While you were flipping burgers over Memorial Day weekend, an odd thing happened in the golf world. The PGA Tour, with its sleek logo, charitable givings, huge TV contract and Jim Nantz-ian sheen, found itself playing the role of junior varsity.
What's even more odd is that this might be the biggest storyline of the 2011 season thus far.
Not only did the European Tour – highlighted by Luke Donald's win at the BMW PGA Championship to become world No. 1 – provide the more compelling theatre, but also the Champions Tour, that forgotten relic relegated to the attic most sports fans' minds, blazed past the Byron Nelson's anonymous leaderboard when Tom Watson won the Senior PGA Championship at age 61.
Before you fire off your customary emails filled with bile and vile accusing this salty scribe of dismissing a coming-of-age win for Bradley, a fresh face who happens to be the nephew of LPGA legend Pat Bradley, ponder this thought: Bradley was ranked 203rd in the world coming in and joins a list of 2011 PGA Tour winners who fall under the category of "Guys You've Never Heard of and Never Thought Would Win, Much Less Enter Your Brain."
Meanwhile, at England's Wentworth Club, Donald and now former world No. 1 Lee Westwood tussled in a playoff, the sort of big-name rumble that gives golf its Sunday buzz. While I've argued the No. 1 ranking has been de-valued by its revolving-door status, and while neither Donald nor Westwood have yet to win a major, at least the two bring a heft and importance to a playoff too often lacking in the 2011 PGA Tour, where charismatic would-be stars like Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Anthony Kim haven't sniffed the winner's circle.
Winners in Europe this year have included Westwood, Donald, Ian Poulter (now ranked ahead of Tiger Woods in the official World Golf Rankings, don't you know), Charl Schwartzel, Darren Clarke, Paul Casey and Martin Kaymer.
Winners stateside this year have included Mark Wilson, D.A. Points, Brendan Steele and, for good measure, Mark Wilson again. Not exactly Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Even worse, we here in the continental 48 have to put up with the regular sight of Sergio (Sunday 77) Garcia, who has turned the art of squandering a career into masterpiece theatre. The PGA Tour is spending this year playing the role of Nationwide Tour – or understudy, or backup QB, choose your analogy – to the European Tour.
Perhaps I should put it this way: I come not to bury the PGA Tour but to praise the European Tour.
I've read the statistics that show the Euro Tour fields are more top-heavy, but lack depth; that the bottom of PGA Tour fields are filled with more quality. That may be true, but most golf fans I know don't spend much time worrying about who finishes tied for 57th.
It all came home to roost on Sunday when Watson proved he's the baddest 61-year-old this side of fellow 1949'er Bruce Springsteen, and where European golf showed once again it's the better show. The PGA Tour played third-fiddle, a fiddle I didn't even know existed.
There are downsides to this Euro golf dominance. As a West Coast dweller, it means early wake-up calls on weekends to watch the drama on The Golf Channel. Who needs that when Sunday morning slumber is an option? And as a proud American, it means admitting the red-white-and-blue golf scene is second to that made-up Euro flag with yellow stars on a blue field. When European players come play in America, it's almost as if they're just helping out a needy neighbor. It's like the Marshall Plan in reverse.
So, Keegan Bradley, I hate to be "that guy," but your win puts you on the back burner to bigger doings overseas. Bradley is only 24. He'll get over it. Besides, if he keeps winning, he'll become a star and swing the pendulum of power back to the good ole U.S. of A.
Scorecard of the week
• 70-70-68-70 – 10-under 278, Tom Watson, champion (in playoff), Senior PGA Championship, Valhalla Golf Club, Louisville, Ky.
El Nino is lucky Watson came through with his thrilling, throwback win. I was prepared to roast Garcia for his weekend collapse, and wonder if we can officially declare Sergio Garcia's golf career muerte.
Instead, Watson gets the spotlight. He held off David Eger in a playoff after missing a short putt in regulation to win that had brought back scar-tissue memories from the '09 British Open.
Then again, that's sort of the point. JUST TWO YEARS AGO, TOM WATSON WAS A SHORT PUTT AWAY FROM WINNING THE BRITISH OPEN AT AGE FIFTY-NINE!
Two years later, it seems even more incredulous.
Watson is still getting it done, winning Champions Tour majors despite players in the field more than a decade younger than him flexing more limber body parts, slightly less-used ligaments and bones that don't creak as loudly. Can we go ahead and declare Watson the greatest post-55-year-old golfer of all time?
Granted, it's not the sexiest nickname in the world – "The Golden Oldie" or "The Shuffleboard Assassin" – but in an era when "seniors" are more active, let's hold up Watson as their (slightly faded) poster boy. Watson is the oldest winner of a major championship since the current Champions Tour was created in 1980, and at his rate, with his golf swing and his repeatable ball-striking, I wouldn't count out another one or two in the future.
Interestingly, Watson is not the oldest winner of the Senior PGA Championship ever. A guy named Jock Hutchison was 62 when he won the Senior PGA in 1947, which is sort of mind-blowing when you consider that the Senior PGA was played in 1947, and that a guy named "Jock" took the blue ribbon. But golf aficionados know Hutchison was Old School Cool, a Scot-turned-American-citizen born in St. Andrews who won the 1920 PGA and 1921 British Open in his hometown. Hutchison was inducted into the Golf Hall of Fame just last month. Somewhere, his ghost hovered over Valhalla, heckling Tom Watson: "You ain't nothin', kid!"
Broadcast moment of the week
• "… And it's in the water. It's confirmed." – Jim Nantz, CBS, calmly crushing the dreams of Texan Ryan Palmer in the Byron Nelson Championship playoff.
There was something about the placid way Nantz assured us that Palmer's second shot into 18 was indeed aquatic that caught my ear. It combined the gravitas of a news broadcaster repeating the heavy words of a major news story with the casual Sunday afternoon tone of a guy just informing his playing partner that he'd have to take a drop.
"Yo, dude. That got wet. Sorry, bro."
Moreover, CBS had just picked up a sighting of Palmer's lovely wife greenside at 18, prepping for the possible wife-player hug after a win in his home state. Unfortunately, the camera was smack on her pretty mug when Palmer yanked his golf ball into the man-made water hazard, engulfing his chances of winning in flames.
After a nanosecond of awkward pause on Palmer's wife's face, Nick Faldo chimed in: "And she's saying: Oh, no … "
Indeed, she was. Her husband was looking at a fourth career win and a trip to Augusta National next spring. Instead, he must feather his pillow with a consolation check of $702,000.
Mulligan of the week
• I fibbed. Earlier in the column, I noted that Watson's win at the Senior PGA got Sergio Garcia off the hook for "Scorecard of the Week." Instead, Garcia will get roasted in "Mully of the Week."
There was something so profoundly disappointing about Garcia's weekend of 74-77 after his Thursday-Friday of 66-66 that it goes beyond the normal Nino-bashing. Garcia went from a chance to win to finishing tied for 20th.
Worse, he did so while playing in the final group. Is there anything more depressing in golf than the implosion of a golfer in the final group on a Sunday? That player becomes the ultimate Elephant in the Room – ignored and swept under the rug like a dysfunctional family problem at Thanksgiving.
Watching Garcia walk up 18 next to Ryan Palmer, the only thought was: "Wait. Sergio is still out THERE?" It called to mind the old joke about the golfer who died of a heart attack during the regular round with the boys, and when asked how bad it was, his buddies said: "It was terrible. For the rest of the day, it was 'Hit the ball, drag Charlie; hit the ball, drag Charlie … ' "
That's what it looked like Sunday at the Nelson. "Hit the ball, drag Sergio; hit the ball, drag Sergio … "
So, in the interest of humanity and good deeds, let's go back to Sunday's first tee at the Nelson, and before Sergio goes bogey-bogey-par-double bogey-par-bogey, let's … give that Nino a mulligan for his round!
Where do we go from here?
• All right, PGA Tour. I knocked you and called you third-rate. Here's your chance to get back on the big stage with a great event, a great golf course and a pretty good host: It's Jack Nicklaus' Memorial at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio.
As the kids say today: Boom.
Ladies and gentlemen, the varsity.