There's nothing like good old fashioned competition to make things more exciting. And in 2012 I think that's what we're getting on the PGA Tour. Usually, the first few months of the season (or just about every tourney before the Masters) are often not much to write home about. I remember discussions about shortening the PGA Tour season by taking tourneys off the front and back end because football, basketball, and hockey are what people are really interested in during fall & winter. Many players opted out of these tourneys, and if there wasn't a great field, it didn't get a whole lot of coverage.
What we had been missing, and what we longed for, was some old school competition. And then it happened...with the PGA Tour money title on the line (not to mention Player of the Year), Luke Donald committed to playing the Children's Miracle Network event at Disney to try to nab the title from Webb Simpson. This fall series event usually brings out a fight for getting into the Top 125 and instead we were treated to a seemingly head to head matchup between Simpson and Donald with Donald needing just over $363K to take the money title. Going into the back nine of the final round, Donald was 4 shots behind the leader and 2 shots behind Simpson. Six birdies in a row later, Donald was now in the lead and ended up carding a final round 64 (-8) and winning by 2-strokes over Justin Leonard...Simpson shot 69. I don't care what you say, it was great for Luuuukkkee and great for golf to have a little duel at Disney.
And then came Tiger Woods. The 18-player field at the Chevron World Challenge may have been an unofficial event (and about as limited as limited field events get), but it was just what the golf doctor ordered to get golf fans (I mean Tiger fans) hyped up again. The back 9 of this event proved exciting as Zach Johnson battled against Tiger, taking a 1 stroke lead with 2 holes to play. After Johnson's putt burned the cup on 17, Tiger drained his to get tied going into the 18th. I still remember watching Tiger's 2nd shot on 18 - the camera angle was directly behind him and we all watched as it landed just right of the hole and he had a 6-footer, compared to Johnson's longer attempt. After Zach failed to make birdie, Tiger stepped up and drained his putt for the win. It might not have been a Major, but for golf (and Tiger), it sort of felt like one.
Now the question was, would 2012 be able to build off of the excitement?
The Tournament of Champions kickoff event has received its share of criticism over the past few years, especially when several of the best players opt not to make the trip to Hawaii to participate. But hey, you have to be a 2011 PGA Tour winner to even get an invite, so there are no slouches in the field. I may be biased, but seeing Steve Stricker take the first win of the season, especially after having endured issues with his neck that caused weakness in his arm, was a great "feel good" story to start the year! (YAY Steve!)
Then came the Sony Open and Johnson Wagner's moustache...joking aside, Johnson posted 4 rounds in the 60's to be another comeback story in 2012. Wagner almost carded back to back wins, but Mark Wilson was able to fend off Johnson's final round 65 to take the newly named Humana Challenge at La Quinta. While maybe not an A-list field, the addition of the Clinton Foundation brought some new buzz to the event.
And then we move to the mini-soap opera portion of the season...the Farmer's Insurance Open at Torrey Pines seemed ready to crown 2nd year Tour Pro Kyle Stanley champion with one hole to play. Double-bogey or better on the par-5 and he'd be hoisting the trophy after a stellar week. He had a straight-forward 3rd shot and when it landed past the hole it looked to me like he was going to be a winner...but backspin took over and nothing could stop the ball from ending up in the water in front of the green. Leaving himself a 45ft. 2-putt for the win, Stanley's first attempt came up over 3ft short and I can still see his putt for the win slip past the side of the cup. That triple bogey put him in a playoff with Brandt Snedeker and 2 holes later it was Sneds receiving congratulations and Stanley still in shock.
I think many in the golf world felt his pain, and even Sam Johnson assured us that "Stanley is a good player, and good players eventually win...". But I'm not sure anyone was thinking Stanley would win 7 days later!!
Had it been anyone else winning but Kyle Stanley, the story at the Waste Management Phoenix Open would have been a similar one to Torrey Pines...going into the final round, Spencer Levin had a six shot lead over Webb Simpson, but after a birdie on the 3rd hole, the wheels slowly started to fall off...a final round 75 coupled with Stanley's bogey-free 65 and Levin was the one left wondering what happened. Stanley made a clutch par putt on 18 to keep one stroke ahead of eventual runner up Ben Crane. From shock to redemption in one week...now that's a story!
(sorry, this is going to be a long one, I can't help it, I'm excited!)
The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am has been under fire for the past few years (or more) - sketchy weather, multiple courses, and slow play with Pro-Am players have been factors in several golf stars opting to sit out this tournament. But when it was announced that Tiger would be teeing it up, we had some buzz once again. But he wasn't alone...past winners Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson would be there along with Nick Watney, Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler, and Spencer Levin, hoping for the same turn of events that Stanley had.
After 3 rounds, Charlie Wi had a 3 shot lead over Ken Duke, but right behind them (and playing together) were Tiger (4 back) and Phil (6 back). Also in the mix going into Sunday were Dustin Johnson and Hunter Mahan (also 6 back). It didn't take long for the window of opportunity to open when Wi 4-putted the first hole for a double. While Tiger was working on a par streak on the front, Mickelson was 5-under after 6 holes (including an eagle) and all of sudden it was all about the classic Tiger vs. Phil match up (At least twice during that back 9 I know both my Mom and I gave Phil standing ovations!). It's what golf was waiting for! Tiger never got it going, but it didn't matter...Phil's final round -8(64) was all we needed...and more importantly, it's what Phil needed, and we had another week of golf celebration.
The Phil frenzy carried through to the Northern Trust Open at Riviera and he didn't disappoint. This course is no birdie-fest and accuracy is vital if you want to survive. With a stellar first round 66, Mickelson seemed to be riding the wave of success from Pebble. His next 2 rounds were adventures and he admitted that he wasn't playing great. He was happy to find himself tied for the lead with Keegan Bradley going into the final round, but there were several players within a few shots of the lead.
If you read the 3rd round wrap ups, there's barely a mention of Bill Haas, who was 2 shots back. This is the same guy that won the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup in 2011...where's the respect? The final scorecards of most of the players in contention had a smattering of birdies and bogeys with a few doubles thrown in, too. Just when you thought someone was ready to make a move, a bogey or two would stall them. At the end of regulation, Mickelson and Bradley both shot even par and found themselves in a tie with Bill Haas who had a -2 round of 69. All I can remember is, one minute I'm thinking at least 2 of them might move on (maybe all 3) and Haas goes and drains is birdie putt and Phil is out...Keegan misses and seemingly out of nowhere you're looking at your winner, Bill Haas. Another great finish!
The WGC Match Play is like watching a horror movie for me - the win or go home format of match play means there's a 50% chance that your favorite players could be going home...early. And Match Play loves upsets!! I felt a sense of relief when both Matt Kuchar and Steve Stricker made it through the first round, but my fantasy brackets were a mess after Donald, Simpson, Garcia and Haas all bowed out on day 1. Since my two favorite players were in the same bracket they would (in my mind) be running into each other and I would have to make a decision - well, Hunter Mahan busted both of my hopes when he took out Stricker first and then Kuchar on his way to the finals. Like we say in curling, it's always nice to root for the team that took you out, so my allegiances went to Mahan as my winner was now sunning it up in Arizona. Mahan found himself up against the #2 player in the world Rory McIlory in the finals. While some speculated that McIlory's game wasn't super sharp earlier in the week, it was hard to believe that the quest to be the #1 player in the world wouldn't be a motivation on Sunday.
But Mahan stuck with him and his putter was definitely his friend as he made Rory wait to take over the top spot on the OWGR. Mahan's ball striking was lauded and there was no denying he had a great week and deserved to win. But as we have seen already this year, it doesn't seem to take long to turn things around...McIlory headed to the Honda Classic (along with several other top dogs, including former OWGR #1's Lee Westwood and Tiger Woods).
Davis Love's first round 64 got most of the attention, but Rory wasn't far behind with a 66. Brian Harman stole the spotlight with a course record 61 in the 2nd round, but by Saturday night the story was Rory and his 2 shot lead going into the final round. Saturday night leaders haven't had much luck this year on Tour, but McIlory did enough to capture the win and the number 1 spot in the world, despite challenges from Tiger Woods (shooting a 62) and Lee Westwood (carding a nice 63). Of course the underdog fan in me was really rooting for Tom Gillis!
And here we are the WGC Cadillac Championship and all the top players are in the limited field event looking to make their move...and I couldn't be more excited!! Will Rory keep dominating? Will Luke say "excuse me, I want my OWGR title back"? Can Phil capitalize on his time off and give his fans another week to celebrate? Will Matt Kuchar have another great showing like last year? Will Steve Stricker make it 2 wins by March? Will Westwood say, "hey, what about me?"...and will Bubba Watson finally get some putts to drop (tee to green he's been outstanding this year!!). The potential is endless and I can't wait.
Thank you, PGA Tour Players, for making golf so much fun to watch. (And good luck Steve & Matt!)
Filed under: Phil Mickelson, Sam Johnson, Steve Stricker, TIger Woods, Matt Kuchar, PGA Tour, Cathy Erickson, Bubba Watson, Hunter Mahan, 2012, Wagner, Johnson, Tom Gillis, excitement