Rookie Stefani takes lead on Day 1 at Tampa Bay

By Doug FergusonMarch 15, 2013, 12:23 am

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Shawn Stefani is the latest PGA Tour rookie to look comfortable on a big stage.

It just took him a little longer to get there.

In breezy conditions on a tough golf course, Stefani never came close to making a bogey until his final hole Thursday in the Tampa Bay Championship. He rolled in a par putt from just inside 5 feet to complete a 6-under 65 and take a two-shot lead over Brian Harman.

''Kind of fought through a couple of bad shots coming in – or not so great shots – and managed to get balls up-and-down and make a few putts,'' Stefani said. ''So all in all, today was a great day and looking forward to getting out there tomorrow.''


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Leader Stefani more country than 'Hollaback Girl'


There's not many ''bad'' shots in a bogey-free round on the Copperhead course at Innisbrook, which some consider the best track on the Florida swing. The course played just more than two shots over par. Only 13 players broke 70, and 25 players broke par.

Harman came up short and into a bunker on the ninth hole and closed with his lone bogey for a 67. Harris English finished on the 18th and also hit into a bunker, except that he three-putted from 40 feet above the hole and had a double bogey. That gave him a 68, tied with Brendan Steele and Tag Ridings.

Geoff Ogilvy, at No. 49 in the world and needing to stay in the top 50 the next three weeks to get into the Masters, was in the large group at 69 that included Lucas Glover and a pair of past champions in Vijay Singh and K.J. Choi.

Stefani is a 31-year-old from the Houston area who finally made it to the PGA Tour by finishing 16th on the Web.com Tour money list. He is playing new courses and staying in unfamiliar places, though he had at least a few examples of other rookies this year to show the way.

Russell Henley won the Sony Open, and another rookie (Scott Langley) played with him in the final group. Three others have played in the final group this year – Brad Fritsch at Torrey Pines, James Hahn at Pebble Beach and Luke Guthrie two weeks ago at the Honda Classic.

''It's great to see those guys play well, because I competed with those guys all last year and they all won – except Scott – on the Web.com last year a few times and they are all super nice guys, good players,'' Stefani said. ''Everybody hits their strides differently. I'm more of patient kind of guy, and just kind of wait for things to happen. I know eventually things will start clicking, and I've really been close to playing good all year.''

Defending champion Luke Donald opened with a 70 and was angrier than usual, a testament to the course. Donald was poised to open with a great round, at 4 under with four holes to play despite missing three birdie chances inside 12 feet.

A poor drive led to bogey on the sixth. His tee shot on the par-3 eighth rolled toward the back lip of a bunker. And then a flier out of the rough on No. 9 sailed over the green and into a slope in the bunker with very little sand. That made for three bogeys in four holes, and turned a solid round into a frustrating one.

''At one point I felt I should have been 5 or 6 under,'' Donald said. ''To walk off with a 70 and play like that is hard to take. It was shame to cough up a couple of shots. Fifteen of those holes, I played really solid golf.''

Some of the early starters arrived in darkness, the temperatures cool and the wind already blowing.

This hasn't been the best weather on the PGA Tour this year. Already there was such high wind at Kapalua that the tournament didn't start until the fourth day. Fog wiped out an entire day in San Diego. Snow put the Match Play Championship one day behind.

''It felt more like a major championship today,'' Steele said. ''Usually the head at the U.S. Open is a few under after the first round at least, even if the winning score ends up being over par. To see it only be 3 under at this point is really a testament to how good the golf course is and how difficult the conditions are. Put that combo together and it's not a course that you fake it around. It's not a course you can get away with bad shots.''

Stefani did very little wrong.

With the wind at his back, he hit wedge into 2 feet for birdie on the 10th hole to start his round. He made birdie on all four of the par 5s with a short game that he practiced for two solid days earlier in the week. He added his other birdie with a 20-foot putt on the third hole.

Most importantly, he made few mistakes. Stefani missed only three greens, got up-and-down from the bunker all three times and had to play out of the rough just once, with a tee shot he missed slightly to the left on No. 3.

''If you can drive the ball well out here, you can give yourself enough opportunities,'' Stefani said. ''But it's a tough driving course, and I was able to hit a lot of fairways, which put me in good position to make birdies.''

Harman has had some good rounds this year, such as his 65 in Phoenix on the second day, closing with a 66 in Puerto Rico and even the 67 he had at Riviera. But this one stood out for other reasons.

''This is definitely, probably the best thought-out rounds that I had,'' he said. ''I had a great game plan and stuck to it all day.''

That included his lone bogey, when he wasn't sure if his ball would jump out of the rough to the right of the ninth fairway. He opted for less club, a 7-iron, figuring that anything long would lead to bogey. He came up short and still made bogey, but at least he had a chance at par.

DIVOTS: Jimmy Johnson, the caddie for Steve Stricker, is working the next two weeks for Harris English. Johnson didn't work at Doral last week because that was the one tournament Stricker had his wife, Nicki, caddie for him. ... John Daly opened with a 72. ... Geoff Ogilvy had the low round (69) in the all-Australian group alongside good friend Adam Scott and Jason Day. Scott and Day each had 70.

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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.


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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.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.


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Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.


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The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”