Anybody’s ballgame at the PGA

Brian Murphy
Yahoo! Sports

We should have known the World Golf Championship event at Firestone was going to be weird when Tiger Woods showed up with that “I Don’t Give a Flip” goatee. That facial hair is the golf equivalent of George Costanza “giving up” by wearing sweat pants all day.

By the time Tiger dropped his signature line of 2010 after a career-worst 18-over turn through Firestone over 72 holes – “It’s been a long year” (which would be the title of his concert tour, were he taking his act on the road: TIGER WOOODS – The “IT’S BEEN A LONG YEAR” Tour!) – we were left with Hunter Mahan quietly and artfully doing his thing again, and a vast array of big names weebling and wobbling.

Unlike those Weebles of 1970s toy fame, these guys did fall down. Where it leaves them heading to Whistling Straits this week for this week’s PGA Championship, the year’s final major, is anybody’s guess.

Well, actually, I have a guess. It’s just that they won’t like it.

Phil Mickelson, with a chance to – again! – take over the world No. 1 spot, instead shot an almost inexplicably bad 78, a sprawling display of what happens when lack of focus, hunger and short game collide. His day crashed him from a tie-10th to a tie-46th, and Lefty severely downgraded his stock for the PGA Championship.

Ernie Els, two shots off the 54-hole lead, turned in a nerve-wracked 76 and tumbled 18 spots on the leader board, looking as shaky as ever going into the 2010 major finale. Memories of his inability to close at Pebble Beach and his missed cut at St. Andrews make Big Ern, a perennial favorite, look not so favorite.

As for Tiger, what can be said that hasn’t been said? When CBS showed highlights of his final-round 77, a dew-sweeping atrocity that finished well before even the expanded five-hour network coverage hit the air, I half-expected Jim Nantz to declare the footage “NC-17” for parents who might want to shield their children’s eyes. The bad news for Tiger is that he shot a career-worst 298 over 72 holes. The good news is, if he knocked over two more pins, he’d have bowled a perfect game.

The only rumor that would make sense now is hearing that Tiger will fire his caddie, Stevie Williams, and replace Stevie with rocker Tom Petty. That way, Tiger can hear the lyrics “Freeeee/Free fallllllinnn’’…” live instead of in his head on loop.

Anybody who picks Tiger to win at Whistling Straits is insane. And if that condition persists after six hours, consult a doctor.

Whistling Straits, then, is not just “glory’s last shot.” It’s also anybody’s ballgame.

We can’t say it’s time for that celebrated generation of English players – Lee Westwood, Paul Casey, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter and Justin Rose – to be favored. Not only did Westwood withdraw because of a calf injury, that “Fab Five” group has a “Fab Zilch” total of zero career majors. Somebody should send those guys to a Chinese restaurant and insert the fortune “Many a press clippings does not a major champion make” into their cookies before Whistling Straits.

Besides, Euros don’t like America in August. Too hot, too humid for their temperate Euro blood. Only Padraig Harrington has cracked the PGA Championship code, and he’s a guy to watch after his tie-9th at Firestone. Rory McIlroy, also, would be worth a look, considering not only that he finished tie-9th at Firestone, also, but remains the mystery man from St. Andrews, always wondering how his Sunday position would have been had it not been for that storm-cursed 80 in his Friday second round. Plus, the Whistling Straits wind will make his hair must-see TV.

More likely, the PGA Championship will be a time for a twentysomething American to grab his maiden. Mahan would be a classic choice, a player who has done it on the big stage now and also carries a resume of clutch play at key times. Quietly, he scored 3 and ½ points as a Ryder Cup rookie at Valhalla, and added 2 and ½ more in the Presidents Cup massacre at Harding Park.

Going 66-64 at Firestone on the weekend is the kind of thing that would have us writing odes on urns if Tiger did it. Since Mahan did it, guys like me are writing entire columns not mentioning him until the 14th paragraph.

Let’s face it: He’s a low-key guy, although not so low-key that he didn’t nab a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader as his fiancée. Mahan to golf writers: How bout dem apples, scribes?

The last time the PGA Championship was held at Whistling Straits, a three-way playoff was held between eventual winner Vijay Singh, and Americans Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco. The 2010 versions of Leonard and DiMarco would be precisely the type of player I am talking about when I say a “twentysomething” American has a good chance.

A player like Sean O’Hair (tie-5th at Firestone), with multiple wins and Presidents Cup experience, is that player. A player like Matt Kuchar (tie-9th at Firestone), with two career wins and 7 top-10s this year, is that player. A player like Jeff Overton (tie-6th at Firestone), who has taken up permanent residence on PGA Tour leader boards, is that player. Dustin Johnson, Ryan Moore, Nick Watney … you get my drift, I’m sure.

All those players – save for Kuchar, who is 32 – are in their 20s, and ready to assume leadership in the “Post-Escalade-Into-A-Tree-On-Thanksgiving-Night” Era, as future historians will surely call golf from November 2009 on.

Scorecard of the week

66-68-71-78 – 3-over 283, Phil Mickelson, tie-46th, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Firestone Country Club, Ohio.

There is a reason my father always told me golf is “the devil’s own game.” The man in the red suit is laughing his trident off at Lefty right now.

Nearly four months ago to the day, Lefty hit that 6-iron from the pine straw on No. 13 at Augusta National on Masters Sunday. The golf world nearly threw a ticker-tape parade for the guy, and he won his fourth major championship and third green jacket.

Four months later, he’s playing field hockey with his putter on the Sunday at Firestone, racking up eight bogeys or worse in one round – a career-worst – and having to do the post-round/vacant stare/”I felt really good on the practice tee” interview with Peter Kostis.

Plus, he has to answer the “Why Can’t You Be Number One?” questions. His explanations can’t mask the truth: he’s had EIGHT starts where a strong finish would vault him to the top spot, and every time, he’s come up short.

That’s not a coincidence. That’s a mental block.

Amazingly, Phil’s final-round 78 managed to be one stroke worse than Tiger’s abysmal 77. So, Tiger was Low “Disappointing Icon,” at the least.

In the four months since the Masters, Lefty has had his moments: a 2nd place at Quail Hollow, a tie-5th at the Memorial, and a tie-4th at Pebble Beach’s U.S. Open.

And in the four months since the Masters, Lefty has had his, ahem, cough, cough, “moments”: a missed cut at Colonial, a Sunday 75 and tie-48th at St. Andrews and, disturbingly, a tie-4th at Pebble Beach’s U.S. Open when it could have been so much more.

Throw in Firestone’s 78 and you have a player entering Whistling Straits with all the momentum of a guy on the side of the road having to change his own flat tire.

Then again, as Philly Mick himself said: “You’re only as good as your last performance,” meaning he could turn on the charm in Kohler, Wisc. He’s that kind of guy, Phil.

Broadcast moment of the week

“It’s been a long year.” – a stoic Tiger Woods, in a post-round interview aired on CBS, when asked if he’s been surprised at his poor play. “Does that mean you think your problems have been mental – “ unidentified questioner, before Tiger cut him off with… “It’s been a long year…(pause) … ok, guys, if that’s it, thanks.” – Tiger, again, leaving press conference and heading to Wisconsin. “I think that last sequence in the Q and A might have said it all” – Jim Nantz, CBS, after the interview.

There is a Latin phrase in the legal world that goes “res ipsa loquitor.” Translated, it means “the thing speaks for itself.”

Let’s call that Tiger Moment the “Res Ipsa Loquitor” moment of his career.

As such, I can’t – and won’t – add anything more to the sequence.

Mulligan of the week

What was I saying about the “devil’s own game?” Lucifer made sure to give Jim Furyk a wedgie on Sunday, too.

Furyk – by the way, a name to watch at Whistling Straits – was crafting a huge Sunday, out in 4-under 31. He added birdies on 12 and 13 and was 6-under for the day, and 7-under for the tournament, playing the par-5 16th.

A birdie at the birdie-able hole would get him to 8-under, and with the leaders only two shots ahead, could be one of those “post it” scores that rattled the guys in the late groups.

And Furyk did everything right. He laid up on 16, had an easy wedge in, and hit it stiff.

Like, totally stiff. Like, too stiff.

Furyk’s flagstick-seeker actually ricocheted OFF the flagstick and into the water hazard fronting the green.

You. Gotta. Be. Kidding.

Even Furyk, who last registered an outward emotion in the Nixon administration, had to walk a few paces away from his divot to gather his thoughts. Surely, had his golf ball missed the flagstick, it would have landed a few feet past the stick, and sucked back into birdie range.

What kind of game rewards a great shot with the sight of a ball making a splash in a pond late on a Sunday?

Why, the devil’s own game, naturally.

Furyk would make bogey on 16, and when he made birdie on 18 for a 64 and a 7-under finish, tie-6th, the 16th hole would only loom that much larger.

So, for the sake of everyone who’s ever executed his game plan, hit his shot accurately, and got royally screwed for his effort, let’s go back out to the 16th fairway and … give that man a mulligan!

Where do we go from here?

We’re off to Whistling Straits, the Course That Toilets Built.

No joke. Herb Kohler, the golf enthusiast and billionaire owner of the golf course, made his fortune building those porcelain beauties that occupy our restrooms.

Please hold your jokes about the state of Tiger’s game relative to Herb Kohler’s life work, please.

Good news: Your loyal correspondent will be on hand to file columns from the PGA Championship on Saturday and Sunday. Nothing says ‘End of Summer’ like an eyewitness account of Tiger’s despondent body language.

That is, if he makes it to the weekend.

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