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THE WEEK AHEAD (2/11 - 2/17)

With the great majority of the world's elite descending upon the former Los Angeles Open (in preparation for next week's WGC Match Play event in Tucson), overseas tours are being left a bit high and dry field-wise for the next few weeks.  Definitely an opportunity for the up-and-hopefully-coming to bank some early Order of Merit earnings while the pickings are good...


PGA Tour:  Northern Trust Open – Pacific Palisades, CA

The first really big-time field of 2008 will assemble at Los Angeles’s iconic Riviera Country Club this week for the 82nd playing of the newly renamed Northern Trust Open, the oldest civic-sponsored event on the PGA Tour.  Advance reports have dwelled on the absence of Tiger Woods (whose résumé still lacks a triumph in his hometown event), and both Ernie Els and Henrik Stenson will also be missing, but no matter.  With 17 of the world’s top 20 players present, World Ranking points and top-flight action figure to be plentiful.  The history of this event reads like an encyclopedia of golf, and even moreso when it has been played at Riviera, where fully 19 of 36 winners have been Major champions, and virtually every great player has competed since the days of Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen.  Particularly for course design aficionados, this is an annual highlight of the golfing calendar, as Riviera likely offers as many architecturally important holes as any layout on earth.  And those so inclined will want to watch all of the TV broadcasts because many of the elite holes come well before the finish, most notably the famed par-3 6th (with bunker carved within the confines of the putting surface), the uphill par-4 9th and the splendid 315-yard 10th, perhaps the finest short par 4 in all of golf.  The Tigerless storyline will dominate the previews – as it must these days – but with this field and this golf course, chances are that just like last year, when Charles Howell III beat Phil Mickelson in a playoff, Tiger’s absence will be pretty well forgotten by Sunday afternoon.

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European & Asian PGA Tours: Enjoy Jakarta Astro Indonesia Open – Jarkarta, Indonesia

The fourth playing of this modern edition of the Indonesia Open returns to its 2005 birthplace, the Cengkareng Golf Club, where Finland’s Mikko Ilonen will defend the title he won by a single shot at the Damai Inda Golf & Country Club in 2007.  Ilonen will do so against a fairly limited cast, for while this event is co-sponsored by the European Tour, the vast majority of international stars have packed off to America for the springtime, leaving world #60 Colin Montgomerie, Ilonen (#73),  Thailand’s Prayad Marksaeng (#82) and Darren Clarke (#238, but getting serious again in the aftermath of his wife’s untimely death) as the star attractions.  The Cengkareng layout dates only to 1999 and sits adjacent to Soekarno-Hattan International Airport, so noise will definitely be a factor throughout the week.  Despite featuring a run of several long back-nine par 4s, it will almost certainly yield some low scoring – such as the stunning 255 (only one off the all-time 72-hole scoring record) posted by Thailand’s Thaworn Wiratchant shot while winning the 2005 title.

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Sunshine Tour: Vodacom Championship – Pretoria, South Africa

Though Ernie Els is idle and Retief Goosen, Rory Sabbatini and the rest of the South African elite will be playing in America, the eighth edition of the Vodacom Championship will still enjoy a fairly strong regional field.  Top draws include Charl Schwartzel (world #72), Louis Oosthuizen (#80) and James Kingston (#112), as well as seasoned Sunshine Tour stalwarts like Desvonde Botes, Hennie Otto, Des Terblanche, Deane Pappas and Zimbabwe’s streaking Marc Cayeux.  The event has been played at the venerable Pretoria Country Club since that club’s complete Gary Player renovation in 2005, with Schwartzel taking the title in 2006 and Richard Sterne defeating Oosthuizen (this year’s prohibitive favorite) in a playoff in ’07.

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Australasian Tour: HSBC New Zealand PGA Championship – Christchurch, New Zealand

The New Zealand PGA is actually one of professional golf’s older events, dating to 1920 when it was won at the Hamilton GC by the famous trick-shot artist – and hugely underrated player – Joe Kirkwood.  With the ebb and flow of the modern tournament scene, it today finds itself co-sanctioned by America’s developmental Nationwide Tour, an odd but convenient union that provides the Nationwide a chance to go abroad for two weeks (they also co-sanction next week’s Moonah Classic) and the Australasian Tour, one assumes, with a bit more working capital.  The field then, is largely of the Nationwide variety, though a handful of bigger Australia/New Zealand types (including 2005 U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell and veterans Peter Senior, Peter O’Malley and Greg Chalmers) are scheduled to appear.

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LPGA Tour: SBS Open at Turtle Bay – Kahuku, Hawaii

Following in the footsteps of the Champions Tour, who played this same Palmer course at the Turtle Bay Resort three weeks ago, the LPGA begins its 2008 season at the SBS Open, where Paula Creamer returns as defending champion.  Unfortunately the Tour opens without world number one Lorena Ochoa, as well as four more LPGA regulars ranked among the top 10 (#3 Karrie Webb, #8 Juli Inkster, #9 Mi Hyun Kim and #10 Se-Ri Pak), leaving the torch to be carried by Creamer, #2 Suzann Pettersen and #4 Annika Sorenstam, as well as a reasonably strong supporting cast, both domestic and foreign.  Among those assembled, the 37-year-old Sorenstam may be the most newsworthy as she continues her comeback from early 2007 back surgery, as well as her prospective pursuit of Mickey Wright (82) and Kathy Whitworth’s (88) career victory records.  Another compelling comeback story, that of 18-year-old Michelle Wie, won’t begin until next week’s Fields Open.  The Turtle Bay golf course is a 1992 Arnold Palmer design which, owing to its location at Oahu’s northernmost tip, is both scenic and frequently windblown.  The ocean itself never comes into play, but several lagoons as well as a large, central marsh regularly do.

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Champions Tour: ACE Group Classic – Naples, Florida

The Champions Tour crosses Alligator Alley to the west coast of Florida, spending the week at Naples’ Quail West Country Club.  Defending champion Bobby Wadkins heads up a 70-man field which, in addition to the Champions’ standard roster, will include appearances by Hall-of-Famers Raymond Floyd, Gary Player and Lee Trevino.  The golf course, a 1991 Arthur Hills design, wends its way through some native Florida jungle on the front nine, then reverts to the region’s more common homesite-lined style on the back.  Water is meaningfully in play on eight holes, but seldom is it particularly invasive; with a typical player-friendly Champions setup, scoring should, as ever, be surrealistically low.

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Posted on Monday, February 11, 2008 at 05:08PM by Registered CommenterDaniel in | Comments Off