Final Series could shape European Ryder Cup team

By Doug FergusonOctober 28, 2013, 12:53 pm

SHANGHAI – Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano grew up watching the famed ''Spanish Armada'' team of Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, so the Ryder Cup means everything to him. He still recalls the encouragement from Olazabal a year ago.

''Your time will come, and it will come when you're ready,'' Olazabal said to his fellow Spaniard.

There is no better time to be winning than now.

The European Tour just began its richest month of golf, four tournaments called ''The Final Series'' that conclude the Race to Dubai. Every purse is at least $7 million and combined prize money is $30.5 million. Throw out the majors and World Golf Championships, and they are the richest events of the year.

That explains why Fernandez-Castano shot up to the top of the European points list for the Ryder Cup, leading by nearly 300,000 euros.

And it's why European captain Paul McGinley is paying very close attention.

With so much money at stake this time of year – good news for the European Tour, the hotbed of golf at the moment – if a player were to get on a roll this month, he could earn enough money to all but secure a spot on the Ryder Cup team.

Trouble is, the matches are still 10 months away.

''We have to wait to see how it evolves,'' McGinley said at the BMW Masters. ''The one thing that has worked in our favor is that we have a level playing pitch in terms of points are here, and then they spike for the majors. That was it. The worry would be if somebody plays great for four weeks. You can basically make the team these four weeks. Is that a good thing? Probably not.''

McGinley speaks from experience.

He effectively secured a spot on the 2006 team by Christmas, and he found it difficult to keep his form over the next nine months. Thankfully, it didn't matter. Europe had one of its strongest teams for a home game in Ireland, and the Americans had a team that included Brett Wetterich and Vaughn Taylor. McGinley recalls playing his way onto the team in the months leading up to the 2004 Ryder Cup, and he went unbeaten in three matches at Oakland Hills.

Henrik Stenson had such an incredible run in America in September – two FedEx Cup playoff wins – that he leads the world ranking points list by nearly 100.

''I'm not saying it's black or it's white, or it's a bad thing,'' McGinley said. ''If this Final Series were in August, it would be ideal. But it's not. It will be interesting to see where it goes. If a guy plays great for four weeks, who's to say he can't carry it on? But if you were doing it to benefit the Ryder Cup, you'd have the series in August.''

That's what the FedEx Cup has going for it in America.

Maybe it's just a coincidence, but the start of the FedEx Cup in 2007 coincides with a resurgence in American performance at the Ryder Cup. They won in 2008. Only the heroics of Graeme McDowell and the unconscious play of Ian Poulter kept the Americans from winning the last three.

The next stop for Europe is the HSBC Champions and its $8.5 million purse, followed by the Turkish Open ($7 million) and the World Tour Championship in Dubai ($8 million).

In some cases, even more Ryder Cup points are available than it seems.

''No doubt, whoever wins is putting themselves in tremendous shape to make the team,'' Padraig Harrington said. ''Paul better hope it's one of his stalwart players. You'd be surprised what one event can mean. Somebody like me, if I had come in and won this week, it puts me in all the world events. Now I'm able to gather money for playing average because I'm in those events. It's really difficult to make the Ryder Cup team if you're not in the top 50 because you gather points more easily.''

Fernandez-Castano went from No. 60 to No. 32. That put him in two World Golf Championships over the next four months, and all but secured a spot in the Masters.

Paul Lawrie doesn't see it as a problem.

Europe is playing for big money. That's a good thing. These four tournaments have about as much prize money as the next 15 regular European Tour events. And if someone were to get hot in November and secure a spot on a Ryder Cup that is played in September?

''That happens every year,'' said Lawrie, who made his first Ryder Cup team by winning the British Open in 1999. ''We want big tournaments. We want big prize money. And that's what we've got.''

When the Ryder Cup was postponed one year to 2002 because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, half of both teams were not in the same form as when they qualified. McGinley made the team easily that year, and he was concerned about how he would perform at The Belfry. It worked out well for him in the end, of course. McGinley became a part of Ryder Cup lore with an 8-foot par putt to win his match and clinch the cup for Europe.

''I'm not being critical,'' McGinley said. ''But it's going to be interesting to see how this evolves. This year we have a massive amount of points at the beginning of qualifying. Having said that, two years ago because the FedEx had so many points, our guys based in America had a great opportunity to earn ranking points.

''And that,'' he added, ''worked out OK.''

Getty Images

DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

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."

Getty Images

LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

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.

Getty Images

Tour's Integrity Program raises gambling questions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 17, 2018, 7:00 pm

The video begins with an eye-opening disclaimer: “Sport betting markets produce revenues of $1 trillion each year.”

For all the seemingly elementary elements of the 15-minute video PGA Tour players have been required to watch as part of the circuit’s newly created Integrity Program, it’s the enormity of the industry – $1 trillion annually – that concerns officials.

There are no glaring examples of how sport betting has impacted golf, no red flags that sent Tour officials into damage control; just a realization that with that kind of money it’s best to be proactive.

“It's important that in that world, you can operate not understanding what's happening week in and week out, or you can assume that all of our players and everybody in our ecosystem understands that that's not an acceptable activity, or you can just be proactive and clarify and educate,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan explained earlier this month. “That's what we have attempted to do not with just the video, but with all of our communication with our players and will continue to do that.”

But if clarification is the goal, a copy of the training video obtained by GolfChannel.com paints a different picture.



Although the essence of the policy is straightforward – “prohibit players from betting on professional golf” – the primary concern, at least if the training video is any indication, is on match fixing; and warns players to avoid divulging what is considered “inside information.”

“I thought the questions were laughable. They were all like first-grade-level questions,” Chez Reavie said. “I would like to think everyone out here already knows the answer to those questions. But the Tour has to protect themselves.”

Monahan explained that the creation of the integrity policy was not in reaction to a specific incident and every player asked last week at the Sony Open said they had never encountered any type of match fixing.

“No, not at all,” Reavie said. “I have friends who will text me from home after a round, ‘Oh, I bet on you playing so-and-so.’ But I make it clear I don’t want to know. I don’t gamble like that. No one has ever approached me about losing a match.”

It was a common answer, but the majority of the video focuses on how players can avoid being placed in a compromising situation that could lead to match fixing. It should be noted that gamblers can place wagers on head-to-head matchups, provided by betting outlets, during stroke-play rounds of tournaments – not just in match-play competitions.

Part of the training video included questions players must answer to avoid violating the policy. An example of this was how a player should respond when asked, “Hello, buddy! Well played today. I was following your progress. I noticed your partner pulled out of his approach on 18, looked like his back. Is he okay for tomorrow?”

The correct answer from a list of options was, “I don’t know, sorry. I’m sure he will get it looked at if it’s bothering him.”

You get the idea, but for some players the training created more questions.

How, for example, should a player respond when asked how he’s feeling by a fan?

“The part I don’t understand, let’s say a member of your club comes out and watches you on the range hitting balls, he knows you’re struggling, and he bets against you. Somehow, some way that could come back to you, according to what I saw on that video,” said one player who asked not to be identified.

Exactly what constitutes a violation is still unclear for some who took the training, which was even more concerning considering the penalties for a violation of the policy.

The first violation is a warning and a second infraction will require the player to retake the training program, but a third violation is a fine “up to $500,000” or “the amount illegally received from the betting activity.” A sixth violation is a lifetime ban from the Tour.

Players are advised to be mindful of what they post on social media and to “refrain from talking about odds or betting activity.” The latter could be an issue considering how often players discuss betting on other sports.

Just last week at the Sony Open, Kevin Kisner and Justin Thomas had a “friendly” wager on the College Football Playoff National Championship. Kisner, a Georgia fan, lost the wager and had to wear an Alabama football jersey while playing the 17th hole last Thursday.

“If I'd have got the points, he'd have been wearing [the jersey], and I was lobbying for the points the whole week, and he didn't give them to me,” Kisner said. “So I'm still not sure about this bet.”

It’s unclear to some if Kisner’s remark, which was a joke and didn’t have anything to do with golf, would be considered a violation. From a common sense standpoint, Kisner did nothing wrong, but the uncertainty is an issue.

Much like drug testing, which the Tour introduced in 2008, few, if any, think sport betting is an issue in golf; but also like the anti-doping program, there appears to be the danger of an inadvertent and entirely innocent violation.

The Tour is trying to be proactive and the circuit has a trillion reasons to get out in front of what could become an issue, but if the initial reaction to the training video is any indication they may want to try a second take.

Getty Images

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.