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Another tour letdown on Sunday

Brian Murphy
Yahoo Sports
Another tour letdown on Sunday
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After three straight birdies to start his round, Fred Couples seemed poised to notch a dramatic victory …

We’ve now finished the stroke-play portion of the West Coast Swing, or as it is known in broadcasting circles: “The Disappointing Storyline Swing.”

Last week at Pebble Beach, CBS looked at a leaderboard featuring D.A. Points and Tom Gillis, and opened its telecast with Jim Nantz blaring, in a pleading sort of way: “Look who’s making a move! It’s Phil Mickelson at Pebble!” The network blazers were dying for Lefty to move the needle, but the big kid out of San Diego shot 71 and finished T9.

Flash forward to Sunday at Riviera, and as soon as the obligatory overly long college basketball game ended, we cut to the canyons of Pacific Palisades to hear Nantz blaring, in a pleading sort of way: “We have a huge story developing at Riviera,” followed by shots of Fred Couples’ birdie-birdie-birdie start. Alas, the guy with more charisma than Bill Clinton shot 73, and finished T7.

TV has to get used to it, and so do we: We’re not necessarily living in a Lefty World, or a Freddy World or even a Tiger World. In 2011, it’s more like a Jonathan Byrd-Mark Wilson-Johnny Vegas-Bubba Watson-D.A. Points – and, now, from Riviera – Aaron Baddeley World.

Those men are the winners of your West Coast Swing stroke-play events, with Wilson checking in twice, at Honolulu and Phoenix. Granted, Vegas was a breakout star of a story – if totally obscure. And granted, Points’ pro-am pairing with a gopher-hunting groundskeeper, a Cinderella story, will surely rank among the top year-end stories. Bubba, of course, darn near won the PGA Championship last year.

But for the most part, Baddeley’s win at Riv headlined a roster of winners who are comeback stories, guys either resurrecting something lost, or introducing themselves to the world. There’s not a major winner in the bunch.

To wit: Baddeley’s game fell so far, he came into Riviera ranked 224th in the world, and four years had gone by without a win. Two years running, he finished outside the top 100 on the money list, and a ‘can’t-miss’ prodigy from the turn of the millennium turned into a player on the express train to obscurity.

Voila – all it took was the 2011 West Coast Swing, re-maker of careers, to make Baddeley relevant again.

At the tender age of 29, Baddeley’s essentially already lived a few lifetimes in golf. In 1999, he won the Australian Masters as an 18-year-old amateur, outdueling Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie, a shocking bit of golf that raised eyebrows and expectations. When he came on the PGA Tour in 2000, he came with a special invite to the Masters, and he came toting a golf bag that advertised his web site – BADDS.COM, stitched in big, bold letters. Given that the kid hadn’t won in the States yet, and given that self-aggrandizing teenagers with Wonka Tickets to Augusta aren’t prone to curry public favor, and given that it was 2000, and we were all still getting used to the whole ‘dot-com’ thing, it was a less than favorable impression.

He missed cuts by the bushel, faded from our minds, and was written off as just another too much, too soon phenom. He paid his dues by going to the Nationwide Tour and playing his way back to the tour in 2003, but drifted along without a win until Hilton Head in 2006, backing it up with a victory at Phoenix in 2007. That same year he had the 54-hole lead at Oakmont’s U.S. Open, and maybe it was Badds’ time, right then, right there.

He shot 80 that Sunday at Oakmont.

Nearly four years later, reunited with his childhood swing coach Dale Lynch, Baddeley was born, one more time. Now he’s in the Presidents Cup conversation, previously unthinkable as he floundered. Now Greg Norman is sending congratulatory emails to Riviera, pumping the kid up for the Prez Cup. Now he enters Phase Three or Phase Four or Phase Whatever of his career.

And why not? It’s that sort of era in golf: When Freddy can’t pull off the miracle at Riv, and when Lefty can’t win at Pebble, we’re left to meet these new characters, or re-introduce ourselves to some old pals.

When Nantz signed off on Sunday, CBS’ last golf broadcast before April, he said: “We’ll see you at Augusta, friends.”

To which Aaron Baddeley, D.A. Points, Mark Wilson, Johnny Vegas and Jonathan Byrd said: “Bet you didn’t think you’d hear this from us, but … we’ll see you there, too, pal!”

Scorecard of the week

66-71-70-66 – 15-under 273, Yani Tseng, winner, LPGA Thailand.

Raise your hand if you knew the LPGA season started this past weekend. Anybody? A single hand? Come on. Somebody?

Now raise your hand if you know where the next LPGA Tour event is. Anybody? You, over in Singapore – you have a guess?

Yes, the poor LPGA Tour, a wandering band of golf-playing nomads in search of a regular gig, teed off in Thailand last week, and the most dominant player in the world did her thing again.

Meet Yani Tseng: some of you may remember the 2010 LPGA Player of the Year, winner of two majors last year. Others of you may have forgotten there is an LPGA Tour, which plays in Singapore this week.

It’s too bad for those of us in the States. We won’t see the women in the continental 48 until March 18-20 in Phoenix, which means we won’t see Tseng kick major rear-end on our TVs in a palatable time zone for nearly a month.

While Michelle Wie made a good showing of herself, and winged it from her cozy and happy life at Stanford to the Far East for a second-place finish, the golf was all Tseng, all the time. She made seven birdies in a final-round 66, and coupled with her Ladies European Tour wins in Australia the previous two weeks, makes Tseng 3-for-3 in her first three starts of 2011.

Eat your hearts out, Annika and Lorena.

Now, if only somebody will notice.

Broadcast moment of the week

“Our aim is to provide the best possible golf coverage for our viewers. Anything else is a disservice. In order not to provide further distraction, we’ve decided to remove Jim Gray from this particular assignment.” – Golf Channel spokesman Dan Higgins.

Juicy!

Say what you will about Jim Gray, but the man can disturb with the best. Need Pete Rose stunned by gambling questions? Jim Gray is your man. Need LeBron’s “The Decision” to divide a nation? Jim Gray is up to the task. Need somebody to call Corey Pavin a “liar” in a finger-pointing exchange? Jim Gray is Jimmy-on-the-spot.

And now, the ‘Mid-Round Melee’ with Dustin Johnson and his ‘dude’-speakin’ caddie, Bobby Brown.

By now you know that Johnson, who is to golf blunders what Charlie Brown was to kicking footballs, was late for his tee time on Thursday at Riviera, incurring a two-stroke penalty en route to missing his first cut in five starts. Most reasonable-thinking golf reporters would ask Johnson about the time mixup – after his round, when questions are usually asked.

During the round, most normal-thinking golf reporters would say, is usually the time to let the player… actually play his round of golf.

Not in Jim Gray’s world. He waited for Johnson on the walk between the 13th green and 14th tee, and chose that time to ask that most delicate of questions: “Uh, how’d you miss your tee time?”

Brown, the caddie, of course went off on Gray for messing with his player’s head. I wasn’t there to hear it, but can only imagine it must have sounded like Jeff Spicoli going off on Mr. Hand.

Almost always, this column is going to side with the Fourth Estate. We’re the hard-working grunts typing on deadline, we’re the underpaid schulbs bringing you the story because we love journalism and writing and sports, we’re the overfed pigs complaining in the buffet line because the chocolate donuts ran out early. We deserve a break, in general.

But Gray has to know that mid-round is not the time to ask that question. In an effort to be “first,” you can sometimes be “wrong.” Gray getting the hook from The Golf Channel may seem like a throw-him-to-the-wolves move from the execs, but in this case, it was probably best for all involved.

You’ll get the answers you need all in good time, Jim Gray. All in good time. Now, do you have Pete Rose’s cell phone number? I was thinking of heading over to Vegas …

Mulligan of the week

• The love-fest for Freddy (Boom Boom) Couples was strong at Riviera. We had Nantz’s opening salvo on the broadcast. We had Nick Faldo saying a Couples win would be a “timeless moment,” like Nicklaus at Augusta in 1986, or Tom Watson at Muirfield in 1996. We had David Feherty saying no player was more loved in the last 20 years, and comparing Couples’ languid swing to “snow falling off a roof.” We had Nantz saying Couples was inspired by Riviera, and reminiscing to their days sharing a dorm suite at the University of Houston, saying his dorm mates were watching, “hoping for one more hurrah, and wouldn’t it be sweet?”

And then there was the 7th hole at Riviera.

Tied for the lead, Couples fanned his drive right, into the bad stuff they call “kikiyu,” the word you hear in L.A. the week of the tournament even more than you hear “Bieber” at a junior high prom. The swing out of the bad stuff – the “kikiyu” – aggravated Couples’ well-worn back pain, and he was never the same, making double bogey and fading from the hunt.

Alas. No timeless moment. No beloved player getting his roars on 18. No snow falling off a roof. No one more hurrah. No ‘wouldn’t it be sweet.’

We were left with Baddeley, the winner, wondering where he’d even be at age 51, 22 years from now, marveling at the way Couples rolled around Riviera at that age. So, in order to make the drama that much richer, and in order to give CBS and all of us that 72nd hole we all wanted, we need to go back in time and make Freddy’s round right.

Back to the tee, eyes firmly averted from the kikiyu, re-tee that golf ball and … give that man a mulligan!

Where do we go from here?

• It’s the March Madness of the PGA Tour! Except, too often, it isn’t.

In a 64-man bracket at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championships, we always hope for that Phil vs. Tiger finale. Instead, we get a lot of Geoff Ogilvy (three times reached the final, twice a winner) and a lot of Paul Casey (in the finals the last two years.)

Not that there’s anything wrong with Geoff Ogilvy, a major champion. Or Paul Casey, a fine player. It’s just not Tiger vs. Phil, right?

Match play is too fickle to determine that dream matchup, as I was just saying to my good friends, 1998 finalists Jeff Maggert and Andrew Magee.

If form held and the No. 1 seeds advanced, we’ll get Lee Westwood vs. Phil Mickelson in one semifinal; Martin Kaymer vs. Tiger Woods in the other.

Where do I sign?

Unfortunately, form won’t hold, and you’re just as liable to get Robert Allenby, Bill Haas, Ben Crane and Luke Donald in the Final Four.

Say, any college basketball on that day?

At any rate, the drama is unscripted, and all eyes will be on Tiger, who hasn’t won a thing since November, 2009. If he beats Thomas Bjorn in the first round – no gimme – he could face Match Play assassin Ogilvy in the second round. If he gets to the Sweet 16, Dustin Johnson could be waiting. And if he gets to the Elite Eight, Bubba Watson could be there.

But there I go, getting my Match Play hopes up again. Lower thy expectations, golf fans, and you won’t get hurt.