Burning Questions: What to do with Kapalua, qualifying for the Masters, Webb Simpson and more

Thursday January 5th, 2012

Happy New Year to one and all. With the PGA Tour set to begin the season in Hawaii, plenty of golf fans are shivering on the mainland as winter sets in. Here are some answers to burning questions to help you stay warm.

1. What can be done to improve the PGA Tour's season-opening event, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions?
Without using Google, can you name the player who won last year at Kapalua? If you can't, Jonathan Byrd can. And so can Robert Garrigus, because he lost to Byrd in a playoff.

Kapalua's Plantation Course
Kohjiro Kinno/SI
The 18th hole at Kapalua's Plantation Course
 
The idea of starting the season with a tournament comprised of nothing but winners from last year is great—as long enough big-name guys qualify and then actually show up. Phil Mickelson won the Shell Houston Open, but he's once again skipping Kapalua. Dustin Johnson is out while recovering from knee surgery. You also won't see Darren Clarke, Charl Schwartzel, Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy or Luke Donald in Hawaii. Oh yeah, and Tiger Woods didn't qualify.
 
Plenty of good players will be on the Plantation Course, like Gary Woodland, Nick Watney and Bubba Watson, but the 28-man, no-cut event competes for sports fans' attention against the NFL playoffs over the weekend and will lead into the BCS Championship game on Monday night. Are images of swaying palm trees, breeching humpback whales and Bill Haas going to pull viewers away from LSU and Alabama?
 
The PGA Tour should either delay the start of its season or move this event to California, Arizona, or Florida so it's proximity to more PGA Tour players will make it more enticing. I also like the idea of inviting players who have won a PGA Tour event during the past two seasons. Whatever they want to change, the folks in Ponte Vedra need to do something to start of the PGA Tour season off with a bang instead of a whimper.
 
2. As of January 1, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas are among the big-name players who are not exempt to play in the 2012 Masters. Which of them will earn a spot in the field at Augusta?
There are a lot of ways for a pro to qualify for the Masters, which include:
  • Past champions have a lifetime exemption
  • Winners of the other three majors get a five-year exemption
  • Winners of a previous-season's PGA Tour event are automatically qualified. (Sorry Fall Series winners and players who win events held opposite a World Golf Championship, those don't count.)
  • Finishing in the top 16 in a Masters gets you into the next season's field
  • Finish 30th or better on the PGA Tour's money list
  • Finish in the top 50 in the last Official World Golf Rankings of the previous season.

If Els, Goosen, Kim and Villegas want a golden ticket, they'll need to either win early in 2012 or be ranked in the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings the week before this season's Masters.
 
It shouldn't be too hard for Goosen (No. 53) and Els (No. 56)—a few top 10s should do the trick—but Kim (No. 78) and Villegas (No. 89) have some work to do.
 
Although Kim finished his 2011 campaign with some good results in Asia, he missed 11  cuts last year, was forced to withdraw from Riviera and was disqualified at the Canadian Open after shooting a second-round 81 and then signing an incorrect scorecard.
 
Villegas was also inconsistent. After moving a divot out of the way of a chip shot as it rolled back down a slope towards him, Villegas was disqualified at Kapalua for signing an incorrect scorecard. The Colombian also missed 10 cuts and had to withdraw from the Waste Management Open in Phoenix after shooting a first-round 78 and then complaining of back pain.
 
The real concern for fans of Kim and Villegas should be that neither player has found the PGA Tour's West Coast Swing and Florida Swing a happy hunting ground. True, both won an early-season event in 2010, but neither has ever really ripped it up at the beginning of a season.
 
Tournament Top 10 Finish for
Anthony Kim
Top 10 Finish for
Camilo Villegas
Sony Open - -
Humana Challenge 2008 -
Farmer's Insurance Open 2011 2009
Waste Management Open - 2006, 2010
AT&T Pebble Beach - -
Northern Trust 2007 2006
WGC-World Match Play - 2009
Transitions Championship - -
Honda Classic 2010 2007, 2010 (W)
WGC-Cadillac Champ. - 2006 , 2009
Arnold Palmer Invitational - -
Shell Houston Open 2007, 2010 (W) -
 
If I had to pick one I'd go with Anthony Kim. He's been hampered by injuries and will be motivated because Augusta offers him the best chance to win a major. Remember, Kim holds the record for the most birdies made in one round at a Masters (11)  in his second round in 2009.
 
3. Which golfer who won a major championship in 2011, not named Rory McIlroy, is most likely to win another?
Because he has so much talent and is just 22, almost everyone thinks Rory McIlroy will win another major championship, and probably soon. I happen to think that Rory will win a lot of majors, and probably soon.
 
While Darren Clarke's win at Royal St. George's was fantastic, he's 43 and I believe it will be his only major victory. But who cares … Cheers, Darren!
 
That means this question is really about two players—Charl Schwartzel and Keegan Bradley.

Keegan Bradley at 2011 PGA Championship
Fred Vuich/SI
Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA Championship.

On a day when half a dozen golfers could have won a green jacket (Jason Day, Adam Scott, Luke Donald, Geoff Ogilvy, K.J. Choi and Tiger Woods), Schwartzel shot the day's lowest score, a 66, and made four consecutive birdies to finish the tournament. The 27-year-old South African played in 15 PGA Tour events last season and made the cut every time, finishing in the top 10 three times. Schwartzel, who has won seven titles, also finished fourth in the European Tour's Race to Dubai.
 
Bradley, in his rookie season on the PGA Tour, won last year's HP Byron Nelson Championship in May before coming back from five shots down with three holes to play against Jason Dufner at the PGA Championship. He wound up winning the PGA in a three-hole playoff and at 25, became the third player in the last 100 years to win a major championship in his first attempt.
 
Both Schwartzel and Bradley average about 300 yards per drive and have proven they can make pressure putts, but I give a slight edge at this point to Schwartzel. He's more consistent (Bradley missed 10 cuts last season) and has already finished T14  or better in each of the four majors. Don’t get me wrong, Bradley was fun to watch down the stretch at Atlanta Athletic Club, but he got a lot of help from Dufner. There is just no way to know how he is going to respond when he steps inside the gates of Augusta National or heads across the pond to Royal Lytham and St. Anne's in July.
 
4. Is Webb Simpson for real or was his 2011 season an aberration?
It's hard to believe that a guy who missed six cuts in a row in the spring of 2010 would become a model of consistency and earn more than $6.3 million in 2011, but Webb Simpson did just that. 
 
The 26-year-old from Raleigh, N.C., was the most surprising player on the PGA Tour last year. He won the Wyndham Championship and Deutsche Bank Championship and had 11 other top-10 performances in 26 starts.
 
However, before last year Simpson had only finished in the top 10 six times, so you have to wonder if he's got the staying power to keep hanging with the game's elite players.
 
Statistically, there really are no weaknesses in Simpson's game. He drives the ball well, is one of the best iron players on tour, and he is a solid putter. In fact, he was first in All-Around Ranking, a stat that combines a player's rankings in several key areas of the game.
 
Simpson also finished second in scoring average behind Luke Donald. If you look at a list of the players who have recently finished second in scoring, you'll see a lot of household names, but Simpson's average of 69.25 beats many of them.
 
Year Player Stroke Avg. Strokes behind No. 1 player
2011 Webb Simpson 69.25 .39 (Donald)
2010 Steve Stricker 69.66 .05 (Kuchar)
2009 Steve Stricker 69.29 1.24 (Woods)
2008 Phil Mickelson 69.17 .05 (Garcia)
2007 Ernie Els 69.29 1.5 (Woods)
2006 Jim Furyk 68.86 .75 (Woods)
2005 Vijay Singh 69.04 .38 (Woods)
 
So the only reason to think that Simpson may fall from his lofty perch is that his mental game may not be strong enough to maintain this level of play. It's a fair point—expecting any player to grind out top-10 finishes week-in and week-out is a tall order. That's what makes Luke Donald's 2011 season so special.
 
The first half the season will be critical for Simpson. If he starts missing cuts, the whispers that 2011 was just a fluke will start. But if he can win before the Masters, I think the beat will go on for a long time.
 
The bottom line is that I don't think Webb Simpson is going to win a major championship in 2012, but if he did I wouldn't be shocked. I think Simpson has the makings to be his generation's Jim Furyk or Steve Stricker, winning a few times a year, excelling when the going gets tough and keeping his accountant very busy.


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