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The Month Ahead - April

By: Tony Dear


With all due respect to the tournament winners, in 2011 we had to endure some fairly unremarkable action in the run-up to the Masters. Mark Wilson, a very accomplished but low-flying semi-star, won twice and led a series of similarly capable but low-key golfers - Jonathan Byrd, D.A. Points, Johnson Wagner, Michael Bradley, Martin Laird, Nick Watney, Aaron Baddeley and Rory Sabbatini (who's, admittedly, somewhat higher-key at times) - into the winner's enclosure.

You, I and a few other diehard golf fans were watching, of course, but these players weren't moving any needles.

There was the odd uptick like when Phil Mickelson had his caddie, Bones McKay, tend the flag for his 100-yard pitch shot to the 72nd green at Torrey Pines to tie Bubba Watson . . . but missed! There was Lefty's magnificent 20-under winning total at the Shell Houston Open the week before Augusta; Jhonattan Vegas and Gary Woodland's maiden tour victories; and Luke Donald's amazing run at the WGC Match Play Championship where he played just 89 holes in winning six matches.

These moments were fleeting licks of space dust, however, amongst lengthy chews on an oatmeal bar.

How different the early stages of the 2012 season have been. Yes, Wilson and Wagner have won again, and Brandt Snedeker won at Torrey Pines. But Wagner was at least sporting a comedy mustache, and Snedeker won only after a playoff against Kyle Stanley, who had begun the day with a six-stroke lead, but who then came back a week later from eight strokes behind Spencer Levin in Phoenix to claim his first Tour win.

There was Tiger Woods' 54-hole lead in Abu Dhabi, a lead he ultimately lost to Robert Rock, a largely unknown Englishman with a superb swing and a bouffant so bodacious it has been the subject of as much ink as the victory - his second in Europe.

There was Mickelson's brilliant 64 in the final round at Pebble Beach to beat, no . . . humiliate, playing partner Woods, who stumbled to a closing 75. The following week at Riviera, Mickelson had gallery members tumbling down the slope behind the green at the 72nd hole after he holed the putt no one else could to earn a playoff spot with Bill Haas. Moments later Keegan Bradley joined them by dropping his own birdie putt right on top, but watched with Mickelson as Haas won the playoff with a curling 25-footer on the dastardly short par-4 10th hole, which once again proved that you really don't need a lot of acreage to build a great golf hole - just a wise and artistic architect (George C. Thomas, in Riviera's case).

Hunter Mahan played almost flawlessly to take down the "Crown Prince," Rory McIlroy, in the final of the WGC Match Play, thus denying the Ulsterman the world No. 1 spot, and rookie John Huh, who passed through all three stages of Q School to earn his Tour card, beat Robert Allenby in an eight-hole playoff to win in Mayakoba.

McIlroy did eventually take over from Donald as the world's top-ranked player when he held off the awesome, 62-shooting Woods with a resolute and indomitable performance over the back nine at PGA National on the final day of the Honda Classic. Justin Rose beat Watson by one and McIlroy by two to win the WGC Cadillac Championship on the Blue Monster at Doral, which may still be quite blue in places but not terribly monstrous anymore (one wonders what plans new owner Donald Trump has for the course), as 50 of the 72 finishers wound up under par.

Donald, far from the washed-up interloper countless myopic observers had labeled him, regained the No. 1 spot when he won a week later at Innisbrook near Tampa in a playoff over Robert Garrigus, Jim Furyk and Sang-Moon Bae, another Q Schooler who's showing way too much promise to ignore.

And the season built to an early, but deafening, crescendo last week at Bay Hill when Woods finally won the tournament many hoped he never would, but which the golf industry pined for. With a 13-under 275 total, Woods claimed an official title for the first time since September 2009 and, with 72 career PGA Tour victories, moved to within one of Jack Nicklaus' total and 10 of all-time leader Sam Snead.

The win gave sports editors their latest opportunity to roll out the "He's Back" headline, which first appeared at the 2009 WGC Match Play following eight months of recovery from major knee surgery, and which has been used a few times since. Woods' win at last December's Chevron World Challenge certainly warranted one as it earned him world ranking points, and the Bay Hill victory - his seventh at Arnold Palmer's home course - was cause for another.

There is definitely room for one more though. Next week, Woods goes for his first major title since the 2008 U.S. Open and, should he win his fifth green jacket and 15th overall, any doubt lingering over whether or not he really is back will disappear quicker than the last remnants of his and Hank Haney's festering relationship (how fortunate that "The Big Miss" should go on sale a few days after Tiger's five-shot victory).

Sports Illustrated says that last year's final round, in which McIlroy came unceremoniously unstuck and Charl Schwartzel birdied the last four holes to stave off a couple of Aussies (Adam Scott and Jason Day), was the most exciting final round in the tournament's 78-year history. But if the game's top players shine as most of them have during the first three months of 2012, even 2011 will surely pale.

Given the nature of this confounded game though, it's possible all the leading lights will miss the cut and that the back nine on Sunday will come down to a battle between two Asian players few of the gallery are familiar with. But can you imagine Woods and Donald entering Amen Corner on Day 4, one shot behind co-leaders McIlroy and Mickelson, with Schwartzel, Mahan, Rose, Watson, Lee Westwood, Dustin Johnson and Graeme McDowell in hot pursuit?

It's rare that the Masters throws up a rank outsider for a winner - e.g., Larry Mize, Fuzzy Zoeller, Tommy Aaron, Charles Coody, but even in the last few years, since the course was supposedly lengthened beyond what medium-length hitters could handle, we've seen some unexpected winners - Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson and Mike Weir.

While McIlroy, Woods, and Mickelson will no doubt start as favorites this year (might Mickelson actually be the favorite if he wins for the second straight year in Houston this weekend?), who's to say someone from the supporting cast won't pull off a surprise? Keegan Bradley could notch his second major victory in just his second major appearance; Paul Casey certainly has the game to conquer Augusta National; and what about Webb Simpson, Bo Van Pelt, Geoff Ogilvy and Louis Oosthuizen, or even 52-year-old Fred Couples, who started in Houston with a 67?

Sports Illustrated also says that Woods vs. McIlroy is the only story in golf right now. That may be true for the section of the audience that makes the Masters the only golf they watch on TV every year (and which hasn't heard of any other players, except Mickelson perhaps), but for most of us, shootouts involving Bradley vs. Donald, Johnson vs. Mahan, Simpson vs. Ogilvy or Schwartzel vs. Watson will work just as well.

There's an English expression that states "after the Lord Mayor's show comes the dust cart," which basically implies that, once the Lord Mayor's carriage has passed through on Carnival day street cleaners with donkeys come along to sweep up the mess left by the Lord Mayor's horses. It's too strong and callous an image to describe the fine tournaments that follow the Masters perhaps, but it can take fans a few weeks to get back on board in time for the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow or even the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.

Between the Masters (the Lord Mayor's Show) and the end of April, the Tour visits Harbour Town for the RBC Heritage, TPC San Antonio for the Valero Texas Open and TPC Louisiana for the Zurich Classic of New Orleans - all major events in their respective markets but not newsworthy enough for casual fans to hide the remote, and of very little interest for the guy concerned only with the Woods-McIlroy saga.

On the Champions Tour, there are two events in April - the Encompass Insurance Pro-Am in Tampa, Fla., and the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf in Savannah, Ga.

The Nationwide Tour heads to the Country Club of Soboba Springs in San Jacinto, Calif., for the Soboba Classic; TPC Stonebrae for the TPC Stonebrae Championship; and Kinderlou Forest GC in Valdosta, Ga., for the South Georgia Classic.

The LPGA Tour's first major of the year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, wraps up with the familiar pond jump on April Fools Day from where the players head to Hawaii for the LPGA Lotte Championship, and then Alabama for the Mobile Bay Alabama Classic. By then, assuming she plays in them all, Yani Tseng could well have notched her fifth win in a row and sixth of the season and be guaranteed a spot in the Hall of Fame, all by the age of 24!

The European Tour, meanwhile, goes east to Malaysia, China and South Korea.

Come the end of April though, it's likely we will still be talking about what happened in Augusta rather than San Antonio, Valdosta, Mobile or Incheon.

For a lot of golf fans, this is the most wonderful time of the year. We've waited eight long months since the last major championship, 12 since the last Masters. We deserve this. Happy Masters everyone!

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.

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