The Month Ahead: May

By: Tony Dear


Golfers are always asking who was/is the best golfer without a major? But what about the best month of the year without a major? It could be March with its Honda Classic, Arnold Palmer Invitational, and a WGC event, but then September has a couple of FedEx Cup playoffs and, every other year, a Ryder Cup. Many might opt for May, whose schedule has improved dramatically in recent years.

At the start of the century, major-less May tended to be a little bland for TV sports fans. No disrespect to the four tournaments that filled it, but after the excitement of the Masters and with June's U.S. Open still a few weeks hence, the casual golfer was temporarily absent while the core man was probably taking the opportunity to work on his own game. Unless something truly amazing happened, the events that occurred at the Compaq Classic of New Orleans, GTE Byron Nelson Classic, Mastercard Colonial, and Memorial, probably weren't the stuff of Sports Illustrated covers.

May still is without a major, of course, but with the introduction of the hugely popular Wells Fargo Championship (previously the Wachovia and Quail Hollow Championship) in 2003, and the 2007 rescheduling of the Players Championship that saw the PGA Tour's highest-profile tournament move from often-soggy March to bright and perky May, the first two weeks of the month are now usually full of highly-entertaining golf.

The Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., went from awkward newbie to fully-fledged player-favorite in a little more than five years partly because it treats the players, their wives and caddies, sponsors, volunteers, and even the spectators better than Hestia - the Greek goddess of hospitality - treated her house guests. But it's mostly because the course, originally designed by George Cobb in 1961, altered by Arnold Palmer in 1987, then redesigned by Tom Fazio in 1997 and again in 2003, is one of the very few layouts on the PGA Tour that you hardly ever hear anyone gripe about.

Vijay Singh called it a "great track" that "requires a lot of attention on every shot" after winning there in 2005. Rory McIlroy, who shot a "missed a hole surely" 62 to take the title in 2010, likened the course to Augusta National. But easily the most telling endorsement it could ever receive came courtesy of Tiger Woods who, after winning in 2007, said part of the reason he was so "ecstatic" to have won was the "quality of the course."

There are more popular courses among the players - earlier this year, 81 unnamed pros ranked Quail Hollow the 14th most enjoyable course on the PGA Tour out of a total of 52, but the vast majority of those that finished higher up the list have been PGA Tour and even major championship venues for decades. Quail Hollow will host a major itself in 2017 when the 98th PGA Championship goes to Charlotte.

The field for this year's Wells Fargo isn't quite as strong as that for the 2007 event, when an amazing 19 of the world's top-20 players showed up seeking the blue blazer awarded to the winner. But Woods, currently seventh in the world thanks to what looked like a fairly pedestrian five-stroke win at Bay Hill, will be making his sixth appearance. McIlroy will be looking for his second win in America in 2012 following his two-shot victory at the Honda Classic in March when he stoutly refused to let Woods's closing 62 unsettle him. And Phil Mickelson will be at Quail Hollow for the ninth time hoping to add a seventh top 10 to his impressive record, but aiming to go one better than his runner-up spot to McIlroy two years ago.

The FedEx Cup points leader and world No. 5, Hunter Mahan, is also playing as is third-ranked Lee Westwood. The 39-year-old Englishman has also committed to the following week's Players Championship, which he missed last year when ranked No. 1 in the world, because of a scheduling mix-up or, to put it another way, a poorly-disguised snub to the PGA Tour.

There's no question the Players Championship is a better tournament in May than it ever was in March. Because less rain falls on Ponte Vedra Beach at this time of year, and because several million dollars were spent renovating the Stadium Course in 2006, Pete Dye's most famous design now plays firm and fast - just like he always wanted it to. No longer the catch-all dartboard that required little or no strategy to overcome, it now demands sound tactics as well as solid ball-striking as all courses claiming to host the fifth major should.

The field for the Players isn't finalized yet, as the winner of the Wells Fargo Championships earns a spot if he doesn't own one already. The top 50 in the world rankings as of April 30th all qualified and won't want to pass up the chance of claiming the $1.71 million first-place check (and not forgetting those 600 beautiful FedEx Cup points). Indeed, there have been no reports of anyone pulling out yet. Woods has said he will be making the 250-mile trip north from his Jupiter home, and McIlroy, who like Westwood was absent in 2011, will be on the tee sheet having made it pretty clear the decision to skip Sawgrass 12 months ago wasn't entirely his own but that of his then-manager Andrew "Tubby" Chandler.

Defending the title he won in a playoff with David Toms last year will be K.J. Choi, who has been strangely subdued so far this season, finishing tied for fifth at the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in January but failing to crack the top 24 since.

Following the Players, we have the HP Byron Nelson Championship at the Four Seasons Resort Las Colinas in Irving, Texas, where Keegan Bradley won his first PGA event last year before proving he might be a bit special by winning the first major championship of his career - the PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club - three months later.

The venue for the Nelson, voted No. 49 on that Golf World poll of the players' favorite courses, never looks like much on TV, but you have to play it to appreciate how good a job D.A. Weibring did with his 2008 renovation in which he took a much-maligned track ridiculed by many of the players and, indeed, local golfers, and transformed it into a third-tier Tour course - a considerable improvement. Granted it didn't zoom up the charts, but it surely would have started in a very distant 52nd place had a similar poll been taken a few years previously (and assuming the players hadn't seen Liberty National yet).

This year marks what would have been the 100th birthday of the great Byron Nelson, the tournament's namesake, who passed away in 2006. CBS has the call on the weekend so be prepared for some somber, piano-backed, Nelson-based vignettes from Jim Nantz. Mickelson, who knows his golf history and certainly appreciates the contribution made by the game's former champions, has already committed.

It is but a 20-mile jump to the next tour site - the legendary Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth where Ben Hogan was an active member following his retirement from the game in 1971. Like Las Colinas, Colonial has seen some changes in recent years having been the subject of a restoration by Keith Foster, who sought to recreate John Bredemus's 1936 design as sensitively as possible while staying true to Hogan's adage that a "straight ball at Colonial will get you in more trouble than at any course I know."

This is one tournament Mickelson definitely hasn't committed to, however, and won't for the foreseeable future as he is not of fan of the changes, saying his length advantage with the driver has been taken away.

Defending will be David Toms, who came back from a playoff defeat at the Players Championship the previous week to win his 13th Tour event and first since 2006.

In Europe, the most notable action will come toward the end of the month with the Volvo Matchplay at Finca Cortesin in Andalucia and the BMW Championship at Wentworth, where Luke Donald will try to defend the trophy he won in 2011 in a playoff against Westwood, from whom he also took possession of the world's top ranking.

After a third-place finish in New Orleans over the last weekend in April, Donald reclaimed the top ranking from McIlroy, who had snatched it from the Englishman two weeks before without having to resort to actually playing golf as Donald's averages took a hit following his T-37 at Harbour Town.

With some prestigious tournaments and quality fields ahead in May, a lot of world-ranking points will be on offer, and the identity of the world's best player might change with each passing week. No problem; with nine changes in the last 18 months we're well used to that now.

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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