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Tales from the tour

Posted: Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Never judge a golf season by first impressions.

Ernie Els won four times in his first six tournaments (he finished second by one shot in the other two) and was poised to challenge Tiger Woods. Then, he injured his wrist on a punching bag and never regained his momentum.

Els won seven times around the world, but his only PGA Tour victories were in January.

Vijay Singh tucked a baseball-sized sponge just below his left armpit while working on his swing during a five-hour session on the range in February. That led to a rib injury that sidelined him for five weeks, the longest layoff of his life.

Singh wound up having the best season of his career and ended Woods' reign atop the PGA Tour money list.

As for Woods?

He missed the first five weeks of the year recovering from knee surgery, but still had the most wins (5), the lowest scoring average and, despite no majors, was voted PGA Tour player of the year for the fifth straight time.

It was a memorable year, full of moments that went beyond birdies and bogeys, green jackets and claret jugs, and women playing against men.

About midway through Singh's marathon session at Torrey Pines with the sponge ball, Steven Alker showed up on the range and placed a beach ball between his knees as he worked on his short irons.

Someone pointed out this training device to Singh and jokingly suggested he give it a try.

Singh looked over at Alker and said, ''Anyone who uses something like that doesn't know what the hell he's doing.''

When the weekend arrived, Singh was home with a rib injury and Alker was two shots out of the lead.

But perhaps Singh was right.

By year's end, Alker finished 163rd on the money list and failed to get his PGA Tour card at Q-school.

Hal Sutton has always been one of the most outspoken players. His no-nonsense approach and Louisiana drawl always makes for a good interview.

Now that he's the Ryder Cup captain, the PGA of America sent Sutton to media training.

A reporter approached him on the range at Doral and asked him what he learned.

''They said I can't talk to you anymore,'' Sutton said, laughing to himself before he resumed hitting balls.

The first round of the Masters was a washout, leading to two of the longest days at Augusta National as players tried to squeeze 54 holes into Friday and Saturday.

Mike Weir completed his second round Saturday morning, and a four-stroke lead gave him time to eat lunch and relax for a few minutes in the players' lounge.

Weir looked peaceful as he thumbed through a book on the coffee table, ''The Greatest in the Game.''

One day later, the Canadian was wearing a green jacket.

Jerry Kelly grew up playing hockey and is aggressive by nature, which isn't always a good fit on the golf course.

He was walking along a path at the Memorial with a glare in his eyes after the third round when he saw a reporter he knows coming the other direction. Without warning, Kelly threw his shoulder into the reporter a hockey check and knocked him back about 5 feet.

Kelly kept walking, then looked back over his shoulder and smiled.

''Thanks, man,'' he said. ''I feel a lot better.''

Inside the press room, one look at the scoreboard said it all.

Kelly had just shot 84.

No one answers more questions about bad backs than Fred Couples, who has been dealing with aches and pains for nearly 10 years.

He was weary after a long opening round at the British Open, where he shot even-par 71. A radio reporter from the BBC cornered him and began a long list of questions, all of which Couples already had answered.

The topic shifted to the inevitable.

''What does an old man with a bad back do now?'' the reporter said.

''He leaves on this question,'' Couples said dryly, then turned and walked away.

A group of men in dark suits huddled outside the bathrooms in the clubhouse at Champions Golf Club during the final round of the Tour Championship.

They were the security detail for former President Bush, who had been watching Woods play the front nine. Bush stopped by to say hello to PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, and Barbara Bush headed for the ladies' room.

Minutes later, Woods' fiancee, Elin Nordegren, went into the restroom as Mrs. Bush was walked out.

They stopped and looked at each other, as if they had seen each other before but couldn't remember where, and then went their own way.

The big debate this year was whether golf should have equipment regulations for professionals and amateurs. The Royal & Ancient Golf Club and the U.S. Golf Association oppose two sets of rules.

''How can you create different rules?'' R&A secretary Peter Dawson said while working as a rules official on the 13th green at The Players Championship. ''How is this good for the game?''

About that time, Woods walked off the green. Despite sitting out five weeks, he won three of his first four starts.

Dawson smiled, wondering if everyone was missing the point.

''This technology is supposed to be the great equalizer,'' Dawson said. ''And yet, Tiger has still very much separated himself, hasn't he?''

Doug Ferguson covers golf for The Associated Press.



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