May 23, 2013

Dealing with winds of change often a key to Colonial victory

Two-time champs Zach Johnson, Corey Pavin have been among best at handling Colonial’s challenges.

Between them, Corey Pavin and Zach Johnson have earned four plaid jackets and established multiple course and tournament scoring records at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial.

They have won with birdie barrages and have ground out pivotal pars in swirling winds to claim Colonial titles. They know versatility is key when posting scores at PGA Tour events in unpredictable Texas weather conditions in May.

And chances are good, starting with Thursday’s opening round, that competitors will continue to experience the changing faces of Colonial during a tournament week that already has been marked by 0.22 of an inch of rain and 35 mph winds in one practice round, followed by a huge temperature drop.

The extended forecast calls for consistent winds, with gusts to 20 or 25 mph, through Sunday and a 30 percent chance for more rain Friday.

At a course that features dogleg fairways and small greens, the consistency and velocity of the wind typically makes the difference between whether the winner posts a tournament-record score (21 under par), as Johnson did in 2010 in windless conditions, or whether he can claim a title with an over-par final round, as Johnson fired last year (72) while securing a title with a 12-under total.

That’s a nine-shot difference in winning scores by the same golfer. The gap for Pavin between his winning totals is six strokes, from 14 under in 1985 (a tournament record at the time) to 8 under in 1996, when the course played firm and fast, with consistent winds in all four rounds.

“I don’t mind the wind, fortunately,” said Johnson, who has posted four consecutive top-10 finishes in Fort Worth, with two victories. “Playing at Colonial requires every shot in your bag. Every aspect of your game has got to be on if you’re going to climb the board... and it will catch your attention when the wind really kicks up. I appreciate that kind of golf.”

So does Pavin, who hopes the course can regain its firm and fast tendencies that prevailed before Tuesday’s storm.

“It’d love to see it firmer. Especially the fairways,” said Pavin, 53, who is playing in his 30th consecutive Colonial. “When the wind blows here, it’s tough. I like that. When par is a good score, that’s always a good thing for me. I can usually figure out a way to make a par. Making seven or eight birdies in a round is a little harder for me.”

In recent years, making multiple birdies in each round has become a must for a Colonial champion. Each of the past 13 champions has finished double-digit deep in red numbers, with the last exception being Olin Browne’s victory, at 8 under, in 1999.

Golfers differ on how much breeze becomes too much wind to handle with confidence while shaping approach shots into Colonial’s small greens. But the 20-25 mph gusts projected for tournament rounds teeter on the edge, said Rickie Fowler, the 2010 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year who is 3 for 3 in surviving Colonial cuts as a professional, including a tie for fifth last year.

“When it’s blowing 25 to 30, with small greens, it doesn’t really matter how long or short the golf course is,” Fowler said. “The wind always throws in a nice, little twist and makes it play pretty tough.”

John Peterson, a Colonial rookie and Fort Worth native who played the course frequently as a junior golfer, considers 15 mph winds a nonfactor for most tour players. But anything approaching 30 mph is a magic number.

“A 30-mile-an-hour wind makes this place real hard because your target area is already small. And that shrinks it even more,” Peterson said. “You have to back off some of the doglegs you want to cut off. You have to aim for the middle of the green on some of these greens. If it gets to 30, it gets to be a pretty good challenge.”

Additional rain, if it occurs, will only make for lower scores because greens become more receptive.

“A common thought is when it gets wet, it plays longer and it plays harder. But it actually plays easier when it’s wet,” Pavin said. “The ball won’t roll off into trouble and you can fly the ball to the pin and stop it.”

So Pavin, like many peers, will be rooting for sunshine and manageable wind gusts as the week unfolds. But he’ll get what Mother Nature dishes out. During May in Texas, that can be almost anything. Especially during a week when the weather systems, in Johnson’s estimation, “have been a little odd” thus far.

“There’s only so much they can do with pin placements to make the course harder,” Johnson said. “But any time you’ve got to adjust by a club and a half or more [when pulling clubs], depending on the wind, you’ve got to really pay attention.”

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