Couples at Memorial was must-see TV
Fred Couples sauntered down the 15th fairway on Sunday, his ball resting just six feet from the hole, chants of "FRED-DIE! FRED-DIE!" echoing throughout Muirfield Village.
OK, so he missed the putt. And, OK, so he lost the Memorial Tournament by one stroke. We're not going to let that ruin our good time.
The Weekly 18 begins where Couples left off this week, with golf fans yearning for more.
Even though he came in second place, one thing was apparent during the final round of the Memorial: Golf needs more players like Couples.
That is to say, golf needs more players who are recognizable to the casual fan, players who keep you from reaching for the remote control when they're in contention.
Currently, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are the two most popular PGA Tour members on the planet, with Ernie Els a close third. Nothing wrong with that. People love a winner and these are three of the four most talented players around. (The fourth, No. 1-ranked Vijay Singh, is idolized by some, abhorred by others.)
Then there's Couples. Sure, he owns 15 career victories, including a green jacket, and even had a three-month stint atop the World Ranking at one time. But he's built a reputation as an everyman, a guy with an easy manner and an even easier swing. A guy who, as reported by ESPN's Scott Van Pelt, wants his chance to Stump the Schwab.
In order for professional golf to thrive, it needs more of these fan favorites.
Face it: If you were stopped at a traffic light and Bart Bryant, Richard Green and Bo Van Pelt -- three players who were in contention on Sunday -- walked across the street, would you even give them a second glance? They're all successful players and surely each have their groups of fans, but too often tour stalwarts have become faceless men in a sea of caps and collared shirts.
Of course, Couples isn't the only guy on tour who could claim first prize in a Mr. Popularity contest. John Daly's grip-it-and-rip-it style and downhome approach to life has earned him legions of fans. Chris DiMarco has developed a strong following for his feistiness, determination and Mickelson-like way of coming close-but-no-cigar in major tournaments. Fred Funk is followed by his own fan club, a gang that calls itself Funk's Punks and adores the 5-foot-7 guy they call Chickenhawk. And Adam Scott is a major player on the teeny-bopper scene, a combination of talent and charm that could earn him the name Australian Idol.
After that, the cupboard gets a little bare. Golf needs more Freddies. And golf fans need more goosebumps.
He may still be the second-most famous Bart to come across your TV screen on a Sunday, but Bryant's second career PGA Tour victory validated a career that had gone largely unnoticed until last season. And even the most ardent golf fan may have missed his first win, which came at last year's Texas Open on the same day as the Ryder Cup singles matches. Needless to say, La Cantera didn't exactly have the best field of the season, with 24 of the world's elite players automatically eliminated due to another obligation and many others taking the week off. At Muirfield Village, Bryant defeated a strong field that included the top three in the world and six of the top 10.
Locked inside the statistical data of Bryant's four days at the Memorial are the answers to life; that is, if your life's biggest question is, How can I play better golf? The solution is simple enough: Hit the ball straight (Bryant tied for first in fairways hit at 84 percent), then hit the ball onto the green (he tied for third in greens in regulation at 74 percent), then putt the ball into the hole (he led the field with a 1.547 putting average).
How well do you know your Bryants? While Bart was busy clinching his second tour victory, Brad was scoring a T-37 at the Champions Tour's Allianz Championship. The brothers Bryant now own three PGA Tour titles between them, but that doesn't mean you can tell them apart. Herewith, the first-ever ESPN.com Bryant Brothers Five-Question Trivia Game:
1. Nicknamed "Dr. Dirt."
2. In college, won the Billy Bryant Invitational.
3. Favorite food is country-fried steak.
4. Won first tour event at age 47.
5. Lists Bart Bryant as his favorite athlete.
(Answers: 1. Brad. 2. Bart. 3. Brad. 4. Brad. 5. Brad, although we can imagine that Bart's pretty happy with himself right now, too.)
According to one Internet search, there are 27 roller coasters in the state of Ohio, but perhaps none would make Bill Haas more queasy than the four-day ride he took at the Memorial. In the first round, Haas made one eagle, seven birdies, five pars, three bogeys and two double-bogeys en route to a wild 2-under 70. Things didn't get much more normal after that, with a 10-shot swing between his second-round 76 and third-round 66. But it was in his final round where Haas really reached new heights (or lows, depending on how you look at it). On Sunday, he made eight bogeys and a triple-bogey on the 12th hole to finish with an 80 and end in a share of 67th place. Time is no longer on Haas' side. Trying to earn a promotion to the PGA Tour, he used the sixth of seven available sponsor's exemptions at the Memorial. Haas has yet to finish better than 18th place in 13 tournaments on both the PGA and Nationwide Tours this season.
What looked like it would be a breakout year for Charles Howell III -- he finished T-3 and T-2 in his first two starts of the season at the Sony Open and Buick Invitational, respectively -- has quickly taken a turn toward mediocrity. Since February, Howell has made the cut in nine of 12 events, but owns only one top 10 (T-8 at Bay Hill). In fact, Howell has made almost $200,000 less in his last 12 appearances on tour than he did in those first two starts.
Preempted. Appropriated, seized, or taken for oneself before others. Function: Transitive verb. Can you please use that in a sentence? The first round of this week's Memorial Tournament, featuring the world's top three players and host Jack Nicklaus in perhaps his final professional event on U.S. soil, was preempted by the National Spelling Bee on Thursday. P-R-E-E-M-P-T-E-D.
It will be very interesting to see what kind of reaction Colin Montgomerie receives from both the fans and his fellow players at next week's U.S. Open. In 2002 at Bethpage, buttons were handed out with the slogan, "Be Nice to Monty" on them; for the most part, the galleries were true to those words and since then Monty has received a more loyal following. But things could get a bit uglier this time around. In case you missed the story, Montgomerie was the subject of a rules dispute at the Indonesian Open in March. He failed to mark his ball in a bunker before a weather delay stopped play for the round. The next day, he replaced the ball where he thought it had been, but video replays showed it was an improved lie. The European Tour did not penalize him and he finished T-4 in the event. That gave Monty enough ranking points to later squeak into the top 50 last week and earn an automatic exemption into the Open. Did he cheat his way into that spot? Not exactly, but golf is a game built on honesty and when Monty failed to disqualify himself in Indonesia, he showed us a little something about his integrity. And he left himself open to plenty of criticism when he comes to Pinehurst.
It's like having Alex Rodriguez as a pinch-hitter. Or Peyton Manning as a second-string quarterback. Or Shaquille O'Neal as a sixth man. Or ... well, you get the picture. When the Booz Allen Classic takes a one-year sabbatical from TPC at Avenel (which is undergoing course renovations) to hold its annual event at Congressional Country Club this week, let's just say it's not a bad backup plan. Congressional hosted the tournament -- then known as the Kemper Open -- from 1980 through '86, and since has held the 1995 U.S. Senior Open and the '97 U.S. Open. Golf Digest's recent list of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses listed it at No. 89, but ask most tour insiders and they'll say it's one of the finest tracts the pros will see all year. It's also part of a remarkable four-week run that includes Muirfield Village, Pinehurst No. 2 and Westchester Country Club.
You may not have heard of him prior to this week, but James Lepp is one name you might want to remember. The University of Washington junior shot a final-round 63 at the ultra-demanding Caves Valley in the NCAA Championship, then outlasted Pepperdine's Michael Putnam in a playoff to capture the title. The win was hardly Lepp's first taste of victory. In 2003, as a 19-year-old, the British Columbian-born Lepp won the Greater Vancouver Classic on the Canadian Tour. And before you dismiss that tour as a non-entity, consider that fellow winners that season included current PGA Tour regulars Mario Tiziani and Nick Watney.
With Lepp the newly-crowned college king, amateur wunderkind Ryan Moore dropped out of the spotlight and into the shadows. For now, at least. Moore, who won last year's NCAA title and the U.S. Amateur, finished T-5 at Caves Valley, but chances are you'll be hearing his name sooner rather than later. The UNLV senior will reportedly turn professional following the U.S. Open. Like Haas, it's expected that he'll try to earn his way onto the tour by playing well enough in limited sponsor's exemptions, but unlike the Wake Forest grad he won't be competing against the most stellar fields. Moore will presumably play in at least seven events during the second half of the tour season, when top players often forgo events and there are more opportunities available for lesser-known players. Don't be surprised to see Moore earn enough in the season's final months to nab a tour card for 2006.
There's putting away your competition ... and then there are lick-the-stamp, seal-the-envelope, toss-it-in-the-mailbox shots that leave nothing else to doubt. On Sunday, two such shots helped a pair of consistent winners each lock up yet another title. In the LPGA Shoprite Classic, Annika Sorenstam reached the par-5 18th hole with a two-shot lead and promptly drained her 38-foot eagle putt. And half a world away, Miguel Angel Jimenez wasn't to be outdone, sealing the Wales Open victory with a 40-foot eagle putt of his own on the 16th hole.
With all of the recent hullabaloo surrounding LPGA youngsters like Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis -- not to mention amateur Michelle Wie -- we've kind of lost track of the exploits of some more, ahem, veteran performers. Juli Inkster, 44, grabbed a solo second at the Shoprite, her fifth top-10 finish in only eight starts this season. Meanwhile, 41-year-old Laura Davies now has two straight top 10s, following her T-3 this week. Don't be surprised to see either of these experienced players competing with Sorenstam for the upcoming McDonald's LPGA Championship title.
It's good to be Jimin Kang these days. Last week, the third-year LPGA Tour player aced the 15th hole of her final round en route to recording her first career victory. On Sunday, she shot a blistering back-nine 8-under 27 at the Shoprite to set the nine-hole scoring record on tour. Kang's final nine started benignly enough, with a par on the 10th hole. She followed that with a birdie and another par before finishing birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie. Her final-round 62 tied the tournament record set one day earlier by Davies.
The first Tee Off Women's Golf Week got under way this past Friday at the World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Fla. Among the activities were swing tips from Hall of Famer Kathy Whitworth and a $1 million hole-in-one shootout, but the real treat for most female golfers will come throughout the next week, when women aged 14 and older can receive complimentary golf instruction and attend rules seminars and fashion shows at hundreds of courses around the country. For more information, click here.
There will be plenty of star power at the 16th annual American Century Championship, scheduled for July 15-17 in Lake Tahoe. Perhaps you've heard of Michael Jordan? Mario Lemieux? Pete Sampras? Donald Trump? Thought so. And just in case an impromptu football game breaks out, gridiron greats like Michael Strahan, Derrick Brooks and Jerome Bettis will be around. But as far as the tournament goes, our money's on first-time competitor Ben Roethlisberger. If he's been getting tips from his girlfriend Gulbis -- who finished T-9 at the Shoprite -- he'll be in excellent shape.
Despite a similar last name, we're guessing Willie Wood doesn't get confused for Tiger Woods too often. Wood, a 5-foot-7, 145-pound Texan, is currently playing on the Nationwide Tour after a long career as a mainstay on the PGA Tour, where he was the winner of the 1996 Deposit Guarantee Classic and still ranks 200th on the all-time money list. But Wood hasn't exactly been doing his best Tiger impersonation this season. With four missed cuts in six starts, he ranked 172nd on the Nationwide money list with only $2,678 entering the Chattanooga Classic. But he got things going in Tennessee, shooting 67-66-68-66 to finish in a share of fifth, one shot out of a four-man playoff won by Jason Schultz.
"I wouldn't go as far as to say that it was as impressive as Johnny Miller's 63 at the [U.S.] Open, but it was amazing to shoot 63 on this golf course. When the U.S. Senior Open was here, no one came close to shooting 63. I cannot put it in words how impressive that was."
-- University of Washington sophomore Erik Olson, speaking of teammate James Lepp on the school's Web site.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
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