Latest victory shows the full Monty once again
It's a conundrum that faces the Weekly 18 staff every single week: Which story should get the coveted pole position in the column?
Some weeks it's a fairly easy decision, with one major story easily taking a 5-shot lead over all other contenders. Other weeks it's not as simple, with too many opening acts and not enough headliners amongst the golfing landscape.
And then there are occasions like this past week, when the storylines come faster than a U.S. Open green without water.
Do we lead with K.J. Choi's 3-stroke win at the inaugural AT&T National? (Nah, just wrote about him during last month's Memorial Tournament.) Maybe Tiger Woods' return to the PGA Tour for the first time as a father and tournament host? (Been there, done that.) How about Brad Bryant's improbable U.S. Senior Open victory? (Not a bad possibility, but there wasn't much drama.) Or up-and-comer Jason Day's first win on the Nationwide Tour? (Eh, not enough fan interest.)
And then there's Monty. That's right, Colin Montgomerie came from behind to claim his first title in 19 months on Sunday, giving him something to smile about and giving the Weekly 18 our lead item.
The professional golf season is past its traditional midway point and making the turn toward the year's third major at Carnoustie. And, as always, when the British Open is just around the corner, thoughts turn to Colin Montgomerie and his often up-and-down, topsy-turvy, brilliant-yet-luckless career. After all, Monty is a 31-time European Tour title winner ... but is still seeking his first major victory. He won the Order of Merit each year from 1993-99 and again in 2005 ... but hasn't won since that season.
Montgomerie posted a final-round 65 to claim the European Open by one stroke at The K Club on Sunday, which should be considered a good thing if you appreciate grand champions and great story lines. Perhaps we've been wearing our "Be Nice To Monty" button for too long, but having the great Scot once again at the peak of his game heading toward the British Open can only provide more entertainment to the festivities at Carnoustie.
"This is a new era for me," Montgomerie said following his latest victory. "I am a competitor and the one thing I have missed is the competition and when I am in contention I don't tend to fear it. ... It is just great at 44 to come back and win again as sometimes that is the end of one's career and I feel this is a new beginning for me and I can look forward now."
Looking forward, Monty will once again be the sentimental favorite in Scotland, a native son still in search of the white whale -- a major championship -- that has eluded him for so long. While U.S. galleries get behind Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and everyman John Daly at stateside majors, support will be even greater for Montgomerie along the familiar links of Carnoustie next week.
Don't be surprised if Monty makes one more run at the Claret Jug in front of the hometown fans once again. He sounds like a man still on a mission.
"I am still capable of winning," he said. "I have proved it again. I have proved it to myself and hopefully I can do it again."
Tiger Woods' overall total of 29.75 putts per round (T-22 in the field) and 1.764 putts per GIR (21st) doesn't sound awful, but it was the difference between another ho-hum top-10 finish and a run at the first-ever AT&T National title on Sunday. Any discourse about Woods' problems on the greens this season, however, is unfounded, based on the numbers. Though he ranks 115th in putts per round (29.47), that's simply a byproduct of hitting so many greens in regulation. And though Woods' putting average of 1.763 (17th on tour) is his worst number since 2002, he's been only slightly better in recent years. Even so, you can bet Tiger will be putting in some extra long sessions with the flatstick leading up to his next start at the British Open.
In his first round back after missing the cut at the U.S. Open due in part to a wrist injury, Phil Mickelson shot a 4-over 74 at the AT&T and failed to make a birdie for the second time in his last three rounds. (He also didn't post one red number in the first round at Oakmont.) Mickelson followed with a second-round 73, which included double-bogeys on two of his final three holes, to miss the cut by three strokes. "[It's] not quite a hundred [percent], but it will be all right," Mickelson said of the wrist prior to the tournament. "I'm going to be leery all year. It's not like I'm going to ever be confident and going aggressively at it." Even if he fully recovers from the injury soon, history says we shouldn't expect much from Phil for the remainder of the season. For his career, Mickelson owns 24 of his 31 career victories before the U.S. Open (the traditional midway point of the season) and only seven after that point.
Ask Woods and Mickelson and they'll acknowledge that they're fierce rivals. Not on the golf course, mind you -- in ping-pong. The stories of Woods and Mickelson doing battle in Ryder and Presidents cup locker rooms are legendary and Mickelson ensured recently that the rivalry will remain within the families for at least another generation by buying Woods' newborn daughter, Sam Alexis, a miniature ping-pong table. "We wanted to give Sam Alexis a little head start," Mickelson said. "Given that Amy and I seem to own Tiger and Elin, we just thought that our kids have had a head start; we wanted to give Sam Alexis a little jumpstart on her game." Woods, for his part, was less adversarial when speaking of the gift. "What they did was awfully nice," he said. "To have, you know, a person you compete against and the person that you go at toe-to-toe all the time; we certainly appreciate that kind of warmth. To come from Phil and Amy, it's very special."
Stat of the week: Vijay Singh, Mickelson and Woods checked in at Nos. 1, 3 and 4 on the PGA Tour's scoring average list entering the AT&T, while K.J. Choi brought up the rear in that category's top 20. Aside from those four, however, none of the other 16 players in the top 20 in scoring average have yet to record a victory yet this season. At 70.26 strokes per round -- just .08 behind Singh -- Jose Coceres ranks second on the list, while David Toms, Bo Van Pelt, Kevin Na, Matt Kuchar, Jim Furyk, Tom Lehman, Heath Slocum, Fredrik Jacobson, Daniel Chopra, Justin Rose, Jerry Kelly, Anthony Kim, Robert Allenby, Sean O'Hair and Steve Stricker round out the top 20 before Choi. What does it mean? There's more to winning on tour than consistently shooting low numbers.
Pat Perez was barely inside the top-10 when he concluded his final-round 67 at Congressional, but he had climbed all the way up to T-3 by the time every player had walked off the course. As the highest top-10 finisher in the field not already exempt into the British Open, Perez punched his ticket to Carnoustie by making birdies on two of his final three holes Sunday. (Pelle Edberg made the field by his similar result at the European Open, while Hunter Mahan and Woody Austin did so by virtue of their places on the PGA Tour money list, though Austin reportedly won't make the trip.) It was Perez's fourth top-10 in 18 starts this year, which may not sound like much, but has made for a successful campaign so far, considering he's dealt with consistent injuries to both elbows for much of the past year.
Stuart Appleby owns eight career PGA Tour victories, so it's tough to say the Aussie isn't a clutch player in high-pressure situations, but recent history shows he's had some uninspired Sundays, too. Playing in the final group at the Masters, he shot 75 to finish T-7. At the U.S. Open, he was five back entering the last round, but shot 79 and finished T-26. And at the AT&T National, he was the 54-hole leader by two strokes, but made four bogeys and a double in his first seven holes on Sunday en route to a 6-over 76 and a share of third place. For the season, Appleby's final-round scoring average of exactly 73 ranks 158th on tour.
Host course Congressional CC was deemed a home run by seemingly every player in this week's AT&T field and is locked in for a second year in 2008. However, it's apparent that even if the site becomes a long-term home for this event, back-up plans will be in the works for 2009 and 2011, when the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open, respectively, will be held at Congressional. So, what are the options? PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem addressed the issue earlier this week.
• On the possibility of the tournament moving to TPC Avenel, where the Kemper Open/Booz Allen Classic was held every year but one from 1987 through last season: "Really, the struggle with Avenel in 2009 is that it is just starting construction this year."
• On Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, site of the 2005 Presidents Cup: "It would certainly be an option."
• On a military base course: "Well, there are some military courses and I think that it could be staged there."
• On the possibility that the venue could rotate every year: "It's possible. It's possible. I honestly at this point, I don't think we nor the [Tiger Woods] Foundation have any particular game plan."
• On whether it could actually move out of the Washington, D.C., area during those years: "I don't want to ever say never. I think the focus is Washington, D.C., for the long term, but we've got to be practical and see what develops in terms of what can happen."
The Weekly 18 has often spied Todd Hamilton and Anthony Kim at the practice range and putting green together this season, with the former British Open champ usually tutoring the PGA Tour rookie. Might sound a bit backwards, considering Kim already owns four top-10s this year, while Hamilton has missed the cut in 15 of 19 starts, but it makes perfect sense according to the rook. After Hamilton won at Royal Troon in 2004, the ex-University of Oklahoma player came back to the school to compete in an alumni match against members of that year's team. He faced Kim, who was then a sophomore on the team and recalls getting "whooped." He's been going to school ever since. "That guy, his short game is unbelievable," Kim told us this week. "Ever since then, I've been watching how he chips and practices. He's got the best hands that I know of out here. To be around that makes me better. To play with him makes me better. And to learn from what he says, all his experience on different kinds of surfaces and how to hit shots under pressure has helped me tremendously."
Kim may be among the leading candidates for the rookie of the year award, but that doesn't mean he hasn't suffered his share of burnout lately. "I haven't touched a club in two weeks," he said on the practice range prior to the AT&T before quickly reassessing, adding, "I mean, I put 'em in the travel bag, but that's pretty much it." Kim said the 61 competitive rounds in the year's first six months were more than he's ever played in that time frame before. Despite being the youngest player on tour at just 22 years old (his birthday was June 19), he said he's never felt any pressure during the season. "This is my first year of many," Kim said. "If a guy is 40 years old and it's his rookie year, he's going to have more pressure than I am. I have 30 more years out here." He shot 71-69-69-73 to finish T-25 at the AT&T.
Will MacKenzie has never competed in any of the four major championships and his quest will have to wait one more month as he missed out on British Open qualifying this past Monday. Well inside the number with only a few holes left to play, Willie Mac missed a 6-foot birdie putt on the sixth hole (his 15th) at Oakland Hills' South Course and promptly slammed his putter to the ground, breaking it and rendering it unusable for the remainder of the round. MacKenzie was forced to finish up with a 60-degree wedge on the greens and ended double-bogey-double-bogey, though as he told us the next day, "It didn't really matter," meaning the strokes he lost weren't due to poor putting. He missed qualifying for the Open by two shots.
It's been 11 years since Oakland Hills' South Course hosted a U.S. Open (Steve Jones won there in 1996), but word on the street is that the Bloomfield Hills, Mich., course is in the running for another sometime in the future. The USGA is booked up through 2014, but Oakland Hills, which will host the 2008 PGA Championship, could be in the running for 2015 and beyond. Those who competed in the British Open qualifier on the venue's two courses this past Monday are already quivering in their soft spikes. "I thought it was borderline almost unfair," Brandt Snedeker told the Detroit Free Press. "I thought it was a great golf course. I'm sure it was at one time. The way they set it up today and what they've done to it -- I understand they're trying to get it ready for an Open back here. It was probably harder than Oakmont with not-as-hard conditions." When pressed for an opinion the next day, another player who didn't qualify said, "It's hard enough already. Once the USGA gets their hands on it, it's going to be next to impossible."
Meanwhile, there was some weird, wild stuff taking place at British qualifying on Sunningdale's Old Course in England. The R&A looked ruefully like the USGA by placing an "unplayable" pin position on the par-3 fourth hole during Monday's play, with the hole location on a severe slope at the green's front edge. How unplayable was it? Ricardo Gonzalez five-putted, Edoardo Molinari and Alexander Noren four-putted, and Brett Rumford turned a 2-foot birdie putt into a 35-footer for par. So the R&A suspended the event while the hole location was moved. The only problem? Of the eight players who had already completed the hole and were asked to play it again after the round, a few actually made a worse score on the easier pin position, as Fredrik Andersson Hed turned par into double-bogey and Richard Bland turned birdie into par. "I said to my caddie we could be here all day," said Bland, who failed to qualify. "It was just a farce and I'm disappointed with the R&A. In this day and age, you expect a bit better."
Long live the 1-iron! Two years ago, we penned a piece declaring the demise of the aptly named "butterknife," but much to our pleasant surprise, Brad Bryant pulled the club out of the bag on the tee box of the U.S. Senior Open's final hole with a three-stroke lead, striping one right down the fairway. "Best swing you've made all week," Bryant's caddie, Tony Smith, told him. It led to a routine par and his first career major championship victory. And somewhere, Joey Sindelar, Jose Maria Olazabal and maybe even Gene Sarazen were smiling.
Reader Casey in Austin, Texas, (aka Crenshawville) e-mailed on Friday evening, singing the praises of Ben Crenshaw, who was three strokes behind leader Tom Watson at the time. "He's done that before," we countered. "Let's see if he keeps it up over the weekend." So sure were we that he would fail to remain amongst the leaders that we promised Casey a 100-word spot in the Weekly 18 if Crenshaw was seriously in contention coming down the back nine on Sunday. Well, he was. Uh, sort of. A third-round 76 dropped him on the leaderboard, but Crenshaw bounced back with a final-day 2-under 70 to finish in second place, 3 shots behind winner Brad Bryant. All of which means Casey is now at the bat: "Surprised to see Ben Crenshaw's name among the leaders at the U.S. Senior Open? You shouldn't be. The former state champion at Austin High, national champion at the University of Texas, and two-time Masters winner has a pretty good track record at the British Open (five top-five finishes) and Whistling Straits looks straight out of Scotland. He came up short this week, but look for Gentle Ben as a dark horse at the Senior British Open at Muirfield in a few weeks. That's where, in 1980, he finished third to another guy with a decent record at the British Open -- Tom Watson."
Call it the first of many for Jason Day, who won the Nationwide Tour's Legend Financial Group Classic by 1 stroke over Scott Gardiner on Sunday. In doing so the Aussie, who's still four months shy of his 20th birthday, became the youngest player to win any PGA Tour-sanctioned event, besting 1911 U.S. Open champion Johnny McDermott by two months. "To win at the age of 19 is a great accomplishment," Day said. "This goes down in history. It is a great achievement to be the tour's youngest winner." He also appears to be the latest in a long line of world-class players from Down Under. Needing birdie on the final hole for the victory, Day did just that -- his 22nd red number overall for the tournament. But it was his proficiency for avoiding mistakes, especially during the weekend, that gave Day the win; after making bogey on his first hole of the third round, he didn't make another for the final 35 holes of the event.
Sihwan Kim ensured he'll be the most decorated golfer of Stanford's Class of 2011 -- and yes, that includes Michelle Wie -- when the sixth-ranked junior player won the prestigious Rolex Tournament of Champions this week, adding to his 2004 U.S. Junior Amateur title and seven other AJGA victories. The latter number puts him in elite company, tied with Tiger Woods, Charles Howell III and Bob May for second-most all-time behind Phil Mickelson. Not bad for a kid who started playing at age 9 because his parents thought he was too chubby. "They didn't think I could run or anything," Kim said, "so they thought golf was pretty good for me." On the girls' side of the draw at the Rolex, Courtney Ellenbogen stormed past the field, winning by 5 strokes to claim her second career AJGA title. "It's always hard to play with a lead but I felt my game was good enough and strong enough to compete," she said. "I've been working hard all summer, so it's nice to see it all come together." Like Kim, Ellenbogen is in good company, too, joining the likes of Grace Park, Morgan Pressel and Esther Choe on the champions list.
"Hey, take it easy on Duke this year, will ya?"
-- Duke University grad Joe Ogilvie to University of Maryland men's basketball coach (and Congressional member) Gary Williams as they passed each other by the Congressional clubhouse on Monday.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com