On the condition of anonymity, a PGA Tour pro ponders a major without Tiger, calls out Kenny Perry and picks a homegrown winner.
Someone asked me what it's like to have a major championship knowing that Tiger Woods won't be around. "Refreshing," I said. I was kidding, but it is a little strange to go into a pair of majors without the No. 1 player in the world. It'll be like the Players Championship we'll end up with Sergio Garcia having to fend off Paul Goydos.
Normally you can't help thinking, Gee, is Tiger going to win another major and get closer to the record? Now you go, Wait a minute, he's not here. It's kind of a surprise. It has to open the eyes of the other top players. They have to think: I have a couple of freebies here. Maybe I can take one of them.
Asterisks won't be necessary for the winners, although the first thing the press will ask is, "What does it feel like to win a major that Tiger didn't play in?" And whether you admit it or not, you'll always wonder if you would've won had Tiger been in the field. C'mon, the guy won the U.S. Open on one good leg a testament to his fitness.
What has become glaringly obvious is that the rest of us have to step up. Tiger is phenomenal, the best ever, but nobody is challenging him. The only players who push Tiger in majors are guys like Bob May, Chris DiMarco and Rocco Mediate guys with nothing to lose. The players whom you'd expect to be Tiger's biggest challengers either don't have the game or the guts.
I don't think players like Ernie Els and Vijay Singh are necessarily past their prime. It's just that, like all the challengers, they have flaws. Ernie keeps changing swing coaches and mental coaches and caddies he's making more changes than Hank Steinbrenner at the trading deadline. Putting is a big issue for Vijay. The same goes for Sergio. He had one good putting week, at the Players. But I'm not convinced that he's rolling the ball that much better than he did before. Adam Scott shows flashes of greatness, but he's still inexperienced. And then there's Phil Mickelson, who is a frequent victim of overthinking. To put it another way: Phil is a victim of simply being Phil. The other players on Tour know what I mean. Geoff Ogilvy has a lot of talent, but nobody considers him Tiger's major challenger.
Tiger is the only guy who doesn't have a weakness. As bad as Tiger's driving has sometimes been, his putting and the rest of his game are so good that he can make up for it. The challengers can't overcome their weaknesses.
There's not one guy who can say, "Yeah, Tiger is good, but damn it, I'm just as good, and I'm willing to work just as hard." And it's not only the veteran players. I don't think there's anyone out here under 30 willing to work as hard as Tiger. If that's not enough, Tiger says he sleeps only four or five hours a night. That makes his day three hours longer than ours three more hours to work out, practice, whatever. Nobody is wired like Tiger.
Testy on testing?
I was surprised that Tiger's tournament, the AT&T National, had such a weak field. Steve Stricker [7th] and K.J. Choi [10th] were the highest-ranked players, and AT&T had to go far down the list to fill the 120-man field. With Tiger as the host and a major-caliber course like Congressional as the venue, you would think that the AT&T would've attracted a top field. The fact is, the Buick Open the week before probably had a stronger field. I don't get it.
I'm sure the weak field had nothing to do with the start of random drug testing. On Wednesday at the AT&T, commissioner Tim Finchem and some of his cronies were tested. Do we care if they're on marijuana or something? (Although that might explain a few of their decisions.) Seriously, why are we testing our officials, and who's paying for their tests? I thought drug testing was for the players. Do they test the coaches at the Olympics? I don't know. Maybe our officials were trying to make a statement, but to me it was overkill.
We don't have to worry about going back to Atlanta anytime soon. That tournament is gone-zo. The Tour thinks that putting San Antonio in Atlanta's spot was a terrific swap because Valero is a great sponsor and that we might have a Texas swing: the Nelson, Colonial and San Antonio in successive weeks. The problem is that LaCantera, the Texas Open venue, is awful. None of the top players would tee it up there in the fall, and they won't play there in May, either. Anytime you can see a roller coaster and a Ferris wheel from a tee box you can actually hear the people on the rides screaming in the background that's a red flag. Has any great course ever been built next to an amusement park? Until the new TPC San Antonio is finished [in 2010], I don't see top players remembering the Alamo.
Because of the new greens TPC Southwind, outside Memphis [site of June's Stanford St. Jude Championship], has turned into a fantastic course. It's going to be a much more popular spot. That could hurt the Memorial and make the new Texas swing a pretty popular time for a three-week vacation, although a number of players are loyal to Colonial.
Severe setups = slow play
No doubt I'm wasting my time talking about slow play. One veteran told me that we had the same discussions 25 years ago. The Tour is trying to identify the slower players and work with them to get faster, but in the end we're probably only talking about picking up 15 minutes a round. Is that a big deal? Probably not. One thing I like is that the Tour is going to use ShotLink to tell us how long we take for each shot. Certain players who are slow and don't know the average time spent on a particular shot need to be made aware. Our rules officials have finally realized that duh! course setup has a lot to do with pace of play. It's not only the players who are slow. When you play a 510-yard par-4 with a semi-island green, you're going to take a while. It seems obvious, but apparently our officials didn't think of it. At some tournaments, like the Memorial, the setups are getting out of control. Guys don't want to play a U.S. Open-style course two weeks before the Open. What Jack Nicklaus had this year at the Memorial was way worse than Torrey Pines. Jack and Arnold Palmer, who's growing serious rough at Bay Hill, may want to have major-championship conditions, but they're in danger of winding up with bad fields. Six-inch rough, furrowed bunkers, greens running at 14 some guys are going to think twice before coming back.
Let's get back to the British Open. The British is the greatest championship in the world. The crowds are fantastic they appreciate the golf and have a respect for the game that you don't find at any of the U.S. majors. The British is truly a world Open and holds a sort of prestige that's different from the other majors.
What's neat about the British is that you can play four courses and even experience four seasons in the four days. Conditions seldom change as quickly or as often in the U.S. For my first British Open, I packed extra sweaters and long-sleeved shirts and it was 74° all week. I had that in mind the next year when I packed a lot less cold-weather gear, and it was freezing and rainy, and I never wore anything with short sleeves the whole week. You never know.
Because the British Open is such a great event, I don't get Kenny Perry. He's ranked 20th in the world and has two wins this year, and he's not going to play the U.S. or the British Opens? I understand his argument about Torrey Pines. He wasn't a fan of the course, and he wasn't exempt. Well, he's exempt for the British, and he's going to play in Milwaukee instead? As well as he's playing, how can he not think he could win the British? It sounds as if he's been getting advice from his good buddy Scott Hoch. At 47, how many more chances is Perry going to have to win a major? If he does, I guess it won't be the British.
I'm sorry I can't give you a scouting report on Royal Birkdale. I've never been there and don't know a thing about it, other than when the British was last played at Birkdale, in 1998, Mark O'Meara won his Open in a playoff with Brian Watts. Some guy named Tiger came in third. I've heard good things about Birkdale, but St. Andrews is my favorite Open site because of ... everything. You can walk past the 18th fairway right into town and get something to eat. Plus, it's the home of golf. There's no place like it.
Drive, he said
The obvious pick would be Mickelson, the No. 2 player in the World Ranking. But Phil usually struggles with the wind at the British. Plus, it's tough for me to get past his performance at Torrey Pines. Could you make a more asinine decision than to play a 7,600-yard Open course without a driver? After one round during which you didn't hit your three-wood well, wouldn't you think, Hey, let's get the driver back in the bag? How long does it take to get the message after you watch Adam Scott and Tiger blow it 50 yards past you and make birdies and eagles on 12 and 13 while you struggle for pars? Until Saturday, apparently, which was too late. The U.S. Open isn't the time to experiment. Phil has played with two drivers, no driver, five wedges I'm sure he'll concoct another interesting game plan for Birkdale. Phil should just hit it and chase it and forget all the rest.
My dark horse pick was going to be Perry, but instead, I like Hunter Mahan. That kid is good. He's cocky, which is a positive, and he would make a heck of a first-time major winner. He was 18th at Torrey Pines and tied for second the following week in Hartford. He's on top of his game.
I also see Justin Rose playing well at Birkdale. He has to have good vibes from '98, when he was a teen amateur and holed out from the rough on the 72nd hole to finish fourth. He has a lot more game now.
And the winner is...
I think it will be a European. I know that's not exactly going out on a limb, especially since last year's Open featured two Euros in a playoff Padraig Harrington over Sergio. But I don't think either one of those guys will win this time. The Open greens are slower than in the U.S., but I don't like a shaky putting stroke on greens of any speed, and I'm not sold that Sergio has solved his putting problems.
My pick is Lee Westwood of England. He has been playing well (I noticed that he was driving the ball great at Torrey Pines), and more than anything, he was really stroking his putts. He got rid of his belly putter and went back to a face-balanced mallet. He was accelerating better using a cross-handed grip, and he's holing more short putts. He hung in there pretty well [third] and finished a shot out of the playoff. Westwood has been playing better all year and is flying under the radar. He has rededicated himself losing weight, working out and has made one heck of a comeback. I think it's his time and place.