Commentary

For rest of 2008, possibilities are endless for players not named Tiger

Originally Published: June 23, 2008
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

Contrary to popular rumor, the 2008 PGA Tour season will continue despite the absence of Tiger Woods, who is sidelined for the remainder of the year with injuries. Yes, champions will still be crowned every week, and no, there won't be an asterisk engraved next to their names on the trophies.

[+] EnlargeStewart Cink
AP Photo/Bob ChildFor just the second time in 10 career chances, Stewart Cink sealed the deal and won an event after holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead.

In fact, Woods' extended leave actually provides an unusual opportunity for those who have toiled in the Tiger Era. For at least the next six months -- and maybe as much as the next nine or so -- players will have the chance to compete in top-level events without the game's top-ranked player in the mix.

So which competitors can benefit the most until Woods' return? The Weekly 18 starts off with a handful of players who fit the bill.

1. Five of a kind

Phil Mickelson. On the surface, the world's second-ranked player certainly seems like the logical choice to become prime beneficiary of the injuries to his fiercest nemesis, but that might not be the case since Mickelson's never been known as a strong second-half presence. Of Mickelson's 34 career victories, only eight have come in post-U.S. Open tournaments. A strong final three months of this season would prove once and for all that Lefty is head and shoulders above the rest of his peers.

Sergio Garcia. Other than Woods, the world's most popular golfer -- we're talking globally, not domestically -- isn't Mickelson, but Garcia, who still splits much of his time between the PGA Tour and its European-based counterpart. He's already won one biggie this year, The Players Championship, against a Tiger-free field, later thanking Woods for not attending at TPC Sawgrass. If Sergio can earn a few more W's down the stretch run -- British Open, anyone? -- he may enter 2009 with the confidence needed to finally challenge the man four years his elder, at least on a few occasions.

Stewart Cink. If there's one player happy to see fields without Woods for a while, it's Cink. Already this season, he finished runner-up to Tiger at the Accenture Match Play Championship, T-3 at the Buick Invitational (Woods won) and T-3 at the Masters (Woods was solo second). Even though Eldrick still would have eschewed the Travelers Championship if healthy, Cink's victory on Sunday jump-started his summer session and could vault him into bigger and better things in coming months.

U.S. Ryder Cup hopefuls. Whether it's Brandt Snedeker (ninth on the U.S. points list entering this past week), Steve Stricker (10th) or one of a number of players just behind them (Zach Johnson, Jeff Quinney, D.J. Trahan, J.B. Holmes, to name the next four), someone will be wearing red, white and blue at Valhalla this September thanks to Woods. His unavailability for the biennial event means the automatic qualification will go nine deep, as captain Paul Azinger still retains his four extra selections. The best part? Filling in for Tiger isn't as difficult as it sounds. In five career appearances on the squad, he owns a 10-13-2 record.

Guys who like money. Sure, this category includes seemingly everybody, everywhere, but let's face it: One player not named Tiger Woods is going to become exceedingly wealthy in the next three months. Year Two of the FedEx Cup playoffs will once again offer a $10 million prize to the champion, but this time around it may be awarded to a player for whom that amount is more than just walking around money. While someone like Mickelson, currently No. 2 on the points list, may only provide another rich-get-richer proposition for the format, a chunk of change like that could prove to be life-changing for a top-10 guy like Ryuji Imada or Boo Weekley.

2. Still the one

If Woods is indeed shelved for the rest of the year, his average points in the Official World Golf Ranking will dip from the current number of 21.14 to 11.97 on Dec. 31, which remains higher than that of No. 2-ranked Mickelson (10.08) right now.

If Woods doesn't compete through Feb. 1, his average points will decrease to 10.47; he'll drop to 9.33 on March 1, and 8.22 if he still hasn't teed it up on March 29.

While some have noted that rankings are based on a 40-event minimum through two years, it's untrue that Woods will fail to be ranked if he drops below that number. In fact, he's already there.

"The 40 is not a requirement, but anyone who has played less than 40 in the last two years has the minimum divisor, which is 40," said an OWGR official. "Woods' two-year event count is currently 34."

3. Something's missing

When Woods fails to compete in August's PGA Championship, he'll become the first defending champion at a major to miss the following edition of the event since Payne Stewart, who died in a plane crash four months after winning the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst.

Woods' absence at Royal Birkdale will mark the first time that he has missed a Grand Slam event since turning professional. It will be the first major he's failed to play since the 1996 PGA Championship (when he was still an amateur) and the first British Open he's sat out since 1994.

4. Steady Stew

With his victory at the Travelers Championship, Cink flip-flopped places with Kenny Perry (who finished T-6 this week) on the all-time career earnings list, moving up one spot to ninth, with a cool $24,795,364 in the bank.

And yet, for all of his professional success -- Cink has been a member of every Ryder/Presidents Cup team this decade -- the victory was only his fifth in a dozen years as a PGA Tour member. That ties for the lowest total among the top 19 players on career money list list (with No. 15 Scott Verplank and No. 18 Tom Lehman). You have to go all the way down to Chris DiMarco to find a player with fewer career wins (he's 20th, with only three titles).

5. Rising, Not Cink-ing

Only once in those five career wins has Cink walked up the final fairway on Sunday afternoon with the title easily in hand -- and that includes this time, as he needed a scramble for par on the 72nd hole to win by 1.

The victory was only Cink's second in 10 tries while holding at least a part of the 54-hole lead. Here's how he's fared in such situations:

Cink-ing Feeling
Year Tournament 3rd-Round Lead Finish
1997 B.C. Open 1-stroke lead T-12
1999 BellSouth Classic 2-way tie 2nd
2000 MasterCard Colonial 3-stroke lead T-2
2001 U.S. Open Championship 2-way tie 3rd
2003 MCI Heritage 1-shot lead T-10
2003 FUNAI Classic at Walt Disney World Resort 4-way tie T-2
2004 World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invit. 4-stroke lead Win
2006 World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invit. 1-stroke lead 2nd
2008 PODS Championship 2-stroke lead T-2
2008 Travelers Championship 2-stroke lead Win

With the victory, Cink moved past Woods and Geoff Ogilvy for the most top-10 finishes this season (seven) and tied Woods for the most top-fives (five).

6. Nine lives

With inclement weather on the horizon (uh, so to speak), Travelers Championship officials moved up the final round, with threesomes teeing off the first and 10th tees beginning at 7:35 a.m. ET. It meant that some competitors still in the hunt -- those within 5 of the lead -- were relegated to back-nine-first status and would be finishing their rounds on the 9th hole.

Of those players, the best result came from Michael Allen, who shot a final-round 64 to shoot up 25 spots on the leaderboard and finish in a share of sixth place.

It was a nice way to close out, but still paled in comparison to the efforts of Keith Clearwater. The last player to win a tournament on the ninth hole, he did so at Colonial in 1987.

7. The sour hour

What's the longest you've ever stood over a 3-foot putt?

Chances are, it wasn't as long as Bubba Watson on Sunday. OK, so he wasn't "standing over it" the entire time, but faced with a 36-incher for par on the final hole, Watson fell victim to the siren alerting players to a "dangerous situation" in the area (in this case it was lightning). In such situations, the player is required to mark his ball and cannot continue until play has resumed.

In this circumstance, that meant waiting out a 61-minute delay, during which players were shuttled off the course. Upon the restart, Watson returned to No. 18 to finish up his round.

And yes, after thinking about it for all that time, he calmly sank the putt.

8. Fly like a (double) eagle

As often is the case, the 296-yard par-4 15th hole at TPC River Highlands yielded a handful of eagles this week, but perhaps none were quite as exciting as that of Johnson Wagner on Thursday.

Wagner drove his ball to within 25 inches of the hole and tapped in for a 2 on the scorecard.

Had he holed the shot, it would have become the second ace on a par-4 in PGA Tour history. The first occurred during the opening round of the 2001 Phoenix Open, when Andrew Magee's drive on the 332-yard 17th hole caromed off the putter head of Tom Byrum, who was standing on the green, and dropped into the cup.

9. Better with age

It's not often that Vijay Singh can claim youth among his PGA Tour playing partners, but that's exactly what happened on Sunday.

The 45-year-old Singh was grouped with Tommy Armour III, 48, and Kenny Perry, 47, in the final round at the Travelers. They represented 140 years of PGA Tour golfers, but that was hardly the only eye-popping number. Among them are the following stats:

• PGA Tour seasons: 60
• PGA Tour appearances: 1,532
•  PGA Tour top-10 finishes: 293
• PGA Tour victories: 43

The old dudes proved that younger isn't necessarily better, as each finished in the top-six at the Travelers Championship (Armour was T-2; Singh was solo fifth; Perry was T-6).

10. Back in action

Peter Lonard has remained relatively healthy throughout his professional career. Until seven weeks ago, that is, when he tweaked his back during a Tuesday practice round at the Wachovia Championship.

"I've never had a sore back," Lonard, 40, said. "Never had a sore anything."

The Aussie gutted out two days at Quail Hollow that week, but missed the cut. One week later, he was forced to withdraw from the Players.

Lonard spent five weeks away from competitive events before returning for the Travelers, where he carded four rounds of par or better (66-70-70-67) to finish T-37.

11. All in the family

The new rage on tour? Employing a family member to carry the bag.

One week ago, Kevin Streelman approached the final tee box at Torrey Pines and instructed caddie Mike Christensen to hand the clubs over to his father, Dennis, for the par-5 18th. Wanting to make one last birdie on Father's Day, Streelman hit his second shot short of the green and followed with an indifferent chip to about 25 feet, but holed a 25-footer and was met with a huge embrace from Dad on the green.

"I was worried about my job," Christensen later joked. "I was 12-over for the week and he was 1-under."

At the Travelers, 52-year-old Fred Funk had wife Sharon on the bag for four rounds -- even though they both thought it would be two less than that.

"Fred had knee surgery, and we weren't sure he was going to be ready," said Sharon, who attempted to play the LPGA Tour 15 years ago. "It was a tournament where I actually wanted to get into his head to keep him more grounded and build his confidence."

The couple celebrated its 14th wedding anniversary with a T-37 result, but it wasn't the first time the duo had paired up on the course. In fact, 10 years ago, the Funks finished fourth at this very same event.

The last husband-wife combo to team for a victory on a major tour? Unless we're missing one, it was Chris and Amy DiMarco at the 2006 Abu Dhabi Championship.

12. Roland rocked

Speaking of caddying gigs, nothing against the upper management at ESPN.com, but our favorite former employer -- maybe because we only worked for him for two days -- has run into some tough times as of late.

Roland Thatcher, whom we toted the bag for at last year's Chattanooga Classic on the Nationwide Tour, has missed the last four weeks due to a recently diagnosed bout of synovitis -- inflammation of the lining of the joint -- in his right hand and wrist. Thatcher, who has made the cut in seven of 15 PGA Tour starts and whose third-round 61 at the Mayakoba Golf Classic still stands as the best single-round score on tour this season, hasn't been able to swing a club since undergoing the injury, but hopes to return at some point in the next few weeks.

13. King of all media

Ninety-one holes at the U.S. Open? That was nothing compared to how much Rocco Mediate has been working since Monday.

The runner-up to Woods granted one-on-one interviews this week to CNN, Fox News, the BBC, CBS Sports and the Golf Channel. He sat down on the set of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He did every radio interview from Fox Sports (Dan Patrick, Tim Brando) to 2YK Radio in Sydney, Australia.

ESPN? Yes, Rocco drove through our "car wash," appearing on SportsCenter, Pardon the Interruption, First Take, Mike and Mike in the Morning, the Tirico and Van Pelt Show and -- coming soon to a Web site near you -- ESPN.com, as we placed him on the Hot Seat for a Q&A that will run in advance of this week's Buick Open coverage.

And, yes, there were even potential interviews that Mediate had to turn down, too, including invitations from all three major network morning programs.

"There have been so many requests," said his agent, Frank Zoracki. "You just can't do them all."

But you may be able to read about them all. Zoracki intimated that a possible book deal is also currently in the works.

14. Parity party

A season that began as total domination for the LPGA's upper crust is quickly becoming ripe with parity, as Eun-Hee Ji came from behind to win the Wegmans LPGA by two strokes on Sunday. And yes, that was with a trio of players named Lorena, Annika and Paula in the field.

"I'm like a fly in the sky," Ji, who is from South Korea, said through a translator. "I cannot describe what I feel right now."

After Lorena Ochoa, Annika Sorenstam and Paula Creamer combined to triumph in 11 of the LPGA's first 12 tourneys this season, each of the last four has been won by a 2008 first-timer, including the McDonald's LPGA, taken by Yani Tseng two weeks ago.

[+] EnlargeCurtis Strange, left, and Hale Irwin
AP Photo/Charles KrupaFormer U.S. Open winners Curtis Strange, left, and Hale Irwin tossed out the first pitch at Fenway Park last week. The pair took the mound before the NBA champion Celtics took over the infield that night.

What does it all prove? When looking for winners at this week's U.S. Women's Open at Interlachen, don't necessarily choose from the top of the standings.

15. Boston tee party

On a night when the reigning World Series and NBA champions were present at Fenway Park, with the Red Sox wearing green jerseys to honor the Celtics, you can excuse the Boston fans if a pair of multiple U.S. Open winners got lost in the shuffle.

Though a packed house witnessed NBA Finals MVP Paul Pierce throw out the first pitch on Friday, it was actually the third pitch, as Hale Irwin and Curtis Strange each tossed a ceremonial ball on the field prior to the Celtics' arrival.

"These fans adopted a southern boy 20 years ago," Strange, who won the 1988 U.S. Open at The Country Club, told NESN during the game telecast. "Every time I come back here, it's been fantastic. I love coming back. I love the Boston area."

Playing in the nearby Bank of America Championship at Nashawtuc Country Club, Irwin finished T-26 and Strange was T-45, both well off the pace of Jeff Sluman, who earned his first career Champions Tour victory by two strokes over Loren Roberts.

16. Spanning the globe

In his first start on the Canadian Tour this season, Daniel Im won in dramatic fashion with a birdie on the final hole of regulation. Last Sunday, he won again -- this time in a playoff -- for his second title in three starts. He is now the leading money winner on the Canadian Tour and, as a result, has already qualified for the field at the Nationwide Tour's Ford Wayne Gretzky Classic this week and is almost assured a spot in the PGA Tour's Canadian Open during the third week of July.

If that all plays out, the former UCLA star will have played on the PGA Tour, European Tour (Volvo China Open), Nationwide Tour, Asian Tour (Maekyung Open) and Canadian Tour all within a four-month span.

17. It's all relative?

And the winner of this week's Note That Was Sent To Us And Absolutely, Positively Had To Be Included In The Weekly 18 is …

"Zachery Sobel tied for the second-lowest score in AJGA history with a second-round 10-under 62 en route to a four-stroke victory at the Heritage Junior Championship this week."

Attaboy, Sobel!

The rising senior from Clearwater Beach, Fla., -- no relation, by the way -- carded 10 birdies and eight pars on Wednesday, setting a new course record at Berkeley Hall's South Course in Bluffton, S.C.

"I shot 68 yesterday and knew I could improve," Sobel said afterward. "I am excited, because I knew I left some shots out there yesterday and wanted to improve on that today. And I did."

We can safely say that was the best round a Sobel has posted in an awfully long time.

18. Quote of the week

"My wife told me back after Tampa, when I lost there … 'Sometimes you just have to be willing to run naked across the green.' And that sounds crazy, but if you think about it, it's true, too. I mean, guys like Tiger and Phil, when they are in contention, they let it all out. They don't think about the next one. They don't think about the consequences. They just go for it. … And I decided I am going to run across the green naked. I'm not going to leave anything in the bag. I'm just going to go for it, you know?"
-- Stewart Cink, after winning the Travelers Championship (don't worry, he was naked only in a metaphorical sense)

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.

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