Top 10 Report Cards

In my (admittedly) lackluster academic career through high school and university I always hated mid-terms. The end of year pressure I could deal with. I expected it. It was supposed to be there. It was the mid-year exams, those that seemed to creep up without warning right as you were getting comfortable that I hated. I found that just as I was getting the hang of the course, the professor, the workload, I was expected to one day show up and put to paper everything I had learned up until that point. It never sat right with me

Now with that in mind, the Open Championship traditionally marks the halfway point in the golfing calendar. Two majors have passed, two are to come and we find ourselves smack-bang in the middle of summer on both sides of the Atlantic. I was going to write about who I saw as being the principal players at Turnberry this week, but instead I’m going to put on my tweed coat, pick up my lecturing stick, play “Professor Mackay” for a moment, and assess the performances of the players who began the year in the world’s top 10.

Class is in session.

1. Tiger Woods – Of all the players on the world golf stage, Tiger may be the hardest to judge performance-wise. Quite simply, this is because his expectations and the expectations of those who follow the game are two completely different things. While the “so-called” scribes may see a tie for 3rd at some random event as a failure to secure a win, Tiger does not. He takes something positive out of every performance, win, lose or draw. So far 2009 has not been a banner year for Woods the way say 2000 or 2007/8, were. But that doesn’t mean it has not been a success. Yes, Woods has failed to win either of the first two majors of the year, but what he has done is come back from a career-threatening injury and reasserted his position as the dominant player in the game. He has won 3 times in 9 starts has not finished outside the top 10 in any stroke play event. He is leading both the money list and the Fed-Ex Cup race on the PGA Tour, not an easy feat with just 9 events under his belt. Most importantly (especially to him) he is making advances in his game. His win at the Memorial was a different kind of golf than he has ever displayed, hitting fairways and controlling his ball off the tee the likes of which had not been seen since is Open wins at Hoylake or St. Andrews. His game is where he wants it to be and getting better, and that’s the scary thing for everyone else.

    Grade: B+

2. Sergio Garcia – Sergio started the year in 2nd place in the world rankings, not far behind Woods who was still resting his knee back home in Florida. He won the HSBC Championship at the end of 2008 that counted towards the 2009 season, but other than that Sergio’s game has been anything but sparkling. His best finish is a T7 in Qatar on the European Tour and on the PGA Tour he has performed even more poorly. His best finish is a T10 at the U.S Open a few weeks back and he currently sits 118th in the Fed-Ex Cup. Many thought starting the year that the Sergio was going to be the player to put pressure on Woods for the top spot in the world. Nothing has been further from the truth as he has slipped to No. 5 in the world and never really challenged for a tournament win late on Sunday. With past British Open defeats still fresh in his mind, Garcia is going to have to perform admirably the latter half of the year if he is to save his 2009 from total disaster.

    Grade: D

3. Phil Mickelson – If Phil’s golf game was a 5th grader his report cards would probably say something like this: “Phil show tremendous potential in all areas but must learn to apply himself correctly to reach his full potential.” Phil has always been a hard man to pin down- he is an enigma to be sure. His 2009 has been highlighted more by off course drama than on course heroics (or defeats, as is the case sometimes with Phil). His wife Amy was diagnosed with cancer a few months back and to make matters worse, his mother received the same diagnosis a week or so ago. Right now, I’m pretty sure golf is the last thing on Phil’s mind. On the course it has been a typical Phil year when it all boils down to it. He has won twice, at favourite haunts Doral and Riviera, but has also missed two cuts and finished outside to top 50 on three different occasions. For every late charge at the Northern Trust or major run like at the U.S Open, there are weeks where he doesn’t come close to resembling the No. 2 player in the world. Perhaps a lot of that is to do with the off course soap opera he is currently dealing with, but inconsistency has also been a hallmark of the entire Mickelson career. If he ever seriously wants to catch Woods (or at least push him) he must find a way to narrow the gap between when he plays well and when he does not. Of course, that’s going to be pretty hard with no tournament play on the horizon.

    Grade: B

4. Padraig Harrington – What can you say about Paddy? Irish, lovable, committed. At the end of 2008 we thought he had it all figured out. With 3 majors wins in the last 6 events he had climbed to a career high of No. 3 in the world. Paddy seemed to be the guy that was going to become famous for being there at the end when the big ones are on the line. But so far 2009 has been a throw away year for Harrington. The man who everyone thought had it all figured out has missed six of 13 cuts on the PGA Tour and not done a whole lot better in Europe. With only one top 10 in 17 events worldwide, and a slide to world No. 14, it’s hard to keep putting him on the list of top players in the world. His friend and sports psychologist Bob Rotella said Harrington’s only fault is “tinkering” with his game too much- always seeking perfection. Clearly that formula has not worked for Harrington this season. What has worked is winning the non-sanctioned Irish PGA which he has done the past two years in preparation for the Open Championship. And lookie here, he went and did again last week. Maybe, finally, he’s back on the right track.

    Grade: D-

5. Vijay Singh – The Energiser Bunny of the PGA Tour has shown no sign of slowing down playing-wise as he approaches the twilight of his PGA Tour career. The man who now owns the record for most wins in his 40’s is still playing more on the PGA Tour than just about every top player in the game. However, as opposed to previous years, the “Big Fijian” seems to be showing some signs of slowing down. So far this year he has fallen from 5th to 10th in the world, the lowest position he has held since he fell to No. 8 in 2002. Currently sitting in 48th place on the money list, he has posted just three top 10’s, and has not seriously contended for a victory all season. Although it is not well documented, Vijay has also been going through some off course issues the past year or so. For the man who is used to finishing in the top 10 during his poor weeks, 2009 must surely have him scratching his head. There’s one thing that is for sure though, he’s going to work his way out of it, and not a practice range in sight is going to be safe when he decides to get his groove back.

    Grade: D

6. Robert Karlsson – Not much was known of Karlsson at the beginning of 2009 over this side of the pond. He is the quiet kid in class, the one that, despite standing out like a sore thumb, does not make a lot of noise. I am fortunate to work with the same swing coach that Karlsson employs and he gave me a little tip about 12 months ago. He said watch out for Robert Karlsson, if he refines his short game there is no telling how good he could be. Ending 2008 he was as hot as any player on the planet, almost pulling off three wins in a row to close the European Tour season. 2009 has been another story altogether. By playing in the Ryder Cup Karlsson was granted a PGA Tour membership, and like any top world player not from America, he has attempted to become a “world golfer” splitting his time between Europe and America. That was the plan, however, and what was supposed to be his breakout year has turned into one plagued by injury. He has played just eight events worldwide and has had to pull out of the last three events in Europe due to a nasty eye infection. Because of this I will have to give him a pass. He has fallen to No. 16 in the world, but it’s not totally is fault. I will need to see a note from his doctor though.

    Grade: C (pending re-testing)

7. Camilo Villegas – The young Colombian had a break out year in 2008, establishing himself at the very top of the class. This season he has done little to suggest he will not stay in the upper echelons of the game for many years to come. With his strong will, mind and game to match he is very much considered the “most likely to succeed” of all the young guns on tour. “Spiderman”, as they call him, has put up some solid, if unspectacular numbers so far in 2009. He has recorded three top 10’s with a top finish of T3 at the Buick Invitational, missed only two cuts in 13 events worldwide, and currently sits 35th in the Fed-Ex Cup race. Although he has dropped back to No. 12 in the world, the statistics show that he has not performed poorly at all, in fact, throw in a win and Villegas would have a very solid 2009 going. He came on strong at the end of last season, winning the final two Fed-Ex Cup events, and with no lack in strength or fitness, there is nothing to suggest the rest of 2009 is not going to continue to improve for the young man from Medellin.

    Grade: B-

8. Henrik Stenson – Like Villegas, Stenson came into 2009 with high hopes of making an impression on the very top of the world rankings. Also like Villegas, he has spent much of the year playing solidly but ultimately treading water. Stenson has made 10 of 13 cuts in 2009 and has thrown in four top 10’s for good measure, including a T2 in Qatar where he came up three shots shy of Alviro Quiros. His final round 68 at the U.S Open was bettered only by fellow Ryder Cupper Ian Poulter, however his 9th place finish at Bethpage came on the heels for two very comfortable missed cuts the previous two events in Europe. These inconsistencies have led to Stenson retaining his position at No. 8 in the world, but considering his talent and penchant for winning against high class fields, no doubt he will be hoping for a stronger end to 2009, perhaps beginning this week at Turnberry.

    Grade: B

9. Ernie Els – We have come to expect a lot of The Big Easy over the span of his spectacular international career. He is talented, likeable and capable of absolute brilliance at times, but it seems as if the past couple of seasons Els has had a career handbrake on. Since his career-threatening knee injury a couple of seasons ago (which required a surgery similar to Tiger’s) Els has been on a constant slide towards mediocrity, something that he has never had to deal with in his career. At the end of 2007 he was ranked 4th in the world. At the end of 2008 he was back to No. 9. Now, a mere seven months into 2009 and he is all the way back at No. 24. Ernie Els, the 24th best golfer in the world? It seems preposterous to even consider such a notion. But the facts don’t lie, and although Els has produced five top 10’s around the world this season, he has fallen short in the games biggest events- the events he prides himself on wanting the most. A  T45 at the Players, coupled with missed cuts at both the Masters and the U.S Open spell trouble for the big South African. Whenever he is questioned by the media about his career trajectory Els inevitably responds by saying he is working harder than ever on his game and he is completely committed to winning the big ones. He is a contentious Hall of Fame lock and will forever be considered one of the best players of his generation. He turns 40 in a few months which means there are plenty of good years still available for Els to cement his legacy in the game, let’s hope for his sake the rest of 2009 brings about some major changes.

    Grade: C-

10. Lee Westwood – During the opening match of the Ryder Cup at Valhalla Lee Westwood took is unbeaten run to 12, setting a Cup record for most matches without a defeat. He ended 2008 at No. 10 in the world, a position that most would agree sits pretty well with Westwood. He has always been a European Tour stalwart, and since his game has re-surged over the past couple of seasons he has taken back his rightful place at the top of the European Tour pecking list. That being said, 2009 is just starting to really get going for Westwood who has slipped back to 17th in the world rankings. Although he has missed just one cut in 16 events against some of the strongest fields in golf, he has not put up the sort of results he would have anticipated at the start of the year. That was until two weeks ago when he closed with a spectacular 65 at the Open de France to force a playoff with red-hot German Martin Kaymer, only to be defeated on the first playoff hole. He followed that narrow loss with T8 last week at the Barclay’s Scottish Open signaling that his 2009 might just be getting fired up. There is no doubt Westwood is a player capable of winning a major as he proved in 2008 at Torrey Pines, and for a player with all the game and confidence in the world that is the logical next step. With the current form he is carrying, who is to say this week won’t be his week?

Note: For those wondering, here are the current top ten players in the world and their movements since the beginning of 2009.

1. Tiger Woods – Same

2. Phil Mickelson – Up one spot

3. Paul Casey- Up 38 spots

4. Kenny Perry- Up 10 spots

5. Sergio Garcia- Down 3 spots

6. Steve Stricker- Up 9 spots

7. Geoff Ogilvy- Up 5 spots

8. Henrik Stenson- Same

9. Jim Furyk- Up 4 spots

10. Vijay Singh- Down 5 spots

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