Alan Shipnuck's Mailbag: FedEx points and major qualification, Matt Kuchar's future, Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson and more

Nobody asked, but a very cool book landed with a thud on my front doorstep today: “True Links” by George Peper and Malcolm Campbell. At first blush it’s your basic golf porn, with glossy centerfolds of luscious seaside courses. But this book has a unique hook: it seeks to identify and catalogue each of the world’s links courses. The authors came up with their own idiosyncratic criteria as to what constitutes a true links course, eventually settling on 246 that have been deigned to have the correct mix of dunesy terrain and proximity to the sea, as well as appropriate weather and soil. The essays are well written and informative—Peper is a former editor of Golf Magazine and Campbell a onetime editor of Golf Monthly—and the pictures are certainly glorious. But what I like most about “True Links” is that it’s the ultimate daydream-inducer. Looking at the maps already has me planning various excursions to far-flung linksland, some of which I have only just discovered in this evocative book. Now, on to the questions. I'm wondering how it came to be that the top 30 players in the FedEx Cup points receive automatic invitations to major championships, despite the vastly distorted points bonus for the last 4 tournaments? For example, who is Streelman? The FedEx cup seems to have carved itself a minor tour out of the PGA. —Gary, Fresno, Cal.  Sept17_streelman_600x400 There has been a lot of grumbling about the Tour Championship becoming a cheap way into the majors, and poor Kevin Streelman has become the poster boy for a broken system. (To recap, he missed 10 of his first 22 cuts and finished better than 31st only four times in the other starts, but a T3 at the Barclays propelled Streelman to the Tour Championship and thus into the first 3 majors of next year.) Golf’s ruling bodies are still figuring out how much weight to give the FedEx Cup, especially since the Tour annually tweaks the points distributions. The lords of Augusta, the blue coats of the USGA and the tweedy fossils of the R&A have tried to be supportive of the Cup by using it as a criteria to qualify for admission to their respective tourneys, but the majors don't want their fields watered down by players who have not truly earned an exemption. I expect that in the near future the Tour Championship loophole will be closed. Alan, Matt Kuchar is getting all kinds of praise this season. Clearly he’s having a solid year, but my question is, does the media overhype/over-rate him because they want so desperately for him to be the next great American player? Kuchar seems like a prototypical nice-guy and is in stark contrast to Tiger; whereas other young Americans have a bit of an edge (AK, DJ, Hunter). And referencing all his top 10s seems like an overrated stat to me. —Andrew Thomas Per the top-10s, I agree it’s often misleading. I’d like a new stat called the Quality Top-10, awarded to players who were in the mix all weekend and had a legitimate shot to win, rather than a dude who was a non-factor for three days, teed off early on Sunday when there was no pressure, and then shot 65 to get a backdoor top-10. (This is known in press rooms as “pulling a Luke Donald”.)
Anyway, Kooch. I don’t know any reporters who think he’s going to be a dominant force on Tour. His success is being celebrated because it’s been such a long time coming. It’s always satisfying when a guy scrapes it around for a decade and then suddenly figures out the game, at least for a while. Sure, Kuchar is a pleasant guy, but it’s his backstory that’s so interesting. Also, in a weird year defined by too much parity, he’s the one player who has really elevated himself in the playoffs and that, too, is notable. Alan, it seems that Martin Kaymer didn't waste much time getting caught up in excessive celebrations following his win at the PGA -- he simply went out and won the next tournament he teed it up in, something that neither Graeme nor Louis was able to pull off. We always talk about players who falter down the stretch (i.e. Dustin Johnson) having to regroup, but it seems to be just as difficult for first time major winners to retain their focus. It's September 2010 -- could the best player in the world be a German? —Alexander Heinrich, Chicago Yes, I agree that at this moment Bernhard Langer is the best player in the world. Has there been any player that you can remember that has gotten more hype for less actual achievement than Rickie Fowler? Lots of people are touting a Fowler/McIlroy matchup in Wales -- Mac has been playing pretty badly, but how would you rate Rickie's odds in that matchup? —Brian Sullivan  Sept17_fowler_600x400 Like everyone else, I’m bullish about Fowler’s future, but I agree that if you strip away all the hullabaloo his rookie year has been pretty disappointing. Fowler has had two good chances to win this year. In Phoenix he blew it largely because of a layup so timid Arnold Palmer felt compelled to offer a public scolding. At the Memorial, Fowler was in the thick of things until he made an awful swing on the par-3 12th hole and rinsed his tee ball, taking a fatal double bogey. These two disappointing runner-up finishes account for more than half the money and points he earned. In Fowler’s other 23 events, he has eight missed cuts and nine other times failed to finish better than 27th. The kid has swagger and presence, and I dig his style and work ethic. But he has a long way to go to reach the level of Rory Mac, who has already won some big-time events and racked up a fistful of top-10s in the majors. Still, anything can happen in an 18-hole match. Fowler is already a controversial captain’s pick, and he knows that his reputation—and Corey Pavin’s—is at stake. Which brings us to… Why do sportswriters like to perpetuate the idea that you can play better golf with a chip on your shoulder? It seems to me that in certain sports, like basketball and football, physical fatigue is a major factor and playing angry or with a chip on your shoulder might just inspire one to get back on defense, hustle one last time, or exert themselves when physically exhausted. In my experience, golf is the opposite. The harder you "try" to make things happen, the more they will not. Success in golf is about confidence, peace of mind, and controlling your emotions to deal with the game's ups and downs. So do sportswriters just like a good story, or do they really think one can "try harder" to win at PGA level golf? —Anonymous I’m shocked that you would imply that hyperbolic sportswriters might occasionally take liberties with the truth. For shame! You make some good points, whoever you are, but I do believe that motivation can translate into performance. Players sometimes talk about “willing the ball into the hole”; that’s not voodoo, it’s really a function of increased focus. Or, you know, trying harder. Hi Alan. It's me again, the Quebecer who went to Ireland after reading about your long-ago Irish odyssey. Had a good time reading and viewing your Bandon marathon. Just asking: what would you choose between the four courses at Bandon and an Irish rota of, let's say, Ballybunion, Tralee, Lahinch and your beloved Doonbeg ? —Suzanne Beaumier Jeez, that’s like having to pick between Rachel Uchitel and Jaime Grubbs—either way you’re in for a really good time! I love all the courses at Bandon, and you can’t beat the convenience of staying there, but there’s nothing like a good roadtrip in foreign lands, the sense of discovery as you screech up to an exotic, new destination day after day. Barnstorming across southwest Ireland is as good as it gets, and those four courses you mention are all amazing experiences: the grandeur of Ballybunion, the wonderful quirkiness of Lahinch, the scenery and heroic shot values at Tralee, and the wild, unforgettable terrain at Doonbeg. So I’d have to take Ireland ... and Jaime. I have read that for this year's HSBC Champions Tournament in China the winner (if a member of the PGA Tour) will be awarded with an official PGA win. This has not been the case in previous years. Do you think that the Tour will give official win credits to past champions of this tournament? I feel that all previous champions should get credit for the win since they went over to China to promote the game. —Elaine, Windsor, Ontario There is some historical precedent for retroactively upgrading an international victory into an official PGA Tour win – this happened about a decade ago with the British Open book-keeping. But that’s the world oldest tournament, and everyone knew that older champions had prevailed against strong fields on stellar golf courses. The first few HSBCs had a smattering of big names but otherwise the small fields were pretty thin, and no one is going to confuse Sheshan Golf Club with Carnoustie. So I think those early HSBC pioneers will have to be content with the mere glory of their victories ... and the bloated appearance fee that lured them in the first place. I've long thought Phil to be superior to Tiger physically, with Woods clearly owning the mental game. Your thoughts please. I'd really appreciate them in this case. C'mon, be honest. —Wesley Neal Setting aside the fact that one guys is built like an NFL safety and the other looks like a couch potato, I think that Tiger and Phil are very comparable physical talents. Both are wild with their drivers, but in recent years Mickelson has had a tighter dispersion with his misses. Woods is the better long-iron player, and Mickelson is superior from 100 yards in. Chipping and putting are basically a wash. So I guess you could give a tiny edge to Phil, for the time being. Clearly Tiger’s mental toughness (focus, belief, etc.) is what always separated him from everybody else, including Lefty. We’ve seen this year how ordinary Woods can look when he doesn’t have that mental edge. I think 2011 will be a defining year for both players. Tiger will have a long off-season to work on his swing and find some stability in his personal life. If his play is mediocre next year we can safely say the era of his dominance is over. That doesn’t mean he won’t still win tournaments and a few majors, but he’ll never be who he was. Meanwhile, if Phil is ever going to truly emerge as the game’s best player, it has to be next year, when he’ll be 41. Had he taken over No. 1 this year, it would have felt a little funny because of Woods’s abbreviated season and myriad other issues. (I think Phil felt some of this ambivalence, which may or may not explain his inability to get it done.) Next year there’s no asterisk. It feels like it’s now or never for both of them.(Photos: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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