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Friday, February 23, 2007

How U.S. Players Can Stop Being Whipped at Match Play

At the Match Play in Arizona, there are eight players remaining from the original field of sixty-four. Only one of the eight, Chad Campbell, is American. Before he beat David Toms today, there had been only five Americans left in the round of sixteen.

What does this say about the state of American golf? Well, except for Tiger, Phil, Furyk, and Charles Howell lately (and occasionally Toms and Campbell), the Americans are not deep at all in the top ranks of golf. Only seven out of the top 25 in the World Rankings are American. Incredibly, there are five Aussies in the top 25,

Once you get past the top three Americans, ranked 1-3, there's a huge dropoff. Why has this happened?

Some pundits say it's the money. Others say it's the grind of college golf and its focus on perfect swings instead of winning tournaments. Still others say that rather than inspiring others to raise their games to his level, Tiger has made American talents less interested in doing what it takes to be the best.

I don't think any of these excuses hold up to closer inspection. The Europeans and others are winning majors, team matches, and other significant tournaments like never before, and all of them are making big money, many of them play college golf in America, and they've all been playing against Tiger for years.

The most significant reason they aren't excelling is that they haven't taken to globalization. What exactly do I mean by that?

Golf is more global than any other sport. In the Match Play, players represented eighteen countries. That's amazing when you think about it. Twenty-three are American (Henry got in when Schwartzel declined the invitation), but the other forty-one came from seventeen other countries.

So why is globalization not helping the Americans? Shouldn't it benefit them to play against everyone from everywhere? Actually, they really aren't competing against them much outside of the U.S., and this is why their version of "global golf" is false.

You see, the Yanks will only travel overseas for monster appearance fees in Asia and the Middle East. And only a few of them (Tiger is one) even bother to go abroad when money is talking. They need to play in Europe and Asia more. If they do not, the trend of foreign players with more complete games stomping all over them will continue.

It used to be that if you wanted to get good and test your mettle against the best, you had to play a full schedule in the States. Now, this is not enough. One must seek out opportunities to play abroad to challenge all takers on unfamiliar courses. This is the only way to continue to improve. PGA venues are similar, and the travel isn't very rigorous. It makes a player soft.

Playing on the European Tour exposes a player to more competition, a greater variety of courses, and hardens you through a difficult travel schedule. If I were a PGA pro who had more money than I needed (and many of them do), I would take a year off from the Tour and sign up to play in Europe. By my count, the European Tour is playing tournaments in twenty-four countries in 2007.

Traveling, seeing different courses, playing in a variety of weather conditions, learning about other cultures, and playing against all comers is true globalization. Maybe an aging player like Brad Faxon (who claims to love playing in the UK), needs to step up and give this idea a shot. I suspect it would open his eyes to what modern professional golf is all about and rejuvenate his career. Should he be successful, others would take note and give it a try. He might even start a trend.

The PGA Tour is protective of its supreme position as the #1 tour in the world, but it shouldn't be. It should grant up to ten players each year a sabbatical to play elsewhere and not have it affect their standing on the U.S. tour. Maybe they can even arrange a foreign exchange policy with the other tours to encourage true globalization. It would be a win-win for all involved.

All of this does not discount the fact that there are some promising young Americans on the scene. A few that come to mind are Anthony Kim, Bubba Watson, J.B. Holmes, Bill Haas, Kevin Stadler, Ryan Moore, Troy Matteson, Sean O'Hair, Jeff Quinney, Charley Hoffman, Nick Watney, and Will Mackenzie. But other than maybe Holmes, Watson, and Moore, which of those players really make guys like Paul Casey and Henrik Stenson blink?

We're going to see more laughers like this weekend's Match Play far into the future until Americans start playing a serious global schedule. It's going to be humbling to watch if you bleed red, white and blue.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Best New Courses of 2006 (For Me)

There are a heck of a lot of "best new" lists circulating. However, since most of the courses are far from home, extremely expensive, or private, I rarely have a chance to play any of the hottest new courses in the world.

However, I do make a point each year of playing as many courses as possible that may not be new, but are new to me. In 2006, I played twenty-one courses I had never played before. Unofficially, my record for new courses in one year is twenty-three, which I accomplished in 2001.

Here are my personal Five Best New Courses for 2006:
1) Bayonne Golf Club -- Bayonne, NJ
2) Cabo del Sol (Ocean) -- Los Cabos, Mexico
3) NCR Country Club (South) -- Kettering, OH
4) Cabo del Sol (Desert) -- Los Cabos, Mexico
5) Bulle Rock Golf Club -- Havre de Grace, MD

I have my sights set on several top courses in 2007 when the weather turns better. I don't know if I'll be able to match my stellar 2006, but Lord knows I'm gonna try.

Have any of you recently played excellent courses for the first time that you think I should seek out?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Faldo Thinks Chuck Howell Has Game to Challenge Tiger

If you didn't catch yesterday's telecast of the Nissan (Los Angeles) Open, you missed one of the better finishes I can remember. From Mickelson being Mickelson to Charles Howell draining putts all over the place and making par from a cart path on the second playoff hole, it had everything.

I'm impressed by Nick Faldo's TV analysis. He's funny, candid, and very knowledgeable. It's obviously too early to tell if he's right, but before the playoff between Howell and Mickelson, he predicted that Howell might have taken his game to a level where he can consistently push and challenge Tiger and Phil. I don't think Nick made those comments without carefully considering them first.

How the rest of the season plays out will determine if Faldo is correct in his assessment of CH3. Charlie was once touted as the "chosen one" to give Tiger a run for his money. That hasn't happened, but all signs are pointing to a more mature, confident and consistent CH3. No one has ever argued his massive talents. It will be interesting to see if he can build upon yesterday's win and start thinking he should be among the best players in the world.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Who is Phil Mickelson?

Phil Mickelson doesn't quite divide golf fans the way teams like the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Yankees or Notre Dame does. Lots of fans love him and pull for him in every tournament. And yet, there are many people out there who claim his smiling, shoot-from-the-hip public persona is "put on".

Stories of his generosity and his marathon autograph signing sessions have become legendary. He gives more time to fans after his rounds than just about any other player, and he gives a ton of money to charities. Still, his giving of his time and money do not impress many skeptics who are confident he's just an actor who really couldn't give a darn about anyone but himself.

I'm not Phil's #1 fan, but I do tend to think he's a good guy. Read this story and decide for yourself.

Can you imagine any other athlete doing what he did for the Doblers?