Date Change Hurting International
One of the favorite stops on the PGA Tour, The International will have a much weaker field this year after a change in dates put it the week before the PGA. Ernie Els and defending champion Davis Love III are in the field, but they're the only players in the top 12 of the world rankings.
'It obviously hurts the week before a major,' said Love, who ran away with last year's event after scoring 46 points in the tournament's modified Stableford scoring system.
'You add some guys that are trying to do some things and lose some guys that are trying to rest up. But it's still The International and is still a fun format and a fun event.'
In previous years, The International was played two weeks before the PGA Championship, a perfect time for the top players to get one last tuneup before the final major. There was plenty of incentive to head to Castle Pines Golf Club, with a great golf course, spectacular views and superb amenities for the players and their families.
But tournament organizers asked the PGA Tour in 2002 to switch dates with the Buick Open, in hopes that they could lure more top-name players the week before a major championship. The thinking was that players would enjoy a three-week stretch of playing The International, the PGA and the NEC Invitational in Akron, Ohio.
With the timing, playing in altitude and using a scoring system that's not used the rest of the year, it hasn't worked out quite as they hoped.
Mickelson, the winner of this year's Masters and a two-time International champion, will not play the week before a major for the first time in five years.
Lefty spent extra time at each of the first three major championship courses this year, and said he wants to get familiar with the PGA site: Whistling Straits, a links-style course on the shore of Lake Michigan.
Singh won the Buick Open last week, but opted to rest this week. Garcia is doing the same, as is Woods, who hasn't played in The International since 1998.
U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen was slated to play, but he backed out after injuring his hip last week.
'To tell the truth, I don't know what the best date is,' tournament founder Jack Vickers said. 'The situation this year, where a couple of players have the opportunity to go to next week's event, is one of those unfortunate situations.
'I don't criticize the guys for going up there, but it doesn't make for the best for the PGA Tour, I don't think.'
It's not as if the tournament will be a walkover for the players who did show up.
British Open champion Todd Hamilton is in the field, as is 2002 PGA champion David Toms and up-and-coming stars Charles Howell III and Chad Campbell.
Major championship winners Justin Leonard, Bernhard Langer, Steve Elkington, David Duval, Tom Lehman, Corey Pavin, Lee Janzen, Rich Beem, Ben Curtis, Mark Brooks and Greg Norman also are in the field.
And with so many first-time winners in recent years, just about any tournament is tough to win.
'This tour is strong,' said Els, who won The International in 2000. 'Anybody that's on his game, you take your pick, these guys can all play.'
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Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might
Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.
“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”
Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”
“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”
Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)
Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”
Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.
“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"
As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.
"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.
Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”
McIlroy: Ryder Cup won't be as easy as USA thinks
The Americans have won their past two international team competitions by a combined score of 38-22, but Rory McIlroy isn’t expecting another pushover at the Ryder Cup in September.
McIlroy admitted that the U.S. team will be strong, and that its core of young players (including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler) will be a force for the next decade. But he told reporters Tuesday at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship that course setup will play a significant role.
“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said, referring to the Americans’ 17-11 victory in 2016. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”
At every Ryder Cup, the home team has the final say on course setup. Justin Rose was the most outspoken about the setup at Hazeltine, saying afterward that it was “incredibly weak” and had a “pro-am feel.”
And so this year’s French Open figures to be a popular stop for European Tour players – it’s being held once again at Le Golf National, site of the matches in September. Tommy Fleetwood won last year’s event at 12 under.
“I’m confident,” McIlroy said. “Everything being all well and good, I’ll be on that team and I feel like we’ll have a really good chance.
“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that. The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”
Floodlights may be used at Dubai Desert Classic
No round at next week’s Dubai Desert Classic will be suspended because of darkness.
Tournament officials have installed state-of-the-art floodlighting around the ninth and 18th greens to ensure that all 132 players can finish their round.
With the event being moved up a week in the schedule, the European Tour was initially concerned about the amount of daylight and trimmed the field to 126 players. Playing under the lights fixed that dilemma.
“This is a wonderful idea and fits perfectly with our desire to bring innovation to our sport,” European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley said. “No professional golfer ever wants to come back the following morning to complete a round due to lack of daylight, and this intervention, should it be required, will rule out that necessity.”
Next week’s headliners include Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson.
Ortiz takes Web.com Tour clubhouse lead in Bahamas
Former Web.com Tour Player of the Year Carlos Ortiz shot a bogey-free, 4-under-par 68 Monday to take the clubhouse lead in The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay.
Four other players - Lee McCoy, Brandon Matthews, Sung Jae Im and Mark Anderson - were still on the course and tied with Ortiz at 6-under 210 when third-round play was suspended by darkness at 5:32 p.m. local time. It is scheduled to resume at 7:15 a.m. Tuesday.
Ortiz, a 26-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, is in search of his fourth Web.com Tour victory. In 2014, the former University of North Texas standout earned a three-win promotion on his way to being voted Web.com Tour Player of the Year.
McCoy, a 23-year-old from Dunedin, Fla., is looking to become the first player to earn medalist honors at Q-School and then win the opening event of the season.