This was going to be an easy column to write: Rip the weak field at the Bob Hope, shower all attention on the European Tour event at Abu Dhabi and marvel not only at Martin Kaymer's eight-shot win, not only at his passing of Tiger Woods in the world rankings, but also at the fact that he tweets in German, yet converses easily with his caddie in English. Fluently bilingual and crushing the golf world? KaymerMania!
But then along came Johnny Vegas.
While the actual city of Las Vegas was packed with NFL bettors flipping out at conference championship Sunday, a 26-year-old Venezuelan with a moniker straight out of a noir movie – or Johnny Bravo's long-lost bandmate from "The Brady Bunch" – carved a spot on the golf landscape.
Jhonattan Vegas became an instant star when his par putt on the second playoff hole dropped.
(Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
He spells it Jhonattan and pronounces it "Jonathan," so if you ask me, let's go "Johnny Vegas" from here on out. Or Johnny Vega$, perhaps. That would pay homage to both his $900,000 payday in only his fifth PGA Tour start after a playoff win at the Bob Hope; and to Robert Urich's legendary private dick, Dan Tanna, in the late 1970s TV classic, "Vega$".
Sometimes, all it takes is a name, golf fans, and a star is born.
OK, so Johnny Vegas won a Tour stop that was essentially a beefed-up Nationwide Tour event. It would be easier to find a homeowner under the age of 70 in La Quinta than it would to find a top-name player at the Hope, and that's saying something. But when Johnny Vegas wore the fluorescent orange shirt and white pants, and when he overcame both a final-hole bogey in regulation – at a hole where par is a crushing disappointment – and overcame a tee shot into the water in the playoff with Gary Woodland, you had to take notice.
Plus, he's the first Venezuelan ever to win on Tour, and the story demands our attention: his dad was a greenskeeper at a nine-hole course, Johnny V literally started playing with sticks and stones (so the legend goes), and now he's hugging pops in front of applauding retirees and snowbirds in the shadow of the San Jacinto Mountains.
Like I said, a star is born. Just think, the green coats down at Augusta have to now prepare range nameplates for "JOHNNY VEGAS," as the win qualifies our hero for the 2011 Masters. They must be horrified, thinking some wise guy is coming down Magnolia Lane in a black sedan with unmarked plates.
Not only that, Johnny Vegas said he hoped his win would popularize golf in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez has said he likes the sport about as much as he likes American fast-food, TV and capitalism – which is to say, Chavez is not a fan. Maybe Chavez will be inspired by Johnny Vegas, and take up the game, not unlike North Korea's Kim Jong Il, who has famously racked up hundreds of aces. If Chavez starts knocking in holes-in-ones at a Jong-ian clip, he can say: "Johnny Vegas inspired me."
Next stop, world peace – courtesy of Johnny Vegas.
But that might be getting carried away. After all, so far this year on the PGA Tour, we've had Jonathan Byrd edging out Robert Garrigus in Maui; Mark Wilson nipping Steve Marino in Oahu; and Jhonattan Vegas outlasting Gary Woodland in La Quinta.
All of which is a long way of saying: Fear not, golf fans. Tiger is playing this week.
(That squishing sound you heard was PGA Tour Commish Tim Finchem mopping his heavily sweating brow.)
Scorecard of the week
67-65-66-66 – 24-under 264, Martin Kaymer, winner, European Tour Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, Abu Dhabi G.C.
Now, to this Kaymer fellow.
Overstatements can come easy when a guy blows a field away, as I was just saying to my good friend, Louis Oosthuizen. But if my math is right, Kaymer has now won four of his last eight worldwide starts, dating back to August's PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. So, that's a .500 win percentage in his last five months, a major championship and an evisceration of a world-class field to start his 2011 season.
What's German for "Tiger-esque"?
Tiger supporters – and I'm not saying I'm not one – can all predict a huge year for the erstwhile world No. 1. That's great and all, and I've heard any number of golf pundits saying "Oh, a half-dozen wins and two majors for Tiger this year" or "At least five wins and a major this year" and blah blah (cough, Y.E. Yang, cough) blah blah (cough, Graeme McDowell, cough) blah blah (cough, putter not the same, cough).
My point is this: The landscape has changed since Tiger last roared, 2 ½ years ago at Torrey Pines. Kaymer is the perfect example. He's young (25), hungry (witness the pedal-to-the-metal work at Abu Dhabi) and talented (world observers have touted him heavily the past few years). The stoic German doesn't appear to be easily distracted, either. While Rory McIlroy may be accused of lacking the killer instinct, more interested in being a fun-loving lad, nobody says that about Kaymer. He dresses blandly, wears his hair short, gives perfectly boring interviews, and executes his golf swing with autocratic precision.
Now, he's the world No. 2. Tiger can't even claim Avis status anymore. Kaymer played it perfectly after the big win, saying Tiger is probably the best player who's ever lived, and that it's only a matter of time before Tiger passes him. Well done, Martin. He's more Bill Belichick than Rex Ryan, and it suits him.
The only tough part for American golf fans is, Kaymer plies his trade in Europe, and will only be stateside occasionally this year. Set the alarm early, golf fans, and get your Renton Laidlaw on – Martin Kaymer's persona may not be as goofily charming as Johnny Vegas, but Martin Kaymer's time is just beginning, and worth watching.
Mulligan of the week
Another week, another narc.
This is how it goes in the golf world: A player commits a somewhat-obscure rules violation, a viewer somewhere sees it on TV, calls it in, and a big-name player is thrown to the lions.
In Hawaii, Camilo Villegas had his orchid lei thrown in the fire pit by a TV viewer who caught a rules violation.
Padraig Harrington could use a do-over on the hole that resulted in his disqualification.
(Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
This time, it was the ever-genial, three-time major champion Padraig Harrington at Abu Dhabi who moved his ball while marking it – about a millimeter. In the Rules of Golf, that's allowed to happen – provided the player moves the ball back to its original spot. In Harrington's case, that would be one millimeter back. A learned European Tour rules official informed us that if Harrington didn't replace it, he would be in violation of Rule 23-A, and should be penalized two strokes.
That same rules official said that when Harrington signed his card without penalizing himself two strokes, he was in violation of Rule 6-6-D, and thus should be disqualified.
To which everyone said – I think we can all agree – with a high degree of intellect and refinement: Man, that sucks!
That said, there is something to the thought put forth by NBC's Dan Hicks, who tweeted: "Everyone is so quick to trash the unforgiving nature of some of the rules of golf when that very philosophy has served to distinguish it."
Not only was Hicks' thinking sound, and his logic unassailable, he was able to accomplish it in 140 characters, which might qualify it for Most Cogent Tweet of the Year.
I was raised the son of an attorney for the state of California, and man, was my pops a stickler for the rules. He forever crushed me in kitchen table debates by citing the Rule of Law, and its necessary existence for society, and the utter weakness in complaining about its faults rather than following its parameters.
Hate to say it, but I think Hicks and my dad are right. Does that make me a narc?
All that said, because Harrington is such a good guy, and because he was on his way to competing for the prize at Abu Dhabi, let's go back out to that green, let Harrington mark his ball again and … give that man a mulligan!
(I'm pretty sure that's the first time the mulligan of the week has gone to a guy marking his ball.)
Broadcast moment of the week
Not only is the European Tour on the Golf Channel worth your while to hear the gentle purr of play-by-play legend Renton Laidlaw – Scotland's Jim McKay – but Sunday morning during the final round of the Abu Dhabi event provided a nice little bit of sparring between British analyst Warren Humphries and American analyst Jay Townsend, after Townsend proclaimed Rory McIlroy would win a major championship soon, making this week's B.M.O.W.:
"They don't hand them out for free, you know. You have to earn them. We said this about Garcia, that he'd win a major. Sticky territory." – Humphries.
"I'll tell you what: McIlroy will not only win one, he'll win several. I'll be happy to remind you at every occasion when he does win one." – Townsend.
"I'll be delighted when he does. I'm just saying they're not easy." – Humphries.
Meow! Gentlemen, return to your corners.
The big takeaway from this was Humphries opening up the bag and letting the SERGIO cat run loose in the room. McIlroy's ascendance has been so welcome, and his golf game is so captivating, and his personality so attractive, that everybody is counting on Townsend being correct.
But Humphries went for the jugular. Crank the calendar back a dozen years, to the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah, and if I told you El Nino would have El Zip-o in majors in 2011, you'd spit your sangria out. Humphries even dropping the S-bomb near McIlroy counts as darn near dirty pool, like talking about a no-hitter, or saying to your friend as your spouse heads off for a weekend in Vegas, "Gee, my wife has never cheated on me since we got married."
Consider the Townsend v. Humphries "Rory War" on!
Where do we go from here?
Treasure this week, golf fans. It's one of the rare times in 2011 that a PGA Tour event will be more attractive than a European Tour event. After all, here comes Tiger at Torrey. Phil will be there, too, although you get the feeling that Lefty, fresh off a ho-hum tie-37th at Abu Dhabi, will still be jet-lagged and searching for the nearest Five Guys.
Can't wait for the mid-week press conference with Tiger, in which it is the media's duty to open the affair with questions like:
"How does it feel to be No. 3 in the world, Tiger?"
"Tiger, how come no sports crowds ever enthusiastically chant, 'We're Number Three!'?"
"Does it give you any solace, Tiger, to know that Babe Ruth wore the jersey number '3'?"
Then duck and take cover. Tiger hasn't lost at Torrey since 2004.