Ben Hogan would famously tune up for the Masters by spending a few weeks at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla.
Presumably, Malaysia and Thailand weren’t an option.
Things certainly have changed since Hogan set the standard, though one thing remains the same. Come this time of year, all thoughts turn to Augusta National and the quest for a green jacket.
Padraig Harrington doesn’t pretend to hide the anticipation he feels for the season’s first major championship, even if it might look like he’s not taking it seriously. On the contrary, playing next week in Malaysia, then going to Thailand, then journeying onward to play the Valero Texas Open is in keeping with a practice that he has employed for years.
Harrington thinks it’s best for him to play two or three weeks in a row into a major. Now appearance money helps, sure, but clearly the chaps these days aren’t shying away from extensive travel in the weeks before Augusta. Luke Donald, Charl Schwartzel and Matteo Manassero also will be in Malaysia. The next week, Ernie Els and Y.E. Yang will join Harrington in Thailand.
What figures to occupy some of Harrington’s down time in his upcoming Ireland-to-Malaysia-to-Thailand-to-Texas-to-Augusta jaunt are thoughts of the Masters, a tournament that he never gets tired of, even if the course beguiles him.
“There’s no doubt there’s excess baggage,” Harrington said. “You gain experience, but you have excess baggage. Everyone carries a few scars that they remember.”
It is such refreshing honesty served up with a stark perspective that makes Harrington arguably the game’s best interview. He will tell you that while Augusta National, at 7,435 yards, is a longer golf course than when he first played the Masters in 2000, it has been returned to what it was intended to be for players of his caliber.
“The changes they made there are perfect,” Harrington said. “They got the course to what it was, what I saw on TV (as a kid). Absolutely.”
The Irishman proceeded to take you around Augusta National the first year he played it and how he hit “a flick” into No. 1, a “little wedge into five,” a “half a lob into seven,” and “only a pitching wedge at nine.” The frightening 11th “was a little 8 (iron),” and 17 “was only a lob wedge.” Harrington was at the closing hole and exclaimed, “18 was a lob wedge; I hit lob wedge every day.”
But if sounds easy, he assures you that it wasn’t.
“When a course is short, they end up having tricky pin positions,” said Harrington, who recalls holes being cut just a yard from the slope.
“This is what we’re all worried about with Merion,” he said, referring to the site of this summer’s U.S. Open, “the short holes where they get tricky because we prefer a big, solid golf course made easier rather than a short course made trickier.”
Augusta National, according to Harrington, fits the bill as “a big, solid golf course,” so hole locations no longer have to be dicey. Instead, they’ll be placed perhaps three or four paces from a slope. “Very fair setup now. Very fair,” he said.
AN OLD STORY: A common refrain at Trump Doral last week was that it felt like old times, what with Tiger Woods dominating the competition.
But here’s one way in which it has changed: Whereas in another era the talk was of how Woods was the youngest to do this and the youngest to do that, he’s now at the other end of the spectrum, trying to do things as “an oldie.”
Great as he is, Woods has not been able to stop time. He turned 37 in December and is entering those years when victories are more difficult to come by. Now all of this is offset by the reality that trends and conventional thinking have never applied to Woods, a true phenomenon, for sure, and yes, he defies logic. But since the start of the 2011 season, only nine players age 38 or older have won tournaments.
Phil Mickelson (2011 Shell Houston Open, 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, 2013 Waste Management Phoenix Open) and Steve Stricker (2011 Memorial, 2011 John Deere, 2012 Hyundai) have done it three times. Michael Bradley (2011 Puerto Rico Open), K.J. Choi (2011 Players), David Toms (2011 Colonial), Harrison Frazar (2011 FedEx St. Jude), Darren Clarke (2011 Open Championship), Ernie Els (2012 Open Championship) and Brian Gay (2013 Humana) have done it once each.
Among the only players in the Woods era with at least three major victories, Els, Singh and Mickelson have earned just one each after turning 37; Padraig Harrington won all three of his before he turned 37.
Then again, as great as those players are, Woods always has been a notch above, so it’s best to see what he’s up against in this age-category thing when compared with the only true measuring stick, Jack Nicklaus. And when you do that, you understand why Woods loyalists have hope. Though Nicklaus, who turned 37 in January 1977, would win only 12 more times, he made them count, with four majors: his final Open Championship, in 1978; the U.S. Open and PGA in 1980; and, of course, he made his 18th and final major that unforgettable Masters in 1986, at age 46.
So, certainly there is serious precedent to sprinkle into the equation as talk of Woods’ march to overtake Nicklaus’ record for major victories has gained steam. But the feeling is, this year is crucial in Woods’ major crusade.
COMFORT ZONES? Looking ahead to the major venues in 2013, here’s one thing to consider on Woods’ behalf: Three of them will be played at places where he doesn’t have a winning history, and that hasn’t exactly been a good formula for him.
Consider that Woods has won more than half of his PGA Tour wins (40 of 76) on just seven different golf courses and you realize what a good comfort level means to him. Eight wins have come at Torrey Pines, seven each at Bay Hill and Firestone, five at Muirfield Village and Cog Hill, and four at Augusta National and Doral.
This is not a criticism, mind you, because others have followed a similar blueprint. Mickelson, for instance, has won four times at Pebble, three times at TPC Scottsdale, three times at Torrey and three times at Augusta. But you cannot ignore the fact that three of the four majors do move around, and Woods won’t have a history of success at Merion (then again, nobody will, unless David Graham or Lee Trevino tees it up), nor at Muirfield or Oak Hill.
Keep in mind that of Woods’ 14 most recent stroke-play victories dating to 2008, only one has come on a course where he had never won before. That would be the 2009 AT&T National at Congressional.
THIS ’N THAT: Playing a par 5 into the teeth of a winter’s wind, we’ll settle for par with a range of thoughts and observations:
• We’re up to seven “Masters” tournaments on the European tour schedule. We already had Qatar; this week we have Avantha in India. Still to come, the Nordea Masters in Sweden, followed by the Russian Masters, the Omega European Masters in Switzerland, Portugal Masters and BMW Masters in China. Wonder if the Russian pimento cheese sandwich tastes like a Portuguese pimento cheese sandwich and if either tastes like the Swedish pimento cheese sandwich?
• There must be times when even Nicolas Colsaerts stands over a tee shot and is curious as to where it will end up.
• Because it’s always up on leaderboards and atop those standard-bearer poles as “Fdez-Castano,” you wouldn’t be surprised if even Gonzalo forgets that his last name is Fernandez-Castano.
• Geoff Ogilvy finished T-47 at Doral and lost two spots in the World Golf Ranking. Carl Pettersson finished T-49 and gained two spots. Surely there’s an explanation – if you have time and a Ph.D.
• Woods is 33 under on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays so far this year, 3 over on Sundays.
GOLF AT BOTH ENDS OF THE SPECTRUM: For four days, Marcel Siem was part of a World Golf Championship, right there with the game’s best players. Presently ranked 67th in the world order, Siem was T-39 at Trump Doral.
The next day, though? He was just another guy in a ponytail, trying to qualify for the PGA Tour stop in Palm Harbor, Fla.
Siem came up short, shooting 72 at Fox Hollow Golf Club when it took 67 to at least get into a playoff.
The four who got in? Tim Petrovic, David Branshaw, Andy Pope and David Skinns. Petrovic did it with great style points, playing his last eight holes in 4 under to shoot 66 and share medalist honors.
TEACHER DEFLECTS PRAISE: Stricker knew the media would jump all over the story, this bit of him giving Woods a putting lesson on the eve of the Cadillac Championship. Especially since Woods putted brilliantly and won with ease.
The thing is, Stricker has provided Woods with plenty of putting advice over the years, and “he might have done this (win convincingly) without us talking on Wednesday,” Stricker said.
If there was one thing different about the lesson this time around, it’s that Woods “was really, really excited,” Stricker said. “I don’t know. Something must have clicked with him. But I have talked to him many times (about putting).”
For all the attention given to how great Woods putted – and surely, he did – guess who led the strokes gained-putting category for the tournament? That’s right, Stricker.
SLOW STARTER: If you were to digest the numbers, you might suspect that Zach Johnson is struggling. In 15 stroke-play rounds, he has been in the 60s just five times, three of them coming at the friendly confines of the Humana Challenge.
But take stock in this: Johnson seems to use this early going as spring training, given his recent track record.
Since 2010 there have been two constants to Johnson: He doesn’t fare well at the Accenture Match Play Championship (he has been a first-round loser three straight times and made it only as far as the second round on the other occasion), and he starts very slowly.
Taking the schedule from the very beginning up to the WGC-Cadillac Championship, Johnson since 2010 has played in 22 tournaments in that time period and he’s earned just one top 10. There have been 13 top 10s from mid-March onward in the other seasons.
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FAST STARTER: Freddie Jacobson is taking the week off after having played six in a row. It was a profitable stretch, too, as he piled up $842,675. That’s more than he made in the entire 2006 season, when he played 18 times and made just $788,764.
Give yourself a gold star if you knew that Jacobson ranks 85th on the career money list, with $13,919,778.
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A HAYMAKER AT THE FINISH: When the wind is into the player’s face, as it was Sunday, there is no tougher assignment than making four at Trump Doral’s par-4 18th. The place is called “The Blue Monster,” but truly the beast is the 18th.
How tough was it in the final round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship? There were nearly as many bogeys of the various flavors (29) as there were pars (32) as only four of the 65 players made birdie and the field average was an eye-opening 4.708. That was higher than two of the par 5s (4.369 at No. 1, 4.646 at No. 10).
In particular, it was almost comical to watch the guys at the bottom of the leaderboard navigate the 18th. Given that they were out early for having the poorest form of the 65 competitors, the first 15 who came to the 18th played the hole in a cumulative 20 over par.
Among those who found the water was Matteo Manassero, but he at least wasn’t trying to play around the hole. Standing in the middle of the fairway at 8 under on his round, the impressive Italian teenager was 7 under for the tournament, but this was no time to try to protect a finish just inside the top 20. “I am not playing for the tournament,” Manassero said. “I am playing for a good round of golf.”
At that point, it was about “having fun,” and you have to appreciate that attitude. He wasn’t thinking of the few thousand dollars at stake or the minuscule Official World Golf Ranking points; shooting a 63 or a solid 64 was on Manassero’s mind.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. From about 210 yards, Manassero’s hybrid approach hit the bank and spun back into the water. He then missed a 6-foot putt to end with a double bogey.
He conceded that had the tournament been on the line, he would have played the hole differently, taking his approach well down the right side and away from the water. But the water ball meant a drop into a share of 23rd, which Manassero was able to accept for good reason: He had played beautifully on a tough day, and the 18th couldn’t take that away from him.
The 19-year-old will head to the Maybank Malaysian Open next week and use that as a tune-up to the Masters, where he will make his first start as a pro. As an amateur in 2010, Manassero made the cut, but he’s not sure how much he’ll lean on that trip.
“My game has changed, so I can’t count that experience,” he said.
To prepare this time around, Manassero said he probably would get to Augusta National as early as April 4, a full week before the tournament’s first round.
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BANDWAGON IS REVVED UP: Apparently the green jacket that the media seemed to be handing over to Brandt Snedeker at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am has been taken away.
He’s no longer the overwhelming favorite, not with Woods being back in command. Victory at Augusta is Woods’ for the taking. At least that seems to be the media’s overriding sentiment heading out of Doral.
But here’s thinking a certain left-hander will have something to say about things at Augusta National. Fact is, Phil Mickelson has been a better bet at Augusta than Tiger Woods the past seven years. Since Woods last won, in 2005, he has watched Mickelson put a bit of an embrace around it. The left-hander has won twice since 2006, going 36 under for 28 rounds. Woods is winless and just 30 under in that stretch.
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FINAL TAP-IN: Talk about eerie, but when Brian Gay finished the WGC-Cadillac Championship with just 93 putts, it was noted how that was one off the PGA Tour record for a tournament, established in 2005 at Hilton Head by David Frost.
Now guess who was on site during Sunday’s final round at Doral? That’s right, Frost. He was spotted talking with Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen and some of the other South Africans.