FUTURES Look Bright as Tour Gets Underway
Last year, unknown rookie teen Song-Hee Kim of Korea won five times and moved on to the 2007 LPGA Tour after a brief stint on the Duramed FUTURES Tour. South Carolinian Kristy McPherson, on the other hand, spent four years before winning twice last season and joining the top five players on the 2006 money list to 'graduate' to the LPGA Tour.
With 88 rookies joining the Duramed FUTURES Tour this year, more 'unknown' talent is certain to emerge over the next 19 tournaments. But those rookies will first have to get past some wily and determined veterans ready to prove a few things to themselves and join their pals at the next level.
'I have experience now and I know I can win,' said returning third-year tour member Ashley Prange of Noblesville, Ind., who won twice in 2006 and finished seventh on the tour's money list. 'I've improved my golf swing so much since LPGA Q-school last fall. And while I know I should be out there with the other girls on the LPGA Tour this year, I'm looking forward to this season.'
Prange, along with returning players Salimah Mussani of Burlington, Ontario, Ha-Na Chae of Seoul, Korea and Ji Min Jeong of Kyungki, Korea, all were winners in 2006. But each came up short of the top five positions on the money list and none were able to secure exempt status at the LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament. Jeong, who is not in the Lakeland tournament field, won twice in 2006 and figures to be a top contender this year alongside Prange.
Allison Fouch also will be a returning player with an obvious mission. The fourth-year player from Grand Rapids, Mich., posted seven top-10 finishes in 2006, including two runner-up finishes. One of those second-place finishes came in Lakeland last year. Fouch hopes to find the same comfort zone at Cleveland Heights Golf Course that had her pressuring eventual champion Meaghan Francella right up to the last putt.
Ditto for third-year player Brandi Jackson of Greenville, S.C., who recorded six top-10 finishes in 2006, that included one tie for second and four top-5 finishes. But instead of finally delivering her winner's speech, the former LPGA Tour member was forced to settle for 11th on the season money list. Worse yet, she left LPGA Q-school without a card in hand for 2007.
'My first goal this season is to have a better start than I had last year,' said Jackson, who played collegiately at Furman University. 'I need to win a tournament out here and not just finish second and third. That would be a huge confidence booster.'
To knock the winter rust off her game, Jackson played in several Florida-based Women's Hooter's Tour events during the winter months. She wasn't surprised to bump into Fouch and numerous other members of the Duramed FUTURES Tour who also were getting a jump on the competitive season in the smaller mini-tour events. Returning player Jenny Gleason won three tournaments -- with an 11-shot victory over LPGA star Paula Creamer in her third -- while Jackson also won three times, notching wins in the last two Hooter's Tour events.
'The fields were small, but it was fairly competitive,' said Jackson. 'The idea was to get some early playing time and to be ready when I tee it up this week at the first event.'
Like Fouch, two other members of the 2007 Duramed FUTURES Tour have finished in the dreaded sixth spot on the Tour's money list just out of the automatic fully exempt LPGA Tour cards awarded to the five players. Gleason had that distinction in 2005, and went on to earn non-exempt LPGA Tour status in 2006 and 2007. Emily Bastel of Upper Sandusky, Ohio, finished sixth on the 2004 money list. Bastel went on to earn full LPGA Tour status at LPGA Q-school and played the last two seasons on the LPGA Tour. But Bastel will rejoin the Duramed FUTURES Tour this year in an attempt to regain her full LPGA status.
While she admits she will play some LPGA Tour events this year, Gleason plans to spend 'the majority of the year on the [Duramed] FUTURES Tour.' And with the early success she has had this winter on the Florida mini-tours, Gleason believes she is better prepared to kick off the season this week in Lakeland.
'I've never played well in March and April and it seems like it's always taken me a while to get going,' said Gleason, of Clearwater, Fla. 'But I'm playing a new set of irons, working with a new trainer, now have a swing coach in Florida who can help me when I can't see my coach in North Carolina, and I've improved my wedges. Am I a better player than I was 365 days ago? You bet!'
Gleason admits that it would be easy to wallow in her misfortune of 2005. In addition to not cracking the top five on the Duramed FUTURES Tour, she missed getting her full LPGA Tour card by one shot. And even in 2006, as a non-exempt LPGA Tour member, she got into a dozen LPGA tournaments and missed five cuts by one stroke.
'I learned a whole bunch on the LPGA Tour and I also realized that this Tour taught me a lot of little things that I needed to know,' she said. 'But other than Annika [Sorenstam] and Lorena [Ochoa], I don't think there's anyone who is too good to play the [Duramed] FUTURES Tour.'
This year's rookie class will no doubt begin asserting itself this week alongside the more experienced returning players. One of the top contending rookies likely will be Amanda McCurdy, a member of the winning 2006 U.S. Curtis Cup team.
'I'm nervous and I've been having some bad dreams, but I also know that I'm starting a new chapter in my golf life and I'm very excited about it,' said McCurdy of Fayetteville, Ark., who played collegiately for the Razorbacks. 'I'm still a pup out here and I'm learning, but at least I'm getting to start off the season at a course where I've played.'
Like McCurdy, rookie Noon Huachai of Bangkok, Thailand, also last played Cleveland Heights at the Tour's Qualifying Tournament last November. A high school senior in nearby Orlando, Fla., Huachai will be one of two 17-year-old professionals on the tour's 2007 roster.
'This is the best time of my life to try to compete,' she said. 'My dad talked me into turning pro. He knows what's best for me and I trust him.'
And on Friday this week, 144 players will trust themselves when they take their first official swings on the 2007 Duramed FUTURES Tour. Come September, and 19 tournaments later, who will be holding up the five 2008 LPGA Tour cards?
Only time will tell.
G-Mac has Ryder Cup on mind with Genesis in grasp
LOS ANGELES – Graeme McDowell is four years removed from his last start in a Ryder Cup and golf is more than seven months away from this year’s matches, but then it’s never too early to start daydreaming.
Following a third-round 70 that left him tied for third place and just two strokes off the lead at the Genesis Open, McDowell was asked if the matches are on his mind.
“I feel like I've got a lot of things to do between now and getting on that team,” he said. “Standing here right now it's probably not a realistic goal, but if I continue to play the way I'm playing for the next few months, it may start to become a realistic goal.”
McDowell began his week at Riviera Country Club fresh off four consecutive missed cuts and has drifted to 219th in the Official World Golf Ranking. But his play this week has been encouraging and the Northern Irishman has always relished the opportunity to play for Europe.
“Deep down I know I'm good enough, but I've got to show, I've got to put some results on the board, I've got to take care of my business,” he said. “The greatest experience of my career bar none, and I would love to play another couple Ryder Cup matches before it's all said and done.”
McDowell does have a potential advantage this year having won the French Open twice at Le Golf National, site of this year’s matches.
Bubba on McGrady block: 'Just trying not to get hurt'
LOS ANGELES – A detour to the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game didn’t keep Bubba Watson from leading this week’s Genesis Open, although an on-court brush with Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady nearly derailed his chances for a third tournament win.
Watson enters the final round at Riviera with a one-shot lead over Patrick Cantlay after firing a 6-under 65 in the third round. The day before, the southpaw left the course around lunch time and headed across town to participate in the All-Star festivities, where during the celebrity game he tried to score 1-on-1 over McGrady.
Watson’s move into the lane went about as well as you’d expect given their five-inch height disparity, with McGrady easily blocking the ball into the stands. According to Watson, he had only one thought as McGrady came barreling towards him across the lane.
“When I saw him, all I saw was, ‘This is my moment to get hurt,’” Watson said. “This big tank is about to hit me, and I was like, ‘Just knock it into the stands. Just don’t touch me.’ So it worked out, he didn’t touch me so it was good.”
Watson’s attempt went against his wife Angie’s advice to avoid the paint area, but it provided a fun moment for a player used to carving up fairways and greens – not to mention the guy who played 15 seasons in the NBA.
“Well, he’s got like just under 800 blocks for his career, so I gave him one more, you know?” Watson said. “It was just, it was a blast. I wanted to see how good he was, see if he could miss it. He hasn’t played in a while.”
Watson took some heat on Twitter from his PGA Tour peers for the rejection, but few were still laughing as he rocketed up the leaderboard Saturday with five birdies and an eagle. Now he has a chance to win this event for the third time since 2014 – even if he doesn’t plan to go toe-to-toe with McGrady again anytime soon.
“Some guys wanted to try to win MVP, so I was trying to pass it and let them have their fun and their moment,” Watson said. “I was just trying not to get hurt.”
Spieth on third-round 69: 'Putter saved me'
LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth has spent the last few weeks talking about his putting for all the wrong reasons.
Two weeks ago when he missed the cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open he lost 3.76 shots to the field in strokes-gained putting, and last week he wasn’t much better.
It looked like more of the same at the Genesis Open when he lost about a half stroke to the field on Day 1 with 29 putts, but since then his fortunes on the greens have gotten progressively better.
“I thought each day last week I progressed,” said Spieth, who needed just 24 putts on Friday and moved into a tie for 20th after taking 26 putts on Day 3.
Spieth said he started to feel things turn around at Pebble Beach after working with his swing coach Cameron McCormick and Steve Stricker, who has become something of a putting sounding board for players on Tour.
“I got set up really nice. I got really comfortable on the greens even though they were very difficult to putt last week and this week,” said Spieth, who rolled in a birdie putt of 14 feet at No. 12 and a par putt of 35 feet at No. 14. “Any putt, I either made it or I left it just short today. It was one of those days that with the way I struck the ball, it was an off day, but that putter saved me and allowed me to shoot the lowest score so far this week.”
Spieth’s third-round 69 is his best of the week and moved him to within seven strokes of the lead, which is held by Bubba Watson.
Bouncing back: Watson seeks a third Riviera win
LOS ANGELES – Yeah, but can Tracy McGrady smoke a 7-iron from 203 yards to kick-in range for eagle on Riviera Country Club’s opening hole?
The way Bubba Watson’s mind drifts there’s no telling if, as he began his day at the Genesis Open, he revisited his play from Friday night at the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game. If he did, it would have been an apropos conclusion after McGrady sent his weak floater into the cheap seats midway through the second quarter.
Either way, Watson made it clear playtime was over on Saturday. The eagle at the opening par 4 ½ sent Watson on his way to a third-round 65 and the outright lead at the Left Coast event that’s starting to feel like a second home for the lefthander.
In 11 starts at Riviera, Watson already has two victories. A third on Sunday could get folks talking about renaming the layout Bubba’s Alley. Or not.
What is certain is that Watson has emerged from a funk that sent him tumbling outside the top 100 in the world ranking and he’s done it in quintessential Bubba style.
If Friday’s detour to the celebrity game received worldwide attention it was only a snapshot of Watson’s Tinseltown itinerary. He taped a segment for Jay Leno’s Garage show, visited with Ellen DeGeneres and watched a taping of The Big Bang Theory. You know, L.A. stuff.
Oh, and he’s curved and carved his way around Riviera with signature abandon.
“You've got to hit shots from every different angle, you've got to move it right to left and left to right, so it's just fun,” said Watson, who also led by one stroke when he won here in 2016, his last victory on the PGA Tour. “Then the greens are the equalizer so it makes me look like I putt as good as the other guys.”
He “hammered” a 7-iron from 203 yards at the first to 1 ½ feet for his opening eagle, chipped in at the sixth to begin a run of four birdies in five holes and played the three par 5s in 3 under to move into a familiar spot after enduring his worst season on Tour in 2017 when he failed to advance past the second playoff event.
That he’s turned the tide in Los Angeles is as predictable as it is peculiar. Despite Watson’s record at the Genesis Open, Riviera wouldn’t seem to be the tonic for all that ails Bubba.
Ask a player - any player will do - the keys to playing Riviera and the answers range wildly from it being a bomber’s course to the need for ball-striking precision. But the word that comes up with regularity is "patience."
“Patience and pretty much just not being stupid, to be honest,” Justin Thomas said when asked the key to his third-round 67 that left him tied for eighth place. “Just stop trying to hit at pins with 5-irons and 6-irons, and when I hit in the rough, realize just try to make a par. When I get in places, when I'm out of position, realize that sometimes even bogey is what I need to make.”
While that thought dovetails with conventional wisdom, Watson’s not exactly known for his patience.
“Oh, for sure I do. Haven't you seen me in the last 12 years?” Watson laughed when asked if he had patience on the course. “The tougher the golf course, the more focus I have. The tougher the shot, I've been able to focus better. When I get my mind on something, I can focus and do pretty well at the game of golf.”
While Bubba drifts between artist and antagonist with ease, both on and off the golf course, his primary challenge on Sunday is the picture of thoughtful composure.
Patrick Cantlay, who returned to the Tour last season after struggling with back issues for years, began the third round with a share of the lead but quickly faded on the front nine. He rallied on the closing loop with birdies at Nos. 10, 11 and 18, where he capped his day with a 54-footer that assured him a spot in Sunday’s final threesome. Although he’s just 25 and playing his first full season on Tour, Cantlay’s approach to the game is patently different from Watson’s.
“I feel like if I can just engage and not worry about where I am on a particular hole or what's going on and I just engage and stay present in whatever I'm doing at that particular time, it all turns out better than what you would expect,” explained Cantlay, who attended nearby UCLA and played dozens of practice rounds at Riviera. “Making sure you stay present and having that confidence in yourself that if you just click in and focus, it all will be good and that's kind of the head space I'm in.”
It will be a clash of wildly contrasting styles on Sunday – Watson, who admitted he “(doesn’t) focus very well,” and Cantlay, whose approach to the mental side of the game borders on the clinical.
One player relishes the challenge of hyper-focus, the other is Bubba, but that’s not to say Watson is void of patience, only that he needs to be properly motivated.
“Like last night when Tracy McGrady was coming at me, I was focused on not getting hurt and I didn't, so it worked out,” Watson smiled.
And besides, T-Mac can’t bomb it like Bubba.