Monday, March 3, 2008

The 19th Hole: Els' Win Marred by Course

Ernie Els won on the PGA Tour for the first time since his win in Ireland in the WGC American Express Championship in 2004. He did so with a single shot victory over Luke Donald in the Honda Classic.

The event was played on the Champions Course at PGA National. It is the second year that this course has hosted the venerable B-level event on the Florida Swing of the PGA Tour. It is a course that has once hosted the PGA Championship (1987), and was originally designed in part by Tom Fazio. Fazio also had a hand in the previous host course of this event – Mirasol. Though the Honda has some kind of fascination with work of Fazio, PGA National has since been re-done by Jack Nicklaus on two separate occasions. That tells you something about the golf course that it had to be fixed and that Jack did not like it enough after the first time he did it.

Jack’s stretch of holes 15 through 17 – cleverly named the Bear Trap – were supposed to provide a special taste of drama with two par 3 holes and a testy par 4. In Palm Beach, where pretty much everything is on the water, the golf holes are no exception. Water hazards are everywhere at the National, including the final four holes.

Inherently, the intent behind this stretch of holes is to offer risk-reward opportunities for golfers and natural drama that will convey the tournament to the live gallery and television audience. The problem is that the golf course is set up so as to provide the exact opposite experience for the fan. The pin placements on Sunday were severe and the final four holes were set up such that the player was playing for pars instead of gunning for birdies. To say that it was difficult to actually move up on your own merits would be an understatement.

In the final round over the last five holes, there were only 30 birdies made among the 77 players in the field. Birdies were extremely difficult to make due to windy conditions and pin placements that called for a conservative game plan. Aggression was penalized as Australian rookie Matt Jones double-bogeyed the 17th hole when he needed to make birdie on the par 3 with a pin placement just feet from the water hazard. Even decent recovery shots were punished. Mark Calcavecchia hit a more than decent bunker shot on the 15th hole, except that the ball never stopped on its way to the water hazard. Decent shots were made to look bad. Overall, the course played to a stroke average of nearly 3 full shots over par. For a standard PGA Tour event, that is ridiculous.

The sad part is that a good guy finally broke out of a funk by outlasting the field. Ernie Els opened the day trailing by three shots. He managed to fire a final round of 67 and overcome the deficit. Only two other players managed to match that number – Nathan Green and Justin Rose. Among the players that finished in the top twelve in the event, only 3 broke par on Sunday – Els, Green, and Matt Goggin. Dan Hicks of NBC Sports called Els’ final round performance “amazing.” Given the conditions, he was right. But, should a 67 be amazing? I don’t think so, at least not for the Honda Classic.

Would it have been more exciting had Els finished at -15 and won over Donald at -14? Maybe not. But, the reality is that it was much more difficult to experience an exciting finish when it was a US Open type battle for survival – with no major title in the balance. The hope would have been that Matt Jones did not have plunk it into the water for a shot at reaching the top of the leaderboard. There never should have been a doubt as to whether or not Calc’s ball would stop before the hazard. The par five finishing hole should have played as a true risk-reward two shot hole instead of an automatic, boring three shot hole.

That said, there should be no detraction in what Ernie Els accomplished on Sunday. Considering the number of meltdowns that Ernie Els has experienced in the last year – even the last six months – he could very well have gone into a Garcia-esque funk and never returned to the winner’s circle. Instead, he worked through the mental scar tissue of each of those meltdowns, remained determined, and probably benefited from finishing an hour before the final group. Now at 38, though his three year plan is almost certainly doomed, at least it does seem reasonable again that Ernie Els is the fourth ranked player in the world. That becomes a lot easier when the man is a winner.

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