Couples shares Masters lead; McIlroy, Garcia one back

By Associated PressApril 6, 2012, 11:17 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Before there was Tiger, Rory, Sergio or Phil, a smooth-swinging guy named Freddie used to make `em go crazy at the Masters.

He can still make it interesting.

Freddie Couples turned back the clock Friday - back to 1992 - during a seven-birdie second round that coaxed a fist pump from the California-cool 52-year-old and put him in a tie for the lead with Jason Dufner at Augusta National.

“Can I win?” Couples said, repeating the question that so many are asking now. “Yeah, I believe I can. Yes.”

He shot 5-under 67, the same score he posted 20 years ago during the second round of what turned out to be one of the most popular wins in the history of the tournament. Were it not for the gray hair beneath his cap, this might have been confused for a replay of that `92 win instead of the second round in 2012.

“Standing out there, I said, `What the hell,’ a lot. What do I have to lose here?” Couples said.

Meantime, Phil Mickelson made six birdies during a round of 4-under 68 to pull to 2 under for the tournament.

Tiger Woods had nowhere near as good a day. Struggling with his swing for the second straight round, he opened with two birdies on the first three holes, but gave that all back and more. He shot 3-over 75 and was at 3 over for the tournament, closer to the cut line of 5 over than the lead.

Last year, he was seven back but came back to briefly grab the lead on Sunday before finishing fourth.

“One of the neat things about this tournament is the 10-shot rule,” Woods said, referring to the rule that brings all players within 10 of the lead back for the weekend. “Anyone can win the golf tournament who makes the cut. Guys have won this from five, six down going into the back nine. I just need to be solid, cut that deficit down and get off to a quick start like I did last year on Sunday.”

Couples got off to a quick start Friday, shooting a 3-under 33 on the front nine to move into contention. Two years ago, he opened with a 66 and became the oldest player to hold the outright lead after the first round at Augusta. Last year, he shot 68 on Friday to push his way into the top 10.

This time, he heads into the weekend with a chance to become the oldest major winner. He’s six years older than Jack Nicklaus was when he won his sixth Masters on that unforgettable Sunday in 1986. Twenty players in the field weren’t even born when Couples played his first Masters back in 1983.

Still, he’s hardly the only big name near the top.

Sergio Garcia shot a 4-under 68 to finish one shot back, tied with Rory McIlroy, who shot 69, and Bubba Watson, who shot 71.

“I know I’m playing well,” said McIlroy, who overcame last year’s final-round collapse at the Masters and won the U.S. Open two months later. “The recent results show that. I just wanted to come here and play, put myself in position to win another tournament, another major.”

Also in the tie at 4 under were 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen and Lee Westwood. Westwood spent most of the day in the lead, but three-putted on the 18th green for a double-bogey to close his day at 1-over 73 and 4 under for the tournament.

“The double at the last (hole) was a disappointing way to finish,” Westwood said. “But if you get out of position slightly on this course, it can punish you.”

Couples, a winner on the senior tour two weeks ago, often ambles around these grounds, twirling a golf club, looking as if he’s playing a leisurely weekend round instead of grinding through one of golf’s toughest tests. On this day, his 106th competitive round at the course, all the scenes looked familiar: Freddie bending at the waist to stretch, reaching his hand into the back of his waistband to rub his aching back, squinting into the sunlight, wincing at the occasional twinge of pain.

“What would it take?” he said. “A lot more birdies, a lot more made putts.” Maybe a painkiller or two.

He teed off into a fairway bunker on No. 3, but spun the approach back to 5 feet and jammed the putt home for birdie No. 1. He was pin high and 4 feet away on No. 4, and suddenly, Couples was doing more than playing ceremonial golf - something he has always desperately wanted to avoid.

He hit a hybrid into the 15th green to 20 feet and barely missed the eagle putt. When he rolled in a 20-footer on 16 to get to 5 under, he pumped his fist and yelled “Bam.”

Yes, folks, “Boom-Boom” is back in the mix.

He closed it out by salvaging par on No. 18 with a chip from in front of the green that stopped, checked up, spun backward to about 2 feet for a stress-free putt. He doffed his cap, raised both fists and smiled that wide smile, knowing he’ll be sleeping in late Saturday - and sleeping on the lead.

 

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Lexi looks to shine as LPGA season begins next week

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 6:06 pm

Lexi Thompson may be No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in so many ways she became the new face of the women’s game last year.

That makes her the headliner in a fairly star-studded season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic next week.

Three of the top four players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to tee it up on Paradise Island, including world No. 1 Shanshan Feng and co-Rolex Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu.

From the heartache at year’s start with the controversial loss at the ANA Inspiration, through the angst in the middle of the year with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, to the stunning disappointment at year’s end, Thompson emerged as the story of the year because of all she achieved in spite of those ordeals.

Next week’s event will mark the first time Thompson tees it up in an LPGA tournament since her season ended in stunning fashion last November with a missed 2-foot putt that cost her a chance to win the CME Group Tour Championship and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and become the world No. 1.

She still walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average.

She also walked away sounding determined to show she will bounce back from that last disappointment the same way she bounced back from her gut-wrenching loss at the year’s first major, the ANA, where a four-shot Sunday penalty cost her a chance to win her second major.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds ... it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said leaving the CME Group Tour Championship. “This won’t either.”

Thompson was named the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year in a vote of GWAA membership. Ryu and Sung Hyun Park won the tour’s points-based Rolex Player of the Year Award.

With those two victories and six second-place finishes, three of those coming after playoff losses, Thompson was close to fashioning a spectacular year in 2017, to dominating the tour.

The new season opens with Thompson the center of attention again. Consistently one of the tour’s best ball strikers and longest hitters, she enjoyed her best year on tour last season by making dramatic improvements in her wedge play, short game and, most notably, her putting.

She doesn’t have a swing coach. She fashioned a better all-around game on her own, or under the watchful eye of her father, Scott. All the work she put in showed up in her winning the Vare Trophy.

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will also feature defending champion Brittany Lincicome, as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, I.K. Kim, Danielle Kang and Charley Hull.

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One & Done: 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 5:55 pm

Beginning in 2018, Golf Channel is offering a "One & Done" fantasy game alternative. Choose a golfer and add the salary they earn at the event to your season-long total - but know that once chosen, a player cannot be used again for the rest of the year.

Log on to www.playfantasygolf.com to start your own league and make picks for this week's event.

Here are some players to consider for One & Done picks this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, where Hudson Swafford returns as the defending champion:

Zach Johnson. The two-time major champ has missed the cut here three years in a row. So why include him in One & Done consideration? Because the three years before that (2012-14) included three top-25s highlighted by a third-place finish, and his T-14 at the Sony Open last week was his fifth straight top-25 dating back to September.

Bud Cauley. Cauley has yet to win on Tour, but that could very well change this year - even this week. Cauley ended up only two shots behind Swafford last year and tied for 14th the year prior, as four of his five career appearances have netted at least a top-40 finish. He opened the new season with a T-7 in Napa and closed out the fall with a T-8 at Sea Island.

Adam Hadwin. Swafford left last year with the trophy, but it looked for much of the weekend like it would be Hadwin's tournament as he finished second despite shooting a 59 in the third round. Hadwin was also T-6 at this event in 2016 and now with a win under his belt last March he returns with some unfinished business.

Charles Howell III. If you didn't use him last week at the Sony Open, this could be another good spot for the veteran who has four top-15 finishes over the last seven years at this event, highlighted by a playoff loss in 2013. His T-32 finish last week in Honolulu, while not spectacular, did include four sub-70 scores.

David Lingmerth. Lingmerth was in that 2013 playoff with Howell (eventually won by Brian Gay), and he also lost here in overtimei to Jason Dufner in 2016. The Swede also cracked the top 25 here in 2015 and is making his first start since his wife, Megan, gave birth to the couple's first child in December. Beware the sleep-deprived golfer.

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.