Sunday at the World Golf Championship was like golf’s version of the NBA All-Star game, featuring the top 64 golfers in the Official World Golf Rankings who brought their talents to South Beach (or about eight miles south of it, in Doral).
With such a stacked field of high-caliber golfers, it was anyone’s game. Matt Kuchar, arguably the most talented American golfer around right now, rode the momentum of four top-10 finishes this season to Doral, while German-sensation Martin Kaymer, the newly-anointed world No. 1 player, was predicted to be a fierce contender for the championship.
But when the host course, TPC Blue Monster at Doral, began to show its teeth late in the final round, only two players could withstand its bite: Dustin Johnson and Nick Watney. Both players notoriously held three-stroke leads headed into the final round of major championships last season—Johnson at the US Open and Watney at the PGA—but each dramatically let the win slip away.
According to the PGA Tour records, when Watney approached the 18th hole at Doral—a visual nightmare for any golfer—he should have had no chance contending for the championship. He’d been eight-over par on the hole over his career, he never made a birdie and he was fresh off a pulled drive the day before into the treacherous, almost magnetic, water hazard.
Despite his dreary past, Watney, with the poise of a seasoned vet, split the fairway with his drive, punched an 8-iron to pin high and drained his birdie as if he had designed it that way—flawlessly. His sensational finish earned him the victory, his third in his career and by far his most prestigious. But we didn’t just learn about Nick Watney’s perseverance this week. Come see what else we found out at Doral.
Did you know that six of the top-10 finishers and 12 of the top-25 golfers at the WGC-Cadillac were American? This was a huge leap for American confidence after just two weeks ago the top four in the Official World Golf Rankings became European dominated.
The 2010 season was turning point and shift in the American versus European/international command over the golf world.
Last season was defined by a trio of headlines. The first was regarding Tiger Woods’ plummet, the second was about the rise of the new generation of young golfers and the third regarded how the major championships were almost entirely won by non-American players with the exception of Phil Mickelson.
As the international players stole the spotlight, it delivered a shocking, reverberating punch to American hubris. So far this season, not much has changed, with four of the nine events favoring non-American golfers.
However, this week the Yanks came to play, led by guys like Watney, Johnson, Kuchar, Fowler, Mahan and Woods.
Earlier in the season, Jhonattan Vegas, a rookie on Tour, won the Bob Hope Classic, generating a resounding shock throughout the golf world. When Mark Wilson won not only the Sony Open, but also the Waste Management Phoenix Open, golf experts, analysts, fans and duffers alike were positively puzzled.
But when Nick Watney captured the victory at the WGC-Cadillac, there was a collective nod of the head and a rather appropriate tweet to describe the moment: “About time, Watney.”
Prior to his triumph Sunday, Watney had competed in four events in 2011 and finished in the top 10 every time (T5, T6, T5, T9). Watney did exactly what he did all season: finish strong. He ranks first in final-round scoring average on Tour at 66.25, shooting 63, 68, 67, 68 and now another 68 in the final rounds this season. That is what rising to the occasion is all about.
A monumental piece of Watney’s stellar play at Doral was undoubtedly his vault in the scrambling category from 147th in 2010 to first in 2011. The ripple effect of a resurgence in scrambling is unlike any other quality or skill in sport. To feel confident getting up-and-down from off the putting green provides a player like Watney with a bold mindset that permeates every other element of his game.
There was once a player whose short game and scrambling in particular was so immaculate that it didn’t seem to matter what hurdle he faced. He just leapt over it on cue. His name was Tiger Woods. No one is comparing Woods to Watney, but rather the level of confidence that stems from a sharp short game. He played a sensational round this week and we will see if he can ride that momentum into the Transitions Championship next week.
Young players atop the leaderboard seemed to be a constant storyline of the 2010 season.
This week, not only did Nick Watney, Dustin Johnson, Francesco Molinari, Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan all finish in the top 10 at Doral, but they are all also under the age of 30. Also in the mix this week were fellow youthful stars Rory McIlroy (22), Charl Schwartzel (26) and Martin Kaymer (26).
Each of the players above have rapidly developed into prevalent figures in the golf world, creating buzz around the 20-something generation. With the 2011 season in full swing, the young guns have continued their surge and even added a few new faces.
Jhonattan Vegas, the first professional Venezuelan golfer, has been this season’s poster child. The burly, hard-hitting Vegas won in just his second event as a member of the PGA Tour—the Bob Hope Classic. He then followed up his astounding victory with four consecutive rounds in the 60s for a top three finish at the Farmer’s Insurance Open, held at the Torrey Pines, which is widely considered one of the most difficult tracks of the PGA. Since then he’s made four of his last five cuts and finished in the top 20 twice.
As Nick Watney sank his final putt for birdie on the 18th hole at Doral, crowds cheered and Watney let out a huge sigh of relief. About 145 yards away stood Dustin Johnson, looking unphased and stoic as ever as he visualized a potential hole-out from the fairway to force a playoff.
Johnson began his swing, loaded his strength and uncoiled through the ball, causing a dollar-size divot to fly through the air. It was a frozen moment, reminiscent of the kind of expectation for "the unbelievable" that was once synonymous with Tiger Woods. Had the ball gone in, it may have been Johnson’s time to create his version of the NBA commercial: “Where amazing happens.” His shot landed a few feet over the flagstick and settled about six feet past the cup, leading to a solo second-place finish, his third top 10 of the season.
If you have any questions about who will be one of the faces of golf for the next decade, look no further than Dustin Johnson.
In the last two years, Johnson has skyrocketed above-and-beyond expectations, from multiple wins in 2010 to earning a place on the American Ryder Cup team to contending in various major championships. His competition better beware as Johnson continues to improve his versatility, building his skills to become the best possible scorer.
In addition to putting an absolute beating on the ball, ranking second in driving distance on Tour (311 yards), this is especially visible with his wedge play inside 135 yards, where Johnson is learning to blend his power with precision.
When Rickie Fowler opened Sunday with an eagle and birdie in his first two holes, TV commentators curiously wondered if the 22-year-old would be able to manage the momentum under the pressure of a World Golf Championship.
But buckling under the pressure just isn’t Fowler’s style. However, judging by his apparel, it’s a bit difficult to define his style, other than maybe—colorful?
Instead of losing his edge, Fowler continued with his bold strategy that earned him Rookie of the Year honors in 2010 and he carded four more birdies and just a single bogey en route to a final round 66, tying the low round of the day. Fowler’s solo-eighth finish comes just after a T9 finish at the last world golf event, the Accenture Match Play, where he surprisingly spanked the highly-seeded major-champion Phil Mickelson.
In his short career, Fowler has continually amazed us. Though it’s often with his bizarrely vibrant clothing, he shows impeccable resilience to the kinds of adversity that tend to startle players without substantial experience.
For example, at the British Open last season, Fowler opened with a disastrous 79 and it looked like he’d be making an early exit from St. Andrews. But the next day he battled back to shoot a five-under-par 67 and make the cut, eventually leading to a miraculous T14 finish.
Similarly, his performance on the final day of the Ryder Cup will be something we will be talking about for years to come. With the Americans’ chances looking bleak, Fowler, in a deficit to Edoardo Molinari, clawed back with four consecutive birdies in the last four holes to resurrect the hopes of the American Team.
Alongside guys like Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, Fowler has the potential to be one of the leading figures in the future of professional golf.
Tiger Woods’ six-under-par 66 on Sunday was reminiscent of the champion of old, pounding drives, blasting wedges and sinking birdie putts.
The only problem with Woods’ final round is that he played three relatively-mediocre rounds before it.
Woods entered the final round at two-under par after shooting 70-74-70, making a win simply out of the question for the once-untouchable golf guru.
There’s no doubting that for the ailing Woods, a final-round surge was a positive reminder that he can shoot low. However, until he shoots multiple rounds that deem him a serious contender, he doesn’t deserve a part in the discussion.
Did you know that Woods currently ranks seventh in the Official World Golf Rankings? But were you also aware that prior to his T10 finish this week at Doral, Woods hadn’t finished inside of the top 10 in a regular-season event since last June at the US Open? The flawed system only puts Woods on a pedestal he doesn't deserve to be on.
Sure, in November he finished T6 at the HSBC-Champions event, and then in December he finished T2 at the Chevron World Challenge, but these results, as well as those of the last year, do not hint in the slightest at consistency. The reason Matt Kuchar has become a perennial threat on the PGA Tour is because he’s finished in the top 10 in 19 of his last 37 events. That doesn't seem human.
Woods is in a period of transition and he can take all the time he needs to figure out the glitches in his swing, change his equipment or rebuild his confidence. But until he warrants being part of the discussion about the current happenings in golf, let's let him be.
Adam Scott looked revitalized throughout his four rounds at the WGC-Cadillac, cemented by a terrific T6 finish.
Over the last few years, Scott’s been through a whirlwind. He was ranked third in the world and considered a potential threat to Tiger Woods in 2007, but he became a middle-of-the-pack player turned sob story and question mark in the 2008 and 2009 PGA Tour seasons.
Then last year, Scott began displaying glimpses of his once-dominant form, winning the Valero Texas Open and earning a few solid top-10 finishes during the Fed-Ex Cup Playoffs. This week at Doral was substantial proof that Scott has reestablished himself among the premier players.
Statistically, Scott soared: He ranked first in driving accuracy, fifth in birdies (19 on the week) and T4 in greens in regulation. More than anything, he elicited a conviction on the golf course—in his pre-shot routine, in his explosion through the ball and most of all in his putting stroke—that has been nowhere to be found for the Aussie over the last few difficult seasons.
After Nick Watney was crowned champion at Doral and golf fans roared in his victory, a calm settled over the Blue Monster, spectators made the trek home, the grandstands and scoreboards were taken down, the tournament came to a close and then, as with every event, the numbers were added up.
Here are some for a guy named Matt Kuchar, currently 10th in the Official World Golf Rankings.
5: finish at the WGC-Cadillac
5: top-10 finishes in seven events this season
5: rank in scoring average on the PGA Tour (69.51)
5: rank in money leaders ($1.6 million in 2011)
9: rank in Fed-Ex Cup points
19: top-10 finishes in his last 37 starts
Imagine when he stops just accumulating top-10 finishes and actually wins on a regular basis.
Oh, and by the way, that day is not too far off.