Stricker and Woods in FedEx Cup and Player of the Year battle

Steve Stricker’s victory at the Deutsche Bank Championship means he is now the leading challenger to Tiger Woods’ number one world ranking.

Stricker moved past Phil Mickelson to occupy number two in the world and, though he is still some way off Woods, he at least can boast of FedEx Cup bragging rights … at least for now.

With two more play-off events remaining, Stricker leads the FedEx standings with 5,605 points with Woods on 4,696 points.

There is now talk that Stricker could even be in line for Player of the Year honours if he keep Woods at bay and wins the FedEx Cup.

Though Woods has failed to win any majors this season, he leads the money list by more than $2 million after five tournament victories and is also a favourite for the Player title.

However, Stricker wants to first concentrate on the FedEx Cup and this week’s BMW Championship. He said in an AP article:

“Whoever is going to win this, whether it be him (Woods) or me or anybody else, you’re going to have to play some pretty good golf for two more events. And it’s going to lead to a lot of excitement.”

Woods knows that the final events of the season are crucial to Player of the Year chances because those are still fresh in the minds of those who vote – the pros themselves. He said:

“Playing well at the end of the year in the big events … it can swing votes, because usually guys remember what you’ve done later in the year. There have been guys that have won three or four tournaments, but they were all at the beginning of the year. Somebody does it all late in the year, then people remember those.”

Should Woods be voted 2009 Player of the Year, it would be his second award during a season in which he has not won a major. The last one was in 2003.

Other non-major winners are Wayne Levi, in 1990, Greg Norman, who topped the votes in 1995.

Eagle from bunker gives Noren first European Tour title

The second man who ever walked on the lunar surface may have been in the galleries but it was Sweden’s Alexander Noren who was over the moon at the Omega European Masters in Crans-sur-Sierre, Switzerland.

Noren, being watched by former US astronaut Buzz Aldrin, shot a five-under-par 66 in the final round for total of 20-under 264 to claim his maiden victory on the European Tour.

Aided by eagle on the 15th hole from a bunker shot, Noren was able to hold off 2006 winner Bradley Dredge, of Wales, by two strokes. Dredge shot 65 in his closing round, the same as England’s Ross McGowan, who finished third on 267.

It was a good tournament for Asian players with Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee finishing fifth on 270, one stroke behind Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez while Filipino Angel Que was tied for seventh on 272 with Simon Dyson, David Howell and Rory McIlroy.

The tournament was also the first qualifier for next year’s Ryder Cup and Noren’s victory put him in first place. He said on the European Tour website:

“I was so happy when that bunker shot went in. I’ve never felt this good about my game, and to win was just brilliant. (As for the Ryder Cup race), I will just have to stay there!”

On the LPGA Tour, Norway’s Suzann Pettersen won her first tournament in two years when she swept to a convincing victory at the Canadian Open in Calgary.

Pettersen closed with a one-under 70 for a total of 15-under 269 and a five-stroke victory over a group of five rivals – Momoko Ueda, Morgan Pressel, Ai Miyazato, Angela Standford and Karrie Webb.

Since her last victory on the Tour in October 2007, Pettersen had gone more than 40 tournaments without winning, notching up six runner-up places. This included a play-off loss at last week’s event in Portland.

Meanwhile, three players were tied for the lead after the third round of the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston.

South African Retief Goosen and Americans Steve Stricker and Sean O’Hair were on 13-under-par 200 with one round remaining to play of the US PGA Tour event.

Goosen shot three-under 68 and O’Hair managed 70 but the round of the day belonged to Stricker, who carded six-under-par 65 to take a share of the lead.

However, there are plenty of challengers ready to take them on in the final round with nine golfers within three shots of the leaders.

Leading the chase are two-time British Open winner Padraig Harrington, of Ireland, Scott Verplank and Kevin Na, all three on 201.

Harrington put himself in contention with a third round of 67 while Na had 66 and Verplank shot 68.

Jerry Kelly and Kevin Sutherland were on 202 while Jason Dufner, John Senden, Dustin Johnson and Jim Furyk were bunched together at 203 for a share of ninth.

World number one Tiger Woods and FedEx Cup leader was a distant nine strokes behind on 209 after his third round of 72.

The top 70 players from this tournament go on to the next event in the FedEx Cup series, which is this week’s BMW Championship in Lemont, Illinois.

Els and Harrington return for Singapore swing

Ernie Els has been known as a golfer who would go to all corners of the globe to help promote the game.

Not always was it to the benefit of his game. But even in the midst of a “three-year comeback” bid, the South African former British Open champion still finds time for Asia.

Els and Irish star Padraig Harrington have signed up to return to the Barclays Singapore Open, being held from October 29 to November 1 at the Serapong Course on Sentosa Island.

Recently, even Tiger Woods said that Els could have managed his comeback a bit better.

Almost three years ago, Els hatched a plan to return to the top of men’s golf. The idea was to be among the world’s leading players around this time.

Clearly, it has not gone exactly to plan. But he has showed in recent events that he has made progress and could, indeed, restore his A game in the near future.

Whatever his form, Asian fans adore him. Els and Harrington missed birdie putts on the final hole of last year’s Singapore Open that, had they sunk, would have forced a play-off with eventual winner Jeev Milkha Singh, of India.

Els also finished second in 2006, losing out to Australia’s Adam Scott in a three-hole play-off.

So, even though he will be thousands of miles from the US PGA Tour, Els has a history of doing well in Singapore. With his comeback plans still very much alive, victory in Singapore would do wonders for his confidence.

Also taking part are South Korean KJ Choi and Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke. The Singapore event boasts prize money of US$5 million, making it the richest on the Asia Tour.

The tournament also received a further boost recently when it became part of the European Tour as well.

The 156-player field will comprise 65 players each from the Asian and European Tours along with 10 qualifying spots and nine invitations for four amateurs and three Singapore pros.

Pakistani pair put themselves in world spotlight

When it comes to Pakistan and sport, one would instantly mention cricket. Hockey and squash are other codes in which the sub-continental country has boasted world-class athletes.

Golf-wise, Pakistan are still among the minnows. However, a significant breakthrough was made by two Pakistani golfers on the Asian stage that could lead to world recognition.

Muhammad Shabbir and Muhammad Munir helped their country qualify for their first-ever Omega Mission Hills World Cup finals last weekend.

The duo finished third in the Asian qualifiers in Malayisa to join Singapore and the Philippines at the November finals in China.

Shabbir and Munir shot a combined three-under-par 68 in the final round foursomes for their total of 274.

Singapore’s Lam Chih Bing and Mardan Mamat, a European Tour winner, compiled 269 after a 72 on the last day, one stroke ahead of the Filipino twosome of Mars Pucay and Angelo Que.

The top three teams qualify for the finals from Asia, which means fourth-placed Malaysians Danny Chia and Iain Steel, who finished on 276, missed out.

It was an historic performance for the Pakistanis with Munir saying in an Asian Tour media release:

“Never before in our history have we been in golf’s World Cup. We showed that we are in there for the first time and hopefully we will be able to perform well in China. I don’t know how to describe how we feel right now. I’m sure everyone in Pakistan will be very happy.”

Five other Asian countries are among the 18 teams who qualified automatically for November 26-29 to be played on Mission Hills’ Olazabal Course.

They are India, Thailand, Japan, Chinese Taipei and South Korea. China qualify as hosts.

Sweden’s Robert Karlsson and Henrik Stenson won last year’s tournament ahead of Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez and Pablo Larrazabal. The Japanese pair of Ryuji Imada and Toru Taniguchi were third.

Slocum slays big guns for opening FedEx Cup win

Heath Slocum nailed a 21-foot pressure putt on the 18th to emerge from a list of golfing luminaries led by Tiger Woods and win The Barclays tournament by a single stroke.

Slocum barely qualified to compete in the FedEx Play-offs and the last thing he expected was to be fighting on the final day of the series’ first tournament in New Jersey for the title.

But now he finds himself catapulted from 124 to number three in the FedEx Cup standings and is in with a chance to grab the grand prize of US$10 million.

Slocum shot four-under-par 67 on Sunday for a total of nine-under 275. Tied for second were some of the biggest names in golf – Woods, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington and Steve Stricker.

Woods and Harrington also closed with 67 while Els fired 66 and Stricker carded a 69. Woods leads the series ahead of Stricker and Slocum.

Slocum only knew he would be in the play-offs last week when he finished 124 in the standings to make the final 125.

Now, he has his biggest pay-cheque ever, $1.35 million and his third PGA Tour title. He said in an AP article:

“It was an incredible day, incredible experience. I was just kind of lucky to come out on top. A lot of good players. At the end of the day, that putt on the last was magical. I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”

Woods had previously missed a seven-foot putt on the 18th, continuing his dodgy putting form that extends from the US PGA Championship a fortnight ago when he finished second to South Korean Yang Young-eun.

For Els and Harrington, their top five positions provide another indication that they are returning to form.

Harrington had a tough time of it earlier this year but the 2008 British Open and US PGA Championship winner has shown championship-winning form recently.

Els, a former Open winner, has had an even longer period in the wilderness but said after his performance that his confidence is returning and he is ready to challenge in the big events.

There are three more tournaments in the play-offs, starting with this week’s Deutsche Bank Championship, followed by the BMW Championship and, after a one-week break, The Tour Championship.

In Perthshire, Scotland, Peter Hedblom won his first tournament for two years when he captured the Johnnie Walker Championship on the European Tour.

The Swede carded a five-under-par 67 at the Gleneagles course for a total of 13-under-par 275 for a one-stroke victory over compatriot Martin Erlandsson, who set a course record with 62.

France’s Gregory Havret, who shot 67, and Scotland’s Paul Lawrie (69) were tied for third at 278 while another Scot, Gary Orr, was alone on fifth with 279.

Hedblom’s victory, his third on the Tour, makes up slightly for his missed chance at last week’s KLM Open when he was beaten in a play-off by Simon Dyson.

But he needed to be at his best with Erlandsson shooting 10 birdies to hold the lead at one point. Hedblom responded with four consecutive birdies of his own to put his nose in front and keep it there.

His last title was at the 2007 Malaysian Open.

Three weeks in a row was worth the weight for Woods

Tiger Woods’ recent run of three straight tournaments that culminated in a US PGA Championship defeat not only cost him a major title – but he lost some weight as well.

Woods reveals in his blog that he lost nine pounds during those three weeks, in which he won two straight US PGA Tour titles – the Buick Open and the Bridgestone World Golf Championship – before losing out to South Korean Yang Young-eun in the PGA Championship at Hazeltine.

The world number one brings a high-energy game to the Tour, as he says:

“There was some wear and tear on my body. I lost nine pounds in three weeks. If you watch me play, I eat a lot – usually bananas, nuts or a sandwich – and drink a lot of Gatorade Tiger, but I burn it off quickly. I just couldn’t seem to get enough calories in me a couple of those weeks, and it was pretty hot. I need meals in order to maintain my weight.”

He also said it was the first time since 2007 that he has played three tournaments in a row, something he has done 16 times in his career. He has also played four in a row on five occasions.

Woods also answers critics who accuse him of playing too conservatively when he was two shots up heading into the final day. He said the fact that he did not putt well made those suggestions obsolete.

The putting problems were what frustrated Woods most during the tournament. He said his putts were leaning left, which he blamed on his own poor alignment.

Still, Woods is counting on his mental toughness to bounce back. After all, he has won 14 major titles already and is still on course to match Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18. He said:

“When I woke up Monday, it was on to the next day. I had a good run of three weeks. Unfortunately, I didn’t putt well one day, and it cost me a tournament.”

Woods is now looking forward to The Barclays, the first of four FedEx Cup play-off events.

A New Dawn In The East

More than one journalist confidently predicted that the US would run away with the Solheim Cup. Anything within eight points would be some kind of achievement for Europe.

The predictions suited the narrative. The women’s game has seen its power base shift east. In ladies golf Europe versus America is an old world skirmish and its struggling to survive without an injection of fresh talent.

In the event the Americans had a couple of dodgy moments and, as so often happens, European spirit papered over some of the cracks in the visiting team. The demolition was postponed and Solheim as a transatlantic head to head will live on.

That the debate gathered such pace is, however, interesting in itself.
This, after all, was taking place just days after golf looked to have secured an Olympic place and after Y E Yang captured Asia’s first major.

Sometimes the most permanent revolutions are caused by a series of unconnected events falling sharply into place at one time. Could it be that golf, that most frustratingly resistant to change of all sports, stands awkwardly on the brink?

How so? Well, many of us thought the game had changed forever when we saw a young man called Tiger roar through the field at the 1997 Masters. This was the future and the future wore red with a swoosh. Golf as a marketing man’s fantasy. Tiger was to take the game to a new level both in terms of performance and interest.

And he has. He’s the most famous golfer who ever walked a fairway. One of the richest men in the history of all sport. When Tiger’s on course the viewing figures go up, often he is the only show in town.

But Tiger’s impact hasn’t been exactly as predicted. In America and Europe golf remains expensive and time consuming. For all that Tiger has been compelling, unmissable, a once in a generation box office draw, the game hasn’t enjoyed the massive growth expected on the back of those red clad Sunday charges.

At least it hasn’t in the traditional golfing strongholds. Elsewhere it has grown and grown and grown. China, Korea, Columbia. Where do you fancy your next golfing holiday? Argentina, Turkey, Thailand? Golf is now global and its showing no signs of slowing down. This is fertile ground and golf is exploiting it.

Golf will not be treated like an Olympic sport in the UK or the USA. Our focus is elsewhere during an Olympiad – can you name more 100 metres champions or more tennis champions from the last 20 years of Olympic competition? Golf will be an intriguing novelty worthy of a small clip on a post peak time highlights show for many of us.

In some of the developing nations that won’t be the case. The Olympics will offer more chance of funding, Olympic success will create golfing heroes, training programmes will create nationwide legacies. And all the time golf in these countries will grow and grow.

Peter Dawson, secretary of the Royal and Ancient, admitted during an interview at the Open that golf in the traditional nations had “reached saturation point.” The Olympics was important because it meant giving the game a massive profile boost in those countries where there is still room to grow. The powers that be accept that growth is unlikely in the UK or the US. So golf’s administrators were shifting their focus and adopting the Olympics as the ideal way to carry out their missionary work.

Were there other cogs ready to slip into place? Y E Yang somehow, improbably, gloriously volunteered to add to the jigsaw when he became Asia’s first major winner at the PGA Championship. Not only will Yang’s win spike interest amongst youngsters but it will give those already in the ranks or about to break through a massive psychological boost. It’s been done, it’s possible, so what’s stopping the rest of us?

Gradually the plates are shifting. The European Tour ends its season in Dubai and you can bet the PGA Tour is painfully jealous. The LPGA Tour is crammed full of Koreans who are doing far more than making up the numbers. In Europe and America sponsors drop off the roster at the same time as the Asian Tour announces a new TV deal with the UK’s Sky Sports.

Of course change in golf is traditionally slower than a Tiger Woods – Padraig Harrington pairing. But change does come.

Remember the tale of the 1913 US Open? Remember how Harry Vardon was all but helpless as Francis Ouimet wrestled golfing dominance from the Brits and handed it right over to America? We’re getting close to the end of a century of that dominance now – might that be the time for another realignment of the game’s epicentre?

One thing’s certain – not many of us predicted all this when we watched Tiger in 1997 and tried to grasp the sheer shocking force with which that young man was going to shake the game from its perpetual lethargy.

US victory raises profile of Solheim Cup and women’s golf

The Solheim Cup was more than a victory for the United States over Europe. It also proved that women’s golf was worth watching.

Golf watchers from both sides of the Atlantic hailed the event as it provided riveting theatre, drama and great shots from both sides.

The US won the tournament 16-12 for their third straight victory but the Europeans gave them a major fright and, at one time, appeared to be the dominant side.

The clamour was most evident at the golf course itself – Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Illinois.

From the practice rounds to the tournament proper, the crowds were there yelling, supporting and sharing in the excitement. One would have thought Tiger Woods was playing.

US veteran Juli Inkster said she hopes the tournament would help boost the popularity of the LPGA Tour. She said:

“I just think if more people could come out and actually watch us play – I’ve been out here, as you guys (the media) know, a long time, and I’ve never seen the golf that these women play now. We have a great product, and the more people see that and write about it, it’ll be great for us.”

One of the most positive things to come out of the tournament, from a US point of view, was Michelle Wie’s performance.

The 19-year-old former child star, who has been under tremendous pressure since she showed phenomenal talent at 13, led the way, collecting a 3-0-1 record.

Also performing well were Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel, both under 25 years old, giving the LPGA Tour young talent who have the ability to shine for a long time.

Going into Sunday’s singles, the score was 8-8. Even during the early exchanges of the singles, it appeared that the Europeans had the advantage.

The Americans fought back, though. Pressel eventually sealed the winning 14th point for the US when she beat Anna Nordqvist, of Sweden, three and two to ensure they maintained their unbeaten home record.

The US were captained by Beth Daniel while Alison Nicholas led the Europeans.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Ryan Moore won his first US PGA Tour title when he defeated Kevin Stadler in a play-off to capture the Wyndham Championship.

After firing five consecutive birdies on the back nine, Moore closed with five-under 65 for a total of 264 for the tournament to force a play-off with Jason Bohn and Kevin Stadler.

Bohn was the star of the round after his final round of 62 but he was first to go in the play-offs when he found the greenside bunker on the first extra hole.

Two holes later, Stadler’s approach trailed off the green and Moore sunk a par putt to claim victory.

Spain’s Sergio Garcia, who was also in the mix to win, finished one stroke behind the leaders after his 70 while Kevin Sutherland, Fred Couples, Michael Allen, Brandt Snedeker and Justin Rose were tied for fifth on 266.

On the European Tour, it was déjà vu for England’s Simon Dyson as he won the KLM Open in Holland.

It was a similar victory to his 2006 triumph, both times sinking an 18-foot birdie putt on the first hole of sudden death to win.

This time, however, he needed to beat two rivals – Peter Lawrie and Sweden’s Peter Hedblom.

Before that, Dyson equaled the course record with a seven-under-par 63 to finish at 15-under-par 265 to force the play-off.

Even in defeat, Woods saves the day

While the world hailed South Korean Yang Young-eun for winning the US PGA Championship last week, golf was cheering for Tiger Woods.

Yang may have handed Woods a rare defeat from a winning position but one this is for certain – the golf fans watched because of Tiger.

In an interview with Reuters, PGA of America chief Joe Steranka said Woods, the world number one with 14 major titles, is the person who makes golf tick whether he wins or loses.

He said the world number one’s return to action in March after an eight-month injury lay-off has helped to revive interest in the sport.

The Championship at Hazeltine also saw a boom in galleries, which were 40,000 strong on all four days, and TV audiences compared to last year. Steranka said:

“You can’t quantify Tiger’s impact. It’s just extraordinary to consider all the aspects of the sport of golf, the sports industry and general entertainment that he’s affecting. Look at attendance, television ratings, merchandise sales, the diversity of golf.

“One of the things that I think that is going to last longer than anything is that he changes the perception of golf as a sport played by athletes and now we’re beginning to attract some of the best athletes to golf.”

Steranka believes that it is Woods’ influence that is helping to put golf on the verge of returning to the Olympic fold.

Earlier this month, the International Olympic Committee board recommended golf and rugby sevens to be accepted as Olympic sports from 2016 onwards.

The fact that IOC chief Jacques Rogge talked about Woods as a role model sportsman puts golf in a strong position when the body’s Congress meets later this year to confirm these two sports.

Woods left golf after winning the US Open in June 2008 to undergo surgery on his knee. It was the start of the global recession as well, which also had a major impact on the sport.

But with Tiger’s return, things are starting to look up for golf. His dogged pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles is another factor that has fans enraptured.

He failed to win any majors in 2009, although he did win five other tournaments, and golf fans the world over will be looking to see how he bounces back next year.

Han hails Yang … but Asian Tour still seeking champion from within

Yang Young-eun’s victory at the US PGA Championship last week, when he defeated Tiger Woods in a head-to-head battle, is being hailed across Asia.

Like any success, parties from all over are scrambling quickly to claim a portion of the credit. The Asian Tour has, naturally, and justifiably, raised its hand.

Yang played on the Asian Tour from 1999 to 2003 and then took his game to Japan, where he won five times.

He continued to make appearances on the Asian Tour and won the Korean Open in 2006 for his first title on the circuit.

It was the same year in which he hit the global headlines when he won the HSBC Champions tournament China. To do so, he had to beat none other than Tiger Woods as well as nine other golfers from the world’s top 20.

He had shown that he had the nerve to win in the face of tremendous pressure. After earning his US PGA Tour card in 2007, Yang waited until March this year for his maiden tour title at the Honda Classic.

Even then, no one would have predicted that it was merely the opening credits for a starring role five months later at the US PGA Championship at Hazeltine.

Kyi Hla Han, a former fellow player with Yang and current Asian Tour executive chairman, was measured and prudent in his remarks following Yang’s triumph. He said in a media release:

“This is a fantastic win not only for Yang but also for golf in Asia. The way he won by defeating Tiger head-to-head was definitely a thrill to watch.

“I played with Yang when he first started his career on the Asian Tour and I’ve known him to be a very talented and hardworking player. This win has once again underlined the growing strength of the game in Asia. With many of our young players showing a lot of promise, I see a great future ahead for Asian golf.”

Han did the right thing by simply acknowledging Asia’s pride at Yang’s win rather than claiming too much credit.

The Asian Tour is currently a stepping stone for golfers. Han’s long-term goal is to make the Tour a viable arena within itself from which champions are directly extracted.

While any Asian major winner is great for the continent, Han prefers that they be current Asian Tour players, not former ones.

Players such as India’s Jeev Milkha Singh and Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee have had reasonable success in Europe and the US since their full-time Asian Tour days.

And, if you talk to most pros in Asia, their ambitions are to one day pursue their goals outside the continent.

Yang’s victory at Hazeltine, without doubt, did much for the reputation of golf in Asia. But for the Asian Tour to truly be recognised as an influential circuit, it needs its current players to step up at majors.

That’s not easy considering the limited invites and qualifying places given to Asian players for the four major tournaments.

However, those are issues to be tackled later on. For the moment, Asia is celebrating Yang – the first ever Asian major champion.

Yang makes major breakthrough for Asia

Yang Yong-eun became the first Asian to win a major title when to stared down Tiger Woods to win the US PGA Championship at Hazeltine.

The 37-year-old South Korean, who was 19 when he picked up golf clubs for the first time, survived a pressure-filled final round to deny Woods a 15th major crown.

It was the first time in eight attempts that Woods had failed to win a major after leading at the half-time stage.

A delightful eagle chip on the 14th hole proved the turning point for Yang, who, at that point, snatched the lead from the world number one.

Though Woods was still in it the hunt just one stroke off the pace with two holes remaining, it was Yang who held his nerve. Woods eventually fell away at the end, as Yang emerged victorious by three strokes.

Yang, a graduate of the Japan Professional Tour, had previous experience dealing with Woods. He defeated the American en route to winning the 2006 HSBC Champions tournament in China after qualifying for the event by winning the Korean Open on the Asian Tour.

Earlier this year, he showed that he has the mettle to compete on the world’s toughest golf tour when he won the Honda Classic.

Those victories helped him on the major stage, as he said, through an interpreter, soon after his victory. He said:

“I tried to master the art of controlling my emotions throughout the small wins I had in my career. I think it turned out quite well today.”

While Yang celebrated on behalf of all Asians, Woods contemplated a rare season without a major title – his first bare cupboard for five years.

But it has still been a magnificent year for Woods. He returned to action after an eight-month injury lay-off and many thought he would struggle to win.

However, he won five tournaments this season, including two straight prior to the US PGA Championship and will fight back with a vengeance next season. Woods blamed poor putting for his defeat.

“I did everything I needed to do, except for getting the ball in the hole. Just didn’t make the putts when I needed to make them. I played well enough the entire week to win the championship. You have to make putts. I didn’t do that. Today was a day that didn’t happen.”

Yang finished on two-under-par 70 on Sunday for a total of eight-under 280. Woods was alone on second on 283 after his 75.

England’s Lee Westwood and Northern Irish youngster Rory McIlroy (both 70) were tied on third at 285.

In sixth, on 286, was US Open champion Lucas Glover, while four players shared sixth on 287 – Martin Kaymer, Ernie Els, Soren Kjeldsen and Henrik Stenson.

Last year’s winner, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington had fallen out of contention early in the round and finished on 288.

Only two Asian-born players had previously come close to winning a major tournament. In 1971, Taiwan’s Huan Lu-liang, famously known as Mr Lu, finished second at the British Open while Isao Aoki, of Japan, was runner-up at the 1980 US Open.

With his performance at Chaska, Minnesota, Yang has now become the new standard-bearer for Asian golf.

PGA Alliance keen for big push into China and India

It is no coincidence that the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) made a major development announcement on the eve of golf’s Olympic bid.

The PGA will aim to boost the development of golf in the world’s most populous countries – China and India – via its new set-up, the World PGA Alliance.

The announcement came a day before the start of the season’s final major tournament, the US PGA Championship at Hazeltine.

According to an AFP story, the plan involves youth development, education programmes and the sharing of knowledge. A key task is to lift the sport in areas catering to the needy.

Golf is trying to beat out several other sports for one of two spots in the Olympic Games. In this respect, the push into China, in particular, is significant.

China measures sporting success by the Olympics, which is why the country finished top of the medal standings at the 2008 Beijing Games.

China is also influential when it comes to admitting sports into the Olympic roster.

If a sport is in the Olympics, China will make sure they are good at it. This is one of the reasons world cricket officials are keen to develop their sport in the Middle Kingdom.

Indeed, they made a major breakthrough when cricket sixes was included in the next Asian Games in Guangzhou.

Golf is already an Asian Games fixture and an Olympic credential would certainly make Chinese sports leaders take the game more seriously.

In India, golf is already quite well established with a number of professionals, particularly Jeev Milkha Singh, enjoying success on the global tours. PGA Chief Executive Joe Steranka said:

“One of the reasons we formed the alliance is to help the China Golf Association, to channel our respective resources, to help China evolve. India’s PGA is in its very early stages.”

China and India are also important members of the Asian Tour, which has several professional events in those countries.

The Alliance, which came into existence only this week, is a joint venture between countries whose PGAs have been existence for the longest time. They are: America, Australia, Japan, South Africa, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Europe and Britain-Ireland.

Meanwhile, according to reports, golf and rugby sevens are favourites to win admission into the Olympics for the 2016 Games. The International Olympic Committee is also considering baseball, softball, squash, karate and roller sports.

The 15-member board will choose two sports and these must be ratified by the 106-member IOC assembly in Copenhagen in October.

2009 Walker Cup Sides Taking Shape

The historic Merion Golf Club will host the best amateur golfers from the United States and Great Britain and Ireland when the 41st staging of the Walker Cup kicks off from September 12-13.

This past Sunday the United States Golf Association selected eight of their ten players to compete against Great Britain and Ireland in the bi-annual event, and despite several of the countries’ top amateurs leaving early for the pro ranks, Captain Buddy Marucci’s squad is starting to take shape.

Leading the side will be the only two players to have played in a previous Walker Cup, Rickie Fowler of Murietta, Calif. and Brian Harman from Savannah, Ga. Both Fowler and Harmon had performed impressively in the past 12 months and both we favourites to be picked in the side. Fowler is coming off a playoff loss a couple of weeks back at the Nationwide Tour’s Children’s Hospital Invitational and is one of the hottest amateurs in the world. In addition, he was a first-team All-American in 2009, finishing third in the NCAA Championship and the Sunnehanna Amateur where he was a two-time defending champion. He had a 3-1 record in the 2007 Walker Cup matches in Ireland, helping the U.S secure it’s first win away from home since 1995. Harmon, a former U.S junior champ, played in the Cup matches as a 17 year old in 2005, and despite a couple of years where he struggled to maintain that high level of play he established as a junior, he is well and truly back in the upper echelons of the amateur game. He was a 2009 second-team All American winning the Dogwood Amateur and finishing runner-up at the Sunnehanna.

2009 Porter Cup champion Brendan Gielow from Muskegon, Mich. also has had a strong summer in ’09 earning his way onto Marucci’s side. Along with winning in the Porter Cup, he had top 10 finishes at the Sunnehanna, Northeast Am and Southern Am, showing he is a player for all course conditions. Gielow was the 2008 Northeast Am champ and was also an All-American selection while competing for Wake Forrest.

One player who will be expecting to see some familiar faces as competitors is 2007 British Amateur Champion Drew Weaver from High Point, N.C. Weaver came from relative obscurity to win that event, but has parlayed that success into an impressive amateur resume playing in several professional majors so far. He made the cut and finished in a tie for 40th at the 2009 U.S Open and he has extensive experience in match-play, making the knockout section of the U.S Amateur twice. He was a third-team All-American and All-Conference at Virginia Tech this past season and has just graduated.

One player who hasn’t had to worry about university tests in a long time is mid-amateur Nathan Smith from Pittsburgh, Pa. The 30-year old Smithis a career amateur and a past winner of the U.S Mid-Amateur Championship and has put up an outstanding 2009 season. He won both the Western Pennsylvania Am and the Pennsylvania match-Play Championship and has finished prominently in no less than three of the countries top amateur events this summer. He adds much needed experience to a squad that is loaded with youthful talent and enthusiasm. It will be his first Walker Cup.

Fowler and Harmon are going to see a couple of very familiar faces at Merion, as they both have a teammate that has been selected in the first eight players. Morgan Hoffmann, Saddle Brook, N.J, is a freshman at Oklahoma State University alongside Fowler, and he had a very impressive first campaign as a collegiate. He was the Phil Mickelson Award winner as the nation’s top freshman and also won the very competitive Big 12 Conference championship and was also named Big 12 Player of the Year. He won three collegiate events in 2009 and was named to the first-team All-American squad. While Hoffman put up his best performances in college events, Chattanooga’s Adam Mitchell, a teammate of Harmon’s at the University of Georgia, did most of his in the summer amateur events. He won the prestigious Porter Cup in 2008, and finished third at both the Players and the Dogwood Amateurs. An all-conference selection in 2008 and second-team All-American in 2009, Mitchell is looking to close out his amateur career with a bang.

The University of Alabama’s Bud Cauley from Jacksonville, Fla. capped a strong summer of amateur golf with his selection in the side. He recently won the Players Amateur against a very strong field, and was medallist at the 2009 United States Collegiate Championship. In 2008 he won the Terra Cotta Invitational and was co-medalist at the World Junior Championship in Japan.

Two further players will be added to the roster following the U.S Amateur to complete the ten-man side.

On the other side of the pond, Captain Colin Dalgleish has put together an even less experienced side than his counterpart, with every player on his side making their Walker Cup debuts. But what the GB & I side lacks in experience, they more than make up for withtheir form. Like the U.S, the GB and I side is youthful and loaded with talent, the majority of which has come from the English Golf Union’s national squad. Of the ten players selected, seven are from England, with two Scots and an Irishman filling out the line-up.

The two oldest players on the squad also happen to be the two Scottish selections, Wallace Booth, 24 and Gavin Dear, 25. Booth is a product of the Augusta State golf program and has been applying his game in his homeland the past few seasons. He was in the Scottish side that won the World Amateur Team Championship in 2008 where he finished 4th as an individual. He was also the 2008 Scottish Amateur Champion. Dear was a teammate of Booth’s at the World Amateur Championship, helping his country to take the title for the first time in the tournament’s history. He was also the leading point-getter at the Home International matches which will provide some invaluable match-play experience. He was the 2009 Irish and Dixie Amateur Champion.

As noted, there will be a strong English contingent at Merion in 2009. Two 18 year olds have made Dalgleish’s side,  Tommy Fleetwood and Stiggy Hodgson. Fleetwood won the Scottish Amateur in 2009, was runner-up at the 2008 British Amateur and made the quarter finals this year. He also finished in the top ten at two of the highest profile amateur events in Britain, the St. Andrews Links Trophy and the Brabazon trophy. Hodgson came on strong in the summer of 2009, finishing second at the South of England Amateur and 4th at the Brabazon, 7th at the Lytham Trophy and 3rd at the Tillman Trophy. He also went within a match of making the final of the British Amateur.

Like Hodgson, 20 year old Luke Goddard has also rattled off a string of high finishes in major Amateur events this season and is considered one of the hottest players in country. The English national team member won his home Amateur Championship and added top 5’s in the Links Trophy, the South of England, Irish, Scottish and Welsh Amateur Championships. He also won the Argentine Amateur in 2008.

Sam Hutsby won the European Nations Cup in 2009 to earn his spot on the side, and added runner-up finishes at the Spanish and British Amateur Championships. Dale Whitnell has made the Tillman Trophy his own the past two seasons and thus has earned his spot on the Cup team. He was the 2009 Portuguese Amateur and was a semi-finalist at the English Amateur among many other strong accomplishments.

19-year old Matt Haines put his name in front of the selectors with an impressive win at the 2008 Lytham Trophy and has added the Duncan Putters title in 2009. He also had runner-up finishes in the Welsh Open Amateur and the St. Andrews Links.

The only English player with ties to the United States is University of Tennessee standout Chris Paisley. The runner-up at the 2008 Tillman, English Amateur and South of England, Paisley has carried his Vols to the upper echelons of NCAA competition the past few seasons and has played on the English national team the past few seasons. At 23, he will be one of the elder statesmen on the GB & I side.

While Irish golf is experiencing a golden age being led by Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy, only one player, Niall Kearney, has made the 2009 Walker Cup side. Kearney won the prestigious Brabazon Trophy and was also the South of Ireland champion in 2008. He has put up several top tens in 2009 while playing on the Irish national side.

Although the United States leads the bi-annual matches 33-7 all-time, since 1989 the matches are 5-5. In 2007 the United States’ Jonathan Moore hit a 252 yard 4-iron to three feet on his final hole to make eagle, defeating Nigel Edwards and retaining the cup for the U.S. 2009 is shaping up to be just as exciting.

Woods wins for seventh time at Bridgestone Invitational

Tiger Woods stared down the man who, briefly last year, was the toast of the majors, when he won the Bridgestone Invitational at Akron, Ohio.

The world number one shot five-under-par 65 in the final round for a total of 268 and a four-stroke victory.

Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, who won two majors last season while Woods was recovering from knee surgery, appeared to be the man who could challenge the American.

But a triple-bogey on the 16th hole by Harrington gave Woods the initiative as he went from one behind to a convincing win – his 70th title on the pro tour.

Harrington, who carded 72, would end up sharing second place with Australian Robert Allenby, who closed with 66. After winning his fifth title of the season, Woods said in an AP article:

“We locked horns pretty good. I made a couple of mistakes. Paddy was being consistent, grinding it out, doing all the right things. Unfortunately, 16 happened. But it was a great battle all day.”

It was Woods’ seventh victory on the Firestone Country Club course – the first time someone has won that many times on the same layout on the US PGA Tour.

In addition, it was his second straight tournament title coming hot on the heels of his Buick Open triumph the previous week.

Whether or not he takes his form into this week’s final major of the season, the US PGA Championship at Hazeltine is what most golf fans want to know.

Three times before this season, Woods had won a fortnight before a major and each time he has failed to win. The US PGA Championship is his last chance to add to his 14 career major titles this year.

American Hunter Mahan (66) and Argentina’s Angel Cabrera (67) were tied for fourth at 273 while on joint-sixth 274 were Steve Stricker (67), British Open winner Stewart Cink (68) and Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez (68).

World number two Phil Mickelson finished tied for 58th after he totalled 287. The tournament doubled as a European Tour event as well.

This meant that the focus across the Atlantic was on the Challenge Tour in Europe, where Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts ended a nine-year wait for his first professional title by winning the SK Golf Challenge in Finland.

Colsaerts turned pro when he was 18 in 2000 but had to wait until the weekend for his breakthrough as he defeated Welshman Rhys Davies and France’s Julien Geurrier in a play-off.

All three finished on 11-under-par 277 with Colsaerts and Davies closing on 66 and Guerrier scrambling home with 71.

Colsaerts birdied the final two holes of regulation and then delivered another birdie on the second play-off hole to deny Davies a second title in three weeks.

Golf: Going For Gold In 2016

Tiger Woods has just about done it all in the game of golf: 14 major championships, 69 career wins on tour, a record stay at world number one, NCAA, U.S Amateur and Junior titles, Fed-Ex, Ryder, and Presidents Cups. There’s not much else to conquer really. Over the weekend at the Buick Open Sir Nick Faldo noted that one day Tiger is going to save the world a lot of paper because when he gets done with his career the record books are just going to read “Tiger” and nothing else. But there is one thing Tiger’s good buddy Roger Federer still has a lot over him- a gold medal.

That all might change on August 13 when the International Olympic Executive Committee meets to announce the results of its vote on the inclusion of golf into the Olympic rotation for 2016. On that day the IOC will announce which two of the seven sports under consideration to be considered for final admition into the 2016 summer games. The other six other sports under consideration for the bid are baseball, karate, roller sports, rugby, softball and squash. The two sports nominated will then be discussed before the entire International Olympic Committee at a panel in Copenhagen, Denmark and the announcement with come on October 9, the same day as the announcement of the 2016 host city.

Golf has been a conspicuous absentee from the Olympic rotation since 1912 and its nomination for the 2016 games has divided the world golfing community.

The main argument against golf being included in the Olympics is that golf is already a global game, one too entrenched in the professional side of the sport to do the Olympic experience justice. With major world tours, on both the men’s and women’s side, ranging from the powerful PGA and LPGA tours of America and Europe to tours in Japan, Korea, Australasia, South America and South Africa to name but a few, the sport already has a wide global reach, touching down on almost every part of every continent on the planet.

Add to that international competitions like the Ryder Cup (now considered only behind the soccer World Cup and Summer Olympics in terms of popularity), Presidents’, Walker, Solheim and Curtis cups, WGC championships and the four major championships, it remains to be seen how an Olympic gold medal could top any of that.

The only other sport that has been in a similar situation recently to golf is tennis, which was re-introduced to the Olympic rotation at the 1988 Olympics Games in Seoul after a 62 year absence. It was in Seoul that Steffi Graff famously won the “Golden Slam”, all four majors plus the Olympic gold in one calendar year (she is still the only person to do this). Since ’88 many of the games’ top players have skipped the Olympics, deciding instead to concentrate on a hefty summer schedule of major championships. Many fear that golf will follow the same trend. Many of the top-ranked players, including Tiger Woods, have, so far, shown a luke-warm support for golf in the Olympics.

“It would be great to have an Olympic gold medal,” Woods recently said, “but if you asked any player, ‘Would you rather have an Olympic gold medal or green jacket or Claret Jug?’ more players would say the majors.”

It’s pretty clear which one he would rather win.

Woods’ comments about the validity of golf as an Olympic competition appears to be one of the major arguments against the inclusion of golf in any future Olympics, just like there is currently in tennis. Even if you are a follower of tennis, it is much easier to name the winners of each of the years’ majors than it is to note who won Olympic gold, even though it only happens once every four years. Experts and former tour players alike believe the same thing is sure to happen with golf should it make it to 2016.

“Who wants to run the 100-meter dash, and not have the world’s fastest runner show up?” said Olin Browne, a tour player and member of the PGA Tour’s Policy Board. “What’s the point?”

Former tour player and Australasian PGA Tour board member Mike Clayton agrees.

“One wonders why there is this seemingly never-ending quest to include golf in the Olympics,” Clayton said last year. “Presumably it would qualify the game for extra government funding but . . . an Olympic tournament could never approach the importance of the game’s grand slam championships.”

One man who knows an awful lot about both the running both professional golf event and the Olympics is current Augusta National chairman Billy Payne. Payne served as the CEO of the Atlanta Olympic Committee and is considered the driving force in Atlanta’s surprise winning bid for the 1996 games. Since then Payne has taken over the reigns at Augusta National from Hootie Johnson and run the Masters tournament. While many have speculated that some of the world’s top players will be absent from the Olympic experience should golf be included in 2016, Payne has a different opinion entirely.

“Once players are asked to represent their country, they will play,” he says. “You’d be surprised by the power of the Olympics to move people.”

Indeed, international stars like Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia, Lorena Ochoa and Suzanne Petterson have all expressed interest in playing for their respective countries in 2016.

Another who has ties to both parties and is a strong advocate of golf in the Olympics is former LPGA Commissioner and current Executive Director of the International Golf Federation’s Olympic Committee, Ty Votaw. Votaw points to the growth of other Olympic sports as the main arguement for golf becoming an Olympic sport.

“There are 300 million people now playing basketball in China,” Votaw said. “There wasn’t anywhere near that number before the (U.S.) Dream Team played in Barcelona (in 1992). I’ll take 10 percent of that. The estimated number of golfers in the world is around 60 million, so if we get another 30 million then we’ve grown the game by 50 percent. Even if it’s 1 percent, 3 million, then we’ve still grown the game.”

Even though Votaw has neglected to take into account the fact that Chinese and NBA superstar Yao Ming has accounted for a great deal of the recent basketball growth in China (not to mention a relaxing of communism in the country in general), Votaw still has a point. He goes so far as to sight tennis as a perfect example of how the game can be advanced in counties just based on the far-reaching influence of the Olympic experience.

“Look at how women’s tennis in Russia has grown since tennis became an Olympic sport,” Votaw said. “I don’t think there would be so many world-class Russian tennis players if tennis didn’t have Olympic status.”

Again Ty, the end of the Cold War around that time may have had a lot to do with the growth of sports in general in that area of the world.

Greg Norman, a long-time proponent of spreading golf as a global game, sides with Votaw and Payne as well.

“Golf is one of the most global games out there, among the top five in the world,” Norman said. “So why not include it?”

Why not indeed?

Many aspects of Olympic golf have yet to be determined, and one of the main focal points is the inclusion of professionals, as well as the actual format for the event. In 1992 the IOC allowed professional basketball players to represent their country for the first time in Olympic history, and out of that decision sprang the aforementioned “Dream Team” which went onto win the gold medal by an average of over 40 points a game. Heck, head coach Chuck Daly didn’t call a single time out the entire tournament. Opposing teams were seen asking members of “The Dream Team” to pose for photos and autographs before they played.

Since 1992 however, the rest of the world has caught up with USA basketball, and subsequent team USA’s have not always taken the gold. In fact, in 2004 in Athens Team USA failed to even make the gold medal match. An argument could be made that the rest of the world has caught up to the Americans because of The Dream Team and the way they spread the popularity of the game globaly. Their popularity spawned a world-wide basketball epidemic and today more players from overseas play in the NBA than at any other time in its history.

Olympic golf has the potential to do the same thing that professional basketballers in the 1992 Olympics did. Imagine a player from a lesser known golf nation, one with a huge population such as India or China, playing along side the likes of Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. This would be the dream scenario for the IOC and the main reason behind the Olympic golf push. The potential for growth in countries like China in this scenario could be exponential. However the chances that something like this would occur all depends on the format that the IOC decides on (should golf make the cut).

Many are calling for the absence of professionals should golf be awarded a spot on the roster for the 2016 Olympics. One proposal suggests a format that would essentially be a re-hashing of the Eisenhower Trophy, the event currently known as the World Amateur Championship. It is currently contested by 3 players from the participating countries in a stroke play format. Some are calling for a similar event where 2 professionals from each country, based on world rankings, would compete in a four round event to decide the medal winners (WGC World Cup anyone?).

In a discussion appearing on The Golf Channel recently, world no. 3 Paul Casey of England favoured a format along the lines of the Alfred Dunhill Cup which was contested by 3 players from each country in a combined stroke play and match-play format. That event was discontinued in 2000.

Clearly much as still to be discussed, including of course, if golf deserves to bask in the Olympic flame.

Regardless of the outcome of the IOC meeting later this month, golf will continue to come up on the Olympic radar and be a hot-button talking point in the future. Whether, in 20 or 50 years’ time an Olympic Gold medal becomes as prestigious as a major trophy or a Ryder Cup is unsure, but Ty Votaw makes a good point about golf and its history.

“If Jack Nicklaus had won three Olympic gold medals, then you can bet Tiger Woods would have had that target on his chart on his bedroom wall when he was a kid.”

Tiger Woods winning Olympic gold? That would certainly be one for the record books.