- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
- 0 Shares
It's an axiom usually reserved for playmaking wide receivers and clutch 3-point shooters, but one that has held true for some of the PGA Tour's elite stars so far this season:
"Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games." And tournaments.
The most exciting, awe-inspiring, goosebump-inducing shots of 2008 have come from four of the biggest big-time players in the game. First there was Tiger Woods' hat-slamming putt to win at Bay Hill, then Adam Scott's 48-foot bomb to take the Byron Nelson playoff, and don't forget Sergio Garcia's sublime swing on 17 at The Players Championship.
On Sunday, that threesome added a fourth as Phil Mickelson overcame a reappearance of Way Left Lefty to make birdie for a 1-stroke win at Colonial. The Weekly 18 begins with the notion that, well, it was just Phil being Phil.
1. What Phil did next
If you find yourself sitting on a 19th hole barstool this week, chances are the conversation will turn to this: Did you see the shot from Phil Mickelson? How did he do that?
With a 140-yard 52-degree wedge over and through the trees to within 9 feet that set up a birdie on the final hole of the Crowne Plaza Invitational -- "probably top five" in his best ever, he conceded -- Mickelson solidified his standing as one of the game's most galvanizing players, not to mention one of the best.
"Just lucky," he said afterward. "I'm as surprised as anybody I was able to make a 3 from over there."
The fact that he even had the nerve to attempt such a shot is why Mickelson has become known as the People's Champion. It is why nearly every observer in the gallery wants to high-five him after watching another birdie drop into the cup or console him when his imagination leads to a bogey.
Let's face it: You don't want to root for the guy who lays up and plays it safe. You aren't passionate about pars, don't give a hoot about stepping stones and building blocks and results of any consequence besides first place.
Even if you don't love how Mickelson plays, if you criticized his gamble through the trees at Winged Foot after slicing that final tee shot of the 2006 U.S. Open, you must now at least commend him for similar bravery at Colonial. If you poked fun at him for not once but twice trying to unsuccessfully save par from wayward left drives at last year's Scottish Open, you must now applaud his efforts.
Come to think of it, if you've ever scolded Mickelson's swashbuckling, riverboat-gambler mentality while analyzing his strategy from the safety of your couch, it's about time you gave him the benefit of the doubt.
To paraphrase a line from "Forrest Gump," Phil Mickelson is as Phil Mickelson does -- but his on-course ideas are only "stupid" when they fail. When Lefty's plans go according to plan, he's one of the most brilliant golfers we've ever seen.
Such was the case on the final hole at Colonial. It didn't take a historian of the sport to instantly realize the similarities between Mickelson's pushed tee shot on the final hole and those of recent vintages which have so often cost him titles. Critique the poor drive if you must, but what Phil did next was more spine-chilling than the opening shot was regretful.
True to his persona, Mickelson launched his approach shot, taking dead aim at the flagstick. His ensuing putt was met with everything from wild cheering to a celebratory cannonball into the nearby water hazard from an overzealous supporter.
It was one more example that while Tiger Woods is firmly ensconced as the world's top-ranked golfer, Phil Mickelson may very well be its favorite.
2. On the straight and narrow
Technology, shmechnology. While most courses are being extended past the tips to account for the distance boom in recent years, Colonial CC played to 7,054 yards this week -- exactly 19 yards longer than when Ben Hogan won the first of his five titles at the famed venue during the tournament's inaugural year of 1946.
As such, Colonial has always remained a ball-striker's paradise, a place where the little guy can not only hang with the big bomber, but may actually have an advantage with accuracy at such a premium. So it's not surprising that the top five players on the final leaderboard are also some of the straightest, shortest hitters on the PGA Tour, as each player ranked more than twice as proficient in driving accuracy than distance (with the notable exception of Mickelson):
Though he did triumph on the short track for the second time in his career, Mickelson did so on his own terms. For the week, he averaged 317.6 yards per drive (fifth in the field), while hitting 57.1 percent of the fairways (T-33).
3. Tinker, tinker, little star
Some pros find equipment they like and stick with it through thick and thin. (Corey Pavin has reportedly been using a putter from 1984.) Others are constantly tweaking the tools of their craft.
Consider Mickelson among the latter. We all remember the two-driver system he implemented at the Masters a few years back. This season he's been bouncing back and forth between putters, at times using two different flatsticks during the span of one tournament. Well, at Colonial he left the 3-wood at home and carried five wedges in the bag for the first time in his career.
"My scoring takes place around the greens," Mickelson said, "so I want to have as many options as possible to tackle the different lies and the different shots that we encounter in some of these conditions."
The wedges came in 47, 52, 55, 60 and 64 degrees, but don't expect this to become common practice for Lefty.
"When I go play at home, I don't use the 64-degree wedge," he said. "I don't use all of the wedges because I don't need them. But out on tour, we have such extreme conditions a lot of the time, whether the tough lie around the green, the tight lies that we get, or the rough, the firm greens."
4. Standing tall(er)
Forgive us for a bout of brief naiveté. During a recent teleconference, Mickelson was questioned about switching to a longer putter and said the following: "I've become a half-inch, inch taller for a few years, but I just thought, gosh, I'm not putting well, and now is the time to make an adjustment if I'm going to go to a longer putter. It's easier on my back as much as I practice putting. So given that I wasn't putting well, it just was easier to just start with it. So that's what I ended up doing when I came back and started working on it. I just started with a 35-inch putter rather than a 33½."
We didn't take him literally, of course, instead misinterpreting "taller" to mean that Mickelson is standing up straighter over the ball rather than bending over his putts, ensuring he would need a longer putter.
We were wrong.
Turns out Mickelson, who turns 38 next month and is listed at 6-foot-3, believes that he has actually grown taller in the past few years.
Mickelson attributes the growth spurt to stretching exercises that he has incorporated into his workout regimen. "Just legs, low back, stuff like that," he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "It has helped the elongation through motion. It's like a pitcher when he throws. He can't get his arm into certain positions statically when he throws a baseball. It's the same thing as using motion to stretch his length. It helped. My posture has been more consistent and easier to hold throughout the swing, so that's led to a little bit more consistent ball-striking."
5. Spare the Rod
Other than that tee shot that went awry on the penultimate hole for eventual joint runner-up Rod Pampling, it was a great driving week for the Aussie. His average distance of 299.8 yards off the tee was 16 yards longer than his season average and he hit 71.4 percent of the fairways to rank fifth for the week.
He posted those numbers using TaylorMade's Tour Burner driver for the fifth straight week, but prior to the tournament employed a shaft weighing 59 grams -- 10 less than he had previously been using. Certainly the fast, firm fairways were to thank for the increased distance, but perhaps the lighter shaft had a hand in that, too.
6. Rory's story
The defending champion at Colonial, Rory Sabbatini, shot 71-73 to miss the cut by 2 strokes, part of a disappointing continuation to what began as a very promising season. After finishing in 17th place at the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship, Sabbo was solo second at the Sony Open and T-3 at the Bob Hope Classic. Since then, however, he hasn't finished better than 27th in nine appearances.
"It's been a frustrating year for me," Sabbatini, who ranks in the PGA Tour's bottom half in driving accuracy, sand save percentage and putting average, said prior to the opening round. "I feel like I'm hitting the ball better than I ever have in my career. I'm not scoring as well as I'd like."
He links the lack of solid results to an early-season bout with the flu that lingered and affected his performance level.
"I played well, got sick. It took a lot out of me," Sabbatini said. "By the end of the West Coast, I was so drained of energy, basically I let a couple of areas creep in my game. You start practicing bad habits, just not being as focused as you need to be out there, and all of a sudden those habits are kind of ingrained."
7. Sweet 15
Two years ago, Tiger Woods competed in 15 PGA Tour events while missing nine weeks after his father, Earl, passed away. Last year, he upped that number to 16, despite missing one scheduled event when his daughter Sam was born. With the news that Woods will miss this week's Memorial Tournament due to ongoing recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery, a few pertinent questions have risen to the surface: Will he struggle to reach the tour minimum of 15 after missing eight weeks following knee surgery? And if so, how will that affect his status?
Well, first things first: With more than 20 career victories -- 44 more, to be exact -- Tiger owns lifetime PGA Tour membership, so don't expect him to lose his card anytime soon. But according to one tour official, if Woods does not reach 15 appearances, "There would not be drastic penalties. He may lose voting privileges and would be less likely to be granted conflicting event waivers for him to play in Europe or Asia." Then again, maybe not. The tour official continued by allowing that such penalties are at the discretion of PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.
Then again, it may be a moot point. Woods has competed in five events so far this season. If past history is any indication, he'll play in the U.S. Open, Buick Open, AT&T National, British Open, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, PGA Championship, Deutsche Bank Championship, BMW Championship, Ryder Cup (yes, it counts toward the total) and Tour Championship. Add 'em up and Woods will be right on the number, avoiding any potential backlash from the tour.
8. Hello, Dubai
Of those who were qualified and healthy enough to participate, not a single PGA Tour member begged off The Players Championship, the tour's flagship event held at its Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., headquarters.
The same can't be said for the European Tour's main event, the BMW PGA Championship, held at the Wentworth Club this past week. Among those skipping the tournament were Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia (each citing scheduling concerns heading toward the U.S. Open) and Ian Poulter, who chose to play at Colonial instead. It was enough to leave Euro Tour CEO George O'Grady defending their honor in his annual Sunday press conference from the tournament.
"No administrator could ever say he's pleased when players of that level aren't playing in what we term our flagship tournament," O'Grady said. "I've had to take quite a few questions this week from people in this room and elsewhere on whether our leading players are behaving in a cavalier fashion. Not something I agree with myself, but I've had to defend that word two times."
All is not lost, however, for the folks on the other side of the Atlantic. Recently, Mickelson didn't rule out the possibility of becoming a Euro Tour member, while former British Open champ John Daly has held similar inclinations, though for much different reasons. And of those who split time between Europe and the U.S., next year's $10 million Race to Dubai -- think FedEx Cup without the unending promotional undercurrent -- may help add to the number of overseas events on the individual schedules.
"The European Tour has done a fantastic job of enticing the players and giving them the opportunity to play more and giving some very attractive rewards for doing so," said Justin Rose, who won last year's Order of Merit title. "I'll probably focus more on the European side of things, maybe add a couple more [tournaments]. It makes perfect sense, with the tour now having this relationship [with Dubai]. I've always enjoyed playing that part of the world. At the end of 2006, I played in Japan and Australia and I realized that I missed the traveling, the sense of adventure, playing all around the world rather than just in America."
The Euro Tour is currently looking into the prospect of making it more difficult to become a full-time member. Currently, those with status must play a minimum of 11 events, though that total includes all four major championships and three WGC events, leaving most world-class pros with only four mandatory regular-season events left to schedule. There is a motion to raise that number to 13 -- anyone who failed to reach a baker's dozen would be ineligible for the Race to Dubai -- though a final decision may not come anytime soon.
"We said right from the beginning, this is about rewarding people who are loyal to the European Tour," O'Grady said. "Players are split, I would say, 50/50. A lot of the players who really support the European Tour want it raised, and others who take a wider view are happy to stick with the 11. There might be a case of just wait and see for a year to see what actually happens, and I think all sides will be consulted."
9. Mechanical precision
Asked on Saturday evening how he would prepare for the final round of the BMW PGA Championship, Miguel Angel Jimenez quipped, "Tomorrow after breakfast I'm going to have my espresso coffee and long fat cigar. I'm going to have time to enjoy myself before I go to the golf course."
"It feels great," Jimenez said. "This is my 20th season on the tour and to win the most important tournament on the European Tour on my 20th anniversary is great, fantastic."
The ponytailed player nicknamed Mechanic had even more reason to celebrate that victory cigar on Sunday. His win just about clinches a spot on his third Ryder Cup team.
10. It ain't easy
Ernie Els won the Honda Classic at the beginning of March and celebrated by switching instructors from David Leadbetter to Butch Harmon. Ever since, there's been nothing "easy" about the way he has played.
In six tournaments since that victory, the Big Easy has failed to record any round of 70 or better, including at the BMW, where he missed the cut for the fourth time in his past six starts.
It's been quite a rough patch for the man in Year 2 of his three-year plan to overtake Woods as the world's top-ranked golfer. "You saw my scores," Els said prior to the festivities at Wentworth, where he owns a home and has won the World Match Play a record seven times. "I played like a 7-handicapper there for a good two, three weeks. I needed to change, and it's taken a lot of work. It still feels a little uncomfortable now and again, but I'm a lot better than I have been."
Els maintains that his struggles date back to even before the Honda, when he said he was "starting to come into his game." What's been the problem? "In March, when I got a little sick a couple of times, I couldn't practice and I was very weak playing Miami [at the CA Championship]," he said. "I got into really bad habits. My ball positioning went out. My alignment went out. My swing got really very loose and very long. I need to get it back into shape, basically, ball position, which is a very feel thing, and alignment, I was aiming so far right and then to aim left, it feels like it's still -- you're aiming out here, but you're still aiming right. It's been a lot of change in that, and then trying to get my swing shorter, more compact, more on line, more on plane."
As for the move from Leadbetter to Harmon, it's not one he admits to regretting at all.
"As a player, from my perspective, it's very tough to tell David, listen, I want to listen to somebody else for a while; let me go a different direction here. It was a bit difficult, but I'm glad that he understood, and that just shows you the character of the guy, and he's a great friend," Els said. "Like all coaches, [Butch] is in form. He's got a pretty good track record, so I wanted to listen to him. Like Lead, he's worked with different generations of players and he's evolved with time and equipment and obviously technology. So he's very much right on top of his game right now."
11. Europe, you're up
Lots of news -- check that, lots of conjecture -- going on with the European Ryder Cup team this past week. First, there was this ultimate backhanded vote of support for the U.S. side from Seve Ballesteros, of all people, as told to the Daily Mirror: "I hope the Americans win this year in all seriousness. I see the Ryder Cup getting very boring because we are beating them so badly. Everybody is losing interest. I think it will be good if they win the next one. It would give the Ryder Cup a lift. I just hope the matches are a little bit closer because they have been no-contests. My heart is always with the Europeans, but my head is with the Americans for the good of the trophy."
Then came a bit of somewhat less controversial news, as Paul McGinley, who resigned as Nick Faldo's vice captain last year, expressed regret over the matter and said he holds no ill will toward the team captain. (The diminutive Irishman led the BMW through 36 holes before finishing in a share of 10th place.)
After that came Faldo's comments that, despite being ranked 90th in the world, he thinks Colin Montgomerie may still be able to earn a spot on this year's roster.
"I believe Monty will turn it around," Faldo said. "I certainly haven't counted that out. He has a great way of producing the goods when we really need it and in theory a player of his ability has enough time to make it happen."
Not this week. Montgomerie shot 73-75 to miss the cut, then displayed the Full Monty toward a reporter after the second round, imploring the scribe to, "Wipe the smile off your face for a start. There is nothing funny."
All of which hides the fact that, prior to this weekend, the European roster didn't look nearly as intimidating as in recent editions of the competition.
Sure, players still have three-plus months to qualify, but had the process been finalized entering the BMW, Faldo's roster would include Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson, Garcia, Rose and Harrington off the world points list and Robert Karlsson, Graeme McDowell, Nick Dougherty, Jimenez and Martin Kaymer from the European Ryder Cup points list. That would leave the team with four rookies (Rose, McDowell, Dougherty and Kaymer) and without usual suspects Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal, Luke Donald, Paul Casey and Darren Clarke.
All of which means the intrigue is just beginning for the European team. Expect plenty more between now and September's gathering at Valhalla.
12. No Ryde
As for the U.S. Ryder Cup team, we have it on good authority that captain Paul Azinger called the PGA Tour this week to inquire whether recent AT&T Classic champion Ryuji Imada is eligible for his roster.
Sorry, cap'n, he was told. Ain't gonna happen.
Imada, 31, was born in Japan but moved to Tampa, Fla., at 14 and has lived in the U.S. ever since. Because he didn't become a citizen prior to his 18th birthday, Imada can't be a member of the American Ryder Cup team. It's one of the reasons he's in no rush to gain citizenship, despite taking action toward such a move already.
"You have to be born in America, so that's another reason why it really doesn't matter for me to change my citizenship," Imada told ESPN.com. "I would love to play on the Ryder Cup team, but that is something that I'll probably never be able to do."
Imada will never wear the red, white and blue in the Presidents Cup, either. According to a tour official, a player is only eligible for the country in which he "has played the majority of his golf career." Imada has been in the U.S. for 17 years but the Weekly 18 was told by the aforementioned official that he is only eligible for the International side, making this rule seem more than a little quirky. In a similar debate about eligibility, Aaron Baddeley was born in the U.S. and lived here until he was 2, but he can only tee it up for the International team as well.
13. Driving for dough
Prior to this week's Senior PGA Championship, Jay Haas reminisced about a not-so-fond recollection that often finds its way into his memory bank.
During the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill, Haas needed to beat Philip Walton on the final hole of their singles match, but popped up his drive on No. 18 en route to the costly loss. While on the range Tuesday, he told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, "I couldn't have hit a worse drive if I was swinging with my eyes closed."
He also discussed the impact that failed tee shot has had on his lengthy, successful career.
"I think back to that drive a lot when I get into a pressure situation and I say, 'You know, trying to fit this drive into the fairway isn't the answer,'" Haas said. "I won't say it's one of the best things that ever happened to me, but since then I've thought about it and I realized that I was trying to be too perfect on that drive. I was trying to collect myself and all that rigmarole that I thought was the proper thing to do, when in fact I needed my instincts to take over and just rip it. Now, I pick a shot and commit to it because I wasn't committed to that shot at that time. That has been somewhat of a turnaround for me mentally, to commit to a shot a little better."
Proving the learning process has come full circle, Haas stepped to the final tee box at Oak Hill up 1 on Bernhard Langer and calmly piped his drive down the fairway, leading to a par and the second Senior PGA Championship victory of his career.
"I exorcised a few demons there on the last hole, for sure," Haas said afterward. "I hit a good drive. I knew Bernhard had hit it just in the first cut there and I knew I had to make a 4 at least. I was predicting that he would make a birdie. I had to think that way. And I hit two of the best shots of my life, really. I hit a great drive and then a beautiful 6-iron shot."
14. Membership has no privileges
Brooks, a member at Colonial who had been 2-for-6 making cuts this season, was T-8 through 54 holes, but shot a final-round 73 to finish in a share of 33rd place.
Sluman, meanwhile, is a member at Oak Hill. He entered the final round 1 shot off the pace, but shot 78 to finish T-9 for the week.
15. Eye-opening deal
During a news conference at The Players Championship, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was asked about the upcoming sponsorship plans for the Tampa, Fla.-based tournament, formerly known as the PODS Championship. Finchem turned to a media official and said, "I thought we announced Tampa. Did we announce Tampa?"
"We haven't announced it," he was told.
After a brief moment of nervous laughter, Finchem followed up by saying, "If we are not done in Tampa, we are very close to being done."
And now they're even closer. The tournament, won this year by Sean O'Hair at Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club, is about to sign Transitions Optical, a Florida-based company, to a multi-year sponsorship arrangement. Details will be announced soon.
The announcement will leave Atlanta's AT&T Classic as the only remaining tournament without a sponsor for the 2009 campaign.
16. Fight or flight
Almost every PGA Tour stop comes with some nice perks and we don't mean former Players champion Craig. From fruit baskets to iPods, fishing trips to spins around a racetrack, each player gets offered a little somethin' extra just for showing up. Two tourneys are now upping the ante, providing an intangible yet invaluable service for those in the field.
Upon completion of next month's U.S. Open, officials from next week's Travelers Championship will provide a charter flight from San Diego to Connecticut. And in July, those from the John Deere Classic will go international, providing travel to England for the British Open.
Each move was done with both the players' and tournaments' best interests in mind. The easier officials make it on the pros to get to (and from) their event, the tougher it is for them to say no.
"The guys look at you and the wives call and you say thank you, and it is a very, very sincere thank you that we are taking care of what's important to them," Travelers tournament director Nathan Grube said recently. "We are excited about that."
17. Home on the range
Speaking of the Travelers, when players arrive at TPC River Highlands they'll find a brand new practice facility that may rival that of any other PGA Tour event in terms of size. The $4.5 million facility measures 22 acres and stretches to 360 yards -- an impressive improvement over a former range which limited the pros to hitting only 260 yards into a net at the opposite end.
"A practice facility is extremely important to the tour players," said defending champion Hunter Mahan, who hit the first tee shot on May 5, along with local high schooler Christopher Wall, a member of the First Tee of Connecticut. "Preparation leads to success. We want a facility that is going to allow us to play our best and provide the best idea of what we see on the golf course. From what I see, that is exactly what this facility provides."
If the pros want to get in a little extra practice at the course beforehand -- or if you just want to procrastinate by killing off a few hours of cubicle time -- they can check out the final four holes via this online game.
18. Quote of the week
"Have you seen us arrive at an airport? We have eight pieces of luggage -- six bags and two car seats. There's not a private plane big enough for my crew."
-- LPGA Corning Classic champion Leta Lindley, describing how she travels with husband Matt and their two children.
Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.