- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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Is there anything better than March Madness?
Everything coming down to the wire; the best players in the sport competing at peak levels; and plenty of drama hanging on each shot.
Yup, the PGA Tour season is certainly off to a terrific start.
What? You didn't think we were talking about basketball, did you?
The Weekly 18 starts with a guy you might not have been watching too carefully, but he happens to be the hottest player in the game.
1. Nobody Els
There are those who watched the final round of the Ford Championship at Doral last week and thought it had everything -- Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson going head-to-head in the final pairing, with Vijay Singh breathing right down their necks on the leaderboard.
Then there are those who know Doral was missing one main component. These are the people who are paying attention to golf on the global stage, the ones who check the fine print, keeping tabs on tours other than the PGA.
They know Ernie Els -- not Woods or Mickelson -- is the hottest golfer in the world right now.
Els has six top-six finishes in six starts this season, but his play has come largely unnoticed due to the fact that he's competed in only four rounds on the U.S. mainland. The South African started the season in Hawaii, picking up a T-3 at the Mercedes and a second place at the Sony (fueled by a final-round 62). He then traveled to San Diego for a T-6 at the Buick Invitational and hasn't been seen in the States since. Playing on the Euro Tour, Els finished fifth in Australia (Heineken Classic) and won back-to-back events in United Arab Emirates (Dubai Desert Classic) and Qatar (Qatar Masters), solidifying his grasp as the world's most globetrotting golfer -- a modern-day Gary Player, if you will.
On Sunday, Els wasn't just good; he was prophetic. Saying before his final round in Qatar that he'd need a 65 to claim the title, Els shot exactly that and got what he was looking for -- his 55th professional victory.
Els returns to the United States on Monday, and for his day off he will -- what else? -- play golf. He will partner with friend and South African PGA Tour chairman Johann Rupert in the member-guest at Seminole GC before heading to Orlando for this week's Bay Hill Invitational. The '98 champion at Arnold Palmer's event, Els only has one top 10 in his last six starts there. He'll join fellow top-fivers Woods, Singh and Retief Goosen (Mickelson will take the week off) in the field. If two or three players from this quartet are hovering near the top of the leaderboard on Sunday, Bay Hill could be just as exciting as its Doral counterpart.
2. St. Padraig's Day
With birdies on 10 of his first 13 holes during Sunday's final round of the Honda Classic, Padraig Harrington looked like he could pull off a "David Duval." No, the Irishman wasn't going to lose his golf swing and plummet in the World Ranking; rather, he was trying to duplicate the same feat as Duval in the 1999 Bob Hope Classic -- shooting a final-round 59 to win a tournament. Instead, Harrington made two bogeys, two pars and a birdie over the final five holes to shoot a 63, good enough to make his way into the three-way playoff. After Joe Ogilvie bowed out in the first extra hole, Harrington made par and watched as Singh slid a 2½-foot putt just past the hole. The look on Harrington's face was priceless as he seemed genuinely shocked that Singh missed the putt, certainly not the way he expected to claim his first PGA Tour victory.
3. Same old song
If there is one way Ogilvie can take solace in being eliminated after the first playoff hole, it's the fact that Singh didn't claim the title. After all, the two have some history. First there was last year's tour event in New Orleans, during which Singh came from behind in Monday's final round to beat Ogilvie by one shot. (Ogilvie's bunker chip on the last hole missed by inches.) Last September, Ogilvie again played solidly at the Canadian Open and again fell short as -- you guessed it -- Vijay won. The good news? Ogilvie earned $484,000 for his T-2 finish to remain the highest-ranked Ogilvie/Ogilvy on tour; he entered the Honda leading Geoff Ogilvy by a mere $594.
4. All-Around good guy
We've been singing the praises of Ogilvy for quite some time and when he won at Tucson last month, well, we were hardly shocked. Needing a birdie on the final hole of the Honda to reach the playoff, Ogilvy made double-bogey, but we have no doubt he'll be back in the winner's circle soon enough. Perhaps the only question is, how did he go this long without winning? Last season, Ogilvy led the tour in its All-Around statistic, which factors in a number of different categories, edging out a few pretty decent players in Singh, Mickelson and John Daly. That simply means he drives the ball well, hits his irons solidly and is a good putter. Ogilvy just needed that one win under his belt; now that he has it, expect to hear more from this member of the Australian Invasion.
5. Men are from Jupiter ...
Those who have seen some of Jesper Parnevik's outlandish outfits often think he's from another planet. Well, they're wrong; he's from Jupiter. Of course, that's Jupiter, Fla., just a 10-minute ride from Mirasol's Sunrise course where the Honda was held. Parnevik, a Sweden native, and fellow Jupiter resident Brett Wetterich took advantage of the home-turf knowledge throughout the week.
6. All Wett
The T-6 finish completed a whirlwind week for Wetterich at the Honda. When the field was set last Friday, six days before the event started, Wetterich was included. Then Angel Cabrera finished T-10 at Doral, automatically qualifying him for a spot and bumping Wetterich from the field. He then moved to first alternate and only got into the tournament when Ian Poulter withdrew early in the week. Playing with the lead midway through Sunday's final round, Wetterich made triple-bogey on 13; those three shots were the difference between making the playoff and finishing where he did.
7. Just the basic Fax
While his fellow Rhode Island buddy Billy Andrade seems rejuvenated after a down season -- he owns three top-15 finishes in his past four starts -- Brad Faxon was really struggling entering this week. Before his T-6 at the Honda, he missed the cut in five of his past six starts, a T-29 at the rain-shortened Nissan Open his only money-maker. Faxon's always known he can't bomb it with the Tigers and Phils of the world, but it's his short game that has forsaken him lately. Known as one of the best putters on tour, Faxon ranked 144th in putting average before the Honda.
8. Pay for play?
If you're a PGA Tour professional -- one of the rank-and-file players fighting to earn a paycheck each week -- you have a right to be angry about IMG's recent ploy to find a loophole in the tour's rule against appearance fees. In case you missed it, four IMG clients -- Singh, Harrington, Goosen and Sergio Garcia -- were each paid six figures to play in a Monday pro-am before the Ford Championship. Recently, Golf World reported that the agency sent a list of approved prices for separate tiers of players to tournament directors, seeking to circumvent the tour's rule which says players cannot be paid to compete in a tour event, unlike those of the European Tour. If you're a golf fan, however, there's no reason to be upset. Promising so-called "appearance fees" to top players only ensures that fans will see these favorite golfers play in more events they previously would have skipped. That said, don't be surprised to see the tour crack down on the IMG offer and eliminate any future efforts of this nature.
9. Mmm-mmm ... not so good
If you paid attention to the opening rounds of the Honda, then became inflicted with a case of March Madness over the weekend, you might be wondering what happened to Chad Campbell. The first-round leader after an 8-under 64, Campbell shot a second-round 71 and was still in contention entering Saturday's third round. That's when things really fell apart. The big Texan was 2 over on the front side and struggled mightily on the back, making six straight bogeys on holes 12 through 17 en route to an 80. For the week, he finished T-52.
10. Average Joe?
Joe Durant suffered a fate similar to that of Campbell at the end of Saturday's third round. Making his way up the leaderboard, Durant bogeyed his final five holes of the day to shoot a 73. But he woke up firing at the pins on Sunday, making birdie on each of his first seven holes, one off the PGA Tour record. Alas, that would be the end of Durant's good fortune, as he recorded five bogeys and no more birdies for the rest of his round on the way to a pedestrian 2-under 70. For the week, he finished T-5 in birdies (with 20) and T-3 in bogeys (with 15), en route to a T-34 finish.
11. Dam, that's windy
How strong was the wind during Friday's second round? Strong enough that Robert Damron had to hit a 3-wood approach into three consecutive par-4 holes, an almost unheard of occurrence on tour these days.
12. Membership's got its Perks
"Fluke" is one of those words -- like "choke" -- that professional athletes hate to hear. That said, there's been a few of them in big golf events over the past few years. Rich Beem, Shaun Micheel and Ben Curtis -- all major winners -- each come to mind, but perhaps the biggest fluke was Craig Perks, who holed shots from all over the course during a final round that clinched The Players Championship in 2002. With the win came a five-year exemption through 2007, and Perks has needed every bit of that to stay on tour. In 2003, he ranked 146th on the money list, which would have limited him to partial status without that exemption. Last year, he missed the cut in 15 of his first 19 events and finished 152nd, meaning he would have lost all playing privileges. And this year, things aren't much better. Perks has missed the cut in five of six starts -- including a 79-73 at the Honda to fail to see the weekend -- and he took away only $10,972 for his efforts with a T-61 at the FBR Open.
13. Masters hangover
While we're knocking players at the bottom of the money list, let's talk about Len Mattiace, too. He was visibly emotional following a playoff loss to Mike Weir at the Masters two years ago and perhaps he's still carrying that baggage. Since that day in April of '03, Mattiace has competed in 48 PGA Tour events and never finished higher than 14th. Last season, he ranked 188th on the money list but kept his card due to his two-win season of '02. So far this year, Mattiace -- like Perks -- has missed the cut in five of six starts, with only a T-64 at the Buick Invitational earning him money. In 15 total rounds, Mattiace has only broken 70 once.
14. Fluky Fulke
From flukes to Fulke. We're guessing you hadn't heard Pierre Fulke's name in a while -- three years to be exact. In 2002, Fulke was a member of the Ryder Cup team and just one year removed from a runner-up finish to Steve Stricker at the Accenture Match Play Championship. Since then, his ranking on the European Order of Merit has dropped from 35th to 88th to 134th, as he finished last season with 10 missed cuts in 18 starts. Then came this week's Qatar Masters, where Fulke jumped out to a first-round lead en route to a T-3 finish. Fluky? Perhaps.
15. Mechanic breaks down
Miguel Angel Jimenez lost last week's Dubai Desert Classic when he three-putted the final green and Els made eagle. But that wasn't the Spaniard's only recent heartache. Last season, Jimenez led the European Tour with four victories. He trailed only Harrington on the tour's Order of Merit among full-time players (as well as part-timers Els and Goosen overall). And he helped the Ryder Cup team to its second straight win. So it stood to reason that the Euro Tour's Golfer of the Year was ... Vijay Singh? That's right, despite playing in only nine official events, Singh garnered the accolades on both sides of the ocean. Singh did have one win on the Euro Tour. The only problem? It occurred in Wisconsin, site of the PGA Championship, which doubles as a tournament on both major tours.
16. Houston, goodbye
Held in the quiescence of the PGA Tour schedule -- two weeks after the Masters; three weeks before prestigious events the Byron Nelson and Colonial -- the field at the Shell Houston Open might not compare to that of its counterpart on the European Tour, the Johnnie Walker Classic. Many international players are using that lull in the United States to get back to their roots. Goosen, Adam Scott, Luke Donald and Paul Casey each committed this week to a Walker field, which already included Els and Garcia.
17. The ratings game
Did you happen to catch that final round of the Ford Championship at Doral? Yeah, we thought so -- you and the people in approximately 6,466,400 other households. The Woods-Mickelson duel garnered a 5.9 overnight rating, higher than all final rounds from a year ago other than the Masters and U.S. Open. For the final 30 minutes of the broadcast, that rating jumped to an 8.1.
18. Quote of the week
"I'd probably say there's a lot of hidden value."
-- Noted stock-watcher Ogilvie, on how he'd rate his golf game if it were a stock.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
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