Friday, May 18, 2007

Players Championship

The Players Championship stands two chances of ever being considered a major championship—Slim and None and Slim just left town. There are four major championships and that’s the limit. The term “Grand Slam” connotes four runs as in baseball. There’s no crying in baseball and there are no five-run home runs either. Therefore, the Tour is just going to have to deal with it.

In fact, one of their own said it best. Justin Leonard, a British Open champion when asked if he considered the Players to be a major championship replied, “That would be like comparing apples and oranges. The majors are apples and the Players Championship is a very nice orange, but an orange nonetheless.”

By the way, the O’Leary history lesson of the day is the real origin of the term ‘Major Championship.”

A decade ago, I was writing a Masters advance for Senior Golfer Magazine. The subject was golfers on the Senior Tour who had won one major and it was the Masters. Fine gentlemen such as Art Wall, Charles Coody, Bob Goalby and Tommy Aaron provided some great anecdotes, but it was 1969 Masters Champion George Archer who provided the history lesson.

“The Masters was always a favorite of the guys on Tour,” said Archer. “We got to meet and spend some time with Bobby Jones and were treated real well. It was a great little tournament.
“That’s the way we all looked at the Masters,” offered Archer. “Early that week, either Tuesday, or Wednesday it rained hard. The writers were looking for a story, so they brought Jack Nicklaus into the pressroom. I guess the conversation came around to how he made out his playing schedule. Jack told them that the major focus of his schedule was around the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship. In the papers across the country the next day, everyone found out that we had four ‘majors.’ I thought I’d won a nice tournament, but I’d become known forever as a Major Champion. I wonder what would have happened if it hadn’t rained.”

Pardon my digression. This year’s Players Championship was special. The first phase of the “New Phil” was very impressive at the very least. Just three weeks into the process, it appears that Mickelson has assimilated every syllable Butch Harmon has said. His strategy was flawless. He only gambled when he thought the odds were in his favor. Okay, the iron shot from the sand through the opening in the trees on the 10th hole in the third round might have been a stretch, but you didn’t think he could quit cold turkey, did you?

The entire weekend was great stuff. Right down to the 17th hole on Sunday, there was drama on every shot. Let’s face it, rarely can a golfer who makes a quadruple bogey at the defining moment of the tournament emerge as a hero, but Sean O’Hair did. He went down firing at the pin, trying to win. All it cost him was about $750,000, but as he said, he’s going to make a lot of money, but he wanted the crystal. May his mantle be overstocked with trophies. The best part about it is, the kid is only 24. He’ll give a welcomed boost to future Ryder Cup teams.

Here’s the best part of Sunday at the Players. In the past, had “Hefty” been trying to stave off one T. Woods, he would have eventually melted into a pool of flaccid Jell-O. Now, there’s some doubt—no, make that a lot of doubt. The new, in control, in synch with the world Phil Mickelson stands a much better chance of standing up to Woods.

The great ingredient that will intensify the rivalry is that Mickelson is being coached by the teacher who built Woods. The truth be known, there’s a good chance that Tiger would not have thrown Harmon over if he didn’t start showing up in TV ads and attaining a profitable celebrity. That is the kiss of death in the Woods camp. His first caddie, Fluff Cowan was dumped when he started making commercials for low-priced motels and signing autographs at tournaments.

There’s only one driver of that bus and that’s Tiger himself. His wanting to prove that he was right in dealing with Harmon will drive him harder. It will put Tiger’s current coach Hank Haney on the hot seat.

As a contrast, in accepting the Players Championship trophy, Mickelson took time to thank his previous coach Rick Smith for guiding him through the years as well as thanking Harmon. Maybe for the first time in his career, Mickelson has an understanding of where he’s been and a true sense of where his career is heading.

Forget the trash you’ll hear about anyone making a move on Woods’ number one world ranking. He has such a lead that it would take at least two years for him to lose it. However, don’t be too surprised if championship golf becomes much more exciting over the summer and for summers to come.

The rivalry golf fans always wanted—Woods vs. Mickelson is about to come to fruition.

Bartender, please pour me another in honor of Philly Mick. This time make it a Diet Coke. We both could stand to lose some avoirdupois if you know what I mean.

See you on the tee!


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