Thompson returns to Masters five years after penalizing himself

By Jason SobelApril 9, 2013, 1:40 pm

The ball rests on the 15th green at Augusta National Golf Club, an uneasy rest if there ever was one. It isn’t that windy on Friday afternoon of the 2008 Masters Tournament, about a one-club breeze, but with the ball precariously perched on a downslope after having been carefully placed there by its owner, it begins to oscillate. With 10, maybe 12 feet separating it from a much-needed birdie, this is no time to be dancing a little jig.

Putter in hand, the player approaches the ball, sees that oscillation and freezes. It’s akin to a red traffic light for a driver. When the ball is quivering like that, you don’t slow down. You stop. Immediately. Not until he is sure that the ball is done oscillating does he step in and begin his usual putting routine.

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But it happens again. The ball moves, ever so slightly, and the player backs away again. He’s been in this position before and knows the punishment. It was back in a junior golf tournament when he first placed his putter on the ground behind the ball, then noticed it move. He had to call a penalty on himself for no reason other than poor timing and worse luck.

With that thought, he again watches the ball come to rest and again begins his routine. He’s extra careful this time. A penalty in a junior tournament is a valuable lesson; a penalty in the game’s most exalted major championship is a mistake that is never forgotten.

He places his putter behind the ball, its Titleist logo pointing in the direction he is aiming to hit the putt. He sneaks one final look at the hole, then looks down again. The Titleist logo has moved. Maybe a quarter-inch. Maybe less. No one else sees it. Not the nearby television cameras nor the thousands of anxious fans nor his two playing partners. He does, though. And he understands that he has to make a decision.

If you know him, though, you know that it isn’t a decision at all. And as Michael Thompson returns to Augusta National this week as a Masters competitor for the first time since 2008, he unhesitatingly says “I’d do it the same way.”

IF COMPETING in the Masters just before his 23rd birthday was a dream come true, then finding himself on the precipice of the cut line was his pinch-me moment, an affirmation that the dream was indeed reality.

Eight months earlier, Michael arrived at The Olympic Club like so many other young hopefuls, allowing himself to think about winning the prestigious U.S. Amateur Championship. Playing some inspired golf, he rolled into the match-play portion of the tournament, even beating Webb Simpson, who would go on to win the U.S. Open on that very site not many years later.

When Michael won his semifinal match against Casey Clendenon, he hugged his parents and cried, “We’re going to Augusta!” Though he lost the next day to Colt Knost in the final, that Masters invitation remains as perhaps the sweetest consolation prize in sports. It was even sweeter for a kid who’d always dreamed of the opportunity.

“I grew up telling everyone I played golf with, if we were practicing 8-footers, that mine was to win the Masters,” he explains with a smile. “To have that come true was just so exciting.”

There haven’t been many players, before or since, who took as much advantage of the invitation. During the second semester of his senior year at the University of Alabama, he made five road trips – pilgrimages, if you will – to Augusta National, playing two or three rounds each time and “loving every minute of it.” He still remembers the first birdie he ever made there, a 3-wood approach into a two-club wind on the 11th hole that culminated in a curling 25-foot putt that touched down in the bottom of the cup.

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Those frequent visits didn’t mean he was any more prepared once tournament week started. Michael had never before competed in a professional event, let alone a PGA Tour-sanctioned event, let alone a major championship. And now here he was, alongside Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson as a Masters competitor.

His nerves hit an all-time high on Wednesday, one day before the tournament even started. Competing in the venerable Par-3 Contest, he found himself hitting that first wedge shot with a trio of legends named Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player watching nearby. His hands trembling, he somehow caught enough of the ball to find the fat part of the green and not embarrass himself in front of that conglomeration of 13 green jackets.

While his family – parents and aunts and uncles and cousins and anyone else who could make the trip – stayed in a big house in Augusta during the week, Michael took his traditional place in the famed Crow’s Nest with the other amateur competitors.

Now, there are some hard-and-fast rules about staying in the Crow’s Nest, which have been met by varying degrees of acceptance over the years. Players have been known to explore the bowels of the mammoth clubhouse, sneaking through all the nooks and crannies of the adult playground. More than a few have practiced their night putting on the space adjacent to the first tee and final green. And those are only the stories they’re willing to share. We can only imagine those which remain unspoken.

Michael left nothing to the imagination. He dressed neatly in a coat and tie for invited dinners, referred to everyone he met as “sir” or “ma’am” and when it came time to retire to his quarters each night, he simply turned off the light, went to sleep and dreamed of what the next day would bring on the course.

“I’m a rule-follower, especially at that place,” he says. “You just don’t want to break any rules.”

That sentiment is a common theme throughout Michael’s life. While most PGA Tour professionals spent their formative years trying to dig secrets out of the dirt, he was a member of the Boy Scouts of America, ascending to the position of Eagle Scout. When he was 14 and weighing about 120 pounds soaking wet, he embarked on an 80-mile backpacking trip over 11 days, lugging a pack that weighed nearly half of what he did.

He still credits life as a Scout for helping prepare him for other situations. One of those occurred in August 2005. While practicing for his upcoming season at Tulane University in New Orleans, Michael heard about a major hurricane that was on its way. They were calling it Katrina. Instead of panicking or stalling, he used those lessons learned as a Scout to pack up a few sets of clothes, grab a buddy, get in the car and start driving as far away as possible. Rather than get stuck in the city’s devastation, they actually turned it into a vacation of sorts, stopping along the way to play a little golf.

Loyal almost to a fault, Michael stayed at Tulane and with the school’s golf program for as long as he could – until the team was told that it would need to disband. He transferred to the University of Alabama, just another speed bump in his life that seemed less bumpy because of a childhood spent preparing for the unexpected.

Even today, he credits those lessons learned for his resiliency as a professional golfer. Perhaps it explains how last year, with some of the game’s greatest players wilting under the final-round pressure of the U.S. Open, Michael battled his way to a second-place result, earning a return invitation to the Masters on the very course where he first hugged his parents after receiving one five years earlier. And maybe it explains how two weeks after finishing last among the 138 competitors who completed two rounds at the Northern Trust Open earlier this year, he bounced back to win his first career PGA Tour title at the Honda Classic.

More than anything, though, the lessons explain how a kid one week shy of his 23rd birthday, playing in the tournament he’s always dreamed about, on the verge of making the cut to ensure two more rounds, notices the logo on his ball moves maybe a quarter-inch and knows exactly what he needs to do.

THERE ISN'T even a decision to be made. Michael sees the Titleist logo askew on his ball, steps away and announces to his playing partners that he has to call a penalty on himself. It’s a rule that has since been altered by the USGA, an acknowledgment that it wasn’t fair if an outside agency moved the ball, even after the putter had made contact with the surface of the green.

One of those playing partners, two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, tries to talk him out of the ruling. He’s been rooting for the amateur throughout the day and now, with a potential spot in the weekend rounds on the line, he doesn’t want to see the young man lose that opportunity. Michael knows it is the right thing, though. Instead of putting for birdie, he winds up making bogey on that hole, then follows with bogeys on the next two, as well. A second-round score of 78 leaves him four strokes shy of making the cut.

Afterward, he maintains he is disappointed, but not devastated. Mostly about the two bogeys that followed. Not for the ruling. He doesn't second-guess that and never has.

“I think that’s one of the things that I love about golf, that there is a defined set of rules and it’s a gentleman’s game,” he says. “It’s based on honor and I think what sets golf apart from every other sport is that you hold yourself to higher standards than anybody else does.”

Apparently, Michael isn’t the only one who thinks this way. It isn’t long before he starts receiving letters in the mail about his admirable decision. From the University of Alabama president and its athletic director. From church pastors and teachers. From professors who used his situation as a positive example in classroom discussions about business ethics.

And then there is the bridge. Boys' and girls' teams from Holy Spirit Catholic High in Tuscaloosa, Ala., are in the process of constructing a 35-foot bridge at the time, connecting tee boxes on the 14th hole at Ol’ Colony Golf Course. Upon completion, they name it “Michael H. Thompson Bridge,” not because he had been the SEC champion, nor because he had a PGA Tour future ahead of him. Because of what happened at Augusta.

As Michael prepares to compete in the Masters for the second time, exactly five years later, he reflects on that scenario. He was never devastated, but the disappointment long ago faded, too. It is the byproduct of so many others acknowledging his honesty and paying tribute to a decision that for him was never decisive.

“That penalty was a blessing in disguise,” he says. “I got a lot of good press from it. It helped solidify my reputation. I like to keep my word, be honest about what I do. I just think it created more good for me than anything.”

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After Further Review: Haas crash strikes a chord

By Golf Channel DigitalFebruary 19, 2018, 2:39 am

Each week, takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On the horrifying car crash involving Bill Haas ...

I spent a lot of time this week thinking about Bill Haas. He was the passenger in a car crash that killed a member of his host family. That man, 71-year-old Mark Gibello, was a successful businessman in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and a new friend.

Haas escaped without any major injuries, but he withdrew from the Genesis Open to return home to Greenville, S.C. When he’ll return to the Tour is anyone’s guess. It could be a while, as he grapples with the many emotions after surviving that horrifying crash – seriously, check out the photos – while the man next to him did not.

The entire Haas clan is some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Wish them the best in their recovery. – Ryan Lavner

On TIger Woods' missed cut at the Genesis Open ...

After missing the cut at the Genesis Open by more than a few car lengths, Tiger Woods appeared to take his early exit in stride. Perhaps that in and of itself is a form of progress.

Years ago, a second-round 76 with a tattered back-nine scorecard would have elicited a wide range of emotions. But none of them would have been particularly tempered, or optimistic, looking ahead to his next start. At age 42, though, Woods has finally ceded that a win-or-bust mentality is no longer helpful or productive.

The road back from his latest surgery will be a winding one, mixed with both ups and downs. His return at Torrey Pines qualified as the former, while his trunk slam at Riviera certainly served as the latter. There will surely be more of both in the coming weeks and months, and Woods’ ability to stomach the rough patches could prove pivotal for his long-term prognosis. - Will Gray

On the debate over increased driving distance on the PGA Tour ...

The drumbeat is only going to get louder as the game’s best get longer. On Sunday, Bubba Watson pounded his way to his 10th PGA Tour title at the Genesis Open and the average driving distance continues to climb.

Lost in the debate over driving distances and potential fixes, none of which seem to be simple, is a beacon of sanity, Riviera Country Club’s par-4 10th hole. The 10th played just over 300 yards for the week and yet yielded almost as many bogeys (86) as birdies (87) with a 4.053 stroke average.

That ranks the 10th as the 94th toughest par 4 on Tour this season, ahead of behemoths like the 480-yard first at Waialae and 549-yard 17th at Kapalua. Maybe the game doesn’t need new rules that limit how far the golf ball goes, maybe it just needs better-designed golf holes. - Rex Hoggard

On the depth of LPGA talent coming out of South Korea ...

The South Korean pipeline to the LPGA shows no signs of drying up any time soon. Jin Young Ko, 22, won her LPGA debut as a tour member Sunday at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, and Hyejin Choi, 18, nearly won the right to claim LPGA membership there. The former world No. 1 amateur who just turned pro finished second playing on a sponsor exemption. Sung Hyun Park, who shared Rolex Player of the Year honors with So Yeon Ryu last year, is set to make her 2018 debut this week at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And Inbee Park is set to make her return to the LPGA in two weeks at the HSBC Women’s World Championship after missing most of last year due to injury. The LPGA continues to go through South Korea no matter where this tour goes. - Randall Mell

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Nature calls: Hole-out rescues Bubba's bladder

By Rex HoggardFebruary 19, 2018, 2:20 am

LOS ANGELES – Clinging to a one-stroke lead, Bubba Watson had just teed off on the 14th hole at Riviera Country Club and was searching for a bathroom.

“I asked Cameron [Smith], ‘where's the bathroom?’ He said, ‘On the next tee there's one. Give yourself a couple more shots, then you can go to the bathroom,’” Watson recalled. “I said, ‘So now I'm just going to hole it and go to the bathroom.’”

By the time Watson got to his shot, which had found the bunker left of the green, his caddie Ted Scott had a similar comment.

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“When he went down to hit it I said, ‘You know you haven’t holed one in a long time,’” Scott said.

Watson’s shot landed just short of the hole, bounced once and crashed into the flagstick before dropping into the hole for an unlikely birdie and a two-stroke lead that he would not relinquish on his way to his third victory at the Genesis Open and his 10th PGA Tour title.

“I looked at Teddy [Scott] and said, ‘You called it.’ Then Cameron [who was paired with Watson] came over and said I called it. I’d forgotten he and I had talked about it,” Watson said.

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Bubba Golf takes long road back to winner's circle

By Rex HoggardFebruary 19, 2018, 1:55 am

LOS ANGELES – Bubba’s back.

It’s been just two years since he hoisted a trophy on the PGA Tour, but with a mind that moves as fast as Bubba Watson’s, it must have felt like an eternity.

Since his last victory, which was also a shootout at Riviera Country Club in 2016, Watson was passed over for a captain’s pick at the 2016 Ryder Cup, endured a mystery illness, lost his confidence, his desire and the better part of 40 pounds.

He admits that along that ride he considered retirement and wondered if his best days were behind him.

“I was close [to retirement]. My wife was not close,” he conceded. “My wife basically told me to quit whining and play golf. She's a lot tougher than I am.”

What else could he do? With apologies to his University of Georgia education and a growing portfolio of small businesses, Watson was made to be on the golf course, particularly a golf course like Riviera, which is the canvas that brings out Bubba’s best.

In a game that can too often become a monotonous parade of fairways and greens, Watson is a freewheeling iconoclast who thrives on adversity. Where others only see straight lines and one-dimensional options, Bubba embraces the unconventional and the untried.

For a player who sometimes refers to himself in the third person, it was a perfectly Bubba moment midway through his final round on Sunday at the Genesis Open. Having stumbled out of the 54-hole lead with bogeys at Nos. 3 and 6, Watson pulled his 2-iron tee shot wildly right at the seventh because, “[his playing partners] both went left.”

From an impossible lie in thick rough with his golf ball 2 feet above his feet, Watson’s often-fragile focus zeroed in for one of the week’s most entertaining shots, which landed about 70 feet from the hole and led to a two-putt par.

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“His feel for that kind of stuff, you can’t go to the range and practice that. You can’t,” said Watson’s caddie Ted Scott. “Put a ball 2 feet above your feet and then have to hold the face open and then to swing that easy. That’s why I have the best seat in the house. That’s the essence of Bubba golf.”

There were plenty of highlight moments on Sunday for Watson. There were crucial putts at Nos. 11 (birdie), 12 (par) and 13 (par) to break free of what was becoming an increasingly fluid leaderboard, and his chip-in birdie from a greenside bunker at the 14th hole extended his lead to two strokes.

“It was just a bunker shot, no big deal,” smiled Watson, who closed with a 69 for a two-stroke victory over Kevin Na and Tony Finau.

A player that can often appear handcuffed by the most straightforward of shots was at his best at Riviera, withstanding numerous challenges to win the Genesis Open for his 10th PGA Tour title.

That he did so on a frenzied afternoon that featured four different players moving into, however briefly, at last a share of the lead, Watson never appeared rattled. But, of course, we all know that wasn’t the case.

Watson can become famously uncomfortable on the course and isn’t exactly known for his ability to ignore distractions. But Riviera, where he’s now won three times, is akin to competitive Ritalin for Watson.

“[Watson] feels very comfortable moving the ball, turning it a lot. That allows him to get to a lot of the tucked pins,” said Phil Mickelson, who finished tied for sixth after moving to within one stroke of the lead early in round. “A lot of guys don't feel comfortable doing that and they end up accepting a 15 to 30 footer in the center of the green. He ends up making a lot more birdies than a lot of guys.”

It’s the soul of what Scott calls Bubba Golf, which is in simplest terms the most creative form of the game.

Watson can’t explain exactly what Bubba Golf is, but there was a telling moment earlier this week when Aaron Baddeley offered Watson an impromptu putting lesson, which Bubba said was the worst putting lesson he’d ever gotten.

“He goes, ‘how do you hit a fade?’ I said, ‘I aim it right and think fade.’ How do you hit a draw? I aim it left and think draw,” Watson said. “He said, ‘how do you putt?’ I said, ‘I don't know.’ He said, ‘well, aim it to the right when it breaks to the left, aim it to the left when it breaks to the right,’ exactly how you imagine your golf ball in the fairway or off the tee, however you imagine it, imagine it that way.”

It’s certain that there’s more going on internally, but when he’s playing his best the sum total of Watson’s game can be simply explained – see ball, hit ball. Anything more complicated than that and he runs the risk of losing what makes him so unique and – when the stars align and a course like Riviera or Augusta National, where he’s won twice, asks the right questions – virtually unbeatable.

That’s a long way from the depths of 2017, when he failed to advance past the second playoff event and dropped outside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking. But then, Watson has covered a lot of ground in his career on his way to 10 Tour victories.

“I never thought I could get there,” he said. “Nobody thought that Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Fla., would ever get to 10 wins, let's be honest. Without lessons, head case, hooking the ball, slicing the ball, can't putt, you know? Somehow we're here making fun of it.”

Somehow, through all the adversity and distractions, he found a way to be Bubba again.

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Spieth: 'I feel great about the state of my game'

By Will GrayFebruary 19, 2018, 1:43 am

LOS ANGELES – Jordan Spieth is starting to feel confident again with the putter, which is probably a bad sign for the rest of the PGA Tour.

Spieth struggled on the greens two weeks ago at TPC Scottsdale, but he began to right the ship at Pebble Beach and cracked the top 10 this week at the Genesis Open. Perhaps more important than his final spot on the leaderboard was his standing in the strokes gained putting category – 12th among the field at Riviera Country Club, including a 24-putt performance in the third round.

Spieth closed out the week with a 4-under 67 to finish in a tie for ninth, five shots behind Bubba Watson. But after the round he spoke like a man whose preparation for the season’s first major is once again right on track.

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“I was kind of, you know, skiing uphill with my putting after Phoenix and the beginning of Pebble week, and really just for a little while now through the new year,” Spieth said. “I just made some tremendous progress. I putted extremely well this week, which is awesome. I feel great about the state of my game going forward, feel like I’m in a great place at this time of the year as we’re starting to head into major season.”

Spieth will take a break next week, and where he next tees it up remains uncertain. He still has not announced a decision about playing or skipping the WGC-Mexico Championship, and he will have until 5 p.m. ET Friday to make a final decision on the no-cut event.

Whether or not he flies down to Mexico City, Spieth’s optimism has officially returned after a brief hiccup on the West Coast swing.

“For where I was starting out Phoenix to where I am and how I feel about my game going forward the rest of the year, there was a lot of progress made,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to figure out what the best schedule is for myself as we head into the Masters.”