Sunday, March 25, 2007

You can have Phil Mickelson's second green jacket. For my money the most indelible moment of 2006 so far was Greg Owen's impromptu, high-stakes hockey game around the 17th hole at Bay Hill, where the luckless Englishman three-putted from 40 inches to all but gift-wrap the title for Rod Pampling.

It was the quintessential golf-as-NASCAR moment: an awful wreck you couldn't take your eyes off of. However, a close second in the early balloting for MWT (Most Watchable Tournament) was Chris Couch's oh, so perilous victory in New Orleans, which was so full of high anxiety and smokeless chewing tobacco that until he cross-handed his final chip shot into the hole the working title was, "Thank You for Choking."

What did these two finishes have in common? What's the theme? It's the most reliable plot line on Tour: A career grinder arrives at by far the biggest moment of his golfing life and fights a losing/winning battle with his nerves to squander/salt away his first victory on the PGA Tour, and, oh, yeah, $1 million, give or take $50,000.

In these fallow days in between majors, when Tiger is grieving, Phil is taking time off and Ernie and Vijay just don't quite look like themselves, the riveting theater of the absurdly nervous first-timers is the Tour's most reliable sell. Because when a first-timer gets into the last group on Sunday, it doesn't matter what make of car or bank is sponsoring the tournament — it's a major to that guy.

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