What We Learned: RBC Heritage

By Damon HackApril 21, 2013, 11:53 pm

Each week, GolfChannel.com offers thoughts on 'what we learned' from the world of golf. This week, our writers weigh in on the RBC Heritage and how it makes us impatient for the U.S. Open; Luke Donald's remarkable accuracy; Suzann Pettersen's unusual putting method; Adam Scott's lack of interest in celebrity; why at least one of us loves Harbour Town and Angel Cabrera's under-the-radar comeback this week.

When Graeme McDowell is in contention, he practically bounces from hole to hole. His feet barely touch the ground. His putts roll with purpose. Every shot seems to end up right where he’s looking.

Whether jousting with Tiger Woods at Sherwood, carrying the European Ryder Cup team in Wales or winning the United States Open at Pebble Beach, McDowell’s ability to embrace the stress of Sundays has become a mighty 15th club.

There he was again on Sunday, this time on windblown Hilton Head Island, pouring in putts and stalking another victory. Did his feet even touch the ground?

What McDowell lacks in size and strength, he makes up for in grit and attitude. Some players don’t like that pressure. McDowell turns it into fuel.

He doesn’t always win, but he never backs down. – Damon Hack

If watching the final round of the RBC Heritage didn’t leave you impatiently longing for the upcoming U.S. Open, you were doing it wrong. Harbour Town treated us to a preview of the year’s second major championship – from the short, tight, Merion-ish course that promoted a bevy of ball-strikers on the leaderboard to the two recent U.S. Open champions who met in the playoff. Even the way Graeme McDowell defeated Webb Simpson on the first extra hole – by hitting the 18th green in regulation and two-putting while his opponent committed an unforced error – was reminiscent of something we’d see at the U.S. Open, where par is always a good number. It’s been 32 years since Merion last held a major championship and though the wind, cool temps and Calibogue Sound may not resemble anything we’ll see in eastern Pennsylvania, most other characteristics provided a good window into what we’ll find come the second week of June. We’re only one week removed from the last major, but it’s never too soon to look ahead to the next one. And this past week it was impossible not to. – Jason Sobel

He didn’t close the deal at the RBC Heritage, but Luke Donald again proved this week at Habour Town Golf Links that if the PGA Tour played tight, tree-lined layouts where straight counts and a soft touch trumps a sledgehammer driver he’d still by No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking – by a long shot. The Englishman tied for third, two strokes out of a playoff despite 31 putts on Sunday. Donald’s week on Hilton Head Island also suggests he may be the perfect pick for June’s U.S. Open at Merion, another target golf test that will reward precision over power. – Rex Hoggard

When it comes to putting, seeing isn't necessarily believing. Suzann Pettersen won the Lotte Championship Saturday putting with her eyes closed.

When it comes to putting, sometimes it's convention that makes no sense. Whether it's a claw or saw grip, left-hand low or split-hand grip, long or belly putters, so much of good putting is trusting your stroke. Well, Pettersen took it to the extreme. Really, is there any way to put more trust in your stroke than to close your eyes? She said she used to putt and practice that way to get a better feel. She was feeling it in Hawaii. A strong ball striker, Pettersen's putter has held her back from challenging more vigorously for the Rolex No. 1 ranking and from winning more majors. It's funny, she may not have to see more balls going in the hole to build confidence in her putting and make that vigorous challenge. – Randall Mell

Being a major champion doesn’t seem like it will change Adam Scott. Unlike Bubba Watson, who never saw a late-night TV spot he didn’t like, the only U.S. appearance the newly minted Masters winner has made thus far has been 'CBS This Morning.' No reading of David Letterman’s Top 10 list. No time in the chair next to Jay Leno. Unable to get the golfer Adam Scott, Conan O’Brien memorably resorted to the actor who shares the same name. Sure, the Aussie has endured an uncomfortable interview with Charlie Rose and Gayle King, the latter of whom told the 32-year-old, “You are very hot, Adam Scott.” But he just smiled and hasn’t surfaced since. How refreshing. – Ryan Lavner

For many sports fans, a highlight of the year is March Madness. For me, it's April Awesomeness. It starts with the Masters, of course, but it doesn't end there. My third-favorite 'regular' PGA Tour event venue, behind only Pebble Beach and TPC-Sawgrass, is Harbour Town. It's one of the few Tour courses I've played, which is a factor, but I love the fact that it proves you don't have to make a course absurdly long to make it interesting and difficult. 'Weak' field? Couldn't care less. I'd watch a Hooters Tour event on this track, with its 'hold on to your butts' finishing hole. Funny thing is, I'm not usually a huge fan of Pete Dye courses, but he got this one right. – Al Tays

Angel Cabrera’s approach to the 72nd hole a week ago at Augusta National was no fluke. Playing this week on the course he grew up on in his native Argentina, Cabrera needed an eagle on the final hole Sunday to force a playoff with Rafael Gomez at the Abierto OSDE del Centro. The two-time major winner nearly drove the green on the short par 4, chipped in for eagle to cap a Sunday 64 that saw him play the final seven holes in 5 under, and promptly defeated Gomez on the first extra hole.

Players can deal with major-championship near-misses in a variety of ways; some will take a few weeks off, while others will get right back on the proverbial horse. Cabrera not only teed it up this week in a PGA Tour Latinoamerica event – a testament to his desire to grow the game in that part of the world – but also took home the trophy in thrilling fashion. Two weeks, two playoffs and two very different results for El Pato, whose resiliency and clutch performance were again impressive – though his recovery from last week’s runner-up finish may have been hastened by the fact that he will still receive an invite from Adam Scott to next year’s Champions Dinner at Augusta. – Will Gray

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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.

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That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.

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Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.

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The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”