By BOB HARIG
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2001
The official season is barely off the first tee, and already there is quite a bit of talk about the Ryder Cup -- which is seven months away. The 2001 version at the Belfry in England promises to offer a compelling competition, heightened by the stirring U.S. comeback in 1999.
Davis Love III was part of that U.S. team that rallied on the final day amid a firestorm of controversy at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass. But there was no guarantee he would make this year's team, especially because he had not won a PGA Tour event for more than two years.
His victory Sunday at Pebble Beach was his first in 34 months and 62 PGA Tour starts and went a long way toward securing a Ryder Cup spot. "I didn't like seeing my name so far down the list," said Love, who moved into fifth place in the Cup standings.
Quietly among the top 10 players at the moment is Safety Harbor's John Huston, who is eighth, ahead of Mark Calcavecchia, Brad Faxon and Hal Sutton.
The top 10 through this year's PGA Championship automatically qualify for the U.S. team. Captain Curtis Strange has two at-large selections to fill out his 12-man squad.
Although there is a lot of golf to be played, Huston can't help but think about the Ryder Cup.
"It would be nice to make it," said Huston, 39, who has played on two Presidents Cup teams but has never made the Ryder Cup. "But it's tough. You can be playing great, finish 11th every week, and not get anywhere."
U.S. players accumulate points only for top 10 finishes. Huston's chances were greatly enhanced when he won the Tampa Bay Classic in October. This year points are doubled, and Huston received 60 for finishing fifth at the Mercedes Championships. A week later, however, when he shot a final-round 70 at the Sony Open, he finished 14th, missing the top 10 by one shot. Huston has earned 357.5 points and likely will need to earn about 800 to secure a spot on the team. Only Tiger Woods, with 1,577.5 points, is considered a lock.
After taking three weeks off, Huston returns to the tour at next week's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. He plans to play three of the four Florida events after that. Those are excellent chances to pick up points, as are the major championships, where the points are again doubled.
"If I have a good year, it will take care of itself," Huston said.
TIGER'S "SLUMP": A year ago, Woods was set to tee off in the Buick Invitational with a six-tournament winning streak. He enters this year's event having not won in six PGA Tour events, going back to his victory last September at the Canadian Open.
The last time Woods went six tournaments without winning was in 1999, when he had seven straight without a win between his victory at the Buick Invitational and the Memorial. He went on to win eight times.
What's wrong? Simply, Woods' putting.
"I'm not far off," Woods said after his tie for 13th at Pebble Beach on Sunday. "I just need to get in a good round of putting."
The numbers support him. Last year Woods ranked second on the tour with 1.717 putts per hole. This year his average is 129th. Although he is hitting more greens in regulation -- 76.9 percent, compared with 75.2 last year -- he is not scoring better presumably because he is not hitting the ball close enough to the hole or is missing too many makeable putts. Perhaps both.
After shooting 52 consecutive rounds at par or better, Woods has been over par twice in his past seven rounds.
"Tiger, for maybe the first time in his life, has discovered that you can actually have a lip-out," Jesper Parnevik said. "Last year he didn't even know what a lip-out was. He didn't know anything different. Now he sees that things can go someone else's way. That's when you start thinking, maybe trying too hard. I think that's the main difference."
AROUND GOLF: Larry Nelson has six victories in his past 10 events on the Senior PGA Tour, including the first two this year. Nelson looks to make it three in a row this week in Naples at the ACE Group Challenge before next week's Verizon Classic at the TPC of Tampa Bay, where Nelson won in 1999. ... The United States Golf Association announced an increase of $150,000 in the 2001 U.S. Women's Open to $2.9-million. That's $800,000 more than the LPGA's second-highest purse, at the Evian Masters. ... NBC golf analyst and former tour player Roger Maltbie, 49, stopped smoking seven months ago but has endured some side effects, including weight gain. He tried nicotine patches, but they didn't work. "I couldn't keep them lit," he said. ... How much have purses gone up? When Calcavecchia won the 1998 Honda Classic, he got $324,000. His next victory, at the Phoenix Open two weeks ago, brought him $720,000.
WHAT: Buick Invitational.
WHERE: San Diego.
COURSES: Torrey Pines Golf Course, South Course (7,033 yards, par 72) and North Course (6,874 yards, par 72).
PURSE: $3.5-million; winner's share, $630,000.
TV: 4-6 p.m. today-Friday, USA; 3-6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Ch. 10.
NOTES: Phil Mickelson ended Tiger Woods' PGA Tour winning streak at six last year. Mickelson totaled 18-under 270. Woods and Japan's Shigeki Maruyama tied for second, four back. ... Davis Love III won the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on Sunday, overcoming a seven-stroke deficit in the first seven holes of the final round. Love closed with 9-under 63 for his first tour victory since April 1998. Vijay Singh finished a stroke back. ... Woods tied for 13th at Pebble Beach, extending his tour winless streak to six. He opened the season with an eighth-place tie in the Mercedes Championships and tied for fifth in the Phoenix Open. Woods is from Cypress, 80 miles north of Torrey Pines. ... Mickelson, from San Diego, also won the 1993 tournament. ... Ernie Els will return to the tour March 1-4 at Doral. ... The final two rounds will be played on the South Course.
WHAT: LPGA Takefuji Classic.
WHERE: Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
COURSE: Kona Country Club (6,257 yards, par 72).
PURSE: $850,000; winner's share, $127,500.
TV: 5-7:30 p.m. and 8-10:30 p.m. today-Saturday, Golf Channel.
NOTES: Karrie Webb ran her season-opening winning streak to four, beating Annika Sorenstam with a 10-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole last year. ... Grace Park won the Office Depot on Jan. 28 at Doral in Miami, closing with 1-under 71 for a one-stroke victory over Webb. ... Webb finished second three weeks ago in the Subaru Memorial of Naples, a stroke behind Sophie Gustafson. Webb has 23 victories in 124 tour starts. ... Sorenstam is making her first start of the year. She won five times last season and has 23 career victories. ... The USGA has raised the U.S. Women's Open purse to $2.9-million, an increase of $150,000 from last year and $800,000 more than tour's next-richest event. The tournament is May 31-June 3 at Pine Needles in North Carolina.
WHAT: ACE Group Classic.
WHERE: Naples, Fla.
COURSE: Pelican Marsh Golf Club (6,915 yards, par 72).
PURSE: $1.4-million; winner's share, $210,000.
TV: 1-3 p.m. Friday, Ch. 66; 6-8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, CNBC.
NOTES: Last year Lanny Wadkins became the ninth player to win his senior debut, parring the third hole of a playoff with Jose Maria Canizares. Tom Watson and Walter Hall dropped out with bogeys on the first playoff hole. ... Larry Nelson won for the sixth time in his past 10 tour starts, beating Isao Aoki by a point in the Royal Caribbean Classic on Sunday in Key Biscayne. Nelson had 29 points in the Modified Stableford scoring system. ... Nelson won the season-opening MasterCard Championship in his only other 2001 start. He has 13 victories in 89 senior events. ... John Havlicek, Al Kaline, Sonny Jurgensen and Steve Carlton are among the former athletes playing in the Hall of Fame Challenge pro-am. ... The Verizon Classic is next week at the TPC of Tampa Bay.
PGA EUROPEAN TOUR/ANZ TOUR: Greg Norman Holden International, today-Sunday, Lakes Golf Club, Sydney, Australia. TV: 9 a.m.-noon and 11 p.m.-2 a.m. today-Saturday and 9 a.m.-noon and 8-10:30 p.m. Sunday, Golf Channel.
SUNSHINE TOUR: South African PGA Championship, today-Sunday, Woodhill Country Club, Pretoria, South Africa.
NGA HOOTERS TOUR: Ravines Classic, today-Sunday, Ravines Inn & Golf Club, Middleburg.
DAVIDOFF TOUR: London Myanmar Open, today-Sunday, Yangon Golf Club, Yangon, Myanmar.
TOUR OF THE AMERICAS: Mexico Masters, today-Sunday, Atlas Club, Guadalajara, Mexico.