It’s Vegas, Baby!

The PGA Tour rolls into Las Vegas this week and, finally, a circus bigger than itself. 

The tournament is the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open played at the TPC Summerlin, a northwestern suburb of Las Vegas. 

The thing about playing in Vegas is that you need to decide where you want to stay, downtown in the casinos or out in the quieter suburbs in a decent chain motel. 

As a Monday qualifier, since there are no locker room buffets and you’re on your own for meals, the first two years I tried to qualify there, I chose downtown. You can always get a great breakfast at a casino restaurant at 4:30 in the morning and still be on time to prepare for your 7:00 AM tee time. The place slows down a little at night, but the incessant, electronic melodies of the slot machines never stops. 

And that’s another aspect of staying in the casinos. All the pagaentry of the throngs in the muffled din. If you’ve never been—and they’ll kill me for this—you have to go just to see it. It’s something else. But the two casinos I chose were very large with cavernous casinos, hallways and parking garages. You have to plan your escape to the course each day carefully because it can take a while to get to the car. 

On the other hand, the one year I stayed in the suburbs, I had to ask where breakfast could be found that early in the morning. And when I did find it, I had to be buzzed through the door of the diner into incongruously loud rock music. (The desperation crime must be an issue because the neighborhood seemed very safe. But Vegas was the only place I ever had to produce a photo ID to buy a dozen balls with my credit card in a golf store.) The food was good though. 

Enough about the nomadic life of a tour pro. 

The tournament should be very interesting. Three top players, Nick Watney, Rickie Fowler and Charley Hoffman live in Las Vegas. Watney has never done particularly well at Summerlin, but it’s Fowler’s home course and Hoffman attended UNLV and presumably has years-long familiarity with the course. You’d have to think that any one of them could win it, but as usual, it all depends on who’s playing well that week. They’ll be fun to track. 

Because the tournament is the fourth of the five Fall Series chances to save their Tour cards, it’s always interesting to take a look at the other end of the field clustered around the 125th “safe” spot: 

120      Aaron Baddeley          $744,982

125      Woody Austin             $718,322

130      John Mallinger           $658,508

Baddeley’s playing credentials date all the way back to 1999 when he won the Australian Open as an 18-year-old amateur and then defended his title in 2000 as a professional. He burst onto the U.S. scene because of that getting, for example, a special invitation into the Masters. Unready for the PGA Tour limelight, he eventually won his 2003 card playing on the Nationwide Tour.

In recent years, in an attempt to “get better,” Baddeley converted his swing to the idiosyncratic, “Stack-and-Tilt,” method. He had a spectacular year in 2007 finishing 6thin the FedExCup race, 43rd in 2008, 111th in 2009 and 94th this year. But keeping your card is all based on the money list. He can play, but his swing is off: he’s 169th in Driving Accuracy and 158th in Greens in Regulation. At 2nd, it’s not his putting. He should be okay if he can just get his mind around—and trust—what he’s trying to do. (Although Masters Champion, Mike Weir, converted back from Stack-and-Tilt this year.) 

Veteran Woody Austin is the man on the bubble this week. He hasn’t made a big check since the two in early August, $226,200 and $88,700. Since then, he missed three cuts in a row and then made, $29,300 and $21,000 in the last two (a T25 and T38). So he’s starting to come around and just needs one nice check in these last two tournaments. As long as he’s been around (he won the Q-School in 1994 to earn his 1995 card), he’s hung by a thread before and pulled it off. 

John Mallinger is a young player who earned his card in 2007 and had three quite successful years since then. Why he’s gone off the boil this year is anybody’s guess, but he’s good and experienced. So while having to make up $60,000 in just two tournaments could certainly seem a daunting challenge, you have to tell yourself that you could pull it off in one…easily. And he could. 

The Golf Channel broadcast begins tomorrow at 11:00 AM (Eastern). Enjoy.

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