Monday, August 4, 2008

The 19th Hole: This is the World's Best?

Last year, Firestone yielded just one player to finish under par at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. That was Tiger Woods and he won by a dominating eight shots over the field and, in the process, silenced Rory Sabbatini for good. The conditions were ridiculous and player complained.

This year, Tiger Woods was not available to win yet another World Golf Championship. The Tour, therefore, found it a perfect week to “experiment” with a concept that many amateurs love – lower height of the rough. The move was designed to let players miss off of the tee and at least have some reasonable opportunity to advance the ball to the green.

The experiment turned out to be a brilliant success. Twenty-six golfers finished under par for the event this year. Fans were treated to recovery shots from the players – Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh in particular – that were a sight to behold. It created more exciting golf from tee to green.

Unfortunately, though, it is pretty much impossible to cut the grass down any lower on the greens at Firestone. They are nuanced and fairly quick, but really not nearly as difficult as the players are going to see at Oakland Hills in next week’s PGA Championship. Still, despite their fairly benign nature, almost all of the contenders for the Bridgestone Invitational ceded strokes due to lackluster short games.

Phil Mickelson gave away the championship because of his inability to two putt following an inability to shape a bunker shot in line with green receptiveness to bunker play.

Lee Westwood has made a career of being solid from tee to green, but leaving the balance of a tournament only in doubt of whether or not he can make putts of any significant length. On Sunday, he really could not, and gave up an opportunity to force a playoff with Vjiay Singh on a simple putt uphill at the last hole.

The eventual champion, Vijay Singh, was simply dreadful for the entire week on the greens. Between four and eight feet, he made less than half of his putts for the week. That is embarrassing for a PGA Tour pro. On the Sunday back nine, Singh could have had the tournament wrapped up were it not for his lack of confidence in putting. He over-thought every putt and it almost cost him the title. The final putt to win the tournament practically ran around the edge of the cup before finally giving in to gravity.

This event was certainly compelling. But it was compelling for all of the wrong reasons. Only one man was playing great golf down the stretch. Stuart Appleby was that man, but he began his charge too late to rustle away the championship from undeserving contenders.

The outcome of the back nine at Firestone leads one to question what we are really getting in the absence of Tiger Woods from the Tour. Commissioner Tim Finchem was in the booth with CBS’ Jim Nantz to talk about the Tour sans-Tiger. Finchem alluded to the variety of intriguing storylines that now had a chance to receive real attention with Woods out of the way. He discussed Anthony Kim and wins by Kenny Perry as stories worth watching, and even drew in the duel between Singh and Mickelson.

If I were Commissioner Finchem, I would look at the product we saw on Sunday and be worried. Fans would much rather have seen another Tiger thumping than four guys play footsy to see who would win over a million dollars. The ratings will show that I’m not lying.

What is worse is for the PGA of America. The PGA Championship is generally considered the weakest of the four majors despite about a decade of improvements to the championship rotation. It is the last major and most players are simply gunning to get a major in without Woods in the field. Depending on Woods’ rehab, this may be their last shot for a while to do just that. That may cause some inspired and desperate play, but if that play is of the caliber that we saw at Firestone, then fans can expect an over par winning score for the 90th PGA Championship at Oakland Hills.

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