They Get Excited Too

There are interesting leaderboards and then there are exciting leaderboards. The leaderboard heading into the third round of the Farmers Insurance Open at the Torrey Pines South Course in La Jolla, California, is an exciting leaderboard.

First of all, it’s “Moving Day,” the strategic third day of the tournament where, having made the cut, you press your case that you should be the winner. The object is to go as low as you can to put yourself as high up the leaderboard as you can for Sunday’s last round. The higher the better; being in the last threesome the best.

Today’s final threesome is lead by Bill Haas. In amassing $2.9 million last year and 61st in the World Golf Rankings, he won twice, most notably the Bob Hope Classic. In this year’s Hope, he played his way into a three-man playoff won my phenom, Jhonattan Vegas, but it was quite an accomplishment to do so well in defending his title in that daunting five-day event. So he’s come into La Jolla hot. And looking at his card from yesterday, you’d have to argue that he still is: his 6-under, 66 on the more difficult South course included eight birdies…just to be clear, on the hard course!

Joining Haas two strokes back in second place by himself is the resurgent Anthony Kim. Even though he made $2.6 million dollars last year with a win at Houston, a 2nd at the Honda and a 3rd at the Masters, he lost virtually the whole second half of the year to a thumb injury that required surgery. He looks to be completely back to form, a form manifested by his relaxed intensity. There was probably no better example of that intensity than his thumping of Sergio Garcia in the lead singles match of the 2008 Ryder Cup. He was so engrossed in what he was doing that when he beat Sergio 5&4 on the 14th green, rather than politely shaking hands with Sergio—you know, good sportsmanship all around—he began heading for the next tee. The officials had to gently intervene: he had no idea that he’d won. He’s looking kinda like that again. Oh, and he did it playing with Tiger in the first two rounds.

The third guy in the lead group is Sweden’s Fredrik Jacobson who finished first yesterday among the seven players tied for 3rd. At first you might think that there’s nothing here. After peaking at 67th in the World Golf Rankings in 2008 he’s slowly slid down to 132nd at the end of last year. And he doesn’t look like he should be in this group. He has a highly-idiosyncratic, shoulder swing that looks all bound up and “lungey.” But there he sits with 8 birdies in two days and not a single bogey. So the interest here is can the indomitable efforts of a self-made man prevail? This comes under the category of never underestimating the possibility of another human being.

And speaking of self-made men, the second group is led by the irrepressible Bubba Watson. Priding himself on not taking golf lessons, he was quoted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “The game comes natural to me, and I don’t want to make it a job. I do this because I love it. If I get a lesson, that means it’s a job and that means I think I’m not good enough anymore.” And his “naturalness” looks as idiosyncratic as Jacobson’s. It looks like a lot of disordered flailing, but he hits it as far as anyone and is most known for his ability to shape shots right or left as demanded, so much so that you rarely see him hit a straight one. He beat up the North course yesterday for the low round of the day, 7-under, 65.

The second guy in that group is the swashbuckling Rickie Fowler, he the owner of another natural, idiosyncratic swing. But it’s a free-flowing swing that he trusts and aside from becoming one of the stars in his maiden voyage in the last year’s Ryder Cup, he rose to 28th in the World Golf Rankings while earning $2.9 million. A former motocross racer, he attacks the course like he used to attack the track. So when he lashes a great, towering shot, think of him on his bike hanging in midair between moguls somewhere, because the exhilaration and the intention of the two is the same.

And the third guy in that group is hometown guy, Phil Mickelson. After a deflating first tournament of the year halfway around the world in Abu Dhabi, he’s come home to us. And to his wife and kids and extended family who live in the San Diego area. And that’s the story this week. His wife Amy, who has been battling breast cancer since May of 2009, was finally well enough to walk 18 holes again, following Phil in the gallery as she always did. At the end of Phil’s round, the day and the moment was as radiant as her smile. We’ll be watching this group to catch glimpses of her sweet, blond beauty as much as Phil’s golf.

The third group includes the slimed down John Daly playing hopefully, the newly married and 19th in the world, Hunter Mahan in his first full-field event and Ben Crane, the defending champion and maker of quirky videos designed make fun of his reputation for seriousness.

But the group early watchers will be glued to is the sixth group, the 9:10 group, featuring this year’s phenom, Jhonattan Vegas, who, in just his second tournament as a PGA Tour member, won last week at the Bob Hope. And he’ll be paired with the last decade and a half’s phenom and probably the best player to ever play the game, Tiger Woods, whose rebuilt swing seems to be tracking fairly well…for the most part. And most importantly, he believes it.

So you think we’re excited by all this talent? So are the players because they know each other at a depth that the media would be hard-pressed to capture. They know facial expressions and the body language of each other. They know the compressed, zip file history of each other; it’s a congealed knowing about each other.

And so when you get thrown into that arena, or willingly put yourself in that arena, with these other great players, it’s exciting!

It’s exciting because of who’s there and the fact that you could beat them all.

And all you have to do is manage that excitement…by just being present to the golf…and just playing. We’ll see.

The Golf Channel starts at 1:00 (Eastern) and CBS at 1:00.

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