Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 13, 2011

The Young Guns Rise Up

This was the 50th consecutive year that the PGA Tour has stopped at the Doral Golf Resort and Spa, home of the famed TPC Blue Monster course. The course is the best known of five championship layouts on the grounds of the sprawling resort just west of Miami.

From its first appearance on the Tour schedule in 1962 through 2006, the Doral Open more often than not attracted a strong field, thanks to the challenge of the golf course and the luxurious accommodations at the resort’s hotel. Over the years the list of winners at Doral included instantly recognizable names, including Nicklaus, Trevino, Floyd, Norman, Faldo, Els, and Woods.

A powerful field into the future was guaranteed in 2007 when Doral was chosen as the permanent site for one of the four World Golf Championships tournaments. In its first four years as a WGC event, three of the winners were named Woods, Mickelson, and Els. This year’s WGC-Cadillac Championship was the first event on the Tour’s 2011 schedule to have every one of the top 50 golfers in the world in the field.

Almost before the tournament began on Thursday, the Cadillac Championship became the second consecutive WGC event to be interrupted by wild weather. At the Match Play Championship last month in Arizona, the final day of play dawned with a dusting of snow on the ground. Once that melted and the final two matches got underway, play was held up when a hail storm moved across the golf course at Dove Mountain. At Doral, with just a few threesomes out on the course, it was a vicious microburst rain and wind storm that wrecked havoc. A few minutes after a warning horn sent players and fans racing for cover, heavy rain and gusts in excess of 50 MPH came through. More than 40 trees were uprooted and the large manual scoreboard beyond the lake to the left of #18 was reduced to kindling. Fans watching the early television coverage on the Golf Channel saw the TV tower behind the 8th green get blown over into a bunker. The shot was from an unmanned stationary camera in the 9th green TV tower. A moment later the view went from the golf course to gray sky to static as that tower was blown over backward in turn and collapsed into a pond.

Once order was restored and play resumed, much of the fans’ focus was predictably on two premiere groupings. For the top 15 golfers, Tour officials decided to set the threesomes for Thursday and Friday based on the World Golf Rankings. Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood, and Luke Donald, the top three golfers in the rankings attracted a sizable crowd. But it was the threesome of Graeme McDowell, Tiger Woods, and Phil Mickelson, numbers four through six that most spectators wanted to follow. And when based on their scores Tiger and Phil were paired together again on Saturday they continued to attract a throng.

But in any given tournament neither a high ranking nor 100% name recognition guarantees stellar play. By the time the leaders made the turn on Sunday afternoon, the only one of those names to be on the first page of the leaderboard was Donald, and he played the back nine in two over par to fall back. But while it may not have had the big names, Sunday afternoon’s leaderboard had to bring smiles to the faces of the marketing folks at the Tour offices in Ponte Vedra. This year’s advertising campaign is focusing on the generational shift taking place on the Tour, as a growing number of young golfers start to make their presence felt. This afternoon in the Miami suburbs that highly touted next generation took center stage.

As the final groups started playing the back nine, there were eight golfers on the first page of the leaderboard, within five shots of the lead. With the exception of 40-year old Dane Anders Hansen, none were older than Donald, at 33. Five of the eight were in their twenties: Nick Watney, Dustin Johnson, Francesco Molinari, Rickie Fowler, and Hunter Mahan. The eighth man on the board was Matt Kuchar, who is just 32. In a field filled with the very best golfers in the world, on a course where the most famous have previously prevailed, it was the young guns who made up most of the final pairings.

This was no fluke. These five had 11 PGA or European Tour wins among them at the start of the day. Now they have 12. In the end the second WGC event of the season came down to Watney and Johnson. It was the tall South Carolinian Johnson who started the day with a two-stroke lead. But after making birdie at the easy par-5 1st hole, he ran off a string of twelve consecutive pars. Meanwhile Watney played the front nine in 3-under 33 to move into a tie for the lead. When he recorded his third consecutive birdie and fifth of the day at the 10th hole, the 26-year old California native took sole possession of first place. Johnson made one last run with a birdie at the 14th to forge another tie. But two holes later he put his drive on #16 in a fairway bunker, his approach in a greenside bunker, and after a poor sand shot missed his putt for his only bogey of the day. Having made lengthy par saving putts at the 13th and 15th holes, Watney came to the Blue Monster’s scenic and dangerous 18th with a one-shot lead. Putting any memories of a disastrous Saturday double-bogey on the hole out of his mind, he struck two perfect shots and then rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt for a two-stroke win and his 3rd PGA Tour victory.

The PGA Tour is just ten weeks and twelve tournaments into its season, and Watney is already the fourth twenty-something to collect a winner’s check. For the last few years the Tour’s advertising slogan has been “these guys are good.” This year’s advertising announces that “there comes a time when every generation must rise up. That time is now.” So it seems. But the PGA Tour doesn’t need to abandon the old slogan. It just needs to make an ad about its marketing department.

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