A few backhanded stabs at the hullabaloo going on down in the sleepy little town of Augusta, Georgia this week ...
Phil the Fave
So before this past weekend, everybody was talking about how wide-open this year's Masters was. Now, suddenly, in the wake of Phil the Thrill's swashbuckling win at the Shell Houston Open on Sunday, Mickelson is suddenly the man to beat. It's an obvious conclusion, but is it a logical one?
I would love to see Lefty wearing his fourth green jacket come Sunday evening – for a variety of reasons. But it seems to me that Phil plays his best when expectations are low. Last year, no one expected much from him following a very mediocre performance in Houston the week before. Besides, he'd been through so much in the previous year. How could golf possibly be his top priority right now.
Image: AP via www.nj.com
Ditto last week, when Phil candidly talked about he wasn't going to be focused on winning in Houston as much as he was going to be working on the shots he would need at Augusta. As much as anything, I suspect he was trying to take the pressure off by saying those things. But guess what? Turns out those two objectives (winning and practicing) were not at such cross purposes. Phil won handily, displaying all the flair, risk-taking, and shot-making we see in Phil when Phil is at his best.
But now, instead of going into The Masters without having shown much this year (or since last year's Masters, for that matter), he goes in with expectations soaring. As he was closing in on his victory Sunday, NBC's Johnny Miller commented that the biggest thing Phil may have to practice between then and next Sunday would be "putting on his own green jacket"! How's that for a ringing endorsement?
I'm just sayin' ... I don't expect Phil to fold under the weight of expectations, but I think it's a possibility. (Not to mention that Phil can potentially get to #1 in the world with a Masters win – and he's historically blown it every previous time he's had a chance to do that.)
The Tiger Zone
A lot of people also seem to think that this may be the week Tiger finally returns to form. After all, they point out, he finished fourth last year after not having played a tournament in five months! Augusta is where he feels most comfortable, so it would only make sense that now, with the scandal further behind him and more "tournament-tested" than he was a year ago, how can he not improve on last year's performance?
Image: 3-Putt Territory via www.examiner.com
But the big wild card is still the swing change. He's still struggling mightily, seemingly hitting as many disastrously bad shots as "old Tiger" brilliant ones. And the expectations last year were rock bottom; there was no pressure for him to perform. Of course, one of the defining characteristics of Augusta National – as Phil demonstrated so brilliantly last year – is that it affords recovery opportunities (to those with the short games up to the task) like no other course. So it's certainly possible for Tiger to contend, or even win, without his ballstriking being at peak form.
It's cliche to say, but I think his putting will be the key. And he really hasn't shown much reason for confidence there in recent weeks either.
Augusta National has often struck me as the most unnaturally natural place you can imagine. It's nature manicured almost beyond recognition; almost beyond what you can really consider "nature." Almost supernatural. If there's golf in Heaven, I imagine the courses look something like the course The Masters is played on.
On Monday night this week, a windstorm blew through the course and took down a few trees – not that you or anyone else would ever know it first-hand. The course's response to the damage was magnificently swift – and secretive, as reported today at golfdigest.com. Here's a sample from the full article:
Arriving at Augusta National shortly after 6 a.m. Tuesday, there were trees down in the parking lot. Entering the gates - only the media and others working on site were allowed on the property at that time - you were serenaded by the sound of power saws working as downed trees on the golf course were being removed. The normal 8 a.m. opening to the public was delayed and eventually pushed back to 8:45.
In the media food room was the odd sight of a dozen or so of the best photographers in the world sitting and drinking coffee, unable to go onto the course to shoot the damage. Those are the kind of images the folks at Augusta National Golf Club do not like the public to see. This is a place where even the garbage is green - all sandwich wrappers and every cup - and nary a cigarette butt can be found on the ground. This is a place where workers pick through the azalea bushes to remove dead leaves.
This just in: A tree apparently blew down during a practice round Tuesday afternoon. No one was hurt. But will we see pictures?
Hey, it's been a while seen we've mentioned Steve Stricker here at Whiffling Straits, hasn't it? Well, let's remedy that right here. Two things ...
I couldn't help but notice that at least two writers over at golf.com mentioned Steve among their Masters picks in Monday's weekly PGA Tour Confidential feature. It seems his strong performance in Houston last week, where he finished alone in fourth, got some of their attention. He hasn't shown us much this year, but is he peaking at the right time? Well, according to local golf columnist Gary D'Amato ...
Stricker has been tweaking his swing a bit these past few months (and also sharpening his putting stroke on a putting green he recently built in his basement!) in an effort to correct a little something. It seems Steve, whose natural play is a slight draw, had begun hooking the ball a little bit more than the optimal amount. Stricker told D'Amato:
"I don't want to get rid of that (draw), but it's gotten to the point where I'm not getting a lot of (backspin) on my ball and I need that with my irons. I haven't hit my irons particularly well this year. I haven't played poorly, but I haven't played like I want to play yet."
I'm not ready to count Stricker among the favorites – my heart is not strong enough for that! But I like what I saw in Houston, and like everybody's been saying, this Masters is wide-open. At least, it was until a few days ago, and now Phil is the favorite, but ... [continue reading at top of page].