Amidst a sea of predictions and golf buzz, Aussie Aaron Baddeley stole the spotlight when he earned the victory at the Northern Trust Open last weekend at Riviera Country Club in Palisades, CA.
While Phil Mickelson was the fan favorite and owned the momentum heading into the event.
Searching for his third victory in three attempts at the Northern Trust, he—and many of the other highly ranked, elite players—grappled with the arduous conditions of Riviera.
From the brutal fescue grass to the intimidating, narrow tee shots that demanded precision, big names like Jim Furyk and Rickie Fowler plummeted down the leaderboard while new faces soared, like Spencer Levin and Jimmy Walker.
For Baddeley, it was his consistency—four consecutive rounds in the 60s (the only player in the field to accomplish that feat)—that branded him champion Sunday under the sunshine of Southern California.
But was Baddeley's success a surprise or telling of what's to come?
What else did we learn from the Northern Trust Open?
In 2009, Spencer Levin made a dreadful 13 cuts in 25 events, at one point missing five cuts in a row.
Then in 2010, the 26-year-old from Sacramento, CA made 24 cuts in 31 events, including three top 10 finishes.
Now, in 2011, Levin has made five of six cuts, finished in the top-25 three times, including a sensational T4 two weeks ago Pebble Beach and a T12 recently at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera.
Spencer Levin may be a slow-learner, but don’t count him out of any race on the golf course.
His game seems to finally be coming together; he ranks No. 20 in Birdie Average, No. 17 in Scoring Average, and No. 41 in Greens in Regulation on Tour. He handled the deceptive putting greens and narrow fairways of Riviera with the poise of a veteran, shooting solid rounds of 67-69-72-71.
A great deal of his success this week was the product of consistently hitting greens, 66% of them to be exact, ranking T12 among the field.
Though he flew under the radar last season as 20-somethings like Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy dominated the PGA Tour, Spencer Levin is a young player coming into his own. Keep your eye on him next week when he tees it up at the Mayakoba Golf Classic.
On the 13th hole at the Northern Trust Open, Fred Couples had a pitching wedge in hand and rehearsed an effortless practice swing. He then approached his golf ball, aligned himself, took a final glance at the hole and made a fluid stroke.
Golf commentator David Feherty said it best: "His swing is so smooth it’s like watching snow fall off a roof."
With opening rounds of 68-66, a 51-year-old Fred Couples looked in control at Riviera, reminiscent of Tom Watson two years ago at the British Open. Unfortunately, Couples suffered a similar fate to Watson, struggling down the stretch with a final round 73 on Sunday to finish T7.
Still, the top-10 was a miraculous finish for the veteran of the PGA.
Couples has always had an unshakable, fluid swing, and he was completely in rhythm this week at Riviera. Two crucial aspects of his success were finishing in the top-10 in greens in regulation and most importantly averaging under 29 putts per round.
Although he lost his lead Sunday, it was a huge boost of confidence and positive sign that golfers like Couples can maintain their prowess past their 40’s, unlike any other sport.
The 2010 Rookie of the Year, Masters Winner and Player of the Year all finished T35 at 1-under par, or in other words—they seriously underwhelmed.
For the 21-year-old Fowler, he struggled from the outset with a two-over par, 74, and never quite climbed back into the hunt.
Mickelson was the favorite heading into the Northern Trust, having won the event two of the last three times and coming off a top-10 finish at Pebble Beach the week before. However he posted just a single round in the 60s, which came on the final day to recover from three mediocre rounds.
Other than a T9 at the Hyundai, Furyk has had a rough start to 2011, missing two cuts and now a middle of the pack finish at the Northern Trust. He opened with a disastrous 75, but closed on a positive note with a five-under par, 67.
The high expectations for these three terrific golfers fell by the wayside.
Just like the days when Kobe Bryant can't find his jump-shot or Roy Halladay can't deal his best stuff, golfers also struggle to produce their best swings at each and every tournament.
Kevin Na has shown over his short career just how deadly he can be with the flatstick, but at the Northern Trust he proved he can contend for championships when each element of his game aligns.
For starters, Na posted 19 birdies in the four-day event, meaning he was not only in a groove with his putter, but also he was also putting himself in excellent position on the greens through precise iron play.
Though he only averaged 265-yards off the tee, he found the fairway more than half the time and ranked T6 in Greens in Regulation.
Unfortunately, he let the victory slip away when he committed four bogeys against just three birdies in his opening nine holes in the final round. Na is notorious for his ferocious competitive edge that tends to go one of two ways; it either fuels his game with a surge of birdies or sends him into a variety of emotional outbursts on the golf course, becoming a nuisance for his player partners.
Luckily, he found his groove from tee to green at Riviera and came within a few strokes of hoisting the trophy Sunday.
Both Jhonattan Vegas and Bill Haas finished T12 at 5-under par at the Northern Trust Open, adding another exceptional finish to their luminous 2011 campaigns.
For Haas, his play at Riviera marks his fifth consecutive cut of the season, highlighted by a T9 at the Farmer’s Insurance Open, a solo eighth at the Hyundai Championship, and a P2 at the Bob Hope Classic.
Vegas, a rookie on Tour and the first Venezuelan golfer on the PGA circuit, has stormed out of the gates in 2011.
After winning at the Bob Hope Classic, he came close to another victory at the Farmer’s Insurance with a T3, and continued his surge this week at Riviera.
48-year-old Vijay Singh made sure Fred Couples wasn’t the only veteran player making headlines at the Northern Trust. Singh actually surpassed Couples, posting four impressive rounds under par (68-70-67-69) to finish in solo second, two shots behind winner Aaron Baddeley.
Last week, Singh looked like “The Big Fijian” who held the No.1 Official World Golf Ranking for a brief 32-week stint in 2004. He carded 20 birdies (No.1 in field), averaged 26.3 putts per round (No.1 in field) and hit 60% of Greens in Regulation (T38 in field).
It was an unflappable side of Singh golf fans hadn’t seen for a few seasons, but hoped would come alive, and sure enough, he thrived.
Singh proved he’s still the powerful, flexible, capable golfer that won three majors championships and owns 34 PGA Tour victories. At Riviera, he was pounding drives that split fairways, launching wedge shots ten feet past the cup that spun to pin high, and draining putts with his long, fluid stroke.
Is Singh in the midst of a resurgence?
He’s made five consecutive cuts, finished T3 two weeks ago in Phoenix, and could have easily bested Baddeley at the Northern Trust had a few more putts dropped. Singh is undeniably one of the most experienced, accomplished players currently competing on the PGA, meaning if he can harness his skills and, excuse the cliché, find his rhythm "in the right place and at the right time," don’t be surprised if Singh is hoisting a trophy at some point this season.
Ryan Moore is a familiar name to golf fans for two reasons completely unassociated with his sometimes forgotten, exceptional skills on the course.
First, he made headlines a few years back when he refused to join forces with any club/clothing brands and sponsors, ultimately taking the rebellious route less traveled among PGA Tour players.
Second, his clothing style fuses the ‘retro’ look—a cardigan over a collared shirt with a tie—with punk flare, distinguishing him from the often boring, solid colored outfits of the average player (see Steve Stricker).
Unfortunately, these aspects of his reputation are clouding people’s vision from recognizing how much he’s refined his skills and course management.
He placed T4 at the Northern Trust after four, stellar under par rounds (69-68-70-69), highlighted by precise driving off the tee (ranked No. 4 in the field). Riviera was an especially positive sign for Moore because he showed visible improvement in an area of his game that lagged last season – greens in regulation. He ranked T23 in the field, hitting greens just over 63% of the time, which will be crucial for him as the season progresses and the majors come into sight.
This won’t be the last time Moore makes noise this season, considering he’s earned at least five top-10 finishes each of the last three seasons.
If you didn’t know the name Jimmy Walker before this season, don’t worry, you are not alone.
However, based on his three top-10’s in five consecutive made cuts so far this season, it might pay off to learn about the guy tearing up the Tour.
Walker, a 32-year-old native of Oklahoma City, turned professional in 2001 but never reached his potential on the PGA due to debilitating injuries throughout 2004-05. He regained his Tour card in 2008, ranked No. 125 on the Money List in 2009, and finished No. 103 last season, which was highlighted by a phenomenal T3 at the Valero Texas Open.
Now that we are caught up to speed, it seems like Walker is also prepared to find his niche among PGA elite.
Surprisingly, he’s on his way.
Walker finished solo fourth at the Sony Open in Hawaii, earned a couple top-50 finishes at the Farmer’s and Waste Management, and then shined in the last two weeks with a T9 at the AT&T at Pebble Beach and his most recent T4 at the Northern Trust.
For a player like Walker, who’s relatively new to the hype of high finishes on the pro-circuit, his future success this season will be contingent upon coping with the pressure. He will need to emphasize consistency, play to his strengths and learn to minimize his mistakes in the areas that trouble him.
Aaron Baddeley has never been known for his consistency or his ability to withstand pressure. Consider that the last time he won was in 2007, which was the same year he plummeted down the leaderboard Sunday at the US Open when paired with the Superman of golf, Tiger Woods.
However, based on the way he’s begun 2011, he’s erasing that unfortunate stigma and replacing it with one of consistency, finesse and intimidation.
Baddeley has made four of five cuts this season, finished in the top-40 in all four, highlighted by a T6 at Pebble Beach and an outstanding victory at Riviera. One key reason for his triumph was that he was the only player in the field to shoot four rounds in the 60s.
Those stunning scores were the product of incredible consistency; Baddeley carded an incredible 52 pars and 15 birdies over 72 holes.
He not only beat an elite, stacked field, but withstood the pressure down the stretch, which was the Achilles Heel of his game over the last few seasons of erratic play. Who knows what's in store for Baddeley, who at 29-years of age may just be hitting his apex.
Welcome to golf’s version of the NBA All-Star game.
You’ve got everyone from the established greats like Lee Westwood and Tiger Woods to the young guns like Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler competing for a highly-regarded championship, not to mention serious bragging rights.
Unlike a West vs. East NBA battle, WGC match-play events never have a clear cut favorite. So who do you think has the upper-hand?
One thing is for sure: the spotlight will be on Tiger Woods, who desperately needs a victory not just to maintain his sanity, but to reemerge as one of the premier golfers in the world.