Colonial has had it right all along

Originally Published: May 27, 2007
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

Sorry, Phil. Apologies, Zach. Forgive us, Tiger.

With all due respect to Messrs. Mickelson, Johnson and Woods, the hottest player in golf is Rory Sabbatini. With a playoff win over Bernhard Langer and Jim Furyk at Colonial, Sabbatini owns eight top-25 finishes in 15 starts this season, including four top-three results since the beginning of April.

The victory comes just two weeks after Sabbatini called Woods "as beatable as ever" during The Players Championship. And so although it might seem ironic that he defeated a field that included neither Tiger nor eight of the other top-10 players in the world, it shouldn't obscure the fact that the dry-witted South African is playing the best golf of his life.

The Weekly 18 begins with the idea that through all of the course changes in golf's major venues recently, the location of Sabbatini's latest triumph has had it right all along.

Rory Sabbatini
Donna McWilliam/AP PhotoSabbatini tamed the soggy Colonial course, defeating Furyk and Langer in a playoff.
1. The fast and the furious

Back when Augusta National officials made major course-lengthening changes before the 2002 Masters, there was a widely held belief that they were "Tiger-proofing" the venue to keep big hitters such as Tiger Woods from overpowering the field. Of course, this notion was invalidated when Woods triumphed that year and again when similar changes were made before the 2006 edition of the tournament and another big hitter, Phil Mickelson, won the rain-soaked event.

Only when the course played fast and firm last month, yielding average-length hitter Zach Johnson as champion, did we see the true effects of neutralizing the world's big bombers.

After almost a full decade of stretching courses to the limits -- two of the past three PGA Championship venues have played to more than 7,500 yards -- it has become apparent that there's more than one way to skin a cat, to speak in Tiger terms.

Long and strong is out. Fast and firm is in.

The folks who run things at Colonial have known this all along. Let the old-style venue, which this week hosted a PGA Tour event for the 62nd consecutive year, serve as Exhibit A for the latest phenomenon. Despite persimmon woods having given way to mammoth-headed 460cc drivers and gutta perchas having transformed into Pro-V1s, the course -- at 7,054 yards -- played exactly 19 yards longer than it did when Ben Hogan first triumphed in 1946.

So what do players think of the lack of activity at Hogan's Alley over the years? David Toms has called it his favorite tour venue; Furyk said the event is "probably my favorite course to play and probably my favorite tournament"; and Arron Oberholser declared that he'll "never miss" a tournament at Colonial.

Although heavy rains contained the usual quick conditions on the course this week, it still should serve as a reminder to those who set up PGA Tour venues that longer is not necessarily better -- nor tougher.

2. Bern, baby, Bern

Take that, Kiawah. Bernhard Langer very well could have spent his weekend on the couch, lamenting the fact that he's still three months shy of qualifying for senior events. He could have watched the Senior PGA Championship, heard his name spoken in hushed tones every time a player stepped to the 18th green at Kiawah Island, site of his missed 6-foot putt that lost the 1991 Ryder Cup for his European side. Instead, Langer used a sponsor's exemption to not only compete in the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial but contend for his first official title on U.S. soil since winning the 1993 Masters. He has four top-10s in 11 starts this season.

3. Still the one

Ben Hogan is still the only player to complete the Texas Two-Step in a given year, having won both Colonial and the Byron Nelson Championship (then called the Dallas Open) in 1946, despite Scott Verplank's best efforts. Verplank, who won the Nelson just a few weeks ago, was in contention throughout the weekend at Colonial but shot a final-round 71 and finished with a share of seventh place.

4. Fairways and greens

We've always known Tim Clark was a fairways-and-greens type of player, but Friday's second round at Colonial was ridiculous. Clark hit every fairway and every green in shooting a 6-under 64, the first time he had accomplished such a feat since the 2004 Deutsche Bank Championship. "It certainly makes it easier to get around," Clark quipped after the round. For the week, he finished T-2 in driving accuracy and T-25 in greens in regulation, resulting in a shared 12th-place finish overall.

5. Pain in the neck?

Clark has been battling a lingering neck injury since late last year, and it has limited him to only eight starts so far this season. "This could be my last week for a while," he said Friday. "I'm going to take some time off to heal up." Of course, this is a guy who was 36-hole co-leader at the Masters and 36-hole outright leader at Colonial, so don't believe that the injury will affect his play too much going forward. In fact, Clark might be a good bet at the upcoming U.S. Open, where he has finished in the top 15 in two of the last three years.

6. Making some points

The following e-mail from Greg Paquin in Massena, N.Y., hit the Weekly 18 inbox earlier this week: "How come I cannot find Phil Mickelson anywhere on the Ryder Cup point standings?" Well, the simple answer, Greg, is that you're just not looking far enough down the list. Mickelson ranks 40th on the U.S. Ryder Cup standings for next year's team. But the bigger question is: Why? It makes sense, actually. When the PGA of America restructured the format last year, it decided to give points to players with top-10 finishes through the end of the '06 season but is only counting the majors in non-Ryder Cup years going forward. Bottom line: From now on, don't pay too much attention to the standings until we're in an even-numbered year. Although the top two players on the list -- Tiger Woods and Zach Johnson -- certainly have an inside track on qualifying for the team already, there's plenty of time for everyone else to move up the list, including Mickelson.

7. Buckle under pressure

Nationwide Tour grad Andrew Buckle burst onto the PGA Tour scene this year with three straight top-30 results to start the season, including a T-4 at the Buick Invitational during which he contended throughout the weekend. However, the 24-year-old Aussie followed with missed cuts in each of his next four starts and was forced to take a two-month hiatus because of a rib cartilage injury he received in a touch football game. Buckle returned this week for the first time since the Arnold Palmer Invitational and shot 72-73 and missed the cut by 6 strokes, but watch out for more big results from the talented player once he can swing pain-free.

8. Dreaming of Carnoustie

You hear his name and before you can even ask, the question has been answered: No, Jean Van de Velde has not qualified to play in this summer's British Open at Carnoustie, site of his final-hole meltdown in 1999. Not yet, anyway. The Frenchman still will attempt to join the field, and if recent results are any indication, he might have a chance to earn his way back. After missing the cut in his first four starts of the year, Van de Velde has reached the weekend in three straight, including at the BMW PGA Championship, in which rounds of 77-68-70 moved him into the top 25 entering Sunday but a final-round 76 dropped him into a share of 41st place.

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9. Tee for plus-2

With a front-side 31 Sunday, Angel Cabrera looked well on his way to a second BMW title in three years. But it didn't happen -- and Cabrera can point to one exact moment as the downfall. Standing on the tee as the leader by 1 at the par-4 15th hole with a persistent, heavy rain coming down, Cabrera duck-hooked his drive not more than 150 yards and into the thick, wet rough. His ensuing lay-up shot landed in a bunker on the left side, and from there he made double-bogey and lost 2 strokes. Cabrera would go on to miss the playoff between Anders Hansen and Justin Rose by -- you got it -- 2 strokes.

10. Cry for me, Argentina

It wasn't a very fun day to be a fan of golfers from Argentina, but at least Angel Cabrera's misery will have some company in the form of Eduardo Romero. Leading the Senior PGA Championship coming to the par-3 14th hole at Kiawah, Romero yanked his tee shot into a sand dune, took an unplayable and made double-bogey to slip from first place. He finished with four straight pars, but it wasn't enough to overcome Denis Watson, who won the year's first major by a 2-stroke differential.

11. King Kong

There was a familiar yet not-so-familiar name on the leaderboard during the Senior PGA. Allow us to explain. Hajime Meshiai played well throughout the four days, finishing with a share of ninth place, but was officially listed as "Kong Meshiai" for the tournament. As you can imagine, the nickname comes from his prodigious length off the tee -- Kong was fourth in driving distance last season at 288.8 yards per swat -- and of course makes him look eminently cooler among the Joes, Marks and Toms of the senior circuit.

12. Feeling like a million bucks

In this space last week, we told the story of Paul Claxton falling short in his effort to become the first Nationwide Tour career millionaire. Well, this week, he surpassed that total in style, winning the Melwood Prince George's County Open to claim the $108,000 winner's check. Claxton has earned $1,101,673 in 269 career Nationwide starts, spanning 13 seasons. And he might keep the title for a while. Each of the next five players on the career money list -- Chris Couch, Jeff Gove, Darron Stiles, Tripp Isenhour and Craig Bowden -- owns full PGA Tour status throughout the remainder of this season.

13. Zest and Zyl

During the Colonial telecast, a promotion was advertised for a fantasy golf game that features a winning prize of $10,000. That total is just $3,298 less than Jaco Van Zyl has earned in his first career PGA Tour season as he owns only a T-48 and five missed cuts in six starts so far. This week, the 28-year-old South African took to the Nationwide Tour and fared much better, coming up 1 stroke shy of Paul Claxton in earning a share of second place with James Driscoll.

14. What's in a name?

Speaking of Jaco Van Zyl (pronounced YAH-ko van ZEEL), he's already a major contender for the All-Name team of 2007. But factor in his full given name and it might be one of the all-time best. The name? Phillipus Jacobus Van Zyl.

15. Leveling off

Matt Davidson was the feel-good story of Q-school in December 2004 when the Furman University grad with virtually no professional experience earned full-time PGA Tour playing privileges for the '05 season. The results showed his lack of experience, as he made the cut in only six of 20 starts and made just under six digits in total earnings. So what has Davidson been up to since then? Well, not much -- at least on the game's top levels. Last year he played in four Nationwide Tour events (making the cut in two of them), and so far this year, he's 3-for-5 in reaching the weekend on the Hooters Tour, including a T-15 finish at the Touchstone Energy Open on Sunday.

16. Hit the Rhode

It was ruled this week that former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher -- and, as of this year, former Champions Tour player -- Rick Rhoden once again will be eligible to compete on the celebrity circuit. He'll be in the field at the American Century Championship in Lake Tahoe this July, a tournament he's won six times already. Without status on any professional tour, Rhoden was allowed to return to his roots and also will compete in the upcoming The Ultimate Game at Wynn Las Vegas, which features golf's biggest payout, with $2 million going to the winner.

17. Ultimate decision

Among other notable players entered in The Ultimate Game are former junior golf bad boy Spencer Levin (now on the Canadian Tour) and Utah phenom brothers Tony and Gipper Finau (pronounced FEE-now), both of whom announced their intentions to turn professional earlier this week. Tony, 17, is the reigning Utah State Amateur champion and Gipper, 16, became the youngest player to make the cut at a Nationwide Tour event when he did so at last year's Utah Energy Solutions Championship, averaging nearly 340 yards per drive that week. So why turn pro now? "There's going to be a lot of people out there doubting what we're doing," Gipper said. "Hopefully, my game can talk for me. It's talked for me up to this point, and hopefully, I can show it in Vegas." Preliminary match-play rounds for the event begin this week, as 40 entrants will be dwindled down to 12 who will compete in a 36-hole, stroke-play playoff June 7-8.

18. Quote of the week

"There's nothing like winning, and there's nothing like having a great life alongside it. To have both feels so good."
-- Denis Watson, after winning his first major at the Senior PGA Championship.

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.