Nick Watney, formerly as benign as a labradoodle puppy, has grown a set of fangs. The LPGA is featuring a tournament, the RR Donnelley Founders Cup, with no prize money. And Tiger Woods is coming off an encouraging week in which he hit a 122-yard drive. Granted, he also shot a final-round 66, but as we await the start of this week's Transitions Championship at the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Fla., the fact remains, these are strange times in professional golf.
Transitions — there couldn't be a more apt tournament name on the PGA Tour.
The Europeans are taking over, or maybe the ball-bashing Americans like Watney and Dustin Johnson are, or maybe both demographics share a bright future. Defending champion Jim Furyk, 40, whose win at Innisbrook last year broke a nearly three-year drought, has looked lost since a T9 at the season-opening Hyundai TOC at Kapalua. So have some of his contemporaries.
Woods is 93rd in the FedEx Cup standings, an improvement over a week ago (T152). With the Masters three weeks away, Phil Mickelson is so frustrated at his results (two top-10s in six starts) he's added next week's tournament at Bay Hill to his schedule.
"I think a lot of it has to do with your will," Furyk said earlier this year, when asked about aging gracefully on Tour. "The guys who have played well late in their careers — you see some guys stop at 40, 45, sometimes it's a length issue, but more often than not guys get involved in different activities. They get involved in business ventures or kids are getting later in high school, and they want to spend more time with family. Whatever it may be, golf kind of takes a second or third or fourth priority, and when that happens you're not going to be able to compete as well."
Watney's only activity this year has been compiling top-10s, five of them in a row, which has meant neither he nor his caddie, Chad Reynolds, has been allowed to get a haircut — the byproduct of an odd pact they made in San Diego. Watney says his caddie's coif is getting kind of "nesty," and it may get nestier, or nastier, given that Watney placed fourth at last year's Transitions.
Matt Kuchar, the Tour's top-10 machine (five in seven starts in 2011), takes this week off, but Watney won't be the only headliner. Among the sponsor's exemptions are No. 1 Martin Kaymer, 17-year-old Matteo Manassero and 187-pound Clearwater resident John Daly, who according to the St. Petersburg Times will again go to Augusta — to hawk merchandise from his trailer.
"For me it was important to play a few more tournaments before the Masters," said Kaymer, who will get to Augusta a week early to play with his father and brother in an attempt to change his Masters mojo (three starts, three missed cuts the last three years). "I'm not playing Houston, not playing Bay Hill."
Bubba Watson, who pulled out of the Northern Trust with a strained abdominal and the Cadillac Championship with the flu, will try to improve on last year's third-place finish in Tampa.
Paul Casey, Padraig Harrington and Ryo Ishikawa also headline at 7,340-yard, par-71 Copperhead, which Furyk toured in 13 under last year to edge two-time Tampa champion K.J. Choi.
A total of 25 of the top 60 players in the world will play, as will the top-ranked amateur, U.S. Amateur champ Peter Uihlein, who's preparing for a tee time with Mickelson at Augusta.
Players succumb to March Madness
In addition to the Transitions, Tampa is the site of six games in this week's NCAA men's basketball tournament — Steve Flesch will attend the contest between his alma mater Kentucky (a 4 seed) and Princeton (13), thanks to a 7:45 a.m. tee time Thursday. He'll go with his fiancÃ©, and fellow competitor Josh Teater (8:06), who like UK Wildcat Flesch is a Kentucky native (Morehead State).
The golf/basketball mash-up is fitting right about now, given that America's best young golfers could form a formidable starting five. Watney, coming off his biggest of three wins at the WGC-Cadillac at Doral, is 6-foot-2. Johnson, second at Doral, is 6-4 and can dunk. Kuchar, who got his fifth top-10 in seven starts this year, also is 6-4. Bill Haas, 6-2. Bubba Watson, 6-3.
At 6-0 on the dot, Martin Kaymer is the only similarly built (ectomorph) among Europe's top crop. What this means is the Yanks may continue to thrive at bomber-friendly Doral, Augusta National, and U.S. Ryder Cup sites, and Europeans Paul Casey, Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell may continue rule tests of placement like U.S. and British Opens and European Ryder Cups.
Then again, Craig Parry (5-6, 180 pounds) once won at Doral, so what do I know?
LPGA goes cashless
The much-ballyhooed Founders Cup, at the Wildfire Golf Club at Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa in Phoenix, raises this question: If a bunch of professional golfers hold a tournament and don't get paid, is it still professional golf?
Although there will be no prize money — $500,000 will go to the LPGA Foundation, and the top 10 finishers will direct the other $500,000 to charities of their choice — results will impact Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and Solheim Cup races. Scores will count toward the Vare Trophy race, and results will factor into the Rolex Rankings. Through some sort of voodoo, math results will be reflected on the money list. Earnings will be written in invisible ink, and then decoded later — or some such thing.
In any case the Founders will feature a strong field, led by Yani Tseng, who has become Tiger Woods circa 2000 with four wins and a third-place finish in her last five starts. Second-ranked Jiyai Shin, fifth-ranked Cristie Kerr, 10th-ranked Karrie Webb and others will try to stop Tseng. Hall of Famers Pat Bradley, Betsy King, Nancy Lopez and Patty Sheehan will dust off their clubs for an 18-hole exhibition and pro-am.
European Tour launches new event
The inaugural Sicilian Open, the first European Tour event on European soil this year and one of three new events on the 2011 schedule, will feature few big-name Italians. Matteo Manassero will be busy playing the Transitions, and the Molinari brothers, Edoardo and Francesco, also will be conspicuously absent.
Costantino Rocca will carry the flag for his country, while European Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie will also try to resuscitate his career at Donnafugata Golf Resort and Spa.
The Transitions gave a sponsor's exemption to long-hitting Alvaro Quiros, who accepted but withdrew with an injury after playing the Cadillac at Doral. He will be replaced by John Huston, who won the 2000 Tampa Bay Classic and is eagerly awaiting his 50th birthday, June 1. … With the Champions tour dark this week, 2007 PODS (Tampa) winner Mark Calcavecchia, Fred Funk and Transitions pitchman Kenny Perry will try their luck at Innisbrook. … In a wide-ranging press conference, Kaymer said Woods "will come back one day," and sounded doubtful about the prospect of playing the PGA and European tours at the same time: "I'm 26 years old. I don't want to have the burnout in five years." … The Nationwide tour, also dark this week, announced that former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz will play in the tour's South Georgia Classic in late April. Smoltz, 43, has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open and last year finished second in his first start at the American Century Championship, a celebrity event in Lake Tahoe, Nev. … Jarrod Lyle leads the Kodak Challenge at 6-under.