After the high drama of Sergio vs. Tiger last weekend, producing the best Players Championship ratings in more than a decade, we were probably due for something a bit less energetic. But as a fisherman would say, a calm surface can disguise a roiling storm below,* and despite a tranquil veneer, the golf world was alive and stirring this weekend.
*It's not clear that fishermen actually say this or that the phenomenon of subsurface storms is a real thing.
Here are five things that happened this weekend that might interest YOU, the Grantland reader:
It's rare in golf to see a gallery cheer for a bad shot, but it happens. The patrons of the game love to brag about the sport's unique decorum, but there are times when rooting interest takes over and fans can't help themselves. So it wasn't a huge surprise when the spectators at the 17th hole at the Players Championship — the famous island green — gave in to their secret enthusiasm when Sergio Garcia hit a first shot, and then a second, into the water. He was in the middle of a duel with Tiger Woods, and because both men are larger-than-life figures, and because they despise each other, the gallery was almost obliged to pick a side. It wasn't a difficult choice, and when Sergio lost the tournament on 17, the partisans roared for Tiger.
But here's something I don't think I've ever heard in golf before: sarcastic applause. As when Sergio finally put his tee shot on the green in his third attempt. The mocking roar that rose as the ball landed went a step beyond instinct and into something like cruelty. A choice had been made — Sergio was the bad guy, and it was OK to collectively cheer his failure. It was late in the day, and the fans, to steal a phrase from Tiger's post-match press conference, were "well influenced." You could hear isolated shouts of "get in the water!" ring out after Sergio's tee shots, and when he put another in the drink on 18, a fan with masterful comic timing waited until moments before his second shot to shout "water on the left!"
Their man was about to win the title, but the caustic aftermath showed that the drama went beyond Tiger vs. Sergio. This was love against hate.
One of the reasons I've learned to love the ordinary, mundane events on the PGA Tour — after spending the bulk of my life focused solely on the big ones — is how the drama of a single Sunday can permanently change a person's life.
We're used to thinking of golfers as privileged blue bloods, and it's easy to forget that outside the top 125 in America and Europe, the professional landscape is full of aspirants who grind it out on minor tours, suffer through qualifying school, and generally live week-to-week (often in their own cars) hoping for a shot at the big time. For the overwhelming majority, that shot never comes. Even the ones who get their chance usually fail to capitalize, and the opportunity recedes into the past to become a tortured memory of what might have been.
Let's set the scene: Billy Horschel is 26 years old and has never won on the PGA Tour. He's been to qualifying school four times, passed the test three times, but is at that stage of his career when he's at risk of becoming the equivalent of a career Triple-A baseball player. He's starting to put it together in 2013, though. The last month has been particularly impressive, with three top-10s in a row and a second-place finish at the Shell Houston Open.
So here he is at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans, starting Sunday's round two shots off the lead. It starts off with four pars, and then there's a weather delay that lasts nearly three hours. When he returns to the course, he gets hot — really, really hot. Six-birdies-in-a-row hot, and suddenly he's in the lead. He takes it all the way to 18 — one shot up on D.A. Points, the man who beat him in Houston — where he hits his drive in the left rough. And then?
The great thing about the opening Thursday and Friday of the Masters is the existence of pure possibility. When you look at the leaderboard, you can ignore the unpleasant fact that someone named Marc Leishman is in the hunt with Dustin Johnson — one of golf's most boring humans and the darkness to Ben Crane's shimmering light — and let your mind run away with fantasies of what could happen over the weekend.
"Holy shit," you might say, "it's shaping up for a Sunday duel between Sergio and Freddy Couples!"
And while that may not be the most likely outcome, nobody can prove you wrong. The future spreads out before you, like a beautiful par 5 just waiting to be eagled. Nothing is off the table. So let's do this. Let's allow our minds to roam over the wild terrain of potential and find the 10 best possible stories that could maybe almost possibly materialize at Augusta.
That was in 1999, and even though Sergio Garcia finished second to Tiger Woods in that tournament, it seemed to hearken the start of an exciting career. At the time, we thought the "fearless exuberance of youth" would translate into sustained success; a high ranking, major victories, and a place alongside Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal in the ranks of brilliant Spanish golfers.
But it hasn't quite panned out. Garcia has won eight times on the PGA tour in the subsequent years, and 10 times in Europe, but he never became the star we expected. And there have been some bad moments along the way. In 2007, he had an 8-foot putt to win the British Open. He missed, and lost the playoff to Padraig Harrington. In 2007, he spit into a cup after missing a putt and was lectured on TV by Jimmy Roberts. The next year, Harrington again erased Garcia's lead at a major, the PGA Championship, to defeat him for the title. Afterward, Garcia was understandably testy with the media. That started a prolonged long slump for Garcia, who was ranked as high as second in the world in '08, his best year as a golfer. In 2010, he angrily beat his club into the ground after a poor bunker shot. He even missed the 2010 Ryder Cup — the one place where he'd had unqualified success — due to his poor play. Things have gotten better over the last couple of years, but he's only won a single tournament since October 2011.
And on Sunday, his tee shot on the 10th hole ended up in the crook of an oak tree, 15 feet off the ground. That's when Garcia got creative again:
It's by the Golf Boys, a musical supergroup made up of PGA Tour players Ben Crane, Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan, and (world's most interesting man finalist) Bubba Watson.
This video: "2.Oh."
It's named that because their first hit single was titled "Oh Oh Oh." That's why this one's called "2.Oh," because it's like the sequel or something.
The following are the official lyrics of "2.Oh," provided by the Golf Boys camp. And it was sent via Word document, so you know it's official. Interspersed between the lyrics are pictures of Bubba Watson doing a perfect "drunkest girl at the party"/"huge liability if he decides to crash our wedding reception" impression.
Tuesday night, I found myself with a group of fellow writers and assorted vagabonds at a Tucson Steakhouse called Lil Abner's. It was one of those rustic meat-and-potato joints with long wooden tables, no formal menu, and rusted barn relics hanging on the walls. (If it's any recommendation, John Daly used to park his bus out back during tournament week and spend every night inside.) Seven men sat at the table to my left. Two of them, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, were famous golfers from Northern Ireland. Four were civilians, agents and caddies. The seventh was a lesser-known quantity — a pudgy 25-year-old Irishman named Shane Lowry, whose claim to fame was winning the Irish Open in 2009, and who sneaked into the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship field because someone else sunk a putt at Pebble Beach two weeks ago. As the 64-seed, lowest in the field, his first-round opponent would be the best golfer in the world, a man with whom he was currently sharing dinner.
At the end of their meal, the seven wrote their names on slips of paper and placed them in an empty glass. When the waitress came by, she drew the names out one by one. They were playing roulette, and the last three names in the glass would be responsible for the bill. McDowell cheered loudly when his name was pulled. The waitress drew another slip. "Rorrrry," she read, the way you'd coo over a child. The cheers grew louder. "Shane?" she said next. Laughter and more cheers. Consternation from the civilians; none of the golfers would be paying. Two days later, at least one of them would have to lose.
"Wednesday at the Match Play Championship is the most underrated day in golf," said Chris Reimer, the communications manager for the PGA Tour, and I cursed in my head for two reasons. First, he was absolutely right. Second, I realized at that moment that I would have led this post with that exact same idea, except that I hadn't officially conceptualized it in my brain yet, and now I'd feel bad using it without attribution.
Damn you, Chris Reimer, for stealing my lede. But also, great call.
Besides the four majors and the Ryder Cup, the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship is my favorite tournament of the year. (Actually, I think I might even like it a little better than the PGA Championship. Sorry, fourth major.) The Match Play Championship, as I'll be calling it informally, is a five-day event featuring the 64 best golfers in the world, give or take a Mickelson. It involves a single-elimination, March Madness–style bracket that winnows the field down from Wednesday's 64 to one ultimate winner. And it's all match play, mano a mano, the way the original caveman golfers intended.
As it happens, match play is my favorite format. Think about what makes the memorable majors so great. The Sunday duels, right? Snead vs. Hogan, Nicklaus vs. Arnie, Watson vs. Nicklaus, Tiger vs. Bob May, Tiger vs. Y.E. Yang, Tiger vs. Rocco Mediate, Tiger vs. everyone else in his generation. But it takes a certain set of circumstances to make those duels possible. Sometimes, because of the stroke play format used in all four majors, you end up with a dud. Match play removes the element of chance. Every single match is a natural one-on-one duel. By pitting golfer against golfer without the protection of an entire field, it gets to the heart of what makes the competition so compelling.
So, let's set up the February Madness with a comprehensive primer. Hopefully I can answer all your main questions and a few you might not have known to ask.
Yesterday was the first round of the PGA's Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale, and Phil Mickelson tore the course to pieces. It started with a bang: four straight birdies, two pars, and then three more birdies for a 29 on the front. When he birdied three of the next four holes, he needed just two more to go -12 on the day, which would put him dead on that legendary number ...
In official PGA events, a 59 has happened just five times. The most famous was David Duval's in 1999, when he looked poised to challenge Tiger Woods for control of the golf world and left a trail of scorched earth at the Bob Hope Classic. Most recently, Paul Goydos and Stuart Appleby did it in 2010 (Appleby's was on a par-70 course, making it just slightly less legendary). It's an exclusive club, and if you shoot 59, you're in the history books for good.
The Pacific fog blanketed the south course at Torrey Pines on Saturday, wiping out an entire round of the Farmers Insurance Open, so Tiger Woods was forced to finish his first PGA win of 2013 in the relative anonymity of a Monday afternoon. It wasn't a pretty ending — the slow pace frustrated him, he lost his swing, and he played the last five holes at +4. But he'd scored so well in the first 67 holes that it didn't matter; he still finished four shots clear of second-place Brandt Snedeker and Josh Teater. Sloppy denouements aside, this was a rather exciting moment for the sport — a tantalizing glimpse of Vintage Tiger, the mythic player with that singular, astounding ability to grab the golf world by the balls.
After a month of golf, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods are tied. For dead last.
Not that you’d know, unless you were watching golf. They've already been paid $4 million between them. Not winnings, appearance fees. Somebody smart once said 80 percent of success is just showing up. Here it’s 100 percent. You know you’re doing very well in life when you think you should be offered $3 million in exchange for your appearance.
“What do you charge?”
“I don’t know. What do you want me to do?”
“Just show up.”
“That’ll cost you!”
It doesn’t count as earnings because nothing about the money is earned. It’s found and given. Rory fell into 200 million unearned dollars from Nike last week. Least that’s what he thought. Turns out those clubs are gonna be very expensive to Rory.
Norm Macdonald made two big New Year's resolutions. One was to start writing pieces for Grantland. The other is going to be revealed on Friday in his second piece for us. Today, he shares his thoughts on the 2013 PGA season.
2012, the golden year of golf, began with Phil.
Lefty beat Tiger by nine strokes on the final day at Pebble, winning his 40th PGA title. Eight weeks later, it was looking to be Phil’s year, as he was in the Ultimate Game on the final day of the Masters. But it all came apart when Phil carded a triple at the par-3 fourth, with the victory eventually going to another southpaw, the guy everybody loves to love, Bubba. Even Billy Payne looked happy to be presenting the green jacket to a man who had just cried like a woman.
At the Open, Ernie Els only led once and it was an hour after his last putt. He felt kinda bad about it. Adam Scott felt kinda worse.
Tiger, reinventing his game yet again, served notice that he was keeping the wolves of irrelevancy at bay by winning a sort of Legends Slam: first Arnie’s tourney, then Jack's and finally his own.
Edward Loar, a southpaw Texan, came to the 17th tee at the TPC Stadium Course in La Quinta, California, at -18 for the tournament. The hole, a nasty little par-3 called "Alcatraz" because it features an island green, demanded a short iron. Loar took out his 9 and took dead aim. At 35, he was fighting to keep his PGA tour card after a rookie season that saw him earn just $97,946.66 in 23 events — by golfing standards, a disappointing sum. Because he finished 245th on the money list, well outside the top 125, Loar was forced to come back to the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, known colloquially as "Q-school." It wasn't his first time. In fact, Loar had been grinding on a series of minor tours since graduating from Oklahoma State in 2000. He's been coming to Q-school since 2001, and he finally graduated to the PGA with a strong showing last year.
He came into the day tied for third place, safely inside the margin for error, but a few bad holes had made things interesting. Standing on the 17th tee, he didn't know that the cut line would fall at -17, and that he could play the final two holes at +1 and still earn his PGA tour card as one of Q-school's top 25 finishers. But he knew he was close.