PGA Champion Keegan Bradley was encouraged by his family and his upbringing as son of PGA Head Professional

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Keegan Bradley wins PGA Championship

Keegan Bradley wins PGA Championship

Saying newly crowned PGA Champion Keegan Bradley was practically born to play golf is like saying Barry Bonds got a headstart by being Bobby’s son.

His father, Mark, is currently the PGA Head Professional at Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club in Wyoming after stints in Boston and Vermont. Bradley got plenty of lessons and all the time he needed at the practice range, free of charge. Turns out he was schooled, as well, by one of his aunts, who knew plenty about the game and even more about the tenacity it takes to play golf at the highest levels.

That would be LPGA Hall of Famer Pat Bradley, whom renowned sports psychologist Bob Rotella once called the toughest player he ever saw.

“I grew up going to Pat’s tournaments, totally idolizing her and wanting to be like her out there,” he said, with the Wanamaker Trophy perched nearby.

“I remember as a kid going out to her tournaments and literally staring her in the face, and I’m her nephew, but she was so into it, she wouldn’t even recognize me. And I thought that was cool,” said Bradley, now 25.

Some of that coolness apparently made it into Bradley’s DNA. The last time a golfer won a major in his first try was Ben Curtis in 2003, and before him, Francis Ouimet in 1913. And until late Sunday afternoon, it looked possible another century might even slip by before it happened again. Bradley began the day trailing third-round co-leaders Jason Dufner and Brendan Steele, a good pal, by only a stroke; by the time he stood on the 16th tee, though, he was down five shots with only three holes to make up the differential.

Yet some of that familial toughness revealed itself as he walked toward No. 16 after dumping a ball in a pond at the 15th and carding a disastrous triple bogey.

“I remember walking off that green thinking, ‘You know, the last four holes are so tough here that somebody could have a five-shot lead. It doesn’t matter,” Bradley recalled.

The gap closed when Dufner, who played the final four holes at 3 under through the first three rounds, made three bogeys over that same stretch in the last one. Bradley sealed the deal in the three-hole playoff with two straight birdies, closing with a very workmanlike par.

“I kept thinking about the playoff I won at the Byron Nelson, and the same thing happened to me in that. As soon as I realized I was going into a playoff, I completely calmed down,” he said.

During the family’s time in Vermont, Bradley did a fair share of ski racing as a youngster, but didn’t need long to decide between the two sports. He was 12 years old and looking down the barrel of a tough slalom run in Killington when the decision was practically made for him.

“It was raining, cold, sleeting and I’m at the top of this mountain going, ‘This is not as much fun as golf. I love golf so much more.”’

As Bradley recalled that moment, his mother, Kaye, sat in the back of the interview room, alternately nodding or chuckling at the memory and crying tears of joy.

“He always said he was going to do this,” she said. “I still have a letter he wrote in the first grade saying he was going to be a PGA pro. I’ve got pictures of him on the range at four. Grandma Bradley sent over his first set of clubs — plastic, of course — for Christmas, and Keegan almost wore those out. He was so devoted. He wanted this so badly. I used to worry what would happen if it didn’t come to pass.”

She often looked to her husband to be the detached voice of reason any time the discussions turned to Keegan’s career.

“But he wasn’t much help that way,” Kaye Bradley said. “He used to say all the time, ‘He’s the real deal.’ But I didn’t want it to be this or nothing. I made sure he got his college degree.”

Yet it was Kaye who was unabashedly proud to revive a Bradley tradition. When Pat won her first tournament, in Australia, it was the middle of the night back at the family home in Westford, Mass. Determined to celebrate, Pat’s mother ran up and down the streets ringing a cowbell and waking up plenty of her neighbors.

“The bell is actually in the Hall of Fame now,” Keegan Bradley said. “My mom has started her own, new tradition, a takeoff on that. She runs up and down the street like a crazy woman with wind chimes.

“Might have to get that bell out of retirement,” Bradley mused a moment later. “I’d like to hear it ring at least once.”

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Rickie Fowler may have failed what he started, but will it lead to a major finish?

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Rickie Fowler on verge of greatness

Rickie Fowler on verge of greatness

Did Rickie Fowler fail to finish what he started? Or did he start what will lead to a major finish?

There are those who’ll take the first one and run with it. Hasn’t won an event. Can’t close. Lots of flash and hype, great clothes, style but…

And those folks … well, let’s just say they might be more than a bit short-sighted.

Four decades of watching majors teaches you one thing — when it’s your time, it’s your time. It’s mystical and magical. It’s 15-footers for par into a gale. It’s a Velcro shot on the bank at the 12th hole at Augusta. It’s a snap off the tee that winds up in perfect shape for an approach to the green. It’s a back nine beyond compare in your golden years.

It’s the peace and the confidence, the acceptance we saw in Darren Clarke last week at Royal St. George’s. It was Clarke’s major. Just like it was Graeme McDowell‘s week at Pebble Beach or Jack Nicklaus‘ at Augusta back in 1986. The little things all fell into place. The games looked strong and at times effortless and no matter what form of magic the field threw at them, they always had an answer.

Fowler knows the feeling, just on a different level. And what we saw from him at Royal St. George’s was … a player stepping up to the major level.

That third-round 68? Brilliant. He played like a links veteran. He created shots around the greens. He bored drives through the wind and worked it around when he had to do that too. He thrived on that chess game everyone plays with the links. He didn’t let the all-out brutal conditions bother him one bit.

And, afterward, he admitted he took a page from Tom Watson — something a lot of much older players have yet to figure out.

“Joe (Skovron), my caddie, watched a little bit of the coverage prior to us going out, and (Watson) just saw kind of how he looked like he was having fun, smiling, and embracing the conditions,” Fowler said.

“The best way to deal with tough and hard conditions is just go out and try and make a good time of it. So starting the round, we just wanted to keep moving forward, have fun hitting golf shots. And with those conditions, it make links golf fun to play.”

Fun? Now we’re talking. Haven’t the last two major winners played their weeks as if they didn’t have a care in the world? Like they’re kids having fun on what’s really a pressure-cooker of a week?

But that’s only part of it.

We’ve been talking Fowler since his freshman season at Oklahoma State. He wowed there, he wowed at the 2007 Walker Cup where, as the youngest player he went 3-1. And the 2010 Ryder Cup where he was three down to Edoardo Molinari in singles with three holes to play and halved the match.

We’ve been expecting a lot. And, just maybe too much, too soon.

Yes, had he not laid up on the final hole at the 2010 Waste Management Phoenix Open, he might have won. Might have. Or maybe it was just Hunter Mahan‘s week. And there was the 2009 Frys.com Open where he lost a three-way playoff to Troy Matteson.

We were ready to see him breakthrough. And not just on Twitter or in double-dog dare videos with Bubba Watson. Yet what forgot was, no matter how talented a player is, no matter how many expectations he — and we — have for him, there is indeed a learning curve.

Some players jump right in, others need time. No one is Tiger Woods. Got that?

And with Fowler? We tend to compare him to the rival we want for him — Rory McIlroy — yet we forget that McIlroy turned pro two years ahead of Fowler. He had his oops moments, too, on the European Tour, which the U.S. doesn’t follow too closely.

Dan Jenkins joked on Saturday that Fowler was low polka dot Saturday because of the design on his waterproofs — but still five off the lead. Yes, clothes are the easy target for the man who loves bright solids, monochromatic looks and his signature Sunday orange. Same goes for his hair or his caps. Or his dirt-bike/BMX days.

Back then, a wipeout was just a wipeout. You get back up on the bike and go again. Skinned knees, bumps, bruises and all. But like he told Golf World’s Tim Rosaforte before the Open, “Sometimes it’s harder to get back up on the bike. In golf, you can never physically get hurt by a loss, but there can be some tough downtime.”

We’re thinking Fowler has turned the corner. He missed the cut at the U.S. Open, but he had another huge shot at winning three weeks ago at the AT&T National when he went head-to-head with Nick Watney. Fowler shot 74; Watney, the winner, shot 66.

You’re thinking what a win could have done. We’re thinking that loss may have done more.

Fowler didn’t have time for tough downtime. He went to work on his game. He stepped up mentally. He hit the shots. He threw it all out and came up with his best major finish. Ironic isn’t it, that his best major finish prior to that was a tie for 14th at St. Andrews in 2010 when he battled back from an opening 79?

After that 79, he reeled off six consecutive rounds of par or better at the Open before closing with a 74 and tying another young gun, Anthony Kim.

Instead of heading home, he hopped a plane for Vancouver where he’ll tee it up in this week’s RBC Canadian Open. He’s a first-timer here, but he’s standing out — pre-tournament — in a strong field.

He doesn’t look at the comparisons to McIlroy as pressure. He calls it motivation. And no matter how many expectations we put on him, understand that his goals are even higher.

Before you ask, we have no idea how he’ll take to the Shaughnessy G&CC. It’s his first Canadian Open and like everyone else who played the Open, he’s dealing with an eight-time-zone difference.

What we do know is we saw him step up last week. We saw a stronger mental game and some amazing shots under the toughest of conditions. We saw a player who we’ll be talking about for a long while; a must-have on every Presidents and Ryder Cup for the foreseeable future.

And most of all, we saw a start — on a major career.

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Darren Clarke picks up his first Claret Jug and another major goes to Northern Ireland

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Darren Clarke holds his first jug

Darren Clarke holds his first jug

Another major goes to Northern Ireland. The surprise was Darren Clarke’s name on the Claret Jug.

Ten years after he last contended in a major, no longer in the top 100 in the world, Clarke delivered his defining moment Sunday in the Open Championship when he held off brief challenges from Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson to win golf’s oldest championship.

The weather was so wild that heavy rain changed to sunshine, back and forth all afternoon, while the wind was relentless.

Clarke was a steady presence through it all.

A 20-foot eagle putt on the seventh hole gave him the lead for good, and he didn’t drop a shot until it no longer mattered. With bogeys on the last two holes, Clarke closed with an even-par 70 for a three-shot victory over the two Americans.

“Pretty amazing right now,” Clarke said, the Claret Jug at his side. “It’s been a dream since I’ve been a kid to win the Open, like any kid’s dream is, and I’m able to do it, which just feels incredible.”

Northern Ireland had gone 63 years without a major. Now it has three of the last six — Graeme McDowell in the U.S. Open last year at Pebble Beach, followed by Rory McIlroy at the U.S. Open in a record performance last month at Congressional, and now the 42-year-old Clarke.

“Northern Ireland…… Golf capital of the world!!” McIlroy tweeted as Clarke played the last hole.

“We’re blessed to have two fantastic players in Rory and GMac, and I’ve just come along, the only guy coming along behind them,” Clarke said. “We have fantastic golf courses, we have fantastic facilities, but to have three major champions from a little, small place in a short period of time, it’s just incredible.”

They are so close that a week after McIlroy won the U.S. Open, Clarke pulled out of a tournament in Germany so he could return to Northern Ireland and join the celebration.

They were always for someone else. Clarke had reason to believe his best celebrations were behind him. Surely, nothing could top playing a Ryder Cup on home soil in Ireland five years ago and leading Europe to victory just one month after his wife, Heather, died of cancer.

“In terms of what’s going through my heart, there’s obviously somebody who is watching down from up above there, and I know she’d be very proud of me,” Clarke said. “She’s probably be saying, ‘I told you so.’”

Indeed, this was overdue.

No one had ever gone more than 15 starts in the Open until winning, and this was the 20th try for Clarke. Yet even as he struggled with his game and the adjustment of raising two boys without their mother, and as the spotlight shifted to youth, Clarke never gave up on his dreams.

“I always believed I would get myself back up here,” he said before heading out to the 18th green to collect the oldest trophy in golf. “I always believed I had enough talent to challenge and win one.”

He delivered on the demanding links of Royal St. George’s to hold off Mickelson and Johnson.

Mickelson, rarely a threat in this major, made up a five-shot deficit in seven holes and was only one shot behind after a birdie on the 10th until he started missing short putts. He shot 38 on the back nine, hitting his final approach into the grandstand.

Then it was Johnson’s turn. In the final group of a major for the third time in six years, Johnson made two birdies early on the back nine and was only two shots behind when his second shot to the par-4 15th went out of bounds, ending his hopes again.

The last hour was a coronation for Clarke, long a popular figure not only in Europe but around the world. Puffing away at cigarettes as he barreled down the fairways, he never looked to be in any trouble.

And the few times he did, the golfing gods came to the rescue. He twice hit shots that were headed for pot bunkers well short of the green, only to hop over them or around them, keeping him in control.

He posed with the Claret Jug that was empty, but not for long. He promised some “nice, Irish black stuff” by evening. And when asked about the celebration, Clarke promised only that it would be “long.”

“And I’ll be very, very hungover,” he said.

He finished at 5-under 275 and became the first player in his 40s to win a major since Vijay Singh at the 2004 PGA Championship. Only two other players were older than Clarke when they won their first major — Roberto De Vicenzo (44) in the 1967 Open, and Jerry Barber (45) in the 1961 PGA Championship.

For the Americans, their longest drought without a major since the Masters began in 1934 will continue at least until the PGA Championship next month. They had plenty of contenders, from Mickelson to Johnson to Rickie Fowler and Anthony Kim, but none came through.

Mickelson’s problems started on the par-3 11th, when he missed a par putt from just inside 3 feet.

“It was just a dumb, mental error,” Mickelson said. “I just lost focus there, and it hurts to throw shots away like that when I’m behind.”

He wound up with a 68, which felt more like a 78, and had his seventh runner-up finish in a major.

It might have been more devastating for Johnson, who never lost his composure even as he fell four shots behind on the front nine. Johnson made a 6-foot birdie on the 10th and a 15-foot birdie on the 12th to get within two shots.

Just like that, it was all over.

Johnson had an 8-foot birdie attempt at No. 13 as Clarke went over the green. Instead of a potential two-shot swing, however, Clarke saved yet another par, and Johnson missed his putt. From the middle of the 14th fairway, Johnson tried to lay up with a 2-iron, playing a draw back toward the flag. The wind caught it and took it beyond the white stakes, and Johnson hung his head and dropped another ball in the fairway.

It was another wasted opportunity — the 82 in the final round of the U.S. Open with a three-shot lead, then taking a two-shot penalty on the last hole of the PGA Championship when he didn’t realize he was in a bunker.

“The more I put myself in this situation, the better,” said Johnson, who closed with a 72. “The more I learn, the more I understand my game and what happens in this situation.”

Thomas Bjorn, who threw away the Open in a bunker on the 16th hole eight years ago, acquitted himself nicely. He never got closer than three shots all day, but his 71 put him in fourth place and at least earned him a trip back to the Masters next year.

Chad Campbell (69), Kim (70) and Fowler (72) tied for fifth.

Clarke won for the second time this year — he beat a weak field in Spain that was opposite The Players Championship — and goes to No. 30 in the world. He had been No. 111, the lowest-ranked player to win a major since Shaun Micheel in 2003 at the PGA Championship.

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Rory McIlroy shows an innate ability to play in the wind

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Rory McIlroy at PGA Championship

Rory McIlroy at PGA Championship

Rory McIlroy is about as Irish as they come. The accent. The fair skin. An innate ability to play well in the wind.

Well, two out of three isn’t bad.

For someone who grew up in Holywood, a small town of 12,000 tucked along an inlet just off the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland, McIlroy’s game is about as Irish as apple pie.

Yet Boy Wonder, fresh off his historic win at the U.S. Open, is one of the heavy favorites to win this year’s Open Championship at Royal St. George’s, a course that runs along the southeastern coast of England and a place where you can experience four seasons of weather in one round.

But just how much of a favorite should he be? Even McIlroy admits that links courses aren’t exactly his cup of tea (save for historic St. Andrews and some cherished memories he’s had there with his father), nor are they best suited for his very much American style of play.

“I do prefer this sort of golf where you’ve got to fly it in the air,” McIlroy said. “I love golf courses the likes of [Augusta National], Quail Hollow, Akron, where we play the WGC; golf courses that are tree-lined and give you a little bit of definition off the tee.”

Trees at Royal St. George’s? You can count them on one hand.

“If you asked me to choose, say, between a great links course like Turnberry and a great parkland course like Medinah, then I’d say Medinah,” McIlroy said recently in Sport magazine. “I grew up on a parkland course; it just suits my style of play more.”

Even McIlroy’s own agent, Chubby Chandler, isn’t exactly glowing over his No. 1 client’s chances on a course where the surface is closer to that of the moon than it is the lush fairways of Congressional, where McIlroy became the youngest winner of the U.S. Open in 88 years.

“I would say Rory might find the Open quite difficult,” Chandler told the newspaper Scotland on Sunday. “You might find him struggle at St George’s, it’s not his sort of golf. Firm and bouncy with a bit of wind wouldn’t be ideal for him, but I would say watch out for him at Atlanta [at the PGA Championship in August]. That’ll suit him down to the ground.

“If it was flat calm at the Open, Rory would have a chance but it probably won’t be.”

Why is that? Consider this phrase: Tee it high and let it fly.

OK, so McIlroy grew up watching and idolizing not John Daly but Tiger Woods. Still, his ball flight is more Phil Mickelson — and we all know how Lefty has fared in this championship, with no wins and just one top-10 in 17 Open starts. The theory is that Lefty’s high ball flight leaves him vulnerable to the Open winds.

There is no greater example of McIlroy’s futility in the wind than last year’s Open at St. Andrews.

McIlroy opened with a record-tying 63 on a benign and blissful day at the Home of Golf, only to be blown away 24 hours later when he carded an 80 on the wind-whipped landscape.

Still, he tied for third.

Ah, Mother Nature giveth and taketh away in this tournament.

McIlroy’s hardly the only victim of such a severe turn in the weather and score — remember Woods getting wiped out by sideways rain and a third-round 81 in 2002 at Muirfield?

In 2009 at Turnberry, McIlroy tied for 47th with three rounds in the 70s. Likewise in 2007 at Carnoustie, where McIlroy tied for 42nd as an amateur.

That’s not to say McIlroy’s game doesn’t travel, or in this case play well at home.

At age 16, McIlroy set a course record at Royal Portrush, a links course hard against the exposed northern coast of Northern Ireland, with a 61.

McIlroy is also oft to play Royal County Down when he’s at home in Belfast.

“I’ve played a lot of links golf growing up,” McIlroy said. “I feel as if I’ve got all the shots that are required to play good golf on links courses.

“It’s sort of like riding a bicycle; once you’re on it you sort of somehow remember all the shots you need for it, little pitch-and-runs and little punch shots into the wind and so forth. I feel very comfortable on links.”

Just how comfortable we’ll find out this week and in the many more to come

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McIlroy blows field away at U.S. Open at Congressional

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McIlroy wins US Open

McIlroy wins US Open

The most famous comeback in the U.S. Open began with a question from Arnold Palmer as he tried to explain how he could win in 1960 at Cherry Hills despite being seven shots behind.

“Doesn’t 280 always win the Open?” he asked.

The U.S. Open usually plays as a par 70, and four rounds at even par was 280. That once was the standard for winning the major known as the toughest test in golf. Even as Ken Venturi talked about his 1964 win at Congressional, he noted becoming only the second player in U.S. Open history to break 280.

This year, such a score was barely enough to be in the top 10.

The 111th U.S. Open will be remembered foremost as the coming out party of Rory McIlroy, a supremely gifted 22-year-old from Northern Ireland. For all the records he broke, his most remarkable feat was making golf look easy. Few others can do that.

The other memory? All those red numbers on the scoreboard.

McIlroy finished at 16-under 268, two sets of numbers that are simply astounding for this major. The runner-up was Jason Day of Australia at 8 under, which would have been enough to win 46 of the previous 50 U.S. Opens and force a playoff in three others.

This was as easy as a U.S. Open gets.

“I don’t want to say anything to cheapen what Rory did, because if this were an old-school U.S. Open, he might have won by more,” said Andy North, a two-time winner of the “old-school” U.S. Open. “But he hit seven wedges into the green on the front nine. I guarantee you that’s never happened in a U.S. Open.”

Even USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said Congressional was a pushover.

“From 1 to 10 — with 1 being the easiest and 10 being the hardest — I’m not so sure Congressional wouldn’t have been a 1 or a 1,” Davis said Tuesday. “If we had another 10 U.S. Opens there, I don’t know how it would play any easier.”

That wasn’t an indictment of Congressional, but the hand the USGA was dealt.

Overnight rain kept the greens soft. Pitch marks returned to the U.S. Open. There was rarely more than a breeze all four days. And most curious of all, Davis said the rough didn’t grow.

“Even though the height of rough should have been enough, it wasn’t,” he said.

This isn’t the first time the turf was soft for a major designed to be hard.

It was like that at Baltusrol in 1980, when Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf both opened with rounds of 63, and it was like that at Baltusrol in 1993 when a record 10 players broke 280. North said the hardest course he ever saw was Medinah in 1990, and he figured something around 7 over par might be enough to win.

“It rained overnight, I came to the golf course Thursday morning and somebody was already 7 under,” he said.

These things happen.

It’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to the low scores at Congressional. While there were eight scores below 280 and McIlroy won with a score that looked like it belonged at the Phoenix Open, four of the previous six U.S. Open champions failed to break par.

What last week proved is that under Davis, the U.S. Open no longer can be accused of stopping at nothing to protect par. Because given the chance, it did nothing. Not when McIlroy needed only 26 holes to reach 10 under. Not when he became the first player to shoot a sub-200 score after 54 holes.

The USGA did not stretch the course to its full 7,574 yards. The hole locations were not on ridges. It cared more about the quality of the winner and the tournament than the absurdity of the score.

“It was awesome what Rory was able to do,” Davis said. “He would have won our U.S. Open whether it was firm, fast and windy or soft and player-friendly. He just played the best that week. I really think we had firm conditions, if we had some breeze, he would have won by more than eight.”

What to expect next year at Olympic Club?

The fear is fog. The expectation in San Francisco for June is dry weather and a strong breeze. The hope is for the most rigorous test in golf. There will be a plan in place. And the low score will win.

There is a different mentality at the USGA from generations past, such as the time Johnny Miller shot 63 on a rain-softened Oakmont course in the 1973 U.S. Open. The USGA got even a year later in the “Massacre at Winged Foot,” won by Hale Irwin at 7 over par.

“It’s not going to be a 1974 U.S. Open,” Davis said.

For those who have been around the U.S. Open for decades, who have seen or experienced the punishment this major can inflict, it’s not easy to accept low scoring. Some people take pleasure out of the best players being made to look ordinary, and no other major does that as consistently as the U.S. Open.

As for the kinder, more gentle USGA? North thinks that’s a mistake.

The players love how Davis introduced the graduated rough, which is thicker the farther away from the fairway. That might be the first indication that it’s too easy. Players aren’t supposed to like anything at the U.S. Open except for Sunday when they leave.

“Everybody knew those greens were going to be soft. My argument was, ‘Why don’t we have more rough? Why do we play the ladies’ tees on half the holes?’ Those were kind of things us angry old men were discussing,” North said. “What has always set our championship apart from the other majors was the mental gymnastics you had to go through just to survive.”

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R&A Chief announces no expectation of women attempting to qualify for Open

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Michelle Wie

Michelle Wie

Six years after women received the chance to qualify for the British Open, not one has even attempted it. And Royal and Ancient Club Chief Executive Peter Dawson doubts he will see it happen in his lifetime.

 

“It’s certainly gone off the agenda, hasn’t it?” said Dawson April 19 at the all-male Royal St. George’s Club, where this year’s championship takes place on July 14-17. “I don’t expect to see a woman trying to qualify in my lifetime, but the opportunity is there.”

The entry form was changed in 2005, two years after then-world No. 1 Annika Sorenstam played an event on the PGA Tour and a year after Michelle Wie, a mere 14 at the time, had missed the cut at the Sony Open in Hawaii by a single shot.

But Sorenstam is now retired and for the last four years Wie has not achieved the top-5 finish in one of the women’s majors that would allow her to tee off in an Open regional qualifying competition — even if she wanted to, which currently seems unlikely.

So the “top-5 rule” created by the R&A has not been tested yet.

“Until women have a track record at trying to qualify, we have no idea whether we have pitched it correctly or not,” said Dawson. “But why should golf be any different? We don’t see men and women playing tennis against each other, running against each other or rowing against each other.”

As for the membership policy at this year’s venue, Dawson stated: “Single-sex golf clubs — men only and women only — are very few in number and they do tend to be the older clubs.

“It’s not as if they’ve made a conscious decision. They’ve just carried on as they always have,” he added. “I think it’s a matter for them to decide how they operate within the law. We don’t use the Open for what I might call social engineering.

“I’m sure that as generations come through, members will take a view on this as the years go by,” he explained. “If it was true that single sex clubs were affecting golf participation, I would take a different view on it, but there are such a small number and in time I’m sure attitudes to this subject will change. I think the media are far more interested in this than people in golf, but I don’t want to sound in any way complacent.”

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McIlroy`s flight from first to worst on Master`s Sunday

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Rory McIlroy on Masters Sunday

Rory McIlroy on Masters Sunday

In the 75 years that there has been a Masters, you’d be hard-pressed to find one that had more drama and excitement among such a large group of players as this past one. Charl Schwartzel’s four straight birdies to finish was astounding, but don’t forget the chip in for birdie on the first hole or the hole-out for eagle on the third. The young man played some incredible golf and is a deserving champion.

 

As I watched in amazement at all the different storylines, I realized I had a large number of possibilities to write about for this week’s “A Lesson Learned.” Tiger Woods’ aggressive play made up a seven stroke deficit in eight holes. His inability to convert a few short putts on the back nine cost him a chance to win a fifth green jacket. The Australian contingent of Ogilvy, Day and Scott showed incredible poise and looked like one of them would take the green jacket down under for awhile. There was also a time when I was sure K.J. Choi would win with his almost robotic-like consistency. And of course, Charl Schwartzel’s four-birdie close will be written about ad nauseum for years to come. But in some ways, the story of the week may have been the three-day dominance of Rory McIlroy and the gut-wrenching back nine he endured on Sunday. And those putts. Everyone remembers his drive on No. 10, but those putts on Nos. 11 and 12 are what doomed his chances.

I noticed early that Rory seemed to be walking a little quicker than normal. That’s a sign of tension. It showed early with a bogey at the first. But he did a good job, albeit with a few early struggles, of righting the ship and stood on the 10th tee still one shot ahead of the rest of the field. And then, one pulled drive later, a shot from by the cabins to the left of the tenth hole and a pitch that hit a tree near the green that came back to him, the young man had a triple bogey and was two shots behind.

But then he missed a short birdie putt on eleven and an even shorter par putt on the same hole. He then missed more short putts as he four-putted for double bogey on the 12th. Hearts across the golf world were breaking for him. It was maddening. It was gut wrenching. And to many golf instructors, it was understandable. We’ve all seen it before. We’ll see it again.

I heard the commentators talking about how all day, he seemed to be pulling his putts. That is what happens when you get tense.

When better players feel tense, they know it and often try, subconsciously, to make adjustments. When you feel like you’re too quick, you will slow your hands down, almost decelerate them, to get back what you think is your proper, natural rhythm. And you’re tense because you remember missing a short one earlier. That’s when even the shortest putts seem like hieroglyphics.

When you feel your body and nerves getting tense, you need to give yourself a deep breath and get back to the basics. This means regulate your breathing, exhale and be sure you go through your pre-shot routine. Most importantly, accept that anything that has happened on the last hole or last shot is not indicative of what will happen to you on your next shot. The best players in the world hit poor shots, miss short putts, stub easy chips. You will too. It happens. When your body tenses up, it may increase the likelihood of it. You’ve got to get back to basics. But if and when a bad shot or bad break happens, you have to accept it and move forward. Don’t let one bad hole turn into two or three. Don’t let one bad swing mess up your rhythm for the next five swings.

As for young Rory McIlroy, his fundamentals and balance are so solid, I am confident he will be back in contention at major championships soon. Probably very soon. He needs to use this experience to learn how to handle his emotions and learn to rely on his routines and selective memories when he gets back into that same position.

And for all of you who will be playing in a club championship, your weekend Nassau or just trying to beat your personal best: whenever you feel the pressure starting to build, remember that it effects every player of every level. Take a breath, go through your routine and perform confidently, regardless of what happened in the past. Your best golf shot should always be the next one!

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Nationwide Tour players have opportunity to grab first green jacket at Masters

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Bubba Watson

Bubba Watson

Nationwide Tour graduates are no strangers when it comes to winning on the PGA TOUR, but taking that next step and winning a major isn’t as given.

 

In the 22-year history of the Nationwide Tour, alumni have won majors 13 times. Leading the way for alumni is Ernie Els with three majors.

With the Masters getting underway on Thursday the chance is there for a former Nationwide Tour player to break through and win another major.

The Tour reached a milestone last month when Martin Laird won the Arnold Palmer Invitational. It was the 300th time a former Nationwide Tour player won on the PGA TOUR. (Look back at all 300 wins.)

The last Nationwide Tour graduate to win a major was Lucas Glover, who won the 2009 U.S. Open at soggy Bethpage. Earlier that year former Nationwide Tour player Stewart Cink won the British Open.

The last time a former Nationwide Tour player won the Masters was in 2007 when Zach Johnson‘s steady play led to his first major championship.

Here is a look at the top 10 former Nationwide Tour players who have a chance to break through and win their first major this year.

Major championships won by former Nationwide Tour players
Player Major
John Daly 1991 PGA Championship
Ernie Els 1994 U.S. Open
John Daly 1995 British Open
Tom Lehman 1996 British Open
Ernie Els 1997 U.S. Open
David Duval 2001 British Open
David Toms 2001 PGA Championship
Ernie Els 2002 British Open
Jim Furyk 2003 U.S. Open
Shaun Micheel 2003 PGA Championship
Zach Johnson 2007 Masters
Lucas Glover 2009 U.S. Open
Stewart Cink 2009 British Open

Nick Watney — It seems now that it’s just a formality before Watney, 29, wins his first major. He took down a strong field to win the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship to prove he is ready for that breakthrough. Here’s another stat that might be worthwhile — he finished seventh last year at the Masters throwing up a tidy 65 in the final round.

Bubba Watson — He’s one of the best feel players around and Augusta National is best suited for guys that can improvise shots. Watson’s got the length and is real close to moving into the upper echelon on TOUR. He has a win this season and is headed toward his best season on TOUR. He didn’t play in the Masters last year but made the cut in 2009 and finished 42nd.

Stuart Appleby — He hasn’t set the world on fire this season, but he’s capable of breaking through at some point to win a major. Like Watson, he wasn’t in the Masters last year but in 2009 tied for 30th. In 2007 he tied for seventh at Augusta for his best showing there.

Steve Stricker — Mr. Consistency has been Stricker’s calling card for the last several years. While he won’t wow many folks with his game, it’s more than good enough to win a major. With the success he’s had of late it seems the only thing missing from his resume is a major. Two years ago he quietly tied for sixth at Augusta National.

Matt Kuchar — It’s hard to believe it’s been 12 years since a barely-shaving Kuchar, who was an amateur at Georgia Tech, thrilled the galleries as he tied for 21st. This season he has five top 10s and in last year’s Masters tied for 24th. If his putting is on the mark, watch out.

Bill Haas — The former Wake Forest star has only one year of experience at the Masters, and that was last year when he tied for 26th. He had a solid start to the season but has tailed off some with two missed cuts heading into this week. His length off the tee bodes well for Augusta National and the experience of playing last year should help.

Jerry Kelly — With the 25-year anniversary of Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at age 46, maybe a 44-year-old will win his first major. Kelly was fifth in 2007 at the Masters and has plenty of experience at Augusta National. He was third at the Honda Classic earlier this season.

Tim Clark — He always seems to be hanging around the leaderboard at majors, especially at the Masters. Clark has battled some injuries this season, so it’s hard to say if he’ll be ready this week. In nine Masters he’s finished inside the top 25 four times and was second in 2006.

Camilo Villegas — He’s had a disappointing 2011 and is just 144th on the FedExCup points list. His best showing is a tie for 33rd at the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship, but sometimes a major can get a player going in the right direction. In 2009, he tied for 13th at the Masters. This will be his fifth Masters so he knows the course.

Jhonattan Vegas — The ‘odds’ on Vegas winning in his first Masters appearance are pretty slim because noone since Fuzzy Zoellar in 1979 has ever won the tournament in his first attempt. Vegas has taken the PGA TOUR by storm this season in his rookie year and won the Bob Hope Classic.

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Who has the best chance to win the 2011 Masters?

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Nick Watney ready for Masters

Nick Watney ready for Masters

Momentum, of course, is a subjective thing to judge. Someone who may be playing well but not producing results could still be feeling confident about his game. Another player may think he’s struggling even when he’s stringing together a few top-10 finishes.

 

Of course, the bottom line is results, so that’s what we used to put together the chart below on each professional’s momentum level heading into Thursday’s start of the Masters.

Even then, not everything is crystal clear. Take reigning U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell, who recorded top-5 finishes in his first two stroke-play events this year on the PGA TOUR but comes off a missed cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard after shooting 80-73. Does he have momentum or not? (We split the difference and listed him as medium momentum.)

Or take Phil Mickelson. He had a couple of early top-10s but went through a four-tournament stretch in which he wasn’t in contention on Sunday. He seemed to be getting colder … then everything changed last weekend at the Shell Houston Open when he rolled to victory. Now the defending Masters champ is considered one of the hottest players on the planet.

Momentum isn’t always a determining factor when trying to predict the next Masters champ. In fact, Mickelson had just one top-10 finish in six starts prior to winning last year. And in 2008, Trevor Immelman won after missing the cut in four of his previous eight starts that year.

Yet in 2006, Mickelson won his second Green Jacket after winning the week before in Atlanta and having contended in nearly every other start during the early portion of that season. Obviously, he hopes for a repeat back-to-back performance this week.

If nothing else, you have to like the chances of Nick Watney or Matt Kuchar, two guys who have been in contention practically every time they’ve teed it up this year. Obviously, their momentum level going into this week is very high.

2011 Masters: Momentum level
A look at each of the 93 professionals going into this week’s Masters
ALLENBY, Robert T6 last week in Houston; has made 7 straight cuts; hmmm, maybe he’s hot?
APPLEBY, Stuart Great stretch starting in mid-February but cooled off with two MCs
ATWAL, Arjun Four MCs, one WD in last six TOUR starts
BADDELEY, Aaron Won at Riviera, thee other high finishes since mid-February
BARNES, Ricky Fourth at Honda Classic but comes off 82-73 to miss cut at Bay Hill
BOHN, Jason Just one top-20 in six starts this year; suffered first MC at Bay Hill
BYRD, Jonathan Opened season with win, and enters with two straight T20 finishes
CABRERA, Angel Does it matter? He missed cut in two previous starts before winning in ’09
CASEY, Paul Won on Euro Tour in January; three top-20s in four TOUR starts
CEJKA, Alexander Lone top 20 on TOUR came in Jaunary at Bob Hope Classic
CHOI, K.J. Has two top-10s in last five starts although missed cut at Transitions
CINK, Stewart T11 at Transitions, T12 at Bay Hill in his last two starts
CLARK, Tim An elbow injury has sidelined him for more than two months
COUPLES, Fred A T7 on the PGA TOUR and a T5 on Champions Tour is his best in 2011
CRANE, Ben Returned last week from a pulled muscle in his back and finished T24
CRENSHAW, Ben Two-time Masters champ has made little noise on Champions Tour in ’11
DAY, Jason Lone top 10 came in limited-field season-opener at Hyundai
DONALD, Luke Sizzled at Accenture Match Play, and finished T10, T6 in next two starts
ELS, Ernie Big difference from last year; no top-10s in seven starts on TOUR this year
FISHER, Ross Top 10 in Dubai is lone bright spot; hasn’t contended in four TOUR starts
FOWLER, Rickie Was eighth in Doral but comes off final-round 78 at Arnold Palmer Inv’t
FUJITA, Hiroyuki T10 at Honda Classic is only reason he isn’t listed as cold
FURYK, Jim A month ago, he would’ve been cold but has shown signs of life in last two starts
GARCIA, Sergio Close to being hot; has four top-20s in five PGA and Euro tour starts
GLOVER, Lucas Has been a non-factor most of year and comes off MC at Shell Houston Open
GOOSEN, Retief Had a T12 at Northern Trust but not much else of note after that
HAAS, Bill Was hot in January but now he comes off two consecutive MCs
HANSEN, Anders Was T3 in Doral and had a T2 at Dubai on the European Tour
HANSON, Peter Had a T2 on Euro Tour and T15 at Transitions but MC at Bay Hill
HARRINGTON, Padraig Two top-10s (with a MC in between) in his last three TOUR starts
HAVRET, Gregory One top-10 on European Tour not enough to offset three MCs
HOFFMAN, Charley Three MCs, no top 10s in 10 TOUR starts this year
IKEDA, Yuta Barely visible in five TOUR starts in last two months
IMMELMAN, Trevor Would’ve been cold except for T12 in last start at Bay Hill
ISHIKAWA, Ryo Like Ikeda, he hasn’t made much noise in his five TOUR starts
JIMENEZ, Miguel A. Couple of top 10s this year but nothing recently
JOHNSON, Dustin If not for his second at Doral, he’d be coming in cold
JOHNSON, Zach Past Masters champ has not produced a top-10 this year
KARLSSON, Robert Has played better on Euro Tour than in States this year
KAYMER, Martin Won in January, second at Match Play in February but not in contention since
KELLY, Jerry Only thing keeping him from being ice-cold is a third at Honda Classic
KIM, Anthony T13 in Houston a positive sign but we need to see a little more
KIM, Kyung-Tae Has made no ripples in three TOUR starts this year
KUCHAR, Matt No TOUR member has more top 10s this season than Kuchar’s six
LAIRD, Martin Here’s his last three TOUR starts — T10, T5, Win (at Bay Hill)
LOVE III, Davis Not much to cheer about other than T9 at Sony Open in January
LYLE, Sandy Won for first time in 20 years at a European Seniors event in China
MAHAN, Hunter Five top 10s this year, including a T8 at Shell Houston Open
MARINO, Steve Two top-5s in last five starts but that T66 at Houston is worrisome
McDOWELL, Graeme Started off with three top 10s, but his last two starts? Eh…
McILROY, Rory A top 10 at Doral and two others on European Tour? Not too bad
MICKELSON, Phil Hard to be any hotter than winning the previous week’s event
MIZE, Larry Just one top-10 in five Champions Tour starts
MOLINARI, Edoardo That T12 at Bay Hill is a step in right direction
MOLINARI, Francesco Had a T3 in Doral and another top-10 on European Tour
MOORE, Ryan Played well in February but has cooled off slightly since
NA, Kevin Two top-10s this year but not competitive in last three TOUR starts
OGILVY, Geoff Has returned from cut hand but hasn’t been competitive
O’HAIR, Sean MC in last two starts and just one round in 60s this year
OLAZABAL, Jose Maria Focus is probably more on 2012 Ryder Cup
O’MEARA, Mark Three top-10s in four starts on Champions Tour
OOSTHUIZEN, Louis Won in S. Africa in January, two top-20s in last two PGA TOUR starts
OVERTON, Jeff Last six rounds on TOUR: 75-77-73-73-80-74
PALMER, Ryan Finished fourth at Bob Hope but has lost that momentum
PETTERSSON, Carl Hasn’t been competitive since a T4 in season opener at Kapalua
POINTS, D.A. Can’t ignore win at Pebble Beach but pretty cold since then
POULTER, Ian Played better at Bay Hill but still couldn’t break 70
QUIROS, Alvaro Cold in the States, but he’s been hot on European Tour
ROSE, Justin Two top-5s in his last two TOUR starts
SABBATINI, Rory Won Honda Classic, followed with two decent finishes
SCHWARTZEL, Charl Red-hot early on European Tour but has cooled off in States
SCOTT, Adam Scott’s confidence is high but his results on TOUR have been spotty
SINGH, Vijay Had two top-5s in February but his March results aren’t as solid
SLOCUM, Heath Five missed cuts in last seven TOUR starts
SNEDEKER, Brandt So inconsistent with his results — three top 10s, four MCs
STADLER, Craig Nothing impressive in five Champions Tour starts this year
STENSON, Henrik Hasn’t contended in any TOUR start this year
STREELMAN, Kevin Produced a T15 at Doral but has struggled in other starts
STRICKER, Steve Definitely heating up after his T4 at Shell Houston Open
TOMS, David Two top-5s in last three starts, including a T3 at Bay Hill
VAN PELT, Bo Playing better than earlier in year but still nothing great
VEGAS, Jhonattan Probably closer to cold but can’t ignore than win at Bob Hope
VILLEGAS, Camilo Just hasn’t made as much noise as other New Breed guys
WATNEY, Nick T13 at Transitions was first time he hasn’t finished in top 10
WATSON, Bubba Won at Torrey Pines, reached semifinals at Match Play
WATSON, Tom Only played once on Champions Tour since February
WEIR, Mike Hoping to see the real Weir get competitive again soon
WESTWOOD, Lee Plenty of top 20s, no top 20s on either tour this year
WILSON, Mark T9 at Arnold Palmer was first top-10 since his two early wins
WOODLAND, Gary In three of last four starts, he’s finished T6, Win, T13
WOODS, Tiger T10 at Doral, T24 at Bay Hill are good (not great) signs
WOOSNAM, Ian Won here 20 years ago, but plays few competitive rounds now
YANG, Y.E. Three top 10s in last 6 starts? Hot. Two MCs? Cold. Split the difference
2011 Masters: Amateurs
Six amateurs are in this week’s field
CHUNG, David JEONG, Jim KIM, Lion
MATSUYAMA, Hideki SMITH, Nathan UIHLEIN, Peter

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Five Tour Players looking to grab last minute ticket to Augusta

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Webb Simpson

Webb Simpson

When the people at Augusta National decided to reinstate the win-and-in policy three years ago, the rule was universally applauded by players on the PGA TOUR, who approve of any change that gives them additional access to the Masters.

Also providing a little fist pump were the organizers of the Shell Houston Open, who were handed another weapon for their arsenal of why players should come play their event. Already blessed with a tough golf course (with a rigorous finishing hole) and great playing conditions, the Shell Houston Open now had one other selling point to the players.

In addition to serving as a great tune-up for the Masters, the folks in Houston could say, “Hey, boys, if you haven’t qualified for little tournament in Augusta, come take one last swing at it.” And there’s something about playing for that green jacket that almost makes one forget about the $5.9 million purse — at least until they start handing out paychecks.

Since the win-and-in policy was restored, the Shell Houston Open has never failed to provide a little bonus drama for Augusta. In 2008 it was Johnson Wagner who held on to win his first PGA TOUR event and earn his spot in the Masters. He didn’t have to think long about accepting the invitation, either; he was on a jet around midnight and headed toward Magnolia Lane.

Things didn’t quite work out the next two years, but they were awfully close. In 2009, it was J.B. Holmes, who missed his final chance by losing in a playoff to Paul Casey. In 2010, it was Augusta State graduate Vaughn Taylor who was beaten in a playoff by Anthony Kim and denied an 11th-hour admission ticket.

While most of the players you’d expect to see in the Masters have already qualified, there are a few who still need to take advantage of this one last opportunity get in the field. Five looking to make their move this week include:

Michael Bradley: He won the Puerto Rico Open this spring, but that doesn’t count in the eyes of the Masters committee since it’s opposite the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship. He ranks No. 31 on the money list and needs a victory in Houston to make his first Masters appearance since 2009.

Spencer Levin: He’s posted three top-10s in the last six starts and has finished outside the top 15 only once since February, which leaves him 17th on the PGA TOUR money list. Despite a slight meltdown on Saturday at Bay Hill, he rebounded to tie for sixth. It would be fun to see him in the Masters.

Marc Leishman: The 2009 Rookie of the Year waited until the weekend to play his best golf at Arnie’s place last week. Leishman, who is No. 30 on the money list, is a big guy who has a nice touch around the greens; he’ll get a chance to show it this week in Houston. He missed the cut in his Masters debut a year ago and would benefit from the experience.

Webb Simpson: A solid spring includes a runner-up performance at the Transitions Championship, which has helped him climb to No. 22 on the money list. He followed that by missing the cut at Bay Hill. Simpson, a three-time All-American at Wake Forest, is looking to make his Masters debut.

Jimmy Walker: “Kid Dynamite” has three top-10s this spring, but his game went south when the TOUR went to Florida. He’s missed the cut the last two weeks. Walker is No. 26 on the earnings list, but needs his first career victory if he wants to see those famous Augusta National green cellophane-wrapped pimento cheese sandwiches up close and personal.

When it comes to needing that Shell Houston Open mojo, Wagner, Taylor and Holmes are all on the top of the help-needed list once again.

Although Wagner won the Mayakoba Golf Classic earlier this season, the Masters doesn’t recognize that as a win-and-in event since the best players were competing in the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship that same week. Holmes is No. 27 on the money list, but No. 60 in the world rankings. Taylor has not finished better than 25th this season.

Those three know the possibility exists to see the azaleas next week. Now they have one more chance to take care of business. It will be fun to watch the drama unfold.

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