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Nicklaus to play with Mickelson in Skins Game

Memorial Tournament founder and host Jack Nicklaus has been paired with world No. 2 Phil Mickelson in the second edition of the Memorial Skins Game Wednesday at Muirfield Village Golf Club.

Four-time winner and defending champion Tiger Woods, who played in the same group with Nicklaus last year, will tee off in the second of two fivesomes. The field has been expanded from eight to 10 players this year for the nine-hole event offering $100,000. Proceeds of the Memorial Skins Game benefit The First Tee.

Rounding out the first group with Nicklaus and Mickelson at 1:05 p.m. EDT are Sean O'Hair and former Memorial winners Ernie Els and Kenny Perry. Woods tees off at 1:20 p.m. with former Memorial champ Jim Furyk plus Steve Stricker, Zach Johnson and Rory McIlroy.

--Dave Shedloski

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News & Tours

Who will grab top 'Honors' at the NCAA Championship?

OOLTEWAH, TENN.—So how do you know that the NCAA Men's Championship is about to get started?

Look for the storm clouds.

OK, so I've written this lead before ... try two weeks ago on the eve of the women's championship. Sadly it might be just as applicable this week as the men get ready to tee it up at The Honors Course, an already menacing golf course made only more so by the dark passing clouds seen during Monday's lone practice round. Unlike the day before, no heavy rains fell, but the subtle hint of possible precipitation wasn't lost on anyone.

With weather forecasts suggesting the chance of thunderstorms exist almost every day between now and the end of the week, the 30 schools set to begin 54-hole stroke-play qualifying tomorrow can do nothing about it except to acknowledge and move on, or else go home after three days rather than six. 

Wet weather at nationals, of course, is not a first. By my recollection since 2001, rain has fallen during the competition six times, including a year ago at Inverness Club. As was the case two weeks ago in Wilmington, N.C., I made certain to bring my Gore-tex, even packing two pairs of rain pants ... upsetting the folks at Delta who weren't too keen on my overstuff suitcase being backed in the overhead bin. But I digress.

As if the introduction of match play a year ago to determine the national champion—the top eight teams in stroke play advance to a bracketed format pitting school versus school—didn't already make predicting a team winner as challenging as senior-year biology, the weather factor creates another layer of intangibles to ponder. Which teams might best adjust should play start and stop at various times during a round? Do teams that practice in wetter climates—that's you Washington, Oregon and Oregon State—have an advantage considering their familiarity with the elements?

Never mind the fact that throughout the 2009-10 season, we really never saw the separation of the game's "elite" schools from the rest of the pack that many thought might materialize. Oklahoma State never lost its spot atop the Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll, but the Cowboys hardly seemed invincible at times during the year. Similarly, almost every team that spent time in the top five seemed to be renting not owning, showing flashes of brilliance but also glimpses of humility.

With that, I will again sample from my preview of the women's championship from two weeks ago, only this time offering up the eight schools that I believe are the most viable candidates to advance to match play, listed in descending order of how confident I am that they will emerge as the eventual champion.

Arizona State logo 2008-09.gifArizona State
Golf World/Nike Golf ranking:
Top fives: 5
Starting five: Knut Borsheim, Sr., James Byrne, Jr., Jesper Kennegard, Jr., Braxton Marquez, Sr., Scott Pinckney, Jr.
Birdie: All year long Randy Lein has been talking up The Honors Course, site of his lone national title as ASU coach in 1996, to his golfers, who narrowly earned a chance to play here with their T-4 finish at the Southeast Regional. "Finally we're here and they get to see what I've been talking about," said Lein, who hopes the good vibes from the course can transfer over to this year's crew. "They saw the plaque [outside the clubhouse commemorating ASU's '96 win]. It's been neat to get back."
Bogey: By Lein's own admission, his team has been wildly inconsistent during the season, having made some noise with their victory at Olympia Fields to start the fall, then leaving the remaining headlines to the rest of their Pac-10 brethren.

Augusta State logo.jpgAugusta State
Golf World/Nike Golf ranking:
Top fives: 9
Starting five: Taylor Floyd, Soph., Mitch Krywulycz, Jr., Carter Newman, Jr., Henrik Norlander, Jr., Patrick Reed, Soph.
Birdie: The Jaguars didn't miss a beat when they traveled cross country to play in the Southwest Regional outside San Diego, finishing second and easily securing their bid to nationals. Moreover, the team hasn't finished outside the top five in any tournament since early October.
Bogey: A convincing win in a high-profile event would give outsiders a little more confidence that this group is for real.

Texas logo 2009-10.gifTexas
Golf World/Nike Golf ranking:
Top fives: 11
Starting five: Dylan Frittelli, Soph., Cody Gribble, Fr., Charlie Holland, Sr., Bobby Hudson, Jr., Lance Lopez, Sr.
Birdie: The Longhorns came into their own with a impressive victory at the Puerto Rico Classic in February and have showed signs of late that they're ready for another impressive week, having shared the team title with Kent State at the East Regional. Frittelli, a South African who quietly claimed Big 12 player-of-the-year honors, leads a team with more depth than you might think.
Bogey: The Longhorns have struggled to get all five guys playing consistently in the same week.

Texas A&M logo 2008-09.gifTexas A&M
Golf World/Nike Golf ranking:
Top fives: 12
Starting five: Nacio Elvira, Jr., Andrea Pavan, Sr., Cameron Peck, Fr., Jordan Russell, Soph., Conrad Schindler, Jr.
Birdie: Having won the national title the first year of match play, despite not being among the favorites, the Aggies took their share of criticism for not being a quote/unquote deserving winner. They then spent the 2009-10 season proving they indeed had a little bit of talent. While losing last year's hero, Bronson Burgoon, J.T. Higgins' group has seen Andrea Pavan step up into the No. 1 role.
Bogey: Experience from a year ago might be overrated, as only two players from last year's starting five are here in Tennessee. Moreover, it's been 25 years since a team has repeated as NCAA champs, the feat last accomplished by Houston in 1984-85.

Oregon logo 2008-09.gifOregon
Golf World/Nike Golf ranking:
Top fives: 13
Starting five: Jake Dukeminier, Jr., Daniel Miernicki, Soph., Isaiah Telles, Jr., Andrew Vijarro, Soph., Eugene Wong, Soph.
Birdie: The Ducks have continued to improve under fourth-year coach Casey Martin—my pick for national coach of the year—having become a team no longer merely satisfied by being in contention but expecting to actually win any given event they're playing in. Miernicki and Wong emerged as lean-on-me players in the spring, yet they have a supporting cast that all have stroke averages below 72.7. Meanwhile, this is the third straight season Oregon has advanced to nationals, meaning that the atmosphere surrounding the tournament won't be a novelty to this bunch.
Bogey: For all the winning the Ducks have done, there is still a question as to whether they can stand-up in the big moment. The Regional victory help assuage some fears, but this is a young group that Martin is fielding.

Stanford logo 2008-09.gifStanford
Golf World/Nike Golf ranking:
Top fives: 8
Starting five: Joseph Bramlett, Sr., David Chung, Soph., Sihwan Kim, Jr., Andrew Yun, Fr., Steve Ziegler, Sr.
Birdie: Conrad Ray's squad is as talented as any five in the field. Should they make it to the Elite Eight, the Cardinal have some of the match-play players in the field, with a past USGA champion (Kim) and runner-up (Chung) and a U.S. Amateur quarterfinalist (Ziegler).
Bogey: There have been times when each player has gotten a little loose with his game this spring.

Oklahoma-state-logo-latest.jpgOklahoma State
Golf World/Nike Golf ranking:
Top fives: 10
Starting five: Sean Einhaus, R-Fr., Morgan Hoffmann, Soph., Peter Uihlein, Soph., Kevin Tway, Jr., Trent Whitekiller, Sr.
Birdie: All five starters for the Cowboys potentially could win the medalist race, with four of the five having won at least once in the past two years. The team comes in with momentum as well, having won the Big 12 and Southeast Regional, while Uihlein is making a bid for national player of the year honors.  
Bogey: A year ago, OSU outshined the field in stroke-play qualifying, earning the No. 1 seed in match play, only to get bounced in the quarterfinals by Georgia. The Cowboys again might be the deepest team in the championship was four rounds of stroke play.

Washington logo 2008-09.gifWashington
Golf World/Nike Golf ranking:
Wins: 4
Top fives: 10
Starting five: Charlie Hughes, Fr., Richard Lee, Sr., Nick Taylor, Sr., Darren Wallace, Sr., Chris Williams, Fr.
Birdie: This is the year that the Huskies have been waiting for, with the team's three experienced seniors ready to lead the charge for Matt Thurmond's squad. Two impressive come-from-behind victories at the ASU Thunderbird and the Pac-10 show the team doesn't get nervous when the pressure rises. Moreover, a 29-stroke victory at the West Regional shows the Huskies doesn't have to feel the heat of trailing to get motivated; they can play from in front just fine too. Lastly, Washington advanced a year ago to the match-play bracket, so the team can rely on that experience when they hit balls in earnest on Tuesday.
Bogey: Has UW piqued too early? Huskies fans have to hope the wins at Pac-10s and regionals weren't the best the team has to offer.

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Courses & Travel

More on Mark Wahlberg and "The Kingdom"

A few weeks ago Golf Digest Senior Editor Craig Bestrom met up with Mark Wahlberg at TaylorMade's The Kingdom in Carlsbad. Wahlberg (pictured above), who claims he's a 15 handicap, was prepping for the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge--four average golfers playing Pebble Beach from the back tees in U.S. Open conditions. You know all of this by now, but it's Wahlberg, Drew Brees, Wayne Gretzky and Peggy Ference, the reader you picked to represent the true "average golfer." The other three, let's face it, are far from average.

When Bestrom came back with some video of Wahlberg's day at The Kingdom, the luxe club-fitting and swing-analysis setup across the street from TaylorMade's Carlsbad headquarters, he and I sat down and cut this video:

Friggin' Wahlberg--the guy has the life and has had quite a career, right? From boy band when boy bands weren't a cliche (New Kids on the Block and then Marky Mark and The Funky Bunch), to underwear model (Calvin Klein) to Eddie Adams in Boogie Nights (aka Dirk Diggler) to everything-else-is-a-bonus . . .

As for The Kingdom, I was there a few months ago. What used to be strictly for research and development (and off-limits to the public) is now open for a select number of reservations each week. For $5,000 you get the motion analysis technology by TaylorMade (that's the MATT system where you dress up in the black suit covered in little white sensors and swing in front of six cameras). They analyze the results and directly compare your swing to one of 170 tour players who have been through the TaylorMade program. You also get a lesson with Jim Flick and leave with a bag, shoes, a shirt, two dozen balls, a duffle bag and 14 clubs custom fit to your swing and swing speed. 

"Our general philosophy is not to change the way you're doing it, we don't try to change your swing," says Alan Stone, one of three custom fitters at The Kingdom. "We try to take the way you're doing it, fit you to the right equipment and help you do it better."

You usually have to book one to three months in advance and although $5,000 sounds like a lot, if you add it all up and factor in the time, Flick's expertise, a custom fit set of clubs, including a custom fit putter, it's actually a pretty sweet deal.

Tour players such as Sergio Garcia, Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis visit The Kingdom on a regular basis. Mike Weir comes through with his swing coach a few days a year. When I was there I saw Jeff Sluman hitting balls at the end of the range. Dustin Johnson, with his 125 mph swing speed, nearly broke the whole operation. Actor Will Smith rented the facility for a day in early 2009 for his wife, Jada. It was just the two of them and Smith gave her the day at The Kingdom for her birthday. (She wanted to do something with golf.) When George W. Bush came through he was scheduled to be there from 1:00 to 4:00 but didn't leave until 6:30.

"It's why it's called The Kingdom," says Stone."It's a playground out here, and it's hard to leave."

Here's a link for more about The Kingdom. Not to put any ideas in your heads, ladies, but it would be the ultimate birthday or Father's Day gift for that special man in your life.

--Matty G.

(Photograph by Getty Images.)

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News & Tours

He isn't Tiger, but he still gets an assist from Harmon

PARKER, Colo.--There has been a lot of chatter recently about the possibility of Billy Harmon becoming Tiger Woods' teacher, but at the Senior PGA Championship, Harmon's expertise paid off for Champions Tour stalwart Loren Roberts.

Roberts was paired in the first round with Jay Haas, a longtime pupil of Harmon's. After struggling to a 77 at Colorado GC, Roberts, who had never worked with Harmon, asked the instructor to meet him on the practice range.

"I told him, 'I know I'm not Tiger, but how about taking a look?'" Roberts joked the next day.

Roberts' game turned around after the lesson. He closed with 70-70-71 to finish T-15 at even-par 288.

"What I like about Billy is, he's old school," Roberts said. "There's a lot of ways to swing and no reason to drastically change what you've got. We just talked about getting my thumbs more under the club at the top. I've had the club real shut at the top and he was just trying to get it more open. I appreciate him taking a look; he sure helped me out. I was going nowhere after the first round."

-- Bill Fields

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News & Tours

Blake looks to make most of opportunity in Senior PGA

PARKER, Colo.--Jay Don Blake has a name out of a Dan Jenkins novel, but his career has had an "E.R." theme. But with a round to go in the Senior PGA Championship, Blake has a chance to put it on a trophy for the first time in 19 years and give himself a little job security on the Champions Tour.
"Probably won't sleep a lot--a lot of nerves," Blake said, anticipating what it will be like sitting on a share of the 54-hole lead with 1996 British Open winner Tom Lehman at six-under 210. "Be a lot of thoughts. Trying to calm my emotions. I've got my family with me [for] support, so we're going to go give it my best."
Blake, 51, won only once on the PGA Tour, the 1991 Shearson Lehman Brothers Open (he also won the Argentine Open that season), and a bad back has caused him problems for years, with his last full year on the PGA Tour coming in 2004. On the Champions Tour in 2010, he has struggled to get in many tournaments because he isn't fully exempt.
"I've just got one tour victory  and that gives some status," Blake said after shooting a third-round 70 at Colorado GC. "But it's down the list quite aways.  So like going into next week, I'm 20th or 21st alternate. So I'm not even in the tournament. I've been going to the Monday qualifying--that's about all, the only way I can get in the tournament is by doing that."
Blake qualified for the Allianz Championship and Regions Charity Classic and registered top-10s in both. While it helped his bank account, it didn't get him into any more events. "We thought there was a rule that if you finished in the top⿿10 you automatically go to the next tournament, but we quickly found out that they take only one player out of the top⿿10, and it's the lowest player," he said. "So it's tough to get your foot in the door. I just have to do Monday qualifying and I thought, hope to finish in the top⿿10s and advance on and keep plugging on and maybe win one of these things and get my foot in there."
Blake, who showed great promise by winning the 1980 NCAA individual championship while at Utah State, ought to get some good vibes from having Lehman in his pairing Sunday, who acknowledge Blake's ups and downs. "I think absolutely that's what makes you want to cheer for a guy like Jay Don," said Lehman. "It's nice to see the good guys do well.  And Jay Don Blake is one of the good guys.  So to see him play well just feels good. To have to overcome stuff that it's in your way and kind of get back to where you want to be, that takes a lot of courage. If all the people were like Jay Don, the world would be a lot better place."
 If he were to outplay Lehman--and host of other contenders, including Mark O'Meara and Fred Couples (four under) -- Blake knows how big a day it would be. "I I know it would bring a lot of tears," said Blake, who threatened to win the 1989 U.S. Open until a closing 76. "It would mean quite a bit."
 -- Bill Fields

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News & Tours

Chris Smith receives Memorial exemption

DUBLIN, Ohio -- The Memorial Tournament presented by Morgan Stanley filled out its field to 120 players Saturday by awarding its final three open exemptions to three players with Ohio ties, including Ohio State University graduate Chris Smith, who continues his comeback less than a year after he lost his wife, Beth, in an auto accident.

Smith, 41, of Peru, Ind., will be making his fifth start this year on the PGA Tour. He made the last of his three Memorial appearances in 2003. He made the cut in each of his three starts but finished no better than T-56. Smith made his first cut of the season two weeks ago at the HP Byron Nelson Championship, finishing T-43.

Winner of the 2002 Buick Classic, Smith was a teammate with Gary Nicklaus on the OSU golf team. Jack Nicklaus hosts the Memorial, celebrating its 35th year.

Also granted exemptions were Ohio natives Steve Flesch and Chris Wilson. Flesch, from Cincinnati, has won four titles. The left-hander has made 12 previous starts at Muirfield Village Golf Club with a T-5 in 2000 his best showing. Wilson, a rookie this year on the tour, is a Columbus native who will be playing in his second Memorial. He missed the cut last year.

Tiger Woods is the defending champion. The only four-time winner of the Memorial will be making his first start since withdrawing from the final round of The Players with a neck injury.

-- Dave Shedloski

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News & Tours

Watson's unwitting tip spurs Frost

PARKER, Colo -- Tom Watson gave David Frost a lesson Friday at the Senior PGA Championship and didn't even know it.

Frost, dismayed after a second-round 77 at Colorado GC, watched the Hall of Famer hit balls for 20 minutes. The South African has always fought a weak grip, and he noticed that Watson "has his left hand nice and strong on the golf club."

Playing with a stronger grip Saturday, Frost shot a course-record 65 to vault into contention at two-under, five strokes behind leader Fred Couples as the final pairing made the turn.

Frost's 12-shot turnaround was the same differential as he experienced in the 2005 British Open at St. Andrews, when he opened with a 77 then fired a second-round 65 en route to a T-15.

Always a fine putter, Frost needed only 24 putts Saturday while one-putting 11 greens. Six of his seven birdies were from 10 feet or closer.

"These things happen in majors where somebody comes out of the pack early in the day and gets in contention," Frost said. "More than likely guys don't shoot two low rounds on the weekend after making a big comeback on Saturday, but who knows? You just go out there and you have nothing to lose, just play my game. Maybe I can have the same attitude tomorow as what I had today."

-- Bill Fields

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News & Tours

Taiwan's Lu continues Champions Tour roll

PARKER, Colo. -- Chien Soon Lu is making the most of his first season on the Champions Tour.

Lu, who turned 50 on Dec. 28 last year after earning the final conditionally-exempt spot for 2010 on the eighth playoff hole at Champions Tour Q school, has four top-10s in five tournaments coming into this week's Senior PGA Championship. This is shaping up like another good week for the Taiwanese golfer, who shot his second straight 70 Friday at Colorado GC and was T-5, only two strokes behind Tom Kite and Bernhard Langer as the second round unfolded.

Lu brings a formidable Asian resume into this senior career, with 32 victories on the Asian and Taiwan tours, but he was sidelined from 2001-2008 because of back problems.

He is making up for lost time when it comes to preparation. No one competing this week is probably more familiar with Colorado GC--outside of co-designer Ben Crenshaw --- than Lu. Not long after the club had opened for the season in April, Lu came and played 90 holes in three days.

That practice time obviously helped Lu, who had never played golf at a high altitude before.

-- Bill Fields

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News & Tours

Mickelson misses the cut, still No. 2

FORT WORTH, Texas - Perhaps what Phil Mickelson needs is Tiger Woods in the field. With Woods off practicing somewhere for next week's Memorial, Mickelson explored the far reaches of Colonial Country Club with a wide variety of errant shots on his way to missing the cut at the Crowne Plaza Invitational, a tournament he has won twice.

What kind of odds do you think you could have gotten on Wednesday if you had said that Mickelson would not qualify to play on the weekend at the Crowne Plaza Invitational while John Daly, the guy without a tour card whose last top-10 was in 2005, and 50- year-old Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin would not only be playing the final 36 holes but be in the hunt?

"I played terribly, I don't know what more to say than that," Mickelson said after rounds of 71 and 73 left him at four over par and well above the cut line. "It's a good barometer for me to know that going into my run-up for the U.S. Open I have a lot of work to do." Pavin, meanwhile was nine under par after 36 holes and Daly was five under. Go figure.

The missed cut puts a slight damper on the Pink Out planned for Saturday at Colonial in which players and fans are encouraged to wear pink in support of the fight against breast cancer, a disease both Phil's wife Amy and mother Mary are fighting. "I won't be there," Mickelson said with apologies. "I'll be home with Amy and the kids but we will all be wearing pink."

Tiger has teed it up at three PGA Tour events so far this year, all of which also had Lefty in the field. Mickelson won the Masters, where Woods was fourth, finished second at the Quail Hollow Championship as Woods missed the cut, and was T-17 at the Players Championship. Woods quit on the seventh hole Sunday at TPC Sawgrass.

While it is likely not a conscious thought on the part of Mickelson, you get the feeling that if he should take over the No. 1 spot in the Official World Ranking, which he would have done with a victory here this week, Phil would rather do it with Woods among the competitors. No sense claiming the prize only to have people say, "Well, Tiger wasn't there."

Woods has held the No. 1 ranking a total of 601 weeks and the last 259 consecutively. Mickelson, who has spent the last 13 years compiling awesome career numbers in the shadow of Woods, has never been the best player in the world, according to the rankings.

He certainly didn't play like No. 1 at Colonial. After an opening round 71 - eight strokes off the lead - in which he hit only five fairways, missing some with a 2-iron off the tee, he failed to mount a charge in Friday's second round. In fact, he was even more erratic.

Playing the back nine first, Mickelson made a routine par on No. 10 then missed the fairway left on the par-5 11th hole and compounded that mistake by hooking his second shot into the hazard right off the fairway. And that bogey was made worse by a four-foot miss on No. 12 as he dropped two strokes in the first three holes.

Any lingering hope ended on No. 5 - his 14th hole - when he drove into the left trees, punched out and made a bogey that sealed his fate. After Mickelson drove on No. 8 a voice called out, "No 1 in the world." Not yet. Perhaps that will come at a tournament when Woods is also in the field, perhaps next week at the Memorial or two weeks after that at the U.S. Open on Father's Day. Somehow, that would seem appropriate.

-- Ron Sirak

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News & Tours

Campus Insider Podcast/Mike McGraw

Mike McGraw.jpegThe NCAA Championship is just days away and as a preview of the event at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn., my featured guest on the podcast this week is Oklahoma State men's coach Mike McGraw.

The Cowboys, ranked No. 1 all season in the Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll, are among those considered the favorites to win the national title, what would be the 11th in school history and second under Coach McGraw.

The expected starting lineup for the Cowboys at nationals includes Peter Uihlein, Kevin Tway, Morgan Hoffmann, Trent Whitekiller and Sean Einhaus.

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