Pace of play once again takes center stage on Tour

By Jason SobelMarch 30, 2014, 11:58 pm

“The final group is finally on the back nine in the Valero Texas Open …”

Those were the words of NBC announcer Dan Hicks, some three hours after the threesome of Steven Bowditch, Matt Kuchar and Andrew Loupe all diligently pulled the proper club, checked the wind, took a few practice swings and smacked the first tee shots of their final round into the air. They were preceded by the telecast showing a graphic which explained potential slow play penalties, based on the fact that two of those three had already received warnings for a bad time and a few other groups were also on the clock.

The good news? Things got noticeably quicker from there.

Not quick enough, though.


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Sunday afternoon appeared ripe for the first one-stroke penalty for slow play on the PGA Tour in nearly two decades. (Those issued last year to Guan Tianlang at the Masters and Hideki Matsuyama at the Open Championship came from other governing bodies.) After all, there’s a difference between slow and stagnant. This one was so halting that it felt like the entire leaderboard was on the clock; it was so deliberate that it took the final group about 5:32 to finish the round; it was so plodding that reaction to the pace overwhelmingly overshadowed Bowditch’s first career victory.

Consider it a perfect storm without the rain.

The TPC San Antonio track was set up tough with a scoring average well over par, it featured a one- to two-club wind, they were playing in threesomes and the resort course is never an easy walk.

But that’s not to make any excuses. There were also some interminably slow players on the leaderboard.

How slow? Johnny Miller said of Loupe, “If everyone on Tour played like him, I would stop commentating.” At one point, with Loupe assessing a putt on the 15th green, Bowditch appeared to be napping nearby. Or maybe he was just doing an impersonation of so many viewers on their living-room couches.

That’s because competitors and rules officials weren’t the only ones checking their watches. Discussions on social media, which during final rounds usually range from attempting to pick the winner to sharing thoughts on specific shots, were dominated by rancor and revulsion toward the pace. More than a few observers insisted they’d rather watch no golf than slow golf.

Therein lies a major problem for the game in general and the PGA Tour more specifically. If viewers dislike slow play but continue to tune in, there likely won’t be much change; if they start clicking to other pursuits, though, that’s where officials might have to – to steal a phrase – stop being polite and start getting real.

If there were any positives to come from Sunday’s pace of play, it’s that we can hope it becomes the tipping point toward proactive change. That might be wishful thinking – and I’m on record as writing that I’d rather watch professionals play better than faster – but sometimes you have to squint to see the silver lining.

Right now, slow play is the uninvited houseguest who won’t leave. But in its defense, nobody has tried to kick it out, either.

I’ve long believed that people shouldn’t bemoan a problem without offering a solution, but I don’t have one here. I know – the easy answer is for the PGA Tour to start issuing penalty strokes, which is actually part of its official rules, despite the fact that no penalty has been assessed since 1995.

That’s also the popular answer based on both public opinion and the membership as a whole. Hit 'em where it hurts, the idea states, and players will collectively speed up. Monetary fines haven’t helped alleviate the issue, so the answer must come in the form of discipline on the scorecard.

What I find ironic, though, is watching the last two weeks of the NCAA basketball tournament and so often hearing cries about officials determining results. Which leads to the problem with assessing penalties for slow play: There can’t be selective enforcement. You can’t assess a penalty to a notoriously slow player on Thursday morning, but fail to give one on the final hole Sunday afternoon to the leader who gets a second bad time while under the gun.

Let’s say for example (and it’s hardly a perfect one, because he wasn’t much of an offender) that Bowditch took a little too long over one of his putts on the final hole and it was his second bad time of the day. The feel-good story of his first career victory would have instead led to a playoff.

It would be like a ticky-tack blocking foul whistled in the first minute of a hoops game similarly being called on the final play to decide the outcome.

We don’t like it when officiating determines results in other sports. Those asking for it in golf might want to be careful what they wish for, because it could open a Pandora’s Box as to how tournaments are officiated.

Sunday afternoon may not have been the slowest round in PGA Tour history, but it sure seemed like it. Once again, the pace-of-play issue reared its ugly head. And once again, we’re left wondering when – or if – we’ll ever see the repercussions of such negligence.

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One & Done: 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 5:55 pm

Beginning in 2018, Golf Channel is offering a "One & Done" fantasy game alternative. Choose a golfer and add the salary they earn at the event to your season-long total - but know that once chosen, a player cannot be used again for the rest of the year.

Log on to www.playfantasygolf.com to start your own league and make picks for this week's event.

Here are some players to consider for One & Done picks this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, where Hudson Swafford returns as the defending champion:

Zach Johnson. The two-time major champ has missed the cut here three years in a row. So why include him in One & Done consideration? Because the three years before that (2012-14) included three top-25s highlighted by a third-place finish, and his T-14 at the Sony Open last week was his fifth straight top-25 dating back to September.

Bud Cauley. Cauley has yet to win on Tour, but that could very well change this year - even this week. Cauley ended up only two shots behind Swafford last year and tied for 14th the year prior, as four of his five career appearances have netted at least a top-40 finish. He opened the new season with a T-7 in Napa and closed out the fall with a T-8 at Sea Island.

Adam Hadwin. Swafford left last year with the trophy, but it looked for much of the weekend like it would be Hadwin's tournament as he finished second despite shooting a 59 in the third round. Hadwin was also T-6 at this event in 2016 and now with a win under his belt last March he returns with some unfinished business.

Charles Howell III. If you didn't use him last week at the Sony Open, this could be another good spot for the veteran who has four top-15 finishes over the last seven years at this event, highlighted by a playoff loss in 2013. His T-32 finish last week in Honolulu, while not spectacular, did include four sub-70 scores.

David Lingmerth. Lingmerth was in that 2013 playoff with Howell (eventually won by Brian Gay), and he also lost here in overtimei to Jason Dufner in 2016. The Swede also cracked the top 25 here in 2015 and is making his first start since his wife, Megan, gave birth to the couple's first child in December. Beware the sleep-deprived golfer.

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.

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Hot Seat: Rory jumps into the fire early

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 2:11 pm

The world’s top tours head to desert regions this week, perfect locales for The Hot Seat, the gauge upon which we measure the level of heat the game’s top personalities are facing ...

Sahara sizzle: Rory McIlroy

McIlroy won’t have to look far to see how his form measures up to world No. 1 Dustin Johnson at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

McIlroy will make his 2018 debut with Johnson in his face, literally.

McIlroy will be grouped with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood in the first two rounds.

Players like to downplay pairings early in a tournament, but it’s hard to believe McIlroy and Johnson won’t be trying to send each other messages in this European Tour event in the United Arab Emirates. That’s the alpha-dog nature of world-class players looking to protect their turf, or in the case of McIlroy, take back his turf.

“When you are at the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Trevor Immelman said about pairings during Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge last month.

And that was an offseason event.

“They want to show this guy, ‘This is what I got,’” Immelman said.

As early season matchups go, Abu Dhabi is a heavyweight pairing that ought to be fun.

So there will be no easing into the new year for McIlroy after taking off the last three months to regroup from the stubborn rib injury that plagued him last season. He is coming off a winless year, and he will be doing so alongside a guy who just won the first PGA Tour event of 2018 in an eight-shot rout. Johnson’s victory in Hawaii two weeks ago was his fifth since McIlroy last won.

“Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place, and that was because of where I was physically,” McIlroy said of 2017. “I feel prepared now. I feel ready, and I feel ready to challenge. I feel really good about where I’m at with my health. I’ve put all that behind me, which has been great.”



Sonoran Smolder: Phil Mickelson

Mickelson will turn 48 this summer.

His world ranking is sliding, down to No. 43 now, which is the lowest he has ranked in 24 years.

It’s been more than four years since he last won, making him 0 for his last 92 starts.

There’s motivation in all of that for Mickelson. He makes his 2018 debut at the CareerBuilder Challenge in the Palm Springs area this week talking like a man on a renewed mission.

There’s a Ryder Cup team to make this season, which would be his 12th straight, and there’s a career Grand Slam to claim, with the U.S. Open returning to Shinnecock Hills, where Mickelson finished second in ’04.

While Mickelson may not feel old, there are so many young stars standing in his way that it’s hard not to be constantly reminded that time isn’t on his side in these events anymore.

There has only been one player in the history of the game to win a major championship who was older than Mickelson is right now. Julius Boros won the PGA Championship when he was 48 back in 1968.



Campaign fever: Jordan Spieth

Spieth’s respect in the game’s ranks extends outside the ropes.

He was just selected to run for the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council’s chairman position. He is facing Billy Hurley III in an election to see who will succeed Davis Love III on the Tour’s Policy Board next year.

Spieth, just 24, has already made Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People.” He made that back in 2016, with the magazine writing that “he exemplifies everything that’s great about sports.” Sounds like a campaign slogan.