Punch Shot: Upset picks, cup favorite with two to go

By Golf Channel DigitalSeptember 13, 2017, 11:45 am

After a one-week hiatus, the FedExCup Playoffs return for the BMW Championship outside of Chicago. GolfChannel.com senior writers Rex Hoggard and Ryan Lavner were asked on the conversational tool Slack, Which player, if any, will be hampered the most by the break: Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas or Jordan Spieth?

The two took it from there. No moderator necessary.

Lavner: No player will be affected by the off-week – they won’t lose all of their ability because they put away the clubs for a few days, and all three needed a little break. I do, however, think it was good for Spieth. Motivation is never an issue for him, but with back-to-back runner-up finishes in the playoffs, and being thisclose to putting it all together, it was a nice reset.

Hoggard: I wouldn't think the break would impact any player considering how much golf they have been playing lately, although Johnson returning to an event where he is the defending champion (the BMW was played at a different venue last year) can only fuel his confidence.

Lavner: You're really going to play the defending champ card? He tied for seventh the last time this event was held at Conway Farms (2015).

Hoggard: OK, he's finished first-T-18 in his last two starts and looks like the guy who was unbeatable earlier this year. That work?

Lavner: Fair enough, but if we're looking at the favorites for this week, he'd be third on my list, behind Thomas and Spieth, in that order.

Hoggard: Would say all three of those players would be co-favorites for the foreseeable future until Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, et al, rediscover some form. Dark horse would be a more interesting topic?


BMW Championship: Articles, video and photos

Current FedExCup Playoff points standings


Lavner: The dark horse for this week is Patrick Cantlay. He opened these playoffs with back-to-back top-15s, continuing what has been a remarkable comeback season. It's been so impressive, in fact, that I thought he should have been one of Captain Stricker's wildcard picks for the Presidents Cup.

Hoggard: Glad you shared your views on Cantlay being a pick. Maybe Stricker could have selected Bigfoot as well? Cantlay has been a solid story, but I will be interested to see how Kevin Chappell responds after earning his spot on the team and playing well in New York.

Lavner: All right, the BMW marks the halfway point of the postseason. We know all about the top five, and how it mirrors the top five in the world ranking (shameless plug: read my story!), but who outside the magic number could crash this playoff party?

Hoggard: Have to go with Paul Casey on this one. Although he's probably going to be a bit distracted after the birth of his second child this week, the dude has done everything except win in recent weeks with top-5 finishes at four of his last six starts.

Lavner: No doubt, he's been a machine in the playoffs the last two years, but to win the FedExCup he is going to have to win at least one playoff event. That's a lot to ask of a guy who has one career victory on Tour.

Hoggard: Agreed, and his finish in Boston (T-4) seemed to suggest his bridesmaid status is starting to become an issue. Should also mention Marc Leishman as a possible party crasher. It was a tough finish for him in Boston, but he is always overlooked/underrated.

Lavner: Criminally underrated. I would throw out Justin Rose as a potential outsider. It hasn't been the best year for him since that crushing loss at Augusta, but he has consecutive top-10s in the playoffs and his record at East Lake is so good (four consecutive top-6s) that he just needs to give himself a chance to cash in.

Hoggard: There are no shortage of guys who can change the script, but it's hard to imagine how this doesn't come down to the (current) Big 3 of Spieth, Thomas and Johnson. To be honest, I'm not sure our conversation three weeks from now if, say, Leishman wins the season-long race, will be overly kind. Playoffs should identify the best, and right now those three are the best.

Lavner: But with apologies to Bill Haas and Brandt Snedeker and Billy Horschel, it hasn't always done that, right? As the cup moves into its second decade, are we finally OK with how this whole thing works?

Hoggard: From a general perspective (the top players competing in large markets during a time of year they normally wouldn't), the playoffs have been successful. Details, however, are always difficult for fans, players and media to understand. The Tour could help this along by simplifying the process.

Lavner: And how would you do that? I'm fine with the cutoffs for the top 100, 70 and then 30, but the Tour Championship needs a serious makeover. I would suggest a five-day event: three rounds of stroke-play qualifying, then a match-play bracket for the top 8 and the shot at $10 million. Might get a dud championship match, but at least the format would be something different.

Hoggard: The Tour has spent a decade considering a similar kind of head-to-head finish at East Lake with little success/interest, so I'm not sure we will see any significant changes there. The circuit will, however, need to tinker with the field sizes and points distribution when the schedule makeover starts in 2019. If there are only going to be three playoff events, which seems likely, there will need to be more volatility.

Lavner: Except volatility isn't a good thing for a "season-long race," which the FedEx is supposed to be. If DJ or Thomas or Spieth get bumped in the first event, then everyone is livid (and rightfully so).

Hoggard: Not sure there would be that much volatility, but there will need to be a way for those who just make the playoffs (either top 125 or top 100 on the points list) to advance. Under the current format that's not going to happen.

Lavner: Well, that's why those in Ponte Vedra get paid the big bucks, to figure out these sorts of dilemmas. Let's wrap it up with this: With two weeks to go, who is your pick to win the cup?

Hoggard: There is something strangely concerning about Spieth's finishes in the first two post-season starts (back-to-back runner-up finishes), but he continues to be the most consistent player and he has won the season-long race before. That experience will be the difference.

Lavner: I don't know about "concerning" – he got beat by the better players that week. But I, too, am going with Spieth. He has the most to gain over these two weeks, and he should come out firing on venues where he's had prior success. Or maybe that's just wishful thinking, because a Spieth FedEx title would (will?) make for a very compelling Player of the Year vote.

Hoggard: I like your thinking, but I'm pretty sure Thomas wrapped up POY with his victory in Boston, according to the players I've spoken to. See you after East Lake.

Lavner: Seems that's a Slack convo for another day.

Rookie Cook (66-62) credits prior Tour experience

By Rex HoggardNovember 17, 2017, 10:36 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Austin Cook is a rookie only on paper. At least, that’s the way he’s played since joining the circuit this season.

This week’s RSM Classic is Cook’s fourth start on Tour, and rounds of 66-62 secured his fourth made cut of the young season. More importantly, his 14-under total moved him into the lead at Sea Island Resort.

“I really think that a couple years ago, the experience that I have had, I think I've played maybe 10 events, nine events before this season,” Cook said. “Being in contention a few times and making cuts, having my card has really prepared me for this.”


RSM Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the RSM Classic


Cook has been perfect this week at the RSM Classic and moved into contention with four consecutive birdies starting at No. 13 (he began his round on the 10th hole of the Seaside course). A 6-footer for birdie at the last moved him one stroke clear of Brian Gay.

In fact, Cook hasn’t come close to making a bogey this week thanks to an equally flawless ball-striking round that moved him to first in the field in strokes gained: tee to green.

If Cook has played like a veteran this week, a portion of that credit goes to long-time Tour caddie Kip Henley, who began working for Cook during this year’s Web.com Tour finals.

“He’s got a great golf brain,” Henley said. “That’s the most flawless round of golf I’ve ever seen.”

Cook fires 62 for one-shot lead at RSM Classic

By Associated PressNovember 17, 2017, 10:26 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – PGA Tour rookie Austin Cook sank a 6-foot birdie putt on his final hole for an 8-under 62 and a one-shot lead going into the weekend at RSM Classic.

Cook has gone 36 holes without making a bogey on the Plantation Course or the Seaside Course at Sea Island Golf Club. He played Seaside on Friday and ran off four straight birdies on his opening nine holes.

Cook was at 14-under 128 and had a one-stroke lead over Brian Gay, who shot 64 on Seaside. No one else was closer than five shots going into the final two rounds.

Brandt Snedeker is looking strong in his first start in some five months because of a sternum injury. Snedeker shot a 67 on the Plantation course and was six shots back.

Bubba (64) fires his lowest round of 2017

By Rex HoggardNovember 17, 2017, 10:12 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Bubba Watson’s plan when he left the Dell Technologies Championship in September was to take a few months off and come back fresh in 2018

Those plans changed after a few weeks.

“What we figured out was the mental side, preparing for kindergarten - not for me, for my son - preparing for [wife] Angie's knee surgery. It's been a tough go,” Watson said.

“Being home and being with the family and everything, I realized how much I missed the game of golf, and that's why I wanted to come and play in these tournaments.”


RSM Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the RSM Classic


The plan has paid off this week at the RSM Classic, where Watson is tied for 12th place after a second-round 64 on the Seaside course moved him to 7 under par.

Watson, who tied for 51st two weeks ago in Las Vegas, got off to a quick start on Day 2, playing the opening nine in 29. Despite a miscue at the 14th hole, when his tee shot wedged into a tree, he was solid coming in for his best individual round this year.

The left-hander was particularly sharp with his ball-striking after what has been a difficult year.

“I want to play golf now and right now I'm swinging at it pretty nicely,” he said.

S.H. Park (65) builds three-shot lead at LPGA finale

By Doug FergusonNovember 17, 2017, 9:58 pm

NAPLES, Fla. – Golf felt so easy to Sung Hyun Park that only when she took out her card to catch up on her scores did she realize she had closed out the front nine with five straight birdies at the CME Group Tour Championship.

Park kept right on attacking.

The 24-year-old from South Korea added a 30-foot eagle putt late in her second round and finished with a 7-under 65, giving her a three-shot lead going into the weekend at Tiburon Golf Club.

Nothing seems to bother her, even the chance to cap off an amazing rookie season by sweeping all the big awards on the LPGA Tour.

''To be honest, I don't feel quite as nervous as I thought I would,'' Park said through an interpreter. ''After the first shot, after the first hole, I felt a lot more comfortable. I'm not feeling as nervous as I thought I might be going into today.''

Leave that to the players chasing her.

Even with a three-putt bogey on the final hole, Park was at 12-under 132 and was three shots clear of Caroline Masson (66) and Sarah Jane Smith (69).


CME Group Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the CME Group Tour Championship


More importantly, none of the other players in the chase for the $1 million Race to the CME Globe bonus or any other big award was within five shots of Park, who is trying to become the first rookie since Nancy Lopez in 1978 to win LPGA player of the year.

Lexi Thompson, who leads the Race to the CME Globe and the Vare Trophy for lowest adjusted scoring average, shot a 67 and wound up losing ground. She was six shots behind and must stay within 10 shots of Park to win the Vare.

So Yeon Ryu, who leads the points-based award for player of the year, managed a 71 with her sore right shoulder but was 11 shots back.

The other two players who need to win the tournament to collect the $1 million bonus also had their work cut out for them. Brooke Henderson had another 70 and was eight shots behind, while world No. 1 Shanshan Feng shot 73 and was 11 shots behind.

Park was in control, only she didn't see it that way.

''I don't think it's quite that far of a lead,'' Park said. ''Two, three shots of a lead can change at any moment. We will have to see what's in store for this weekend.''

Park began her big run with an 18-foot birdie on No. 5, got up-and-down for birdie from just off the green at the par-5 sixth, holed a 25-foot birdie putt on No. 7, and then closed out the front nine with birdie putts from 8 feet and 15 feet.

''I actually didn't know that I was going five birdies in a row,'' Park said. ''Come hole No. 10, I realized that I hadn't been jotting down my scores as diligently, and so I realized it a little bit later on. And it felt great.''

That gave her the lead by one shot over Suzann Pettersen, except that Pettersen faded badly on the back nine.

Pettersen dropped four shots in a three-hole stretch by getting out of position off the tee and she shot 39 on the back nine for a 70 to fall five shots behind.

''I feel like I'm playing good,'' Pettersen said. ''Three bad drives on the back nine cost me four shots. That should not be possible on this course, where the fairways are about 100 yards wide.''

Park was honored at an awards banquet Thursday night as the LPGA rookie of the year. Now, she has more awards in her sights. A victory would give her the award for player of the year. She would capture the money title, which she leads over Ryu. And depending on how the weekend goes, she might be able to surpass Thompson in the race for the Vare Trophy.

Thompson did well to recover from two bogeys on her opening three holes.

''I hit a few really erratic shots in the beginning. It wasn't a good start to the round,'' Thompson said. ''Just tried to stay positive and find something that could work for the last 14, 15 holes.''

Lydia Ko fell six shots behind in her bid to avoid a winless season. She was one shot behind going into the second round but managed only three birdies in her round of 71.

Park, meanwhile, had everything going her way. Even when she pulled her drive on the par-5 14th into a sandy area with a root next to her ball, she picked it clear and sent it through a goal post of trees back to the fairway. Three holes later, she blasted a drive and had only a 7-iron into the green at the par-5 17th, which she hit to 30 feet and made the long putt.

Does anything make her nervous?

''I hate spiders,'' she said. ''But in terms of golf, I always get nervous to this day on the first tee. I can feel my heart pounding.''

It's a feeling that doesn't appear to last very long.