Burning Questions: Hunter Mahan's decision to play in Qatar, Assessing Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson

Thursday February 2nd, 2012
This week Hunter Mahan is competing in the Qatar Masters.
Andrew Redington / Getty Images

Are PGA Tour players really helping themselves by chasing appearance fee money?
People on the driving range and in the media tent have been whispering a lot about appearance fees this season, mainly because Tiger Woods got a big payday to play last week's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
 
Some would argue that Woods should have passed on the fee, rumored to be as high as $2.5 million, and played the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where he's won six PGA Tour events and the 2008 U.S. Open. Woods's absence certainly took some glamour away from Torrey Pines, but it's hard to see how it wasn't the right move for him. By returning to the Middle East, he helped spread his global brand (and Nike's) and faced six of the top 10 players in the world. And that sort of financial windfall would be hard for anyone -- even Tiger -- to turn down.
 
But sometimes it's more complicated. Chasing appearance fees can lead to excessive and exhausting travel, shaky performances and bad blood.
 
Take the case of Hunter Mahan, who is skipping this week's Phoenix Open to play the Qatar Masters. A source close to Mahan estimates the Qatar appearance fee to be about $250,000. That's a lot of money, but not for Mahan, who won $3.5 million on the PGA Tour in 2011. (Heck, he won $208,500 for finishing sixth at Torrey Pines last week.)
 
Here is Mahan's itinerary. After he finished Sunday at Torrey Pines, he promptly hopped on a plane to London, and from there he flew to Qatar. This Sunday, he will fly to Houston and then take another jet to Monterey, Calif., where he's scheduled to play in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. He'll then play at Riviera and in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. Five weeks, five events and a ton of frequent flier miles.
 
If he endures the rigorous schedule and wins in Qatar or at Pebble Beach, Mahan will look like a genius. If his game suffers, however, he could end up hurting his bank account, not to mention missing out on Ryder Cup points. No matter how he plays, though, one thing's for sure: he won't have endeared himself to his sponsors at Ping and Under Armour.
 
The Phoenix Open, which Mahan won in 2010, is played at TPC Scottsdale, just 16 miles from the headquarters of Ping Golf, Mahan's equipment sponsor. The company is a sponsor of the tournament and treats it like a major, hosting parties, giving staff pros a look at yet-to-be-released gear, and entertaining VIPs at its facility. Ping isn't happy that Mahan chose not to be in town, according to the source.
 
Under Armour, which also sponsors the tournament, is Mahan's apparel provider and just announced that Hunter is the new face of its performance eyewear line. The people at Under Armour can't be pleased that Mahan will be sporting his new shades in the Middle East instead of Arizona.
 
Mahan might be doing exactly the right the thing, and he might be going more for the experience than the appearance fee. "Nowadays, that's what you have to do," he told the Associated Press. "Golf is worldwide. If you want to play against the best players ... if I go over and play well, it's going to mean a lot more to me than playing well here. It's just a fact.''
 
But I still wonder if, in the long term, Mahan wouldn't have been better off to skip this guaranteed payday. He had a lot to play for in Scottsdale, too.
 
What did we learn about Tiger Woods in Abu Dhabi?
Tiger Woods should see his performance in the Middle East as a major step forward.
 
The eyes of the golf world examined Woods especially closely because he was making his 2012 debut, and Tiger's game looked sharp through three rounds against a field that featured six of the top 10 players in the world, including Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood.
But when it mattered most, on Sunday, Woods didn't come through. He hit only two fairways and six greens in regulation, which made his final-round 72 look like a pretty impressive score.
 
So, what did we learn? Woods is capable of playing three very good rounds and contending again, but his psychological edge is largely gone. If a journeyman like Rock can keep it together and play well, there's no reason to think McIlroy, Donald, Martin Kaymer or any number of top players can't do the same.
 
That means Tiger will need four excellent rounds in a week to get his first full-field victory since 2009. He can no longer rely on intimidation and crumbling competition on Sunday. I think he'll do it soon, maybe as early as next week in Pebble Beach.
 
What did we learn about Phil Mickelson in San Diego?
Throughout his career, Mickelson has loved the long ball and has always relied on his amazing recovery skills when drives went astray. But so far this season, his inability to both make putts and get up-and-down has exposed his inconsistent his ball striking.
 
Mickelson, 41, made it very clear last week at Torrey Pines that he is done trying new putters and different putting strokes. He said that in his mind there are no shortcuts to good putting, and when he tried a belly putter at the end of last season he was searching for a shortcut.
 
"I'm done making changes to strokes," he said on Wednesday. "I'm done trying different putters.  I have two putters that I'll use. It's one or the other."
 
Phil didn't putt well at Torrey Pines, but I think his remarks were a good sign. For years people have said that Phil tinkers too much and outthinks himself. I've been one of them. If he concentrates on making his natural stroke and sticking to the same basic equipment, Phil's putting will improve.
 
But given the way Mickelson has been hitting the ball, making more putts might not have led to more birdies, just fewer bogeys. Mickelson has played six competitive rounds in 2012 and is hitting 58.54 percent of his fairways and 69.44 percent  of his greens in regulation. But Mickelson's average approach shot so far has left him 36' 5" from the hole, tying him for 78th  in Proximity to the Hole. No one is going to make a lot of 36-foot birdie putts.
 
Mickelson clearly needs to work on all facets of his game. He won't make more putts until he starts giving himself more realistic birdie chances, and those come from hitting fairways and better iron shots.
 
We still have more than two months until the Masters, but Mickelson has got plenty of work to do before he heads to Augusta.
   

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