USGA's 'Heavyweight' group causing minor stir

By Jason SobelJune 11, 2014, 8:53 pm

PINEHURST, N.C. – Imagine this: You’re a professional golfer. Not one of the bigger stars of the game, but certainly one of the bigger players. Physically, that is.

But so what? Golf is a game for all shapes and sizes. Not everyone has washboard abs like Camilo Villegas or linebacker shoulders like Gary Woodland or Popeye-ish forearms like Paul Casey. Success isn’t determined by physical appearance.

And you’ve had your share of success. You’ve qualified for this week’s U.S. Open, the year’s second major championship. Just before the week starts, though, something happens.

That major championship makes fun of you.

The USGA has a long-standing tradition of grouping like-minded players. Old guys. Young guys. Winners of the same event. Residents of the same state. Even players whose names sound similar.

It’s a fun little custom. This week, though, a proverbial line might have been crossed.

In the 1:14 p.m. grouping off the 10th tee on Thursday will be the trio of Brendon de Jonge, Shane Lowry and Kevin Stadler.

Or as Stadler’s caddie, Shannon Wallis, calls ‘em: “The Heavyweights.”

Officially, they are listed respectively at 230, 225 and 250 pounds – more than one-third of a ton of golfers.

“When I saw it, I was pretty annoyed,” said Lowry, who points out that he’s lost about 18 pounds in the past six months. “I think it’s very cheeky of the USGA to do what they’ve done. I don’t think it’s fair to the three of us. It’s a mockery, to be honest.”

This isn't a serious injustice. It isn't a breach of protocol. It doesn't disrupt the competitive balance of the tournament.

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It's just kind of rude.

“I think the USGA is a little mean and insensitive, but that’s just the way it goes,” Stadler insisted. “They’re invoking their 5-year-old sense of humor.”

From the USGA’s perspective, the tradition of producing these groupings is simply a unique part of U.S. Open ritual.

“There are some themes, you know,” said Jeff Hall, the organization’s managing director of rules and competitions. “There’s a fair amount of leeway.”

There were also plenty of other options for de Jonge, Lowry and Stadler.

When asked why those three competitors were grouped together, Hall responded, “I’ve got to be careful. We have some fun.”

He allowed that it is the USGA’s goal to keep players with those of similar abilities and past success.

Suggesting that might have been the primary motivation for this grouping, he said, “It certainly wasn’t the case that we were trying to do anything. But if you look at the three, they’re all pretty comparable as far as the world rankings.”

For the record, Stadler is ranked the highest at 59, followed by Lowry at 71 and de Jonge at 80.

However, this isn’t the first time it’s happened.

The last time Stadler competed in the U.S. Open, back in 2006 at Winged Foot, he was grouped alongside Tim Herron and Carl Pettersson – not exactly a pair of gym rats.

“I was kind of expecting it, honestly,” he said of this week’s playing partners, “just because they did it last time.”

Of the three, Lowry was clearly most annoyed by the USGA’s decision.

“They’ve obviously paired the three of us together for a certain reason,” he maintained. “I’ve been working hard on my fitness most of the year. I’ve been getting a few digs here and there on social media and it’s just not nice. But I’ve had that most of my life. I don’t really care what people think, other than my close friends and family.”

In just his sixth career major and second U.S. Open appearance, Lowry is hoping to find the leaderboard for multiple reasons – but one is so that he can bring attention to this USGA decision.

“I’d like to do well this week, because I’ll make a point about saying something,” he said. “I’m not going to make any excuses if I don’t. I was pretty annoyed when I saw it.”

At some point on Thursday, the three big fellas are likely to walk down a fairway and discuss why they were grouped together.

At least one of them will be laughing.

“I was actually pretty amused by it,” de Jonge said with a smile. “I wasn’t offended at all.”

Maybe it’s not offensive. And it’s certainly not illegal.

It’s just kind of rude.

Even if the players involved aren’t going to worry too much about it.

“I don’t care,” Stadler insisted. “It’s not like I don’t pretend that I’m not a fat-ass.”

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Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

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Duke to fill in for injured Pavin at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:25 pm

Ken Duke will fill in for Corey Pavin for the next two rounds of the CareerBuilder Challenge – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard.

Pavin was 4 over par when he withdrew after 17 holes Thursday because of a neck injury. Tournament officials contacted Duke, the first alternate, and asked if he would take Pavin’s spot and partner with Luis Lopez for the next two rounds, even though he would not receive any official money.

Duke accepted and explained his decision on Twitter:

Playing on past champion’s status, the 48-year-old Duke has made only four starts this season, with a best finish of a tie for 61st at the RSM Classic.

Pavin received a sponsor exemption into the event, his first PGA Tour start since the 2015 Colonial.