Friday, January 19, 2007

The Ford Championship at Doral is underway, and so we close the book on the unofficial first leg of the season and make the turn to the east coast. Over the next six weeks, the build-up to The Masters will intensify and one of the best fields of the year will assemble at the Players Championship. Here's what we've learned through the first eight weeks of the 2006 season:

1.) Tiger is Tiger again—sort of
He continues his journey of improvement, finding a way to win, or at least contend, every week. However, Tiger is doing it differently than he did during his last period of dominance a few years ago. Rather than out-smart, out-putt and out-finesse the field with spectacular shots that few other people can pull off, Tiger has joined the bombs away parade and is content to hit the ball as far as he can, go find it and hit it again. He has a new, longer shaft in his new, technologically-advanced driver, and has picked up a lot of distance on his nearest rivals. He resisted these equipment and strategic alterations for quite a while, but now appears to embrace them. One thing that hasn't changed for Tiger is his mental toughness. While his physical skills are tremendous, his mental skills are his greatest strength.

2.) There is no such thing as paying your dues anymore
Many PGA Tour rookies are arriving with total games and are ready to win early. It doesn't hurt that, like J.B. Holmes in Phoenix, they can hit the @*!* out of the ball! Having exciting rookies who are ready to win is a very good thing for the game, as veterans who want to coast through their 40s and still earn a good living will have to play hard or watch the youngsters walk away with the cash.

3.) Match Play: A blessing and a curse
Some people are saying the format for the Accenture Match Play championship needs serious re-working because the "big names" weren't around on the weekend. As much as people love to compare the two, it is not like the NCAA basketball tournament, in which marquee teams often reach the Final Four. Anyone who thinks that just because the "Big 5" of Tiger, Phil, Vijay, Ernie and Retief are in the field that they will have a good chance of reaching the later rounds is kidding themselves. Match play is fickle, which makes it both interesting and infuriating to watch. Paul Casey shot four-under and lost his first-round match. Colin Montgomerie shot four-over and won. If you want true match play then deal with it. If you want a better chance to see the top names contend, I propose a 54-hole stroke play qualifying for just 8 spots, with match play starting on the weekend.

4.) New clubs are going into old bags
Observant players are changing the clubs in their sets to suit the new reality of today's course setups. What's the one shot they need today that they didn't need five years ago? A high, soft 230-240 yard approach shot to get at tight pins on par fives. The players are taking a page from the LPGA Tour and putting hybrid clubs or, in Tiger's case, a 5-wood in their bags to help them hit these shots. A few years ago, the 1-iron became obsolete. The 2-iron is hereby given its last rites. I look for more specialty clubs to be developed for, and used by, Tour pros to handle modern courses. That innovation is good news for you amateurs out there.

5.) Course setup is key
Speaking of course setups, the PGA Tour needs to give more leeway to the field staff at each tournament to respond to competitive realities and alter the way a course plays. Right now the 54-hole lead is critical! At Pebble Beach, Luke Donald was six shots behind co-leaders Aaron Oberholser and Mike Weir after 54 holes. But the way Pebble was set up that Sunday, with super-difficult pin positions and tees pushed back, there was no way someone was going to shoot a 64 or 65 to make a late charge. That wouldn't be the case if the PGA Tour field staff had more flexibility. That's why I love the setup on Sunday at the Masters. If you are playing well, the course can be had and even a six-shot lead isn't safe.

It will be interesting to tune in and see how the next several weeks unfold in the run-up to the year's first major championship. The players who live in Florida and Texas will have an advantage as the putting surfaces go from the bumpy Poa annua seen on the West Coast to the sometimes grainier, overseeded Bermuda grass found in the Southeast. Look for players with versatile short games and comfortable with Bermuda grass rough to win in the next few weeks. Enjoy the show.

Peter Kostis is a GOLF MAGAZINE Contributing Writer and commentator for CBS Sports.

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