Is there a strategy behind withdrawing on Tour?

By Jason SobelApril 4, 2014, 2:18 am

Not long after Dustin Johnson signed for an 8-over 80 – the highest score during the Shell Houston Open first round – then withdrew from the tournament without an immediate reason, my phone buzzed.

On the other end was a PGA Tour player. He didn’t want his name used in print and was calling just to vent, but his message came across loud and clear.

“I guess when anybody shoots 80 now,” he said, “they can WD and come up with an excuse or an injury.”

This player quickly followed by insisting he didn’t know anything about Johnson’s possible injury/illness status. He wasn’t implicating him as part of any ploy to simply take his ball and go home, cutting his losses after a round that included two double-bogeys on his first four holes, a quintuple-bogey on the sixth and a career-worst front-nine 43.

He did, however, point out that this strategy is part of an ongoing epidemic. In fact, he even used that exact word. Epidemic. So did another player via text message, independent of the first.

The message was evident: There is a large faction of players who are dubious of a few of their well-known peers.

Part of the problem lies within the current PGA Tour rules.

Competitors who withdraw during a tournament round must, eventually, provide a valid medical excuse. Those who withdraw after posting a score need no explanation.

In a way, it’s much like another hot-button issue: Slow play. If there is no direct penalty – and other than fines and warnings, there hasn’t been one for slow play in nearly two full decades – then there’s no motivation to avoid it.

When Rory McIlroy, already 7 over and sure to miss the cut, walked off the course midway through last year’s Honda Classic second round he cited a toothache. Two weeks ago, Bubba Watson blamed allergies as his reason for withdrawing from the Arnold Palmer Invitational following an opening-round 83. Johnson, who trailed by 15 strokes when he made his decision on Thursday, isn’t required to provide a reason. (Update: On Friday morning, Johnson's agent David Winkle texted: "Just a little stiffness in his back. Nothing serious, just being very careful so he's ready to roll next week.")

The underlying effect is that it harms the tournament host. As the player who called me said, “It may hurt the Tour a little with these WDs. But it hurts the title sponsor and local fans even more – especially if you’re a big draw for the event.”

The problem here, of course, is that nobody besides the player understands his level of pain or discomfort. So just as it’s irresponsible for a professional golfer to pack it in when things aren’t going his way, it’s similarly irresponsible to contend anyone is crying wolf.

While it might look suspicious on the surface, a devil’s advocate may contend that it could prove to be the right move. With the opening round of the Masters just seven days away, Johnson might have seen an opportunity to recuperate from a lingering injury or illness – or maybe just get another day of R&R before the year’s biggest tournament. If sacrificing another round in Houston while far off the cut line means he’ll be better prepared to claim a green jacket next week, is that so wrong? Well, according to many of his brethren, it is.

However, without a rule in place requiring a medical explanation for post-round withdrawal, the PGA Tour is basically issuing a bottomless get-out-of-jail-free card.

The current policy leaves plenty of room for doubt. We can impugn players for a perceived lack of effort, but maintaining that any are faking these symptoms is a weighty accusation.

Following his withdrawal at the Honda Classic last month, there was a camp of observers who believed this was the case with Tiger Woods. Well out of contention during the final round, Woods withdrew with five holes remaining because of a lingering back injury.

Those who accused him of milking it, though, found themselves eating crow this week, when Woods announced that he’d recently undergone back surgery to alleviate the issue and will miss the upcoming Masters and beyond.

Similarly, fellow elite talents Phil Mickelson, Jason Day and Hunter Mahan have recently been forced to withdraw from tournaments with ailments that, according to them, inhibited their performances.

It is important to note that even though the word “epidemic” has been tossed around, there remains an infinitesimal amount of players whose withdrawals can be considered suspicious.

Many still consider it a matter of pride to soldier on, no matter the consequences.

During the Honda last month, Brendon de Jonge raced to a 66-64 start. He then suffered a painful rib injury that led to a disappointing 76-78 weekend finish. But he did finish.

“I thought about it right at the turn on Sunday, but I figured it wasn’t getting any worse,” he said a few days later. “I didn’t feel like I was damaging it. But I’ve never withdrawn and I’d like to keep it that way.”

That’s a popular opinion within PGA Tour circles. It’s difficult to know an exact percentage, but unquestionably the majority of players feel a sense of pride toward gutting it out and continuing to compete – no matter their score, no matter their injury status.

That was the main theme of the phone call I received Thursday evening. This player didn’t like the idea that players could withdraw after a poor score without a legitimate excuse.

He’s hardly in the minority.

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The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.

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Woods, Rahm, Rickie, J-Day headline Torrey field

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 20, 2018, 12:47 am

Tiger Woods is set to make his 2018 debut.

Woods is still part of the final field list for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, the headliner of a tournament that includes defending champion Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.

In all, 12 of the top 26 players in the world are teeing it up at Torrey Pines.

Though Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, he hasn’t broken 71 in his past seven rounds there and hasn’t played all four rounds since 2013, when he won. Last year he missed the cut after rounds of 76-72, then lasted just one round in Dubai before he withdrew with back spasms.

After a fourth back surgery, Woods didn’t return to competition until last month’s Hero World Challenge, where he tied for ninth. 

Woods has committed to play both the Farmers Insurance Open and next month's Genesis Open at Riviera, which benefits his foundation. 

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Even on 'off' day, Rahm shoots 67 at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 20, 2018, 12:36 am

Jon Rahm didn’t strike the ball as purely Friday as he did during his opening round at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

He still managed a 5-under 67 that put him just one shot off the lead heading into the weekend.

“I expected myself to go to the range (this morning) and keep flushing everything like I did yesterday,” said Rahm, who shot a career-low 62 at La Quinta on Thursday. “Everything was just a little bit off. It was just one of those days.”

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

After going bogey-free on Thursday, Rahm mixed four birdies and two bogeys over his opening six holes. He managed to settle down around the turn, then made two birdies on his final three holes to move within one shot of Andrew Landry (65).

Rahm has missed only five greens through two rounds and sits at 15-under 129. 

The 23-year-old Spaniard won in Dubai to end the year and opened 2018 with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He needs a top-6 finish or better this week to supplant Jordan Spieth as the No. 2 player in the world.

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Landry stays hot, leads desert shootout at CareerBuilder

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 12:35 am

LA QUINTA, Calif. – Andrew Landry topped the crowded CareerBuilder Challenge leaderboard after another low-scoring day in the sunny Coachella Valley.

Landry shot a 7-under 65 on Thursday on PGA West's Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course to reach 16 under. He opened with a 63 on Thursday at La Quinta Country Club.

''Wind was down again,'' Landry said. ''It's like a dome out here.''

Jon Rahm, the first-round leader after a 62 at La Quinta, was a stroke back. He had two early bogeys in a 67 on the Nicklaus layout.

''It's tough to come back because I feel like I expected myself to go to the range and keep just flushing everything like I did yesterday,'' Rahm said. ''Everything was just a little bit off.''

Jason Kokrak was 14 under after a 67 at Nicklaus. Two-time major champion Zach Johnson was 13 under along with Michael Kim and Martin Piller. Johnson had a 64 at Nicklaus.

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

Landry, Rahm, Kokrak and Johnson will finish the rotation Saturday at PGA West's Stadium Course, also the site of the final round.

''You need to hit it a lot more accurate off the tee because being in the fairway is a lot more important,'' Rahm said about the Pete Dye-designed Stadium Course, a layout the former Arizona State player likened to the Dye-designed Karsten course on the school's campus. ''With the small greens, you have water in play. You need to be more precise. Clearly the hardest golf course.''

Landry pointed to the Saturday forecast.

''I think the wind's supposed to be up like 10 to 20 mph or something, so I know that golf course can get a little mean,'' Landry said. ''Especially, those last three or four holes.''

The 30-year-old former Arkansas player had five birdies in a six-hole stretch on the back nine. After winning his second Tour title last year, he had two top-10 finishes in October and November at the start the PGA Tour season.

''We're in a good spot right now,'' Landry said. ''I played two good rounds of golf, bogey-free both times, and it's just nice to be able to hit a lot of good quality shots and get rewarded when you're making good putts.''

Rahm had four birdies and the two bogeys on his first six holes. He short-sided himself in the left bunker on the par-3 12th for his first bogey of the week and three-putted the par-4 14th – pulling a 3-footer and loudly asking ''What?'' – to drop another stroke.

''A couple of those bad swings cost me,'' Rahm said.

The top-ranked player in the field at No. 3 in the world, Rahm made his first par of the day on the par-4 16th and followed with five more before birdieing the par-5 fourth. The 23-year-old Spaniard also birdied the par-5 seventh and par-3 eighth.

''I had close birdie putts over the last four holes and made two of them, so I think that kind of clicked,'' said Rahm, set to defend his title next week at Torrey Pines.

He has played the par 5s in 9 under with an eagle and seven birdies.

Johnson has taken a relaxed approach to the week, cutting his practice to two nine-hole rounds on the Stadium Course.

''I'm not saying that's why I'm playing well, but I took it really chill and the golf courses haven't changed,'' Johnson said. ''La Quinta's still really pure, right out in front of you, as is the Nicklaus.''

Playing partner Phil Mickelson followed his opening 70 at La Quinta with a 68 at Nicklaus to get to 6 under. The 47-year-old Hall of Famer is playing his first tournament of since late October.

''The scores obviously aren't what I want, but it's pretty close and I feel good about my game,'' Mickelson said. ''I feel like this is a great place to start the year and build a foundation for my game. It's easy to identify the strengths and weaknesses. My iron play has been poor relative to the standards that I have. My driving has been above average.''

Charlie Reiter, the Palm Desert High School senior playing on a sponsor exemption, had a 70 at Nicklaus to match Mickelson at 6 under. The Southern California recruit is playing his first PGA Tour event. He tied for 65th in the Australian Open in November in his first start in a professional tournament.