We Americans can show our faces in public again. Turns out the PGA Tour, our little forum for professional golf and alternate ways to kill Sunday afternoons instead of the sports-fan masochism that is the NFL Pro Bowl, still matters.
The topic was up for debate, you know. The offseason chatter was about how Europe was taking over the golf world, with Lee Westwood at No. 1 and Martin Kaymer at No. 2 and America’s best player, some missing-in-action person named Tiger Woods, only No. 3 on the planet. And the first three events of the year featured winners (Jonathan Byrd, Mark Wilson and Johnny Vegas) known only to the most cultish fans among us.
Not only that, the Euros send way better and way funnier tweets.
So with the good ole U.S. of A. licking its wounds, along came Torrey Pines. It produced entertainment so delicious and a leader board so packed, we can all start doing that loud ‘U!S!A!’ chant the Euros hate so much again.
Turns out the PGA Tour can still do show business, and if you don’t believe me, just check out the sight of Jim (Bones) Mackay, trotting 80 yards up a fairway to tend the flag on 18 Sunday as his man Phil Mickelson tried to hole out for eagle to force a playoff in the last group of the day. This, after Mickelson stunned everyone by laying up even before Bubba Watson finished the 18th hole ahead of him.
There’s no business like Lefty business.
The PGA Tour still had pop on its fastball this weekend, and after a decade in which the only first names we needed to know were Tiger, Ernie, Phil, Vijay and Retief, it’s time to learn some new names. Let me introduce you to a leader board with fast-growing moniker recognition in the form of Dustin, Rickie, Anthony, Hunter, Johnny V and, of course, the winner of the big check, Bubba.
Maybe the most amazing development of the weekend: Tiger, the erstwhile golden goose himself, finished tie-44th, 15 shots off the lead – and Torrey Pines still hummed.
Does that mean we’re already in a post-Tiger world? As my fellow passive-aggressive friends like to say: Hey, I’m just sayin’!
Meanwhile, I can’t get enough of Johnny Vegas. Last week, the entire column was dedicated to this star-is-born Venezuelan. There was a hidden, dark thought that Johnny V was a one-week wonder, destined to flame out. I loved the idea of Johnny Vegas, but feared we’d never hear from him again, and his next stop would be throwing out ceremonial first pitches at Venezuelan Winter League baseball games.
(Quick Johnny Vegas/Venezuela update: Last week, I wrote of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s distaste for golf, paraphrasing the Prez in saying he saw the sport as a metaphor for imperialist piggish domination. Chavez has since come out publicly in support of Johnny Vegas, delivering the money line: “He beat the gringos!” The story just keeps getting better.)
At any rate, all Johnny Vegas did for an encore was finish tied for third in a marquee field, and top the $1.2 million career earnings mark in five events as a pro. For perspective, Tiger holds the record as fastest to $2 million – in 16 events. The boys at CBS lavished praise on the technical aspects of his swing, noting a perfect spine and shaft angle throughout, complimented by great hands. And never mind that Johnny V dunked his 5-iron on the 72nd hole at Torrey, leading to a bogey and a fall into third. Instead focus on the fact that he played with Tiger on Saturday, and instead of doing what every rookie in the past 15 years has done when paired with Tiger – namely, ask for a pair of Depends undergarments – Johnny V shot 69 to Tiger’s 74. Kids today, I swear.
Meanwhile, Bubba Watson made two phenomenal up-and-downs on 17 and 18 to earn that victory at Torrey, showing he’s more than just a freak show who can come to the 13th tee, open his stance like Ichiro, then destroy a drive 363 yards. Make no mistake – Bubba is still a freak show. But now he’s a freak show who has two wins on tour, a Ryder Cup appearance, darn near a major at Whistling Straits last year, and the circus-like ability to go 13-under on the par-5s at Torrey Pines.
The PGA Tour is back, baby. I feel like celebrating with a cheeseburger and a milkshake, American-style. Come along. We’ll let our former vegetarian friend Lefty decide whether we should go to In-N-Out or Five Guys.
Scorecard of the week
• 69-69-74-75 – 1-under 287, tie-44th, Tiger Woods, Farmers Insurance Open, Torrey Pines.
Dissecting which is the most bizarre feature of Tiger’s week is like taking a multiple choice test for which you did not study: you just don’t know which is the right answer.
a) That he was in contention after 36 holes, then put it in reverse until he was invisible?
b) That in his first 45 professional rounds at Torrey Pines, he only failed to break par once – and in his 46th and 47th rounds, Saturday and Sunday, he carded back-to-back over par rounds?
c) That he had won his last FIVE times at Torrey Pines until this tie-44th?
d) That he had never finished out of the top 10 at Torrey in his pro career?
e) That 2011 was supposed to offer the cleanest of slates, post-divorce, new calendar year, and a press conference in which Tiger said “it helps to have a clear mind … my life is much more balanced?”
f) That he still gave that odd ‘I hit so many good putts today’ quote to Peter Kostis after the round, doing the leisurely backstroke in that swimming pool of denial?
g) That this list is still going on, and I’m all the way down to the letter ‘g’?
OK. Deep breath time. It’s one start. One tournament. One week. He’ll still go to Augusta in April and by virtue of showing up, will be in contention on the back nine Sunday. And he has an army of defenders predicting a huge year for him.
I’m just pointing out ever since Y.E. Yang murdered his soul at Hazeltine in ’09, and ever since that Escalade hit that tree, not only has his world been upside-down, but more alarmingly, his putter has run out of batteries.
Tiger Woods over a 10-footer for par used to be the surest thing in sports. Now, it’s about as reliable as cell phone service in a mountain range. He’s misreading putts – or has a deficiency in his stroke, or has lost confidence, or all of the above. Tiger missing important putts is like Arnold Palmer missing the chance to drill a cigarette on the golf course in the 1960s; or Walter Hagen missing a chance to have his clothes pressed before teeing off.
This is not even to discuss his wayward approach shots or uneven work off the tee. His CBS interview at times showed a bizarre optimism amid the wreckage, at other times a far-off, distant look in his eye.
It’s all so odd.
Mulligan of the week
• Phil Mickelson, given the chance to do something daring, exciting, risky, chancy and dubious on a golf course, will do that daring, exciting, risky, chancy and dubious thing pretty much 100 times out of 100.
Or, make that 99 times out of 100.
In a development that would rank with Rush Limbaugh doing his next Golf Channel project with Barack Obama, Lefty went – gasp – conservative on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines on Sunday.
With his golf ball 226 yards from the green on the par-5 18th, and possibly needing to make eagle to force a playoff, surely the Lefty you know and love would pull the necessary club and make a run at the flag with gusto – and eye-covering results.
Instead, before Bubba Watson even holed out ahead of him, without even knowing if he needed to make birdie or eagle, Lefty pulled a wedge from his bag and … laid up?!?
This, from the guy who once tried to skip a ball across water at Bay Hill because he thought it was the smart play. This, from the guy who risked a green jacket to hit a hero-or-zero 6-iron from the pine needles on the 13th hole at Augusta National. This, from … Lefty?!?
Mickelson later said the grass was into his ball, and a hybrid would have been heavy – and into the water hazard; while a 3-wood would go long. That meant Lefty thought holing a 72-yard wedge shot was the smart play.
Entertainment value, thy name is Phil Mickelson.
That said, even if his hybrid got wet, or his 3-wood went long, the thrill would have been worth the ride, from the golf fan perspective. And who knows? Maybe Philly Mick would have pulled off the Immaculate Connection in front of his home crowd.
So, let’s go back out to 18, place that Callaway 226 yards from the pin and … give that Lefty a mulligan!
Broadcast moment of the week
• “In our day, real men played with a piece of wood called persimmon, with a piece of rubber called balata, and wore steel spikes and cashmere sweaters.” – Nick Faldo, CBS, waxing nostalgic while watching the leaders routinely bomb 330-yard drives at Torrey Pines.
There’s Sir Nick, scoring one for the if-it’s-too-loud-you’re-too-old crowd.
Actually, I enjoyed Faldo’s poetic description of his era. Brought back memories. If you closed your eyes, you could almost see Lanny Wadkins’ hair – unencumbered by a sponsored hat – blowing in the breeze.
Is it me, or has Faldo toned it down this year? He seems tamer, maybe even timid on some occasions. In Hawaii, he even buttoned his shirt to levels of appropriate decorum.
Either way, I need him back throwing pompous zingers in a hurry, lest I run out of ‘Broadcast Moment of the Week’ material.
Where do we go from here?
• To Phoenix, where they’re calling it the Waste Management Open – the only party strong enough to fight off Super Bowl Sunday vibes. Last year, at the raucous 16th hole, Ian Poulter scratched his nose with his middle finger after fans booed him – and got fined for use of said digit. That’s quality TV.
The PGA Tour can stand tall again. The big name first-names are coming: Phil, Rickie, Anthony, Dustin, among others. But you know the new rules. There’s only one question worth asking: Is Johnny V in the house?
The answer is a resounding ‘yes’! Johnny Vegas is playing in Phoenix. Count me in.