Every Wednesday, Golf Magazine's Cameron Morfit previews the week's pro tournaments.
From two-time defending champion Phil Mickelson to 21-year-old super-rookie Rickie Fowler, enigmatic talent Anthony Kim to Japan's "Bashful Prince" Ryo Ishikawa, this week's 2010 Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club features arguably the most exciting field of the year so far — on any professional tour.
In addition to the above, Padraig Harrington, T3 at the '08 Northern Trust, will make his U.S. debut, and says his game is in better shape than it was a year ago. After collecting his second and third major titles in '08, Harrington was winless in '09.
"I was trying to get to the bottom of something in my golf swing," he said Tuesday. "I put it on hold for the last couple of months of last year, and again this winter I went down the road of trying to sort it out. I've made a couple of significant changes to my swing. The only difference is last year I came out at this stage and I wasn't happy with the changes and what they resulted in, and I kept working on it. This year I'm not in that mindset. I'm happy with what I've done, and I'm going to just play with that."
Third-ranked Steve Stricker, second to Mickelson by a shot last year, and fifth-ranked Jim Furyk will tee it up this week, as will two-time champion here Mike Weir, plus fellow former Northern Trust champs Fred Couples, Ernie Els and Adam Scott.
Grooves still in the news
The Tour's new legislation against most box grooves has meant everything and nothing to various players, depending on their angle of attack. For those with a steep angle of attack, the change has meant little. For Harrington, it's been big.
"To me, like the difference between a box groove 7-iron and a V-groove 7-iron, at least not getting a flier, is 30 yards in distance," he said. "I could explain that to a lot of professionals and they'd look at me as if I had two heads."
In light of the new rule prohibiting most U-shaped grooves, Harrington sold several sets of clubs for charity just prior to last Christmas. Among them were seven Ping wedges. He found out during the Sony Open in Hawaii that he'd made a mistake.
"So I then had to go ask a couple of people, did they have any? And I got some from my caddie's mother," he said.
He also got some from a fellow Irish pro named Brandon McGovern. Harrington showed up to Riviera with a 60-degree Ping wedge, but he was uncertain whether he would use it. He said he'd tested the club and found no difference between the Ping and his usual Wilson wedge from the fairway, but he got 200 more rpms with the Ping out of light and heavy rough.
"It's significant to distance-control," he said.
2010 rookies off to hot start
Troy Merritt was 11-under-par and within striking distance of leader Ben Crane when he came to the short, par-4 14th hole at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines on Sunday.
But instead of trying not to go long or left of the wide, saddle-shaped green — as most players did, playing away from the flag — Merritt went at the far-left, sucker pin, tugged it and watched his ball sail into the lateral hazard (ice-plants, mostly).
Merritt would finish just one shot from the top 10 and an automatic exemption into this week's Northern Trust, but the tactical misstep was one of his few so far this year.
After two top-20 finishes in his first three starts, Merritt is 46th on the 2010 money list with just under $160,000, and among some of the most promising rookies to hit the Tour in years.
When the University of Washington product Alex Prugh spoke to his fiance last Saturday, she said she looked forward to seeing him soon but sort of hoped not to. She was rooting for him to finish in the top 10 at Torrey, which would vault him to the Northern Trust in L.A. and keep him on Tour another week.
Sure enough, Prugh fired a final-round 66 to finish T5 at the Farmers. That and his fifth-place finish at the previous week's Bob Hope Classic put him atop the 18-man rookie class with $400,000 in earnings this year, 14th on the money list.
"Unfortunately I'll have to delay seeing her for at least one more week," he said, smiling.
Fowler, who also finished T5 at the Farmers, and who may in one short season dress as every color in the Homeland Security advisory spectrum, is at $186,000 (37th overall).
And then there's Michael Sim, who has earned $406,000 (13th overall) after last week's runner-up. Technically he's not a rookie — he played in '07 and '08, struggling in part due to a back injury — but he's 25 and looks 15, so I'm including him here.
"I told my wife, she asked me who was going to win on Sunday, and I said, 'Watch out for Michael Sim,'" Steve Stricker said. "I mean, I think he's just that good a player. Technically he looks very sound."
Upside-down flag causes uproar
The grooves dustup wasn't the only point of contention at the Farmers. It seems that some of the caddies were mishandling the American flag on 14, next to the Military Appreciation Pavilion.
Marines complained to tournament officials that Tour caddies were pulling the pin out of the cup and holding it upside-down while players putted out. An American flag is meant to be flown upside down only as a distress signal.
Watson headlines in Dubai
Tom Watson and Italian amateur prodigy Matteo Manassero could have passed for grandpa and grandson when they played the first two rounds of the British Open together last summer.
Although they won't play together this time, Watson, 60, and British Amateur champ Manassero, 16, are among the players who will compete in the Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club.
Defending champion Rory McIlroy headlines a field that also includes Dubai resident Henrik Stenson plus 2010 tournament winners Robert Karlsson, Martin Kaymer and Charl Schwartzel.
This week will mark Watson's first trip to Dubai, and his first start in a regular Euro tour event since the 1993 German Masters.
Lovemark off to solid start
Former USC standout Jamie Lovemark finished third at the Nationwide tour's lid-lifter in New Zealand last week. This after making the cut at the Hope (where he was a sponsor's exemption), driving three hours to Los Angeles, and then flying 14 hours to Queenstown, New Zealand, for his Wednesday afternoon pro-am time.
Robert Gates, a 6-foot-6 graduate of Texas A&M, became just the 13th player to win in his Nationwide debut. (It was a good week for tall guys, between Gates and the 6-5 Karlsson's victory at the Qatar Masters.)
The Nationwide circuit stops in Victoria, Australia, for the Moonah Classic this week.