March 12, 2009

World Stage

While lacking the prestige of majors, the World Golf Championships still present a rare opportunity for players of disparate backgrounds to share the spotlight

It is in events like the World Golf Championships that fans can learn about players such as Prayad Marksaeng.

It is in events like the World Golf Championships that fans can learn about players such as Prayad Marksaeng.

MIAMI -- There is a distinct scent of redundancy that has wafted over the World Golf Championships since their inception in 1999, and not just because Tiger Woods tends to be the guy hoisting the hardware on Sunday evenings.

Woods has won 15 of these, equating to nearly one quarter of his 65 PGA Tour titles. Of keener interest is that the figure exceeds by one his major championship haul, and although he still trails Jack Nicklaus by four in the race for most career majors, Woods can derive immense satisfaction knowing he is absolutely destroying the Golden Bear in the WGC column (of course, Jack has the same number of wins in WGCs as he does starts: 0).

The object of the WGC exercise is to bring together more often the world's best players for a premier series of events, because the four majors apparently just aren't enough. But the idea that this "global" series -- contested exclusively in the U.S. by the way -- should be something like majors misses the point, if not the mark. (Even if it offers major cash; purses this year have been increased to $8.5 million each.)

The WGCs should be as different from the majors as they can, something easily accomplished at the year's annual Accenture Match Play Championship, which was just a mere two weeks ago. This week's CA Championship at Doral Resort & Spa, featuring the top 50 in the world rankings and 30 other top invitees, also is doing a fair job of distinguishing itself.

What we have after two rounds on the somewhat toothless Blue Monster is a shootout on a golf course set up for scoring -- so not like a major. And while there is a competitive seriousness afoot that is common at any professional tournament, the combatants are not operating under the stifling pressure of a Grand Slam event.

Thus the conditions exist to see who has game and not just the loosest windpipes.

Phil Mickelson, who sometimes plays so aggressively that it appears he is willing to only settle for birdies, leads the assault on par at 13-under 131, two ahead of Nick Watney. Mickelson, who shot 66 Friday in light but swirling winds, soon will release a short-game instructional DVD, but he's blowing potential sales; anyone watching the last two rounds could have learned plenty about how to chip it in.

In pursuit of Lefty is just about the most eclectic bunch you'll find.

Tied for third at 134 are American Kenny Perry, 48 years old, and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, 19.

Prayad Marksaeng of Thailand triple-bogeyed the nefarious 18th to end up at 9 under. He won't get to play with Mickelson, but he is tied with the rising star Camilo Villegas and established tour winner Rod Pampling.

The group at 8 under includes a Spaniard: Alvaro Quiros, who equaled Perry's low round of the day with a 64. Ranked 24th in the world, Quiros also played in the Match pPay but wasn't around for long, losing in the first round. On Friday, he birdied seven of his last 11 holes for an afternoon tee time that will assure him greater face time.

The point worth making here is that a golf tournament exists, at the functional level, to sort out who is the best player in a given week. But it's rather entertaining to have a vehicle for getting a better fix on how good some lesser-known "top" players can be.

Perry, winner earlier this year at the FBR Open, gets it. "I played with Garth Mulroy, kills it, tremendous player," Perry said of the South African, 30, making his WGC debut. "It's a shame we don't get to play … I don't play with them on a weekly basis, so I don't know them. I've hardly ever even seen Rory hit it, the McIlroy kid. Everybody's just talking about him."

Perry will see McIlroy plenty in the penultimate pairing Saturday.

"It's definitely a world game now," Perry added. "It's a global game, and there's great players all over the world. It's nice to have them here."

The feeling is mutual for several players, Marksaeng in particular. An impoverished upbringing could not deter him from excelling at the game. Before he made it as a professional golfer, Marksaeng, 33, tried to scratch out a living in different fields, from pedaling a bicycle taxi to selling food at a railway station. Before he was a caddie and then started playing, he also was a boxer.

"I got in competition two times, but lost; very painful," Marksaeng said. "I was lucky that I lived around a golf course, and I saw so many men play golf, and then they got money, so I was thinking about maybe I can take that as a career. Golf changed my life."

And so here he is in his third straight WGC event, measuring himself against Mickelson and No. 1 Tiger Woods (whom he is beating by six shots currently), and the elite in the game. "I never thought I would come up here this day," he said. "I thought I would only be able to play the Asian Tour, but now I can come up to this stage."

Quite the opposite is McIlroy, who at such a young age seems nonplussed by his presence among the leaders. "I always expected to get to this point," said the youngster, who lost to eventual winner Geoff Ogilvy in the quarterfinals of the Match Play championship, "but I never thought I would do it so quickly.

"Only eight months ago I was 200th in the world. It's been a fast rise. I know all of the guys out here so I'm very comfortable now."

And, of course, more people are getting to know McIlroy and other denizens lurking just below the upper echelon of golf. The revelations open eyes and minds.

Don't ever confuse a WGC event with a major or the Blue Monster with Augusta National. But you'd be remiss in not admitting that there is something redeeming and worthwhile about these proceedings when you go in understanding the difference.