Clean slate not always the best thing
Vijay Singh won his ninth tournament of the season at the Chrysler Championship on Sunday. He zipped past the $10 million barrier. He improbably lapped the field -- maybe three times -- in the Player of the Year race.
It's not like we're not in awe of Singh's season; it's just that there's nothing left to say and nothing left to hear. He's had an awesome year and ... ummm ... played really well and ... ummm ... he's a really good golfer.
See? We'd rather write -- and read -- about something you can really sink your teeth into. That's why the Weekly 18 starts with a reason that the lives of professional golfers are more pressure-packed than those of any other athletes.
The Latin phrase tabula rasa is the literal translation for the words clean slate. It's often used to refer to persons of foreign countries emigrating to the United States, who see the new land as a tabula rasa for their new life.
In PGA Tour terms, every season is a clean slate. For those golfers seeking to upgrade their standing on the professional circuit, this is a welcome aspect; but for those who have toiled amongst the world's best for years -- think Jose Maria Olazabal, Paul Azinger and Billy Mayfair -- the tabula rasa can mean a kind of pressure unknown by any other professional athlete of such magnitude.
Imagine Ken Griffey, Jr. needing a home run in the final game of the season just to keep his job for another year. Or Jerry Rice needing a fourth quarter touchdown in December. Or Reggie Miller needing one more meaningless three-pointer before the final buzzer.
Sound far-fetched? Well, for star athletes in professional team sports, it is; most of those players know they'll have a job until they decide they want to hang it up.
For Olazabal, Azinger and Mayfair, however, tour rules don't allow for a down season. Each one witnessed the dark part of that clean slate by finishing outside of the top 125 on the money list and losing their fully-exempt privileges for 2005. Sure, each will use plenty of sponsor's exemptions and other ways to compete on tour next season (Mayfair is already on record as saying he will use a one-time exemption for being in the top 50 on the all-time tour money list), but their counterparts in other professional sports will never know the heartache involved in failing to hold onto a job for another season.
Perhaps the best tidbit from Singh's amazing season? With a win at the Tour Championship, Singh could earn more than double that of the No. 2 player on the money list (currently Phil Mickelson). By comparison, in Tiger Woods' record-setting 2000 season he failed to double up the No. 2 man on the money list (coincidentally, also Mickelson) by more than $300,000.
Singh should get all the credit in the world for his nine win, $10 million season, but those who wish to detract from his records can point to the amount of starts he's made on tour this year as a factor. After playing in the Tour Championship, Singh will finish the season with 29 starts; the next golfer on the money list with as many starts this season is No. 15 Mark Hensby. In fact, Singh is earning checks at a rate of $383,041 per week, just this week passing Ernie Els, who previously led the tour with $375,268 per week in his 15 starts.
After his most recent squabble with the PGA Tour over the amount of its events he should play each season -- not his first battle with the tour and most assuredly not his last -- Els withdrew from the Chrysler with an undisclosed hand injury, perhaps part of a message that the world's No. 2-ranked player won't be told what to do and when to do it. For its part, the tour must have been miffed after featuring Els' image in print and television advertisements in days leading up to the tournament.
With the tour hitting it's final swing in Florida, this is generally the time when, every two years, the PGA of America interviews potential candidates for the Ryder Cup captaincy at its Palm Beach Gardens offices. Buried in the small print this week was news that Azinger had possibly taken himself out of the running for the job which was supposed to have been Payne Stewart's before his untimely death in 1999. When it was announced years ago that the event would be held at The K Club in Ireland, Stewart knew that's where he would be captain. Now left scrambling for another choice, the PGA had targeted Azinger among its candidates. One of Stewart's closest friends, Azinger stated this week, "I'm just not quite ready to do it," despite encouragement from Stewart's widow, Tracey. Other candidates for the job include Tom Lehman, Mark O'Meara, Fred Couples, Larry Nelson and Corey Pavin.
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Esteban Toledo made the biggest headlines a year ago, backing into the 125 position and keeping his tour card for '04. You may remember at the Disney, Toledo made the cut, but was DQ'd on a rules violation two days later when playing partner Marco Dawson informed tour officials of an unintentionally incorrect drop that Toledo made on the 18th hole. He then missed the cut at the Chrysler, but watched during the weekend as he held onto the final fully-exempt position. This season Toledo has struggled mightily, missing the cut in all but eight events, his best finish a T-21 at the B.C. Open. Despite leading the tour with 36 starts this season, he finished ranked 211th on the money list with a mere $115,185 in earnings this season.
This stat comes straight from the PGA Tour, which knows its fans dig the long ball. Entering the Chrysler, of the 198 ranked players, the shortest hitter on the list (Pavin) is averaging 268.2 yards. In 1980, the first year stats were kept, that would have been good for 12th, just 6.1 yards behind the leader. Interestingly enough, this is the first season since 2000 in which Pavin's driving distance actually decreased from the previous year; he averaged 268.9 yards per drive in '03.
How much do statistics mean on the PGA Tour? Just about nothing, according to some of this year's numbers. Scott Hend, who was the tour's second-longest driver entering the Chrysler, finished ranked 136th on the money list. So it must mean more to drive it straight, huh? Maybe not; Craig Bowden was the third-most accurate driver, but 143rd on the money list. Even Jeff Brehaut, who led the tour in total driving (which combines distance and accuracy stats), was 149th. Drive for show, putt for dough, you say? Maybe, but Greg Chalmers was tied (with Stewart Cink) for the top spot in putting average, but 156th on the money list. And Dan Forsman, who was the best from the bunker, ranked 165th where it counts.
So which statistic does matter on tour? It's the little-known "par-breaker" stat, which is, quite simply, the percentage of holes played under par. The top five, in order, this season: Singh, Woods, Mickelson, Els and John Daly. The moral of the story: Make lots of eagles and birdies and you'll be right at the top of the money list.
Two weeks ago, Nick Watney was toiling at 36th on the Nationwide money list -- enough to earn another year back on that tour, but far from the top 20 spot he needed to earn a PGA Tour card. Then Watney finished second at the Miccosukee Championship to move up to 19th on the money list and followed by going one better at the Nationwide Tour Championship. On Sunday, Watney clinched his first career win and claimed one of 20 PGA Tour memberships for 2005 that were handed out in Prattville, Ala.
If you've caught any Nationwide event telecasts during the past few weeks, you can't help but hear the biggest statistic on that tour this season: Five graduates of last season's Nationwide Tour won tournaments on the PGA Tour this year. Who will follow Hensby, Zach Johnson, Ryan Palmer, Vaughn Taylor and Andre Stolz as rookie winners in 2005? Perhaps no one, but here's our choice of five players to watch next season on tour: Jimmy Walker (finished first on the Nationwide money list this season), Ryuji Imada (he's been around for a while and played all over the world), Brendan Jones (hotshot Aussie who finished fifth on the money list despite playing in only eight events), Franklin Langham (Augusta, Ga., native has been on tour before, should know what to expect) and Kevin Stadler (he's got the right genes).
Wondering what ever happened to Ty Tryon, the phenom who gained a full tour exemption through Q-school in 2001 at age 17? He's now a 20-year-old journeyman and still waiting for another big chance at the big time. After missing the cut in 16 of 22 Nationwide events this season, Tryon tried to earn a card through Q-school once again, beginning with this weekend's first stage of qualifying at Martin Downs CC in Palm City, Fla. Tryon, who would be a college junior right now had he not turned professional out of high school, shot 72-71-71-71 to finish T-36 and fail to make the next stage of qualifying. At 199th on the Nationwide money list, Tryon will have no status on any tour in 2005.
Casey Martin made national headlines when he battled the PGA Tour in court to receive special exception to use a cart in events due to a degenerative leg condition in 1999. Since then Martin hasn't made much noise on the course; this season he made the cut in only two of eight Nationwide events, finishing 174th on the final money list. But Martin hasn't given up his quest to make the PGA Tour. In the first stage of Q-school at San Juan Oaks in Hollister, Calif., Martin shot 67-69-69-70 to finish in third place and easily clinch a spot in the second stage of qualifying.
Two weeks after blowing a three-shot lead with five holes to go at the Samsung World Championship, eventually falling victim to a classic Annika Sorenstam charge, Grace Park must have felt pretty good after clinching the CJ Nine Bridges Classic with an Annika-like back side -- five birdies in her final nine holes. Perhaps making the victory even sweeter for Park was knowing that he closest competitor was Sorenstam (along with Carin Koch) who finished five strokes back.
You've got to admire Isabelle Beisiegel for her grit and determination to break down barriers at the men's PGA Tour Q-school. Beisiegel, who ranked 79th on this year's LPGA money list, became the first woman to ever try to qualify for the men's tour last week at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif. However, Beisiegel is no Sorenstam or Park. She's not even a Katherine Hull, Paula Marti or Silvia Cavalleri -- all of whom finished above Beisiegel this season. Either the 25-year-old Canadian has tons of unrealized potential or she thinks she's way better than she actually is. Hence these comments after shooting 84-80-80-79 to finish last among the 78 golfers who completed all four rounds of La Quinta's first stage (players must qualify through two stages to even make it to the final PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament): "The biggest thing I am going to take away from this week is that strength and length were not a factor. I already knew that, but now I have proof." Perhaps not, but something in Beisiegel's game is a factor in why she has not been more successful. Some advice for the young pro: Work more on your game than trying to make the headlines. After all, as Annika can attest to, you'd better watch what you wish for.
Professional golfers often deal with a lot of be's -- "Be the right club!", "Be the ball!" -- but not as much with bees. On Thursday at the Volvo Masters, Jose Manuel Lara saw plenty of both. After Lara was stung by a bee on the fifth hole, he rebounded, birdieing five of his final 10 holes to be tied for the lead after the first round.
He may not be Deion Sanders or Bo Jackson, but Rick Rhoden is a successful professional two-sport athlete. As a major league pitcher, Rhoden compiled a 151-125 career record in 16 seasons, but he's been known more recently for being the top player on the Celebrity Players Tour. On Tuesday, Rhoden, 51, will begin his second quest to become a member of the Champions Tour by competing in Q-school at Marsh Creek CC in St. Augustine, Fla. Last year Rhoden shot 70-68-70-75 to finish one shot out of a playoff for 16th place, the final conditionally exempt spot.
"It's halfway there and he didn't say, 'Get in the hole. He says, 'Car.' "
--Jonathan Byrd, speaking of playing partner Mathias Gronberg's reaction after hitting his tee shot on the par-3 15th hole on Friday. Gronberg missed the cut and will need to make it through Q-school again, but yes, he did take home a new car after making his ace.
Information from ESPN.com's wire services is included.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
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