Pro notes recap: Mourning Mandela; G-Mac's break; more

A statue of a child playing golf stands at the 2013 Nelson Mandela Championship, which benefits the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund.

A statue of a child playing golf stands at the 2013 Nelson Mandela Championship, which benefits the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund.

Talk about apropos, how about the European Tour’s Nelson Mandela Championship being held the same week as memorial services for the iconic leader? The tournament is in its second year and is being staged in Durban, about 300 miles southwest of Johannesburg, where ceremonies have been held for Mandela.

While Mandela’s connection to sports was more with World Cup rugby and World Cup soccer, he appreciated golf and South Africa’s rich history in the game.

Recap the rain-shortened first day of the Nelson Mandela Championship right here.

John Hahn, the former Kent State standout who is attempting to make is way in pro golf via the European Tour this year, felt the sense of loss as he prepared to play in this week’s tournament. “It’s a somber time for the nation,” Hahn said via text. “People seem to be carrying on with their lives, same as usual, but there is an eerie feeling of something missing.”

Hahn and his fellow competitors observed a one-minute moment of silence at a break during Wednesday’s pro-am and he confirmed that it is an impactful time, almost as if he’s part of history.

Another American can commiserate because before he settled into a career as a top-echelon caddie, Jimmy Johnson was a professional player who spent 17 winters in South Africa. “When I started playing over there in 1979, Mandela was in prison,” said Johnson. “When I left (1994-95), he was president.”

Johnson’s interest at the time was strictly to earn a living playing professional golf and those years earned many of the Sunshine Tour participants spots on the international blacklist. The anti-apartheid movement was something Johnson experienced first hand by playing in South Africa, where he became great friends with many of his competitors, most notably Nick Price, for whom Johnson later caddied.

Johnson was in South Africa in 1991 when Mandela was released from prison after 27 years and he had a great sense of the political landscape in those years. “The country would have erupted if it weren’t for Mandela,” said Johnson. “He was the glue, he was the bridge.”

Johnson finished eighth on the Sunshine Tour’s Order of Merit in 1993-94 – his best finish being a T-8 in the Zimbabwe Open – and experienced the nation’s joy when Mandela was elected its first black president.

• • •

GIFTS ARE GONE, MEMORIES STAY: They would seem to fit into the category of the “guy who has everything,” given that their great golf talents have brought them fame, fortune, and opportunities they perhaps never dreamed of.

Yet there was a time when they had simple wants and were thrilled when they arrived beneath the Christmas tree.

That ping-pong paddle, for instance.

“I was really hoping to get one for Christmas one year,” said Matt Kuchar. “It’s all I wanted.”

And sure enough, there it was. “My first proper, competitive style ping-pong paddle,” he said. “It really stands out.”

Kuchar had become infatuated with the game by playing it almost every night in the garage with his father, Pete. “When we moved to a house where we could have a ping-pong table all the time on the porch, we’d play in the afternoon,” he said.

PHOTOS: See a gallery of golf gifts for 2013 right here.

Asked for his most memorable Christmas gift, Jason Dufner didn’t hesitate. “Mike Tyson’s Super Punch-Out,” he said. It was mid-1980s, back when Nintendo was the rage.

Mario makes an appearance in the game as the referee, which was OK with Dufner. He liked the Mario stuff, too.

Proof positive that there is an age difference between the two – Dufner was born in 1977, Jordan Spieth in 1993 – the kid from Texas remembers a Nintendo 64 as his favorite gift. “Played that thing all day long,” he said. “It was a shared gift for me and my brother and back in the day I loved it.”

Nintendo 64? Dufner laughed. That was way after his time.

Hunter Mahan’s most memorable gift was something he truly couldn’t use, “but it sure looked cool.” He was 11 when his father gave him a set of clubs “with a big golf bag that had my name on it.”

Mahan laughed, just thinking about it.

“I loved the game. Golf was something we did together. But it was a big staff bag. It was weird. I didn’t use it much. But was something to have. It kind of meant something.”

See a list of extravagant golf gift ideas right here.

Jim Furyk thought long and hard when asked for his most memorable gift, conceding that he didn’t want to try and make it golf-related. But guess what? He couldn’t help it.

The metal woods his dad gave him still stand out in his mind.

“One year I remember opening all the gifts under the tree and when I was done I was playing with the things I had and (didn’t see that) my dad had hid a set of metal woods.

“It doesn’t seem like a big deal now,” said Furyk, but he had been introduced to the game when persimmon was still in vogue so the metal ones were quite the statement.

Like Furyk, Bill Haas was enamored with golf, but he had designs on another sport one Christmas.

“I remember when I was old enough, I really wanted to go skiing and I opened up a box and it had tickets to Utah,” he said. “It was a family ski trip and I’ll never forget that time.”

Though he had never been skiing, Haas got right out there with his mother – while his father, Jay, then in his prime as a PGA Tour player, stayed behind with some of the younger sisters. “He couldn’t afford to get hurt,” said Bill, who respects that sentiment now that he’s the one toiling on the PGA Tour.

“I loved it and I’d love to go again, but I don’t get to do it. I’m afraid I’ll get hurt.”

While Haas’ ski gift memory is a surprise, given his background, it’s not with Keegan Bradley.

“K2 skis,” he said without any hesitation when asked for his most memorable gift.

One of the first to pioneer the fiberglass ski technology, K2 were hugely popular and became even more so when the Mahre Brothers, Phil and Steve, used them to record Olympic glory.

As a young man in Vermont with a ski-racing passion, “to have K2s was to have the best,” Bradley said. “I can still remember getting them.”

• • •

SHARK ATTACK: Playing a round of golf where it is easiest – in his imagination – Greg Norman was quite comical, without trying to be. Telling Golf Magazine that he was fearless, and thus would have held his own against Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Tiger Woods, and Phil Mickelson, Norman saved his best stuff for Woods.

“I probably would have beat him,” said Norman.

Not sure in what, but if he was talking golf, then the Shark has probably forgotten that one time when his path did cross with Woods. It was the 1998 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne, where the International Team put a drubbing on the Americans.

By Sunday’s singles, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Even the captains, Jack Nicklaus and Peter Thomson, knew they had to do something to keep whatever interest there still was with fans. What followed still tickles Nicklaus’ fancy so much he recalled the story during last fall’s President Cup in Ohio.

“Norman did not want to play Tiger at Royal Melbourne,” Nicklaus said. “I think he had been injured and had not been back very long, so he asked Peter Thomson not to (put him in against Tiger). Word got back to me . . . Tiger said to me, ‘I want Norman,’ and my goal was to get Norman for him.”

Nicklaus worked the draw perfectly, loving the Presidents Cup system in which captains go one pick at a time so they get the matchups they want most of the time.

“When we had four (players left) and it was Peter’s turn, he was had.”

Thomson put out Norman, Nicklaus countered with Woods, not O’Meara, who went last against Stuart Appleby.

“Norman said to me, ‘Why did you do that to me?’ I said, ‘Hey, you’re not on my team.’ Norman didn’t like it to start, but he laughed about it later. That’s just part of the fun.”

Of course, Woods had the biggest laugh, a 1-up victory to at least salvage something of the trip Down Under.

• • •

SOME R&R: As he did last year, Graeme McDowell will take an extended break going from one year to the next. Unlike last year, when it was about 10 weeks off, the man from Northern Ireland will keep his hiatus to about two months.

“Physically, I needed the time off last year,” said McDowell. “I had five weeks off (this year) to get married, so I’m feeling a fair bit fresher at this point in the season than I normally do. Mentally, I just need the break. I’ve got a lot of work to do on my game, so I’m looking forward to the break.”

Whereas a year ago he eased back into competition at the Northern Trust Open, McDowell will return earlier this time around, at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. The appeal is two-fold. One, it will provide a chance to return to the scene of his greatest triumph, the 2010 U.S. Open. And two, he hopes to tee it up with his father, “which will be an amazing experience,” McDowell said.

• • •

EMPTY CUP: One tournament McDowell doesn’t have on his schedule for 2014 is the Tavistock Cup. That’s because the mid-March exhibition is no more.

“I’ll miss the Tavistock a little bit. It was good fun. I used to enjoy the blue (Lake Nona mates) versus red (Isleworth lads). The blue versus red was fun,” said McDowell.

Beyond the helicopter rides across Orlando and the chance to compete alongside Justin Rose and Ian Poulter against Tiger Woods & Co., McDowell is beholden to Joe Lewis’ Tavistock Group, which backed the tournament for 10 years.

“I’ve been living in Lake Nona (Tavistock property) since 2005. My restaurant (Nona Blue) is on Tavistock property and I’m indebted to the Tavistock in general, really, for what they’ve doe for me and for golf.”

• • •

GO FIGURE: Dustin Johnson got 2.4 world-ranking points for finishing dead last of 18 players in an unofficial event called the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge. He got 1.72 points for finishing 55th in the U.S. Open, a major championship.

• • •

HE’S A TRAVELIN’ MAN: How about a round of applause for Michael Thompson, who has been busy flying the American colors in tournaments all over the world. Having finished his PGA Tour season just shy of making it into the Tour Championship, Thompson had a few weeks off. Good thing, too, because in October he headed to Malaysia for the CIMB Classic, then it was China for the HSBC Champions, then on to the Indian Open.

Back home for a few weeks, Thompson unpacked, caught his breath, and then headed for the Thailand Open, which gets under way Thursday.

Thompson, who broke through for his first PGA Tour win at the Honda Classic in March, hasn’t been the only American in some of these ports. D.A. Points also played in Malaysia and at the HSBC, and he’s playing in Thailand right now.

Clearly, the folks behind the Thailand Open are intent on beefing up the field with whatever appearance money is needed, because Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, and Hunter Mahan went over together from California, and coming in from the Nedbank Challenge were Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Charl Schwartzel, and Sergio Garcia.

• • •

FINAL SPOTS: Modest that they were, Branden Grace could profit nicely from recent finishes at the World Cup (T-20) and Nedbank Challenge (T-14). He secured enough world-ranking points at those tournaments to move from 52nd to 51st, then to 49th in the Official World Golf Rankings.

Finishing within the OWGR's top 50, of course, brings with it an exemption into the Masters, so to try and help his cause, Grace has chosen to tee it up in this week’s Nelson Mandela Championship. Had he not played, Grace was projected to have dropped to 51st.

He’ll need to play well, then see how things play out in Thailand where other ranked players (Rickie Fowler, 40th; Thongchai Jaidee, 46th; Bernd Wiesberger, 53rd; Thorbjorn Olesen, 59th; Kiradech Aphibarnrat, 61st; and D.A. Points, 62nd) could affect things.

Most interested observers on the sideline? Richard Sterne is 50th and Joost Luiten 51st and while they could both benefit from not playing, it will all depend on what others do.

The late-season rush for world-ranking points did not work out for Scott Piercy. He was as high as 39th when his 2013 season came to a close at the BMW Championship, but when he played poorly in four tournaments to start the wrap-around season (MC, T-21, T-63, WD), he stumbled to 52nd and thus will miss out at the end-of-year major exemption into the Masters.

Of course, Piercy can still work his way back into exemption territory for the Masters (the top-50 cutoff will be the week before the Masters).

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