Dream season for PGA Tour so far
If you didn't enjoy the final round of the Ford Championship at Doral, then you simply don't enjoy professional golf.
Does it get any more dramatic than that?
Yes, we know: The same thing was said about Mickelson's win last year at the Masters. And again in September, when Woods battled Vijay Singh with the No. 1 ranking on the line. But there was something electric in the Miami heat on Sunday, something that said this is going to be a special year on the PGA Tour.
The Weekly 18 starts with that notion in mind.
With all due respect to the senior circuit, the PGA Tour is the real Champions Tour so far this season.
And that's just perfect as far as the PGA Tour is concerned.
With a television contract still in limbo and its most recognizable player finding it harder to win events, the tour entered this season in dangerous make-or-break territory. Coming off a year in which Singh, a talented yet highly unpopular player, garnered nine wins and no-names such as Ryan Palmer, Andre Stolz and Bart Bryant also saw the winner's circle, it was important for the top players to start finding the tops of leaderboards early in the season.
Sunday's final round is exactly the kind of shot in the arm that the tour needed.
After all, nothing will infuse interest in professional golf quite like the two most popular players on the planet battling head-to-head in the final pairing of an early-season tournament. Surely, the Woods/Mickelson pairing kept many fans glued to the couch; that's uncommon in the golf season before the Players Championship, or even the Masters.
Unlike last year's Deutsche Bank Championship and Tour Championship, late-season events which featured Woods battling Singh and Retief Goosen, respectively, in the final rounds, the Ford Championship will help build momentum. And if the rest of the season is anything like the first two months, we could be in for the most entertaining year of golf ever.
Last September, Woods lost in a head-to-head battle with Singh in the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship. The Labor Day letdown not only meant a continuation of Tiger's stroke-play event winless streak, but knocked him out of the top spot in the World Ranking for the first time in 264 weeks. So it was quite ironic that Woods regained that title in another duel for the ages Sunday. With Singh finishing T-3 at Doral, Tiger moved up to No. 1 once again, but will he remain there for another five years? Even if he does hold onto the spot until 2010, expect a bigger challenge from the likes of Singh, Mickelson, Scott and Ernie Els along the way.
Not only were Woods and Mickelson neck-and-neck on the leaderboard throughout the weekend, but their event statistics looked similar, too. The two tied for the most birdies in the field (27). Tiger finished second in driving distance, T-7 in putts per round and T-4 in greens in regulation, while Mickelson was sixth, third and T-7 in those categories. About the only thing they didn't do well was put the ball in the fairway. Tiger's driving accuracy was 46.4 percent (T-68 for the week); Phil's was even worse at 44.6 percent (T-74).
Perhaps Mickelson was correct in his recent assessment that his game needed to get longer in order for his scores to get better. There's still some work to do, however. During the final two rounds of the Ford, Mickelson was 4 under on the eight par-5 holes that he played (four each day). Woods, meanwhile, was 9 under on those same eight holes, a difference of five strokes in two days.
Sunday's final round marked the third time that Woods and Mickelson have squared off head-to-head in the final pairing of a tournament, but each has had a similar ending. In the 2003 Buick Invitational, Tiger led Phil by two (and Brad Faxon by one) entering the final round, but shot a 68 to Mickelson's 72 and won by four strokes. In the 2001 Masters, Woods held a two-stroke lead over Mickelson on Saturday night and beat him by three.
To say that Tiger "swung hard" on the 16th tee during Saturday's round would be a gross understatement. Woods gripped, ripped and recoiled like Barry Bonds trying to swat a pitch into McCovey Cove ... and he, too, hit a home run. Tiger was the only player to drive the green on the 347-yard par-4 (320 to the front of the green), barely missing his eagle putt and settling for a birdie.
As three of the world's top four players battled it out on the leaderboard in Miami, the other member of the Big Four was having a pretty good weekend, too. Els won the European Tour's Dubai Desert Classic in dramatic fashion. Trailing playing partner Miguel Angel Jimenez by one stroke heading to the par-5 18th hole, Els mirrored the leader's second shot, as both reached the green in two. The difference was Ernie holed his putt for eagle while Jimenez three-putted for par, giving Els a one-shot victory.
As if Els needed to bolster his claim as the world's preeminent global player, just take a look at the past few weeks. The Big Easy was the only player invited to the Match Play to forego the event, opting to spend the week at home instead. And this week he was the only player in the top 12 of the World Ranking to skip Doral. Els has had his run-ins with the PGA Tour in the past and it's apparent he doesn't feel any pressure to compete in certain events just because the world's top players are.
So much for the impending divorce negatively affecting Annika Sorenstam's game. Just weeks after publicly announcing that she was separating from husband David Esch, Sorenstam won in her first LPGA Tour start of the season at the MasterCard Classic. Annika trailed third-round leader Cristie Kerr by three strokes, but put on her usual Sunday best, shooting a final-round 68 to win by three.
If you can think of a Sunday that featured three more popular -- and talented -- winners than Woods, Els and Sorenstam, we'd love to hear it. They have combined for 173 individual professional titles in their careers (50 for Woods; 54 for Els; 69 for Sorenstam).
Even in a non-Ryder Cup year like this one, it seems the Europeans are still getting the better of their American counterparts. Wednesday's decision to name Ian Woosnam as captain of the 2006 team and Nick Faldo for 2008 was a brilliant move. Not only did the European committee avoid questions about snubbing a deserving man, it also eliminated any speculation that would have come up the next two years. Now all the emphasis will be placed on the PGA of America, as it will name a man to counter Faldo after next year's competition.
Don't expect the naming of successive Ryder Cup captains to be a one-time event for the Europeans. Thomas Bjorn, a member of the 14-person committee which oversees the team, said before Woosnam and Faldo were named that they, along with Colin Montgomerie and Jose Maria Olazabal, would be the next four captains. Now that the committee is set for the next four years, don't be surprised to see a 2009 decision to name Monty and JMO to head the next two teams.
Keep an eye on Olazabal in upcoming weeks. Despite having limited status on tour this season (he was 142nd on last year's money list), Olazabal has already competed in five events and made the cut in each. The 39-year-old Spaniard has finished T-6 and T-9 in his last two events. With the Masters around the corner, look for the two-time champ to make another run at Augusta.
Craig Parry's 176-yard eagle from the 18th fairway in the first extra hole of last year's Ford Championship was one of the most dramatic shots in recent memory ... but maybe it wasn't so special after all. Esteban Toledo, in the first group to play the 18th hole in this year's first round, hit the first approach shot to the green and promptly holed it, just like Parry. Too bad his luck wasn't as good for the remainder of the week; in the second round, Toledo made double-bogey on that hole to miss the cut.
The most surprising round at Doral came from Marco Dawson on Thursday. Playing in his first round on the PGA Tour in almost a year, Dawson shot a bogey-free 64 before finally finishing T-79 for the event. The German-born 41-year-old underwent surgery on a ruptured disc following last year's Honda Classic and is now playing on a Major Medical Extension.
The LPGA Tour returned to Mexico for the first time in 30 years this week at the inaugural MasterCard Classic in the town of Huixquilucan (good luck running that one through the spell-checker). It got us wondering how long it will take for the PGA Tour to follow suit. Currently, Tim Finchem's league plays all events on U.S. soil except the Canadian Open (and the British Open and roving WGC tournaments, which all count as tour events). In this respect, the PGA Tour is falling behind. The LPGA started its season with a World Cup event in South Africa, will play twice in Mexico and once each in Canada, South Korea and France; the Nationwide Tour played in Panama, Australia and New Zealand before hitting the States; the European Tour went a full month before competing in Europe; and even the Canadian Tour branches out to Florida and California (though that is due more to weather than trying to attract more fans globally). Makes us wonder how much longer it will be until the PGA Tour has regular stops in countries like Australia, Ireland and South Africa, home to some of its best players.
There is little doubt the Accenture Match Play Championship will be moved from La Costa Resort and Spa after the tournament's contract with the course expires next season. Early talk has revolved around the event moving to Florida (ending the West Coast swing one week early) or Arizona (which would join the Chrysler Classic of Tucson as dual events in that state), but if tournament sponsors want to keep it in San Diego's North County they have a world-class alternative right in La Costa's back yard. Aviara Golf Club at the Four Seasons Resort is just down the street in Carlsbad and offers a terrific layout and plenty of ocean scenery. At 7,007 yards, the course would be shorter than most PGA Tour venues, but would put an imperative on ball-striking and putting, both of which would play well in a match-play format.
"I don't know what the big hoopla about [Mickelson] is. He is one of the best players in the world. He has been one of the best players in the world since he was 12. ... So it's not a shock really to me and to the other guys out here. He's a world-class player and he's been a world-class player since he started playing the game."
--Billy Andrade, on his third-round playing partner.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
MORE GOLF HEADLINES
- Kuchar surges, holes out for RBC Heritage win
- Jimenez closes out win in Champions debut
- Wie ends drought, claims 1st win on U.S. soil
- Westwood ends drought with Malaysian win