Kapalua may have strongest field in decade

By Doug FergusonNovember 25, 2015, 1:51 am

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – The start of a new year on the PGA Tour at Kapalua lost some sizzle when Tiger Woods stopped going after 2005, which was four years after Phil Mickelson decided to go to Hawaii only for a vacation.

And when the PGA Tour went to a wraparound season two years ago, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions was in an awkward spot. Yes, it was the first event of the year, but the season had started three months earlier.

A new cast of stars is expected to give Kapalua its strongest field in a decade.

Depending on how Jordan Spieth fares in Australia and the Bahamas over the next two weeks, the 22-year-old Texan could give Kapalua the No. 1 player for the first time since Vijay Singh in 2005. Jason Day and Zach Johnson would give the field all four major champions for the first time since 2010.

Throw in Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Jim Furyk, Patrick Reed, Kevin Kisner and Brooks Koepka and that Tournament of Champions will feel like one.

Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry won't be playing, which is not unusual. Kapalua tends to lose out on top European Tour players because their season doesn't end until late November and starts up in mid-January in the Middle East, which is 14 time zones from Hawaii.

Still to be determined is whether Justin Rose plays. If he does, the world ranking points for the winner might be pushing 54.

It hasn't been at that level since Woods was playing, and those ranking points are especially valuable in 2016 for Europeans trying to qualify for the Ryder Cup (five players come off a list based on world ranking points accrued) and for others who wouldn't mind a trip to Rio for the Olympics.

Graeme McDowell is playing after skipping the last time he was eligible. Padraig Harrington is playing for the first time.

RACE TO AUGUSTA: Along with seasons starting (Europe) and years ending (PGA Tour), the final month of 2015 represents a final push to get into the top 50 and lock up a spot in the Masters next April.

That points to Lee Westwood, who is playing in the Australian Open this week. Westwood is No. 56 in the world. Over on the Japan Golf Tour, K.T. Kim is the favorite in the Casio World Open. Kim is at No. 57 and not yet eligible for the Masters.

Some players outside the top 50 already secured a spot at Augusta National. Ian Poulter (No. 54) and Hunter Mahan (No. 63) both are eligible from finishing in the top 12 at the Masters last year.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Graeme McDowell's first trip to America was a recruiting visit to the University of Alabama-Birmingham. It was a harrowing experience - not the recruiting part, but getting through customs.

McDowell said he planned to stay four days because he was coming from Northern Ireland, and that would be longer than the standard 48-hour recruiting trip. His problems began when he was asked by U.S. Customs where he was staying and didn't have the address.

''The guy said, 'You're not on a recruiting trip here, are you?' I guess I would have been teed up to say, 'No,' by my coach because obviously it wasn't within regulations,'' McDowell said. ''I said, 'No. Just vacationing and playing a little golf.'''

As for the address? McDowell only had the phone number of a UAB golfer with whom he was staying.

''The guys calls him in front of me and says, 'I have Mr. McDowell here. What is the purpose of his visit? Oh, he's on a recruiting trip?''' McDowell said. ''So now I've just lied to this customs officer. Long story short, it was no big deal in the end. But I missed my connection to Birmingham. I spent the night in Memphis and thought, 'Man, what is this country all about?'''

It worked out well. McDowell won six times in his final year and received the Fred Haskins Award as the outstanding college golfer.

FRENCH DOUBLE: The European Tour is making the French Open as appealing as possible to its members.

Because of a tight schedule in an Olympic year, the PGA Tour put the Bridgestone Invitational two weeks after the U.S. Open - and the same week as the French Open, a strong supporter of the European Tour. For the first time, Europe will not sanction the World Golf Championship event at Firestone, meaning whoever plays it will not get credit toward the money list or Ryder Cup points, or even a start toward the minimum requirement.

Now, chief executive Keith Pelley says those who play in the French Open will get credit for two starts toward the minimum requirement. The prize money will be increased by 500,000 euros ($531,000), and Ryder Cup points also will be increased that week.

The French Open has been part of the European Tour since 1972 and is celebrating its 100th anniversary next year.

DROP THE PUCK: Wayne Gretzky has been a massive influence on Dustin Johnson over the last couple of years, especially during his six-month break from the game last year when he took time off to seek help for ''personal challenges.''

Johnson and Paulina Gretzky - the hockey great's daughter - had a son last January and plan to get married next year.

That influence, however, is more about life than the sport that Gretzky dominated. Johnson will watch more hockey than he used to, though only when he's with Gretzky.

''I definitely watch it a lot more, especially when we're hanging out at her family's house,'' he said. ''Wayne keeps up with it pretty well, but we don't watch it that much. Kind of flip back and forth between all the sports, especially right now this time of year. We've got every sport is playing.''

Is he watching during the Stanley Cup playoffs, when hockey is at its best?

''If I'm at their house,'' Johnson said. ''If I'm at my house, no. I like it, but I like going to the games more. Definitely been to a lot more games. I didn't go to any games before I met her and now I've been to quite a few. I enjoy that.''

DIVOTS: Bubba Watson wasn't planning to play in the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas next week. He changed his mind and will fill in for PGA champion Jason Day, who withdrew to stay home with his newborn daughter, Lucy. ... Kevin Kisner was 58-under par in the four PGA Tour events he played in the fall. ... Europe announced its 10 qualifiers for the EurAsia Cup against Asian countries on Jan. 15-17 in Kuala Lumpur. Victor Dubuisson is the only player who is in the last Ryder Cup. The list includes Danny Willett and Shane Lowry. ... Henrik Stenson ends the year with the longest active streak on the PGA Tour for making the cut at 30 tournaments.

STAT OF THE WEEK: According to PGA Tour data, Kevin Kisner did not miss any of his 31 putts inside 10 feet on the weekend at Sea Island.

FINAL WORD: ''I'm not saying that money's not important. It obviously is. But there's more things important to me, and that's collecting trophies and putting tournaments on my resume.'' - Rory McIlroy, after winning the DP World Tour Championship to capture the Race to Dubai.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.