Newly minted Arnold Palmer Invitational champion Martin Laird sounded like he had just survived a stint as a POW rather than winning a golf tournament.
“That was a hell of a day,” Laird said after a final-round 75 at a too-tough-to-tame Bay Hill was good enough for his second career win. “That was a tough fight out there. You know, the golf course is playing very, very difficult. To be honest I didn't feel like I had my swing really all day. Pretty much hit it everywhere until about the last four holes.”
Laird turned a three-shot lead into a three-shot deficit in a seven-hole stretch before righting the ship with two birdies and two pars down the stretch, including a two-putt par at 18 that held off hard-luck Steve Marino, who was penalized by two plugged lies late.
The final Masters tune-up for many of the players was far from merely a feel-good fete for the King, who watched as the six players in the final three groups labored to a cumulative 19-over par day. The day took on a U.S. Open feel, as player after player crumbled under the tension.
Scotland’s Laird was leading that backwards charge until his late revival, for which he credited his driver and putter.
“The two clubs that have been good for me all week,” he said. “They have held me in all week and they really came through strong today. I couldn't be any happier.”
Making him happiest of all was one of the biggest honors the game can offer — a handshake from Palmer as Bay Hill champion. “It really doesn’t get any better than to meet him coming off as the champion of his tournament,” Laird said.
The results on the course don’t really show it, but Tiger Woods insists he’s ready for The Masters. Tiger finished bogey-double bogey at Bay Hill for a final round 72, but he focused on the positives in his post-round comments — in his typically tight-lipped way.
“Every day has gotten a little bit tighter, which is good,” he said of his retooled swing. “As I said, keep working, keep staying the course and keep working on the same things and each day is progressing. Today was really nice.
“This year, I felt like I've played my way into shape. I've played, I've kept progressing and early in the year was disappointing because the conditions showed some signs of weakness that I had to work on. Now, it's feeling very, very good.”
Meanwhile, defending Masters champ Phil Mickelson fired a warning shot that should get everyone’s attention: “As far as the way I'm striking it, heading into Augusta last year, I wasn't striking it well (as he is this year) and I had a great session with Butch early in the week and it kind of turned things around; whereas I feel very confident with the way I'm striking the ball (this year). I just have to shoot a number.”
Here’s your amazing stat of the day: Transitions Championship winner Gary Woodland did not miss a putt inside 20 feet on Sunday. He struck 17 such putts, and all 17 found the bottom of the cup. That will win you some golf tournaments. And if that sort of moss mastery continues, consider Woodland a rising star.
“You know, we’ve worked hard on it,” Woodland said of his putting. “I think that’s the one thing that’s really held me back over the years, and through working a little bit with Brad Faxon and Randy Smith together, us three, we’ve really attacked it this year. It’s been coming along.”
Faxon is known as a flatstick virtuoso, so it’s not surprising that he’s becoming a go-to consultant for struggling greensmen. “The more I got out of Brad was mental stuff, preparation,” Woodland said. “You know, he was talking about my stroke was a little slow, and maybe that’s why I was coming up at the Bob Hope (where he lost in a playoff). I kept coming up short right. He gave me a drill. … The last couple weeks we’ve really focused on the speed of the putter, and it’s really taken off.”
As has his career. Woodland, a former multisport athlete, started focusing solely on golf only eight years ago, but he’s obviously a quick study.”I was athletic, but I didn’t know what I was doing out here,” he said. “I got hurt, and I had to step back and really figure out how to play this game. And I'm starting to figure that out right now.”
Obviously. The 27-year-old now has four top-six finishes in his six appearances so far in 2011. But the final round at Innisbrook wasn’t a leisurely Sunday stroll. Woodland’s back nine was a wild ride that featured five birdies, three bogeys and a 10-foot par putt at 18 that clinched a one-shot win over Webb Simpson.
It’s appropriate that, during the heart of the NCAA Tournament, the PGA Tour showcased a former college basketball player. Woodland played hoops at Washburn before transferring to Kansas to play golf.
“My first (basketball) game was in Allen Fieldhouse, we got smoked by Kansas, and I realized maybe I need to do something different; this isn't going to work,” Woodland said. “The coach at Kansas told me when I decided I was going to play basketball, he said, you’re going to change your mind, you have a future in this game. I called him a year later, and here we stand.”
So how did Woodland fare against the Jayhawks? “Three points. I was 1-for-7.”
Content at this point to follow Kansas hoops from afar, Woodland has more urgent concerns, like a trip to Augusta, although that wasn’t at the forefront of his mind as his roller-coaster round wound down. “I was struggling all day hitting the golf ball, so that’s all fine and dandy. I’m so excited playing the Masters, excited for the FedEx, I’m moving up in that, excited to go to Kapalua next year (For the Hyundai Tournament of Champions), but today I was just trying to get the golf ball on the green.” Where his putter took over.
Woodland heaped credit for his win on swing coach Rusty Smith, who also turned Justin Leonard into a world-class player. “Randy and I, we haven’t changed anything,” Woodland said. “I’m just better at what we've been working on. I’ve been with Randy for five or six years now. We put a golf swing together within the first year I’ve been with him and we haven’t changed anything since, we’re just trying to master it. You know, I attribute it all to that, just getting better at what I do.”
Woodland absorbs all he can from the players around him, including fellow Smith pupil Leonard. “Yeah, you know, I try to pick Justin’s brain as much as I can. I think he gets tired of me being around. You can learn so much from that guy, I played with Paul Casey this week. He looked like he struggled all day and he shoots even par. That’s something that I hadn’t had in the past.”
Along with Dustin Johnson, Woodland epitomizes the new generation of sleek, athletic players, belying the old stereotype of golfers as paunchy cigar-chompers. “I think if you’re athletic you can play this game,” Woodland said. “It’s a lot of hand-eye coordination. It’s one of those deals where athletes can come play golf, but golfers, it’s tough, we can’t go dunk a basketball. We can’t go hit a 100-mile-an-hour fastball, but they can come play our game, so I think golf attracts a lot of athletes.”
After months of bemoaning the decline of American golf and watching the Euros climb to the top of the world rankings, I’m gratified to report that American golf’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. At a World Golf Championship event — which the Euros treat like a major — the Yanks came to play. Heck, even Tiger Woods posted a top 10.
The WGC-Cadillac Championship was a showcase for some of the top young Americans in the game, and right now, nobody tops Nick Watney, who held off Dustin Johnson to post his third career win; it was also his fifth top-10 finish in five starts in 2011.
Leading Johnson by a single shot and facing the daunting 18th at Doral, Watney put on the big-boy pants, pulled driver and striped a beautiful tee shot to set up a bold 8-iron approach to 12 feet and a clinching birdie that gave him a two-shot win over Johnson. After Saturday’s hat-over-the-face finish, when Watney yanked his tee shot at 18 into the water, the result was especially gratifying. “This means so much,” he said. “It’s the biggest day of my golfing career. You know, with the way yesterday ended and two years ago (when he was the runner-up in this event), it means a whole lot, and I’m very, very excited.”
When prodded, Watney admitted to being a little apprehensive on the 18th tee, facing the most important drive of his life with the biggest win of his career at his fingertips. “I wasn't nervous. I really wanted to take care of business and to grasp this opportunity,” he said. “I actually love that feeling; you don’t get it too often, but I really love to be — yeah, I guess a was a little nervous.
“But it’s fun. It’s fun. That’s why you play.”
After winning this latest installment of the world golf all-star series, Watney has deposited himself at the vanguard of American golf. The world rankings are starting to reflect that fact; Watney entered the week at No. 15 with a bullet. “I feel like all I can do is try to keep improving, hopefully keep winning tournaments,” he said. “The World Rankings are what they are. I mean, it’s cliché, it's very cliché, but that’s not why I play. I play for feelings like this.
“If one day you guys decide that (I’m one of the best golfers in the world), then I’ll be honored, but I don’t really think about that.”
Johnson was happy for his friend despite his own stumbles; an untimely bogey at 16 was the death knell for his chances, especially after Watney’s heroics at 18. It was the latest disappointment for DJ, following last year’s U.S. Open collapse and PGA Championship gaffe. Obviously, though, Johnson is close, and once the putts start dropping, watch out. “I played really well,” he said. “Just couldn't get in the hole with the putter. Hit a lot of great putts. They just were not going in.”
A Tour that’s desperate for signs of life from its signature superstar had to take some comfort in Tiger Woods’ final-round 66. Afterwards, Tiger was optimistic, almost chipper, about his progress. Apparently, the vaunted “process” that Tiger’s been harping on is taking hold. “Today, I hit a lot of good golf shots and when I did miss-hit one, I knew what the fix was right away, boom, and I got right back on my run of hitting good shots again,” he said. “That feels good.”
He needed a little help to climb into the top 10 — Rory McIlroy yanked his tee shot on 18 into the water and made bogey to fall into a tie for 10th with Woods — but it was his first visit to the top 10 in an official Tour event since the 2010 U.S. Open. Playing partner Thomas Bjorn liked what he saw. “I just thought his iron play was phenomenal today,” Bjorn said “His distance control was there. He gave himself a lot of opportunities.”
Tiger’s former coach, Butch Harmon, was pretty frank in his assessment after Woods’ struggles on Saturday, which included a duck hook and a pop-up off the tee. “The drives at the second and 14th were a shock," Harmon said of those two hacker moments. “This is Tiger Woods, not a Nationwide Tour player trying to get his card. If I’m Tiger Woods, I’m a little frustrated I’m not seeing more consistency.”
And if I’m Butch Harmon, I’m obviously taking a little bit of pleasure in Tiger’s struggles.
At times at this weekend’s Honda Classic, as players trudged around the windswept PGA National Champion course, it seemed that a U.S. Open had broken out. The Bear Trap, the Nicklaus-toughened 15-17 stretch, took its toll, and Rory Sabbatini took advantage, building a five-shot lead heading into the final round. On Sunday, though, the wind died down and the scoreboard lit up, putts started dropping and balls started finding fairways. Sabbatini’s lead proved big enough, but just barely, as he held off a charging Y.E. Yang by a single shot to earn his sixth career win.
Yang posted three birdies down the stretch, including a birdie on 18 for a final-round 66 that forced Sabbatini to make a less-than-routine two-putt par for the win. Sabbatini’s clutch birdie on 16 had provided the necessary cushion, giving him the final word in his duel with the Bear Trap.
“You know, fantastic golf course,” he said. “Extremely challenging. The (course) preparation was incredible. You know, I guess there’s a pretty good reason they call it the Bear Trap because if it doesn’t get you one way, it's going to get you another. It definitely caused some stress for me today. But you know, just a fantastic week, and just really thankful to be sitting here right now.
“I think my wife was pregnant twice before during two of my wins and this time thankfully she wasn't because I don't know if she could have handled the stress today. Definitely to me, every win out here is as special as the first one. They are all different. They are all unique and just what can I say? It was a fantastic week, and everything went great and it was just better than could be expected.”
Sabbatini’s history of pot-stirring has often made him an unpopular figure on Tour. There was the time he got fed up with playing partner Ben Crane’s slow play and walked to the next tee while Crane was still putting. Then there was the time he got curb-stomped by Tiger Woods in the final round of the 2007 Wachovia and proceeded to proclaim Woods “more beatable than ever.”
But this is a kinder, gentler Sabbatini. It may be too late to rehab his reputation among golf fans completely, but he’s trying. He really is.
“I’m a passionate golfer, I really am,” he said. “I love the game of golf and I’ve had my moments. I’m not proud of everything I’ve done out here, but I’m trying to learn. I’m trying to be a role model for my children and I know as my wife has said to me, I wouldn’t want my son doing some of the things that I've done in the past.
“So I definitely have to take into account that my son is old enough now that he understands everything that I do, and really try and be a role model for him.”
Sabbatini has a kindred spirit in Jerry Kelly, who finished third and shares Sabbatini’s passionate, volatile approach to the game. “He gets in his own way an awful lot and rubs some people the wrong way,” Kelly said. “I can relate to that because I’m the same type of person. But he usually has the best intentions for everybody else around him. Today, he did not let his emotions get the best of him.”
Weapon of Choice
All clubs are important, but golfers are especially particular, even neurotic and superstitious, about their putters. Sometimes a change of implements is all it takes for the putts to start dropping. Such was the case for Sabbatini, who recently switched to a TaylorMade Tour Ghost TM-770, with spectacular results this week.
“You know, it’s actually quite bizarre,” he said. “I’ve never quite had as much confidence in a new putter as I have in this one. After picking it up last week down in México and hitting a few putts with it, right away it just felt amazing to me. And was doing a little bit of work with it during the week, but obviously not using it during the tournament; and then getting here this week and doing some practice with it, it really just felt phenomenal. I can honestly say I think it was probably one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made in my golf game.”
Can’t get a much better endorsement than that. Check’s probably in the mail.
Golf lost a seminal genius with the recent passing of Frank Chirkinian, longtime producer of CBS’ golf telecasts. With his love for the event and his attention to detail, Chirkinian made the Masters broadcast the must-see television event on the golf calendar. Among his countless innovations: on-course microphones; quick cuts from player to player to bring viewers non-stop action; the use of blimps to provide overhead views; and, perhaps best of all, the presentation of player scores in relation to par rather than by total, a seemingly obvious adjustment that made golf radically easier to follow. He truly was the Father of Televised Golf, but he seemed to prefer his other nickname — The Ayatollah, a nod to his dictatorial, uncompromising approach to his craft. RIP.
Luke Donald played five flawless days of golf to win the Accenture Match Play Championship.
Luke Donald had cultivated the reputation of a British Adam Scott — an insanely talented underachiever content to cash the big checks and live the lifestyle but failing when it mattered most. Turns out that Donald is more driven than we realized.
Four-plus years after melting down in the presence of Tiger Woods to lose the PGA Championship at Medinah and five years after his most recent win on U.S. soil, Donald used five grueling days in the Arizona desert to elbow his way into the conversation for best player in the world. The Accenture Match Play Championship was a five-day coronation for the newly minted World No. 3, who never trailed in a match and never even had to play the 18th hole at Dove Mountain.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve won in the U.S.,” said an elated Donald. “To come here and beat the Top 63 players, I guess, in the world, is very gratifying. It’s been an amazing week. I had a lot of good things happen, made a bunch of birdies, never trailed in a match. Kind of one of those weeks where a lot of things went my way.
“Whether I deserve No. 3 in the world, I don’t know. But certainly in terms of my work ethic and wanting it, then I do deserve it.”
Contrary to his reputation as a contented also-ran, Donald chafed under the burden of his U.S. winless streak.
“It certainly bothered me,” he said. “My goal every year is to win, win tournaments. It’s a long time since I’ve tried to play for money, you know. My first couple of years, maybe, as a rookie, you know, you think about making your Tour card and making cuts and making enough money to play the next year. But it’s been a long time since that.
“I solely focus on trying to win tournaments. I felt like I hadn’t won my fair share for as good a player as I felt I was and could be. It was disappointing, yeah. It was frustrating to me.
“But to come here and compete against the best players in the world and win the trophy is very gratifying.”
Donald’s victim in the finals, new World No. 1 Martin Kaymer, cited his opponent’s otherworldly short game as being the decisive factor in their match, won by Donald 3&2.
“I think he’s definitely one of the most consistent players on the Tour,” Kaymer said. “And I think he’s probably the best in the world in the short game at the moment. I played with Phil Mickelson a few times and it is unbelievable. But what Luke is doing at the moment is a joke, you know. Wherever he is, you know that he will make the up-and-down if he doesn’t hole it. And it was impressive.”
Now, for the first time since 1992, the top four spots in the World Golf Rankings are held by Europeans — Kaymer, Lee Westwood, Donald and Graeme McDowell.
“It’s fantastic to have four Europeans up there,” Kaymer said. “It was always Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and now there are four Europeans up there, so it’s good.”
The news isn’t all bad for American golf. Tiger and Phil sit at 5 and 6 in the world, and a good Masters gets them back in the hunt for the top spot in the suddenly fluid rankings. And then there’s the newest star in the American galaxy, one Gerry “Bubba” Watson, who lost his consolation match to Matt Kuchar to finish fourth but won many hearts with his valiant effort in the semis against Kaymer, where he lost 1-up despite a world-class birdie at 17, and his epic comeback in the quarters, where he rallied from five down with eight holes to play to beat J.B. Holmes. Bubba’s assessment? “It showed that I can play golf.”
Brackets are in the process of being busted at the WGC-Accenture Match Play.
The World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play — the PGA Tour’s answer to NCAA March Madness — teed off Wednesday morning and die-hard golf fans from around the country have already seen their brackets busted thanks to a few unexpected upsets at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club’s Dove Mountain Course in Marana, Arizona.
GOLF CHANNEL’S BRANDEL CHAMBLEE GIVES HIS TAKE: Lee Westwood is the 13th player to ascend to the No. 1 ranking in the world, and only the third person to take that seat away from Tiger Woods in the last 12 years. Long known as an extraordinary ballstriker, Westwood has improved his scrambling skills and his putting, and this combination has made him the most complete player on the planet. If he plays a major championship with fewer than 120 putts, something he failed to do in 2010, chances are he will win it and end 2011 just as he started it — as the No. 1 player in the world.
THE CASE FOR NO. 1: The computer doesn’t lie. Westwood has parlayed five top-three finishes in his last 10 major championship appearances — including solo seconds at the 2010 Masters and British Open — into the top spot in the World Golf Ranking, ending Tiger Woods’ lengthy reign. He capped his season by providing 2.5 points to the winning European Ryder Cup team. The 2009 money leader on the European Tour, Westwood’s at the vanguard of the Euro invasion and a threat to win multiple majors this year.
GOLF CHANNEL’S BRANDEL CHAMBLEE GIVES HIS TAKE: Martin Kaymer is the player golf was looking for only a year ago — someone in their 20s to step up and win a major and make a run at the No. 1 ranking in the world. Long and straight, with no weaknesses and solid mental strength and poise, Kaymer went from being Europe’s Rookie of the Year to its leading money winner in four seasons. Even as we watch Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood, Martin could emerge as the best player on the planet by the end of 2011.
THE CASE FOR NO. 1: With his win at the HSBC in Abu Dhabi in January, Kaymer surged past Tiger Woods into second place in the World Golf Ranking. The reigning PGA champion, Kaymer won three times in Europe in 2010 to earn his tour’s Race to Dubai money title. In the last year, he’s been the hottest golfer on the planet, with five worldwide wins and top-10 finishes at the U.S. Open and British Open to go with his PGA win. Kaymer matched Westwood’s 2.5 points for Europe at the Ryder Cup.
Aaron Baddeley turned back the clock in turning back Fred Couples.
The Northern Trust Open was almost the anti-Daytona 500. Instead of a young unknown shocking the world, a beloved fiftysomething battling the pains of advancing age nearly turned back time, but a sympathetic crowd at Riviera Country Club couldn’t quite drag Freddie Couples’ aching back across the finish line. Instead, a 29-year-old onetime phenom finally delivered on some of the promise that accompanied his arrival on the golf scene.
Aaron Baddeley, a hardened veteran at 29, recaptured some of the old magic that had him in the winner’s circle as a 24-year-old wunderkind. Badds’ turn-back-the-clock performance saw a return to an old swing and old results, as the Aussie earned the third win of his career but the first since 2007, back when his obvious talent seemed to portend a stellar career.
Abandoning the trendy stack-and-tilt swing method a couple of years ago, Baddeley went back to basics, and the change finally paid off in the form of an on-course comfort level that had been missing.
“As tough as the last two years were, I knew what I was working towards,” Baddeley said. “Even though I got frustrated at times and discouraged at times, I knew my end goal, so I was able to be patient. That was the key. I had to be patient because I knew my game has been there for a while, I just haven’t got the scores on the board.”
Couples stirred the crowd with birdies on his first three holes to reclaim the lead from Baddeley, but the sentimental favorite couldn’t keep it going. Nor could another member of golf’s old guard, Vijay Singh, who finished second, two shots back.
“Well, I thought Freddie was going to be tough today because definitely winning is a skill, and Freddie has been winning quite often recently,” Baddeley said of the Champions Tour superstar. “When he got off to a good start, I was like, Freddie looks like he's going to have one of those days where he's going to play great.
“I was still just trying to focus on my game and just try to do what I needed to do. … I was still right there, I was still only one back. It wasn’t like I was three back. For me it was just trying to keep doing what I was doing.
“Everybody was yelling out ‘Freddie, Freddie, Freddie.’ I knew he was going to be the fan favorite, and I mean, no reason why he shouldn’t be. He’s been such a great player over the years, and I mean, the fans just love him.”
So is Baddeley ready to recapture some of the love that greeted him when he seemingly filled the role of golf’s Next Big Thing? Maybe. And an invitation to Augusta presents another golden opportunity.
“I think I’m in a different situation I feel like now with my game,” he said. “In ’06 with Hilton Head (where he earned his first win), I was in the building stage with the stack & tilt, and then ’07 I had a good year after winning FBR. But I feel like my game is at a different level where I’m not trying to keep working on stuff. Like right now I'm just sort of maintaining the foundation, and then I’m really just trying to go out there and play golf.”
Couples’ final round 73 left him with a T7, five shots behind Baddeley. Not the result he wanted, but not bad for a 51-year-old with a balky back.
“Well, I’m disappointed but Aaron played very, very well,” Couples said. “It was cold and it wasn’t easy. There were a few good scores, but I didn’t think it was very easy out there. I certainly wanted to par the last hole. That's disappointing. But as far as the way I played, I played great. Today was — like I say, if I could have just hit a couple more shots and finished even in third place, that would have been phenomenal, but it wasn’t, and I’m pretty happy with the way I played. But I was trying to win.”
So was the solid week a sign that Couples’ notorious back was suddenly cooperating?
“No, it feels terrible. I feel like if I was playing another course this week, another tournament, there’s no way I would have played this well. This is just my favorite course. Literally if you watched me today I slapped it around and shot 73, and I’m highly disappointed. There were a lot of 73s out there today, but this is a great course for me.”
GOLF CHANNEL’S BRANDEL CHAMBLEE GIVES HIS TAKE: Tiger Woods’ setbacks in 2010 will very likely hobble him for the rest of his career and could cost him achieving the one goal he has had since childhood — breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. In addition to the well-documented off-the-course troubles, he sustained an offseason injury to his Achilles tendon and has once again decided to change his swing. The two other times Tiger changed his swing, he failed to win a major the following year. Still, even in his attenuated state, he has the best golf mind in the game and is, for the first time in his career, playing with something to prove. Winless in 2010, Tiger is not only trying to snap that streak, but he is also trying to quiet the critics and regain his intimidation. Woods is close enough to Jack’s record that if he has a choking point, we will all know it soon.
THE CASE FOR NO. 1: He’s Tiger Woods; enough said. The man with 14 major championship wins and 70-plus PGA Tour victories has earned the benefit of the doubt, and with top-four finishes in three of his last five majors, he doesn’t need much of that. Woods is rejuvenated and hungry to reclaim his throne, and he’s especially anxious to confound the naysayers who have written off his quest to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 career majors. Watch Tiger at the Masters, where he scraped together a top-four finish in 2010 despite lacking his A-game.