It’ll be interesting to see what the television ratings have been for the 4th tournament of the season on the PGA Tour when they become available, as this week at Torrey Pines has given the world of golf a little slice of everything. If the pattern that has been established through three rounds continues on Sunday, we might be in for a wonderful finish of a tournament that has at times seemed more like a mini-major than just another run-of-the-mill tour stop on the West Coast Swing.
Saturday revealed some interesting side stories. And I guess that it’s fitting that we start with the guy who has played the steadiest over the first three days – Bill Haas. Haas began the third round with a 2-shot cushion, but would find trouble here and there on Saturday that effectively stifled the momentum he’d gained from the two rounds prior. A careless bogey on the par5 finishing hole at the end, his third bogey on the day, would result in Haas relinquishing total ownership of the lead and casting a notable veteran clearly into the picture on Sunday. That veteran would be none other than Phil Mickelson.
Phil Mickelson has been an interesting topic of discussion in the off season, with the commentary from the golf writers and the booth experts centered around what was beginning to feel like Lefty’s last hoorah. It’s true that aside from the Masters win back in April of last season, Mickelson’s game had nearly fallen off the charts. Not that there weren’t logical explanations…. as if dealing with the personal distractions involving his wife and mother both battling cancer weren’t enough, near the middle of last year we also learned that Phil was battling a chronic, debilitating health condition himself – Arthritis. But true to his nature – Mickelson kept maintaining a positive attitude about things despite the glaring struggles that seemed to get more difficult as the season played out. Earlier last week when he was asked about his outlook on things – the health of his wife and mother, his own health, and the outlook on his season of golf ahead – the encouraging attitude that he wore on his sleeve most all of last season was suddenly showing signs of proof. “We’re in a much better place. We’re all excited about 2011.”
Sometimes when certain players say things like that (not mentioning any names, but you know who they are if you follow professional golf) you really don’t sense a genuine feeling as much as you sense what amounts to be rehearsed rhetoric. But that’s not something that you can easily apply to a guy who has a history of being open and honest in interviews…. a guy who doesn’t just offer one-liner responses and expects the reporter to fill in the blanks. Nah, Phil Mickelson actually connects with people, be it a fan who just got nailed by an errant tee shot or a reporter asking the same question that another reporter basically asked 5 minutes earlier. So when Lefty said, “We’re in a much better place” you truly took him at his word. And by the looks of things through three rounds this week at Torrey Pines, he was telling the truth.
The test that Torrey Pines has given thus far this week has been fair, but demanding. The rough is more spotty, thicker in some places than others, especially around the greens. It might be the first non-major that we’ve seen where the groove rule change has had the most noticeable impact, especially since the greens are firmer than normal. It would seem that the player who is most accurate off the tee would have a distinct advantage, but that’s not really the case this week as it pertains to Mickelson, since he’s missed more fairways than just about any other player in the field over the three days. He seems to be getting back his strength, and his bad missed shots this week have missed in the right places, and with his short game abilities appearing to be more of the norm of Mickelson of old – he’s posting red numbers this week. It’s worth noting that his round of 4-under 68 on Saturday could have just as easily been 6-under 66, if it weren’t for a few meanderings of putts that just somehow defied gravity and broke out of the hole at the very last second. So as Phil Mickelson enters the 4th and final round of his first tour event this season, you have to believe that he expects to win this thing… he’s the home crowd favorite, his wife and mother are successfully overcoming their battles with a deadly disease, he appears to be getting stronger and better managing his own health challenge, and he believes that this week is the beginning of what 2010 could have been. Tied for the lead heading into the final round tomorrow, taking absolutely nothing away from Bill Haas who is becoming a consistent contender in his own right – you would be hard pressed to pick anyone who is more favored to win this golf tournament. And should that come to fruition – maybe the golf writers and media will officially remove any notions of adding him to the ranks of the tour’s has-been list.
I shared my extended opinions on Phil because obviously (outside of Woods) he’s the one player who has the most to gain from winning this week. But a win would obviously go a long way for a few other notables closely in contention.
Anthony Kim is probably the first guy that comes to mind. AK’s win at the Shell Houston Open last year was really his breakthrough moment, at least as it relates to his game finally coming into its own. The level of maturity that his game revealed in the very next event – the Masters – where Kim would come from out of nowhere on Sunday to fire an incredible round of 7-under 65 and finish alone in 3rd place – was apparent. But then came the thumb injury, then the surgery. Of all the players last season who had a reason to think in terms of what might have been – AK was tops on the list. But now that he’s healthy and not having issues with an old injury that evaporated what had every reason to be a great season last year – AK also has something to prove once again. Only 2 shots off the pace heading into Sunday, he’s very much in the thick of things. Don’t count him out, because as the final round at Augusta last year reminds us – this kid has the talent to go toe-to-toe with the best players in the world.
Hunter Mahan’s eagle on the final hole at Torrey on Saturday showed precisely why he shouldn’t be overlooked heading into the final round. He’s just the type of player who plays best when he’s flying under the radar, and he’s managing his game and the course better than just about anyone else in the field – only four bogeys total thru 54 holes of play. He’s putting well, he’s hitting the ball well, and I like his chances tomorrow if he can get off to a good start. Make no mistake – Hunter Mahan has something to prove. He’s got a great opportunity to put his Ryder Cup gaffe behind him and he’s in the perfect situation to do it, 1 shot off the lead.
Bubba Watson, like Mahan, finds himself only 1 shot back of the leaders thanks to some great ball striking. Through 3 rounds – Bubba ranks number 1 in total driving distance, inside the top 20 in driving accuracy, and ranked number 1 in greens in regulation. In a nutshell – if Watson’s putter was on the same page as the rest of his game this week, he would be running away with this tournament. But a big part of the test this week has been graded most significantly on the greens, and that’s something that Bubba will have to overcome tomorrow if he wants to win.
Lastly, without intentionally overlooking the numerous other stories that have developed this week, it’s impossible to not comment about the 3rd round backsliding that Tiger Woods experienced on Saturday. For starters – I think we can safely assume that he’s thrown enough clubs/slammed enough clubs into the turf out of frustration this week to make up for all of 2010. Not that we expect the guy to be pleased with bogeying 3 of his first 5 holes on Saturday, but I don’t think it’s asking too much to take all of 45 seconds after his round to offer his typical, rehearsed responses to why his game didn’t measure up for the day. Again, not like he would offer anything that we’ve not heard 1000 other times, but just saying…
While it’s much too early in the season to be making any bold predictions for anyone, about anything, it is quite apparent that Woods’ goal of being able to fix his swing on-the-fly during a round of tournament golf is still a monumental work in progress. You can also throw his putting touch in that work-in-progress category as well, although he gets somewhat of a break this week because of the difficult nature of the putting surfaces. But Tiger’s first tournament of 2011 seems to be picking up where 2010 left off – a couple of good scores thanks to some decent scrambling, with several periods of regression thrown in for good measure. Very few doubt that he’ll finally get accustomed to hitting the ball more consistently as the season progresses, but any thoughts of this process bearing early fruit was silenced with his scruffy round of 2-over 74 on Saturday. The search for his game and his first win since 2009 continues.
In closing, I think that Sunday will be great theater for golf…. while there’s only a handful of players I mentioned who look most poised to win, it’s worth noting a few other names within 5 shots of the lead who could do the unthinkable. “Jhonny” Vegas has managed his game extremely well this week, as the rookie once again finds himself in contention on a Sunday afternoon. Only three shots back of the lead – he’s impressed the golf world just as much this week, considering the depth of the field, as he did a week ago to win the Bob Hope. Dustin Johnson is 5 shots back and lurking, and is obviously the type of player who can exert some pressure on the guys playing behind him. And last but not least – Rickie Fowler could be looking at a round of 5 under par on Sunday to earn a shot at either winning or getting into a playoff. These guys all have the luxury of playing for nothing to lose, and sometimes that’s just enough to win one from out of nowhere.
Whoever wins, needless to say, it will be a well-earned victory.
For an official recap of Saturday’s action at Torrey Pines, click HERE.