The Month Ahead in Golf - February

By: Tony Dear


If you remember a world without Facebook, when drinking water came out of taps instead of plastic bottles, and the head of the longest club in your golf bag was made from a tree rather than titanium or, indeed, any kind of metal, you belong to a generation that remembers when nothing happened in golf each year - nothing important anyway - before the Masters.

Sure, golf equipment salesmen would gather somewhere in Orlando each January to sell their company's latest products (the PGA Merchandise Show didn't move to the Orange County Convention Center on International Drive until 1985) - products that might get updated and replaced every four or five years, rather than every six months as they are today. PGA Tour events were going on somewhere in the southwestern desert, and European Tour pros were playing for beer money on Africa's Sunshine Tour.

But no one was looking.

In the first week of April, however, you'd read an article in some newspaper or magazine that heralded the arrival of the golf season and, without fail, refer to Bobby Jones's tournament as an "annual rite of spring."

Nowadays, the Masters eventually arrives after two World Golf Championships have already been staged and with a third of the FedEx Cup season already in the books. Fans have watched in-depth, wall-to-wall coverage from all 15 official PGA Tour events, and players have banked millions of dollars - among them Mark Wilson whose five PGA Tour wins have all come before the end of the first week in March. The European Tour is moving along briskly too, having visited Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia and, who knows, maybe even a country or two in Europe.

Following his victory at the Waste Management Phoenix Open last year, Wilson played 22 events. He missed six cuts and, at the tournaments where he did survive to the weekend, had an average finish of 33rd. And yet he made it all the way to the season finale at East Lake in Atlanta, thus more or less guaranteeing a spot in all four 2012 majors. He won 66 percent of his entire season's earnings before February 7th, and 69 percent of the 1,464 FedEx Cup points he tallied during the regular season. Now, after his win at the Humana Challenge in La Quinta, Calif., he's fifth on the Ryder Cup point list.

Try telling Wilson then, and the 1,000-plus exhibitors, who nowadays display their company's wares to the 40,000-plus attendees at the PGA Merchandise Show, that what goes on before the Masters isn't terribly important.

While January's off-course highlight was an apparently successful PGA Show where PGA officials talked about the "discernible aura of optimism and upbeat economic outlook" (an admittedly familiar refrain), the most interesting action on the course undoubtedly came at the Abu Dhabi Championship in the Middle East where Tiger Woods finished with a share of third after going into the final round tied for the lead.

No doubt about it, there were times during the tournament when Woods looked, if not quite his old dominant self, then certainly a more polished and comfortable golfer than what we have seen during the last couple of years. His practice swing, in which he exaggerated an out-to-in downswing move, seemed to have the desired effect, largely suppressing his old habit of getting the clubhead stuck behind his fast-turning body, which invariably resulted in a push to the right trees/rough/bunker. He seemed to stand a little taller, synchronize the movements of his body and club more efficiently, and complete the swing in altogether better balance. During his third-round 66, Woods stroked his putts with the assurance he used to win all those majors. Putts that didn't go in might easily have fallen in a different wind, and those that found the cup did so at an ideal speed.

The fact Woods that didn't go all the way and win, but lost to 54-hole co-leader Robert Rock, a largely unknown Englishman who did little to conceal his nerves the evening before the final round, condemns us all to a slew of articles questioning whether or not Tiger is genuinely back.

The only conclusion one can draw from his weak Sunday 72 though, is: no, probably not. In his pomp, Woods would have stomped all over Rock with a final round every bit as convincing as his third, if not more so.

As he becomes ever more secure with the moves (or lack of them) instructor Sean Foley is passing on, however, Woods will inevitably grow in confidence. He likely will hit the ball as well as he has done in the past, and there will be rounds when it all clicks, when he can feel the shot, see the shot, and execute the shot as planned.

But it remains to be seen if he can string four such rounds together and, more importantly, if his once supreme putting will ever return. He downed Aaron Baddeley at the Presidents Cup with a superb display on the greens, and then won his own Chevron Classic with two tension-filled birdie putts on the 71st and 72nd holes. But he could do no better than average 29.25 putts per round in Abu Dhabi and 1.79 per green in regulation - stats that will absolutely need to improve if he is to take on the whiz-kids who stole his thunder during his enforced/self-imposed absence.

Woods makes his PGA Tour debut the week after next at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro Am. His putting numbers are unlikely to improve, however, as the poa annua greens can get a little bumpy. Woods himself called them "awful" not 18 months ago at the 2010 U.S. Open.

But he has had a measure of success at Pebble Beach as well, of course. In 2000, he won the AT&T despite being seven strokes out of the lead with seven holes to go. And a few months later, he produced the performance that may yet go down as the greatest and most dominant of his career: at the U.S. Open where he finished an incredible 12-under-par with the thoroughly outclassed Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez sharing a distant second place, 15 shots behind.

The greens will surely be a little softer than they were for the 2010 U.S. Open and the bumps not quite as vicious. Woods therefore has a great chance of winning his first PGA Tour victory since the BMW International in 2009.

Before then, Wilson defends the Waste Management Phoenix Open, which he won last year with a birdie on the second extra hole against Jason Dufner, after both men finished regulation on 16-under 266. And following the AT&T, golf course architecture nerds get to pontificate to their friends once again as the Northern Trust Open returns to the magnificent George Thomas-designed Riviera Country Club for the 49th time. Aaron Baddeley shot 12-under 272 to beat Vijay Singh by two there 12 months ago.

At the end of the month, 64 of the top 65 players in the world will battle it out at Dove Mountain near Tucson, Ariz., for the WGC Matchplay crown. Phil Mickelson has chosen to go on a family vacation that week, which might not be a bad idea considering the furthest he ever got in the event was the quarterfinals . . . in 2004. World No. 1 Luke Donald, who began his year with a disappointing tie for 48th finish in Abu Dhabi, will try to repeat his brilliant form of last year when he never trailed in any of his six matches and ended the week having played only 89 holes, defeating then No. 1 Martin Kaymer 3 and 2 in the final.

In Europe, the Tour remains in the Middle East for two more weeks. Seven of the world's top-20 golfers - including No. 19 Hunter Mahan - are in the field for the Commercialbank Qatar Masters at Doha GC, and a similarly strong field is expected in Dubai for the original Middle Eastern tournament, the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates Club. Alvaro Quiros will be defending his title against third-ranked Lee Westwood, No. 2 Rory McIlroy - who won here in 2009 at the age of 19, 2010 winner Miguel Angel Jimenez, and 52-year-old Fred Couples, who won the Desert Classic 16 years ago and finished fourth defending the title a year later.

Former U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein, who finished 12th in his professional debut - the European Challenge Tour's Gujarat Kensville Open in Ahmedebad, India - this weekend, has accepted invitations to both events.

After the Middle East swing, the Tour heads to Delhi, India, for the Avantha Masters, where Uihlein will possibly take up the third of his seven European Tour invitations.

The Nationwide Tour kicks off in the middle of February with the Pacific Rubiales Colombia Championship in Bogota, and the 27-tournament LPGA Tour sets sail with three overseas tournaments - the ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open, Honda LPGA Thailand 2012, and HSBC Women's Champions 2012 in Singapore.

The Champions Tour continues with the Allianz Championship and ACE Group Classic, there are four events on the Asian Tour, and two on the PGA Tour of Australasia - the Victorian PGA and Queensland PGA Championships.

The college spring season has yet to hit full stride but there are a half-dozen tournaments in February that will give a good indication of how the nation's top schools are shaping up four months head of the NCAA Championship.

The field for the Amer Ari Invitational in Hawaii includes Texas, which currently possesses the two top-ranked college players in America, Dylan Frittelli and Jordan Spieth. And six of the country's top-10 college teams will tee it up. The University of Florida hosts the Gator Invitational and Hawaii the John Burns Intercollegiate. The Puerto Rico Classic, hosted by Purdue, is followed by the John Hayt Invitational hosted by North Florida, which has three players in the nation's top 50. Pepperdine's North Ranch Classic closes out the month from the 26th to the 28th.

In the pro shop, February will see the release of both the TaylorMade RocketBallz line up - drivers, fairway woods, rescue clubs, irons, wedges and balls - and the Callaway Razr Fit and Razr H XL Irons.

The golf season is definitely warming up. And the Masters isn't far away.

Also, this month, we'll learn who's won the contract to design the 2016 Olympic Games Course in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It's surprising how few rumors have circulated about the likely winner(s), but it's fair to say Jack Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam are perhaps the favorites given their standing in the game and the fact most people who'll be watching will know who they are. But then, their global reputation might not be a factor. The ability to build an interesting, challenging, and environmentally sound course without hype and without going over budget could be what the Committee is looking for, in which case Nicklaus and Sorenstam will probably lose out to either Tom Doak or Gil Hanse, whose minimalist approach would send an important message that enjoyable but testing courses don't need to have 18 water hazards and gigantic bunkers.

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 web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.


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