Commentary

Scott takes advantage of star-depleted field

Adam Scott didn't have Tiger Woods to contend with while Annika Sorenstam was without Lorena Ochoa. Still, 18 holes weren't enough as both went into extra sessions to pull off their titles.

Originally Published: April 28, 2008
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

The NBA playoffs? Humdrum on hardwood. The NHL playoffs? Ennui on ice.

The postseasons of other sports are in full bloom, but Sunday was playoff season in professional golf -- and no, we're not talking about the FedEx Cup. (Thankfully.) Adam Scott beat Ryan Moore in extra holes on the PGA Tour, Annika Sorenstam defeated Paula Creamer in overtime on the LPGA and Darren Clarke may as well have taken out Robert-Jan Derksen in a playoff on the European Tour, as he sank what amounted to a walk-off clinching putt on the final hole of regulation.

(Just for fun, everybody read along in your best Jim Mora voice: What's that? Uh … playoffs? Don't talk about … playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs?)

The Weekly 18 begins with the notion that Scott's victory was well-deserved for reasons other than the obvious.

1. You can't win if you don't play
There was a familiar cry emanating from the greater Dallas area prior to this week's Byron Nelson Championship. Where have all the great ones gone? This is a tournament that has crowned Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els as champions over the years and yet, none made the trip this time. (Even if Woods wasn't injured, he wasn't playing here.)

The highest-ranked player in the field just happened to be Scott, who began the week .01 average point outside of the top 10 on the Official World Golf Ranking and was one of just a dozen players in the top 50 to make up the field. He won the title -- and therein lies a message to some of the game's elite.

That message? Play golf! As they say on TV commercials for the lottery, you can't win if you don't play. Such a theory seems to have become more difficult to adhere to than it should be, however. With four major championships, three WGC events, four FedEx Cup playoff rounds and the Players Championship, those who are qualified for the biggies already have 12 weeks on the calendar checked off, leaving tourneys like the Nelson devoid of upper-tier fields.

"I'm playing too many events as it is," Padraig Harrington, who was virtually tied with Scott in the World Ranking but took the week off, told us in a Hot Seat interview last year. "It is difficult. I'm going to have to examine my schedule and try to figure out a way. I can't see myself reducing the tournaments to much below 30, so I'll probably play the most events of anybody in the top 10 in the world."

We've gotten out of the business of suggesting when and where certain players should tee it up -- hey, that's their prerogative -- but it's nice to see those who do choose to compete rewarded for their efforts. And so it was appropriate that Scott earned his just dessert for entering the event right before the deadline last week -- not that he viewed it as a lesser field.

"You can look on the points and the World Ranking, the difference between 30th and 10th, I don't think it's really that much," Scott said prior to the tournament. "It's two good weeks. I don't think it gives me an advantage."

Maybe not, but for this week, at least, he held the advantage over all those ranked above him. They didn't play. He won. Advantage: Scott.

2. Less is Moore
If Woods tuned into the Nelson on Sunday, chances are he was encouraged by Ryan Moore's runner-up result. Prior to the tournament, Moore had taken five weeks off to rest lingering hand and shoulder injuries, proving what Tiger already knew was possible: Time off doesn't necessarily translate to rustiness upon your return.

[+] EnlargeAnnika Sorenstam
AP Photo/Alan DiazAnnika Sorenstam needed 19 holes at the Stanford International Pro-Am to win her 71st career title.

For Moore, the solo second was his fourth such finish in the past four years; he has one each season since turning pro. The all-everything amateur player still boasts a homemade swing with enough waggles to make Sergio Garcia nervous, but he has the game and the attitude to win on tour very, very soon.

"I am where I am and I'm happy with it," said Moore, who now owns a pair of top-10 finishes in eight starts this season. "I'm just trying to keep moving forward. Obviously some injuries and whatnot have held me back, and it's been a little frustrating at times, but at the same time, you know, maybe that's given me the time I need to work on things I need to work on to win more tournaments in the long run. You know, that's kind of how I like to view things. I'm where I am right now, and I'm happy about it. I just went head-to-head against one of the best players in the world, and he had to make a 45-footer to beat me. That's a good place to be."

3. Par for the course
Last week in this space we mentioned the giddiness that comes when a "You've gotta check out this scorecard!" type of e-mail hits our inbox. We received only one such correspondence this week and it came from a scorecard that was about as exciting as a boring one could be.

As pointed out by Blake Buchanan of St. Louis, Yong-Eun Yang posted what seemed to be a benign opening-round even-par 70 at the Nelson. Fact is, maybe it was a little too benign. Yang carded 18 pars in the round, with nary a birdie nor bogey to be found. As if that wasn't enough, he found an equally symmetrical nine greens in regulation and scrambled for nine saves. Buchanan asks if this is a rare occurrence on the PGA Tour, and while we can't say it's never happened before, it certainly doesn't occur very often.

Quick postscript to the man who went par for the course on Thursday: The streak stopped there. Yang began his second round with only one par in his opening seven holes, adding four bogeys and two birdies over that span, then following with three more birdies and another bogey on the back nine, en route to -- what else? -- a second straight even-par 70.

4. Master … then disaster
In his first start after claiming the green jacket, Trevor Immelman shot 78-75 to miss the cut at the Nelson, finishing 150th out of 154 players who completed 36 holes. "I just think I've just run out of gas," Immelman said. "I'm obviously real tired. I'm been trying to get as much sleep as I can, as well as obviously running around."

Immelman's result prompted the following e-mail to the Weekly 18 inbox from Tim in Sioux City, Iowa:

    Based upon Immelman's whirlwind two weeks and his poor performance at the Byron Nelson, I was wondering how well first-time majors winners have done in their first event after winning that major. Just wondering if there is a group riding high and building on the momentum and another group who had all the functions, appearances, attention, etc. and did not handle things well.

We examined the performances of every other first-time major champion this decade -- all 15 of 'em -- and found that Immelman was the first to miss the cut in his next PGA Tour start. Here's the list:

First start after maiden major championship
Player Major win Next start
Trevor Immelman 2008 Masters Missed cut
Padraig Harrington 2007 British Open T-14
Angel Cabrera 2007 U.S. Open 34th
Zach Johnson 2007 Masters Sixth
Geoff Ogilvy 2006 U.S. Open T-16
Michael Campbell 2005 U.S. Open T-5
Todd Hamilton 2004 British Open T-12
Phil Mickelson 2004 Masters T-2
Shaun Micheel 2003 PGA Championship T-23
Ben Curtis 2003 British Open T-61
Jim Furyk 2003 U.S. Open T-22
Mike Weir 2003 Masters T-18
Rich Beem 2002 PGA Championship T-6
David Toms 2001 PGA Championship T-13
David Duval 2001 British Open T-24
Retief Goosen 2001 U.S. Open T-13

Interesting to note that while no first-timer has followed up with a victory in his next start since 2000, Mickelson came the closest, finishing one shot behind Vijay Singh at the 2004 Zurich Classic.

As for Masters champs, Tiger Woods is the only one in the past 20 years to win his next start, taking the 1997 Nelson after his resounding victory at Augusta. Meanwhile, Immelman became the first winner since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1994 to miss the cut in his next U.S. start.

5. Stats all, folks
Credit Tiger Woods for not blaming his recent runner-up result at the Masters on a left knee injury that required subsequent arthroscopic surgery. "I've definitely been playing in pain, but that's not why I didn't win at Augusta," Woods said via his personal Web site this week. "I just never got comfortable with my putting stroke. As I said after the tournament, I was dragging the putter coming through which meant I couldn't start the ball on line. That's all it takes on those greens. Obviously, it was frustrating because I hit the ball well enough to win. It was just one of those things."

Meanwhile, word from Woods' camp is that the proof is in the numbers. According to the thought process, Tiger hit 14, 16, 18 and 14 greens in regulation throughout the tournament (this doesn't match up with official numbers because Woods counts approach shots to the fringe as a GIR) and "missed" only two drives each day, still playing those eight total holes in even-par for the week.

So why didn't he score better? It's all about the short game. Woods had 23 opportunities to either convert birdie or save par from 40 yards and in during the tournament, we've been told, but succeeded on only four of those occasions.

6. Title town?
Ron Rittenmeyer, CEO for Byron Nelson title sponsor EDS, was quoted in the Dallas Morning News last Monday, saying, "Our title sponsorship comes to a close in two years, and if [PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem] wants us to continue, he's going to have to come to the table and help us." As for the tourney's new date in the FedEx Cup schedule, Rittenmeyer said, "We kind of got jerked around a bit, and I'm not happy about that. I made it kind of a personal goal of mine to see this course improve. So now we've accomplished the course. The next thing is to accomplish the right dates to field the best set of players. And the PGA Tour has got to help market this to their players."

His comments were based on a field that included just one top-10 player and only a dozen in the world's top 50. What makes them so interesting now, however, is that two days after Rittenmeyer said his piece EDS reupped its title sponsorship deal through 2014. "We believe in this tournament and appreciate the tremendous impact it has in the Dallas community, and we are excited about the opportunity to play a key role in its future," he said. "The EDS Byron Nelson Championship is our hometown PGA Tour event and provides a great venue for us to attract our key clients, as well as a wonderful opportunity for our employees to get involved in supporting a great cause."

Why the quick reversal? What changed in those two days? Such a turnaround forces us to step onto our Jump To Conclusions mat (full credit to Tom Smykowski, of course) and wonder just what good fortunes Finchem promised to EDS in the future. Our guess: a potential reunion with its Texas neighbor at Colonial, giving the Lonestar State a two-week swing which previously inhabited the schedule rather than the events taking place a month apart from one another.

7. Thrown for a loop
Our personal caddying career is looking up. Roland Thatcher, who for some still unknown reason let us loop for him at last year's Chattanooga Classic on the Nationwide Tour, revealed during our Masters Live Blog that if he qualifies for next year's Masters, we'll be back on the bag for the Par 3 Contest. (And we're thrilled at the prospect of it being a much lighter bag, too.)

We recently traded text messages with Thatcher about, well, how cool it would be.

Us: "Can't wait to caddie for you in the Par 3 next year."

Him: "I can feel it. You will look great in a white jumpsuit."

When Thatcher reached the top of the leaderboard after his 16th hole during Friday's second round, we promptly called the caddy shack at Augusta National Golf Club to make sure they had our jumpsuit size. (Uh, medium?) Twenty minutes later, we had apparently jinxed our potential loop, as he finished bogey-bogey on the final two holes. But things are looking up for the Nationwide grad, as weekend rounds of 72-70 gave him a T-7 result, his best in a dozen starts this season.

Remember, all it takes is one-regular season victory and players are automatically entered in next year's Masters field. Thatcher is confident his initial title is coming; when it does, somebody had better answer the phone at the caddy shack.

8. Wizards of Oz
A modest proposal for the Nationwide Tour: Rename yourself Aussie Rules Golf. It only makes sense after Greg Chalmers won the Henrico County Open on Sunday, joining fellow Australians Jarrod Lyle, Ewan Porter, Gavin Coles and Aron Price as five champions from Down Under in only eight events so far this season.

Meanwhile, that number is already higher than the number of Aussie players who have won on the PGA Tour not only in the 20 events to this point in 2008, but since the beginning of last year. Here's the list from the past half-decade:

PGA Tour victories by Australians, since 2004
Year First 20 events Overall
2004 3 7
2005 4 4
2006 5 8
2007 2 2
2008 2 ?

From April 1 of last year (when Scott won in Houston) until March 24 of this year (when Geoff Ogilvy won in a Monday finish at Doral) -- a span of 51 total events  Aussies went oh-fer on the PGA Tour.

9. Irish eyes are smiling
Clarke is the early clubhouse leader for Feel-good Story of the Year -- and we'll be hard-pressed to find a better one by season's end. With a 40-foot birdie putt on the final hole of the BMW Asian Open, Clarke won the tournament by 1 stroke, his first PGA/Euro Tour title since the 2003 WGC-NEC Invitational and his first since wife Heather passed away from cancer on Aug. 13, 2006.

"It was always going to be a difficult hurdle for me to get back into the winner's circle after Heather had passed away," Clarke said. "My mind started going forward from the 14th onwards, I lost my concentration and started thinking about Heather and the boys and in this game unless you keep your concentration for the whole way you make mistakes. That's what I did. But on the last green I gathered myself and said hit a good putt. Luckily, I did and it went in."

The victory marked the culmination of a long uphill battle for the Northern Irishman, who had dropped to No. 236 in the Official World Golf Ranking entering the BMW. Prior to this season, Clarke struggled to regain his form, failing to finish better than T-19 in 23 Euro Tour events since Heather's death. This year, however, he had shown a return to his old self, with three top-10s and only two missed cuts in 10 starts before claiming the title in Shanghai, the 11th victory of his career.

Next on the radar for Clarke? A possible spot on his sixth consecutive Ryder Cup team. As a captain's pick two years ago, he was the emotional leader while compiling a 3-0-0 record.

10. One in a billion?
With rounds of 73-69-71, amateur Mu Hu, 18, was in a share of fifth place entering the final round of the BMW, just six shots off the pace.

"I am pleased," Hu said at the time. "I'm looking to play my best. This is what I am looking for, being in the top 10. If I can finish in the top 10 [or] 20 … it'll be big."

It didn't happen, as the world's 1,397th-ranked player shot a final-round 79 which left him at T-35. But consider it only another step on the road to stardom for the native of China. Hailed on a 2005 Golf Digest magazine cover as "One in a Billion," Hu has been trained at the Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and is ranked 11th on the AJGA Polo Golf Rankings. He plans to attend the University of Florida next year.

11. No jokin'
We had been waiting years for this moment. It wasn't a great line, but it was just good enough to hold on to for a rainy day … if only Mikko Ilonen would ever do anything noteworthy. Then it finally happened. In Thursday's opening round of the BMW, Ilonen carded an eagle 2 on the par-4 seventh hole, and we jotted down something about the Finland native "sounding like a left-winger."

We were planning to mold the line, let it grow and develop into its own witty punch line … until "SportsCenter" anchor John Buccigross ad-libbed the same exact line during the program's Top Ten segment that evening. We sent him a semi-angry e-mail and received the following response:

    "Sorry. You can have it free of charge. No one listens to me. Just mention my hole-in-one on a par-4 and we'll call it even."

Done and done. Bucci gets his double-eagle referenced in this column, we get sloppy seconds on the line and Mikko Ilonen is forever remembered as a left-winger who plays professional golf. And everyone lives happily ever after.

12. Sweet 71
Sorenstam took one step closer to Kathy Whitworth's record of 88 career LPGA victories, notching No. 71 by making par on the first extra hole against Creamer at the Stanford International Pro-Am on Sunday.

Maybe it's just us, but anytime you can choose either the player with the pink golf ball or the one with "Ms. 59" stamped on it, go with the latter.

Asked afterward what advice she would have for Creamer in the future, Annika wouldn't budge. "I'm not going to share my secrets," said Sorenstam, who now owns a 16-6 career record in playoffs. "I just try to play my own game. It's a little bit of luck in the playoff. So, I mean, my advice to her is just keep on playing your game. I mean, we all know she has a fantastic game. She's proven it today and she's proven in the past. She's going to win many times."

13. Two of a kind
Interesting how times have changed on the LPGA. It wasn't long ago that anytime Lorena Ochoa showed up at an interview room, she would be consistently peppered with questions about Sorenstam. This week, with Ochoa in the midst of a four-tournament winning streak and skipping the Stanford, the tables were turned, as Annika received her fair share of queries about golf's newest golden girl.

"I wish you would ask me how it would feel trying to go for five in a row," said Sorenstam, who won in five straight starts from late 2004 into the 2005 season. "I miss those times. Hopefully I get that again later this year. It's obviously a great time for Lorena. I hope she's enjoying it. There's pressure, but then by the end of day it's fun. Not many people have the chance to do that, and I hope she's enjoying that. It seems like when she is playing she's very, very relaxed and she's obviously in control and a lot of confidence, and that's what you need. I mean, obviously I'll be watching and trying to play the best I can and give her a challenge. That's really all I can do. Like I said, it's a fun spot she's in. I remember that. It wasn't too long ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed it."

Ochoa (five) and Sorenstam (two) have now combined to win seven of the nine events staged this season. Both of Annika's victories, however, have come without Lorena in the field, while Ochoa has won four times with Sorenstam in the field, including twice when the former No. 1 player finished in second place.

14. Half-full, half-empty
The old axiom, "Quit while you're ahead," has never rang truer. Of course, Christina Kim couldn't just walk off the course after nine holes at the Stanford each day, and her scores suffered because of it. Here's the breakdown of how Kim fared in the first and second halves of her rounds this week:

•  Front nine: 5-under-par (nine birdies, four bogeys)

•  Back nine: 15-over-par (two birdies, six bogeys, three double-bogeys, one triple-bogey, one quadruple-bogey)

The final result? Despite jumping out to an early lead through 17 holes on Thursday, she finished T-61 out of 76 players who made the cut.

Then again, it could have been worse. (Really.) Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez, 51, doesn't play much competitive golf these days and didn't fare very well on a course setup called "silly tough" by Sorenstam. Lopez's two rounds of 91-81 included 14 bogeys, five double-bogeys, one quadruple-bogey, one quintuple-bogey … and two silver linings. After all those black numbers on the scorecard, Lopez finished birdie-birdie on Friday afternoon.

15. Nick of time
The deadline for U.S. Open qualifying entries was 5 p.m. ET on Thursday and 8,390 people got in under the gun. No. 8,390? Amateur Keith Stone, 39, of Chelmsford, Mass.

"That's just like me," said Stone, a former pro, who admitted to the Weekly 18 that he didn't know he was the final entrant until we told him. "I procrastinate on everything."

Stone beat the deadline by 56 seconds, all of which leads to the question: What took you so long?

"I couldn't find my debit card," Stone said by phone Sunday evening. "I had to call my wife to get her number. I was like, 'Hon, hurry up. I don't have much time.'"

The lacrosse coach at Chelmsford High School, Stone regained his amateur status three years ago. Not only did he submit his entry barely in time, but his 1.4 handicap index is the maximum allowed for any entrant. Even so, he wouldn't have been too disappointed had the entry been turned down for tardiness.

"I'm a long shot," he said. "It's not a big deal, but it's a tournament that I like to enter. I was nervous about it, but I have three kids; if I didn't get in, it's not the end of the world."

As for the dream of qualifying to tee it up among the best professionals in the world? Consider Stone one of thousands of dreamers out there.

"That's what I love about the U.S. Open -- it's a true Open," he said. "As long as you qualify for the Open, you can play in it."

16. Not so rotten in Denmark
Big week for Patrick Winther. The 15-year-old from Denmark who trains at the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy in Hilton Head, S.C., was one of five recipients of the first-ever Byron Nelson Award -- along with Dylan Frittelli, Luciano Garcia, Cory Whitsett and Cody Gribble -- given to junior golfers, based on their play as well as academics, community service and sportsmanship.

Later in the week, Winther shot a final-round 2-under-par 70 to win the AJGA Cliffs Championship by 5 strokes, his first victory on the junior circuit. "I knew I was playing well and didn't think at any time I was going to throw it away," Winther said. "I just kept thinking to hit the fairways and get some birdies. I was calm the whole way."

17. Aces high
Ted Kemp, welcome to the wonderful world of doubters and skeptics. We'll admit we're usually among them whenever a too-good-to-be-true hole-in-one story pops up (Hello, Jacqueline Gagne!), but we'll give Kemp the benefit of the doubt. His story sounds legit, as report by KCCI.com in Des Moines, Iowa:

    Kemp, 36, said his "phone has been ringing off the hook" since he knocked in holes-in-one on back-to-back par 3s at the Muscatine Municipal Golf Course.

    Kemp's a regular at the course and tries to play five days a week, but said Monday's game was "unreal."

    He used a pitching wedge to sink his tee shot on the third hole from 130 yards out. Then he grabbed an 8-iron and nailed a hole-in-one from 182 yards out on the 8th hole. He finished the day with a 78.

    Kemp said he's had three holes-in-one in the past eight months, but called Monday's game 97 percent luck. He said he could feel the butterflies as the second shot hit the hole.

Congrats, Ted. Hope you bought everyone a double at the 19th hole. And if this is some sort of cruel, late April Fools' Day joke? May all your par-3 endeavors turn into septys in the future!

18. Quote of the week
LPGA Tour media official: "Can you tell us about 18?"
Christina Kim: "Sucked."
LPGA Tour media official: "A little more description than that?"
Christina Kim: "Umm, really sucked."

-- Christina Kim, summing up her final-hole triple-bogey on Thursday.

Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. 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.