Torrey Pines never fails to evoke that edge of your seat suspense. With a pesky lefty named Phil Mickelson just a shot off the lead at the Farmer's Insurance Open, it literally took a double-breaking birdie putt on the 18th hole for Bubba Watson to close out his second victory on the PGA Tour.
With the first four events of the 2011 season in the record books, has golf ever been this exciting? We’ve already seen two events demand playoffs, and this past week, all of the top three finishers are currently ranked inside the top 20 in the Official Golf World Ranking, Watson (no. 18), Mickelson (no. 4), and Dustin Johnson (no. 14).
Not only is the game going global, welcoming a host of South-American and Asian competitors who add a never before seen international element to the game, but Tiger Woods, the most dominant player of the last decade, is being upended by the next generation of youthful, vigorous competitors. Bubba Watson, one of the leaders of the new breed, maneuvered his gigantic length and volatile game to produce four terrific rounds that anointed him a truly deserving champion at the Farmer’s Insurance Open.
Give it up for the rookie Jhonatton Vegas, who not only survived the pressure of his first tournament after his victory last week at the Bob Hope, but thrived at the Farmer’s Insurance Open with a miraculous T3 finish.
Over the four grueling days at Torrey Pines, Vegas defied any and every expectation. The 6’2, 230-pound Venezuelan sensation showed an impressive amount of resilience under pressure and consistency with rounds of 69-69-69-68 to finish -13.
One of the keys to his success— ball striking. He ranked second in the Greens in Regulation, averaged just under 30 putts per round, and sank 20 birdies over the week. After a mediocre T57 finish at the Sony Open, Vegas got his redemption last week with a victory at the Bob Hope (Vegas is the first Venezuelan to play on the PGA Tour, much less win). But this week, he proved he’s not some kid who lucked out, but a staunch competitor intent on being a factor every time he hits the course.
Don’t you just wish Johnson showed a little more emotion? Maybe after pounding a drive well into the 320’s, he could give a club twirl or show some pep in his step? Or after sinking an eagle putt or chipping in from off the green he could, just maybe, smile? Whether or not Johnson is animated, he continues to be one of the most gifted golfers on Tour, which was cemented with his stellar T3 performance at Torrey Pines.
Last week, he ranked 18th in Driving Accuracy and fifth in Driving Distance, averaging 304-yards off the tee. Johnson also ranked fourth in Greens in Regulation and T10 in Putts Per Round with 27.8.
Remember, aside from Matt Kuchar, and maybe Jim Furyk, Dustin Johnson was without a doubt the player of the year in 2010. His consistency earned him seven top-10s, two of which came in major championships (US Open and PGA Championship) that he was in contention to win. He also captured two blooming victories, first at the AT&T Pro-Am and then the BMW Championship.
What’s most threatening about Johnson’s game is that he continues to elevate each and every level to become the most versatile and competitive golfer on the course. Whereas he was once deadly for primarily his length, he continues to drive the ball a mile, but now has the precision with his irons and touch on the greens to back it up.
Aside from an erratic final round 73, Hunter Mahan finished T6 at the Farmer's Insurance Open after playing three exceptional rounds (69-67-69) that put him in a position to contend on Sunday, which is most crucial.
Over the week, Mahan ranked in the top-20 in almost every category; T18 in Driving Accuracy,19th in Driving Distance (292-yards on average), and sixth in Putts Per Round (27.5). Unfortunately, he was T40 in Greens in Regulation, which was most apparent on Sunday when he made three bogeys and a double bogey en route to a 1-over par, 73.
But the next time Mahan is that high up on the leader board over the weekend, don’t expect him to struggle down the stretch again; it’s simply not his style. In 2010, Mahan won two events, both of which he captured with sizzling Sunday rounds, first at the Phoenix Waste Management Open with a closing 65 and then at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with a 64.
His accuracy off the tee is usually what he relies on most to set him apart from his competition, which was stellar this week as well. Working with instructor Sean Foley, it looked like Mahan made some effective adjustments to his putting stroke that endow him with a new level of confidence on the greens. Mahan is the kind if player who can be a top-10 contender week in and week out, and this week, he put on display why he is a two-time USA Ryder Cup member and a proven winner on the PGA Tour.
First and foremost, did you know that Bubba Watson’s triumph at the Farmer’s Insurance Open makes him just the fifth lefty to win at least twice on the PGA Tour?
He now joins Phil Mickelson (38), Mike Weir (eight), Bob Charles (six), and Steve Flesch (four) in this illustrious category of champions. In 2010, Watson won his first event in emotional, dramatic fashion at the Traveler’s Championship, which was later followed by his sensational P2 finish at the PGA Championship.
So far in 2011, it seems like Watson has found his stride on the PGA Tour. While his superior length over the field was what he once solely depended on for an advantage, it is now just one weapon within his arsenal. At Torrey Pines, he ranked first in both Driving Distance (316-yards on average) and Greens in Regulation and also averaged 29 putts per round, draining 20 birdies over the four days.
After his slow opening round 71, he followed up with three consecutive rounds in the 60s, shooting 65-69-67. What’s most important about his victory is that he withstood the pressure. On the18th hole, he found the fairway with one of his monstrous drives, but totally blocked his second shot to the left and ended up with an awkward lie in the bunker.
However, he took his time, analyzed the slope of the green and blasted the ball into the slope and watched it trickle down towards the cup. With the money, the glory, and the victory on the line, he sank a truly difficult putt and deservedly hoisted the trophy.
The 2010 Masters champion, Phil Mickelson, entered Torrey Pines with three previous Farmer’s Insurance Open victories, as well as the course knowledge of a San Diego native. It only made sense that he was in contention throughout the event, but then Lefty made his notorious late in the game, Sunday surge to pose a threat to leader Bubba Watson.
By the 18th hole, once the other big lefty on the course, Watson, made his sensational birdie putt at the last to go two up on Mickelson, Phil had 72-yards to the hole for his third shot and decided he had only one option—the class Phil option—go for it. He pinged his wedge into the air, and it struck the poana green about six feet past the hole and then spun back on command, but came to a bitter standstill just a few feet from the cup.
Mickelson may not have won, but he definitely left an imprint in the minds of his peers and golf fans. The truth is, you don’t really know how talented Mickelson is until you watch him perform. For example, in his second round, he hit just two fairways but still managed to shoot a 3-under par, 69. His ability to recover and make the impossible possible is not just astonishing, its unrivaled on Tour.
Lefty was ranked T64 in Driving Accuracy, but somehow managed to rank T2 in Greens in Regulation at Torrey Pines. His knack for hitting greens this week was undoubtedly a product of his enormous length off the tee, which may have put him in the rough, but also granted him many shots with wedges and lofted clubs. Before Phil tees it up next, put your money on another high finish or victory, because imagine what would have happened if he had hit just a few more fairways this week, how deadly he may have been.
The truth is—which is kind of a bizarre, but thrilling fact—Anthony Kim didn’t even play to his potential over the weekend and still finished in the top-10 at Torrey Pines.
His opening rounds of 68-67 were vintage Kim, firing at pins, swinging out of his shoes, and draining putts with his silky, smooth putting stroke. It’s the Kim we know, love, and hope will regain his stride. Over the weekend, Kim shot 71-72, landing him a solid T6 finish.
It was his accuracy off the tee that inhibited his leap to the top of the leader board, ranking T56 in Driving Accuracy. But on the other side of the spectrum, it was his extremely impressive putting that made him a factor over the weekend. He ranked T2 in Putts Per Round with 26.2 and T3 in the Putts Per Green in Regulation category, with 1.6.
Remember, Kim predated this new breed of 20-somethings and was really the first young gun to pose a threat to Tiger Woods’ dominance. Hopefully, this performance at Torrey Pines will be a sign of his re-entry to the competitive scene of the PGA Tour.
After a rough opening round 73, the relatively unknown D.A. Points looked baffled by the deceptively demanding Torrey Pines course. Then, sometime between signing his first round scorecard and hitting the opening tee shot of his second round, he got back on point. Over the next three rounds, Points put on a clinic, carding three exceptional rounds of 68-68-67 for a truly deserving, hard fought T8 finish.
Talk about a 180: Points made just two birdies in his first 18 holes and then went on to card 20 over his next 54 holes, finishing T2 for most birdies in the field.
This didn’t look like the player from 2010, who missed 14 cuts and finished in the top-10 a mere three times. Since his debut last week at the Bob Hope, where he put together five consecutive under-par rounds, finishing T42, Points has displayed just how crucial his off season was to rebuilding both his skills and his confidence.
At Torrey, his putting stroke was simply textbook. Points’ fluid motion looked clearly in sync with the verdant poana putting greens, where he ranked T11 in putts per round with 28. As expected, a slew of long-hitters like Points, who drove the ball on average 291-yards, were near the top of the leader board on the 7,569-yard South Course. 2011 will undoubtedly be about consistency for Points, who is succeeding thus far with two for two in cuts made and now a top-10 finish.
Here’s a guy who’s golf swing coils and unravels with such grace and fluidity that it looks as effortless as a diver unfolding from a spinning tuck in mid-air.
Unfortunately, his Hogan-esque swing has not produced as stellar of a career as many hoped for the 31-year-old, with just a single win to his name. But 2011 has already initiated the kind of turnaround that Howell III has envisioned as he practiced tirelessly in the off-season.
He’s made three consecutive cuts, finished T13 last week at the Bob Hope and recently T14 at the Farmer’s. For Howell III, the most decisive factor to his game is consistency. His rounds of 71-68-73-69 were no doubt solid, but without that third, over-par round, he could been notched up into the top-10. As he continues to learn the most effective strategies for minimizing his mistakes, Howell III looks poised to make a serious impact this season.
After Bill Haas signed his scorecard and gazed at his name perched atop the leader board Friday at the Farmer’s Insurance Open, he told a reporter that he wanted his 2011 season to resemble a "Matt Kuchar-like" 2010. His goal implied his desire to improve his consistency, considering Kuchar missed just one cut and earned 11 top-10’s in last season.
Well, so far, job well done, Bill.
In three events, Haas has finished eighth, P2 and T9 and now ranks fifth in Fed-Ex Cup points. If you’ve watched Haas compete over the last month, he just seems more sure of himself, and his stats prove it.
Between his accuracy off the tee (35th in Driving Accuracy) and near flawless iron play (ninth in Greens in Regulation), he’s learning how to successfully fuse the various, crucial elements of his game. Also, just to demonstrate how strong Haas’ game has been in 2011, over the last 13 rounds, Haas has drained 66 birdies, which means he’s averaging just over five birdies per round.
It may not be 81 points in a basketball game. It may not be four home-runs in a baseball game. But carding eight birdies in nine holes is a phenomenal feat in golf.
Nick Watney entered his final round at 1-under par, but was catapulted into the spotlight Sunday at the Farmer’s Insurance Open when he went on a birdie rampage. Eight birdies, an eagle and a just a single bogey earned Watney a T6 finish.
His round wasn’t just being praised for his excellent consistency, but also because he pummeled the South Course at Torrey Pines, which was the 2008 US Open venue and a track world renown for its pride-swallowing difficulty. Also, typically when a golfer shoots 70-73-72 in his first three rounds, the likelihood of a low round in the final round is about as likely as John Daly consulting a mirror before stepping onto the golf course.
Despite the odds against him, Watney found an incredible rhythm and will ride that momentum into his next event.