Articles by Steve Emmert

A listing of all the articles written by Steve Emmert for the RotoWire Blog.

The Medinah Massacre

Saturday night in Chicago, the US Ryder Cup side went to sleep with understandable confidence. The team had charged to a 10-6 lead after two days of competition, and needed only 4½ points out of Sunday’s 12 to reclaim the Cup from the European side. There was a bit of unease due to the Euros’ two late-match wins in fourballs on Saturday evening, punctuated by yet another victory bellow by that troublesome Poulter chap. But for the Americans, the question was not whether they would win, but by how many points; perhaps there was some enjoyable guessing as to which American would clinch the winning point.
Sunday night produced the unthinkable prospect of the Cup’s being hoisted by a bunch of guys chanting, “Olé, Olé!” Harking back to the Americans’ stunning comeback at Brookline in 1999, European captain José Maria Olazabal front-loaded his Sunday lineup with players who might, just might, bring the visitors back into the matches. And just as it did in Brookline, the strategy worked; Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Rory McIlroy, and Justin Rose each won narrow matches. When the Euros’ oldest player, Paul Lawrie, decisively dispatched Brandt Snedeker, that gave the guys from across the pond an 11-10 lead that no one but the European side foresaw.
Still, the Americans’ prospects looked bright. But when Sergio Garcia won the last two holes to take a 1-up win over Jim Furyk, and Lee Westwood finished off an inconsistent Matt Kuchar, the Euros were in a commanding position. Martin Kaymer completed the comeback miracle by catching and passing Steve Stricker late on a day when both players were off their games; both players shot 73 (counting conceded putts as holed) in a match marked by indescribable pressure.
Here are some idle musings in the immediate wake of the Medinah Massacre:
  • It’s hard to envision a meaningful future Ryder Cup role for Furyk after this weekend. He did claim one point in foursomes, but that was it for his three matches. This has been a dreadful season for him, capped by a high-profile loss on the biggest stage in golf. On the last two holes, he took an extraordinary amount of time to study and re-study decisive puts before pushing both efforts off to the right. Any professional has to develop a good case of golfer’s amnesia now and then, but it’s difficult to imagine how he’ll do that after seeing him bent over in silent anguish on the 18th green Sunday, hands on his knees, pondering the loss of a crucial point.
  • The US captain for the 2014 matches has yet to be announced, but his first priority should be to see if he can persuade Poulter to obtain US citizenship. (Hey; we flipped David Feherty; it might work here, too.) Poulter was the soul of the European side all weekend, and was the only player on either side to go 4-0-0; calling him the MVP of these matches is damning him with faint praise. No one ever got rich by betting against Poulter in the Ryder Cup.
  • Davis Love’s captain’s picks went 5-8-1, but that result was skewed somewhat by Dustin Johnson’s sparkling 3-0-0 weekend. The other three were . . . well, you can do the ugly math. Olazabal’s two picks went 5-3-0, paced by Poulter’s perfect card. Nicolas Colsaerts’s only point of the weekend was a memorable dispatch of Tiger Woods and Stricker in Friday afternoon’s fourballs. Colsaerts essentially beat Woods’s and Stricker’s better ball, as his partner (Westwood) basically lay down and died on him.
  • The Europeans’ Peter Hanson was largely invisible this weekend, playing (and losing) just two matches. Olazabal sent only two of his players out for all five sessions: McIlroy and Justin Rose. In contrast, no one on the American side played in fewer than three or more than four matches. Love rested his hottest two-man team, Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, Saturday afternoon at Mickelson’s request. The strategy of ensuring that every man would be better rested for Sunday obviously didn’t pay off.
  • Woods is going to take heat after yet another disappointing Ryder Cup performance. He earned just half a point in four matches. In his foursomes and fourballs matches, he and teammate Stricker led for a total of three holes out of the 53 that they played – the first three of the ill-fated match against Colsaerts and someone dressed like Westwood. Woods’s career mark in the matches is now 12-17-3. Unlike Furyk (and even Stricker), it’s premature to predict that this will be the end of his international-play career; his play in the fourballs was sensational at times, especially on the back nine. He undoubtedly has plenty of high-level golf in him, and unless he stumbles badly, he’ll qualify for future Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup squads. It’s tempting to say that this loss, and his substandard play this weekend, will inspire him to come back with a vengeance in Scotland in 2014. But for Woods, it’s always been about winning majors. And as important as the Ryder Cup is, it isn’t a major.
  • The Europeans were not without their own disappointments. Graeme McDowell, who anchored the Sunday singles in 2010, could mange only a single point in his four matches. Francesco Molinari harvested just a half-point in three tries, and that half came in a singles match that was rendered meaningless by Kaymer’s winning putt. Still, he held his own against Woods, and that would have been a tough sell to bettors when the Sunday pairings were announced.
  • The flip side of Woods’s weekend was Dustin Johnson’s. He played a total of 50 holes in his three rounds, and trailed for exactly one hole – the first of Friday’s fourball with Kuchar. His crucial 25-foot birdie on Saturday’s 17th hole gave the Americans a point that looked like it would be halved, and he pulled away from Colsaerts late in Sunday’s singles. That point, coming in the sixth match of the day, was the Americans’ first mark of the day, and temporarily stopped the team’s bleeding on the scoreboard.
  • Let’s look at the rookies’ records: Colsaerts 1-3-0; Bradley 3-1-0; Jason Dufner 3-1-0; Webb Simpson 2-2-0; Snedeker 1-2-1. Snedeker looked a bit lost on Sunday, but the other rookies looked like they fully belonged. Bradley and Dufner never appeared to succumb to the overpowering nerves that historically have been engendered by the event.
  • As long as we’re on this topic, let’s consider each team’s core of younger players. The Europeans had four players under 30: Colsaerts (29), Kaymer (27), and McIlroy (23). Molinari is just 30; Justin Rose and Garcia are 32. The other six players on the side will each be at least 35 in 2014. For the Americans: Bradley’s 26; Simpson’s 27, and Dustin Johnson’s 28. The average age of the other nine players on this year’s team right now is 37. It’s reckless to predict now what the 2014 sides will look like, but even with the potential American addition of Rickie Fowler and perhaps another young gun, the Euros still have a younger base of excellent players.
  • Of course, we can’t get away without at least some idle long-term speculation. It says here that Darren Clarke will captain the Euros in Scotland, and Fred Couples will lead the Americans. Of those, I’m a little shakier on Clarke, as I’ve read that Colin Montgomerie is lobbying for a return to the captain’s slot for the 2014 event. Since it’s being contested in his home country, and given Monty’s outstanding Ryder Cup record as a player (20-9-7) and as captain (1-0), I can see the possibility that he might get the nod yet again. Couples served as one of Love’s alternate captains this year and has led the Presidents Cup team; he’s enormously popular with his peers.
  • A word about sportsmanship: After Kaymer ended the drama while Molinari and Woods stood in the fairway, Olazabal encouraged Molinari to play on in an effort to win the Cup outright, instead of merely retaining it on a 14-14 tie. The captain told his young charge that winning the matches was more important than just holding the trophy. Woods was clearly disheartened by the developments ahead of him; if Stricker had managed to pull out half a point, then the outcome of that final pairing would have decided the outcome of the matches, something that was unthinkable Sunday morning. In that situation, it’s reasonably foreseeable that the 18th hole would have been played out a bit differently. I’m not suggesting that Tiger mailed in his 18th hole, but his post-match comments demonstrated that his heart just wasn’t in it anymore: "We came here as a team. This is a team event. And the Cup was already been retained by Europe, so it was already over." In any event, after Woods missed his 4-foot par putt, he graciously conceded Molinari’s of roughly the same length, giving Europe the final one-point margin, an act of sportsmanship that echoed Jack Nicklaus’s similar concession to Tony Jacklin in the 1969 matches, after the US side had assured itself of a Cup-retaining 14th point. US captain Sam Snead privately fumed at Nicklaus’s generosity; Olazabal won’t have to stew over a similar fate this year.
For all the wonder that is the Ryder Cup, there is one enormous down side: the matches are only played every other year. That means we have to wait over 700 days before Ryder Cup fever breaks out again on both shores.

Ryder Cup Preview

If you’re a golf fan, the next three days are (1) Christmas, (2) your birthday, and (3) fantasy draft day. They’re the three best days of the whole year, because the quest for the Ryder Cup begins Friday morning at 7:20 a.m. CDT, with foursomes (alternate-shot play). Here are a few things to watch as this year’s matches unfold.
Rough? What rough?
There was plenty of talk in the weeks leading up to the matches about how US captain Davis Love III would try to set up the Medinah course to give a competitive advantage to his side. He denied that he would do so, or even that it was possible to do so. But the most commonly projected change, that of cutting the rough down very low, has indeed come to pass: by current accounts, the rough is more like “fairway lite,” barely longer than the flat stuff. This gives an advantage to the long bombers, who can launch away without fear of getting a punitive lie in the rough.
You might think that this factor helps the American side, which features long hitters Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson (and, to a lesser degree, Phil Mickelson, Keegan Bradley, and Tiger Woods). But the European side has its share of long knockers, too: Rory McIlroy and Nicolas Colsaerts surrender nothing to Johnson and Watson in length, and Lee Westwood’s average drive on the European Tour this year was just under 300 yards.
The only way to factor this into the matches is after the pairings are announced. It will be particularly important in Sunday’s singles matches, where a short hitter might find himself at a significant disadvantage to one of the big knockers, who can hit a bold driver from the tee without fear of a bad lie for his approach. That advantage could be decisive on an über-long course like Medinah’s current setup (7,658 yards).
Pairings by Lady Justice
Are you looking forward eagerly to a head-to-head match between Rory and Tiger? How about seeing Brandt Snedeker’s brilliant short game against Luke Donald’s all-around mastery? Maybe a match for the older set, pairing 43-year-old Paul Lawrie against 45-year-old Steve Stricker? Well, good luck with that. Unlike the Presidents’ Cup, in which one captain at a time can create favorable (or even dream) matchups, in Ryder Cup play, the captains each put their pairings into an envelope, and the two envelopes are opened simultaneously. They may as well draw the pairings while blindfolded.
For this reason, the announcement of the pairings for Sunday’s singles is one of the most suspenseful non-golf moments of the entire process. Each pairing will be instantly regarded as either a mismatch, or a dream match, or a complete mystery. One thing to watch for: Look for each captain to load his best players (probably as defined by who’s hot on Friday and Saturday) into the first two and the last two singles matches. In 2010, European captain Colin Montgomerie selected reigning US Open champ Graeme McDowell to play the last match; it was, as we know now, a good choice.
Note that there have been other strategies. In 1999 at Brookline, US captain Ben Crenshaw, facing an enormous uphill climb (down 10-6 going into Sunday), front-loaded his lineup with six of his best players to start Sunday’s singles. Tom Lehman, Hal Sutton, Mickelson, Love, Woods, and David Duval each won to spark a dramatic surge to a narrow US victory.
The dark-horse factor
For US audiences, some of the European players in past Ryder Cup competitions have been nearly anonymous. We see them only during majors and World Golf Championships, and even then, the television cameras rarely focus on them unless they’re in the running for a championship. But as the PGA Tour advertises about its own players, these guys can play. This year, there are probably only two or three players on the Euro side who will be unfamiliar to American audiences, owing to the European players’ greater willingness to enter several events on this side of the pond.
Of those, the one most likely to inspire a “who’s that?” response is Peter Hanson, a 33-year-old Swede. This year alone, Hanson has six top-5 finishes on the European Tour, and in his last event, earlier this month, he won the KLM Open. He finished T3 at The Masters, T7 at the PGA Championship, and (importantly) T5 at the WGC Match Play. His driving accuracy suffered a bit this year, but as noted above, that isn’t going to hurt him at Medinah. In contrast, he had his best-ever year on the greens, and with Ryder Cup pressure, a steady hand with the putter will be enormously valuable. Hanson will beat some more-familiar American players this weekend.
The home-course advantage
Here I’m not referring to Medinah’s rough, but to the galleries. Ryder Cup competitions are the one place where it’s acceptable to root against a golfer (though not to the point of abuse, something that unfortunately happens from time to time). We all know how a home-field advantage works in sports, and this year will be no different; while some European fans will have made the trip, this weekend’s galleries will be unashamedly red-white-and-blue.
Ironically, several of the European players now live in the United States, making their homes in golf-friendly places such as Florida, where they can play golf year-round. One player who’s unlikely to suffer from the rooting factor is the Euros’ Donald. While he’s unquestionably an Englishman, he attended college at Northwestern, just a few miles away from Medinah; he married a Chicago girl and lives in Evanston (although he winters in Florida). Expect US fans from Chicago to give him a little more of a pass than they will for, say, Ian Poulter.

Decision Day for Davis Love

In about an hour, US Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III will announce his four captain’s picks to round out the American side. Here are some last-minute speculations about his likely choices.
Rickie Fowler – My enthusiasm for him, expressed last week, has faded. If the team had been selected on June 1, he’d have been #1 with a bullet, having three Top-5 finishes in May, including a playoff win at the Wells Fargo. But his play has been indifferent lately; he missed the cut at the PGA Championship, managed a T24 at the Barclays, and staggered to a T74 finish at the Deutsche Bank on Labor Day. (Note that only 78 players made the cut.) At Celtic Manor in 2010, he was the youngest player on the American squad, and also the most poised, despite being a Ryder Cup rookie. At this point, I’ll say that Love will place the painful phone call to him that he’ll have to wait until 2014.
Dustin Johnson – If Fowler has played his way off the team, Johnson might have played his way on with two terrific performances at The Barclays (T3) and the Deutsche Bank (T4). He has one win in the books (the FedEx St. Jude in June) and seven Top-10s; he’s missed only one cut all year. Having missed 2½ months due to injury, he’s come back strong. He probably gets an invitation to Medinah.
Hunter Mahan – I really wanted Mahan to make the squad, if only to give him a chance to redeem himself after his closing loss to Graeme McDowell in 2010. You can easily make a case for him as a two-time winner on the Tour this year, including the WGC Match Play. But the last time he seriously contended in an event was the AT&T in late June, and weekend rounds of 73-73 forced him to settle for T8 in that event. He’s another guy who would be on the team if the selection had been made three months ago, but I think he’ll be watching the event on television with the rest of us.
Steve Stricker – It’s time to talk about experience. Stricker will bring plenty of that if he gets the nod from Love. He’s been on the Ryder Cup team twice and the Presidents Cup team four times. His one win this season was all the way back at the beginning of the year, in the reduced-field Hyundai Tournament of Champions, but he has plenty of Top-10s sprinkled in there, and like Johnson, has missed the cut only once in 2012. He’s #10 in the Official World Golf Rankings. It says here that he’s in.
Brandt Snedeker – Like Johnson, he’s done what he can to play his way onto the team with a charge on the FedEx Cup playoffs in the last two weekends. He finished a solo second at The Barclays and solo sixth at the Deutsche Bank. This year’s scorecard includes one win (albeit one way back in January, at the Farmers), a T3 at the Open Championship, and a T9 at the World Match Play. He’s #18 in the OWGR, making him the highest-ranked player without a prior reservation for the US side, other than Stricker and Johnson. His putting is lights-out (#1 on the Tour in Strokes Gained-Putting).
Bo Van Pelt – Van Pelt’s problem is that the field is too crowded for him. He’s enjoyed a solid year, and has $2.6 million in the bank after eight Top-10 finishes. But it’s tough to justify selecting him over several guys who have won once (or in some cases twice) on the Tour this year, when he has yet to cash a winner’s check. This isn’t the year.
Jim Furyk – He played well enough at the Deutsche Bank (T13) to claw his way back into contention for the fourth captain’s pick. Of the competitors’ credentials, his is the thinnest other than Van Pelt’s – no wins and some classic meltdowns this year, including the double-bogey finish on the 72nd hole to lose the Bridgestone in August. The principal counterweight to this is his substantial experience in international-team competition; it’s hard to leave off a guy who’s playing passably well and who has seven Ryder Cup caps and an equal number of Presidents Cup appearances.
Nick Watney – His win at The Barclays was enough to vault him into contention for a pick, but it’s probably too little, too late; he probably needed another Top-5 finish at the Deutsche Bank to push his way onto the American side. He closed with an even-par 71 on Labor Day to finish T20. Beyond that, a pedestrian set of credentials, by these lofty standards.
In my estimate, then, it comes down to Snedeker and Furyk for the last two slots.
By the way, if I were Love, my picks would be Fowler, Johnson, Snedeker, and Mahan. If you want experience-based leadership on the team, some guys named Woods and Mickelson can supply that, in spades. Fowler proved himself to be absolutely without fear in the 2010 matches, and I just can’t ignore Mahan’s WGC win in the match-play format. Johnson’s an easy pick (I’d love to see him up against one of the Euros’ long bombers, such as Nicolas Colsaerts). And Snedeker is hot enough to justify a ticket; anybody who can outpace the entire PGA Tour on the greens, gets a spot on my squad.
Over to you, Davis.

Olazabal Finalizes European Ryder Cup Roster

The best event in the golf calendar is just a month away. This morning, European captain Jose Maria Olazabal selected Englishman Ian Poulter and Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts to round out the Euros’ side in the 2012 Ryder Cup matches, to be held at Medinah Country Club, outside Chicago, September 28-30.
Olazabal is going to catch some grief for taking rookie Colsaerts over veteran Padraig Harrington, and some wags are going to insist that that choice reflects a carry-over grudge from 2003, when Olazabal and Harrington disagreed over Olazabal’s desire to fix a ball mark. But I think the captain made the right call. The team already has loads of Ryder Cup experience – every player other than Colsaerts has played in Ryder Cup matches before – and Colsaerts is a budding star whose length will help enormously at Medinah. His selection was hardly a stretch; he’s ninth on the European Points list, but wasn’t among the ten automatic qualifiers because of the two-tier selection system that the European side employs.
Poulter, of course, was an easy choice. He’s devastating in match play, having won two world championships in that format since 2010, and he has a dazzling Ryder Cup record of 8-3. Olazabal referred to the near inevitability of Poulter’s selection at Monday’s press conference: “I think every one of you pretty much guessed that Ian was going to be there. . . . The two times I had the opportunity to share a few moments with him at Valhalla and Celtic Manor, you didn’t need to motivate him. Just by looking at his eyes you could see he would give everything he had during that week.”
Colsaerts and Poulter fill out a formidable team that includes six players in the top 14 of the Official World Golf Rankings. More important, it includes a number of players whose careers are on the rise, such as world #1 Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Francesco Molinari, and Martin Kaymer, in addition to Colsaerts. Sergio Garcia played his way onto the team with a win at the Wyndham and a T3 at The Barclays in the past two weeks; and Paul Lawrie, who will be the oldest man inside the ropes, has resurrected his career, thirteen years after his win at Carnoustie in the Open Championship.
Attention now shifts to the western side of the Atlantic, where American captain Davis Love III will have another week to make his selections for the final four slots on the US side. The Americans are hardly overmatched; they feature six of the top 12 in the OWGR, and that figure could rise if Love selects Steve Stricker, currently #10. The guys currently on the bubble include Hunter Mahan (#9 in US Ryder Cup points), who’s probably desperate to atone for his closing loss to Graeme McDowell in the 2010 matches; Stricker (#10); Jim Furyk (#11); and Rickie Fowler (#12). But Brandt Snedeker (#13) has fought his way into the picture with four sub-par rounds at The Barclays for a solo second-place finish. Nick Watney staked a claim with an impressive win at The Barclays. And Love will not overlook Dustin Johnson’s closing 68 at The Barclays to finish T3; he’s missed only one cut in 2012.
Handicapping the likely captain’s picks while there’s still an event to go is a dicey proposition, but in my view, Fowler is in unless he injures himself; Snedeker will get the nod if he plays reasonably well at the Deutsche Bank this weekend.
If you could make the team based on past performance, Stricker would be a shoo-in; he largely carried the American side to a near-miraculous comeback in 2010. His fortunes had slipped a tad with some poor weekend performances in the middle of the season, but he’s turned that around with three Top-10s in his past five events (including the PGA Championship). He, too, has missed only one cut all season; it says here that he gets one of the picks.
That leaves one slot, assuming Snedeker acquits himself reasonably well in Boston. There are, in my mind, three primary contenders: Mahan, Watney, and Furyk.
Mahan, despite being ninth in points, is actually in a precarious position; he’s missed the cut in his last two events, and his last Top-10 finish was a T8 at the AT&T on July 1. Still, he does have two wins this year, and one of those was – importantly – the WGC World Match Play Championship in February. Because the Ryder Cup is nothing but match play, that probably gives him a bit of an edge in the selection process.
Watney’s win last weekend will give his name much more prominence than it would have if his victory had occurred in, say, May. But he’s way, way down the Ryder Cup points list – #30, in contrast to Mahan’s #9 and Furyk’s #11. He missed the cut at the PGA with an 82 on a brutal Friday, and has only four Top-10 finishes this season. He probably needs another win, or a near-win, at the Deutsche Bank to grab the prized invitation.
The other likely contender for that slot – barring a Deutsche Bank win by someone like Johnson or Bo Van Pelt – is Furyk. He’s played better this year than he did last season, although that isn’t saying much. But he’s demonstrated virtually no ability to close the deal. Exhibit A to that indictment is his final-hole collapse at the Bridgestone in early August, to lose an event that he had in hand. And three missed cuts in his last six events, including one at The Barclays, do not bode well.
If either Mahan or Furyk posts a strong showing at the Deutsche Bank, that player should have the edge for the last captain’s pick. The other one will likely receive a phone call that Love wishes for all the world he didn’t have to make.

The Unvanquished Golfer

Winning a professional golf tournament is no small feat. The usual size of a full-field event is 156 players, and 155 of those guys aren’t going to win. Even in reduced-field events, such as last weekend’s Bridgestone Invitational (78 entrants) or The Masters (95 players this year), any given player’s chances of winning are tiny.
The same thing applies on an annual basis. In 2011, for example, there were 49 sanctioned events on the PGA Tour. If you exclude the Fall Series, the regular season and playoffs comprised 41 events. Including the alternate-field gatherings, you had 35 different winners. (If you add the fall series, you get five more.) Thus far in 2012, we’ve had 26 different winners (plus four more in alternate-filed events). This means that somewhere in the vicinity of 20|PERCENT| of the golfers who tee it up in any given year win at least once, and correspondingly, 80|PERCENT| go winless over the course of the year.
That brings us to the Tour, the developmental tour for the PGA. Two weeks ago, a talented amateur named Ben Kohles, fresh off the golf team at the University of Virginia, decided to turn pro in advance of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational. He then went out and won that event in a playoff, giving him the temporary distinction of being undefeated as a professional golfer.
As great as that story is, we haven’t gotten to the point of this essay yet. Last weekend, in his sophomore event, the Cox Classic in Omaha, Kohles entered Sunday’s final round two shots out of the lead. He fired a closing 62 (9 under par) to claim a three-stroke win in his second-ever pro start. Two tournaments into his pro career, he’s still undefeated. This brings to mind the thoroughbred racehorse Big Brown, who won all of his first five races (including the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes); as he lined up for the Belmont Stakes that year, he had never beheld the sight of another horse crossing the finish line.
In addition to a great deal of attention, Kohles has already earned his 2013 PGA Tour card, since he’s now assured of finishing in the top 25 in the Tour this year. One more win and he gets promoted to the PGA Tour instantly. This doesn’t make him The Next Tiger, or even The Next Jason Dufner; the competition at the next level is fierce, and you should temper your expectations for his 2013 fantasy-golf contributions. But you’ll definitely be seeing his name in lineups next season.
And maybe even this season. On Thursday, the Tour convenes in Springfield, Missouri for the Price Cutter Charity Championship. Yes, Kohles is in the field, bringing his perfect record with him. The man knows how to win.

Last-Minute Masters Considerations

First, the easy part: If you have Dustin Johnson active, you must replace him immediately, if you still can. He has withdrawn from the event due to a back injury. Darren Clarke is still in the event, but has an injured groin that may well hamper his backswing and follow-through; I recommend that you avoid him this week.

The most important factor affecting the entire field right now is the weather. The course got soaked with an inch and a half of rain Tuesday night, and the course sustained some minor damage that delayed the opening of the gates for spectators by about half an hour. The damage won’t affect play, but the rainfall will; players reported after Wednesday’s practice rounds that the great majority of drives landing in the fairways resulted in mud-balls. In case you’re wondering, the answer is assuredly no; Augusta National will not shift to a lift-clean-place rule for any round, unless Noah pulls up beside the 13th tee in the ark and asks if he can play through.

The very wet fairways will mean that drives will get almost no roll. That affects everyone, but it will have the greatest effect on the shorter hitters. Guys who can fly it 310 yards won’t mind so much that they don’t get the extra 30 yards of roll, but the shorter hitters (Mark Wilson, Steve Stricker, David Toms, K. J. Choi) are going to find a fair number of long irons and even hybrids in their hands for par-4 approaches. Remember that the fast Augusta greens are designed to accept high approach shots; low screamers will roll right off the back, and there are goblins hiding behind some of those greens. If you’re thinking that the rain will soften the famous slick greens to allow players to stop a 4-iron on a dime, remember that the course features a green-drying system that allows the greens to play at a ridiculous Stimpmeter rating even when there’s standing water on the fairways. Bottom line: Go with the bombers, especially since Augusta’s “rough” offers little in the way of penalty for stray tee balls. Think Bubba Watson (but see below), Robert Garrigus, Ryan Palmer, and Kyle Stanley.

One more weather note, and it’s an important one. The weather forecast for Augusta, as of the time of preparation of this note (5:00 pm EDT Wednesday), calls for a period of storms late Wednesday evening, and a small chance of additional rain throughout the night and into tomorrow afternoon. That isn’t all that big a deal, but the next part is: The chance of thunderstorms jumps to 50|PERCENT| by 4:00 pm Thursday, when the later starters are making the turn, and is 60|PERCENT| from 5:00 pm through the evening and into Friday morning. The weather will improve Friday afternoon, but Friday morning’s golfers are likely to get wet.

Why is this so important? Because the late-Thursday guys who are facing bad weather are the same ones who are set to tee off early Friday. That means that the field will be divided in half, at least for the first two rounds: Half the field will probably get reasonable weather both days, and the other half may get awful weather for their first 36 holes. Your roster, at least for Thursday and Friday, should feature golfers in the former group. Here’s a list of a few key players in each group:

The fair-weather guys: Garrigus, Ross Fisher, Adam Scott, Martin Kaymer, Stricker, K. T. Kim, Stanley, Bill Haas, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose, and Johnson Wagner, all of whom tee off before 10:00 am.

The mud-sloggers: Jason Dufner, Brandt Snedeker, Webb Simpson, Lee Westwood, Jim Furyk, Ryo Ishikawa, Toms, Choi, Sergio Garcia, Rory McIlroy, Bubba, Phil Mickelson, and Hunter Mahan, all of whom tee off after 12:30 pm.

Another factor to consider is the chalk. As I noted in a post last August, the PGA Championship is where you’ll want to take The Field instead of the favorites, given the large number of quasi-fluke winners there over the years. If you took that advice at the PGA last year, your horse came home when Keegan Bradley won in his first start in a major. The Masters, however, is not the same play; you’re probably better off picking well-established players. That’s a product of a couple of factors: (1) The Masters is played at the same course every year, so the established players get to know the course much better than a PGA Championship rotation course that they might see once every six years. (2) The field is much smaller; there are only 93 entrants, and many of those are former champions (who get lifetime exemptions to play) like Craig Stadler, Larry Mize, and Sandy Lyle; those guys will not be holding any trophies on Sunday evening. That means that The Field is much smaller than at the PGA. Back the chalk.

Finally, this post would be chicken-hearted if I didn’t at least include my picks. While I’d love to select my favorite guy in the field, I tend to doubt that Miguel Angel Jimenez will make any noise on Saturday (though I do think he’ll make the cut). I’ll pick a foursome of Bubba (despite the weather handicap), Bill Haas, Luke Donald, and Tiger Woods, whose iron game has suddenly become superb. The one name that gives me some pause here is Donald, since he isn’t as long off the tee as most pros are. But he’s the #1 player in the word for a reason. Haas has the long game to stay in the hunt, and proved last year at The Tour Championship that he can handle intense pressure. The one knock on him is limited Masters experience, which means he doesn’t have a lot of practice on the treacherous Augusta National greens.

If I get a couple of mulligans, by the way, I’m going with two guys paired together for the first two rounds: Stanley and Jason Day. Stanley is only one bad decision away from being a back-to-back winner this year, and Day finished second in three majors last year. He comes up strong on the big stages.

Spring is here, everyone; have fun watching over the next four days.

From 2011 to 2012 on the PGA Tour

With the 2011 PGA season in the books, it’s time to take a look back and a peek ahead. Some of these observations will be fantasy-oriented, while others will just reflect plain-old Tour golf.
Best fantasy golfer of 2011 – Not close. Luke Donald is the #1 player in the world, and won the money titles on both sides of the pond. Are you kidding me? Entering only 19 events on the PGA Tour, he nevertheless topped everyone else’s earnings; only Webb Simpson and Nick Watney came within $2 million of Donald’s $6.68 million over here, and that doesn’t account for the weeks he spent in Europe, winning that tour’s money title. He made 17 cuts and finished in the top 10 14 times in those 19 starts. Basically, if he entered an event that was on your fantasy league’s schedule and you started him, you did well. The one knock on him is that he still hasn’t won a major. Rather than speculating on whether This Is The Year, we’ll tell you to keep starting him and keep reaping the spoils. Unless your league counts only major championship events, Donald was The Man in 2011.
Bandwagon driver – After Rory McIlroy ran away and hid from the field at Congressional in the US Open, everyone started anointing him as The Next Tiger. And then a strange thing happened: He didn’t crush the competition as the calendar unfolded. He finished T25 at the British; he made the cut but was a non-factor at the PGA; his best finish the rest of the year was third place at the Grand Slam of Golf, and there were only four entrants in that event. No, Rory is not about to dominate golf the way Tiger Woods did for a solid decade, and both Jack Nicklaus (18 majors) and Sam Snead (82 wins) are safe from the charismatic young Irishman. There’s nothing wrong with starting McIlroy when he appears in the US – as he says he’ll do more often in 2012 – but be careful not to over-inflate your expectations.
Best clutch shot of 2011 – There are several good choices here, but given the situation, the best has to be Bill Haas’s greenside wedge on the second extra hole in the Tour Championship. With $11 million on the line in sudden-death – go back and read that again, and consider that no other professional athlete faced that much single-moment pressure this year – he literally splashed the ball out of a water hazard onto the green, where it took one hop and checked up, two feet from the pin. He won the playoff, and the 11 mil, on the next playoff hole by sinking a four-foot putt that would have put the average golfer in the cardiac care unit. Steve Stricker’s 6-iron from a ridiculous lie in a fairway bunker on the 72nd hole of the John Deere gets honorable mention. It’s a shot that would scare the bejeebies out of your average club pro, not to mention the most flatbellied of amateurs, but Stricker pulled off a miracle birdie to win his third straight Deere.
Bounce-back player of 2012 – Would you believe Tiger Woods? Well, let’s consider your league’s format. If you’re in a league that allows you to buy a player in 2012 for his 2011 money winnings, thou shalt grab Tiger and run like a scared bandit. He earned all of $660,000 in 2011, and he’s a mortal lock to exceed that in 2012. Factor in that he should be healthy enough to play in all four majors (he made only The Masters and the PGA in 2011), and 2012 looks like an excellent opportunity to “buy low.” That being said, you should again temper your expectations, as you do with McIlroy. It says here that Tiger is not likely to win two majors, or even one, in 2012; he’s basically an average Tour pro, or perhaps slightly better. But his performance, especially tee-to-green, toward the end of the 2011 season gives us hope that he’ll put in a solid, if not world-beating, 2012. And if his putting comes around, who knows?
Best moment of the 2011 season – For sheer spectacle, you can’t beat this moment: It’s Sunday at something called the Farmers Insurance Open, way back in January. Bubba Watson sits nervously in the scorer’s tent with a two-shot lead over Phil Mickelson, who’s on 18, needing an eagle to tie and force a playoff. Phil’s caddie, Bones McKay, calmly strolls over to the hole and places his right hand on the flagstick and his left behind his back, and the gallery starts to go nuts. What’s surprising about this? Why, Phil is 72 yards (not 72 feet) away, back in the fairway, and he wants Bones to tend the stick just in case he jars the approach shot. No, we are not making this up. And the remarkable thing is that most of the folks in the gallery are thinking, By God, Phil just might do it! Alas; the approach finished a good, solid four feet from the pin, and Watson escaped with a one-shot win. The last time someone got this much attention for finishing second was when Rocky Balboa lost a split decision to Apollo Creed back in 1976.
Golfer most likely to come out of nowhere in 2012 – As usual, this one’s a bit of a crapshoot, but if you like to play the lottery, you could do worse than to lay your money on Patrick Cantlay. When’s the last time you found a 19-year-old amateur finishing in the top 30 of the US Open? In 1960, some kid named Nicklaus finished second; but we can agree that he was an exception. Cantlay is a sophomore at UCLA, but keep an eye on his professional status; if he decides to turn pro after the collegiate season ends on June 3, and you can steal him for your fantasy team, he makes a solid end-of-roster addition. Cantlay has one of the best mindsets in the game, so whenever he does turn pro – and he will, eventually – he’ll make a terrific pick. Just don’t make him the centerpiece of your roster quite yet.
Slightly more conservative out-of-nowhere pick – Okay, we can’t just leave you with a lottery-ticket pick like Cantlay. For 2012, if you’re looking for someone to pick up his game, go with John Senden. He’s one of the most consistent players on the Tour in the Holy Grail of golf statistics: greens in regulation. In 2011, for the first time he had a solidly positive year in strokes gained from putting, and he had his best-ever finish in Total Putting (34th). If he continues to build on that progress, he’ll be a birdie-and-par machine this year. (For comparison, the Tour’s other consistent master of the GIR is Joe Durant, but Durant just flat can’t putt. Senden is the better bet, by far.)
Blue-chip stocks – If you like nice, safe investments, go with one of these established Tour pros: Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan, or Jason Day. Each has the game to make a run at 2012 Player of the Year, and that’s the guy you want on your roster. Pay particular attention to Day, who needs only to improve his driving accuracy (172nd on Tour in 2011) to round out a solid set of tools. He was out of the top 100 in greens in regulation, but if he improves his driving, that stat will turn around in a hurry. As with blue-chips on Wall Street, none of these guys will come cheap – all three finished in the Tour’s Top 15 money winners in 2011 – but sometimes you get what you pay for. These players are the place to park your fantasy IRA.
Most likely to plummet in 2012 – Projecting this category just feels wrong, as though we’re casting the evil eye on a deserving PGA pro. But despite his enormous success in the President’s Cup, Jim Furyk looks most likely to disappoint over the course of the next 12 months. Number of events entered in 2011: 26. Number of Top-5 finishes: zero. Number of Top-10s: four. (Compare this to Luke Donald and cringe.) He still won $1.53 million, and that speaks well of his perseverance, but results like that won’t win you a fantasy championship. His sparkling 5-0 performance in the President’s Cup was fun to follow, but we don’t think it will translate into 2012 success.
Stick a fork in him – Alas, it’s John Daly. There are few players who command as much love among the fans. Unfortunately, there are few players who have more personal problems than Tiger has had over the past two years, and Daly’s Exhibit A on that short list. Avoid, unless you’re truly, truly desperate.
2017 Player of the Year – If you enjoy looking long-term – and it’s always fun to do that – let’s take a peek at some of today’s kids who are likely to be doing particularly well down the road. Rory McIlroy would be an obvious choice, but he isn’t #1 on this list; that would be K-T Kim, followed closely by Ryo Ishikawa, Patrick Cantlay, and Jason Day. All four of these wunderkinden have the swings and the mental makeups to succeed long-term. If you’re in a league that allows really long-term keepers, draft one of these guys and reap the rewards down the road.