Commentary

Mickelson, Sorenstam give reason for optimism

Originally Published: February 17, 2008
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

Dedicated viewers of the TV show "Lost" know there are spooky revelations in every single episode. And if they watched the latest airing on Thursday closely enough, it may have revealed the next PGA Tour champion.

The program opened with a left-handed golfer on the course and later showed him in pursuit of a helicopter ride -- the culmination of many long months spent working toward a common goal. Hmmm ... sure sounds like Phil Mickelson's story, as Lefty commuted via the skies to Riviera Country Club, site of the Northern Trust Open, where many long months spent working with Butch Harmon culminated in his first career victory at the famed venue.

Of course, instead of "Lost," a better title would be "Won."

The Weekly 18 begins with the message that the latest triumphs from Mickelson and Annika Sorenstam may portend an entertaining season to come.

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesPhil Mickelson owns three top-10 results in four starts this season.

1. Cause for optimism
There are two types of personalities in this world -- optimists and pessimists. As such, there are two types of golf fans, too. The negatively inclined will examine this week's victories by Mickelson and Sorenstam, then declare those successes meant nothing with top-ranked Tiger Woods and Lorena Ochoa absent from the events.

Then there's the school of thought that says when the game's greatest challengers to its biggest thrones are playing to their maximum potential, it can only be considered a positive. These folks will contend that anytime an elite competitor wins a title, it's a win-win proposition for all involved -- the fans, the newest champions and, yes, even the No. 1 players who took the week off.

Count us among the optimists.

If this week was any indication, we're in for one heck of a great year in golf. Both Mickelson and Sorenstam jumped out to early leads, were threatened by talented young players and then remained atop the leaderboard when their respective tournaments concluded this weekend.

Though they're among the most recognizable names in the game, each had reason for a share of doubt prior to their most recent victories. Mickelson was fresh off missing the cut at Pebble Beach, where his performance will be remembered only for the folly of a sextuple-bogey 11 in the third round. That was preceded one week earlier by a playoff loss to J.B. Holmes at the FBR Open.

Sorenstam, meanwhile, was coming off the first winless season on the LPGA since her rookie year of 1994. Hampered by a neck injury for much of 2007, she slipped from the top spot in the Rolex Rankings, taking a backseat to Ochoa, who won eight times.

It's unknown whether Woods and Ochoa were glued to their TV sets this weekend, watching the exploits of their closest competitors. But the warning shots were fired and the top-ranked players definitely have heard about the results. Will it spur each of them to work just a little bit harder on the range, hit just a few more putts on the practice green? Maybe, maybe not. But with Mickelson and Sorenstam playing such sublime golf, the top-ranked players will stand up and take notice, knowing it may take their best performances to beat them throughout the year.

These victories will serve as momentum builders for the winners and motivation for everyone else. And that, golf fans, is cause for optimism.

The glass if half-full, indeed.

2. Long time comin'
Sorenstam's 69th career LPGA victory came at the 2006 State Farm Classic, but she never thought it would take 17 months to reach No. 70. Of course, neither did family members and close friends. "My sister [Charlotta] had a shirt that said 70," Sorenstam said after the win. "It's old now. Had it for a long time. Probably dusty. A friend of mine has a bottle of wine that says 70 on it. I'm ready to collect it now." Asked how old the wine is now, she responded, "It's mature. It's probably even better. It's all strategy." Just how good has Sorenstam been since first bursting onto the scene? There are many ways to put her records and statistics into perspective, but perhaps none speak more volumes than this: The 18 tournaments between Sunday's victory and her win at the '06 State Farm Classic, remarkably, are her longest such streak since joining the LPGA in 1994.

3. The back nine?
Maybe we should have seen this coming. When Annika Sorenstam talked to the Weekly 18 two months ago, she said she was going "hardcore" in 2008, in hopes of a major comeback:

    "I'm starting to say that I'm on the back nine of my playing career, if you know what I mean. But I don't know if I'm on the 11th hole or on 17. I think really the key is, where's my motivation? Do I enjoy the hard schedule that it takes? Can I push my body any harder? I think those are factors that play a big role.

    "I am working less, no doubt, but I also think I'm more efficient today than I was 10 years ago. I'm trying to focus more on quality than quantity when it comes to practice and now I have a better understanding of that. I've done this for a while now so I know my limits, I know what I need to do, and I think today I can accomplish a lot more in 20 minutes than I used to."

If there's one thing we know about Annika, it's that when she gets on a roll, watch out. Sorenstam will play in four of the next five LPGA events, which could mean at least a few more wins.

4. Mini-me?
If Jeff Quinney looks like a younger, right-handed doppelganger to Mickelson, there's reason for that. Each is a former U.S. Amateur champion (Mickelson is 1990; Quinney in 2000) who attended Arizona State University and still has a home near Scottsdale, Ariz. With so many things in common, it's not surprising they found a topic to discuss while playing the final 36 holes together over the weekend. "We definitely talked a lot of sports," Quinney reported. "We were talking about the Phoenix Suns and how Shaq's coming in. We both might be at that Laker game on Wednesday." Said Mickelson: "We both are looking forward to [Shaq's] debut Wednesday -- hopefully Wednesday. We've had some good conversation. We have a lot in common. We went to school, not together, but the same school and know a lot of the same places and same people." One other thing they have in common: Both West Coast guys play their best golf in that part of the country. One-third of Mickelson's 33 career victories have come in California, while all three of Quinney's top-five results have come on the West Coast Swing.

5. Puck head
Yes, that was a Phoenix Coyotes logo you saw on Quinney's shirt throughout the weekend. "Basically, [a member of] my management group is the brother of Wayne Gretzky's manager, and just developed a relationship and it just started," he explained. "So we're excited about that.

"I'm still learning a lot about the sport," he said. "I definitely go to the hockey games when I'm back in town. I'm actually going to drop the puck I think next week, and they are going to make me my own jersey, which is kind of fun to do."

6. The answer, my friends ...
In order to keep things fair, the PGA Tour employs staggered morning/afternoon tee times during the first two rounds each week. Basically, every player who tees off Thursday morning will play Friday afternoon and those who start on Thursday afternoon will play Friday morning. This is done to ensure equality when there is such a difference in playing conditions at various times during the day. For example, let's take a look at Thursday's opening-round scoring averages:

    Thursday morning tee times: 71.28
    Thursday afternoon tee times: 73.51

With the Santa Ana winds kicking up on Thursday afternoon, scores soared for players who teed off later in the day. No matter, as Mother Nature would certainly repeat the process on Friday, right? Wrong. Instead, the wind blew ferociously on Friday morning before letting up during the afternoon -- the exact opposite of what took place on Thursday. The result was the following scoring averages:

    Friday morning tee times: 73.78
    Friday afternoon tee times: 70.68

The result was that 58 of the 72 players who had Thursday morning/Friday afternoon tee times made the cut, while only 20 of 72 who played Thursday afternoon/Friday morning reached the weekend.

"The early/late tee times had a huge advantage this week," said Mickelson, who benefited from the situation. "A lot of the times, most of the weeks, it doesn't make too much of a difference but every now and then, there will be an advantage on one wave, and we certainly had that. I mean, all of the scores that are any good, 90 percent of them are from the early/late wave."

The biggest statistical anomaly? Of the 36 players who started their Thursday morning opening round on No. 10 and their Friday afternoon second round on No. 1, only three (Olin Browne, Mark Hensby and Nicholas Thompson) failed to make the cut.

7. A cut above
For those against "Rule 78" -- and that seemingly includes most PGA Tour players these days -- Exhibit A of their argument was on display at Riviera. When John Merrick missed a 4-foot par putt on the final hole of his continued second round Saturday morning, it meant that instead of 79 players making the cut, with those on the number (would have been nine total players at 3-over) not being eligible to play 36 more holes, there were 78 who reached the weekend -- the maximum number allowed to compete for all four rounds.

And -- surprise, surprise -- some of those who otherwise wouldn't have gotten a chance to play made the most of their opportunity. Marc Turnesa shot 67-70 over the weekend to rise from a share of 70th place through 36 holes to a T-22 result at the end of play on Sunday -- his best career PGA Tour finish.

Will "Rule 78" continue to be implemented throughout the 2008 season? Maybe not. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem met with Player Advisory Committee members on Tuesday and there is a possibility that we could see a midseason change. As The Associated Press reported:

    A tour official said Wednesday that the 16-man Players Advisory Council, which met this week at Riviera Country Club, wants to return to the traditional 36-hole cut of the top 70 and ties. If that results in more than 78 players, another cut on Saturday to the top 70 and ties would help reduce the field for the final round.

    The policy board will vote on the proposal at its Feb. 25 meeting at the Honda Classic in Florida. Because it relates to competition, the vote must get majority approval by four players on the nine-member board.

It's a decision that would make perfect sense, giving players like Turnesa a fighting chance to climb the leaderboard during weekend rounds.

8. Body of work
Prior to this week's T-14 result (he began the final round in solo third, but shot a 3-over 74), John Rollins hadn't finished better than 30th in three starts this season. It's a stark contrast to the beginning of his 2007 season, when he already owned two runners-up by this point in the schedule. The apparent reason? He's swinging around a different body. Rollins lost 30-35 pounds in the offseason and looks like a different person this year. "I decided that for my career and longevity of my career, I needed to shed some pounds and was able to do it this offseason," he said this week. "I Feel good, so hopefully it will kind of filter into my game a little bit. ... I had to do it to feel better. I just wasn't feeling that great, you know, about myself and everything else, and I just thought it was a change that needed to be made. I just owned up to it and decided to commit to it, and I feel a whole lot better." Expect Rollins, who finished a better-than-most-realize 24th on last year's money list, to continue playing well now that it looks as if he's started figuring out his swing in his new body.

9. Cheery Garcia?
First there was Sergio Garcia vs. Tiger Woods (1999 PGA Championship). Then there was Sergio Garcia vs. the Golf Gods (2007 British Open). And now we have Sergio Garcia vs. Anthony Kim. Here are the gory, glorious details, courtesy of the Orange County Register:

    Garcia was lining up a putt on the 18th hole, Riviera's famed uphill par-4 finishing hole, when another golf ball dropped out of the sky a few feet from him.

    Startled, Garcia spun around and spotted Kim in the 18th fairway, looking guilty.

    "Sergio was really ticked off," recalled Kiki Garcia (no relation), head professional at General Old Golf Course in Riverside, who was in the greenside gallery when the incident occurred. "I [jokingly] told him I had his back. But Sergio said, 'I don't need your help. I'll break every club I have over his head.' "

Just fantastic stuff. Really. It makes Rory Sabbatini's "he's beatable" comments about Tiger Woods PG-rated by comparison. After all, how often do we see an actual threat of violence on the golf course?

Though Garcia reported that Kim later apologized, don't be surprised if the Spaniard holds the grudge for a while.

10. Home sick
Tough week for John Mallinger. On the heels of his T-3 finish at Pebble Beach, the super soph returned to his hometown event at Riviera this week. (He grew up in nearby Long Beach, Calif.) Just hours before teeing off in the opening round, Mallinger told the Weekly 18 that he was "feelin' good" and looking forward to another strong result. That feeling didn't last long. Battling a stomach flu throughout the round, the 2007 Rookie of the Year runner-up made only one birdie en route to a 7-over 78, then remained bedridden on Friday as he withdrew from the tournament.

11. Where there's a Will ...
Will MacKenzie kicked off the 2007 season as the darling of the PGA Tour, finishing T-4 at the Mercedes-Benz Championship. But he hasn't started this year with similar flair. After four consecutive missed cuts to begin his campaign, during which he carded a scoring average of 73.60 (ranking 182nd of 186 eligible players), Willie Mac finally reached the weekend at the Northern Trust -- but it wasn't exactly a huge success, as rounds of 71-73-75-72 gave him a T-70 result.

12. Back in action
Meanwhile, the PGA Tour scoring average leader entering this past week was Ben Crane at exactly 69 strokes per round. Playing on a Major Medical Extension after being limited to just nine starts due to a recurring lower back injury in 2007, Crane has now made the cut in his first four appearances. Entering the year, he had 18 events in which he needed to earn $506,928, but he's already more than two-thirds of the way there, with $353,429 so far.

What's going right for Crane? Well, everything. Known as one of the tour's top putters when healthy, he's ranked in the top half in every major statistical category, which left him in second place in the all-important All-Around statistic entering the Northern Trust (where he finished T-55).

13. Adding injury to insult
Before Brett Quigley decided to call it a season in 2007, ending his campaign in early September in order to have surgery on his right knee, he consulted with the PGA Tour to ensure his rank on the money list at the time would be enough to keep him within the top 125. He was informed that, based on previous years, he should be fine -- except, of course, unlike previous years the '07 schedule featured many late-season events which saw players outside of the top 125 earning more cash than usual. As Quigley could only sit and watch while recovering from the surgery, he watched his ranking plummet to 130th by season's end.

The bad news was that Quigley failed to finish within the fully exempt number. The good news was that the 11-year veteran had seven events to earn $67,769 and retain his privileges. But so far he's 0-for-2, missing the cut at the FBR Open and Nothern Trust, where he shot 74-74 this week.

Adding injury to insult, Quigley was originally scheduled to begin his season at the Buick Invitational -- where he had finished in the top-20 in three of the previous four years -- but was forced to withdraw due to a tailbone problem.

14. Goose lays another egg
There's something wrong with Retief Goosen. The two-time U.S. Open champ withdrew from the Qatar Masters three weeks ago due to lingering problems following laser surgery on his eyes. It's unclear whether the issue was still bothering him in L.A., where he made his first start on the PGA Tour this week ... but something was. Goosen shot 79-77 at Riviera, making only three birdies against 13 bogeys and two doubles in 36 holes. A check of the stats shows that he didn't hit nearly enough greens (8-for-18 in each round) and when he did, he didn't putt very well (2.06 putts per green in regulation). Then again, these struggles are nothing new for Goosen. After finishing in the top-20 on the money list in every year since joining the U.S.-based tour in 2002, he slipped to 93rd last season with only one top-10 (a T-2 at the Masters) in 14 starts.

15. First to worst
Of those to complete two rounds at Riviera, the only player to finish lower than Goosen on the leaderboard was Steve Lowery, the previous week's champ at Pebble Beach, who was 1 shot worse with scores of 79-78. How did it happen? Let's compare his last two performances:

Steve Lowery: Last two starts
AT&T Northern Trust
Driving accuracy 70.9 42.9
Greens in regulation 65.3 36.1
Putts per round 27.0 30.0
Putts per GIR 1.60 2.08
Birdies (or better) 22 (in 72 holes) 2 (in 36 holes)
Bogeys or worse 10 (in 72 holes) 15 (in 36 holes)

We've often seen players lose steam after a mentally exhausting victory, but never to the extreme that Lowery did at Riviera. Here's guessing he lost his game somewhere along the coast while making the trip from the Monterey Peninsula to Los Angeles.

16. Quick change
Just over a month ago, Ernie Els released his 2008 schedule on his personal Web site -- and it didn't include the Accenture Match Play Championship. At the time, Els stated that he would hold off on starting his PGA Tour season until the Honda Classic in late-February. Though he owns seven career victories in the HSBC World Match Play (held at Wenworth, where Els has a home), he has never fared well in the U.S. version of the format. In six career stateside appearances at the WGC event, he owns a 2-6 record, only winning first-round matches in 2000 and '02. (He reached the semifinals in 2001 when the tournament was held in Australia.) And yet, this week Els had a change of heart, deciding in the days prior to the event's deadline that he would compete this week in Tucson, Ariz.

Competing in the Match Play is always a leery proposition for internationally-based players. Sure, there's guaranteed money and the chance of a big payout at the WGC event, but with half of the field done by Wednesday evening, it's a potentially long trip to play what often turns out to be fewer than 18 holes. If Els is making the commitment to play, expect him to stick around for a little while longer this time around.

17. Eye of the Tiger?
One byproduct of Els' decision was that it excluded 66th-ranked Anthony Kim from the Match Play field. (Brett Wetterich has already withdrawn due to a shoulder injury, leaving 65 players in the field.) The 22-year-old would have faced Tiger Woods in the opening round -- the first time the players would have played together since Woods' buddy Mark O'Meara made the following comments last month:

    "I think Tiger's mental game was probably stronger [at a similar age]. I think actual technique-wise, swing-wise, I reckon Anthony's swing is better at 21 or 22 than what Tiger's was."

Though Woods wouldn't have thought those to be fighting words, he likely would have used the comment as motivation against Kim. Instead, he'll face Holmes on Wednesday if no other players withdraw before the 5 p.m. Monday deadline.

18. Standing Pat
When the newest Official World Golf Ranking was first tabulated last Sunday, it looked as if Pat Perez might draw Woods in the first round. That won't happen, but Perez's comments to The Associated Press about the potential matchup were too hilarious to ignore:

    "The last person I want to play is Tiger. I don't want to embarrass myself right now. ... It would be a free show for me, watch him play. Unbelievable, this guy. I can't lose either way. If I beat him, I'm a hero. If I don't, I'm not supposed to win. If I beat him, I may quit, just pack in it. If anybody asks, 'When was the last time you played? Aw, I beat Tiger. I'm done.'"

Perez will now likely face Mickelson in the opening round ... but he's not much more optimistic about his chances there, either. "Yeah, that's much better," he said, "because he's playing like [dirt] right now."

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.

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