Fowler, Kodak Challenge add intrigue to season finale in Orlando

December 9, 2011

Aaron Baddeley was set to play the JBWere Australian Masters this week, but he pulled out of the event so he could tee it up at the Children's Miracle Network Classic (a.k.a. Disney), the last official PGA Tour event of 2010.

Rickie Fowler is coming off starts in Malaysia and China but will also play the Disney — if he can just cope with the 11-hour time difference between Shanghai and Orlando.

They are in O-town not to chase the Snitch at Disney's new Harry Potter theme park but to track down Troy Merritt.

At 17 under par, Merritt, the skinny rookie from Boise State, leads Baddeley and Fowler by a shot in the $1 million, winner-take-all Kodak Challenge. The three would be tied if Merritt hadn't rolled in a critical, 16-foot eagle putt on the par-5 16th, the Kodak hole, on the last day of the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Vegas two weeks ago.

"It was the only thing I asked for for my birthday, which was the following day," Merritt said. "And I got my birthday wish. Walking off the green I had the shakes so bad. Now I know what the shakes are."

This is only the second year for the Kodak Challenge, which highlights one hole per tournament for players to post their best single score during the event. Players must play at least 18 of the 30 holes throughout the year to be eligible for the cash, and the best 18 scores are used to determine the winner.

Having chatted about the Kodak with Baddeley and Fowler, and knowing their schedules, Merritt thought they might not bother showing up to the Disney. No such luck. Baddeley has not played the tournament since 2004, but he was drawn to Orlando not only to play for the Kodak lucre — "It is a big chunk of change," he said — but also to try to move from 110th on the money list into the top 70.

That would get him into most top-tier tournaments in 2011. He figures he needs a top-three finish.

Merritt added the RBC Canadian Open and Turning Stone Championship to his schedule last summer when he realized he was in good shape to win the $1 million bonus. He birdied the Kodak hole in both events, chipping in on the final day at Turning Stone.

The Disney's Kodak hole will be the par-4 17th at the Walt Disney World Magnolia Course — players will also use the shorter Palm Course — which can play as either a brutally long, 485-yard par-4 with water, or a 295-yard cupcake.

"There's a rumor that they're going to move the tee up to the ladies tee to make it drivable," said Kevin Streelman, who won the inaugural Kodak last year but is off this week.

"I don't think they're going to do that," Merritt said. "That would take away the integrity of the golf hole. If it were up to me, we would be playing from the middle of the 16th fairway at about 550 yards, par 4."

Streelman birdied the Disney's 17th hole to win last year, from a tee that made the hole play just 395 yards — a driver and a flip wedge as opposed to a driver and a 3- or 4-iron. He and his wife, Courtney, used the $1 million bonus to pay off their house in Scottsdale, Ariz. They helped out their families and gave some of it to charity.

"A huge blessing and a huge bonus," Streelman said.

The former Duke golfer has the Tiffany-made trophy on display at home, and when he turned 32 last week and had friends over for a birthday party, it caught the attention of Baddeley and Bubba Watson, who decided to play a prank.

They snapped a photo of Baddeley holding the cup as if he'd already won it, and sent it into the world via Twitter.

"Sure enough, within five minutes Troy was talking trash back to them on Twitter," Streelman said, laughing.

Should either Baddeley or Fowler birdie the hole, and Merritt fail to birdie it, there would be a playoff in which the golfers keep playing 17 until somebody wins.

The Kodak is one of two subplots at the CMNC, the other being the time-honored scramble to finish the season at 125th or higher on the money list.

At 121st on the money list, Merritt said his first priority this week will be playing well enough to make some money and make sure five players don't pass him. He is more than $37,000 ahead of No. 125, Troy Matteson. (Matteson is exempt through 2011 after winning the '09 Open.)

Other players have more work to do. Cameron Percy climbed to just 144th in earnings after losing a three-man playoff to Jonathan Byrd in Las Vegas two weeks ago.

"Guys get a little more serious," Baddeley said of the vibe this week. "Guys have their swing coaches out or they have their psychologist out, really trying to do whatever they can to try and keep their cards for next year."

Fowler is the highest ranked player in the field at 28, followed by Sean O'Hair (32) and Stewart Cink (44).

Golf Channel will air the Disney from 1-4 p.m. and replay it from 7-10 p.m. EST all four days.

The last four winners of the Disney have been in their 40s: Stephen Ames, Davis Love III, Ames and Joe Durant.

(Ames is suffering from a bad back and won't be able to try to defend his title this week.)

Two players, Stuart Appleby and Paul Goydos, have shot 59 so far on Tour this year. It's not out of the realm of possibility that we'll see a third this week.

"Courses here are in good shape," Cink said. "Gonna be low scoring again, I think."

Ames shot a final-round 64 to get to 18 under and win in '09. Love III won the year before that at 25 under.

Michael Allen (second at last week's Schwab Cup Championship), Mark Calcavecchia, Tom Lehman, Steve Lowery and Tom Pernice Jr. will compete for low oldie, what with no more events on the Champions Tour.

Chris Wilson, Dean Wilson and Mark Wilson will vie for low Wilson.

Mike Perez, brother of Tour winner Pat, gets a rare start on the PGA Tour this week.

It's tough to get to the top, but perhaps tougher to stay there. Among those searching for their old form this week: Rich Beem, Chris DiMarco, Todd Hamilton, Lee Janzen and Vijay Singh.

Michelle Wie has been tweeting about the excellent guacamole south of the border in advance of the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Guadalajara, Mexico. This week marks her first title defense on the LPGA.

The semi-retired Ochoa will make her first start since winning the pro-celebrity Star Trophy at Mission Hills C.C. in China, where she beat Colin Montgomerie by two strokes. Her husband, Aeromexico CEO Andres Conesa, will caddie.

Marquee names in the 36-player field also include N.Y. Choi, Paula Creamer, Christie Kerr, Brittany Lincicome, Ai Miyazato, Suzann Pettersen, Morgan Pressel and Yani Tseng.