Thursday, January 29, 2009

Helping Captain Monty

The United States' exciting victory in the Ryder Cup this past September is still fresh in the minds of many of us, but the team captains have now been selected for both teams and their attention is on the 2010 event, to be held at the Celtic Manor Resort in Wales.

Colin Montgomerie will lead the European team in '10, edging out Jose Maria Olazabal for the captaincy. Prior to missing the team in '08, the 8-time Order of Merit winner had played on 8 consecutive Ryder Cup teams, posting a remarkable record of 20-9-7 and never once losing in singles competition.

While his sometimes salty demeanor hasn't gained him many fans in the States, Monty is a Ryder Cup hero in Europe and will surely rally the troops following the loss in '08. What I would like to do today is preview those who I expect to be the 12 best players in Europe come September 2010.

1. Sergio Garcio - This is a no-brainer. At 29, he's played on five Ryder Cup teams already and posted a career mark of 14-3-3.

2. Padraig Harrington - He will be 39 in 2010, but his play has steadily improved into his late 30s. Despite a Ryder Cup record of 7-11-3, his inclusion is almost guaranteed, as he's won the past two majors and three majors in all since his 35th birthday.

3. Henrik Stenson - This Swede is entering his prime and is now ranked 7th in the Official World Golf Ranking. He has a WGC title to his name and I would expect to see the 32-year-old add some more big time wins to his resume prior to the 2010 Cup.

4. Robert Karlsson - Like Paddy, this 6'5" Swede seems to be getting better with age, winning his first order of Merit in 2008 at the age of 39. Karlsson is a steady performer, winning nine European Tour events thus far in his career and steadily climbing to his current rank of 8th in the World Rankings.

5. Lee Westwood - It absolutely blows my mind to think that Lee Westwood will be a 37-year-old veteran of six Ryder Cups come 2010. I would probably say he's been an underachiever since winning 12 European Tour events between '98 and '00, but he's returning to form since coming close to giving up the game a few years ago.

6. Martin Kaymer - If I were a betting man, I would bet Kaymer would be ranked higher than everyone else on this list except Sergio come 2010. This young German has a ton of talent, has already won a couple big events on the European Tour, and just turned 24.

7. Justin Rose - He's never lived up to the "Next Nick Faldo" expectations, but his career has been solid and he's only 28. I would be shocked if he doesn't add to his win total in the next two years, finally breakthrough on the PGA Tour, and easily make the 2010 squad.

8. Paul Casey - Captain Faldo made this 31-year-old Englishman a Capitain's choice in '08, but I think Casey will emerge as a major contender by 2010 and easily earn his spot. The 3-time Ryder cup vet played brilliantly in Abu Dhabi, earning his first win since 2007.

9. Alvaro Quiros - Last week's winner in Qatar is starting to emerge as a young player to watch. The 26-year-old Spaniard absolutely bombs it (312 yards/drive avg.) and has improved his putting in each of the last three years. Look for him to be highly ranked headed to Wales in 2010.

10. Ian Poulter - The only golfer who loves wearing pink more than Paula Creamer, Poulter hasn't won on the European Tour since '06 and has never won on the PGA Tour. Look for him to break out of his funk (on both tours!), and lock up his spot on the European team in '10.

11. Luke Donald - It's been ten year since winning the NCAA championship, and his four wins (2 in Europe, 2 in the US) have left some saying he's an underachiever. The 31-year-old hasn't won since the '06 Honda, but appears to be healthy and ready to get back in the winner's circle in '09. This is probably my least confident pick, but I think he'll be in Wales come 2010.

12. Rory McIlroy - Maybe I'm nuts, but I think McIlroy will be a top 10 player in the WORLD by 2010, with multiple victories to his name. His only glaring flaw is bad hair, and we'll chalk that up to youth. Look for McIlroy, Kaymer and Sergio be Captain Monty's top players heading into Wales.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The 20th Dubai Desert Classic

The third event in the European Tour's Persian Gulf swing has historically featured the best field, as hefty appearance fees have been paid to the world's best to tee it up in the Dubai Desert Classic. Tiger Woods, the 2006 and defending ('08) champion, has reportedly collected upwards of $3Million just to play in the event each year.

This year, with the $10,000,000 Race to Dubai, the stakes have been raised and more top players than ever are headed to the desert, armed with affiliate European Tour memberships, to try to cash in. Most players have already played in the first two events in the United Arab Emirates, the Abu Dhabi Championship and last week's Qatar Masters.

The European Tour's swing through the Persian Gulf features prize pools that nearly double the tour norm, with another $2.5 Million up for grabs this week. The tour's best and brightest are looking to position themselves for a run at their share of the $10,000,000 Race to Dubai, as well as securing a spot in the top 60 on that list, allowing them to play in the Dubai World Championship, which will feature a $10,000,000 prize pool!

World #2, Sergio Garcia, will be in the field this week and looks to continue a strong start to the '09 season. Garcia won the season opening HSBC title in China and followed with back-to-back top tens in the U.A.E. (T-8 Abu Dhabi, T-7 Qatar). He has yet to shoot over par in his first 12 rounds, and currently sports a scoring average of 68.58. The 28-year-old Spaniard currently leads the Race to Dubai, but a long season is ahead of him, as the race runs through November 22nd and the aforementioned Dubai World Championship. As it has been in recent years with the Order of Merit, which the Race to Dubai replaces, all four majors and each WGC event will also be counted towards the final money list standings.

Jose Maria Olazabal, Miguel Angel Jimenez, and '08 European Tour Rookie of the Year Pablo Larrazabal will join Sergio and Qatar Masters champ Alvaro Quiros, respresenting a strong Spanish contigent at this week's event.

Sweden boasts two players currently ranked within the World Top Ten and both will be in Dubai this week, as Robert Karlsson and Henrik Stenson ('07 Dubai winner) both try to step into the winner's circle for the first time in '09. Stenson played great in Qatar, holding the lead at one point on the back nine Sunday, but ended in a T-2 after Alvaro Quiros poured in a few late birdies.

Ernie Els has seemingly spent more time in the air than on the golf course, lately, as he flew from South Africa to Hawaii to the U.A.E. in a three week span. He stays grounded this week, making the short trip from Qatar to Dubai. Hopefully, it will bring a little stability to his game, as he only managed a T-31 last week and a T-39 at the Sony, after getting off to a good start with a T-6 at Kapalua. Dubai should bring back fond memories for Els, as he has always played extremely well, having won three times ('94, '02, '05).

Americans Mark O-Meara and Erik Compton have both received sponsors exemptions into the field. O'Meara won this event in 2004, and Compton is trying to get his career on track after TWO heart transplants have put his career on the back-burner to suriving.

Other notables in the field include a strong cast from the United Kingdom: Rory McIlroy, Paul Lawrie, Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, Paul McGinley, and 2010 Ryder Cup captain hopeful, Colin Montgomerie.

Martin Kaymer entered the final round in 2008 tied with Tiger Woods and shot a fantastic 66. Of course, Tiger shot 65 and beat the young German by a stroke in a dramatic finale to last year's event. Kaymer returns, has been playing well, and is not a bad choice if you're a betting man.

This week's European Tour event should be a good one, and all four rounds are being shown in the mornings on the Golf Channel. The commentary and camerawork leaves a little to be desired, but the golf should be great!

FBR Preview & More

Phil's 2009 Debut; AK & Camilo Are Back

I honestly like Pat Perez and Steve Stricker, but must say that I am quite pleased that they are NOT the top stories at the FBR Open this week in Scottsdale.

Phil Mickelson's 2009 debut earns top billing, as we all wonder what to expect from Lefty coming off of a modest year (by his standards). It's also always fun to anticipate Phil's bra size for '09. The (less) Hefty Lefty shed a few pounds for 2008, so it will be interesting to see if he kept up his commitment to fitness for this year. If Phil shows up "in shape" and decides to listen to ABSOLUTELY NOTHING that Dave Pelz recommends, I think he could have a great year. Phil has always played well at the FBR, was runner-up last year, and a winner in '96 and '05.

Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas are both in the field this week, after AK withdrew last week with a bum shoulder and Villegas took some time off. They are both looking to continue to take their games to the next level and I look for them to both be lurking at the top of the leaderboard.

Geoff Ogilvy and Zach Johnson, our first two winners of the year, will both be in the field this week after skipping the snooze-fest known as the Bob Hope. Both men are off to great starts to the year and will contend any week that their putters heat up.

Steve Stricker will be looking to redeem himself, after losing 7 strokes to par on two holes and shooting a 77 in Sunday's final round at the Blah Hope. The stroke average for the event was 68.5 or so, and an even-par-72 would have left Stricker tied for the lead and heading to a playoff. Obviously, it's always easier-said-than-done, but I hope Strix doesn't dwell on Sunday, instead remembering the recording setting 61-62 he shot on Friday & Saturday.

Pat Perez will be in the field as well and is sure to be hovering somewhere around the cut line...

All in all, we have seven of the top 25 players in the world in the field this week. It's an improvement over last week, however, the European Tour's Dubai Desert Classic, where Tiger will be unable to defend his title, features nine of the top 25. I would say this looks to be our best week of golf to date in '09, and things are just starting to heat up!

Look for the Dubai preview tomorrow...

Naps & Spaniards

Congrats Pat Perez! Sorry about your luck, Steve Stricker. Despite the five day birdie barrage, the Bob Hope proved to be no more than nap fodder. Unfortunately, the Bob Hope will never draw a decent field with the current Pro-Am setup. Arnie could give away Rolexes to every entrant and it wouldn't make a difference!

Alvaro Quiros was rather impressive in winning the Qatar Masters, which featured seven of the Top 15 players in the World. After some quick research, I'm realizing he is a player worth keeping an eye on. Historically, Spaniards have been blossomed at a young age. Everyone remembers 19-year-old Sergio dueling with Tiger down the stretch at the PGA in '99. Seve Ballesteros led the British Open after 36 holes at the age of 18, won his first British Open at 22 and first Masters at 23, en route to 5 major championships by the time he was 31 years old.

Jose Maria Olazabal finished second on the European Tour's Order of Merit at the age of 20, winning twice in his rookie year. He was nearly a senior citizen, at 28, when he won his first Green Jacket, but already had 15 European Tour and 2 PGA Tour victories to his credit.

So the 26-year-old Quiros has some catching up to do! However, he has not been slacking, despite his lack of notoriety. This is his third European Tour victory, his second in under four months. He started on Tour in 2007 and won the first event he played in with his tour card! Last October he won the Portugal Masters, and the win Sunday in Qatar moved him up to 28th in the Official World Golf Rankings. So that means he has won an event in each of his first three years, and has likely secured an invite to the Masters come April.

The lanky Spaniard absolutely bombs it, currently averaging 312 yards per poke and averaging over 308 in each of his first two seasons! He appears to hit a lot of greens, too, but his putts per round are well above tour average for both Europe & the PGA Tour. As we know, that's where the dollars are made, but he is already showing drastic improvements in the putting statistics for 2009, after improving from 2007 to 2008. If this continues, look for Quiros to keep winning and eventually make his presence felt on U.S. soil.

Although I'm always happy to see a fresh face emerge, I will say I was moderately disappointed we didn't see more fireworks from the strong, international field at the Qatar Masters. Many well known players missed the cut, including Americans Boo Weekley & Brandt Snedeker, and players like Ernie Els and Adam Scott were never a factor. Henrik Stenson (T-2) continued his strong play, perhaps showing that he will be a player to watch in '09 and propelling himself to 7th in the World Rankings. Sergio Garcia was never a threat, but played four solid rounds to finish tied for 7th and keeping his lead in the Race for Dubai. He will be in Dubai for the third leg of the "Gulf Trilogy", competing against another very strong field.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

17-Year-Old Millionaire Gets Masters Invite

In a time in which Michelle Wie & Ty Tryon both signed multi-million dollar endorsement deals before hitting their first shots as professionals, Ryo Ishikawa did it the old-fashioned way. The 17-year-old high school senior does double duty as a touring pro on the Japan Tour, and is the youngest professional to win his way to a 100 million...YEN that is (which is roughly $1.1 Million USD).

In November, Ishikawa won the Japan Tour's mynavia ABC Championship as a professional, after having won the Tour's Munsignwear Open KSB Cup as a 15-year-old amateur in 2007!

After being a part of Team Asia in the recent Royal Trophy competition, in which Asian players competed against and BEAT European players in a Ryder Cup-like team event, Ishikawa has garnered a lot of attention.

Earlier this week he received invitations the the Northern Trust Open, where the defending champion is Phil Mickelson, and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, which Tiger Woods won in stunning fashion last year. As if he wasn't already going to be playing in two great tourneys against the PGA Tour's elite (unlike this week's event!), his third invite of the week is to play in the Masters!

Ishikawa is apparently elated and I'm excited to see how he will fare. He has risen to 60th in the Official World Golf Rankings, currently ahead of such notables as Woody Austion, '08 Ryder Cupper Chad Campbell, Scott Verplank, DJ Trahan and current 2nd round leader at the Bob Hope, Pat Perez (who is 90th).

I couldn't find much on Ishikawa, except for the clip above, but obviously he has caught the attention of the right people. It will be very interesting to see how a 17-year-old, however talented, handles himself against the best in the world.

Stars in Qatar; PGA Tour LITE; Captain Monty

While the PGA Tour Lite hit La Quinta, the best players in the world made way to the United Arab Emirates.

With the withdrawal of Anthony Kim due to injury, 16th ranked Steve Stricker is the top player in the field at the Bob Hope Classic. The top active players in the world this week all made way to the Doha Golf Club for the Qatar Masters, which got started today. Seven of the World's Top 14 players are in the field, trying to earn points for the Race to Dubai and get the winner's share of $2.5 MIL.

Many top players got off to a tough start, as Boo Weekley shot a 2-over-par 74, last week's winner in Abu Dhabi Paul Casey shot 76, Rory McIlroy also carded a 76, Justin Rose posted 74, Darren Clarke: 73, and defending champion Adam Scott hit the ball 73 times. Hopefully, some of these guys will bounce back and help give us an exciting weekend of golf.

Sweden's Henrik Stensen, who is currently 11th in the Official World Golf Rankings, sits atop the leaderboard with Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez (#26 OWGR), and Scotland's Andrew Coltart, who won here in 1998. All three shot 66 on the par-72 Doha Golf Club.

Just a shot behind is Lee Westwood, followed by the American-born/Australian-raised Aaron Baddeley (-4), Sweden's 2008 Athlete of the Year - Robert Karlsson (-4), and 2007 Qatar Masters champ Retief Goosen (-3), who is fresh off a win at the Africa open.

Current Race to Dubai leader, World #2 Sergio Garcia shot a 2-under-par 70 and is tied with Ernie Els, among others, in 23rd place. Rising star Martin Kaymer has been playing some great golf and carded a 71 today, as did Colin Montgomerie.

Monty appears to be the new favorite to be awarded the Ryder Cup captaincy for 2010. Jose Maria Olazabal, who was a late withdrawal from Qatar this week with arm and wrist pain, was long considered the favorite but is now looking to be the pick for 2012. Personally, I think they will both be great, and would love to see JM make a push to make the team in '10. I think he still has the game to do it, and then captain the team in '12. Monty, love him or hate him, is a bulldog in the Ryder Cup and is always good for quotables. He is probably America's favorite player to hate and his captaincy would make for some good competitive drama.

That's all for now. I'm currently watching the Blah Hope, which features a leaderboard of Pat Perez, followed by Richard Johnson, Jason Dufner, Brad Adamonis, and Tom Pernice Jr. These guys are all extremely talented, but I can't pretend that I'm the least bit interested.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Top Players Head To Persian Gulf

As I was getting ready to do the preview for this week’s Bob Hope Classic, an interesting thing happened… I fell asleep. Waking up, I thought, “Where are all the PGA Tour stars that I know?” I see Anthony Kim (#8 Official World Golf Rankings – O.W.G.R.) and Fred Couples (#182 O.W.G.R. - #1 in our hearts) are both in the field, but is that really it?

I then made the decision to do the preview for this week’s PGA Tour event tomorrow, while today I’m going to take a look at this week’s tournament featuring seven of the top 14 players in the world: the European Tour’s Qatar Masters held at the Doha Golf Club.

Defending champion Adam Scott is returning to top form, coming off a tie for second in last week’s Sony Open and looking to extend his perfect record in Qatar. He has won his only two starts in the event (2002 & 2008), and last year’s victory was especially dramatic, as he shot a final round 11-under-par 61 to overtake Henrik Stenson, who entered the final round with the lead, shot a 7-under-par 65 and still lost!

Another notable player to watch this week will be Boo Weekley, who is the European Tour’s newest member. Having taken up an Affiliate Membership to hopefully take part in the $10,000,000 “Race to Dubai”, Boo brings a style all-his-own to the Middle East and the European Tour. What he also brings is perhaps the best ball-striking on the planet, so look out if Boo’s putter heats up. When this guy is making putts, he is tough to beat.

Nine of the 12 players from the European Ryder Cup team will be in the field, including last week’s winner in Abu Dhabi, Paul Casey, as well as World #2 and current Race to Dubai leader, Sergio Garcia. Soren Hansen, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Robert Karlsson, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Lee Westwood and Oliver Wilson will all be a part of the pseudo-reunion.

Ernie Els is making the trip from Hawaii to the Persian Gulf to tee it up this week, and will be joined by fellow South African and fellow two-time US Open winner, Retief Goosen. Goosen, the 2007 Qatar Masters champ, might be a player to watch! Fresh off his win at the Sunshine Tour’s Africa Open last week, Goosen is playing well and obviously likes the setup at the Doha Golf Club. Retief turns 40 in just a few weeks and may be looking to make one last run as an elite player in the world.

Probably the least known player in the top 20 of the Official World Golf Rankings, Martin Kaymer, is also in the field this week and is my pick to take home the victory. Kaymer made his first appearance of 2009 last week, finishing in a tie for second place. He has finished T-2 three times in his last six starts, and I predict that this will be the week he breaks through.

19-year-old Rory McIlroy has played four events during this 2009 European Tour season and has three finishes inside the top five. The second-year pro from Northern Ireland is currently in 7th place in the Race to Dubai standings and has moved up to 35th in the O.W.G.R. Don’t be shocked to see him win his first tournament before he turns 20 (this coming April). And although I picked Martin Kaymer to win this week’s event, I wouldn’t be surprised to see McIlroy win. I also expect to see him near the top of the Dubai Desert Classic next week.

I think that the European Tour regulars always looks to play well during the Persian Gulf swing, due to the increased prize money, strong fields with PGA Tour players, and elevated international press coverage. Look for this week to be a good one!