Now that Tiger Woods not the favorite, picking a winner is like throwing darts at a board

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Adam Scott

Adam Scott

Picking a favorite before a major championship has always been like throwing darts at a board, only in previous years one target was a little bigger than the others. Not anymore. While some of the best players in the game stand a better chance this week than others, the post-Tiger era, especially in major championships, is both wide open and strangely disquieting.

There have been six consecutive first-time major winners going all the way back to Graeme McDowell at last year’s U.S. Open, and nine of the last 10 going all the way back to Lucas Glover’s Open win at Bethpage Black. The only two repeat major winners in the last three years are Angel Cabrera and Phil Mickelson, while the No.1 and No.2 players in the world, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, are major-less. In fact, the top five players in the World Golf Rankings own exactly one major title between them: Martin Kaymer’s win at last year’s PGA Championship.

This is strange place for a game that is used to having a top dog. For 14 years, Tiger Woods elevated the public consciousness of golf and escalated the level of play on all tours. More people watched when Tiger played well, and the professional game improved in an attempt to keep up with him.

Prior to Tiger, Greg Norman set the bar. Before that, it was Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, and before that, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. Sure, there were other great players in all those eras, but the game has seemingly always had a standard bearer. Now that Tiger had become what legendary football coach Bill Parcells calls “a JAG” (just another guy), the question going into this PGA Championship becomes: is golf better off with or without one dominant player?

“It’s a pretty good question, that,” said Darren Clarke, the most recent major champion who is looking to become the first player since Padraig Harrington to follow a British Open win with the victory in the PGA Championship. “Tiger was the best player for a very long time and he raised the bar in terms of what everybody else did and everybody else’s preparation and the way they went about tournaments. So in one way, it’s good.

“In another way, you have guys challenging all the time, different players; the likes of Adam Scott, who played sensationally well last week in Akron. It was great to see that for him.”

Scott, a soft-spoken Australian, would never be so brash as to name himself the likely successor to Tiger. But he did say he thinks “the state of the game is in a really interesting place right now. We’ve seen a lot of great stories with some really high-quality young players who are living up to their potential quickly, like Rory (McIlroy) and Ryo (Ishikawa) and Matteo Manassero winning as teenagers. The competition is strong at the moment. Luke Donald has played amazing; Lee Westwood is playing amazing. I think it’s a very interesting place for golf. It’s exciting to watch.”

But will the public continue to watch if the game fails to produce one or two players who separate themselves from the pack, particularly in majors?

“I think the fans always enjoy the hero, the one player that does dominate, who they can cheer for, and I think Tiger was that person, obviously,” said World No. 1 Donald. “But there are obviously people out there who enjoy also like seeing a bit more variance and variety; that other people have a chance to win. That’s been the case the last two or three years. There’s been a lot of shuffling around in the World Golf Rankings, and I’m sure that’s good for the sport as well.

“I’m not sure which is better. I’d probably sway with (having) one person dominating. I think it brings more to the sport.”

Lee Westwood, who would like to become that dominant player, thinks the game is just fine either way. “I think it’s exciting when there’s a lot of different winners and I think it’s exciting when there’s a dominant player,” Westwood said. “You can’t say that when Tiger was winning lots of majors it was boring or dull; it was exciting to watch and see what he would do next. I think it’s healthy for the game both ways. I think depending on who you are and what your idea is, some people are not going to like it when there’s not somebody dominant and others are not going to like it when it’s predictable.”

Then, in a moment that summed up the state of game as well as any, Westwood concluded by saying: “It’s something you can’t control. What you get is what you get.”

This week, what we’re going to get is far from predictable. And that is a good thing.

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Tiger Woods has pretty decent return to the Tour with first round at WGC-Bridgestone Invitational

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Tiger returns to Tour

Tiger returns to Tour

Tiger Woods appeared to face a big test Thursday in his return to golf.

It was a 3-wood around the trees on the 658-yard 16th hole at Firestone that required him to go at it hard, cut short his back swing to produce the sharp fade, then let the momentum of his motion carry his body forward with an awkward step.

Only it didn’t feel like that big of a deal to Woods.

“I was just trying to hit a cut,” he said. “I didn’t feel any problem with that.”

His only concern in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational was that he hit the ball too flush and too far. He still managed three birdies, including a 30-foot putt on the 16th hole, that carried him to a 2-under 68 and sent a strong statement that his leg was as healthy as he thought.

His game wasn’t half bad, either.

“It feels great,” Woods said. “As anybody who’s been off and who’s been injured, first time back it’s a little nervous to see what happens. But my practice sessions were good, so there’s no reason why I should be worried out there. I went out there and let it go, let it rip and see what happens.”

His ex-caddie saw some familiar golf at Firestone, too.

Steve Williams, now working permanently for Adam Scott after Woods fired him a month ago, watched the Australian play flawless in matching his career-low round on the PGA Tour with a 62 that gave Scott a one-shot lead over Jason Day.

Williams was on the bag for all seven of Woods’ wins at Firestone, including his 11-shot win in 2000 when Woods had a 61 in the second round and set the tournament record at 259.

“He didn’t think it was a big deal to shoot 62,” Scott said with a grin. “It was normal.”

Despite all the interest about Woods’ return, there was nothing special about his score, even if it was his lowest opening round this year.

The conditions were so soft and calm that 39 players in the 78-man field broke par, a record number for any round in the 12 years this World Golf Championship has been played on Firestone South.

The scoring average was 69.63, the lowest since the opening round in 2001. Scott, who birdied four of his last six holes, had the lowest opening round ever at Firestone.

Day, who tied for second with Scott at the Masters, shot a 63 in the morning. Nick Watney, a World Golf Championship winner at Doral this year, bogeyed the last hole and still had a 65.

“Probably not what we’re used to seeing around this course, so it was good to take advantage of that,” Scott said.

Even so, this day was primarily about one score, and one player.

The attention on Woods was so great that when he stepped onto the first tee, the gallery lined the entire right side of the 401-yard opening hole and wrapped around the green. Phil Mickelson was wrapping up his round of 67 at No. 9, and when the fans around the green and in the grandstands had their backs turned to watch Woods tee off.

Playing in soft spikes for the first time, and going back to the putter that he used in 13 of his major championships, Woods avoided a poor start by making an 18-foot par putt on the third, and he saved his round toward the end of the front nine by getting up-and-down from a bunker on the eighth, and making a 20-foot par putt on the ninth.

Then came his approach on the 10th, that spun out of the back fringe and settled about 4 feet away for birdie — not only his first of the day, but his first since he two-putted for birdie from 4 feet on the 15th hole at the Masters on April 10.

Woods injured a knee ligament and his Achilles’ tendon in that tournament, and then said he returned too early at The Players Championship. He aggravated the injuries on the first hole at the TPC Sawgrass and quit after nine holes at 6-over par. He said he would not play again until he was fully healthy, and that much showed at Firestone.

There was one moment on the 17th tee when a reporter thought he saw Woods lift his left leg in a peculiar fashion.

“The marker was right in my way,” Woods said with a grin.

Perhaps more telling is that Woods said he stopped putting ice on his leg and taking inflammatory medicine “a while ago,” and held nothing back in his first competitive round in 84 days.

“I hadn’t really gone at it yet until today,” he said. “Just kind of plodding away, just kind of hitting shots. Today was just, ‘Let’s go, let’s go play, just put everything else aside and let’s go give it a go and try to post a low number.”

His lone bogey came on the 14th hole, when he tried to hit a perfect bunker shot from a slightly downhill lie with the green running away from him. He came inches short of pulling it off, leaning back in disbelief. He two-putted from the collar for bogey, and then came back two holes later with a shot on the 16th that showed he might already be at full strength.

The only problem he had was controlling his distance, and Woods had a reason for that, too.

“I’m hitting it just so much more flush, and I’m just not used to that,” he said. Does that mean he was hitting it badly before?

“Yeah,” he said. “My swing was more of a wipey swing … so I wasn’t getting a full transfer of energy. Now I’m swinging easier. I’m not even hitting it hard yet, and that’s what’s fun. I’m hitting it farther without any more effort.”

It took great effort to get atop the leaderboard.

Day went out early and posted a bogey-free round of 63, making birdie on the last hole. No one else from the morning group was better than a 66. And then it was Scott’s turn in the afternoon. He thought 63 was a pretty low score for this South course, but then figured it was there for the taking with so many other scores in the 60s.

“I just feel like I need to get myself in these things from Thursday, show up and go, not show up and see how you get on the first nine,” Scott said. “I feel like that’s a good way for me to go because I’m hitting the ball well, and I feel really confident on the greens. It was green light and just attack.”

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Chris Kirk becomes another first time PGA Tour winner at Viking Classic

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Chris Kirk claims first tournament

Chris Kirk claims first tournament

After a tap-in putt for a one-stroke victory at the Viking Classic, Chris Kirk picked up his ball, gave a nearly indiscernible fist pump and strode off the course like a man who’s done it a hundred times.

Not exactly what you’d expect from a first-time PGA Tour winner.

“I gave a little bit of a fist pump, I think, didn’t I?” Kirk said grinning. “I don’t know. I made a three-inch putt to win. That’s not exactly an accomplishment. All the other shots I hit were pretty good, though.”

They certainly were. Kirk, a 26-year-old rookie, shot a 4-under 68 to beat Tom Pernice Jr. and George McNeill by one stroke at Annandale Golf Club. It ended an impressive week for the Georgia graduate, who tied the tournament record with a 22-under performance over four rounds.

Kirk had a one-stroke lead going into the final round and rarely flinched. He never trailed, breaking a tie with McNeill on No. 17 by hitting a 140-yard approach over water to within five feet of the hole for an easy birdie putt.

The bold shot looked risky. But Kirk calmly surveyed his options and said he never thought twice.

“People sometimes make more of it than what it is,” Kirk said. “It was 140 yards and it was a 9-iron, so I was aiming right at the pin and nowhere else. That was my only thought.”

Kirk played his first PGA Tour event at the Viking Classic in 2007, receiving a sponsor’s exemption just weeks after turning pro. But he missed the cut, and on Sunday marveled at how much things have changed in four years.

“It’s pretty amazing to think back to then, how far I’ve come from,” Kirk said. “My game isn’t that much better than it was then, but just the comfort level that I have now to be able to go out for 18 today and feel one hundred percent comfortable in my own skin.”

Annandale received more than 4.5 inches of rain over the past week, and the soft fairways and greens led to plentiful birdies throughout the tournament. But the final round proved to be the toughest, with scores rising slightly as the course dried out and wind picked up.

Sunghoon Kang, another rookie, and McNeill started the day one stroke behind Kirk, but couldn’t keep pace.

Pernice fell just short in his bid to become the second-oldest winner in tour history and the first over-50 player to win since Fred Funk in 2007. Sam Snead was 52 when he won the Greater Greensboro Open in 1965.

Pernice started the day two strokes back, but fired a 67 for the third straight day to stay in contention. He put his approach shot on No. 18 within 10 feet of the hole, but his birdie putt slid to the left at the last second. McNeill also missed a birdie putt on No. 18.

“I just needed to make a good firm stroke, maybe just outside the right edge and all that good stuff,” Pernice said. “But it looked like I pulled it.”

Pernice said Kirk’s victory wasn’t surprising considering his consistency throughout the season.

“The young guys are getting bigger and stronger and they’re able to compete right away,” Pernice said.

Kirk is the fifth rookie to win on the tour this season — just the second time that’s happened since 1970. He’s been consistent all season, ranking 51st on the money list coming into the Viking Classic, and just missed his first career win after finishing second to Phil Mickelson at the Shell Houston Open.

The victory earns Kirk $648,000 of the $3.6 million purse and 250 points in the FedExCup standings.

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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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Luke Donald and Jack Nicklaus chat at Memorial

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Luke Donald

Luke Donald

Jack Nicklaus played his last round in a major alongside a 27-year-old from England with a quiet demeanor and efficient game. He had no idea that Friday afternoon at St. Andrews that Luke Donald one day would be No. 1 in the world.

 

Is he surprised six years later to see Donald atop the world ranking?

Not from what Nicklaus has seen in recent months.

Nicklaus, as he does with most tour players who move to Palm Beach County, offered Donald a membership at The Bear’s Club, which has one of the most complete practice facilities around. Donald has been putting it to good use.

“Luke’s game has come a long way,” Nicklaus said. “But I will have to tell you that Luke is a member at The Bear’s Club down in Florida, and he’s there all the time. There isn’t anybody who spends more time working on his golf game than I’ve seen in Luke Donald. And he spends his time chipping and putting, chipping and putting. I mean, he wears out the practice greens.

“And I think that the effort he has put into it has been rewarded.”

The rewards are more than even Donald once imagined. By winning the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in a playoff over Lee Westwood, he became only the 15th player to be No. 1 in the 25 years of the world ranking.

It was his second win in three months against a world-class field, to go with a playoff loss at Hilton Head and another runner-up finish in the Volvo World Match Play Championship in Spain. Donald hasn’t finished out of the top 10 — a streak of nine tournaments — since he missed the cut at Riviera in his return from a three-month winter break.

Donald makes his debut as the new No. 1 on Thursday, when he tees off at the Memorial with the last two Masters champions, Charl Schwartzel and Phil Mickelson.

The field also includes Rory McIlroy, Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney and Players champion K.J. Choi. Missing is Tiger Woods, who is recovering from left leg injuries.

Donald is not a physically imposing figure — not along the lines of Woods, Vijay Singh or Martin Kaymer — yet there is no disputing the results he has put together over the last two years. He only has three wins, but he has finished in the top 10 in just over 50 percent of his tournaments.

Most importantly, he feels like he’s No. 1.

“I do,” Donald said. “I think the way that the world rankings are, consistency is highly weighted. If you can keep playing well week in and week out, keep earning those points, then you’re going to climb in the world rankings. And I don’t think there’s anybody who has been more consistent in the last nine months than me.”

There’s another factor that Donald willingly points out: Woods’ downfall has given the rest of golf a fighting chance. That’s one reason Donald never spent much time dreaming about being No. 1 in the world. With Woods around, it didn’t seem mathematically possible.

“As a kid you dream about winning majors and winning tournaments,” he said. “But for me, I always kept an eye out on the world rankings and had an interest in it. But I supposed for the bulk of my career, Tiger was so far ahead that it never really crept into my mind.

“But in the last year or so, there’s been more of an upheaval in the rankings, and there’s been a lot more movement. So I knew the opportunity was there.”

With Woods out of the way — he slipped to No. 13 this week — Donald, Westwood and Kaymer have been No. 1 over the last three weeks. That’s the highest turnover in the ranking since 1997, when Woods, Ernie Els and Greg Norman took turns over three weeks. Woods eventually established himself as the undisputed No. 1 in the ranking.

This could take longer to sort out, although Donald is in the right place.

He reached the top in style, winning the European Tour’s flagship event despite not having his best game on the weekend, and beating the former No. 1 in a sudden-death playoff.

“I would have loved to have won by 10 and not had to go through all that stress,” Donald said. “I didn’t have my best golf last week. I think that’s what was more satisfying to me than anything else, that even without really feeling totally in control of my game, I was able to get it done. And obviously, to do it in that circumstance, going head to head with Lee and to have everything on the line, made it that much more special.”

The last time No. 1 changed hands with the top two players going head to head was at the 2004 Deutsche Bank Championship, although Vijay Singh easily defeated Woods in regulation without having to go to a playoff.

The biggest change for Donald was a short game and the shortest space in golf — between the ears. Along with working on his fitness following a wrist injury in 2008, he hired performance coach Dave Alred, best known in rugby circles as a kicking coach for the likes of Jonny Wilkinson.

Kaymer, after losing to Donald in the final of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, said Donald’s short game was better than Mickelson’s. Along with trying to keep it in the fairway to compensate for his lack of power off the tee, Donald has worked endlessly with longtime coach Pat Goss on chipping and putting.

Nicklaus, the tournament host at Memorial, can attest to that from what he sees at The Bear’s Club.

“I’ve worked very hard down there,” Donald said. “They have such great facilities that I feel guilty if I don’t work hard.”

Does he ever see Nicklaus hitting balls?

“Not very often, no,” Donald said with a smile. “I think he spends a lot of time on the tennis courts.”

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Byrd takes a one shot lead into final round of Wells Fargo Championship

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Jonathan Byrd

Jonathan Byrd

The crowd was so big and boisterous Saturday that it made Jonathan Byrd a little uncomfortable. Seeing his name atop the leaderboard? Byrd is getting used to that.

 

The guy who only last October was worried about keeping his PGA Tour card ran off a blistering stretch of birdies in the Wells Fargo Championship for a 5-under 67, giving him a one-shot lead as he goes for his third win in seven months.

“Twelve months ago, I would never have thought that could happen,” he said. “But now, the way my game is, why couldn’t it happen? I’m playing well. I feel like I have all the tools to play well. I’m just going to play, and then when it’s all over, I’ll enjoy whatever I’ve done.”

Byrd was at 15-under 201, a score he didn’t imagine until his hot streak.

He was in the mix with a half-dozen other players who were trying to keep in range of Pat Perez when Byrd ran off five birdies in six holes to start the back nine. The one hole he didn’t birdie might have been his best putt — a 7-footer that broke sharply to the right.

“You won’t believe how much this putt breaks,” Phil Mickelson said, standing to the back of the green after his own remarkable par. Byrd poured it into the heart, birdied the next two holes and was on his way.

Perez had a hard-fought 70, missing fairways early in the round and rarely converting birdie chances throughout the back nine until a slight mistake turned into his best-looking shot. Taking a little off a 7-iron, he pulled it slightly on the 17th and saw it sail right at the flag and stop some 5 feet behind the pin for a birdie.

“It was kind of scrappy all the way around,” Perez said. “I played pretty good to shoot 70, I guess.”

Former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover (69) and former British Open champion Stewart Cink (68), who have not won since capturing their majors in the summer of 2009, were three shots back.

The top eight players were separated by five shots, which isn’t much on a Quail Hollow course where last year Rory McIlroy closed with a 62 for his only PGA Tour victory.

It starts with Byrd and Perez, who players whose contrast starts with their pace of play. Byrd is on the deliberate side, while Perez wastes no time. On the sixth hole, with Byrd in the group ahead, the caddies were no more than 10 feet off the green when Perez had hit his tee shot into the par 3.

Perez isn’t the least bit worried.

“I wait every single shot, every single day on the PGA Tour, so I’ve gotten really used to doing that,” Perez said.

Missing from the mix is Mickelson.

The three-time Masters champion was in range and was poised to make a move with a brilliant par save on the 12th, a mini-flop from a downhill lie to a green that ran away and broke sharply to the left. It stopped inches away.

But he hit flubbed a bunker shot on the 14th to lose an easy chance at birdie, then hit tee shots into the water on the par-5 15th (bogey) and the par-3 17th (double bogey) on his way to a 74. Mickelson has hit five balls in the water this week.

J.B. Holmes had an amazing stretch on the back nine — five shots to play two holes when he holed a 5-iron on the 15th for an albatross, the rarest score in golf, and followed that with a birdie on the 16th. That led to a 65, although he was six shots behind, along with U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Davis Love III, who had a 68.

The excitement was almost too much for Byrd.

He was playing with Mickelson, the biggest draw at Quail Hollow, and while it wasn’t the first time, he could feel the energy. The gallery caved in around him going from green-to-tee on just about every hole, with young fans holding out hands to be tapped.

Mickelson gets that all the time — Byrd, not so much.

“I’ve never high-fived so much in my life,” Byrd said.

That only concerned him because he doesn’t play with a glove, and part of him wondered if fans had just put on sunscreen.

“Phil is used to that,” he said. “He just flashes that smile. I want to keep my head down.”

The buzz in the crowd contributed to a slow start, a bogey on the opening hole and failing to birdie the par-5 fifth. But he hit a nifty chip from the side of the seventh for a tap-in birdie, nearly drove the short eighth hole and made birdie, then took off on the back nine.

His longest birdie putt was a 10-footer on the 13th. The rest was about taking advantage of the par 5s and the short par-4 14th. In the middle of that stretch was the 7-foot par on the 12th, which Byrd called his toughest putt on the back nine.

Watching Mickelson hit his chip allowed him to see the degree of break, and he poured it in the center cut. Then came two more birdies, and Byrd was surprised to hear after his round he had made seven birdies in a nine-hole stretch.

He needed them all to get the 54-hole lead. No one is sure how many he’ll need Sunday to collect another win.

“Somebody is going to have to get off to a good start,” Glover said. “Jonathan is a great front-runner. He’s playing so well. I played with him Tuesday and saw him at home the last couple weeks. He’s playing great. It’s going to take a good start and a low round because he’s playing well enough to where he could shoot in the 60s again tomorrow and blow everybody away. But we’ll see.”

Players wore black ribbons in honor of Seve Ballesteros, who died early Saturday in Spain. PGA Tour officials said play will stop at 3:08 p.m. on Sunday for one minute in memory of the Spanish great.

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Seve Ballesteros loosing battle with neurological condition

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Seve Ballesteros

Seve Ballesteros

The Ballesteros family today issued a statement about Seve’s condition which said: 

“The Ballesteros family informs that Seve’s neurological condition has suffered a severe deterioration. The family will inform accordingly about any change in his health condition and takes this opportunity of thanking everyone for the support that both Seve and his own family have been receiving during all this time.”

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Bill Haas opens 1st. round at Quail Hollow with matching tournament record

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Bill Haas at Quail Hollow

Bill Haas at Quail Hollow

Of all the times Bill Haas has played Quail Hollow, he never had a round quite like this.

 

Haas had stress-free birdies on all the par 5s and did little wrong on the rest of the holes Thursday in the Wells Fargo Championship, matching the tournament record for lowest opening round with an 8-under 64 for a two-shot lead.

“I’ve got good feelings around this place,” Haas said.

It was his best score by four shots at Quail Hollow on the PGA Tour, and way better than two dozen rounds he played as a kid when he would tag along with his father, Jay Haas, on the special trips they made to the course.

Haas had a two-shot lead over David Toms and Jonathan Byrd, who each had a 66 in the morning when it was barely above 40 degrees at the start of the tournament with a north wind that is uncommon for this tournament.

Ultimately, the afternoon turned out to be perfect — much like Haas and his round.

He did have a few key par saves, such as the 10-foot putt he made at the turn on the 18th hole. The key for Haas, though, was getting off to a good start on the slightly tougher back nine, and knowing he could afford to make a few mistakes.

Defending champion Rory McIlroy made some errors early, and he never quite caught up. In his first trip back to America after his Sunday collapse in the Masters, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland opened with a 75.

“The story of the day for me is I really didn’t hit it very well, which is unlike me,” McIlroy said. “It’d be the strength of my game and today I just wasn’t striking it well. My timing was off just a little bit.”

Pat Perez and Lucas Glover were at 67, while Rickie Fowler overcame a rugged start — two bogeys on his opening three holes — to lead a group at 68 that included Vijay Singh and Stuart Appleby.

Phil Mickelson, in his first event since the Masters, hit two balls in the water on par 5s and scrambled for par each time. The first one was critical. He already was 1 over for the tournament through six holes when he came out of the pine straw and into the pond at No. 7. He holed a 12-foot par putt, then made birdie on the next four holes.

He wound up with a 69, along with Padraig Harrington.

“I hadn’t played in a few weeks, and to shoot under par was a good start,” Mickelson said. “It could have been a lot better, could have been a lot worse. I’ll certainly take it.”

The cold air made Quail Hollow play even longer in the morning, and it was particularly tough on the guys who don’t blast it. Toms fits into that category, which explains why he had to hit fairway metals for his second shot on three par 4s. The good news is he made par on all of them, and threw in seven birdies for a 66.

“It was cold this morning, and we were all out there with our jackets and sweaters on and playing these long par 4s,” Toms said. “If I can shoot 3 under on the front nine, as long as it played, I’ll take that any day.”

Toms won the first edition of this tournament in 2003.

Byrd rarely plays well here. Except for a tie for fifth a few years ago, he missed the cut in his other five appearance. He almost thought about skipping the Wells Fargo Championship, except that it’s close to his South Carolina roots.

“It’s pretty odd,” said Byrd, who opened the year with a playoff win at Kapalua. “If it wasn’t close to home, I might start saying, ‘I just don’t play well there, I need to go home.’ But my family is close to home here in Columbia, South Carolina, and it’s not far from Clemson. They just knock it out of the park at this golf tournament, and it’s a tournament I can’t miss.”

Haas wouldn’t miss it, either — not now, certainly not as a kid. He grew up in Greenville, S.C., although his father was a member and they often made the 90-mile drive to Quail Hollow.

“My dad would say, ‘Let’s go play Quail tomorrow.’ It was a bigger deal than just playing at home,” he said.

Haas figures he played some 30 rounds before turning pro. He also has good memories of the times he played the tournament with his father, older brother (Jay Jr.) and his uncle (Jerry Haas).

Even so, nothing compares to playing and making so many birdies.

Haas opened his round with a 3-wood onto the 10th green for a two-putt birdie, and a 7-iron to 15 feet on the 12th, which played as the second-toughest hole in the opening round. Then came a 30-foot birdie on the 14th, and an easy up-and-down from the front bunker on the par-5 15th for a birdie.

He knew birdie chances awaited on the front with two par 5s, and he made birdie there, too.

Haas tinkered with a belly putter at Hilton Head a few weeks ago because the greens are flat. He was back to a conventional putter on the contoured greens of Quail Hollow, and wound up making his share of them.

“Putted well,” he said, “which leads to everything.”

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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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