Look! Up in the sky! That green thing – is it … a flare from Augusta National Golf Club?
Now, don't worry. The Green Jackets aren't sending up emergency signals for more petty cash. Nor are they announcing to the world that, after careful consideration, they've accepted Martha Burk as a member. (Early '00s trivia for all you old fogeys out there, like me.)
Rather, it's a sign from the cathedral of pines that, three weeks away from the ceremonial first tee shot, the first pimento sandwich served and a Pinkerton nudging a boozed-up, napping spectator in the ribs on Six Hill, they are beginning to feel the vibe.
The World Golf Championships event at Doral did more than just add another layer of scar tissue to Dustin Johnson's scar tissue-laden psyche, it also gave us our first official blast of pre-Masters hype, our first leaderboard close enough to April and chock full of enough contenders to say: Yes, yes, that's what the Masters will look like.
With all due respect to Mark (Two Scoops) Wilson and D.A. (Yes, I Really Did Win at Pebble with Bill Murray as My Partner) Points, I'm not tabbing either guy to slip into the 42-long around dusk on Sunday, April 10, just off Magnolia Lane. Their wins on the West Coast Swing were nice diversions.
The leaderboard at Doral, however, was varsity only.
Each player in the top eight – and yes, that excludes the guy who wore red on Sunday – is a strong contender come Masters week. Consider this your sneak peek and as well as your Scorecard of the week:
1: Nick Watney (16-under 272, winner) – A 67 on Sunday to win at the Blue Monster is serious business. So are seven consecutive top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour. So are Sunday scores of 63 (Torrey Pines), 68 (Phoenix) and 67 (Pebble Beach) this year. So are three consecutive Masters finishes of T-11 (2008), 19th (2009) and seventh (2010), including a final-round 65 last year. In an era where muscle-bound Tiger conditioned us to view golfers as Charles Atlas gym-mongers kicking sand in the faces of the skinny kids, Watney's beanpole physique and almost concave chest make him a throwback. Not to mention his wide-eyed facial expressions give off an air of a guy who's saying, "I'm too spaced out to even worry about making bogey." MASTERS STOCK: High. Buy! (Bonus points for Watney for being a San Francisco Giants fan; good NorCal kid he is.)
2: Dustin Johnson (14-under 274, second) – I could watch Johnson finish painful Sundays all year long – that's how attractive this guy's game is. It almost doesn't matter that he keeps coming up just short: a T-3 at Torrey Pines, an extra-hole loss at Match Play, a blown lead on Sunday at Doral. In some ways, the near-misses almost make Johnson that much more entertaining, not to mention the absurd torque on his rotation, his ridiculously soft hands and his precise shot-making. If he could putt, he'd be illegal. MASTERS STOCK: High. Buy! (Comes with warning: Heartbreak guaranteed. Batteries not included.)
3: Francesco Molinari (13-under 275, T-3) – As Paulie Walnuts might say: OOOH! This Italian bambino can play. (That's my gratuitous Italian-American reference for the day, and save the emails: My maternal grandparents were born in bella Italia.) Ranked 16th in the world, Frankie M. won the big event at Shanghai last fall in front of a big-time field, and finished eighth at Abu Dhabi before his T-3 at Doral. The Masters has been known to crown a Euro winner or two. Molinari drives it accurately and pounds greens. MASTERS STOCK: Medium-to-high. Buy, but try to get a nice Italian Chianti on the side in case he doesn't win.
4: Anders Hansen (13-under 275, T-3) – You don't think much about Anders Hansen, and I don't blame you. I don't even think Anders Hansen thinks much about Anders Hansen. The Dane has never sniffed a finish of consequence at a major, but he finished second at Dubai, and now a tie for third at Doral. That's called trending up. And there's also that Masters-Euro thing. MASTERS STOCK: Medium-to-low. Don't bother buying, but go ahead and read "Hamlet" to pay tribute to Hansen's native land.
5: Matt Kuchar (12-under 276, fifth) – "Kooch" remains the Grinnin' Killer. Don't be fooled by the pearly whites. Matt Kuchar will roll out of bed and sign for a top-10. The kid outta Georgia Tech already has five top-10s this year, to go with his 11 in 2010. Kuchar is one of those players you undervalue for a couple of reasons: 1.) In all his hot play of the past 18 months, he only has one win; 2.) We still have trouble shaking the memory of the 1998 U.S. Open, when he played great as an amateur and then went back to school and let everybody forget about him. Don't look now: The Grinnin' Killer is coming for you, and for a green jacket. MASTERS STOCK: High. He went to college in Georgia, for the love of peach cobbler.
6: Adam Scott (11-under 277, sixth) – No, this is not a Missing Persons report. Adam Scott really did show up at Doral, and really was using a long putter, and really did notch his first top-10 since September 2010. He's 30 now, believe it or not. And he still needs help with the putter – hence, the didgeridoo toted by the Aussie the last few weeks. Pride goeth before a belly putter, it appears. But Scott, who has long tantalized and even knocked on the fringes of contention at Augusta with a few top-20s, including one last year, is going to pack this broom and bring it to Georgia, haters be damned. MASTERS STOCK: Medium-to-low, like his putting stroke.
7: Rickie Fowler (10-under 278, seventh) – Are we ready for this kid, or what? Still winless at age 22, his relentless ability to stay in contention (two top-20s this year, two top-10s) and the delicious prospect of Masters green clashing with Sunday orange make Fowler one of the most watchable players out there. He combines youthful indiscretion off the tee (187th in accuracy) with baby-face killer attitude on the putting green (second in putts per round). Somebody once noted that putting helps at Augusta National. Sound observation. MASTERS STOCK: High. Even though the kid has never played a Masters, I like his moxie, and his hair.
8: Hunter Mahan (9-under 279, ninth) – Some look at Mahan and see a surfer dude in oversized shades with scruffy locks that speak to a guy who missed his last barbershop appointment; a player you can't take seriously. Come to think of it, I see that, too. Back to the point: We should take Mahan seriously, especially since he might win the Masters. After the "Stubbed Chip Heard 'Round Wales" at the Ryder Cup, Mahan bounced back with four top-10s already this year, showing no sign of residual pain. He putts it great, plus he's married to a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. Beware the Spicoli figure; he can surprise. MASTERS STOCK: Medium-to-high, with extra points for scaring the Green Jackets with his SoCal look.
Broadcast moment of the week
• "I think the drive at the second hole and the 14th hole yesterday were a shock to all of us. This is Tiger Woods. This isn't somebody on the Nationwide Tour trying to get a card." – Butch Harmon, NBC
And you thought I wasn't going to write about Tiger this week. Come on. It's a day that ends in "y," therefore a golf columnist writes about Tiger.
So there he was, turning in three days of golf horror – embarrassingly yanked putts, embarrassingly pushed putts and beyond-embarrassingly whiffed drives.
Hence, the Harmon line above, noting the second-hole tee shot Friday that some observers say didn't go past the women's tee box. Do not insert joke here.
Then came Sunday.
There he was, in the red, firing at pins, going low, carding a 66, making jokes about the Tavistock Cup as the first major of the year, and generally giving off the vibe of a guy who thinks it's all coming together.
Not so fast, Mr. 14 Majors. Count me among those who think Tiger's stunningly bad work on the putting greens is a far bigger concern than any work he needs to complete with Sean Foley on the golf swing.
We've seen it in golf history before. Tom Watson, once the best putter on Mother Nature's Earth, began to lose the feel in his mid-30s. Ben Hogan, who may or may not have worked hard on his game, also began to lose his putting stroke later in his career. I'm not saying Tiger will miss putts from here on out; nor am I saying he won't win majors. He will win majors, and he will make putts.
It just may be the time to officially declare the Era of Tiger's Android Years on the putting green over. He's more like a human being now, prone to streaks. Amazing thing, that run of putting he had for a decade-plus. But it's gone.
As for the swing work needed to avoid the 80-yard pop-ups? I'll leave the spine angles and the hand placements to the Butch Harmons of the world. Like you, I just know what I'm seeing as far as end results. And while Harmon does have a vested interest in reminding people how much better Tiger was under his tutelage, and reminding people his pupils Watney and Johnson went 1-2 at Doral, his observations can't be discounted.
Mulligan of the week
• If you think I'm being too harsh on Tiger, let's make this an easy one.
Second hole, Friday, Doral: Tiger whiffs a drive. It goes, like, 110 yards. It's red-face time, not red-shirt time. Even Graeme McDowell admitted afterwards he had to "chuckle" at the misfortune, at how cruel a mistress the game can be.
So let's say it: Nobody wants to see Tiger Woods hitting tee shots like that. Let's go back to that tee box, have Tiger raise his right hand, shout out to caddie Steve Williams: "Feed me a fresh one, Stevie," pretend nobody saw it, re-tee and … give that man a mulligan!
Where do we go from here?
• I know the Tavistock Cup raises money for charity, but it holds little appeal outside of the Orlando area; a glorified practice round, if you will. I get the feeling the players finish up and play dice games at the bar, like a skins game at my local muni.
On, then, to the next Florida stop: the low-profile Transitions Championship at Innisbrook. Jim Furyk will be on hand to defend, but it'll be more intriguing to watch world Nummer Eins Martin Kaymer and Italian teen sensation Matteo Manesero, who is barely old enough to be on "American Idol." Watney will be on hand to try and notch back-to-back wins.
In the meantime, I'll sign off and clear up my phone line, in case Tiger wants to call for swing – or putting – tips.