Note: This article was written by Jason K. prior to the Verizon Heritage
Sixteen events in and what have we learned? A lot. Technically we’re past the quarter point in sheer number of events, but since we’re one major down for the sake of this article, just work with me here. This has been a season unlike any we’ve ever seen on the PGA Tour, it all really started out looking more like a freak show than anything else thanks to the well documented “transgressions” from the game’s top player. In case you’ve been under a rock or perhaps under a stack of National Enquirers you might think that this season starts and ends with that night in late November, you couldn’t be further from the point. The fact is that we are a quarter of the way through a season that has absolutely blown me away, the difference now is that we’re getting a different leading act every week. With the quarter-season coming to a close after what just might be the greatest golf tournament in the history of the sport has me on the edge of my seat for what is left to come.
At this point in the season Ernie Els is the only multiple winner on Tour going back to back wins at the WGC CA Championship at Doral and The Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. This statement alone deserves further examination so before I delve into anything else that has happened let’s dissect this one for a second. The last time we saw a multiple winner on Tour not named Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson before the Masters was clear back in 2003 when you guessed it, Ernie started the season with back to back wins at the then Mercedes Championship and Sony Open in Hawaii. The last time Ernie won period was the Honda in 2008 but you have to go back four long years to find any success prior for Els. Both of his 2010 titles have come at events usually dominated by Tiger, definitely Bay Hill more than Doral, but he has his share of success at both venues obviously. Ernie’s injuries have played a part in that as have the obviously more important concerns of his young son, so we tend to take it easy on the Big Easy, and for good reason. I for one am very happy for Ernie and hope that his early success in 2010 is only a preview of what is to come this year. Many had him pegged as a favorite heading into Augusta but it just wasn’t to be as his game never really clicked on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National.
While Ernie is the biggest benefactor of Tiger’s time away in the early going of 2010 there are still a number of guys who have really stepped it up; young guns Camilo Villegas and Anthony Kim have both came on strong in this year. You can bet that both set out to prove that their lack of success in 09 after both enjoyed multiple win seasons in 08 was more a fluke then the wins themselves. Camilo got off to a red hot start with three top-ten finishes in his six events so far, the best of those is a win at the Honda Classic but don’t discount his 3rd place finish at the WGC Accenture Match Play where if not for a balky putter in the very end of his match with Paul Casey would have been taking on Ian Poulter for the win. Anthony Kim, the young Sergio-Killer of the 2008 Ryder Cup couldn’t seem to buy a good finish last year, injuries and who knows what else really took their toll on AK. The spring of 2010 has been as good for Kim as it has anyone with finishes of 1-2-3 coming already. His win came at the Shell Houston the week before the Masters, and it was at Augusta where he used a final round 65 as his encore that vaulted him up to a 3rd place with his -12 total, most years that would be enough to earn himself a new jacket, but the scores were just a little too low around ANGC in 2010. Before this week I wasn’t sure if AK had all the tools to win a Masters, but among the other things I learned last week, I now know that he does.
The 2010 Masters, wow that was something wasn’t it? The week started with the most anticipated press conference of all time with Tiger Woods finally taking questions. We really didn’t learn too much that we didn’t already know, but it was nice to see him back in the place where it all started in 1997. I had big expectations for the week, those were far exceeded by the end of the tournament, but not in the way I had thought. We were told back in February, and again last Monday that Tiger was going to come back and show more respect to the game, he explicitly mentioned his foul reaction to poor shots, his fan interaction, and his overall on course demeanor. Tiger Woods is a competitor, he has been bred to win since he was a young boy, ice water runs through his veins and he has a stare that could bring down an army when in the heat of a tournament. His focus and determination on the golf course is unmatched in the history of the game in my mind, for this I have been a big fan. I love to see emotion on the course, I love seeing the guys I idolize caring about what happens, but when it results in him cussing and pitching fits all over the golf course I’d just as soon have him back on his self imposed absence. I realize it’s difficult when you expect so much out of your game and not deliver, but imagine some kid coming to the Masters for the first time and despite everything that has gone on still loves Tiger Woods, he’s positioned right next to the 6th tee where he’s just waiting and knowing Tiger will be there soon and that’s what he gets, Tiger cussing and storming off in a fit. Not cool. The week ended with the dude finishing T4, that is amazing to me, he takes off for 5 months, barely touches a club until about 4 weeks prior then shows up and nearly wins the Masters. The bad part was that when it was all over for Tiger and he did his interview not once did he mention the week being a success in regards to his reception he received from the patrons, nothing about how it was good to back, only that he was upset with a 4th place finish. Hmm, sorry you didn’t win I guess.
As I said, I went into the week with some very high expectations; while some of those were not met entirely it wasn’t due to a lack of drama and excitement. I’m too young to remember enough from the 1986 Masters so I can’t really call it better, but in my generation I would have to put 2010 up there with the best of the best Masters. From the opening ceremonial tee shots by Arnold Palmer AND Jack Nicklaus the event was just simply amazing. I have heard people call this the greatest golf tournament they have ever seen, and I don’t doubt that for a second. It had everything you could ask for, on the heels of possibly the best NCAA tournament in the history of the world we were blessed with a Masters that we’ll remember for a very long time. Sure a lot of that anticipation and drama was thanks to Tiger’s return, but you could have completely removed him from the event after Thursday and I don’t think anyone would have noticed. We had everything from 50 yr old Fred Couples and 60 yr old Tom Watson leading after day 1 to a 16 year old amateur making the cut. Every round was as exciting as the one the day before it, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a sporting event get as crazy as things got on Saturday on the second nine, in a span of less than 30 minutes real time we witnessed Phil Mickelson go from 5 strokes behind leader Lee Westwood to leading by 1. Say what?! It was right then that Mickelson took this Masters and made it his very own, the eagle on 13 followed by a hole-out deuce for eagle on 14 followed by another ALMOST eagle on 15 was a three hole stretch like nothing I’ve ever seen. All this was going on it almost overshadowed Couples and his own chip-in eagle on 15. Nothing overshadows a Couples’ eagle at the Masters does it? It did on Saturday, and just as the third round was wrapping up and we were sitting there dying for the final round to come we knew that it just couldn’t live up to that act we just witnessed, right? Wrong. Sunday had so many different story lines going on all at the same time it was almost too much to process, almost like a sensory overload. We knew something crazy was going to happen but we didn’t know when and by whom. I was absolutely glued to the television; there was no way I was leaving that couch on that day. In the end it was Phil Mickelson, the same guy who used to have a knack for falling short when it mattered most who kept on hitting clutch shot after clutch shot. He had people coming at him from every angle, K.J. Choi seemed to never go away, Lee Westwood put up a fight to the very end, and after that hole out on #7 for an eagle by Tiger it seemed that he was the one destined to rise up on the second nine and win this thing. Phil wasn’t going to let it happen though, clutch birdie on #12, just like in 2004 followed by what I believe might be the craziest, yet best clutch shot I’ve seen in my life out of the trees on #13 to set up another birdie Mickelson slammed the door on all his rivals right then and there. All that was left was to see if he’d choke, not on this day though, no chance.
The first quarter of the PGA Tour ended with Phil and Amy Mickelson hugging and crying behind the 18th green after yet another birdie locked him into his 3rd Green Jacket. I would be lying if I told you that it didn’t get a little misty-eyed around my living room right at that moment. I think it was right as Phil was in the Butler Cabin that I really started to think about it, what might have seemed like it would be an unfulfilling start of the PGA Tour season has really been anything but that. Early on it might have seemed that 2010 was going to be a down year, but if you listen to Commissioner Tim Finchem he told us that there is more to the PGA Tour than just Tiger Woods. I hope you were paying attention because if you are still living under the stack of tabloid junk mail then you’re really missing out on one heck of a PGA Tour season. The best part about it is that this thing is just getting warmed up!