Getty Images

Hot Seat: Cranking up the heat, Holmes

By Randall MellJanuary 31, 2018, 6:35 pm

The PGA Tour moves to the hot-seat capital of the golf world this week.

Every player arriving to the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale will be on a hot seat at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, with about 20,000 rowdy fans waiting to greet him amid the most raucous atmosphere in the game.

Our official declaration of The Hot Seat designees, however, isn’t limited to Phoenix. You don’t even have to be playing this week to occupy one of the toastiest seats in the game. Just ask Suzann Pettersen.

Here’s our special weekly gauge of the heat that top players are facing this week:

Sonoran slow roast: J.B. Holmes

Holmes couldn’t pick a wilder venue to go to in the wake of the controversy that erupted following his slow play in Sunday’s finish to the Farmers Insurance Open.

The stadium built around TPC Scottsdale’s 16th hole is golf’s version of the Roman Coliseum. It’s like Holmes is throwing himself to the lions there, but, hey, he’s one of their former champions. It’s the 10-year anniversary of his victory in Phoenix, and, again, everybody is on the hot seat there.

The phrase “grin and bear it” wasn’t heard first at the 16th at TPC Scottsdale, but the approach is practically advanced philosophy there.



Texas Gunslinger Habanero: Jordan Spieth

Big names are off to big starts in 2018.

Dustin Johnson is already on the board with a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions at year’s start. Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge two weeks ago, and Jason Day won the Farmers Insurance Open last weekend.

Rory McIlroy hasn’t won yet, but he’s looking poised to pounce with a second-place finish and a tie for third in his first two starts of the year.

Spieth would love to answer in Phoenix, where he has two top-10 finishes in two starts. He will be playing with Justin Thomas in the first two rounds, with Thomas also eager to get on the board with an early win after a fast start last year helped him claim the PGA Tour Player of the Year award.



Political Hot Potato: Suzann Pettersen

Pettersen isn’t playing this week, but she is in headlines around the globe, and not just on golf websites or sports sections.

Pettersen’s name recognition skyrocketed, with folks who don’t know a golf ball from a meatball now knowing who she is, thanks to comments attributed to her regarding President Donald Trump’s golf habits.

News sites everywhere picked up reports from a Norwegian newspaper quoting Pettersen as saying the president “cheats like hell,” and quoting her making other unflattering remarks about his game.

Pettersen explained on Facebook that she didn’t accuse the president of cheating, that her words were being taken “way” out of context and are “not a fair account” of a more lengthy and “very positive interview.”

She called it “#fakenews.”

The Norwegian reporter responded that he has a recording of the interview.

Whew, LPGA officials welcome more media coverage of their tour, but Politico, Red State and the National Review probably aren’t what they had in mind.

Getty Images

McIlroy, Scott have forgettable finish at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 11:03 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy and the rest of his group had a forgettable end to their rounds Thursday at the Honda Classic.

McIlroy was even par for the day and looking for one final birdie to end his opening round. Only two players had reached the par-5 finishing hole, but McIlroy tried to hold a 3-wood up against the wind from 268 yards away. It found the water, leading to a double bogey and a round of 2-over 72.  

“It was the right shot,” McIlroy said. “I just didn’t execute it the right way.”

He wasn’t the only player to struggle coming home.

Adam Scott, who won here in 2016, found the water on both par 3s in the Bear Trap, Nos. 15 and 17. He made double on 15, then triple on 17, after his shot from the drop area went long, then he failed to get up and down. He shot 73, spoiling a solid round.

The third player in the group, Padraig Harrington, made a mess of the 16th hole, taking a triple.

The group played the last four holes in a combined 10 over.

Getty Images

Woods (70) better in every way on Day 1 at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:40 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Consider it a sign of the times that Tiger Woods was ecstatic about an even-par score Thursday at the Honda Classic.

It was by far his most impressive round in this nascent comeback.

Playing in a steady 20-mph wind, Woods was better in all facets of the game Thursday at PGA National. Better off the tee. Better with his irons. And better on and around the “scratchy” greens.

He hung tough to shoot 70 – four shots better than his playing partner, Patton Kizzire, a two-time winner this season and the current FedExCup leader – and afterward Woods said that it was a “very positive” day and that he was “very solid.”

It’s a small sample size, of course – seven rounds – but Woods didn’t hesitate in declaring this “easily” his best ball-striking round of the year.

And indeed it was, even if the stats don’t jump off the page.

Officially, he hit only seven of 14 fairways and just 10 greens, but some of those misses off the tee were a few paces into the rough, and some of those iron shots finished just off the edge of the green.

The more telling stat was this: His proximity to the hole (28 feet) was more than an 11-foot improvement over his first two starts this year. And also this: He was 11th among the early starters in strokes gained-tee to green, which measures a player’s all-around ball-striking. Last week, at Riviera, he ranked 121st.

“I felt very comfortable,” he said. “I felt like I hit the ball really well, and it was tough out there. I had to hit a lot of knockdown shots. I had to work the golf ball both ways, and occasionally downwind, straight up in the air.

“I was able to do all that today, so that was very pleasing.”

The Champion Course here at PGA National is the kind of course that magnifies misses and exposes a player if he’s slightly off with his game. There is water on 15 of the 18 holes, and there are countless bunkers, and it’s almost always – as it was Thursday – played in a one- or two-club wind. Even though it’s played a half hour from Woods’ compound in Hobe Sound, the Honda wasn’t thought to be an ideal tune-up for Woods’ rebuilt game.

But maybe this was just what he needed. He had to hit every conceivable shot Thursday, to shape it both ways, high and low, and he executed nearly every one of them.

The only hole he butchered was the par-5 third. With 165 yards for his third shot, he tried to draw a 6-iron into a stiff wind. He turned it over a touch too much, and it dropped into the bunker. He hit what he thought was a perfect bunker shot, but it got caught in the overseeded rye grass around the green and stayed short. He chipped to 3 feet and then was blown off-balance by a wind gust. Double.


Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos


But what pleased Woods most was what he did next. Steaming from those unforced errors, he was between a 2- and 3-iron off the tee. He wanted to leave himself a 60-degree wedge for his approach into the short fourth hole, but a full 2-iron would have put him too close to the green.

So he took a little off and “threw it up in the air” – 292 yards.

“That felt really good,” Woods said, smiling. And so did the 6-footer that dropped for a bounce-back birdie.

"I feel like I'm really not that far away," he said. 

To illustrate just how much Woods’ game has evolved in seven rounds, consider this perspective from Brandt Snedeker.

They played together at Torrey Pines, where Woods somehow made the cut despite driving it all over the map. In the third round, Woods scraped together a 70 while Snedeker turned in a 74, and afterward Snedeker said that Woods’ short game was “probably as good or better than I ever remember it being.”

A month later, Snedeker saw significant changes. Woods’ short game is still tidy, but he said that his iron play is vastly improved, and it needed to be, given the challenging conditions in the first round.

“He controlled his ball flight really well and hit a bunch of really good shots that he wasn’t able to hit at Torrey, because he was rusty,” said Snedeker, who shot 74. “So it was cool to see him flight the ball and hit some little cut shots and some little three-quarter shots and do stuff I’m accustomed to see him doing.”

Conditions are expected to only get more difficult, more wind-whipped and more burned out, which is why the winning score here has been single-digits under par four of the past five years.

But Woods checked an important box Thursday, hitting the shots that were required in the most difficult conditions he has faced so far.

Said Snedeker: “I expect to see this as his baseline, and it’ll only get better from here.”

Getty Images

Players honor victims of Parkland school shooting

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:36 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – PGA Tour players are honoring the victims in the Parkland school shooting by wearing ribbons on their hats and shirts.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is located about 45 miles from PGA National, site of this week’s Honda Classic.

“It’s awful what happened, and anytime the Tour can support in any way a tragedy, we’re always going to be for it,” Justin Thomas said. “Anytime there’s a ribbon on the tees for whatever it may be, you’ll see most, if not all the guys wearing it. Something as simple and easy as this, it’s the least we could do.”


Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos


The school shooting in Parkland, which claimed 17 lives, is the second-deadliest at a U.S. public school.

Tiger Woods, who lives in South Florida, offered this: “It’s just a shame what people are doing now, and all the countless lives that we’ve lost for absolutely no reason at all. It’s just a shame, and what they have to deal with, at such a young age, the horrible tragedy they are going to have to live with and some of the things they’ve seen just don’t go away.”

Getty Images

Thomas' game on track for Masters

By Randall MellFebruary 22, 2018, 8:22 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas likes where his game is trending.

He said that on the eve of the Honda Classic.

With the Masters just six weeks away, that’s where trends are aimed as the Florida swing makes its start.

Thomas made another encouraging move Thursday to get his game ready for a chance at winning back-to-back major championships.

A 3-under-par 67 moved him a shot off the lead in the first round at PGA National’s Champion Course.

Thomas, who won five times on his way to winning PGA Tour Player of the Year honors last season, is feeling something special brewing as he seeks to claim his first title of this calendar year.

“I've been playing well all year,” Thomas said. “Just haven't had much to show for it. I feel like I'm close to reeling off a couple tournaments here. I just need to stay patient.”

Thomas put together a strong start playing in a pairing in front of Tiger Woods, a spot that comes with challenges, with galleries on the move setting up to watch Woods.

Thomas, who played with fans causing problems at Riviera last week, said galleries weren’t an issue.

The Honda Classic isn’t a major, but it looks like it will present the sternest test of the year so far.

The Champion Course is always a brute, but it sets up as a particularly grueling test this year, with Florida’s winter winds blowing briskly right from Thursday morning’s start.

“It was a very tough day out there, very windy, tough crosswinds,” Thomas said. “I was a little bummed to see that the weather showed a little bit more wind in the morning than the afternoom.”


Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos


The course is also playing firmer and faster than it typically does.

Thomas, 24, confirmed how solid his ball striking is in a round of six birdies and three bogeys.

“The players know it's a tough golf course,” Jack Nicklaus said earlier this week. “It's going to be a handfull this week, with a dry golf course. This golf course plays much more difficult when it's dry ... and it's a little breezy.

“You're going to see some very interesting rounds. You might hear a couple complaints.”

Not from Thomas, who lives in nearby Jupiter.

“Any time you're even or better on this course, on a day like today, was definitely positive,” he said.

Thomas’ 67 is confirmation his game is shaping up for the test at Augusta National, where he will be looking to add a green jacket to the Wanamaker Trophy he won at the PGA Championship last August.

“I love where my game is trending for Augusta,” Thomas said Wednesday. ”I feel like I'm getting, just very, very slowly, better every week ... I'm improving on the things I need to improve on.”

A victory would be the ultimate confirmation he’s getting major championship ready.

“I'd like to have a chance to win one of these next three events before Augusta,” he said.

Thomas is coming off a tie for ninth at the Genesis Open last week. He was T-17 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open before that and T-14 at the Sony Open before that.

Thursday’s round heated up with Thomas making four birdies in the middle of the round. He chipped in for birdie at the seventh (his 16th hole of the day) to get to 4 under before making bogey at the difficult 17th, where he just missed the green short playing into the wind and left his chip 20 feet short.

“I hit probably one of my better shots in the Bear Trap, that just ended up in a horrible lie,” he said.

Thomas headed home eager to keep his promising trend going.

“It's definitely a little better feeling going to sleep and waking up in your own bed,” Thomas said.