Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The "crying shame" about Tiger Woods golf vs Westwood, Molinari duel

When it comes to deciding the highlights of 2010 there are plenty of contenders for most dominant display and an obvious winner of the most exciting moment of the year in golf. However a special category should be saved for the display of Francesco Molinari and Lee Westwood at the WGC-HSBC Champions for producing one of those most-cherished moments in tournament golf; a good old-fashioned duel! Tim Maitland reports.

No-one in their right mind could argue against that rain-sodden reenactment of the Somme – the drama at the Monday denouement of the Celtic Manor Ryder Cup – as the highlight of the year. Special mention would go to the three-way play-off for the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits (Dustin Johnson eventually being penalized for grounding his club in a “bunker” on his 72nd hole, while Martin Kaymer saw off Bubba Watson): an Oscar winner in any other year. The individual performance? Louis Oosthuizen taking the Open Championship by seven shots at the home of golf would probably eclipse Cristie Kerr’s 12-shot victory at the LPGA Championship in most books, mainly because it’s St Andrews above Locust Hill.

They wouldn’t have a category for what happened at Sheshan International Golf Club in the WGC-HSBC Champions for the simple reason that two players almost never run away from a world-class field the way that Francesco Molinari and Lee Westwood did in finishing ten and nine shots ahead.

“It’s very rare: very unusual indeed. Often you get one person that streaks away, but two separating themselves that much is unusual,” said former Ryder Cup player and winner of the inaugural tournament in Shanghai David Howell.

“It just goes to show how well both of them played, ultimately how much Francesco deserved to win and how unlucky Lee was.”

A quick straw poll of the professionals on the driving range produces a lot of scratching of heads as to when they personally witnessed a similar moment of classic head-and-shoulders-above-the-rest hand-to-hand combat.

“Probably once every five years you’ll see two guys; it’s sort of like they get on a crest of a wave and they’re playing each other, feeding off each other and they just keep going. With a top-class field it’s very rare,” said Australian veteran Tony “TC” Carolan.

“You see these old classic tournaments where you get these fantastic duels because they’re playing together. They go along together, they played together over the weekend because they were so far ahead and they just kept going away from the field. It’s basically two different tournaments running at the same time! One and two are playing it out and the others are playing for third.”

True to that patent, the Molinari-Westwood encounter began from the start. The Ryder Cup teammates were first and second just one shot apart after the first round at Sheshan and finished each day in the same positions with the same margin as they left golf’s great and good trailing in their dust. There is one obvious comparison to make: The Duel on the Bund and the great, the legendary Duel in the Sun.

“The classic one was, of course, Nicklaus and Watson; the Open Championship at Turnberry in 1977.

Shanghai? It definitely belongs with it. What was good about Shanghai was that they’d drawn away; the only one that was similar was 1977, because they were away from everybody else and there were just the two of them at it,” declared TV commentator Renton Laidlaw, himself something of a legend in the game and one of the few people qualified to make the comparison because he was at both Turnberry 30-odd years ago, working as BBC Radio’s report and covering for London’s Evening Standard, and at Sheshan in November as a Golf Channel commentator.

“It was absolutely fantastic. Watson had won the Masters that year. They lapped the field. The guy that was third, Hubert Green, was 10 shots behind them, it was rather similar to Shanghai.”

There was one other person present in Shanghai, who was also at Turnberry in 77. Laidlaw’s Golf Channel colleague Warren Humphreys, a former English Amateur champions and winner on the European Tour (the 1995 Portuguese Open), not only played the Open Championship that year but had a hole in one. He agrees that isn’t a stretch to start comparing the two duels.

“It was a special week. If you look at Shanghai, in the end it was the first round score that won the tournament and after that they matched each other score for score. That’s similar to the Duel in the Sun; they matched each other score for score apart from one shot in the final round,” Humphreys said.

“The Duel in the Sun: Watson was at his peak and holing putts and Jack played OK… and it’s one of the legendary performances.  Jack with his B+ game and Tom had everything going – A plus-plus – and that’s right because Nicklaus was so much better than everyone else. Like Tiger, Nicklaus’s 15th club [his mind] was one shot a round – that’s four shots a tournament – better than anyone else. He would win more just because of the way he could think and the way he could handle pressure"

“Obviously, what Francesco and Lee did was world-class – I think, even in such a short history, the HSBC Champions has proved you don’t win it unless you’re playing at the highest level – but to hear it’s being mentioned in the same breath as the Duel in the Sun is one of the greatest compliments that can possibly be paid,” said Giles Morgan, HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship.

“The history of the sport is so precious and so revered I don’t think I would have dared make the comparison, but then when you hear people talking who were at Turnberry, and in Warren’s case played in the ‘ 77 Open, and who were also at Shanghai, you have to respect their point of view and be grateful for it.”

There are, of course, some ways in which the Duel on the Bund can’t begin to rival the Duel in the Sun. When Nicklaus arrived in Turnberry he already had 14 of his record 18 major championship victories under his belt. By the end of that week Watson would have three of his career total of eight and would become only the fourth player in history (after Arnold Palmer in 1960, Gary Player in 1974 and Nicklaus himself in 1975) to win multiple majors in the same season.

“There were two players at the top of their game,” explained Laidlaw, who is also the editor of the annual R&A Golfer’s Handbook.

“And I think Jack (Nicklaus) always enjoyed the competition more than he enjoyed winning. I think he would have won more if he’d been more intent on winning. He liked to win, but what gave him the real thrill was the competition. If he lost, but it had been a great competition, that satisfied him. "

Laidlaw went on to say, "That battle with him and Watson was a classic. I always remember Watson saying that he knew, even at the last green, at which point he was one ahead, and even though Nicklaus had been in the bush and had played a recovery shot onto the green and was some 20 or 30 feet away, he said “I knew he would hole it”.  And of course he did. 

Watson said, because I knew he would hole that, “I’d already made up my mind that I would have to hole my putt” – it was only a short putt, 2 ½ or 2 feet – he said “I knew that I’d have to hole it to win”. It meant so much to Watson to beat Nicklaus; beating Nicklaus was always the key. He was as happy to beat Nicklaus as [Isao] Aoki was unhappy to lose to Nicklaus when they battled very closely in the 1980 US Open at Baltusrol. They came to the wire as well and Nicklaus refused to let Aoki win that one. Aoki was trying to become the first far eastern or Asian winner of a Major. That was a great battle.”

It’s debatable, as with so many of the other great battles, as to whether the Aoki-Nicklaus encounter of 1980 qualifies as a duel. Aoki only got on terms with Nicklaus in the third round and he and the Golden Bear only escaped the rest of the field – led by Watson, Lon Finkle and Keith Fergus – on the final day.

“It is really hard to come up with other tournaments, Majors anyway, where two people have fought it out. If you could really put your mind to it you could probably think of a few more, but there’s not that many. Sometimes you find there’s a duel over one round or over the last 27 holes, but you don’t get it for four rounds,” Humphreys said, having racked his brains along with Laidlaw to compile a list of possibilities.

“With the best will in the world, Faldo at the [1996] Masters with Greg Norman, where he caught up on that big lead, wasn’t the same, because Faldo played well but Norman collapsed. In Shanghai you had two people peaking, not one falling apart and one playing well. Every now and then you get special weeks. Normally it takes one player to be on their peak form to win a tournament. If you get two players who are peaking at the same time and who are not afraid to win and are confident in their own ability then you get a very special moment, but it happens rarely. I think it was an exceptional performance. I think the way that Molinari played stretched Westwood and then Westwood stretched Molinari and when you get two players that play like that, and they were both very confident in their game (and I think Molinari produced one of the best putting weeks of his career), then you get a special week.”

What’s interesting is how far we have to look back for comparisons and how few times during Tiger Woods' domination that anything approaching a duel came to fruition. The main exception would be Tiger’s 14th Major – the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines – when Rocco Mediate took him through an 18-hole play-off into sudden death. But then even that doesn’t fit with our definition of the duel, as Westwood was only one shot behind after 72 holes.

“That’s the Tiger influence, isn’t it? For a lot of the Major championships he’s decimated fields himself and he hasn’t had anybody to play against when he’s been on top form. I think that’s the crying shame about the era of Tiger Woods,” said Humphreys.

“The Nicklaus era was tremendous because he had so many rich players, talented players exciting players, charismatic players alongside him; Palmer, Player, Trevino, Floyd, Watson… you can name a whole bunch of them. Lots of talented players… Curtis Strange… and he beat them all over a 30-year period. Tiger, in a way, hasn’t had that. I think in a way it’s to the detriment of Tiger because I think he in a way would have liked to have been stretched and to find out what he would have done if he had had someone pushing him.”

For the 2010 WGC-HSBC Champions to truly deserve to sit in proximity with the 1977 Open Championship, it may take time: time for history to ferment, time for Westwood and Francesco Molinari to cement their reputations so that their battle becomes a part of golf folklore.

At this point Laidlaw, a recipient of the PGA Tour’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism, disagrees:
“The plain fact is you can take all these duels, just as the duels of that time. If they never do anything ever again – in both these cases I think they will [be successful again] – you can’t take away from them the fact that their duel in the HSBC Champions was marvelous to watch. One holed a putt then the other holed a putt; it was just fantastic how they did that. Whether they do or don’t go onto to win Majors doesn’t take anything away from the excitement and drama they produced in Shanghai, which was riveting, riveting!” the 71-year-old Scot states.

The fact is though that, if Westwood turns his spell as world number one into a fully-fledged reign and if he can turn his 2000 European Tour Order of Merit and 2009 Race to Dubai wins and his consistency in Majors – two third places in 2009 and two second places in 2010 – into the Major victories that define greatness, then what both he and Francesco Molinari achieved in Shanghai will be looked on in a new light, not that what Westwood did wasn’t incredible enough as it is.

Troubled by an unusual calf injury that left his ankle swollen, the Nottinghamshire native limped to second place at the Open Championship, withdrew because of the injury from the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, came back only for the Ryder Cup and returned rusty for the WGC-HSBC Champions just in time to replace Tiger Woods at the top of the Official World Golf Rankings. He also faced a four-way struggle for his right to keep that title and faced questions, particularly from the States, as to whether a non-Major winner could be considered worthy of the top spot.

“Perfect timing!” said Howell of Westwood’s showing at Sheshan.

“It was daunting, it’s a wonderful position to be number one in the world, but there are responsibilities and the expectations that come with that and, as always, Lee dealt with them brilliantly. Obviously winning would have been doing it in style, but he put on a world-class performance as well!”

The other half of the equation is what Francesco Molinari does from here. Apart from claiming the Omega Mission Hills World Cup with his brother Edoardo in 2009, Francesco hadn’t won since his maiden European Tour victory at the 2006 Telecom Italia Open. However, if his HSBC Champions win proves to be typical of how he is going to play in 2011 he will be looked upon in a very different light by the end of the year.

“Molinari is almost beginning the journey, although he’s been a good player for four or five years. I think with Molinari, if he continues to putt with the sort of confidence he had that week [in Shanghai] then you could be looking at another very special player,” Humphreys declares.

“The thing with Molinari is his stature. He’s not a tall guy. He’s got to be playing at his best and at his peak all the time to compete against some of the big boomers that are in the game. Francesco’s got a wonderful game from tee to green and he hasn’t changed that for a number of years. His swing is consistently sound year on year. The biggest killer for most people; they get to a certain point and they think I must change to get better and they actually change to get worse. If he stays that way and his short game stays good… I think the overriding thing about Molinari’s performance is he doesn’t get scared. That’s a fantastic quality to have as a golfer. He talked about it afterwards as a pressure situation, but he never showed it. The fact that he went out against Tiger in the Ryder Cup and was two up after two and Tiger had to shoot nine under to beat him: Tiger would have beaten any other player on either side the way he played on that particular day. It shows strength of character and I think that strength of character is a big club in the bag for Molinari.”

It was incredible that Molinari seemed to stay completely unflustered as the pressure in the tournament mounted. Bogey-free in his final round, he made perhaps one mistake on the Sunday: missing a short par for birdie on the par five 14th hole. Westwood was bogey-free the entire weekend, but at the pivotal moment – Sheshan’s world-renowned driveable par four 16th – it was the Englishman who blinked first. It’s hard to call his three wood off the tee a mistake though. He missed his target by a matter of a yard, got a hard bounce forward and found himself snookered behind the evil pot-bunker that guards the left side of the green. Like Tiger did in exactly the same position the year before, Westwood left the gossamer-fine chip in the long grass above the bunker and the pressure was off.

Still, on eighteen he could have forced a play-off. His five-iron second seemed certain to take the slope down to the hole, but somehow circled the ridge and stayed on the higher level and the duel was over.

“I feel sorry for Westwood because he’d come second in two Majors earlier in the season and here he was coming second again to a guy who was playing, arguably, the best golf of his career. I don’t think he’s ever played as well as that. He may never again, but let’s hope he does,” Laidlaw declares.

“He’s now shown he can do it. What an inspiration it might be to Molinari, wwho knows what he’ll do having hung on and proved himself that he can do it.”

And if Molinari does go on from here?

“We will look back and say that’s when it started. It started because suddenly he realized just what he was capable of. He was always sure he had that capability, but in Shanghai on the course, he did it for real against one of the strongest of opponents: Westwood had played well all season,” said the doyen of British golf writers and broadcasters.

There is one final aspect that the Duel on the Bund does compare and deserves to stand alongside the Duel in the Sun: the level of sportsmanship showed. Refreshingly there was no sense that Molinari felt he had banished, triumphed over, conquered or even that he had defeated Westwood. Westwood himself afterwards said there were “no negatives” in a performance like his and, when his attempt at an eagle putt on 18 rolled past the hole, there was nothing in his behavior at that instant that suggested otherwise.

“Watson and Nicklaus both respected each other so much; they enjoyed battling with each other. It was one of the great adverts for the game. It was in the most sporting manner between two players who between them won eight Open Championships,” Laidlaw recalls. 

“When Watson and Nicklaus were finished, Nicklaus was right there to say “well done, many congratulations”. When Molinari won, Westwood was right there saying “many congratulations”. That’s what it’s all about! The competition! They love the competition! It’s part of the game!”

The Duel on the Bund vs. The Duel in the Sun

First Round
2010 WGC-HSBC Champions
1   Francesco Molinari                      Italy                   65        -7
2   Lee Westwood                                 England                     66        -6
T3 Yuta Ikeda                                    Japan                 67        -5
     Henrik Stenson                             Sweden              67
     Noh Seung-Yul                             South Korea       67

1977 Open Championship
1   John Schroeder                                 United States            66        -4
2   Martin Foster                                    England                     67        -3
T3 Jack Nicklaus                                    United States           68        -2
     Lee Trevino                                       United States            68
     Tom Watson                                    United States           68

Second Round
2010 WGC-HSBC Champions
1   Francesco Molinari                      Italy                   65-70=135       -9
2   Lee Westwood                                 England                     66-70=136       -8
T3 Ernie Els                                       South Africa       72-65=137       -7
     Jaco Van Zyl                                 South Africa       71-66=137      
     Richie Ramsey                             Scotland             69-68=137

1977 Open Championship
1   Roger Maltbie                               United States       71-66=137       -3
T2 Hubert Green                                United States       72-66=138       -2
     Jack Nicklaus                               United States       68-70=138
       Lee Trevino                                 United States       68-70=138
       Tom Watson                                United States    68-70=138

Third Round
2010 WGC-HSBC Champions
1   Francesco Molinari                      Italy          65-70-67=202              -14
2   Lee Westwood                               England    66-70-67=203             -13
3   Luke Donald                                 England     68-70-68=206             -10

1977 Open Championship
T1 Jack Nicklaus                               United States    68-70-65=203  -7
     Tom Watson                                United States      68-70-65=203
3   Ben Crenshaw                              United States     71-69-66=206  -4
Fourth Round
2010 WGC-HSBC Champions
1   Francesco Molinari                     Italy                65-70-67-67=269        -19
2   Lee Westwood                            England            66-70-67-67=270        -18
T3 Richie Ramsey                           Scotland            69-68-71-71=279        -9
     Luke Donald                                England            68-70-68-73=279       
1977 Open Championship
1   Tom Watson                               United States    68-70-65-65=268        -12
2   Jack Nicklaus                           United States    68-70-65-66=269        -11
3   Hubert Green     

picture credits: Getty images/Tim Maitland

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