The numbers look incredibly similar, but Lefty pulled his first top-10 in five starts, so something must be going right.
Swing changes notwithstanding, Mickelson was the source of much controversy entering the Nelson. According to a statement released by the tour: "Due to severe thunderstorms in Dallas on Tuesday night that forced the cancellation of Mickelson's flight from Arkansas, the 1996 EDS Byron Nelson Championship winner was unable to make his 7:00 a.m. pro-am time on Wednesday."
Though rules state that a player who misses his pro-am tee time will be disqualified from the tournament, PGA Tour executive VP and COO Henry Hughes said, "Phil did everything physically possible to get here Tuesday night but was grounded in Little Rock due to circumstances completely beyond his control." As the statement read, "The tour has discretion with this regulation with extenuating circumstances, and Hughes and [tournament director Slugger] White deemed that Mickelson should not be deemed ineligible due to his weather-related travel problems."
And so, there was Mickelson, after having lunch with and signing autographs for his erstwhile pro-am partners on Wednesday, at the first tee on Thursday, for his 10:40 a.m. tee time. Of course, not everyone believed it was the right call.
"I would say 100 percent of the players, except for Phil, think he shouldn't be here," said Shaun Micheel, according to Golf Channel. "I'm not going to criticize Phil, but his responsibility is to be here. ... He's a name player, but we have rules for a reason -- on the golf course and in the regulations book -- that we all have to play by. He did not meet those rules and he should not be allowed to play in the tournament."
"I like Phil, but when the tour set a precedent, they've got to stick with it," Robert Allenby told Scotsman.com. "[Mickelson] checked into the hotel here when I checked in on Monday. He came here, was on site, and he elected to go somewhere else, knowing the weather was going to be crappy. He took the risk. Take the risk and you pay the penalty."
Expect the players' frustrations to be taken out not on Mickelson, but on tour officials who have allowed the rule to become hazy. And expect the tour's policy board to take a closer look at this matter in coming months.
Say what you'd like about top players not wanting to play too many weeks in a row or not enjoying a rigorous travel schedule, but the single biggest reason the elite guys don't show up to certain events is the host course itself and, more specifically, the greens. Or, in the case of TPC-Las Colinas, the browns. You couldn't watch three minutes of coverage this week without noticing the unseemly, dark patches on most of the holes. "The greens are certainly not up to our standards," Paul Earnest, director of golf at the Four Seasons, told the Fort Worth Star Telegram prior to the tournament. "That's always disappointing." It isn't a problem without a remedy, though. In advance of next year's edition of the Nelson, the greens will be given a complete overhaul, starting this week. Assuming they look -- and more importantly, feel -- better in '08, expect many top players to slowly but surely make their way back to the Nelson, but it'll take a few years of word of mouth before they all come back.
Assuming Tiger Woods skips next month's Colonial -- a pretty solid assumption, considering he hasn't competed in the event since 1997 -- it will likely mark the second straight season that the world's No. 1-ranked player failed to tee it up in Texas. For a state with such a rich golf history -- it is, after all, the birthplace of Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Jimmy Demaret, Jack Burke Jr., Lee Trevino, Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw, to name just a few of the greats -- it says something about the state of its current tournaments. After all, how many of the game's greatest players, throughout history, went entire seasons (not to mention two in a row) without ever traveling to the Lone Star State?
Woods seemed to be in a talkative mood while playing a practice round at Oakmont in front of some American Express customers and a handful of journalists, but he was never more prescient than when he was asked if Oakmont will play tougher than the 2006 U.S. Open venue, Winged Foot. "It's not even close,'' Woods told The Associated Press. "It's this one.'' For a guy who shot 76-76 to miss the cut last year, later proclaiming "Of all the tournaments I've ever played, no golf course was harder than Winged Foot," it means this year's Open could be an absolute bloodbath. The guess here is that the high scores at Oakmont will make everyone forget about Zach Johnson's comparitively benign 1-over that won at Augusta National.
Well, if the upcoming Players Championship can be called the Fifth Major (we know; it's wrong, not to mention downright blasphemous, but it gets referred to by that name anyway), then this week's Wachovia Championship must be the Sixth Major, right? After all, each of the world's top 10 players have committed to the event and 29 of the top 30 will be in attendance. (The only one skipping the festivities? Paul Casey.) Why? Well, there are a few reasons. First and foremost, players love the host course, Quail Hollow. It's in a good place in the schedule, just one week prior to the Players, which everyone is preparing for. And the city of Charlotte has rallied around the event, selling out yet again for this week's edition. For a tournament that just burst onto the scene in 2003, the Wachovia should serve as a blueprint for success to all new events to the schedule.
One player just outside of the top 30 (he was ranked 38th as of Sunday) who won't compete in the Wachovia is Tim Clark. After suffering a neck injury late last year, Clark has played in only five PGA Tour events this year. Since missing the cut at the Verizon Heritage two weeks ago, he's been busy working with muscle specialist Paul Ruth in Scottsdale, Ariz., in hopes of readying himself for next week's Players Championship.
We're exactly five months away from this year's Presidents Cup, which seems a pretty appropriate time to examine how Jack Nicklaus' United States team is shaping up. We've got to think the top five on the points list -- Woods, Jim Furyk, Mickelson, Charles Howell III and Zach Johnson -- should be locks for the team. As of Sunday, they were followed by Mark Calcavecchia, Brett Wetterich, John Rollins, David Toms and Lucas Glover, with Chad Campbell and Vaughn Taylor just out of the mix. Perhaps the biggest question will be the fate of Chris DiMarco, a favorite of Nicklaus who clinched the Cup two years ago. He's currently 33rd on the list, behind the likes of Heath Slocum, Jason Bohn and Mark Wilson. The captain would love to have the gritty vet on the squad, but at what price? It will be interesting to see if Nicklaus names DiMarco as one of his two picks should he fail to improve at least 15-20 spaces on the list.
If last year's U.S. Ryder Cup team was an underdog entering that competition, this year's Prez Cup squad could be a downright longshot. The top half of the International roster reads like a who's who of elite players, with Adam Scott, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen and Geoff Ogilvy all inside of the top-10 on the World Ranking. And it's not like the guys behind them are slouches, either; Trevor Immelman, Nick O'Hern, Stuart Appleby, Robert Allenby and Rory Sabbatini round out the team as of now. And captain Gary Player can look to either experience (Tim Clark, K.J. Choi, Angel Cabrera, Mike Weir) or youth (Aaron Baddeley, Charl Schwartzel) for his two other picks.
Jamie Lovemark didn't just win the Pac 10 Tournament this week; he dominated it. The USC freshman shot 69-66-67-67 to defeat Arizona State's Niklas Lemke by six strokes, but perhaps the most telling stat was that he didn't make a bogey until his 59th hole of the week, once the victory was well in hand. He also led USC, which had five players in the top 10, to a runaway team title, as their combined 51-under par bested second-place UCLA by a whopping 36 shots. We haven't seen Lovemark compete in person -- other than a few televised swings at the Buick Invitational earlier this year, in which he finished T-39, we've never seen him at all -- but from everything we hear, this dude is legit. Remember the name.
Meanwhile, there was little surprise at the Big 12 Tournament, either. Oklahoma State's Pablo Martin, still fresh off his European Tour victory at the Portuguese Open last month -- the first ever by an amateur on the Euro Tour -- defeated teammate Ryan Posey by three strokes to take the individual title. Texas Tech's Oscar Floren, who led after two rounds of the three-round event, but finished T-6, summed up Martin's prowess nicely, saying, "He's the best player in the conference. That's just how it is." The win comes on the heels of some other good news for Martin. Originally given 14 days from the time of his Euro victory to turn professional and take up full-time membership of the tour, the offer was recently extended to 14 days after the time he turns professional, which allowed Martin to finish out this season at OSU without worry over losing the exemption.
This week's tournament on the American Junior Golf Association schedule, the I.R.I./Srixon Mixed Team Championship presented by Jim Furyk, offers no ranking points, can't help or hurt a player's standing on the junior level ... and just may be the coolest event of the season. The tournament features two-player partnerships of one boy and one girl in which they play under team names, wear similar "uniforms" and decorate their golf carts. Though some top players will choose a like-minded counterpart in search of a victory, many take the tournament's underlying theme of fun to heart, including Sydney Burlison, 16, a top-ranked girl who will partner with her 12-year-old brother Jay, competing in his first-ever AJGA event.
In other AJGA news, Alexis Thompson of Cape Coral, Fla., became the second-youngest champion ever last week, winning the Aldila Junior Classic at the age of 12 years, two months and 12 days. The sixth-grader has golf in her bloodlines -- brother Nicholas won the New Zealand PGA Championship earlier this year -- and already sounds like a seasoned pro, saying after the victory, "I know my ball striking was really good, my driver and my irons. My chipping was really good, too." Current LPGA player Vicki Goetze-Ackerman owns the record for youngest AJGA winner, taking the 1984 Bluegrass Junior Invitational at 11 years, 11 months and 29 days.
"I couldn't believe that it happened. It was a dream. You know, and then I looked up and said, 'Thank you.' Incredible."
-- Scott Verplank, on what it felt like to hit the winning putt at the Byron Nelson Championship.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
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