Tour Champ. is overlooked stepping stone to success

By Jason SobelSeptember 18, 2013, 6:22 pm

ATLANTA – One hundred thirty-eight miles of open road separate East Lake Golf Club from Magnolia Lane and the front gates of Augusta National, but the connection is much closer. This can be credited directly to Bobby Jones, the legendary career amateur who called East Lake his home course and later helped found the famous club to the east.

But there’s a modern day connection between the clubs, too. Any player who qualifies for the Tour Championship at East Lake is rewarded with, among other perks, an invitation into the next year’s Masters Tournament. For the usual suspects with singular household names like Tiger and Phil, it doesn’t matter. They’ve already qualified for next April’s festivities a dozen times over.

For others, though, reaching this week’s field is a means to an end.

Graham DeLaet, Brendon De Jonge and Roberto Castro will each make their maiden pilgrimage to Augusta next year based on inclusion within the top 30 players in the FedEx Cup standings entering the season finale.

Call it a domino effect – or at least the next step in progressing to a higher level in golf’s hierarchy.

This week, these three players will compete for the $10 million grand prize for prevailing in the playoffs, where even last-place reaps a guaranteed paycheck. Indirectly, there are unforeseen benefits. In addition to qualifying for the Masters, players are also guaranteed a spot in the U.S. Open, Open Championship and WGC-Cadillac Championship fields, meaning they are able to set a schedule prior to the season and prepare for it. If nothing else, it helps a guy’s comfort level.

For DeLaet, de Jonge and Castro, three players still seeking a first career PGA Tour victory, such an advantage can prove invaluable. These are their stories.

When it comes to the perks of reaching his first Tour Championship, Graham DeLaet doesn’t mince words about which one means the most.

“It’s been a dream since I was a kid,” the Canadian says of qualifying for his first Masters. “I remember watching Weirsy [Mike Weir] win the Masters in ’03. I was at an Idaho State tournament in Pocatello, Idaho, and it was the coolest thing. That’s always been my favorite sporting event of the year to watch, over the Super Bowl or Stanley Cup playoffs. There’s something special about it – and to be playing in it is going to be unreal.”

He didn’t waste any time getting in, either.

DeLaet all but assured himself a berth in the field at East Lake with a share of second place at The Barclays, the first of four playoff events. He added a solo third for good measure one week later at the Deutsche Bank Championship and now finds himself ranked 33rd in the world and in prime position to join the game’s elite level.

“More than anything, I can pick a schedule next year, which will be really nice,” he explains. “There will be no surprises that pop up, like when I got into the Open Championship this year. So I can kind of plan around that a little bit more. Obviously all the majors and if I can retain my world ranking, the World Golf events. Hopefully that can snowball into big things for me.”

If it does, he’ll remember that it all started with getting into this week’s event, part of a season-long plan to set himself up for the future.

“This is kind of the goal coming into the year. Make it to Atlanta. To have a chance to win the FedEx Cup is even better.” 

Brendon de Jonge understands the importance of qualifying for some big-time events.

Now in his sixth PGA Tour season, de Jonge has made the cut in every major championship he’s played. That’s the good news. The downside is that his entire major career has included four starts in the PGA Championship and one in the U.S. Open.

That will change next year, thanks to him squeaking into the Tour Championship at No. 27 in the current standings.

“This sets up a lot of things for next year, it opens up a lot of doors,” he says. “You get into a lot of tournaments that you wouldn’t have necessarily gotten into. That’s the biggest thing.”

For a guy who owns 22 career top-10 finishes without claiming any hardware, being able to plot a schedule around tournaments he picks rather than ones which are essentially picked for him could be the difference-maker.

“I hope so. It feels like it, it feels like my career is heading in the right direction. I haven’t won yet, I’ve had a lot of chances, but yeah, it does; it feels like it’s all building up to something.”

More than perhaps anyone else in this week’s field, Roberto Castro isn’t looking ahead.

A product of Georgia Tech who now makes his home 15 minutes from East Lake, he maintains that competing here means as much as playing in the Masters.

“It’s kind of hard to say, but I think playing in this tournament is at least as big an accomplishment,” Castro explains. “Only 30 players and no invitations, straight off the points, earn your way in. But it might be different when I roll down Magnolia Lane.”

He laughs at the insinuation that he could make that 138-mile trip eastward more frequently than many of his fellow competitors.

“I guess that’s how it works, right? If you want to – within reason – play a few practice rounds, you can do that? I don’t know,” he says. “I’ll put some miles on that car. I’m not scared.”

And yes, like DeLaet and de Jonge, he knows the ability to plan ahead should serve him well.

“It’s going to be very nice,” he continues. “This year, I got to play in a lot of great tournaments, but some of them were uncertain at the beginning of the year, so I was kind of chasing it a little bit. Next year I’ll be able to know my schedule.

“When you first get on Tour, it’s so exciting. Then you start to see, OK, next step is to get into the majors and WGCs, then hopefully start contending and who knows. But it is a big step.” 

Neither DeLaet nor de Jonge nor Castro may win the Masters next year. Or the U.S. Open or Open Championship, for that matter.

Landing in the field at East Lake doesn’t directly guarantee success, but it does clear the path to a successful journey.

When one of them – or all three – breaks through for his first PGA Tour win, then starts contending for majors, very few people will look back on competing in the Tour Championship as what spurred such growth. With players of this caliber, it’s often an underrated checkpoint on that road toward greater progression.

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Stock Watch: Spieth searching for putting form

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:50 pm

Each week on, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.


Patton Kizzire (+8%): By today’s accelerated standards, he’s a late bloomer, having reached the Tour at age 29. Well, he seems right at home now, with two wins in his last four starts.

Rory (+7%): Coming off the longest break of his career, McIlroy should have no excuses this year. He’s healthy. Focused. Motivated. It’s go time.

Chris Paisley (+5%): The best part about his breakthrough European Tour title that netted him $192,000? With his wife, Keri, on the bag, he doesn’t have to cut 10 percent to his caddie – she gets the whole thing.

Brooke Henderson (+3%): A seventh-place finish at the Diamond Resorts Invitational doesn’t sound like much for a five-time winner, but this came against the men – on a cold, wet, windy, 6,700-yard track. She might be the most fun player to watch on the LPGA. 

New European Ryder Cuppers (+2%): In something of a Ryder Cup dress rehearsal, newcomers Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton each went undefeated in leading Europe to a come-from-behind victory at the EurAsia Cup. The competition come September will be, um, a bit stiffer.


Jordan’s putting (-1%): You can sense his frustration in interviews, and why not? In two starts he leads the Tour in greens in regulation … and ranks 201st (!) in putting. Here’s guessing he doesn’t finish the year there.

Brian Harman’s 2018 Sundays (-2%): The diminutive left-hander now has five consecutive top-10s, and he’s rocketing up the Ryder Cup standings, but you can’t help but wonder how much better the start to his year might have been. In the final pairing each of the past two weeks, he’s a combined 1 under in those rounds and wasn’t much of a factor.

Tom Hoge (-3%): Leading by one and on the brink of a life-changing victory – he hadn’t been able to keep his card each of the past three years – Hoge made an absolute mess of the 16th, taking double bogey despite having just 156 yards for his approach. At least now he’s on track to make the playoffs for the first time.

Predicting James Hahn’s form (-4%): OK, we give up: He’d gone 17 events without a top-15 before his win at Riviera; 12 before his win at Quail Hollow; and seven before he lost on the sixth playoff hole at Waialae. The margins between mediocre play and winning apparently are THAT small.

Barnrat (-5%): Coming in hot with four consecutive top-10s, and one of only two team members ranked inside the top 50 in the world, Kiradech Aphibarnrat didn’t show up at the EurAsia Cup, going 0-3 for the week. In hindsight, the Asian team had no chance without his contributions. 

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Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might

By Tim RosaforteJanuary 16, 2018, 1:40 pm

Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.

“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”

Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”

“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”

Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)

Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”

Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.

“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"

As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.

Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”

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McIlroy: Ryder Cup won't be as easy as USA thinks

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:18 pm

The Americans have won their past two international team competitions by a combined score of 38-22, but Rory McIlroy isn’t expecting another pushover at the Ryder Cup in September.

McIlroy admitted that the U.S. team will be strong, and that its core of young players (including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler) will be a force for the next decade. But he told reporters Tuesday at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship that course setup will play a significant role.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said, referring to the Americans’ 17-11 victory in 2016. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

At every Ryder Cup, the home team has the final say on course setup. Justin Rose was the most outspoken about the setup at Hazeltine, saying afterward that it was “incredibly weak” and had a “pro-am feel.” 

And so this year’s French Open figures to be a popular stop for European Tour players – it’s being held once again at Le Golf National, site of the matches in September. Tommy Fleetwood won last year’s event at 12 under.

“I’m confident,” McIlroy said. “Everything being all well and good, I’ll be on that team and I feel like we’ll have a really good chance.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that. The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.” 

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Floodlights may be used at Dubai Desert Classic

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 12:44 pm

No round at next week’s Dubai Desert Classic will be suspended because of darkness.

Tournament officials have installed state-of-the-art floodlighting around the ninth and 18th greens to ensure that all 132 players can finish their round.

With the event being moved up a week in the schedule, the European Tour was initially concerned about the amount of daylight and trimmed the field to 126 players. Playing under the lights fixed that dilemma.

“This is a wonderful idea and fits perfectly with our desire to bring innovation to our sport,” European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley said. “No professional golfer ever wants to come back the following morning to complete a round due to lack of daylight, and this intervention, should it be required, will rule out that necessity.”

Next week’s headliners include Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson.