This week, Casey reports recent business and equipment news from the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard.
ODYSSEY / Jon Laws, PGA TOUR Representative
Jon, what kind of year has it been for Odyssey putters so far?
We have had our fastest most successful start this year of probably any year that I can recall. Number one in top ten players, number one in top twenty-five, top fifty and top sixty-five players is Odyssey. More wins, seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths and top tens than any other competitor. So, needless to say, its been good.
Whats the product line-up like out here on TOUR?
The guys like to look at something new from time to time and see how that might fit their stroke, their eye and their game. Weve got some guys who like to look at a very traditional putter like the Rossi 2that putter is eleven years old. Conversely, we have guys that gravitated towards the new Marksman model putter as soon as it was available. Then guys have also moved in to the new Black Series putter as soon as it came out. So these guys out here on TOUR are really all over the place in terms of sticking with what they know and love versus trying all the new stuff that comes along. And really, when you think about it, thats the way it is with the golf population as a wholenot just TOUR players.
Give people a feel for what its like to work out here on TOUR on a weekly basis and try to get putters in the hands of players.
At this level its very, very competitive. There are fourteen putter companies every week. I would say the strongest tool I have out here is good product, versatile productproduct that has the look, feel, quality, insert options versus no insertand Odyssey has all that. That said, I dont think there is any substitution for relationships and trust from the players. They have a limited amount of time to spend with a TOUR rep, and whether that is regarding a driver or a putter, when they do spend the time with you, you want to get it right the first time. You want them to know that you can do anything for them that they want where equipment is concerned and they in turn trust you. So when a player comes to me, that player knows whatever they want they can get and they can get it done right the first time. Thats really key out here.
LAMKIN GRIPS / Bob Lamkin, Jr., President & CEO
Bob, when you come out to a TOUR event what do you expect to get out of it?
Casey, what I look for when I come out on TOUR is to try and identify the needs of the players regarding grips, grip sizing and materials in an effort to accommodate their needs as much as possible. Especially where there are special needs involved.
And Im sure youre always looking to showcase new product as well?
Yes. We have two TOUR reps that are out here most of the year. And actually, we start our initial product development for grip patterns and materials right out here on TOUR. If a new grip is accepted by the TOUR players then we continue the development process and come up with a plan to potentially manufacture and distribute to the consumer.
There is another interesting aspect to you personally coming out on TOUR. You are Bob Lamkin from Lamkin Grips; your name is on the grip. Do players enjoy meeting the person behind the name?
I would like to think they enjoy it. I certainly enjoy meeting and developing relationships with the players. These guys are the best in the world at what they do and I believe we make the worlds best grips. It is a directive of ours this year for me to spend a little more time on TOUR. I havent been out here nearly as much as our professional TOUR repsthe guys we have are on a first name basis with virtually every player that tees it up out here. So it is a bit of a new strategy for me to be out here on TOUR a little bit more often. But you know, at the end of the day its not about me. Its about making sure we are serving the players and their every need and in turn, we learn very valuable things about how to make grips that everyday golfers will enjoy and benefit from.
Can you tell us something about your Michelin deal?
The Michelin situation has moved along quite nicely. We have signed a contract with them ' an exclusive agreement ' Michelin will do the product development on the materials side and the surface patterns and Lamkin will be the sales and marketing arm for Michelin. The first product launch that we have with Michelin is called OCS which stands for Optimized Cell System. This is a surface pattern and material that was used for many years in Formula I racing tires. So, we feel that this is a material advancement that we will want to come to the industry with late this year or in the first quarter of next year. This is the kind or relationship we expect to have with Michelin going forward and I think some wonderful product innovations will come out of it.
SRIXON / Dean Teykl, PGA TOUR Representative
Dean, what do you have going on out on TOUR?
Well, Im getting around OKthanks for asking. Weve got two of the top five players in the world. Henrik Stenson will be out for the next several weeks and we are looking for more outstanding play from him. Jim Furyk will be back out next week and hell be all rested. John Rollins has been playing well. Robert Allenby has moved well up in the world rankings and Tim Clark will be back out next week. So, we kind of have the A-Team playing the next few weeks and were looking for some big things there.
Do your guys pretty well stick to a certain ball in your line once they settle on one, or, do they try different balls in your line?
We dont have any ball switching going on that I can think of right now. Thats not to say for Augusta, for example, they might not try and find a little more spin. But, for the most part, they are set. Their equipment is dialed in for the ball they are playing and so they know exactly what to expect from a shot trajectory standpoint.
From your vantage point, what would you like people to know about Srixon that they might not know?
From a TOUR staff standpoint we tend to stay under the radar a bit simply because of the relative small size of our staff. I think people know our golf balls quite well at this point. But, we are really coming along from an equipment point of view. Certainly, we are known as a golf ball company but our equipment ' our golf clubs ' they are coming along tremendously. We are going to have some product - that currently is only out on TOUR - go to retail later this year. A new set of irons for example will be out later this year. And those irons are coming right off the PGA TOUR and going to golf shops. I would challenge anyone to find a finer made set of irons from any manufacturer anywhere in the world. So were kind of excited about that.
As the guy out on the front line of the PGA TOUR for Srixon, do you take the feedback you get and then communicate that to the R&D guys so they know what direction to go in?
Casey, thats really just about how it works. Our irons and drivers and hybrids, wedges and certainly balls, are being developed with just that strategy in mind. As the game evolves we have to stay on the leading edge of things with the best players in the world out here on the PGA TOUR and as we derive what the players want and need we communicate that back to the R&D guys. They in turn make design decisions that eventually work their way in to products that consumers buy. So what I do out here on TOUR really does have a direct impact on what product Srixon brings to market.
TRUE TEMPER SPORTS / Bob Montgomery, Manager of TOUR Operations
Bob, Epic from Grafalloy (a True Temper Sports company) has been out on TOUR here for a little while now. What type of reaction are you getting from the players?
We launched Epic in Phoenix earlier this year and the response has been very, very positive. Weve had very few negative comments about the shaft. Everybody loves the feel, likes the dispersion characteristics of it and the quality. You know, there are so many good graphite products out here and so we realize that the process of introducing something as revolutionary as Epic is more like running a marathon than running a sprint race. We are behind Epic for the long haul. There has never been another shaft offered with this technology and so we couldnt be more excited by it. Weve had several driver shafts put in play in a relatively short period of time. We just launched a hybrid version of Epic to the TOUR and weve had terrific feedback from that. So, were excited.
When you bring a shaft out on TOUR that has such a sophisticated technology story, are the TOUR players interested in knowing the intricate details of the science behind the shaft or do they just like to hit it and see how it performs?
Most of the players are keyed in on performance issues. Is it better than what I am currently using? That is the question they are always asking. Some of the players like the technical aspect of what differentiates Epic from all other shafts. For example, we have a ping pong ball that is coated in the same material that is prevalent in the shaft. We give the player the ping pong ball and tell them to jump up and down on it and it doesnt crush or crack. Well, thats the same strength to weight ratio story that we have with the Epic shaft. So they get kind of fired up about that because they realize how much stronger the Epic shaft must be while not having to be any heavier.
The players that have tried the product and either reported favorably back to you or put it in play, what do they tell you the shaft feels like?
They tell us it feels like graphite but has the tight dispersion characteristics of steel. And that is very important feedback for us to get because that is exactly what we designed the shaft to do. Almost every player out here who has gotten on a launch monitor, the results from that launch monitor testing supports what the player is telling us he is feeling. We have seen dispersion in drivers tighten up as much as 50% over the dispersion of their gamer graphite driver shaftthe shaft that they currently have in play in competitionand almost every player to a tee has told us the shaft feels just fantastic. If they can hit it straighter and just as far if not a little farther, thats what were looking for.
PING / Steve Zika, PGA TOUR Representative
Mark Wilson gets the win at the Honda Classic. So does he want to keep his equipment status quo at that point or does he look to make changesimprove on what hes got?
Mark is pretty unique in the sense that he probably hasnt changed a golf club in two years. We did get him a new set of irons at the end of last year just to have a fresh set in his bag. But as far as wedges, fairway wood, and driverhes played the same driver for two years. He did however in the off-season get rid of his 3-iron. He put in a Rapture 18-degree hybrid that he replaced the 3-iron with. But as far as him changing equipment over the course of a season, especially now that hes wonthats not Mark. He plays with what got him here.
Is that kind of a nice thing for you guys? It seems like there are a lot of players that change on a dime out here and that must create a lot of work and stress for you.
To only have to worry about adjusting loft and lie or maybe replacing a wedge that has worn outthats definitely a nice thing. We have a few guys like that; guys that dont change much. But, you know, either way were fine with it. It is our job out here on TOUR to make sure our players get whatever they want the way they want it. Because the more comfortable they are and the better they play the better it is for them and for PING and that is what we are all after.
You know I am taking at least some credit for Marks win at Honda because I interviewed him in your tour van when he was getting his lofts and lies checked three weeks before he won and obviously that had a profound impact on his play.
(laughs) Oh, of course, well allow you to take some credit for that. The Golf Channel TV cameras always get the players fired up. But seriously, you can see how important it is that the players get their lofts and lies checked frequently and Mark is pretty good about that. And even amateur golfers ' your viewers and readers at home ' dont take loft and lie for granted. Dont say thats only for better players or TOUR players to worry about. Because proper loft and lie can have a huge impact on ball flight.
RIFE PUTTERS / Pat Sellers, PGA TOUR Representative
Pat, you guys have quite the presence out on the CHAMPIONS TOUR. How are things going for you out here on the PGA TOUR?
First of all, Casey, you need some sunscreen my friend. You are frying out here. But, that aside, we are doing fantastic out here. Weve had an incredible week. Weve had four more players that have tested the putter out here this week and the feedback is excellent. I think they are really starting to understand the benefits of the grooveswhat the grooves are all aboutand each week we seem to be picking up a couple more guys who want to play the putter.
How does it work for you out here? I mean, your relationship with the players runs pretty deep. Do you approach players to try the putter or do they come over to you here on the putting green and start rolling putts?
It works both ways. If I know a player really well and I know what kind of putter that player likes Ill take a model that is similar in style in our line to what the player is currently playing, make it to his specs, and then give it to him out on the practice green and say, Hey, while youre practicing, hit a couple of putts with this and give me some feedback on this. And when he does putt with it, because the putter is an excellent putter and its already made to his specs, they usually say, Pat, this is pretty darn good. Being only a two-year old company out here many players havent been exposed to it yet. But, were making good headway I can assure you of that.
What is the story with the pink putter? Why a pink putter on the PGA TOUR?
Well, they brought that in to the line as a ladies putter. But, a couple of the CHAMPIONS TOUR guys got a hold of it and put it in play. And the next thing you know a couple of guys out here were asking about it. So, I figured I better have a couple of pink putters out here. And to tell you the truth, I get more fun comments from the players out here about that pink putter than just about anything else. Its a RIFE Two Bar but its pink. Just about every caddie out here has either grabbed one or asked me to put one aside. So, thats pretty fun.
WILSON STAFF / Ron Graham, PGA TOUR Representative
Whats going on with Wilson Staff and your tour operations?
We signed a new player this year, D.J. Trahan. D.J. won the Southern Farm Bureau Classic last year. Hes a young player out here on TOUR, in his third season, and we are very excited he has joined our staff. D.J. plays some of our newer equipment and we are looking for a bright year from him.
And, of course, Padraig Harrington is always a factor wherever he tees it up.
The great thing for us about Padraig for us this year is he is using our newest driver, the Dd6 Plus. He has had a great start to the year just like he does every year. Padraig is an amazing world stage player - consistently ranked in the top ten in the world ' he seems to just get better and better every year. I would be very surprised not to see Padraig win multiple times out here this year and hopefully get that first major.
Ron, it used to be that Wilson had one of the two largest professional golf staffs in the worldrunning neck and neck with MacGregor. Your worldwide staff is still quite large but your U.S. staff is now quite small.
Well, Casey, thats right. We have one American player right now on the PGA TOUR in D.J. Trahan. We have quite a few players on staff worldwide. And those worldwide players drive a tremendous amount of business for us overseas. But, you know, the PGA TOUR is a pretty expensive stage to play on these days so I think we move carefully in that regard. But, you know, Padraig Harrington is a wonderful player to have associated with the Wilson Staff brand and he helps us with exposure all around the world including the United States.
What irons is Padraig playing?
Padraig is still using our Pi5 iron, an iron he actually had a lot of input in designing. It is a performance blade type iron with cavity back perimeter weighting benefits. Its a high performance iron for the better players but the perimeter weighting helps them when they hit it just slightly off-center. Not that professional golfers hit it off-center that often. But when they do, they like to know the ball is going to fly just about the same distance as when they flush it. And this is the model iron the great majority of our staff players play around the world.
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Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile
Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.
The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.
"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."
He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).
Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.
“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."
Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.
Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.
Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.
The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.
McIlroy gets back on track
There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:
He is well ahead of schedule.
Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.
“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”
To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”
And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.
After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out.
Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.
“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”
The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.
The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)
But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.
Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.
Everything in his life is lined up.
Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.
Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore
Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.
Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.
There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.
Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.
The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.
Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again
Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.
Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.
It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.
Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.
While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.