After slipping back in prestige, Doral is front and center again


March 04, 2005|By RAY FRAGER

THOSE OF YOU out there of a certain vintage - say, the ones who understand that our daily Page 2 feature The Flip Side is a reference to turning over a record to play the less familiar song - may recall the days when various folks bore the title of The Fifth Beatle.

Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best, one-time actual members of the band, have worn the moniker, as have producer George Martin, manager Brian Epstein and even New York disc jockey Murray the K.

To get to sports, this weekend the PGA Tour begins its Southern Swing through Florida, and NBC, in partnership with USA Network, carries five consecutive tournaments. The first event is the Ford Championship at Doral (today at 3 p.m. on USA, tomorrow and Sunday at 3 p.m. on WBAL/Channel 11 and WRC/Channel 4).

At one time, the Doral ranked among the tour's most prestigious events, considered something of a fifth major. See where I was going with that Fifth Beatle stuff?

"It used to be one of the premier stops on the tour, but it had kind of waned," NBC analyst Roger Maltbie said in a conference call Wednesday, "but now it's back."

These days, the fifth major - golf's top tournament beyond the Masters, U.S. and British opens and PGA Championship - is considered The Players Championship, but this year's edition of the Doral has drawn 11 of the world's top 12 ranked players.

And the NBC experts say we could be in the midst of a competitive golf season unlike any other in 30 years.

"If you had to ask somebody who the Player of the Year will be, there's four or five people," said Dan Hicks, the network's lead announcer.

"It reminds me of the glory days of the '70s," said analyst Johnny Miller, reflecting back to his era on the tour. "We haven't really had that [competitive balance] in the '80s and '90s. It's almost impossible to pick who's going to be the big gun."

Miller and his colleagues of course mentioned Tiger Woods, but quickly added Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Padraig Harrington and David Toms, among others. Though some may be inclined to pick Singh out of that pack after his outstanding 2004, with nine victories, Miller said last year's success actually could work against him this year.

"Vijay is a little tired after last season," said Miller, comparing Singh's challenge in 2005 to like trying to shoot another great round after carding a 60.

Maltbie didn't sound ready to lump Woods with the rest.

"Tiger is the man," Maltbie said, "but I don't think his golf swing is all the way back."

Maltbie reminds me of a pet peeve. Why do golf announcers insist on using "golf" all the time in descriptions? "Oh, that's a magnificent golf shot!" Fellas, we see all that green, we hear the hushed tones - we know it's golf.

Miller's trademark is his frank commentary, refreshing in the way he's not afraid to step on toes while calling it as he sees it.

During Wednesday's teleconference, Miller stepped on an old opponent's foot. When a reporter raised the question of whether the PGA Tour has too many tournaments, Miller mentioned how a compressed schedule would mean more fields like Doral's, with more top players.

Then he recalled his days on the tour and brought up a fellow player. George Archer, Miller said, would bide his time and skip tournaments that featured the top golfers. Then he'd play through the fall, picking up high finishes against weaker fields.

How do those toes feel, George?

John McEnroe joins ESPN for this weekend's U.S.-Croatia Davis Cup matches, airing today at 4 p.m. on ESPN2, tomorrow at 10 p.m. (delayed) on ESPN2 and Sunday at 5 p.m. on ESPN Classic. ... Sometimes, you don't even need the sound on to enjoy a sports talk show. On ESPN's Around the Horn one day this week, the graphic said the discussion was on "Best Hair in Sports." On screen was Cold Pizza's Woody Paige, who may have the most age-inappropriate spiked hair on television.

Recently retired NBA star Karl Malone appears on OLN as host of its Big Game Madness, Monday through Friday 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Each evening, Malone will select the "Rack Buster," which OLN says will be "the best animal taken during that evening's lineup." We haven't heard from Kobe Bryant's wife on this matter.

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