Futures Tour Rookies Hope to Make Next Big Step
'You're always trying to improve and move your game to the next level,' said Courtney Wood of Brentwood, Tenn., a tournament winner in 2004 who enters her first full Futures Tour season this year. 'In junior golf, you're trying to work your way up to college. Then you go through college golf trying to be the best there before you have to work your way up again as a professional. And as a professional, you're still trying to climb to the next level. It never stops.'
But for many former college standouts, the 2005 Futures Tour season is where their professional careers begin. It is the beginning of what they hope will be a long accomplished career full of highlights and milestones played at the highest level. But all know that their first steps as new professionals will be taken when the Tour kicks off its season this week at the Lakeland Futures Golf Classic in Lakeland, Fla.
'I just want to play solid, consistent golf,' said Sarah Huarte, 23, of Shingle Springs, Calif., who was the 2004 individual NCAA Women's Golf champion while at the University of California at Berkeley. 'My expectations for my first year as a pro are to keep my bad rounds to a minimum and to be able to go low every now and then.'
'I expect to see a lot of the same faces that I played junior and college golf with, only now, at a different level,' said May Wood, 21, of Signal Mountain, Tenn., who joins former Vanderbilt University teammate Courtney Wood (no relation) on the Futures Tour this season. 'I'm trying to get more competitive experience because I didn't get serious about golf until I was a high school sophomore. Playing on the Futures Tour this year is exactly what I need and I'm really excited about the season starting.'
For some of the top rookies, the season won't begin until their collegiate tenure ends in May. But while the transition of moving from the NCAA Championship one week to a professional tournament the next might seem daunting, it also is a debut that carries an 'everything-to-gain, nothing-to-lose' attitude by the incoming rookies. Case in point: At last year's tournament in Merrillville, Ind., three players straight out of college wound up among the event's top five finishers. Malinda Johnson, who played at Wisconsin, finished second in her professional debut and ultimately earned one of the Tour's five automatic exempt LPGA Tour cards at the end of the season. Ohio State's Allison Hanna, the 2004 Big Ten Player of the Year, finished third in Merrillville, while Allison Fouch, of Michigan State, tied for fifth. Duke University's Virada Nirapathpongporn tied for 14th. It was as if the rookies were reminding the rest of the field that they were ready to play.
'When you turn pro, it's all new and you have to prove to yourself that you can play at this new level,' said Courtney Wood, 22, who tied for 18th at the 2004 NCAA Championship in May, then won her first professional title by early August. 'So much of being out here and having success is about confidence.'
It's also about utilizing one's own talents at opportune moments and 'setting realistic goals every week,' added Meaghan Francella, 22, of Port Chester, N.Y.
'There are at least 30 Futures Tour players who can win every week,' said Francella, who tied for fourth individually in the 2004 NCAA Championship as a member of the University of North Carolina team. 'No lead is safe and you can't get ahead of yourself out there. Everybody is capable of doing what you can do and maybe even doing it a little better.'
In late June last season, Francella played the first of her seven tournaments. The rookie soon discovered how much she had to learn about the rules of tournament golf. She was slapped with a two-shot penalty when her caddie jumped on a golf cart for a ride to a restroom. Then, the rookie received a $25 Tour fine because her caddie wore spikeless golf shoes, rather than the required flat-soled athletic shoes for caddies.
'That was my first week and I learned pretty quickly that by the rules, the caddie is considered as an extension of the player,' she said. 'But it's good that I learned it then. What if I were leading an event and that had happened? Now I know.'
UCLA's Charlotte Mayorkas, who tied for fourth with Francella in the 2004 NCAA Women's Golf Championship, will join the Futures Tour following the 2005 NCAA Championship this spring -- likely at the Merrillville tournament. The college senior says she has taken the necessary steps in junior, amateur and college golf and is looking forward to making 'the next big step.'
'It will be completely different than the college team atmosphere, plus soon, I'll be playing for a pay check,' said Mayorkas, 21, of Murrieta, Calif. 'But that will be just another incentive. It's still golf and you still have to get the ball in the hole.'
University of Tennessee senior Jessica Shepley of Oakville, Ontario, also plans to make her professional debut in Merrillville in late May. She knows that her days of acceptable college scoring are over.
'Those scores of 74 and 75 aren't going to cut it anymore,' said Shepley, 21, who tied for 10th at the 2004 NCAA Championship. 'My goal is to use this season to consistently shoot even-par or better every round and give myself a chance to compete. For me to call my first professional season a success, I'd like to make every cut in the tournaments I play and have a top-15 finish every week.'
'It's a lot about staying patient,' added May Wood, a 6-foot-2 long-hitter who averages around 285 yards off the tee. 'Golf is such an intense game of good misses.'
For rookies, some of their biggest lessons this season will come in balancing tournament travel, managing personal budgets and knowing when to take a week off.
'You learn pretty fast that it's tiring and the travel is tough,' said Francella, who is recovering from wrist surgery last December. 'I signed up for 16 events this season, but I know I'll have to take some time off.'
Huarte plans to carpool with some of her friends from college golf in an attempt to 'spend wisely.' She is curious about how the weekly pro-am tournaments operate and how much golf she can play before her performance falters.
'A lot of this year will be about finding out what my limits are,' said Huarte. 'There's no other way to learn that than to experience it.'
Courtney Wood traveled with former college teammate Sarah J. Graham last season and the two discovered that the highway travel didn't seem quite so grueling if they built in an afternoon each week to 'do touristy things' in such places as Boston and New York City. They also tried to learn about the respective cultures of the international players with whom they competed week after week. And Wood made it a point to 'eat more vegetables' while in the company of the health-conscious Graham.
From highway to fairway, Wood believes she is better prepared this season. And like the rest of the Tour's members, she will be focused on earning one of the five LPGA Tour cards for 2006.
'I feel like I have so much more experience after last year,' said Wood, who played in 13 of the Tour's 18 events in 2004. 'I watched Jimin Kang and Lindsey Wright practice and win all season and saw them move on to the LPGA Tour. The experience you get from competing is incredibly valuable and the depth of talent here is much greater than you'd ever expect it to be. If you can compete here, I really think you can move to the next level.'
And as if she needs to be reminded, with each year's new addition of young players from around the world, Wood's competition just gets tougher and more determined to prove themselves among the very best.
McIlroy (65) one back in Abu Dhabi through 54
Rory McIlroy moved into position to send a powerful message in his first start of the new year at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
Closing out with back-to-back birdies Saturday, McIlroy posted a 7-under-par 65, leaving him poised to announce his return to golf in spectacular fashion after a winless year in 2017.
McIlroy heads into Sunday just a single shot behind the leaders, Thomas Pieters (67) and Ross Fisher (65), who are at 17-under overall at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
Making his first start after taking three-and-a-half months off to regroup from an injury-riddled year, McIlroy is looking sharp in his bid to win for the first time in 16 months. He chipped in for birdie from 50 feet at the 17th on Saturday and two-putted from 60 feet for another birdie to finish his round.
McIlroy took 50 holes before making a bogey in Abu Dhabi. He pushed his tee shot into a greenside bunker at the 15th, where he left a delicate play in the bunker, then barely blasted his third out before holing a 15-footer for bogey.
McIlroy notably opened the tournament playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who started the new year winning the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in an eight-shot rout just two weeks ago. McIlroy was grouped in the first two rounds with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood, the European Tour’s Player of the Year last season. McIlroy sits ahead of both of them going into the final round, with Johnson (68) tied for 12th, four shots back, and Fleetwood (67) tied for fourth, two shots back.
Those first two rounds left McIlroy feeling good about his off season work.
“That proves I’m back to full fitness and 100 percent health,” he said going into Saturday. “DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now and of, if not the best, drivers of the golf ball, and to be up there with him over the first two days proves to me I’m doing the right things and gives me confidence.”
Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener
KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.
The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.
Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.
''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''
First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.
''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''
David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.
Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.
The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.
''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''
The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros
Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.
Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.
I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.
One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.
So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?
You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?
Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?
I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.
This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.
Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:
Once we give 'em a lesson, we are faced with:— Trackman Maestro (@TrackmanMaestro) January 16, 2018
A. Will they do what we asked them to do
B. Can they do what we asked them to do
C. Will they put in the practice time
D. The fact that golf is a hard game
We face multiple barriers as golf instructors.
On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.
The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:
“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”
Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.
Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.
Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.
Woods, Rahm, Rickie, J-Day headline Torrey field
Tiger Woods is set to make his 2018 debut.
Woods is still part of the final field list for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, the headliner of a tournament that includes defending champion Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.
In all, 12 of the top 26 players in the world are teeing it up at Torrey Pines.
Though Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, he hasn’t broken 71 in his past seven rounds there and hasn’t played all four rounds since 2013, when he won. Last year he missed the cut after rounds of 76-72, then lasted just one round in Dubai before he withdrew with back spasms.
After a fourth back surgery, Woods didn’t return to competition until last month’s Hero World Challenge, where he tied for ninth.
Woods has committed to play both the Farmers Insurance Open and next month's Genesis Open at Riviera, which benefits his foundation.