Notes: Next for Spieth? Facing McIlroy in Abu Dhabi

By Doug FergusonJanuary 12, 2016, 11:45 pm

HONOLULU – Fresh off an eight-shot victory, Jordan Spieth gets one week of rest before stepping back into spotlight. He leaves this weekend for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and his first meeting of the year with Rory McIlroy.

''I didn't know he was playing. I'll probably withdraw now,'' Spieth jokingly said Tuesday during a conference call for the Valspar Championship.

McIlroy was in Spieth's position a year ago - No. 1 in the world (by a greater margin), a multiple major champion, a great start to the year. What he never saw coming was an ankle injury while playing soccer that kept him out for two months and kept him from defending titles in the British Open and Bridgestone Invitational. He ended the year with a victory in the DP World Tour Championship to win the Race to Dubai.

The ankle injury slowed what could have been an interesting year between Spieth and McIlroy. Three weeks after Spieth won the Masters, McIlroy answered with victories in the Cadillac Match Play and Wells Fargo Championship. Spieth won the U.S. Open. And then McIlroy put on soccer shoes.

''In a season that he considered lost, he still came back and ended up winning the Race to Dubai, the final event. It proves what a player he is,'' Spieth said. ''I'm sure there's very few people working harder than he is to make this season his best season yet, which is scary. Hopefully, I can help prevent that to an extent.''

Spieth is playing Abu Dhabi for the first time before going to the Singapore Open. He returns for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and the Northern Trust Open at Riviera before heading to Florida for the World Golf Championship at Doral and his title defense at the Valspar Championship.

That playoff win at the Valspar Championship seems like a long time ago considering all Spieth has done. He mentioned Tuesday that it was his first professional victory when he had to make a big putt on the final hole, in this case a 30-foot birdie on the third extra hole.

That remains true. He won the Masters by four shots and the U.S. Open with a two-putt birdie. He won the John Deere Classic when Tom Gillis hit into the water in a playoff. He won the Tour Championship by five shots. And he won at Kapalua by eight shots.

CADDIE RACE: Jordan Spieth wasn't the only one at Kapalua who turned in a remarkable performance.

Mark Urbanek, the caddie for James Hahn, remembers hearing about the time in 2002 that Steve Williams won a bet with Tiger Woods and swing coach Butch Harmon that he could run the back nine of the Plantation Course in under 30 minutes.

Williams won handily, going from the back of every tee and front of every green in 19 minutes, 28 seconds.

Urbanek decided to give it a try. He started even with the first tee and ran through the tunnel and up a path to reach the 10th tee, and then touched the back of every tee and a part of every green. He finished in 20 minutes, 15 seconds. If the starting line had been the 10th tee, he would have finished in 19 minutes event.

What inspires such a challenge?

''I got into running a couple of years ago,'' Urbanek said. ''I love the mental challenge. I hate running more than the next guy, but when you hit that wall and your brain is telling you, 'What are you doing?' I enjoy continuing through that.''

SPRAGUE'S MOVE: The president of the PGA of America also has a day job, and for Derek Sprague, that job is changing.

Sprague, who had been at Malone Golf Club in upstate New York for the 27 years as general manager and director of golf, has been hired as managing director of Liberty National Golf Club. In a peculiar twist, he will be employed by the PGA Tour as an expanded relationship between Liberty National and the tour.

Here's another way to look at it. Sprague will preside over the Ryder Cup this year as PGA president. He also will be working on the Presidents Cup, which will be played the following year at Liberty National.

The role between the tour and Liberty National came from a 25-year partnership in which the New Jersey golf club, which sits across from Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, will host up to 10 tournaments. That includes a FedEx Cup playoff event in 2019.

GWAA AWARDS: Dottie Pepper's career didn't end when she stopped playing the LPGA Tour. The 17-time winner with two majors will receive the William D. Richardson Award from the Golf Writers Association of America for her outstanding contributions to the game.

The GWAA also voted Davis Love III for its ASAP Sports/Jim Murray Award for his cooperation with the press, and J.B. Holmes with its Ben Hogan Award for staying active in golf despite a physical ailment.

Pepper was an analyst for NBC Sports after she retired, served on the PGA of America board of directors for two years, went to ESPN and recently was signed by CBS Sports, where she will be the first female to be part of the CBS team at the Masters. Along the way, she been a strong promoter of junior golf.

Holmes had two operations in 2011 after being diagnosed with brain defects in his cerebellum. One surgery was to remove part of his skull. He has won twice since and played on the Presidents Cup team last year.

''It's a great feeling to be recognized for overcoming adversity,'' he said. ''I am also proud to be affiliated with the great Ben Hogan, whose legacy is one that I admired.''

They will be honored at the GWAA's annual awards dinner April 6 in Augusta, Georgia.

IRISH MENTORING: The death of Christy O'Connor Jr. allowed Padraig Harrington to reflect on how much O'Connor and other veterans meant to young Irish players. Harrington turned pro in 1995 and played a few years with O'Connor. He also was close with Des Smyth and Eamonn Darcy.

''We would have had dinner every night of the week - a group of Irish guys - and practice rounds,'' he said. ''They were a big influence. The year I came out, there were six or eight rookies, and these were the elder statesmen. They looked after us and put us right. If you stepped out of line, you were told.''

Harrington said he often referred to Smyth as ''Dad'' because if there was an issue, he would be the one to sort it all out.

The social aspect to golf is important, especially for young Europeans coming to America. Harrington said he felt lucky have the Irish connection.

''It was a big bunch of us at the time, nearly 12 of us at dinner every night,'' he said. ''Socially, it was brilliant. A big part of having the elder guys is we weren't going to get too cocky around them. Des was 'Dad.' Christy and Eamonn were like a double act. They were fantastic.''

STAT OF THE WEEK: Dustin Johnson last week became the 20th player to surpass $30 million in career earnings on the PGA Tour. Only two of those 20 players, Vijay Singh and Davis Love III, are eligible for the Champions Tour.

FINAL WORD: ''Improving as an individual player is first and foremost. Also, I'd really, really, really like to get a Ryder Cup win this year.'' - Jordan Spieth.

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Tiger Tracker: Honda Classic

By Tiger TrackerFebruary 22, 2018, 4:45 pm

Tiger Woods is making his third start of the year at the Honda Classic. We're tracking him at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

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Honda Classic: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalFebruary 22, 2018, 2:15 pm

The PGA Tour heads back east to kick off the Florida Swing at PGA National. Here are the key stats and information for the Honda Classic. Click here for full-field tee times.

How to watch:

Thursday, Rd. 1: Golf Channel, 2-6PM ET; live stream:

Friday, Rd. 2: Golf Channel, 2-6PM ET; live stream:

Saturday, Rd. 3: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream:; CBS, 3-6PM ET

Sunday, Rd. 4: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream:; CBS, 3-6PM ET

Purse: $6.6 million ($1,188,000 to the winner)

Course: PGA National, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida (par-70; 7,140 yards)

Defending champion: Rickie Fowler (-12) won by four, picking off his fourth PGA Tour victory.

Notables in the field:

Tiger Woods

• Making his fourth start at the Honda Classic and his first since withdrawing with back spasms in 2014.

• Shot a Sunday 62 in a T-2 finish in 2012, marking his lowest career final-round score on the PGA Tour.

• Coming off a missed cut at last week's Genesis Open, his 17th in his Tour career.

Rickie Fowler

• The defending champion owns the lowest score to par and has recorded the most birdies and eagles in this event since 2012.

• Fowler's last start was at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he failed to close a 54-hole lead. Fowler is 1-for-6 with 54-hole leads in his Tour career, with his only successful close coming at last year's Honda.

• On Tour this year, Fowler is first in scrambling from the fringe, second in total scrambling and third in strokes gained around the green. 

Rory McIlroy

• It's been feast or famine for McIlroy at the Honda. He won in 2012, withdrew with a toothache in 2013, finished T-2 in 2014 and missed the cut in 2015 and 2016.

• McIlroy ascended to world No. 1 with his victory at PGA National in 2012, becoming the second youngest player at 22 years old to top the OWGR, behind only Woods. McIlroy was later edged by a slightly younger 22-year-old Jordan Spieth.

• Since the beginning of 2010, only Dustin Johnson (15) has more PGA Tour victories than McIlroy (13). 

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Lexi, J. Korda part of four-way tie in Thailand

By Associated PressFebruary 22, 2018, 1:01 pm

CHONBURI, Thailand – Three-time tour winner Minjee Lee of Australia finished with a superb eagle putt to be among the four leaders after Day 1 of the LPGA Thailand at Siam Country Club on Thursday.

Lee sank a 45-foot putt on the 18th hole to card a 6-under-par 66 to tie for the lead with 2016 champion Lexi Thompson, Jessica Korda, and local hope Moriya Jutanugarn.

''I just hit the collar. I didn't know if I was going to have enough. Such a big break there. I'm glad it caught the hole,'' Lee said.

''It's a second-shot golf course. Your approaches are really important, and obviously being in the right spots with the undulation. And if you have a hot putter that's going to help.''

Full-field scores from the Honda LPGA Thailand

Lee won the Vic Open near Melbourne this month and opened her 2018 LPGA tour account last week at the Women's Australian Open, finishing fifth.

Thompson, who won this event in 2016 by six shots with a 20-under total and tied for fourth last year, started her latest round in style with an eagle followed by a birdie only to bogey the third hole. She carded four more birdies.

''It definitely helps to get that kind of start, but I was just trying to keep that momentum and not get ahead of myself,'' Thompson said.

Her compatriot Korda had a roller-coaster round which featured eagles on the first and 17th holes, five birdies, a double bogey on the sixth, and two bogeys.

Jutanugarn was the only player among the four to end the day without a bogey.

''I had a good start today, it was better than I expected,'' said Jutanugarn, who was seventh here last year.

She's trying to become the first Thai winner of the tournament.

Two-time champion Amy Yang and world No. 2 Sung Hyun Park were among six players at 5 under.

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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.