Strong BellSouth field in lead up to Augusta
BY Bruce Young | US PGA Tour | 2006 BellSouth Classic | Preview | 29 Mar 2006
This week’s BellSouth Classic brings together an intriguing field with arguably the strongest field for some years competing in the lead up to Augusta, now just a week away. Retief Goosen, Phil Mickelson, David Toms and Luke Donald are here from the world’s top ten and Chris DiMarco, Henrik Stenson, David Howell, Colin Montgomerie and Davis Love make nine from the top sixteen.
Recent winners have been defending champion Mickelson (twice), Zach Johnson, Retief Goosen, Ben Crane and Scott McCarron (twice) and not surprisingly all with the exception of Ben Crane are here to hopefully take advantage of their comfort zone with the Sugarloaf layout.
The setup of the golf course at the TPC of Sugarloaf, the first designed by Greg Norman in the US in 1997, allows an excellent preparation for Augusta as the topography is similar, the greens are bent grass and are as quick and heavily contoured as Augusta’s and, as such, provide similar conditions to those they will experience next week. It is located just north (40 kilometres) of Atlanta in the area known as Duluth, about two hours drive from Augusta, another reason why playing here is considered by many. The Bermuda grasses that are used off the fairway have not yet had time to recover from the dormant period and many of the areas will still be tinged with brown.
For the first time in several weeks the field get to play on bent greens having moved away from the tropical climates of Florida. The greens here are sown in Crenshaw and Cato bentgrass. The greens are expected to run at 11 on the stimpmeter although the contouring on the greens will make many of them run faster than that. In that regard many of the players who have played for the last month on Bermuda like to get the feel of bent grass under tournament conditions prior to hitting Augusta.
The favourite is Mickelson although it is perhaps fair to suggest that is only because of his record here. Mickelson has been solid if unspectacular in recent weeks but his obvious liking for the venue speaks for itself.
Retief Goosen is just above him in the world ranking and his runner up placing last week at the Players indicates that the South African is beginning to find his form at the right time. Not only did he win here in 2002 but he was also third in 2003.
Luke Donald’s bubble burst a little last week but he was not alone in that regard and he had come off a win two weeks prior at the Honda Classic. He is such a fine player and his 8th place here in 2004 indicates that he knows his way around here.
David Toms was playing beautifully before a missed cut at the Players Championship last week but like so many others the TPC at Sawgrass was a course that could do that to you. He was in excellent form prior and has had several solid finishes at Sugarloaf.
Others with what appear to be good chances to do well are the in form Olazabal who was runner up here last year and who played well last week, the game’s biggest improver Henrik Stenson, Aaron Oberholser who has 6th and 20th in his two starts here, Brandt Jobe who was runner up last year, Stewart Cink who lives close by and who will enjoy being back on Bentgrass greens and the almost forgotten Rory Sabbatini who still heads the 2006 USPGA Tour money list.
The Australasian contingent is headed by Nick O’Hern who started well last week but missed the cut and who is here for the first time. He is gearing his game towards Augusta after a limited campaign to date in 2006.
Craig Parry did well last week when the leading Australian and although he is not in the field for Augusta he will be keen to improve what has been a reasonable record here. He has made the cut in each of his three starts at this venue.
Mathew Goggin, Stephen Leaney, Greg Chalmers, Gavin Coles, Steve Bowditch and the New Zealanders Craig Perks and Phil Tataurangi complete the Australasians. Bowditch returns after a horror week in Louisiana last week on the Nationwide Tour where his game disintegrated during the second round.
Phil Tataurangi on the other hand will play in just his second PGA Tour event since October 2004. He missed the cut at the recent Honda Classic after a promising opening round but then did well last week when 9th at the Nationwide Tour event. His progress from here will be watched with interest as he looks to regain the sort of form that saw him win the Invensys Classic in Las Vegas in 2002.
The tournament carries its biggest purse ever with a total prize fund of US$5.3 million, an increase of US$300,000 on last year.