Els Major Accomplishment
Ernie Els won at Muirfield because he is a champion. Everyone else in the playoff had proven themselves on various tours, but Els has won on many tours, in many countries, on many continents. He's won small events, and he's won the biggest. All four of the men in that playoff are winners. Two men are champions.
Els has two U.S. Opens titles, Steve Elkington won a PGA championship. Each had won a major championship in a playoff. When Sunday's playoff began I wondered if we would welcome a new champion to the game, or if a man who had learned how to win one of the game's biggest prizes would use that knowledge to get halfway to a career slam. The momentum was on the side of the new guys. Stuart Appleby shot 30 on the back nine and got to 6-under by making only the fourth birdie of the day at the difficult finishing hole. Thomas Levet earned his spot in the playoff by making an eagle on the 71st hole. Wasn't that the hole that Trevino finished off Nicklaus 30 years ago?
The champions had sputtered home. Elkington missed putts at 16 and 18 and Els took 4 to get down from the greenside while doubling 16. I still don't understand how he missed the fat part of the green, while holding a one shot lead on the 70th hole. Els regrouped by birdieing 17 and making a par at 18, but the double still had to be weighing heavily on his mind. Tiger was finally out of his way. Would he now give away the championship he wanted most?
By the time the playoff started it seemed the momentum of the fast finishes had worn off. Perhaps the result would have been different for Stuart Appleby if he had been able to go right back out after his blazing finish. The hour or so spent on the range had to cool his hot hand and bring into focus the enormity of his final task.
So the four players started level in the four-hole playoff, and it was time for all of the players to search their experience and themselves, to see if they had what it takes to be a champion. Levet charged to the front. His long birdie putt on 16 had him in charge, but major championships favor the tortoise, not the hare. Els had parred the 72nd hole and then continued his methodical play.
The adage par is a good score was underscored in 1987 at Muirfiled. Nick Faldo won his first of six major championships by making 18 pars on that Sunday. Els understands the significance of pars at major championships. He also understands that in a playoff, when the pressure is increased past its already critical level, pars become a great score.
Had Levet been able to make a couple of pars in the playoff he would have been the first Frenchman ever to have won a major. But this day belonged to that easy swinging tortoise from South Africa. He caught Levet on the 76th hole, then finished him off in sudden death on the very next hole. Els had given up the lead on the 70th hole, but reclaimed a share with a birdie at the 71st. That's when the champion settled down and made six consecutive pars en route to winning the event he's always dreamed about and getting halfway to the career slam.
Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59
Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.
While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.
He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.
"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."
Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.
"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."
Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot
When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.
Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.
"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"
The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.
Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.
"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."
DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.
Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.
"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."
Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.
Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.
"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."
Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.
"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."
LPGA lists April date for new LA event
The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.
When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.
The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.
The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.