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The Month Ahead in Golf - March

By: Tony Dear


As we leave February and a mostly dull, but ultimately fascinating WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship behind, we enter March wondering how much longer until Rory McIlroy officially becomes the best golfer in the world.

The Ulsterman entered last week's tournament in Arizona at No. 2 in the rankings and would have gone on top had he won six matches. Instead, he won five, falling at the final hurdle to a brilliant Hunter Mahan after apparently burning too much mental fuel during his Sunday morning semifinal win over No. 3 Lee Westwood.

What a match that was with Westwood. Three-down after four holes, McIlroy stormed back with four wins in the next five holes to reach the turn 1-up. He was 3-up after 13 and eventually progressed with a 3-and-1 victory. And how interesting, and indeed refreshing, it was to watch a head-to-head encounter between two of the world's best players and sense the obvious needle between them.

Back when they were indisputably the game's top-two players, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson exchanged unpleasantries on occasion, but it never got out of hand and their healthy rivalry no doubt caught the attention of a good many general - non-golf - sports fans. These days, however, pro golf can often seem quite chummy, almost sterile. In a world where they make so much money and get treated like kings, tour pros have little cause to harbor grievances.

It happens of course; these are, after all, very competitive human beings we're talking about. But when they are fined for showing some emotion after missing a tap-in and yet effectively given the all-clear to spend two minutes or more lining up a shot before finally playing it, then what rancor or contention exists is almost entirely suppressed. For sure, you would never encourage ill-feeling between players, and golf does have a reputation for gentlemanly conduct to uphold. But there's no doubt the mild antipathy between the pair from the U.K. made their match ever so slightly more compelling.

The final, while never a dreary anticlimax, didn't arouse quite the same excitement despite some commentators' attempts to turn it into an U.S. against them (Europe) grudge match.

Mahan deservedly broke into the world's top 10 and provoked some debate over whether or not he may be America's best player. The rankings say no, with Steve Stricker, Webb Simpson and Dustin Johnson all above him. But this author believes that, on his day, the four-time PGA Tour winner and two-time WGC champion beats them all.

Still, the question remains of when McIlroy will leapfrog Luke Donald - and reach the spot where many believe he will remain for several years. He tees it up at this week's Honda Classic, the first event on the "Florida Swing," just .53 of a point behind Donald, who has clearly been very rusty so far this year, failing to break the top 30 in three tournaments and who isn't in the field at PGA National.

But despite the shrinking gap, McIlroy still needs to win this week to get to No. 1. That may not be too big of a task, however, on a course that appears tailor-made for the U.S. Open champion's almost flawless ball-striking. Last year, McIlroy spoke about how he preferred American courses and playing in sunshine to battling a British links in the wind and rain. PGA National is quintessentially Floridian and, though his three previous appearances (T70, T40, T13) don't suggest he's the likely winner, he does have three top-five finishes from three events so far this year. So McIlroy may well be on the verge of something spectacular, something perhaps like his win at Quail Hollow in 2010 when he closed with a 62.

Westwood is also playing this week but, even with a win, can't regain the No. 1 spot he held for 17 weeks in the fall of 2010 and five more in spring of last year.

McIlroy and Westwood head a very fine field that also includes PGA champion Keegan Bradley, Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, former U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell, FedEx Cup leader Kyle Stanley, this year's Ryder Cup captains Davis Love and Jose Maria Olazabal, 21-year-old Q-School graduate John Huh - who won the Mayakoba Classic in an eight-hole playoff with Robert Allenby last week, and Honda Classic debutant Tiger Woods.

Woods flopped in Arizona last week, barely scraping through against Spaniard Gonzalo Fernandez Castaño in the first round, and succumbing to Nick Watney in the second. Woods' swing looks solid enough, but his short game, especially his putting, is still in doldrums and will need to see a considerable improvement before reporters get to unleash the "He's Back" headlines they've been storing for months (yes, some tried it after his win at the Chevron World Challenge in December, but there was a small, faint asterisk beside the letters as the "W" wasn't official and the field limited to just 18 players). The 14-time major champion is currently 175th on Tour in the Strokes Gained putting stat, and has made just 42.86% of his 5- to 10-footers, a distance he used to own.

It promises to be an exciting opening to March and the thrills will likely continue next week when the year's second WGC event, the Cadillac Championship, is played on the Blue Monster at Doral, the 800-acre Miami resort which, it was announced February 29, Donald Trump has purchased for "just" $150 million - perhaps as much as $1 billion less than what the land alone is worth. Most of the top-50 players in the world will be in the 75-man field.

After the Cadillac is the Transitions Championship, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and, finally, the Shell Houston Open, by which time the golf world will be itching to get to Augusta National for the year's first major.

If they haven't already, the fortunate 90 or so golfers who have received invitations will begin gearing their games up for the Masters and Augusta's very particular demands. They will look for the quickest downhill putts on practice greens, hone their chipping from short-cropped lies, and attempt a few draws that might work at Augusta but which aren't well-suited necessarily to the hole they are playing. The sacrifice will be worth it for most players though, as one green jacket would surely eclipse a win at each of the three or four preceding events.

Across the Atlantic, three fairly low-key events follow the WGC Cadillac Championship - the Open de Andalucía, the Trophée Hassan II in Morocco, and the Sicilian Open. The seniors play twice - at the Toshiba Classic in Newport Beach, Calif., and the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic in Biloxi, Miss.

The Nationwide Tour visits Panama, Chile and returns to the U.S. for the Chitimacha Louisiana Open at the end of the month, while the LPGA also comes home following three weeks in Asia and Australia. The RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup will be played March 15-18 and will offer real prize money rather than last year's "mock purse." The following week the Kia Classic will be played at La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, Calif. But instead of making use of the newly-renovated North (now Champions) Course, the ladies will play the South, only four holes of which got the sand-capping that the North did last year. The South is a fine course with a number of lovely holes, but God forbid if it rains.

Away from the course, the Golf Industry Show winds up in Las Vegas March 1st with an hour-long talk by David Feherty entitled "Tales of a Survivor," and a discussion led by the PGA of America's Darrell Crall on how Golf 2.0 - a PGA of America-developed initiative - aims to attract 40 million golfers to the game and generate $40 billion in revenues by 2020.

On the 27th, the PGA Tour Policy Board, of which Stricker, Paul Goydos, Davis Love and Jim Furyk are Player Directors, will vote on whether to keep the Tour's qualifying tournament - Q-School - intact or make sweeping changes to the qualifying process by making the players ranked from 126-200 on the season-ending FedEx Cup points list play in a three-tournament series at the end of the season alongside the top 50 from the Nationwide Tour money list. The details are yet to be ironed out, but it seems the top 50 from the three-event series will earn their cards, while the best Q-School entrants could hope for is a place on the Nationwide Tour.

The reaction to these proposals, first muted about 11 months ago, has been less than positive. Without Q-School, Keegan Bradley, Y.E. Yang, Gary Woodland, Dustin Johnson, J.B. Holmes, and Rickie Fowler might not be playing the PGA Tour today. And there'd be no place for Huh, which is a shame and not just because pun-loving headline writers can go to work on his last name, but because tales like his - 21-year-old Cinderella story wins in just his fifth tour start - could no longer happen. There's more to it. But on the face of it, the move is simply a ploy to make the Nationwide Tour irresistible to a new blanket sponsor; Nationwide will not be renewing its contract after this season.

Let's not concern ourselves with all that just yet though. Before then, we have three of the best tournaments of the FedEx season to play, and the battle for the top spot in the world rankings is on . . . again.

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.