Golden Bear spices up the golf landscape

Brian Murphy
Capturing his first tour victory in two years, Rory Sabbatini showed the kind of toughness the other Rory (McIlroy) could use

As an admitted West Coast swing enthusiast – yes, the best golf courses on the PGA Tour, matched by the best scenery on tour, matched by hang-loose galleries more likely to use the words “dude” or “bro” than any other – the start of the Florida swing usually bring guys like me a sense of sadness.

Imagine the happiness, then, when two things brightened the mood: One, a feisty winning effort at the Honda Classic by the underrated scrapper Rory Sabbatini; and two, a bear-hug of a welcome from J.W. Nicklaus, who just so happens to be the greatest player who ever lived.

In a golf landscape still trying to figure out a post-Tiger Woods world, hearing and seeing Jack again was like putting on a favorite record. He pulled off a trifecta: dazzled in the media room early in the week, played with Florida deity Tim Tebow in the midweek pro-am, then delivered Golden Bear-ish goodness in the NBC booth Sunday. It’s the 25th anniversary of the 1986 Masters, remember. As a result, we’re just beginning a month-long tribute to reminisce on the greatest major championship of the lives of those of us who weren’t around for Frankie Ouimet’s 1913 U.S. Open at Brookline; or Dan Jenkins’ all-timer, the 1960 U.S. Open; or the time Old Tom Morris lost a ball at Prestwick in 1864, and produced a provisional out of his beard – Brian Wilson-like – on the tee box.

Admittedly, we’ve all been adrift while Tiger has struggled. The last three major champions of 2010 were all first-timers, none is American, and at least one of them raised the suspicion of being an outrageous fluke, as I was just saying to my dear friend, Louis Oosthuizen’s gardener.

Plus, the winners in 2011 thus far have failed to provide any kind of road map to golf’s future, unless you count Mark (Double-Dip) Wilson as the next dominant force in the game.

So while we search to find the way, why not wrap ourselves in a blanket of Nicklaus Nostalgia? His ability to remember every club in his final round at Augusta in 1986 had the scribes eating from his palm. And his level-headed assessment of Tiger – “He maybe got off track, but I think he’s a really principled kid. Are we all perfect? No … I still think he’ll break my record” – struck just the right tone.

It all felt so welcoming, and I say bring on the ’86 overload of video come Masters week. In tribute, Verne Lundquist should spend all of April answering every question with a hearty: “Yes, SIR!” Example: In a restaurant, a waiter asks, “Would you like some more water?” Verne: “Yes, SIR!”

So, bring it on, Florida: your grainy Bermuda, your ridiculous weather delays (yes, Sabbatini, Y.E. Yang and Jerry Kelly huddled for 28 minutes in a van while a storm stymied a climactic finish on 17) and your mostly flat, forgettable layouts. If it means Jack plays the role of Mr. Rogers, welcoming us to his neighborhood, I’m in.

Scorecard of the week

71-64-66-70 – 9-under 271, Rory Sabbatini, winner, Honda Classic, PGA National, West Palm Beach, Fla.

Here’s a guy who has probably felt robbed of his identity in the past two years. After all, "Rory" almost became a trademarked one-name identity – like Kaka, Cher or Fabio – since the arrival of bushy-haired, sweet-swinging Rory McIlroy on the scene.

Meanwhile, here’s Rory Sabbatini, saying to himself: I was winning a PGA Tour event in 2000 (the Air Canada Championship) back when this other "Rory" was playing with Legos.

And full credit to Sabbatini for the duration of his career and the quality of it. The Honda is his sixth win now, and he can now count taming "The Bear Trap" at PGA National alongside wins at revered tracks like Riviera (2006) and Colonial (2007). He’s not afraid to stick his nose into scrapes, and famously left Ben Crane like a jilted lover in the 2005 Booz Allen Classic because Crane was playing like he had a plane to miss.

Sabbatini also was famous for dropping the “Tiger is more beatable than ever” line in 2007. At the time, he was vilified for daring tread on Superman’s cape. Now, he looks like a soothsayer and may want to look into opening a tarot card business on the side when he retires.

His 64 on Friday is the round that carried him to victory. When the wind was blowing players out of their golf spikes, Sabbatini carded one of the great rounds of the year. Consider that his course record-tying effort gained him 16 strokes on Heath Slocum (80), 18 strokes on Adam Scott (82) and 21 strokes on Mike Weir (85), and you gain perspective. Imagine Sabbatini idling up to Weir before the round and saying: “I’ll give you a stroke a hole; name the price” and walking away with the cash.

Sunday’s final round didn’t come without pressure. His five-shot lead over the tenacious Yang was whittled down to one stroke as he stood on the 16th tee. But a clutch birdie on 16 gave him breathing room, and then Sabbatini showed fortitude in ignoring the beckoning water on 17 and 18 to hold off Yang by one.

He wore a red shirt on Sunday; perhaps fitting for a guy they say has an, ahem, red “keister” on the golf course. Sometimes it’s good to have guys like that, though. They spice things up. He takes a good rip at the ball; putted his eyeballs out at the Honda; and moves along at a good clip. He’s got a little fight in him, which is maybe something the “other” Rory could use.

Just saying, is all.

Mulligan of the week

• Y.E. Yang remains an intriguing player and not just because he wore the deer-hunter orange slacks long before Rickie Fowler ever showed up on tour, and not just because he was the object of a “YOU DA YANG!” shout-out from a boozed-up gallery member Sunday after his tee shot on 16.

You could make an argument that Yang got Tiger started on his decline before the scandal which hit a few months later. His takedown of Tiger – from behind, after 54 holes – at Hazeltine’s PGA Championship in 2009 remains one of the great comebacks, if not the greatest, of the new millennium.

Yang is still at it. At Match Play, he slayed a three-headed beast of big-hitting Spaniard Alvaro Quiros, Match Play demon Stewart Cink and hot-putting Graeme McDowell before falling in the quarters to Matt Kuchar. And despite missing the cut at Pebble Beach’s U.S. Open last year with a bizarre 83 in the second round, let’s not forget Yang finished in the top 10 at last year’s Masters.

I wouldn’t forget about him this April at Augusta. His 66 on Sunday made for exciting golf – well, as exciting as tape-delayed, weather-delayed golf can be. Yang has a tenacious quality about him, can putt under pressure and shaved a five-shot lead to one on the back nine Sunday.

Still, an eagle on 18 would have put major heat on Sabbatini, and Yang had a chance to reach the dastardly, wet par-5 hole in two. Alas, he put his second shot in the greenside bunker, had to settle for an up-and-down birdie and missed Sabbatini by one shot.

So, for a guy who hit the greatest fairway metal I’ve ever seen – 72nd hole, Hazeltine, Tiger staring him down – let’s go back out to the 18th fairway, remind Yang that eagle forces a playoff and … give that man a mulligan!

Broadcast moment of the week

Frank Chirkinian, 1926-2011.

In the history of American golf, we argue: Arnie or Jack? Masters or U.S. Open? Phil or Tiger?

In the life of recently passed CBS Sports TV executive Frank Chirkinian, there is no argument: The man they called “The Ayatollah” for his brusque demand of excellence, had no peer when it came to inventing golf on TV.

Those of us who follow the game spend every Thursday to Sunday from January to September, mesmerized by the game we love in all its televised glory. For everything we enjoy, we owe Chirkinian a tip of the hat: Taking stationary cameras and making them mobile. Quick cuts from hole to hole. Blimp shots – Pebble Beach thanks you extra, Frank. Greenside microphones.

And perhaps most revolutionary, televising scores relative to par, not the confusing aggregate scores as players played different holes.

Sometimes history is about timing, about being the right guy at the right place at the right time: Chirkinian arriving at the Masters in 1959 was that guy, at that place, at that time. A guy named Arnold Palmer, who made for pretty good TV, was about to win the Masters for the second time the next year, and a guy named Jack Nicklaus, who made for a pretty good rival for Arnie, would soon arrive on the scene.

At the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am last month, CBS threw its annual party on the Wednesday night, feting scribes and execs with sushi, tales from Jim Nantz and interviews with players on site. It’s usually a festive affair, with plenty of barbs from David Feherty if the mood strikes the former Ulsterman right.

But this year, knowing their revered boss was in his last days, Nantz phoned Chirkinian at his Florida home and put him on speaker phone, to inform Chirkinian, in front of the hushed crowd, that a special election had put him into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Chirkinian’s voice was weak but his emotion strong, as he learned the news.

He’ll be inducted in May, posthumously. Meanwhile, we’ll do what he would have wanted us to do – watch golf on TV. Thank you, Frank.

Where do we go from here?

• Another World Golf Championship event, just two weeks after Match Play? Fine! Bring it on, you highly ranked slacks-wearers, you. All of the top 50-ranked players in the world have committed to play.

World Nummer Eins Martin Kaymer will be there, looking to show Lee Westwood how to properly hang on to a ranking. Tiger Woods will be there, looking not to fall to – oh, I don’t know – 27th in the world after another flop. Phil Mickelson will be there, providing always-unpredictable results.

Somebody invite Big Jack. He might go win the darn thing.