Found the perfect warm-up routine!

I’ve been experimenting with several warm-up techniques this season and have finally hit on one that fully prepares me to play.    Several routines have left me fidgety and uncomfortable for the first few holes until my natural rhythm takes over, and usually with some bad scores on the card.  My goal is to feel as comfortable and confident on the first tee as I am after playing five holes.  Here we go:

Start by getting to the course early.  Normally, I’ll arrive 50-60 minutes before my tee time but have recently found that an additional 15 minutes is required to eliminate any feeling of being rushed.  I’ll start the warm up on the driving range by slowly swinging my 4-iron with a weighted doughnut around the hosel.  I’ll deliberately hold the finish position on each swing to ensure I’m fully rotated, weight is distributed correctly on my forward foot, and my rotational muscles have been fully stretched.  I’ll take about 15 of these.  Next I’ll hit about 15 balls off a tee with my pitching wedge.  I use the tee to promote good contact and to build confidence.  Next I’ll hit about half a dozen 7-irons, again off a tee to build more confidence.  Next, I’ll move to driver and hit half a dozen.  If I feel really good, I’ll try to shape a few because drawing or fading the ball on command is a tremendous confidence boost, but only try this if you understand how to shape your shots.  The warm up is for getting loose and building confidence, NOT for experimenting with new moves or getting overly mechanical.  Finally I’ll wrap up with about 10 shots off the turf with my 56 degree wedge.  On every shot, I’ll alter the target because I don’t want to get robotic and do want to get my mind in game mode.  I find it helps to pause between shots and maybe chat up a friend or fellow competitor, just to remove any focus on yourself and set your mind in a relaxed state.

Next I’ll move to the short game area (hopefully you’ll have one), and hit some easy chips off good lies to a flag that has ample room to run out.  Very important to hit easy shots because you want to see the ball getting close (or in) to build confidence.  Chip for about 5-10 minutes.  Then take a few pitch shots from good lies to easily accessible holes, again to build confidence.  See a pattern developing here?  Finally wrap up with some lag putts of 10-20 feet.  You want to see the ball get close or go in and not end up in three putt range.  Finish up by making half a dozen very short putts of two feet or less, just to make sure you make them all.  It’s VERY important to see the ball go in the hole.

Want to be prepared for success on the first tee?  Try this routine.  Let me know how it goes and good luck!

Golfers, careful in the gym!

Back pain.

Dang!  Just spent five days on the short-term DL because of a stupid move during my workout last Sunday.  Instead of my final drill where I swing a club upside down, I stupidly switched to a five pound dumbbell.  20 hard swings with that and my lower left back (and left knee) where in pain all this week.

Folks, you gotta be careful with your workouts, especially when introducing new moves.  Temper your enthusiasm to experiment and go with what a pro recommends, or at least a fitness trainer.

I’m feeling better after some rest and an ibuprofen diet and am going to give the workout a light go this morning, followed by some short game work on Saturday and a game the next day.  Wish me luck and watch yourselves!

Little Bennett – Course Review

Par-5, #1 at Little Bennett


Little Bennett Golf Course in Clarksburg, Maryland, is the northern most of the nine Montgomery County Golf operated facilities.  Located on the border of Montgomery and Frederick Counties, the course combines the look and feel of a country club with an upscale daily fee cost structure.  The par-72 layout at 6,770 yards from the blue tees is very hilly and extremely challenging.  The course is usually in excellent shape, and was for my round on April 21, but conditions have waned a bit in mid-late summer when some of the greens become stressed by heat and lack of air circulation.  Little Bennett features some of the most difficult greens to putt because of significant sloping and lightening quick pace.  Significant local knowledge is required to score and I’d advise players equipped with a GPS unit to bring it.  I’ve been playing Little Bennett since it opened in 1994 and still struggle with a lack of familiarity with the course’s nuances.

First time players might observe a carnival golf feeling, especially on some of the near-impossible par-3 holes that seemingly drop out of the sky and make a mockery out of club selection.  With that in mind, the course plays significantly easier from the white tees and for some reason, I insist on humbling myself from the back in order to remind myself of that.  Play from the tips and you better be striking it superbly or you’re in for a long day.  They used to play the local Kemper Open / Booze Allen Classic Monday qualifier out here, and while the tour pros are capable of going low, you will not.  So, be patient and enjoy the thrills because even some very well struck shots can turn out badly and the course can get inside your head.

Playing tips.  Here’s what you’ll need to score well:

  • Like most county courses this spring, Little Bennett is playing hard and fast.  Take less club into your approach shots.  Often a play to the front of a green will bounce and roll all the way to a back pin position.  Flag hunting is not advised.
  • Warm up your driver because right out of the box, #1 is a tough uphill par-5 (pictured above) and you’ll need to clear a ravine and ascend a steep hill on the tee shot.
  • The carnival begins on #3 which is a downhill par-3 and starts the guessing game on club selection.  Err on the short side as a shot over the green trickles down a hill and into some woods.  Take 2-3 less clubs from the yardage.
  • The tee shot on the par-4 fourth hole bounces severely from right to left.  A left to right shot into the right side of the fairway has a chance to hold it.
  • The approach on the par-5 fifth is critical because the green slopes from front to back and left to right.  This is a little unfair since holding even a wedge shot is difficult so adjust for both.  Your best chance is to leave enough distance on your approach to allow for maximum spin and bite.
  • The par-3 sixth is a long carry and is brutally tough.  Unfortunately there is no good bailout spot.  Hit the green and the putt is still a tough one because of the severe back to front slope.
  • Depending on where they have the tees on the par-4 ninth, which doglegs hard right, and then plays downhill and over a ravine, you need to get a good yardage to the bunker guarding the fairway and add 30 yards for a center placed tee shot.  Here’s where a laser range finder comes in handy but a general rule of thumb is a 200 yard shot from the  regular men’s tees is fine.
  • #10 is a short par-4 with water hidden behind the fairway bunker on the left.  Play to the right side of the fairway for more run-out distance and a better look at the hole.
  • On the par-4 twelfth, aim your tee shot at Sugar Loaf mountain (you can’t miss it) and take a three-wood for placement.  The shot rolls a long way and the premium is on accuracy, not length.  Bounce your approach in front of the green and it will roll on a good ways.
  • #13 is a short par four and plays to a split fairway.  Generally a 180 to 200 yard shot to either half is fine but don’t go long because a ravine waits as the fairway runs out shortly past the 100-yard marker.  This tiny green is the least accessible on the course because of its size, the severe slope from back to front, and the hill behind.  You must play from below the hole.  Even the front bunker is a better play than over the green.
  • On the par-5 fourteenth, the third shot is to a green with a ridge bisecting it left to right.  Get your ball on the same tier with the hole because judging distance on a lag putt rolling over the ridge is difficult.
  • #15 is a short par-3 that descends a very steep hill and plays about two clubs shorter than the yardage.  If the pin is cut right in front, putting from behind is difficult.  Otherwise, taking the middle of the green is a fine play.
  • A good tee shot on #18 leaves you anywhere from 150-200 yards into this par-4.  The tee shot plays short so don’t hit driver, as you may run through the fairway and into trouble, so generally a long iron or hybrid is a good play.  The approach is tough and plays downhill and over a ravine with club selection important and good contact essential.  Shots just short and to the right should play okay but there’s not a lot of room to miss.
Downhill approach to #18 at Little Bennett

Value (3.0 out of 5.0)

A carts only rule is not enforced but you must ride because the course is so hilly.  Cart fees are baked into all the greens fees and we played on the after 2:00 p.m. rate of $40 which is a great value.  Early morning weekend rates are $65, which are reasonable.

Facilities (4.0 out of 5.0)

Little Bennett has a wonderful large clubhouse with a fully stocked pro shop and grill.  A nice wrap-around porch allows excellent views of the whole course and is a great place to wrap up your round with some food and drink.  The practice facility includes an all grass driving range and three practice greens, one of which is dedicated to pitching and bunker play.  Green markers are used on the practice greens and I’d prefer to putt at real cups, but otherwise you have ample room and a variety of opportunity to work on all aspects of your game.  The main driving range and short game area are a significant cart ride from the pro shop and have their own parking lot so be advised to utilize if you’re out there just to practice.

Customer Experience (3.5 out of 5.0)

Booking a tee time is easy through the MCG website and there are ample openings after 2:00 p.m. to take advantage of the value rate.  Once you arrive, you are basically on your own to unload at the bag drop and load clubs on carts, so assuming you can manage this, you’ll be fine.  To get a higher rating, the course should assist here.  The pro shop staff and starter were both prompt and courteous, and we were visited three or four times on the course by the beverage cart which was nice.  Frequent coolers of fresh drinking water are available on the course which we found to our advantage.

Little Bennett is challenging and quirky.  You need to drive, putt, chip, and think well all the way around.  If you are patient and don’t get frustrated by some bad breaks, you’ll enjoy yourself out here.  For the record, I played from the blue tees at 6,770 yards and carded an 88.

Overall Rating (3.5 out of 5.0)

2012 Golf Improvement Plan – Quarterly Review

Three months into my improvement plan and I passed a major test on Friday.  Again, the simple goal has been to better my satisfaction through improved ball striking.

Between a family vacation at Disney followed by a brutal week at work, it had been three weeks since I touched a club,  and Friday I headed out to Northwest in Silver Spring with legitimate concerns.  Boy did I surprise myself.  Going stone cold (straight from the parking lot to the tee) I managed to hit 12 greens on this long tough course and continued to see performance gains with my swing that appear to be permanent.

After five full rounds, it is crystal clear that maintaining my spine angle throughout the backswing and downswing is so important to ball striking consistency.  Again, a HUGE thank you to Brant Kasbohm at for calling this out on my video lesson last fall.  Being able to execute without warming up, and without playing for three weeks is an excellent validation on my approach.

The beauty of this plan is that I haven’t been working on my swing at all; just conditioning.  The core exercises designed to strengthen my back and shoulders, and build flexibility in my hips and ankles are working great.  The obvious payoff has been in driving distance.  It’s been pretty dry in the DC area but for all five rounds, I’ve been pounding drives on familiar courses into places I’ve never been able to hit.  I’m no longer blocking my short irons to the right, and have picked up 1/2 to a full club length of distance with my irons.

It’s great when a plan comes together and the best part has been the confidence I’m gaining.  To know when you go to the course that you’ve got a great chance for a good ball striking day is extremely encouraging.  Can’t wait for the weekend!

Northwest – Course Review

476 yard par-4 #10 at Northwest


Northwest, in Silver Spring, Maryland is operated by Montgomery County Golf and has been a favorite of county golfers for many years.  Previously known as Northwest Park, conventional wisdom holds that if you’re breaking out a new driver, or want to play a round where you feel like bombing your tee ball, this is your destination.  The course was originally designed in the early 1960s with the thought of hosting a U.S. Open and at 7,376 yards from the tips, the length would qualify but the layout is fairly wide open and would present a minimal challenge for touring professionals.  Challenges for the amateur ranks are abundant with ample length being the main defense (6,827 yards – men’s tees) and huge greens that allow for very difficult pin placements.  The facility also has a par-34  “Inside Nine” that I’ve played on several occasions, which provides more challenges than your typical executive track.

I played the course on Friday, April 13 and found conditions very good, with fairways and greens hard and rolling out due to lack of moisture.  Nothing was burned out as the hot weather had not yet hit DC.  The putting surfaces had been aerated over a month ago and were fully recovered and rolling fast.

Most greens are sloped from back to front and are very large.  Long downhill lag putts are commonplace and are very difficult to two-putt, but you can attack coming from the low side.  If approach shots are not carried to the putting surface, they will most likely roll all the way over these greens, making this a tough track to play bump and run golf, but you can hold a well struck iron shot.

Playing tips:

Over the years, I’ve developed a game plan for playing Northwest that consisted of laying up to 100 yards on the long par fives and attacking with my wedges.  This works well and avoidance of most greenside bunkers is advised because the size of the greens will leave you with long tough shots from the sand.  Here is the local knowledge you’ll need to score:

  • After a routine first hole, Northwest hits you with four straight tough ones that established single-digit handicappers frequently play in several strokes over par, so be patient, play conservatively, and don’t get discouraged if you get off to a rough start; you will have opportunities to score.
  • #2 is a 446 yard par-4 from the men’s tees and plays long.  The front right greenside bunker is a popular landing place and should be avoided.  Short left or wide left is a fairly easy place to chip or pitch from.
  • #3 is a sharp dogleg right and is probably the toughest tee shot on the course because you need to strike your tee shot left to right to hold it in a fairway that bounces right to left.  Long hitters can knock it through the fairway into some penal rough and the second shot is uphill and must be played below the hole.  Putting or chipping from pin high or above the pin is hazardous.
  • On the par-3 fourth hole, take the fat part of the green wherever they have the flag.  Do not mess with the front left bunker and do not be tempted to go long if the flag is in the back.  A routine par here is great.
  • #5 can play tough if they place the pin directly behind the unique front-middle greenside bunker.  In that case, a miss short right, just left of the cart path is fine.   Long is dead because of the severely sloping green and in the front bunker is a poor play because you can only see the top of the flagstick.  Bogey is not a bad score here.
  • # 8 is a par-5 dogleg right 90-degrees.  Go for the long tee shot by cutting the corner next to the last tree on the right and you’ll be in fine shape to go for the green in two.  Avoid the front right greenside bunker as it’s an awkward stance and particularly tough play to a back flag.
  • The par-4 ninth looks docile from the fairway but if the flag is back, take the middle of the green and putt uphill to give yourself a chance.  You should attack a front pin though as the slope is not as severe.
  • #10 is a long par-4 but plays shorter than the yardage on the approach.  You can get a lot of roll on a  low running iron shot that lands 40 even 50 yards out in the fairway.  This is one of the few holes to try a bump and run approach.
  • #13 is a dogleg left par-4 where the fairway runs out quick on the right and is protected by a hidden water hazard, and there are woods on the left.  Take an iron off the tee or draw a fairway wood if you’re comfortable with that shot but do not hit driver here; there’s nothing to gain and everything to lose.
  • #15 is a straight forward par-3 playing 186 yards from the men’s tees.  The tee shot usually plays 1/2 club shorter than the yardage and I’m not sure why.  I’ve also had more success playing from the front of the green than attacking pin positions wherever they put them.  When the pin is deep, short-siding yourself from over the green or putting from pin high is difficult as the green slopes severely from back to front.

    Par 3, #15 at Northwest
  • #18 is a short but tricky dogleg right par-4 with a large sycamore tree guarding the right side of the fairway.  The key here is to find the fairway with any club you can hit 200-220 yards, but I’d caution against hitting driver unless you’re sure you can shape one left to right.

Value:  (3.0 out of 5.0)

I played on Friday afternoon and walked for $39, which I felt was a very good value.  Weekend morning greens fees are $56 which are a little on the high end for municipal golf, but demand is high for starting times and when the course is in good condition, the cost is justified.  During the summer, the course gets heavy play and weekend rounds can slow down in the 5+ hour range as players struggle a bit with the length.  Still, if you’ve got the patience, your golfing dollars are well spent here.

Facilities: (3.5 out of 5.0)

Northwest has a recently renovated clubhouse with a good sized pro shop and fully stocked grill.  A large 40+ station driving range is available with about half the tees covered, lighted and heated, which allows for all-season practice.  All hitting stations are mats only.  Finally, there is a good sized fairly flat practice putting green adjacent to the first tee, but there is no separate chipping/pitching area.  They do allow you to chip on the practice green.  If they were to construct a separate practice green, this facility ranking would move to the upper echelons but is more than adequate.

Customer Experience: (3.5 out of 5.0)

Booking a tee time is easy for any course managed by Montgomery County Golf by using their website.    On the day I played, the starter proactively found me on the putting green and offered to get me out with an earlier group, which I much appreciated.  If you want to get in a quick nine during busy periods, your best bet is to play the Inside Nine, as demand for the regular course is high and walk-on play without a reservation is difficult.

So muscle up your driver, practice your lag putting and enjoy your day at Northwest!

For the record, I played the blue tees at 6,827 yards and shot a six-over par 78.

Overall Rating: (3.5 out of 5.0)

Addicted to golf? How do you know?

What are the warning signs for golf addiction and how do you handle?  I haven’t played in three weeks and am definitely missing it.  Once I start playing on a weekly basis, I’ll miss it even more, and worse yet, will feel like I need to dedicate more time between rounds for improvement.  The constant pull of the need to work on my game is a reminder that I’m a recovering adict.  I’ve managed the addiction in part by keeping enough busy distractions in play with the rest of my life, but when I used to work in the golf business and play six days a week, the addiction was awful.  What else would you do with your day off but work on your game?  And imagine how miserable you’d get when you were playing badly.  At the end of my golf career, I was so burned out on golf I didn’t care if I ever played again, but that was 25 years ago and my recovery period was a short one.

We all know, golf is a game that requires constant adjustments and you rarely play a round where everything clicks.  The great Ben Hogan once said that he only hit four or five perfect shots per round, and he used to practice a ton.  I can’t dedicate nearly the amount of time that Hogan did, which helps when I feel the constant urge to improve.

Is it possible to get to a place where you play two or three times per week, make a few small adjustments on the fly, and just enjoy the game without feeling the urge to work at it?  Anyone with advice on this, please share.  Thanks!

2012 Masters Wrap-Up

Great finish to a great tournament and a truly deserving champion this year.  Way to go Bubba!  Final impressions on the principals:

  • Bubba Watson (Champ) :  Awesome display of poise coming down the stretch.  Incredible ability to shape the ball in either direction and play recovery shots on demand.  I have wondered how he would perform when he had to hit it straight and he answered the bell with the tee shots on #18 in regulation and the first playoff hole.  Great victory for a popular player.  Still can’t believe the second shot on the second playoff hole.
  • Louis Oosthuizen (runner up) :  I thought he had the inside track on victory because of his clutch putting.  Made everything that he needed to, until the final hole of regulation. Very poised under pressure, unlike final round meltdown last week at Houston.  Beautiful, powerful, compact golf swing.
  • Tiger Woods (5-over par and out of contention) :  Tiger is battling so many demons, worst of which are the lofty standards he set for himself in his former life.  All that’s gone and what’s left is a good PGA Tour professional who’s so mired in swing mechanics he’s forgotten to just play the game and have fun.  Grumpy when playing well, boorish when playing poorly.
  • Rory McIlroy (5-over par and out of contention after round 3) :  Very disappointed in his performance.  Apparently needs to get over some mental blockers about Augusta National (more than the final round 80 from last year.)  Great attitude though and should still be a factor in every major.
  • Lee Westwood (tie for 3rd) :  Excellent ball striking performance but can’t close the deal on the greens – again.  Nothing new.
  • Phil Mickelson (tie for 3rd) :  Two shots out of the playoff with two triple bogeys.  Should name a ride for him at Six Flags.

Needwood – Course Review

#18 green at Needwood


Needwood, located in Derwood, Maryland is a municipal course run by Montgomery County Golf and is my home course.  I’ve been playing here for over 30 years and have seen many changes, most for the better.  The course is popular and traffic can get pretty high in season, but despite the heavy play, the superintendent keeps the course in good shape year round and has the greens rolling fairly fast and smooth in the hotter months.

Needwood plays to a par of 70 and at just over 6,200 yards from the tips is not much of a challenge for long hitters.  Right-handers who play a fade can score well since there are five holes that dog leg to the right and only two to the left.  The par-36 front is a collection of straight forward holes but the par-34 back is a wonderful mix of long and short holes, forced carries over water, and significant elevation changes.  The course features an excellent slate of closing holes with the 400 yard par-4 sixteenth and eighteenth holes posing the toughest challenges.

Recent improvements include rebuilding most of the green side bunkers to improve drainage and adding new sand.  I hit several bunker shots and the quality of sand was good.  In the last year the course removed several greenside bunkers which has improved the pace of play but may warrent a review of the course rating and slope, as it plays considerably easier without these hazards.

My regular weekend group played it on Sunday, March 25 and we found the course wet after overnight rains, but not sloppy.  Greens had very small tine punches that looked about a week old and were not part of their general aeration which was planned for April 23/24.  The greens were rolling medium fast and a bit bumpy being that it was early spring.

Playing tips:

After 30 years and hundreds of rounds, I know every nook and cranny of this layout but will cover the main points that a first timer would find helpful.  Here we go:

  • #2 is a 400-yard par-4 dogleg right.  The tee box is misaligned straight into the right rough and you must take extra care to line up your tee shot with the fairway.
  • #5 is a short straight par-5 with two big bunkers guarding the front left and right.  Big hitters are tempted to go for it in two but the front bunkers are hard to get up and down from so if you are doubting your ability, lay up.
  • On the par-4 sixth, when the pin is back left on this two-tier green, only suckers go for it.
  • On the par-3 seventh,  it’s okay to miss the green front right.  Long and left or wide right is a very tough up and down.
  • On the par-4 eleventh, if the flag is back, take the middle of the green.  If you are pin high right or left, the break is severe and two putting is difficult.  Front and middle pins are very accessible.
  • The par-3 twelfth is the toughest par-3 because of the length (195 yards) and the ball sucking woods on the left.  A shot in the trees is an automatic double bogey.  Hit the green or put your shot on the right side where they’ve removed a green-side bunker and the play is easier.
  • The tee shot of the par-5 thirteenth hole is elevated and dog-legs to the right.  In cool wet weather, I hit driver but when the course plays fast, I take a three wood for position.  During the summer, tall rough creeps up fast on the left and can snag just a slightly hooked drive.  You must keep it out of the woods on the right off the tee and the second shot or you might be looking at a big number.  There is no advantage to hitting a fairway wood on your second shot because you cannot get home in two and the risk of rolling into the woods on the right is too great.  I always hit 3 or 4-iron into position for an easy short iron approach.
  • #14 is another elevated tee shot to a very short but tricky par-4 dogleg right.  Cut the corner with a big drive and you’ll have a sand wedge in for a short uphill approach and a great birdie opportunity, but pull or hook your tee shot and you may lose it in the creek on the left.  A conservative play with a hybrid or 3-iron still only leaves about 130 yards in and is the safe option.  If the pin is up front you want to be pin high or just short of the green for an easy chip.  Middle of the green or back is almost an automatic three-putt as the front slope is very severe and difficult to negotiate.  Back or middle flag locations putt much easier.  When you play #2, glance to your left from the fairway and note the pin position on #14 as it’s harder to see while playing #14 because of the uphill approach.
  • The par-4 sixteenth is the toughest tee shot on the course and you must favor the right side of the fairway as the hole dog legs to the left and then drops down a hill with a pond guarding the right side approach.  Even if your tee shot finds the left side of the fairway, you may be blocked from the green by a tall tree guarding the corner and will have to hook one to get home.  There is room to miss left around the green but do not miss short or long right, as a deep bunker or tough side hill lie awaits.
  • On the par-3 seventeenth, over the green is dead.  Always play for the front or middle, as shots landing on the back will often roll over and down into the junk.
  • Finally, crank your tee shot on #18 and get as much distance as you can because the second shot is a forced carry over water and can play long.  #18 green is right next to the first tee and is sloped back to front with a tricky ridge in the middle (see photo above.)  Check the pin placement on #18 before you tee off #1 and if it’s in the middle or front middle, make a note to try and approach from below the hole as putts from the back roll a long way once they catch the slope.

Value:  (3.0 out of 5.0)

Greens fees are $47 on the weekend and range balls are $5 per bucket.  For a municipal course that’s usually in reasonably good condition, I’ve found Needwood as a good value and play it 5-10 times per year.

Facilities: (3.0 out of 5.0)

Needwood has a bare-bones pro shop that sells a few clothes, shoes, and accessories.  They used to stock equipment but have scaled back considerably in recent years.  Upstairs from the pro-shop is a fairly large and well stocked grill that overlooks the first tee and 18th green and is a nice place to grab a drink after your round.  A driving range is available with 20-30 stations featuring only mats.  There is a decent size practice putting green but it’s built on a hill in front of the pro shop and it’s difficult to find a flat putt.  A newer practice chipping green was installed in the last 10 years that is very flat and offers a variety of short game shots and conditions.  I’ve made extensive use of this area for practicing all facets of my short game except for sand as there is no bunker.  Needwood has an executive 9 that consists of seven very short par-3 holes and two short par-4s.  The “exec” is popular with beginners and those trying to get in a quick nine holes.  I’ve played it with my son when he was learning the game and it’s appropriate for that purpose but the slow pace of play will irritate more experienced players.

Customer Experience: (3.0 out of 5.0)

Booking a tee time is easy through Montgomery County Golf’s website but you will have to create an account.  Otherwise, call the pro shop at 301-948-1075.  There are usually ample times 1-2 weeks in advance but they fill up fast in good weather.

Mike Kenny was the resident pro and has moved over to Falls Road (another MCG course) and has been replaced by Chris Cissel, PGA.  The operation had been run well by Mike over the last few years and I’m hopeful Chris shows the same attention to detail that Mike had.

For the record, I played the blue tees at 6,254 yards and shot a four-over par 74.

Overall Rating: (3.0 out of 5.0)

2012 Masters Picks.

This tournament has the potential to be one of the greatest Masters of all time.  All of the world’s stars are playing well and there are several interesting story lines forming a critical backdrop.  As in prior years, the battle at Augusta National can be handicapped with the Horses for Courses method, since the field is smaller than the other majors, and previous champions typically play well and have an advantage.  I’ve thrown distractions, injuries, and momentum into my prognostication pot so let’s get at it.

The 2012 champion will come from one of three players.  Woods, Mickelson, and McIlroy so throw away the rest right now and consider the main contenders.

Tiger Woods has the track record at Augusta with four green jackets and 12 top tens.  Also, the five-shot nuclear bomb he detonated last week at Bay Hill should have caught your attention as it did mine and the entire ranks of the PGA Tour.  With his ball striking in top form and his suspect putter behaving as of late, Tiger has the momentum of a downhill locomotive heading to Augusta.  What concerns me is his propensity to suffer lower body injuries at critical junctures with no prior warning.  All the talk about “explosiveness” from Tiger is gibberish because he’s on a shaky foundation and everybody knows it.  Another negative, and I hate to bring this up, but the release of the trashy film Three Mistresses is set for Tuesday and is going to be a distraction he doesn’t need.  Finally, Tiger does not intimidate like he used to .   .   .  but the Bay Hill win was a HUGE statement.

Phil Mickelson also has the track record with three Masters wins and 13 top tens; virtually Tiger’s equal minus the extra green jacket.  Phil has showed good form this week in Houston and is still on a high from his head-to-head butt kicking of Tiger at Pebble Beach.  This recent one-on-one dominance of Tiger is a compelling by-line especially if they get paired on the weekend.  Unfortunately, Phil rides the momentum roller coaster too often and you never know when he’ll get on or off.  Phil is also susceptible to the dumb mental mistake at a critical juncture because he has the personality of a gambler.  Tiger does not.

Rory McIlroy can make the case for being the best player in the world with the most upside potential.  His win at Honda with Tiger throwing a final round 62 at him was impressive.  I love how he responded with clutch up and downs while his ball striking was off and with Tiger applying the vice-like squeeze.  How would he play paired with Tiger on the final day at Augusta?  I think he’d be fine.  What I don’t like is that he hasn’t played competitively since Honda.  Another negative is that final round 80 from last year’s Masters and exorcising those demons.  The talk with Jack Nicklaus got him over the hump at the U.S. Open, now can he win it on the back nine on Sunday?

Brief notes on The Field:  The balance of power in the world is at an amazingly high level and another first time major winner is a possibility.  Defending champion Charl Schwartzel is a nice player but last year was an aberration.  World #1 Luke Donald has good momentum from Doral and Transitions but how many majors has he won?  He’s a little short and a little crooked off the tee for my liking and being able to hit wedges from the fairways into as many par-4s as possible is critical at Augusta.  Perennial also-ran Lee Westwood is starting to look like Colin Montgomerie in the majors.  Just wants it too much and should relax and play shot to shot.  At least his attitude is better, but he doesn’t putt well enough to win at Augusta.

Final Picks:

The green jacket goes to Rory McIlroy.  Best player in the world wins the best tournament in the world.

Runner up is Tiger Woods.  5-shot win at Bay Hill was huge but need to see more consistency with the putter.

Third is Phil Mickelson.  Bull or bear, who knows?