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Puerto Rico's Torres claims last of 20 LPGA cards

By Randall MellDecember 3, 2017, 10:45 pm

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There’s no setting in golf as emotional as the final day of the final stage of Q-School.

There’s more joy in the player ranks than you’ll see in a major championship, because it is spread so much deeper in the field.

Maria Torres finished 20th Sunday at LPGA International and couldn’t have been more thrilled if she won the event.

“I am kind of in shock,” Torres said. “I feel like I am in a dream or something.”

Everyone among the top 20 at Sunday’s end walked away a winner, with each of them claiming full membership to play the LPGA next season.

Torres survived a three-way playoff to claim that last spot, but it is what she survived almost three months ago that made it so much more satisfying.

Torres huddled with her family in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in September as Hurricane Maria’s 155 mph winds thrashed their second-floor apartment. There was no running water for two days after, no air conditioning for a week.

A University of Florida graduate last spring, Torres shed her amateur status before Sunday’s playoff, turning pro so she could accept tour membership after signing her scorecard. She is the first player from Puerto Rico to earn an LPGA tour card.

Torres called home to Puerto Rico after defeating Daniela Darquea and Mind Muangkhumsakul in the playoff.

“I won the tournament, Mommy,” Torres said.

There was a pause, while Torres’ mother, Lisandra, relayed the news to Maria’s father, Jose.

“And then they were screaming,” Torres said.

With Puerto Rico on her mind, with a chance to make her commonwealth proud, Torres said the final round was especially challenging. She started the day tied for ninth and then five-putted the third hole, turning a birdie chance there into a triple bogey. She persevered, making birdies at three of the next five holes and shooting 74.

“You have all these emotions, and sometimes you don’t know how to control them, but, thankfully, it worked out,” Torres said.

For every player who claimed full or conditional LPGA status this week, there were almost three who didn’t.

That makes for more tears at the final stage of Q-School than any other tournament.

One player after another left the scoring tent late Sunday afternoon wiping their eyes.

Failure at the final stage of Q-School can feel like the weight of a lost year, because that’s how long it will likely take players to get another chance to make it to the LPGA.

There was extra weight to this year’s Q-School failure, because final stage is being overhauled. It will be so much more difficult for some of these players to work their way back to final stage next year.

This year, 82 players advanced to final stage from second stage. Next year, only 20 to 30 will advance, with a new Q-Series in effect as the final stage. Next year, players who finish 101st-150th on the LPGA money list, 11th-30th on the Symetra Tour money list and 1st-5th on the Golfweek Sagarin/college rankings will join as many as 10 players from the top 75 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings at second stage. They’ll play for 40 to 50 tour cards over eight rounds.

Count Nasa Hataoka, Georgia Hall and Rebecca Artis among the happiest here Sunday.

Hataoka won the Q-School finals, closing with a 71 on the Hills Course to finish at 12-under overall, one shot better than Hong Kong’s Tiffany Chan (71) and three better than South Africa’s Paula Reto (71).

Hall, 21, the Ladies European Tour Order of Merit leader this season, dug herself out of a big hole after opening the week with a 77. The Englishwoman rallied with rounds of 69-67-69-72 to tie for seventh.

“It was a horrendous start, but I’m very glad I came back,” Hall, 21, said. “It was definitely under pressure. I don’t want to do tour school again. Once is enough.”

Artis, 29, a two-time Ladies European Tour winner, reveled in making it through Q-School in her fifth attempt. She closed with a 71 to finish solo fourth.

“Q-School is always such a hard week,” Artis said. “Being here five times, of course it makes it much sweeter.”

Artis’ husband, Geoff, is also her caddie. He has been on her bag for seven of the last eight years.

“In the third or fourth year, we decided I would get another full-time caddie and he would get another full-time bag,” Artis said. “But I hated every bit of it.”

Artis’ father, Keith, made the trip from their home in Coonabarabran in Australia and walked with her this week. Her mother, Roslyn, followed online back home, where she kept the family bakery up and running.

Gavin Coles, a family friend and former PGA Tour pro who shares a teacher with Artis  (Gary Edwin), helped her on the range all week.

“Gavin is Gary’s eyes when I’m over here,” Artis said.

Artis said all the hard work she and Geoff put into getting ready for the week would require a couple celebrations, one in Florida, and another when they return to Coonbarabran, where she also has four brothers waiting for her.

“We will all celebrate when we get home, don’t you worry about that,” Artis said.

Q-School can be the kind of long week that requires more than one celebration.

Final scoreboard

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Bubba Golf takes long road back to winner's circle

By Rex HoggardFebruary 19, 2018, 1:55 am

LOS ANGELES – Bubba’s back.

It’s been just two years since he hoisted a trophy on the PGA Tour, but with a mind that moves as fast as Bubba Watson’s, it must have felt like an eternity.

Since his last victory, which was also a shootout at Riviera Country Club in 2016, Watson was passed over for a captain’s pick at the 2016 Ryder Cup, endured a mystery illness, lost his confidence, his desire and the better part of 40 pounds.

He admits that along that ride he considered retirement and wondered if his best days were behind him.

“I was close [to retirement]. My wife was not close,” he conceded. “My wife basically told me to quit whining and play golf. She's a lot tougher than I am.”

What else could he do? With apologies to his University of Georgia education and a growing portfolio of small businesses, Watson was made to be on the golf course, particularly a golf course like Riviera, which is the canvas that brings out Bubba’s best.

In a game that can too often become a monotonous parade of fairways and greens, Watson is a freewheeling iconoclast who thrives on adversity. Where others only see straight lines and one-dimensional options, Bubba embraces the unconventional and the untried.

For a player who sometimes refers to himself in the third person, it was a perfectly Bubba moment midway through his final round on Sunday at the Genesis Open. Having stumbled out of the 54-hole lead with bogeys at Nos. 3 and 6, Watson pulled his 2-iron tee shot wildly right at the seventh because, “[his playing partners] both went left.”

From an impossible lie in thick rough with his golf ball 2 feet above his feet, Watson’s often-fragile focus zeroed in for one of the week’s most entertaining shots, which landed about 70 feet from the hole and led to a two-putt par.


Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos


“His feel for that kind of stuff, you can’t go to the range and practice that. You can’t,” said Watson’s caddie Ted Scott. “Put a ball 2 feet above your feet and then have to hold the face open and then to swing that easy. That’s why I have the best seat in the house. That’s the essence of Bubba golf.”

There were plenty of highlight moments on Sunday for Watson. There were crucial putts at Nos. 11 (birdie), 12 (par) and 13 (par) to break free of what was becoming an increasingly fluid leaderboard, and his chip-in birdie from a greenside bunker at the 14th hole extended his lead to two strokes.

“It was just a bunker shot, no big deal,” smiled Watson, who closed with a 69 for a two-stroke victory over Kevin Na and Tony Finau.

A player that can often appear handcuffed by the most straightforward of shots was at his best at Riviera, withstanding numerous challenges to win the Genesis Open for his 10th PGA Tour title.

That he did so on a frenzied afternoon that featured four different players moving into, however briefly, at last a share of the lead, Watson never appeared rattled. But, of course, we all know that wasn’t the case.

Watson can become famously uncomfortable on the course and isn’t exactly known for his ability to ignore distractions. But Riviera, where he’s now won three times, is akin to competitive Ritalin for Watson.

“[Watson] feels very comfortable moving the ball, turning it a lot. That allows him to get to a lot of the tucked pins,” said Phil Mickelson, who finished tied for sixth after moving to within one stroke of the lead early in round. “A lot of guys don't feel comfortable doing that and they end up accepting a 15 to 30 footer in the center of the green. He ends up making a lot more birdies than a lot of guys.”

It’s the soul of what Scott calls Bubba Golf, which is in simplest terms the most creative form of the game.

Watson can’t explain exactly what Bubba Golf is, but there was a telling moment earlier this week when Aaron Baddeley offered Watson an impromptu putting lesson, which Bubba said was the worst putting lesson he’d ever gotten.

“He goes, ‘how do you hit a fade?’ I said, ‘I aim it right and think fade.’ How do you hit a draw? I aim it left and think draw,” Watson said. “He said, ‘how do you putt?’ I said, ‘I don't know.’ He said, ‘well, aim it to the right when it breaks to the left, aim it to the left when it breaks to the right,’ exactly how you imagine your golf ball in the fairway or off the tee, however you imagine it, imagine it that way.”

It’s certain that there’s more going on internally, but when he’s playing his best the sum total of Watson’s game can be simply explained – see ball, hit ball. Anything more complicated than that and he runs the risk of losing what makes him so unique and – when the stars align and a course like Riviera or Augusta National, where he’s won twice, asks the right questions – virtually unbeatable.

That’s a long way from the depths of 2017, when he failed to advance past the second playoff event and dropped outside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking. But then, Watson has covered a lot of ground in his career on his way to 10 Tour victories.

“I never thought I could get there,” he said. “Nobody thought that Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Fla., would ever get to 10 wins, let's be honest. Without lessons, head case, hooking the ball, slicing the ball, can't putt, you know? Somehow we're here making fun of it.”

Somehow, through all the adversity and distractions, he found a way to be Bubba again.

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Spieth: 'I feel great about the state of my game'

By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:43 am

LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth is starting to feel confident again with the putter, which is probably a bad sign for the rest of the PGA Tour.

Spieth struggled on the greens two weeks ago at TPC Scottsdale, but he began to right the ship at Pebble Beach and cracked the top 10 this week at the Genesis Open. Perhaps more important than his final spot on the leaderboard was his standing in the strokes gained putting category – 12th among the field at Riviera Country Club, including a 24-putt performance in the third round.

Spieth closed out the week with a 4-under 67 to finish in a tie for ninth, five shots behind Bubba Watson. But after the round he spoke like a man whose preparation for the season’s first major is once again right on track.


Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos


“I was kind of, you know, skiing uphill with my putting after Phoenix and the beginning of Pebble week, and really just for a little while now through the new year,” Spieth said. “I just made some tremendous progress. I putted extremely well this week, which is awesome. I feel great about the state of my game going forward, feel like I’m in a great place at this time of the year as we’re starting to head into major season.”

Spieth will take a break next week, and where he next tees it up remains uncertain. He still has not announced a decision about playing or skipping the WGC-Mexico Championship, and he will have until 5 p.m. ET Friday to make a final decision on the no-cut event.

Whether or not he flies down to Mexico City, Spieth’s optimism has officially returned after a brief hiccup on the West Coast swing.

“For where I was starting out Phoenix to where I am and how I feel about my game going forward the rest of the year, there was a lot of progress made,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to figure out what the best schedule is for myself as we head into the Masters.”

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McIlroy encouraged by T-20: 'Didn’t quite reflect how I played'

By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:23 am

LOS ANGELES – Rory McIlroy sees plenty of reasons to smile despite the fact that the first half of his 2018 Masters prep has officially wrapped without lifting a trophy.

After an injury-plagued campaign last year, McIlroy set out an ambitious schedule that called for eight worldwide starts before heading down Magnolia Lane. He started off with a pair of near-misses in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, then followed last week’s missed cut at Pebble Beach with a T-20 finish at the Genesis Open.

McIlroy birdied his final two holes to close with a 3-under 68 at Riviera Country Club, his lowest score of the week. He explained that a “destructive” tee shot on the 12th hole Saturday led to a double bogey and stunted any potential momentum, but he remained encouraged after closing the week on a high note.

“I feel like the position that I finished didn’t quite reflect how I played,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I played better than finishing whatever it is, 25th or whatever it’s going to be. I feel good about my game, just need to sharpen up a couple little areas here and there. But for the most part it’s been OK.”


Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos


McIlroy will now head across the country to tee it up in the Honda Classic, where he reached world No. 1 for the first time with a win in 2012 and also lost in a playoff in 2014. Although he continued to tinker with his putter this week following a mediocre effort on the greens at Pebble Beach, he believes that some of his putting woes may be solved simply by swapping out tricky poa annua surfaces for more familiar Bermuda greens.

“It was nice to play sort of early the last couple days, the greens didn’t get too crusty or too bumpy. I felt like even coming down the last few holes there, they were still good surfaces,” McIlroy said. “Nice to get back onto Bermuda and surfaces being a little truer than what we’ve experienced the last couple weeks.”

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Opinions split on lengthening No. 5 at Augusta

By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:07 am

LOS ANGELES – Few topics spark a diverse range of player opinions quite like the whisper of changes to Augusta National Golf Club, and the latest proposed alteration of the par-4 fifth hole is no exception.

According to an Augusta Chronicle report, the club has submitted preliminary plans that would call for the construction of a new tee later this year behind what currently is Old Berckmans Road. The new tee could reportedly lengthen the hole by 20-30 yards and would alleviate congestion with the adjacent fourth green. It would also signal the first club-enacted changes to the famed layout since 2006.

Phil Mickelson has three green jackets hanging in his closet, and he sees no problem with adding teeth to a hole that already measures 455 yards on the scorecard.

“I’m a big fan of making the hard holes harder and the easy holes easier,” Mickelson said Sunday at the Genesis Open. “So making No. 5 harder, which is perennially a difficult par, or should be one of the harder par-4s out there, I’m a big fan of. What I’m not a fan of is taking a hole like 7 and making it the second-toughest par on the golf course. I think that’s a mistake. I think making 5 more difficult is not.”


Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos


Jordan Spieth believes the proposed changes would force driver into players’ hands on what he described as a “3-wood hole” given the pitch of the fairway, and added that firm and fast conditions could potentially push a longer fifth hole to the brink of playability.

“It would make an already very difficult hole even harder,” Spieth said. “If the greens are firm and fast, then it’s a pretty dicey hole given how severe that green is. But when you can still land a mid-iron on and stop it on the back of that green, then it makes sense. So I think they’d probably do a mix of the tees.”

While former champs Mickelson and Spieth welcome the promise of a more difficult Masters test, Graeme McDowell simply shook his head and grinned before explaining that his love of Augusta National remains unrequited after nine career Masters appearances.

“That green, it’s just not a 5-iron green. I’m sort of hitting between 5- and 7-iron into there as it is,” McDowell said. “It’s a tough golf course, and (No.) 5 is one of the toughest holes on the course. Certainly doesn’t need any lengthening for my money.”