Younger players have the mental makeup to win now

By Jason SobelJanuary 14, 2013, 1:37 pm

Charles Howell III is a congenial kind of guy, the type who appreciates the give and take of some playful banter. So when I saw him on the practice green at Waialae Country Club for the first time last Wednesday, it wasn't long after we exchanged Happy New Year greetings that I tried to give him a little grief.

'You're looking old,” I jabbed. “What is this, like your 17th year out here?'

'Nope,' he answered. 'Only my 14th.'

The response floored me. I had picked a number large enough – or so I thought – that it would exaggerate his age for the sake of the joke. Do the math, though, and you'll find that, yes, it really has been that long since Howell first broke onto the scene with 13 starts back in 2000.

The conversation instantly reminded me of another one I had with him at the Sony Open. It was six years ago when Howell appeared primed to win this tournament, only to get lapped on the back nine by Paul Goydos. Afterward, he characteristically sat down and answered some tough questions, shouldering the blame for the defeat. But when I suggested that his loss was serving as a microcosm for the inadequacy of young American golfers, he chafed at the notion that there was even any issue.

'I think it's ridiculous' he said at the time. 'I think American golf under 30 is fine. If you look across the board, if you look at the guys playing nowadays, I don't buy into that, no.'

This despite the fact that only three American 20somethings had won the year before (J.B. Holmes, Troy Matteson and D.J. Trahan), only two owned multiple career victories (Ben Curtis and Jonathan Byrd) and only one was ranked in the world’s top 50 (Lucas Glover). It doesn’t take a golf historian to realize that despite a few major wins in that group, none of those players developed into a superstar.

The story is relevant today because we’ve seen a seismic shift in the early success of U.S.-born golfers. Dustin Johnson has won in each year since graduating college. Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson are already major champions. And on seemingly a weekly basis, baby-faced kids who were carrying their bags in college tournaments not long ago are not only competing with the world’s best on the PGA Tour but contending for titles.

And winning them. Russell Henley is the latest – and maybe greatest – example of a player finding prosperity so soon after leaving campus. His final round at the Sony Open, one of three 63s he posted during the week, included five birdies to close. Ask the question of why times have changed so quickly and the simplest answer may be staring back from atop the leaderboard: Because they’re really talented.

That may be true, but it’s a copout. Just five-10 years ago, players coming out of college were really talented, too, yet the results weren’t nearly as immediate. So what’s the real reason? Ask Henley and he cites everything from the increasing competitiveness of junior golf to motivation from friends like Harris English, who kept his card after a strong rookie campaign last year.

“I think more guys want it,” Henley explained. “It's just getting more and more competitive. If everybody could just get out of their own way a little bit, including me a lot of time – the majority of the time – everybody could play some good golf out here. Everybody is very talented.”

He isn’t wrong about any of that, of course, though his answer serves as only a broad explanation. In fact, go back and read it again. If Howell had offered that comment back in 2005 as a reason for less success rather than Henley using it now as a reason for more, it still would have served that dual purpose.

As if to only further the point about young golfers making the jump to the most elite level, Scott Langley also contended throughout the weekend at Waialae. Like Henley, he is a 2011 college graduate – and like Henley, he never seemed like he was lost in the moment, even when his hot putter grew cold on Sunday.

“Guys are really good at every level – junior golf, amateur golf and mini-tours everywhere,” Langley reasoned when faced with the question. “I think the instruction is really good. That definitely helps. Guys are getting better technique younger. But then also I think as far as me and my peers, we've helped each other a lot, just push each other to be better. 

“Our little group of guys has played together for 10 years probably. We just always kind of have tried to make each other better. If I see Russell playing really good, I want to play really good. I want to beat him. And same with if [fellow rookie] Luke Guthrie is playing great; I want to go out there and play well. We push each other, and I think we kind of feed off each other.”

We’re getting warmer. Quality players have always been around, but a higher quantity of quality players competing in the junior, amateur and collegiate ranks basically traveling the world as unpaid professionals speaks volumes as to why the comfort level comes more readily these days.

There’s more to it, though. Langley’s explanation could serve as to why more young players are faring well, but it doesn’t necessarily address why it’s collegians as opposed to elite international players who have often played five years of professional golf by the time they turn 23. For that, I asked someone who has not only witnessed the transformation firsthand. He prodded it along.

“We want guys who want a great education, but want to play professional golf when they get out,” said University of Illinois head coach Mike Small, who coached both Langley and Guthrie. “They're coming to get their games better. I think the mindset is that you should get that degree, but you might as well become as you good as you can at golf while you’re here.'

Now we’re getting somewhere. Small has a unique perspective in making the jump to the highest level thanks to his own background. He not only succeeded in reaching the PGA Tour, he failed at sustaining his time there, a contrast he sees as a benefit to his players.

“This isn't fun-and-games daycare. I treat them and train them like Tour players,” he added, acknowledging that such treatment has changed in recent years. “These players aren't scared anymore. The golf courses we play are harder; the coaches are expecting more.

“I want to win championships as much as anyone, but if you coach these guys and convince them they're not going to reach their peak until 35 or 40, they’re going to lose that dream when they’re 22 or 23. I want my guys to want to play on Tour someday. I'm not going to force them, but I want them to have that dream.”


Whether it’s Small at Illinois or Chris Haack – Henley’s coach at the University of Georgia, which is churning out Tour players annually – or any number of college coaches who have been at the forefront of such change, it’s the mindset being instilled in players from Day 1 on campus that is making the biggest impact. No longer are college golfers being warned to respect their elders and informed that – with a heaping dose of luck spooned on top of their talent – maybe they can someday succeed on the PGA Tour level.

Sure, we can credit equipment as a technical assistance to these players and specialized instructors as a physical aid. In sport’s ultimate mental pursuit, though, there are now greater concessions being made toward that part of the game, if not with specific mental gurus and psychologists, then at least with a nod toward the power of positive thinking.

College students are taught to dream big and though it’s been a gradual shift, college golfers are now taking that notion to an extreme level. It’s one that should only serve to feed off itself in coming years, too; just as Henley received motivation from English, kids still living in dorms right now are deriving inspiration from Henley’s victory, believing that if he can win right away, well, so can they.

Six years ago, when I explored this topic with Howell, his retort was, 'I think American golf under 30 is fine.” He probably wasn’t wrong about that, but “fine” turned out to be underwhelming. The impressive exploits of young, U.S.-born golfers recently easily exceeds “fine,” which is exactly what they’ve been taught for years.

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First Look: WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play groups

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 2:20 am

AUSTIN, Texas – Although professional golf’s version of March Madness is considered just plain maddening in some circles following the switch to round-robin play three years ago, it’s still one of the game’s most compelling weeks after a steady diet of stroke play.

With this week’s lineup having been set Monday night via a blind draw, we take a deep dive into WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play bracketology (current world golf rankings in parentheses):

Pool play will begin Wednesday, with the winner from each of the 16 groups advancing to knockout play beginning Saturday:

Group 1: (1) Dustin Johnson, (32) Kevin Kisner, (38) Adam Hadwin, (52) Bernd Wiesberger

Teeing off: This sounds like the beginning of a joke that’s made the rounds at the United Nations, but what do you get when a pair of South Carolinians, a Canadian and an Austrian walk onto the first tee? Group 1 and what, on paper, looks like it could be the week’s most lopsided pod with the world No. 1, who never trailed on his way to victory last year, poised to pick up where he left off.

Group 2: (2) Justin Thomas, (21) Francesco Molinari, (48) Patton Kizzire, (60) Luke List

Teeing off: This isn’t exactly an Iron Bowl rematch, but having Thomas (Alabama) and Kizzire (Auburn) in the same group seems to be pandering to the Southeastern Conference crowd.

Group 3: (3) Jon Rahm, (28) Kiradech Aphibarnrat, (43) Chez Reavie, (63) Keegan Bradley

Teeing off: The Asian John Daly (aka Aphibarnrat) will have his hands full with Rahm, who lost the championship match to Johnson last year; while Bradley may be this group’s Cinderella after making a late push to qualify for the Match Play.

Group 4: (4) Jordan Spieth, (19) Patrick Reed, (34) Haotong Li, (49) Charl Schwartzel

Teeing off: This may be the week’s most awkward pairing, with Spieth and Reed turning what has been one of the United States' most successful tandems (they are 7-2-2 as partners in Presidents and Ryder Cup play) into an early-week highlight. It will be “shhh” vs. “Go Get that.”

Group 5: (5) Hideki Matsuyama, (30) Patrick Cantlay, (46) Cameron Smith, (53) Yusaku Miyazato

Teeing off: Cantlay could be the Tour’s most reserved player, Smith isn’t much more outspoken and Matsuyama and Miyazato speak limited English. This will be the quietest pod, and it’ll have nothing to do with gamesmanship.

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Group 6: (6) Rory McIlroy, (18) Brian Harman, (44) Jhonattan Vegas, (51) Peter Uihlein

Teeing off: We're going to declare this the “group of death,” with McIlroy coming off a commanding victory last week at Bay Hill and Harman being one of the Tour’s most gritty competitors.

Group 7: (7) Sergio Garcia, (20) Xander Schauffele, (41) Dylan Frittelli, (62) Shubankhar Sharma

Teeing off: Three weeks ago, Phil Mickelson confused Sharma for a member of the media when he tried to introduce himself at the WGC-Mexico Championship. As a public service announcement: it’s SHAR-ma. You may be hearing it a lot this week.

Group 8: (8) Jason Day, (25) Louis Oosthuizen, (42) Jason Dufner, (56) James Hahn

Teeing off: This pod has a Presidents Cup flair to it, but Day and Oosthuizen should hope for a better outcome considering the International side’s awful record in the biennial bout.

Group 9: (9) Tommy Fleetwood, (26) Daniel Berger, (33) Kevin Chappell, (58) Ian Poulter

Teeing off: We showed up in Austin and a Ryder Cup broke out. Fleetwood is all but a lock to make this year’s European team, and fellow Englishman Poulter (23-14) has forged a career on his match-play prowess. For Berger and Chappell, who both played last year’s Presidents Cup, it’s a chance to impress U.S. captain Jim Furyk.

Group 10: (10) Paul Casey, (31) Matthew Fitzpatrick, (45) Kyle Stanley, (51) Russell Henley

Teeing off: Casey has a stellar record at the Match Play (23-13-1) and having finally ended his victory drought two weeks ago at the Valspar Championship the Englishman could likely seal his Ryder Cup fate with a solid week at Austin Country Club.

Group 11: (11) Marc Leishman, (23) Branden Grace, (35) Bubba Watson, (64) Suri

Teeing off: The best part of March Madness is the potential upsets, and while Suri, the last man in the field, isn’t exactly UMBC over Virginia, don’t be surprised if the little-known player from St. Augustine, Fla., stuns some big names this week.

Group 12: (12) Tyrrell Hatton, (22) Charley Hoffman, (36) Brendan Steele, (55) Alexander Levy

Teeing off: If Levy hopes to make the European Ryder Cup team he should consider this his audition. That is if captain Thomas Bjorn is watching.

Group 13: (13) Alex Noren, (29) Tony Finau, (39) Thomas Pieters, (61) Kevin Na

Teeing off:  Finau and Pieters have the firepower to play with anyone in the field and Noren’s record the last few months has been impressive, but Na looks like one of those Princeton teams who can wear down anyone.

Group 14: (14) Phil Mickelson, (17) Rafael Cabrera-Bello, (40) Sotashi Kodaira, (59) Charles Howell III

Teeing off: Mickelson has been rejuvenated by his victory at the last World Golf Championship, Cabrera Bello is poised to earn a spot on this year’s European Ryder Cup team and Howell is playing some of the best golf of his career. Note to Kodaira, don’t try to introduce yourself to Lefty before your match. 

Group 15: (15) Pat Perez, (24) Gary Woodland, (37) Webb Simpson, (50) Si Woo Kim

Teeing off: Perez explained that during a practice round on Monday he was talking trash with Branden Grace. Not sure Kim will be down for some trash talking, but it would certainly be entertaining and probably a little confusing for him.

Group 16: (16) Matt Kuchar, (27) Ross Fisher, (47) Yuta Ikeda, (54) Zach Johnson

Teeing off: If any of these matches comes down to a tie, may we suggest officials go to a sudden-death ping-pong match. No one can compete with Kuchar on a table, but it would be must-see TV nonetheless.

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Randall's Rant: Hey, loudmouth, you're not funny

By Randall MellMarch 19, 2018, 10:30 pm

Dear misguided soul:

You know who you are.

You’re “that guy.”

You’re that guy following around Rory McIloy and yelling “Erica” at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

There was something creepy in the nature of your bid to get in McIlroy’s head, in the way you hid in the shadows all day. Bringing a guy’s wife into the fray that way, it’s as funny as heavy breathing on the other end of a phone call.

You’re that guy telling Justin Thomas you hope he hits it in the water at the Honda Classic.

There are a million folks invested in seeing if Thomas can muster all the skills he has honed devoting himself to being the best in the world, and you’re wanting to dictate the tournament’s outcome. Yeah, that’s what we all came out to see, if the angry guy living in his mother’s basement can make a difference in the world. Can’t-miss TV.

You’re that guy who is still screaming “Mashed Potatoes” at the crack of a tee shot or “Get in the Hole” with the stroke of a putt.

Amusing to you, maybe, but as funny as a fart in an elevator to the rest of us.

As a growing fraternity of golf fans, you “guys” need a shirt. It could say, “I’m that guy” on one side and “Phi Kappa Baba Booey” on the other.

I know, from outside of golf, this sounds like a stodgy old geezer screaming “Get off my lawn.” That’s not right, though. It’s more like “Stop puking on my lawn.”

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Because McIlroy is right, in the growing number of incidents players seem to be dealing with now, it’s probably the liquor talking.

The Phoenix Open is golf’s drunken uncle, but he isn’t just visiting on the holiday now. He’s moving in.

What’s a sport to do?

McIlroy suggested limiting liquor sales at tournaments, restricting alcohol consumption to beer.

I don’t know, when the beer’s talking, it sounds a lot like the liquor talking to me, just a different dialect.

From the outside, this push-back from players makes them sound like spoiled country club kids who can’t handle the rough-and-tumble playgrounds outside their prim little bailiwick. This isn’t really about social traditions, though. It’s about competition.

It’s been said here before, and it’s worth repeating, golf isn’t like baseball, basketball or football. Screaming in a player’s backswing isn’t like screaming at a pitcher, free-throw shooter or field-goal kicker. A singular comment breaking the silence in golf is more like a football fan sneaking onto the sidelines and tripping a receiver racing toward the end zone.

Imagine the outrage if that happened in an NFL game.

So, really, what is golf to do?

Equip marshals with tasers? Muzzle folks leaving the beer tent? Prohibit alcohol sales at tournaments?

While the first proposition would make for good TV, it probably wouldn’t be good for growing the sport.

So, it’s a tough question, but golf’s governing bodies should know by now that drunken fans can’t read those “Quiet Please!” signs that marshals wave. There will have to be better enforcement (short of tasers and muzzles).

There’s another thing about all of this, too. Tiger Woods is bringing such a broader fan base to the game again, with his resurgence. Some of today’s younger players, they didn’t experience all that came with his ascendance his first time around. Or they didn’t get the full dose of Tigermania when they were coming up.

This is no knock on Tigermania. It’s great for the game, but there are challenges bringing new fans into the sport and keeping them in the sport.

So if you’re “that guy,” welcome to our lawn, just don’t leave your lunch on it, please.


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How Faxon became 'The Putting Stroke Whisperer'

By Rex HoggardMarch 19, 2018, 9:39 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – During a charity event a few years ago Brad Faxon was asked what he’s thinking about when he putts. A hush fell across the green as everyone within earshot eagerly awaited the answer.

Imagine having the chance to quiz Leonardo da Vinci about the creative process, or Ben Hogan on the finer points of ball-striking. Arguably the best putter of his generation, if anyone could crack the complicated code of speed, line and pace, it would be Faxon.

Faxon mulled the question for a moment, shrugged and finally said, “Rhythm and tempo.”

If Faxon’s take seems a tad underwhelming, and it did that day to everyone in his group, the genius of his simplicity was on display last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Before arriving at Bay Hill, Rory McIlroy ranked 124th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained: putting, losing .1 strokes per round to the field. In fact, he’d missed the cut a week earlier at the Valspar Championship when he needed 58 putts for two days and made just a single attempt over 10 feet.

It’s one of those competitive ironies that having the weekend off turned out to be just what McIlroy needed. He went home to South Florida to work on his game and ran across Faxon at The Bear’s Club.

Although Faxon’s take on the art of putting was probably more involved than it had been a few years earlier, he seemed to have touched on all the right points.

“Freed up my head more than my stroke,” McIlroy explained. “I sort of felt like maybe complicating things a bit and thinking a little bit too much about it and maybe a little bogged down by technical or mechanical thoughts.”

Earlier in the week McIlroy had a slightly different take on his putting turnaround at Bay Hill, where he led the field in strokes gained: putting, picking up 10 shots for the week, and rolled in 49 feet of putts over his last five holes to end a victory drought that had stretched back to the 2016 Tour Championship.

“Just playing around with it. Seeing balls go in in the front edge, trying to hit them in the left edge, the right edge, hit them off the back of the cup,” he said on Thursday. “Just trying to get a little bit more feel into it and a little more flow.”

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If that doesn’t exactly sound like an exact science, welcome to the Faxon way. In recent years, he’s become something of the game's "Putting Stroke Whisperer," which is no huge surprise considering his status as one of the game’s best on the greens.

Between 1991, the year he won the first of eight Tour titles, through 2005, the year he won his last, Faxon ranked outside the top 20 in putting average just four times, and he led the circuit in that category three of those years. But in recent years he’s come into his own as a putting guru.

“The first clinic I attended that a Tour player gave, it was Hale Irwin, and he talked about rhythm and tempo, I was disappointed because I wanted to hear more than that,” Faxon explained. “I thought there would be more technical stuff. I thought it was the default phrase to take pressure off the player, but the more I’ve learned about teaching the best players in the world don’t have many complicated thoughts.”

Faxon’s career has been nothing short of impressive, his eight Tour titles spanning two decades; but it’s his work with players like McIlroy and Gary Woodland that has inspired him in recent years.

A man who has spent his life studying the nuances of the golf swing and putting stroke has created a teaching philosophy as simple, or complicated depending on the player, as rhythm and tempo.

“He teaches me, which is a good thing. He doesn’t have a philosophy,” Woodland said. “I was around him a lot in 2011, 2010, it’s unbelievable how well he can relay it now. He has video of a million guys putting and he’s one of the best to do it, but he can show you that you don’t have to do it one certain way and that was good for me.”

For Woodland, Faxon keyed in on his background as a college basketball player and compared the putting stroke to how he shoots free-throws. For McIlroy, it was a different sport but the concept remained the same.

“We were talking about other sports where you have to create your own motion, a free-throw shooter, a baseball pitcher, but what related to him was a free-kicker in soccer, he mentioned Wayne Rooney,” Faxon said. “You have to have something to kick start your motion, maybe it’s a trigger, some might use a forward press, or tapping the putter like Steve Stricker, sometimes it’s finding the trigger like that for a player.”

Faxon spent “a good two hours” with McIlroy last weekend at The Bear’s Club, not talking technique or method, but instead tapping into the intuitive nature of what makes someone a good putter. Midway through that session Faxon said he didn’t need to say another word.

The duo ended the session with a putting contest. Putting 30-footers to different holes, the goal was to make five “aces.” Leading the contest 4-2, Faxon couldn’t resist.

“Hey Rory, after you win Bay Hill this week you’ll have to tell the world you lost to Brad Faxon in a putting contest,” Faxon joked.

McIlroy proceeded to hole three of his next four attempts to win the contest. “I’m going to tell everyone I beat Brad Faxon in a putting contest,” McIlroy laughed.

Maybe it’s the way he’s able to so easily simplify an exceedingly complicated game, maybe it’s a resume filled with more clutch putts than one could count. Whatever it is, Faxon is good at teaching. More importantly, he’s having fun and doing something he loves.

“I have a hard time being called a teacher or a coach, it was more of a conversation with Rory, being able to work with someone like Rory is as excited as I’ve ever been in my career,” Faxon said. “It meant much more to me than it did Rory.”

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Frittelli fulfilled promise by making Match Play field

By Rex HoggardMarch 19, 2018, 8:40 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Dylan Frittelli attended the University of Texas and still maintains a residence in Austin, so in an odd way this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is a home game for the South African who plays the European Tour.

Frittelli actually attended the event last year as a spectator, when he watched the quarterfinal matches on Saturday afternoon, and made a promise to himself.

“I told a lot of people, I was running into them. I said, ‘I'll be here next year, I'll be playing in this tournament,’” said Frittelli, who climbed to 45th in the world ranking after two victories last year in Europe. “People looked at me, you're 190 in the world, that's hard to get to 64. It was a goal I set myself.”

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Frittelli’s next goal may be a little payback for a loss he suffered in college when he was a teammate of Jordan Spieth’s. Frittelli is making his first start at the Match Play and could face his old Longhorn stable mate this week depending on how the brackets work out and his play.

“We had the UT inter-team championship. Coach switched it to match play my senior year, and Jordan beat me in the final at UT Golf Club. It was 3 and 2,” Frittelli said. “So I'm not too keen to face him again.