February 28, 2009

One Champion, Plenty Of Stories

Tiger's return, Rory's growing fan club, and Luke's wrist injury are just some of what Mark Soltau looks at going back over a busy week

Tiger Woods, Lorena Ochoa, Phil Mickelson, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Kevin Na were on the radar this weekend.

Tiger Woods, Lorena Ochoa, Phil Mickelson, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Kevin Na were on the radar this weekend.

Geoff Ogilvy's dominating performance aside, there were several other noteworthy occurrences in the Accenture Match Play Championship.

For starters, Tiger Woods competed for the first time in eight months. Although he lost a second-round match to Tim Clark, Woods' swing looked better than ever and he played without pain for the first time in many years. That's a good sign for Woods, who reported no swelling or discomfort after walking 18 practice holes and 32 in competition.

Swing coach Hank Haney loved the way Woods struck the ball and is convinced his star pupil is going to have a big year. With a couple of exceptions, notably at the short par-5 15th against Clark, Woods drove accurately with his new Nike Dymo driver. And if that keeps happening, he will be hard to beat.

When will we see Woods next? Most likely at the CA Championship at Doral next week, where he has won three of the last four years. In the past, Woods has stayed on his yacht during the tournament. Look for that to happen again, with new son Charlie getting his first boat ride.

• Other news items from Arizona involved Rory McIlroy of Ireland and Luke Donald of England. The 19-year-old McIlroy, fresh off a victory in Dubai, showed that was no fluke by winning three matches. First, the floppy-haired young Irishman knocked off Louis Oosthuizen, then eliminated U.S. Ryder Cupper Hunter Mahan in a tight match. McIlroy also downed Tiger-killer Clark, 4 and 3, but lost to Ogilvy in the quarterfinals on Saturday 2 and 1. Still, it was a strong showing for the teenager, who by all accounts is polite, grounded and headed for stardom. Take Mark O'Meara's word for it. He played with McIlroy the first two rounds of the Dubai Desert Classic.

"Ball-striking wise at 19, he's probably better than what Tiger was at 19," O'Meara, one of Woods' good friends, said then. "His technique I think is better. Certainly Tiger has developed his game and swing over the years and made modifications to be able to hit the ball pin-high, but Rory is already doing that, and he's 19, so he's already a step ahead."

The only bummer last week was that Woods and McIlroy did not play each other, a meeting that would have taken place in the third round had Woods beaten Clark.

McIlroy will be in the field this week for the Honda Classic at PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. So will defending champion Ernie Els. Last year, Els shot a final-round 67 to edge Luke Donald by one stroke. It was Els' first victory since the 2004 American Express Championship, a span of 49 tournaments and more than three years.

• Donald is also expected to play at the Honda, which he won in 2006. After defeating Ben Curtis and Vijay Singh last week, Donald was 1-down in his third-round match against Els when his surgically-repaired left wrist started hurting, forcing him to concede on the 18th tee. Donald had the wrist examined by Dr. Andrew Weiland of New York, the same surgeon who operated on his injured tendon on Aug. 11, 2008, causing him to miss the rest of the season. Dr. Weiland said the latest flare-up is scar tissue and does not involve the tendon, which is comforting news for Donald. Incidentally, Donald has rebounded nicely this year. In four starts, he has yet to finish out of the Top 25 and has recorded a T-7 at the Buick Invitational and a T-6 at the Northern Trust Open.

Other notable participants this week at the Honda Classic include Angel Cabrera, Stewart Cink, Sergio Garcia, Tadd Fujikawa, Davis Love III, Camilo Villegas and Boo Weekley.

• The Champions Tour returns to action this week in beautiful Newport Beach, CA., for the Toshiba Classic. Last year, Bernhard Langer caught Jay Haas with a 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole, then collected the $255,000 top prize by sinking a three-foot birdie putt on the seventh playoff hole. CBS broadcaster Gary McCord tied for third, shooting rounds of 68-67-67. Of note: Tom Lehman becomes eligible for the Champions Tour on March 7; Olin Browne on April 22; and Bob Tway on May 4.

• Can anyone stop her? Lorena Ochoa picked up where she left off last year by winning the Honda LPGA Thailand on Sunday in Thailand, her first event of the year. Trailing American Paula Creamer by three strokes starting the final round, Ochoa fired a 6-under-par 66, marking the second-straight season she has opened the year with a victory. The LPGA Tour moves to Singapore this week for the $2 million HSBC Women's Champions. Guess who -- Ochoa -- won wire-to-wire last year and romped by 11 strokes.

• CHIP SHOTS: Phil Mickelson is becoming a wine lover. Lefty is learning the difference between a good cabernet and Bordeaux, and favors the latter ... White belts were the rage at Match Play Championship. Seemingly everybody wore one -- except Tiger ... Good to hear Paul Azinger back in the broadcast booth. He provides interesting, informative comments and helps liven up the telecasts ... Kenny Harms, long-time caddie for Hale Irwin, is now packing for Kevin Na. "This kid works so hard," Harms said. Na finished fifth at Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico on Sunday, sparked by a second-round 62. …. One man's thought: Paul Casey is the best player never to win a PGA Tour event.

Mark Soltau is a contributing editor to Golf Digest and the editor of TigerWoods.com.