Spieth faces tall task after setting bar so high in rookie season

By Jason SobelJanuary 1, 2014, 12:35 pm

KAPALUA, Hawaii – It’s damn near impossible to walk the Plantation Course here at Kapalua, a living, breathing definition of poetry in motion, with the breaching whales in the nearby Pacific and rainbows emerging in the sky literally out of thin air, and feel any semblance of pessimism. This is where negative thoughts suffer a heinous death, where the improbable feels probable again.

It is similarly futile to watch a swing from Jordan Spieth, all 20 years of him, lean and confident and all sorts of talented, and conjure any cynical outlooks. This is a kid who entered last year a college dropout and Q-School flameout with no status on any major tour, only to finish it with a victory and a Rookie of the Year trophy and a place within the game's elite on the world ranking.

As if the message needed any greater symbolism, here is Spieth, standing on the 13th fairway during a practice round for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, the boundless ocean a few cozy 3-woods in the distance, on Jan. 1, a day of new beginnings, of hopefulness, of optimism and idealism and anticipation. By the time he reaches the green and notices corporate signage from the title sponsor that reads, “NEW THINKING. NEW POSSIBILITIES.” the metaphor is oozing with transparency.

No. 9 Newsmaker of 2013: Jordan Spieth

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Good vibes reign supreme in Camp Spieth and on this day, at this course, that feeling might be at an all-time high. The kid who still can’t order a Mai Tai in the clubhouse bar, who is still driving a 2007 Yukon with 110,000 miles on it during the rare weeks he’s back home in Dallas, has good reason to be so upbeat. As his caddie Michael Greller says, “We’re still playing with house money.” Last year, Spieth was never expected to win the John Deere Classic or earn nine top-10 finishes or jump into the world’s top 30, so every step of the way was gravy, each achievement considered a pleasant surprise rather than the culmination of predictability.

Cue a few piddly dark storm clouds over Kapalua. That’s because Spieth won’t be overlooked as he charges into his sophomore season, instead competing with increased expectations of success for the first time. If a win and nearly $4 million in PGA Tour earnings were part of last year’s story, then those numbers are simply the low end for public presumption this year.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe he’ll fulfill those lofty expectations and then some, exceeding what any of us could imagine for a 20-year-old, even one with such immense talent.

Chances are, though, he’ll see ebbs and flows, just like every other golfer who has ever played the game. The highs of contending for a tournament on a Sunday afternoon will be offset by the lows of slamming the trunk shut on a Friday evening. That’s not negativity in this world of optimism. It’s just the truth.

Rory McIlroy found this out two years ago. This was when the young Northern Irishman was on the verge of winning Player of the Year on two separate tours, just one season removed from winning a major by eight strokes and two seasons removed from the exact same feat. But at the Memorial Tournament, he was coming off – gasp! – two straight missed cuts and on his way to a third. It was cause for front-page headlines in golf circles, and he was asked about dealing with this kind of attention.

Q: Have you found the more success you've had in your career the more scrutiny there is?

A: Yeah, of course. I think that is the way of life in anything if you're in the spotlight, you're in the public eye. If I'd have missed two cuts in a row a couple years ago, no one would have batted an eyelid, but nowadays it's a little different.

As we stand on the 13th hole, I read McIlroy’s comments to Spieth and ask him how he believes he’ll deal with similar increased scrutiny, especially during those low periods.

“I guess I’ll just try not to miss three cuts in a row,” he says with a smile.

Then he turns serious.

“There are going to be ups and downs. This past year, there weren’t many downs. When they happened, they came at the biggest events, the ones I wanted so badly, so I felt terrible. But there wasn’t any outside influence. Nobody expected anything from me at the majors.

“This year, I’m going to expect more out of myself, because I know what to expect. So yeah, I don’t know what’s going to happen if things don’t go my way if I don’t play well in the majors, which is a big emphasis, or I don’t make the Ryder Cup team, which is a big goal of mine. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Not that Spieth minds a little pressure. Just check out his round-by-round scoring averages from last season. Thursday: 70.17; Friday: 69.30; Saturday: 71.33. But on Sunday, when the pressure was greatest and the focus more intense, he posted an average score of 69.22, good for fourth place amongst an entire membership that owned more final-round experience than him.

If the statistics alone aren’t enough to convince, then listen to the stories.

Greller recalls one from the first time he worked with Spieth at the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur that articulates the point perfectly.

“We were on the eighth hole at Gold Mountain during match play and he was struggling. He says, ‘I just need the cameras to come out. I always play better when there are cameras. I’ll get some nerves and when I have good nerves, I play better.’ Most guys are the opposite, but he wants a little bit of that pressure. He thrives on that. That’s been true for the three years I’ve known him.”

External expectations can often eclipse internal aspersions – just ask Tiger Woods – but Spieth has some tangible goals he’s set for the impending season. Some he’s keeping private, others he’ll willfully divulge, such as claiming a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team and making the cut at all four major championships while contending in at least one of them.

Those easily outsize last year’s New Year’s Day goals of wanting to win a professional tournament – any professional tournament – and trying to earn some sort of PGA Tour status.

“Last year was weird, because there were some tangible goals at the beginning of the year, but they had to be adjusted,” he explains. “Hopefully the same thing happens this year. Hopefully we accomplish some things early and we’re able to adjust later in the year to some bigger goals. I don’t think there’s a lot bigger than what I’ve set for this year, but there is another step up. I need to get into contention at a major and see how it feels. Not many people win the first time they contend at a major. Ultimately there will be bigger goals, but I’m just trying to set some tangible ones this year that are baby steps.”

He looks toward the ocean, admiring the view aloud. This is his maiden voyage to the Hawaiian Islands, but even surrounded by all this apparent optimism, Spieth understands that a little negativity can go a long way.

Not that he reads articles about himself or watches the pundits predict his upcoming fate. Other than checking his Twitter feed – “if anybody is beating me up on there, I’ll see it,” he says – like many players he keeps himself in a protective bubble from such antagonism. He realizes, though, the benefit of learning from his failures and trying to improve upon them.

“I understand there will be more expectations; I understand that last year was incredible and people can get caught up in the past and not what the next step is,” he contends. “In my mind, the easiest way to deal with that is to look at how I failed this past year. Instead of looking at the good things – I mean, yeah, I’m excited by everything that happened – if I look at last year’s majors or specific stats that need improvement and build a gameplan around them, then I feel like everything else takes care of itself.

“I didn’t get any lazier; I’m not taking anything for granted; I’m not spending any money. So all in all, nothing’s really changed. Last year, I had a lot of things I needed to focus on and a lot of outside pressures. Now that’s all taken care of. The pressure’s off as far as where I’m going to be playing the next week or what kind of status I’ll have. Now I can specifically focus on parts of the schedule and parts of my game.”

By this point, Spieth has been speaking for a while, taking about 10 minutes to not only answer one question, but answer one question thoughtfully and honestly, his maturity clearly superseding his age in matters other than golf.

He then circles back to that McIlroy comment about added scrutiny and how he intends to address it this year.

“To answer your question, I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m going to deal with it if things don’t go well, but just like in the past I’m going to pretend that they’re little things,” he says. “Ultimately, I’m not too concerned about it.”

LPGA awards: Ryu, S.H. Park tie for POY

By Randall MellNovember 20, 2017, 1:56 am

NAPLES, Fla. – In the end, the CME Group Tour Championship played out a lot like the entire 2017 season did.

Parity reigned.

Nobody dominated the game’s big season-ending awards, though Lexi Thompson and Sung Hyun Park came close.

Thompson walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for low scoring average. If she had made that last 2-foot putt at the 72nd hole Sunday, she might also have walked away with the Rolex Player of the Year Award and the Rolex world No. 1 ranking.

Park shared the Rolex Player of the Year Award with So Yeon Ryu. By doing so, Park joined Nancy Lopez as the only players in LPGA history to win the Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year titles in the same season. Lopez did it in 1978. Park also won the LPGA money-winning title.

Here’s a summary of the big prizes:

Rolex Player of the Year
Ryu and Park both ended up with 162 points in the points-based competition. Park started the week five points behind Ryu but made the up the difference with the five points she won for tying for sixth.

It marks the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Ryu and Park join Inbee Park as the only South Koreans to win the award. Park won it in 2013.

Vare Trophy
Thompson won the award with a scoring average of 69.114. Sung Hyun Park finished second at 69.247. Park needed to finish at least nine shots ahead of Thompson at the CME Group Tour Championship to win the trophy.

There were a record 12 players with scoring averages under 70.0 this year, besting the previous record of five, set last year.

CME Globe $1 million prize
Thompson entered the week first in the CME points reset, but it played out as a two-woman race on the final day. Park needed to finish ahead of Thompson in the CME Group Tour Championship to overtake her for the big money haul. Thompson tied for second in the tournament while Park tied for sixth.

By winning the CME Group Tour Championship, Jutanugarn had a shot at the $1 million, but she needed Park to finish the tournament eighth or worse and Thompson to finish ninth or worse.

LPGA money-winning title
Park claimed the title with $2,335,883 in earnings. Ryu was second, with $1,981,593 in earnings.

The tour saw a tour-record 17 players win $1 million or more this season, two more than did so last year.

Ryu came into the week as the only player who could pass Park for the title, but Ryu needed to win to do so.

Rolex world No. 1 ranking
The top ranking was up for grabs at CME, with No. 1 Feng, No. 2 Sung Hyun Park and No. 3 So Yeon Ryu all within three hundredths of a ranking point. Even No. 4 Lexi Thompson had a chance to grab the top spot if she won, but in the end nobody could overtake Feng. Her reign will extend to a second straight week.

Rolex Rookie of the Year
Park ran away with the award with her U.S. Women’s Open and Canadian Pacific Women’s Open victories among her 11 top-10 finishes. She had the award locked up long before she arrived for the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Ko ends first winless season with T-16 at CME

By Randall MellNovember 20, 2017, 1:07 am

NAPLES, Fla. – Lydia Ko carved a hybrid 3-iron to 15 feet and ended the most intensely scrutinized year of her young career with a birdie Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

“Nice to finish the season on a high note,” Ko said after posting a 3-under-par 69, good for a tie for 16th. “Obviously, not a top-10 finish, but I played really solid. I feel like I finished the season off pretty strong.”

Ko posted two second-place finishes, a third-place finish and a tie for fifth in her last eight starts.

“Ever since Indy [in early September], I played really good and put myself in good positions,” Ko said. “I felt like the confidence factor was definitely higher than during the middle of the year. I had some opportunities, looks for wins.”

Sunday marked the end of Ko’s first winless season since she began playing LPGA events at 15 years old.

Let the record show, she left with a smile, eager to travel to South Korea to spend the next month with family after playing a charity event in Bradenton, Fla., on Monday.

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Full-field scores from the CME Group Tour Championship

Much was made of Ko beginning the year with sweeping changes, with new equipment (PXG), a new coach (Gary Gilchrist) and a new caddie (Peter Godfrey).

In the final summary, it wasn’t a Ko-like year, not by the crazy high standards she has set.

She saw her run of 85 consecutive weeks at No. 1 end in June. She arrived in Naples holding on to the No. 8 ranking. She ends the year 13th on the LPGA money list with $1,177,450 in earnings. It’s the first time she hasn’t finished among the top three in money in her four full years on tour. She did log 11 top-10 finishes overall, three second-place finishes.

How did she evaluate her season?

“I feel like it was a better year than everyone else thinks, like `Lydia is in a slump,’” Ko said. “I feel like I played solid.

“It's a season that, obviously, I learned a lot from ... the mental aspect of saying, `Hey, get over the bads and kind of move on.’”

Ko said she learned a lot watching Stacy Lewis deal with her run of second-place finishes after winning so much.

“Winning a championship is a huge deal, but, sometimes, it's overrated when you haven't won,” Ko said. “Like, you're still playing well, but just haven't won. I kind of feel like it's been that kind of year.

“I think everybody has little ups and downs.”

For Ariya, Lexi, finish was fabulous, frustrating

By Randall MellNovember 20, 2017, 12:47 am

NAPLES, Fla. – Lexi Thompson can take a punch.

You have to give her that.

So can Ariya Jutanugarn, who beat Thompson in the gut-wrenching conclusion to the CME Group Tour Championship Sunday at Tiburon Golf Club.

They both distinguished themselves overcoming adversity this season.

The problem for Thompson now is that she’ll have to wait two months to show her resolve again. She will go into the long offseason with the memory of missing a 2-foot putt for par that could have won her the championship, her first Rolex Player of the Year Award and her first Rolex world No. 1 ranking.

Thompson took home the CME Globe $1 million jackpot and Vare Trophy for low scoring as nice consolation prizes, but the Sunday finish was a lot like her season.

It was so close to being spectacular.

She was so close to dominating this year.

That last 2-foot putt Sunday would have put Thompson in the clubhouse at 15 under, with a one-shot lead, which would have added so much more pressure to Jutanugarn as she closed out.

Instead of needing to birdie the final two holes to force a playoff, Jutanugarn only needed to birdie one of them to assure extra holes. She went birdie-birdie anyway.

Thompson was on the practice putting green when she heard the day’s last roar, when Jutanugarn rolled in a 15-foot birdie to beat her.

“It wasn’t the way I wanted to end it,” Thompson said of the short miss. “I don’t really know what happened there. It just happens. I guess it’s golf.”

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Full-field scores from the CME Group Tour Championship

Thompson was asked if the weight of everything at stake affected her.

“No, honestly, I wasn’t thinking about it,” she said. “I putted great the whole day. I guess, maybe, there was just a little bit of adrenaline.

“We all go through situations we don’t like sometimes.”

Thompson endured more than she wanted this year.

She won twice, but there were six second-place finishes, including Sunday’s. There were three losses in playoffs.

There was the heart-wrenching blow at the ANA Inspiration, the season’s first major, when she looked as if she were going to run away with the title before getting blindsided by a four-shot penalty in the final round. There were two shots when a viewer email led to a penalty for mismarking her ball on a green in the third round, and two more shots for signing an incorrect scorecard.

Thompson was in tears finishing that Sunday at Mission Hills, but she won a legion of new fans in the way she fought back before losing in a playoff to So Yeon Ryu.

There was more heartache later in the spring, when Thompson’s mother, Judy, was diagnosed with uterine cancer, requiring surgery to remove a tumor and then radiation.

For Thompson fans, Sunday’s missed 2-foot putt was a cruel final blow to the year.

This time, there were no tears from Lexi afterward.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds . . . it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said. “This won’t either.”

After Thompson bounced back from the ANA loss to win the Kingsmill Invitational in May, she acknowledged how the loss motivated her.

“I'm as determined as any other person out here,” Thompson said. “We all want to win. I have a little bit more drive now.”

She was so close this year to elevating herself as the one true rock star in the women’s game. She will have a long offseason to turn Sunday’s disappointment into yet more fuel to get there.

Thompson will prepare for next year knowing Jutanugarn may be ramping her game back up to dominante, too.

Jutanugarn looked as if she were going to become a rock star after winning five times last year to claim the Rolex Player of the Year Award and then rising to No. 1 with a victory at the Manulife Classic back in May, but it didn’t happen.

Jutanugarn struggled through a summer-long slump.

She failed to make a cut in six of seven starts. It wasn’t as miserable a slump as she endured two years ago, when she missed 10 consecutive cuts, but it was troubling.

“Even though I played so badly the last few months, I learned a lot,” Jutanugarn said. “I’m growing up a lot, and I’m really ready to have some fun next year.”

Her surgically repaired shoulder was bothering her again, but it was more than that.

“This time it was more about becoming No. 1,” said Gary Gilchrist, her coach. “I think all of the responsibilities got to her.”

Gilchrist said he could see a different focus in Jutanugarn this week. He credited Vision 54s Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott for helping her deal with all the pressure that has mounted with her growing status.

“It’s been a long process,” Nilsson said. “She’s felt too much expectation from everybody else, where she loses focus on what she can do.”

Marriott said they asked Jutanugarn to come up with something she wanted to do to make herself proud this week, instead of worrying about what would please everyone else.

It worked.

“I told my caddie, Les [Luark], that thinking about the No. 1 ranking wasn’t going to help me be a better golfer,” Jutanugarn said. “I wanted people to say, `Oh this girl, she’s really happy.’ That was my goal, to have fun.”

Late Sunday, hoisting the trophy, Jutanugarn looked like she was having a lot of fun.

Thomas vs. Rose could be Ryder Cup highlight

By Rex HoggardNovember 19, 2017, 11:40 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – For those still digesting the end of 2017 – the European Tour did, after all, just wrap up its season in Dubai on Sunday – consider that the PGA Tour is already nearly one-fifth of the way into a new edition.

The Tour has already crowned eight champions as the game banks into the winter break, and there are some interesting trends that have emerged from the fall.

Dueling Justins: While Justin Thomas picked up where he left off last season, winning the inaugural CJ Cup in October just three weeks after claiming the FedExCup and wrapping up Player of the Year honors; Justin Rose seems poised to challenge for next year’s low Justin honors.

The Englishman hasn’t finished outside the top 10 since August and won back-to-back starts (WGC-HSBC Champions and Turkish Airlines Open) before closing his year with a tie for fourth place in Dubai.

Note to U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk: Justin v. Justin next September in Paris could be fun.

Youth served. Just in case anyone was thinking the pendulum might be swinging back in the direction of experience over youthful exuberance – 41-year-old Pat Perez did put the veterans on the board this season with his victory at the CIMB Classic – Patrick Cantlay solidified his spot as genuine phenom.

Following an injury-plagued start to his career, Cantlay got back on track this year, needing just a dozen starts to qualify for the Tour Championship. He went next level earlier this month with his playoff victory at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

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Full-field scores from the RSM Classic

They say these trends come and go in professional golf, but as the average age of winners continues to trend lower and lower it’s safe to say 25 is the new 35 on Tour.

A feel for it. For all the science that has become such a big part of the game – from TrackMan analysis to ShotLink statistics – it was refreshing to hear that Patton Kizzire’s breakthrough victory at the OHL Classic came down to a hunch.

With the tournament on the line and Rickie Fowler poised just a stroke back, Kizzire’s tee shot at the 72nd hole came to rest in an awkward spot that forced him to stand close to his approach shot to keep his feet out of the sand. His 8-iron approach shot sailed to 25 feet and he two-putted for par.

And how far did he have for that pivotal approach?

“I have no idea,” he laughed.

Fall facelift. Although the moving parts of the 2018-19 schedule appear to be still in flux, how the changes will impact the fall schedule is coming into focus.

The Tour’s goal is to end the season on Labor Day, which means the fall portion of the schedule will begin a month earlier than it does now. While many see that as a chance for the circuit to embrace a true offseason, it’s becoming increasingly clear that won’t be the case.

The more likely scenario is an earlier finish followed by a possible team competition, either the Ryder or Presidents cup, before the Tour kicks off a new season in mid-September, which means events currently played before the Tour Championship will slide to the fall schedule.

“So if you slide it back, somebody has to jump ahead. The mechanics of it,” said Davis Love III, host of the RSM Classic and a member of the Tour’s policy board. “I’m still going to go complain and beg for my day, but I also understand when they say, this is your date, make it work, then we'll make it work.”

While 2019 promises to bring plenty of change to the Tour, know that the wraparound season and fall golf are here to stay.

Product protection. Speaking of the fall schedule and the likely plan to expand the post-Tour Championship landscape, officials should also use the platform to embrace some protections for these events.

Consider that the RSM Classic featured the third-strongest field last week according to the Official World Golf Ranking, behind the season-ending tournament in Dubai on the European Tour and the Dunlop Phoenix on the Japan Golf Tour.

The winner in Dubai received 50 World Ranking points, a marquee event that has historically been deeper than that week’s Tour stop, while the Dunlop Phoenix winner, Brooks Koepka, won 32 points. Austin Cook collected 30 points for his victory at Sea Island Resort.

All told, the Japan event had four players in the field from the top 50 in the world, including world No. 4 Hideki Matsuyama; while the highest-ranked player at the RSM Classic was Matt Kuchar at 15th and there were seven players from the top 50 at Sea Island Resort.

Under Tour rules, Koepka, as well as any other Tour members who competed either in Japan or Dubai, had to be granted conflicting-event releases by the circuit.

Although keeping players from participating in tournaments overseas is not an option, it may be time for the circuit to reconsider the conflicting-event policy if the result is a scenario like last week that relegates a Tour event to third on the international dance card.