By RANDALL MELL
All four courses in the Florida Swing offer dramatic tests that make this month-long run up to the Masters good theater. It’s fitting they each have colorful nicknames adding to the fun.
The TPC at Doral’s Blue Monster isn’t a monster anymore. More birdies are made on that course than any other on the Florida swing, but that doesn’t hinder the drama there. The famed 18th is still a beast when the prevailing winds are blowing into the players.
The Bear Trap, PGA National’s 15th, 16th and 17th holes at the Honda Classic, has built a scary reputation in its short four years as home to a PGA Tour event. So has the Snake Pit, the trio of finishing holes at Innisbrook at the Transitions Championship. The problem is they’re still so new to the Florida Swing they haven’t built up the history of the thrills and spills quite yet.
The Florida Swing’s best named test is the Devil’s Bathtub at this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. The 18th hole with the demon pond still turns the souls of Tour players cold. It has the history the Bear Trap and Snake Pit do not and doesn’t need the wind to be beastly like the Blue Monster’s finishing hole.
By REX HOGGARD
The fine work of marketing types all across the Sunshine State aside, nicknames and signature holes are modern creations that may bolster tee sheets but do little to improve shot values or the design quality of a golf course.
Augusta National’s magical turn of Nos. 11-13 was special long before Herbert Warren Wind ever dubbed that miracle mile “Amen Corner.” Point is substance makes the nickname, not the other way around.
Consider the newly christened “Snake Pit” at Innisbrook’s Copperhead course, site of last week’s Transitions Championship. Although the event has historically been something of a non-starter on the Florida Swing field-wise, the layout is considered by many players the best of the Sunshine State crop regardless of marketing hype.
Similarly, PGA National’s “Bear Trap” is a demanding stretch nestled amid an otherwise solid collection of holes, particularly when compared to the Honda Classic’s former homes.
While the pond that rings Bay Hill’s 18th green, dubbed the “Devil’s Bathtub,” has taken its pound of flesh from championship hopefuls, poll Tour types and the truth is Arnie’s place is the third- or fourth-best of the Florida rota.
But TPC Blue Monster is the perfect combination of style, substance and history. A historic nickname just adds to the aura.
Best named test on Florida Swing
Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder
Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.
Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.
"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."
Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.
Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.
"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."
Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn
There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.
Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.
Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.
Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.
The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.
Mickelson starts fast, fades to 70 at La Quinta
Phil Mickelson got off to a fast start in his first competitive round of 2018 - for six holes, at least.
The 47-year-old is making his first start since the WGC-HSBC Champions this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, and only his third competitive appearance since the BMW Championship in September. Four birdies over his first six holes indicated that a strong opener might be in the cards, but Mickelson played his subsequent holes in 2 over.
It added up to a 2-under 70 at La Quinta Country Club, typically the easiest of the three courses in rotation this week, and left Mickelson eight shots behind Jon Rahm.
"It was fun to get back out and be competitive," Mickelson told reporters. "I for some reason am stuck on 70 here at La Quinta, whether I get off to a good start or a bad one, I end up shooting the same score."
Mickelson stunted his momentum with a tee shot out of bounds on the par-4 eighth hole, but he managed to save bogey and otherwise drove the ball relatively well. Instead, he pointed to his normally reliable iron play as the culprit for his back-nine backslide on a day when more than 120 players in the 156-man field broke par.
Mickelson will now head to the Nicklaus Tournament Course with the Stadium Course on tap for Saturday's third round. While there were several low scores Thursday at La Quinta, Mickelson remains bullish about the birdie opportunities that still lie ahead.
"This isn't the course where I go low on," Mickelson said. "I feel more comfortable on Stadium and Nicklaus. Neither of them are nearly as tight and I tend to score a lot lower on those other two than I do here, historically."
Rahm (62) shoots career low round at CareerBuilder
After a banner year in 2017, Jon Rahm found a way to add yet another accolade to his growing list of accomplishments during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge.
Rahm got off to a fast start at La Quinta Country Club, playing his first seven holes in 6 under en route to a 10-under 62. The score marked his career low on the PGA Tour by two shots and gave him an early lead in an event that utilizes a three-course rotation.
La Quinta was the site of Adam Hadwin's 59 during last year's event, and Rahm knew full well that a quick start opened the door to a memorably low score.
"Any time you have that going for you, you get thoughts come in your head, 60, maybe 59," Rahm told reporters. "I knew that if I kept playing good I was going to have more birdie opportunities, and I tried not to get ahead of myself and I was able to do it."
Rahm birdied his first two holes before an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole sparked him to an outward 30. He added four more birdies on the inward half without dropping a shot.
The Spaniard is the highest-ranked player in the field this week, and while many players opted for a two-week stint in Hawaii he instead came home for some practice after opening the new year with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. That decision appears to have paid some early dividends as Rahm gets set to defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.
Low scores were plentiful on all three courses during the opening round, and Rahm remained pleased with his effort even though he fell short of matching Hadwin's sub-60 score from a year ago.
"That's golf. You're not going to make every single putt, you're not going to hit every shot perfect," he said. "Overall, you've got to look at the bigger picture. I birdied the last hole, had a couple of great sand saves coming in, shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for."