Mallon in charge with U.S. squad united behind her

By Jay CoffinAugust 14, 2013, 6:52 pm

PARKER, Colo. – Few people love a good party more than U.S. Solheim Cup captain Meg Mallon.

Yet it was Mallon, of all people, who kept a Solheim Cup victory celebration from breaking out back in 2005 at Crooked Stick.

“I sure was a buzz kill for that party,” Mallon said Wednesday at Colorado Golf Club. “That was a bummer.”

An hour after Mallon drained a 6-foot putt to beat Karen Stupples and assure the Americans possession of the Solheim Cup, she was on a gurney in the back of an ambulance being transported to an Indianapolis hospital with a heart rate of nearly 300 beats per minute.

Mallon vividly recalls Europe’s Sophie Gustafson peering through the back of the ambulance with tears in her eyes. She remembers seeing U.S. teammate Natalie Gulbis standing there too, while medics discussed using electric paddles to jolt her heart back into rhythm.

The Americans then went to visit with the media to discuss their victory, but found it understandably difficult to speak while not knowing the status of their fallen friend. Captain Nancy Lopez, an emotional person anyway, struggled to find words. Mallon’s longtime friend Juli Inkster served as the team spokesperson.

It was as surreal of a scene as you’ll see in golf.

Ultimately Mallon was released from the hospital three days later diagnosed with supraventricular tachycardia, a rhythm disturbance that causes a rapid heartbeat. Mallon says the event was a blessing because a misdiagnosed heart condition for the previous 20 years was finally remedied.

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Still, that was the last Solheim Cup Mallon ever played. And it was bittersweet.

The Massachusetts native was an assistant captain on a victorious 2009 team outside Chicago, but now, with 18 LPGA victories, four major championships and an impressive 13-9-7 career Solheim Cup record, Mallon is fully in charge of her own team.

Granted a meaningful shot has not been struck so far at Colorado Golf Club, but, by most indications, Mallon has made all the right moves.

The first came immediately after Mallon was named captain 18 months ago when she welcomed Dottie Pepper back into the American Solheim Cup fold. Pepper had been blacklisted ever since 2007 when she made critical comments on what she believed was a closed television microphone. The mic, however, was open for the whole world to hear her criticize an American duo that had failed to close out a crucial match.

“People just needed to talk,” Mallon said. “That’s all I did was just facilitate that. It was, for me, seven years later, I thought it was silly that it was still going on. It was just a matter of getting them to come together and say ‘you know, listen, that was silly, let’s move on.’ ”

“I’m happy that’s happened. I wasn’t surprised that it has, and it’s good to have her around.”

Said Stacy Lewis: “(Meg) was the only person I think that could bring everybody together and Dottie’s been great. She’s got so much knowledge of the game and so much experience you can just kind of, you can rub off of her and you can learn a lot from her.”

The next tough choice came in making captain’s picks, although Mallon contends the decision really wasn’t as difficult as some believe.

Michelle Wie’s name immediately jumped off the page because of her Solheim Cup experience and 4-3-1 career record. Mallon knew some would criticize the selection but she never wavered. She wanted Wie on this team.

Gerina Piller’s selection was a gut feeling. Sure this is Piller’s first Solheim Cup but she’s 28 years old, a late bloomer and has several good friends already on the squad to help show her the ropes. Mallon loved the fit to round out her team.

“I got a great suggestion from (former U.S. Ryder Cup captain) Curtis Strange last week that said ‘you always trusted your gut and your instincts when you played golf. You should do the same thing as a captain’ ” Mallon said. “That was excellent advice because it was exactly what happened to me on Sunday when I made the picks.”

Mallon and her squad do face extreme pressure. No European team has ever won on American soil, and Mallon doesn’t want that streak to end on her watch.

Only three Americans have won on the LPGA this year (Cristie Kerr, Stacy Lewis and Jennifer Johnson) and Johnson is not on this team.

There are four rookies on Team USA, which seems like a lot, until you look at the European roster and see six rookies. Lexi Thompson (18) and Jessica Korda (20) are two of those rookies. How will their youth handle the pressure of the team format?

Lewis and Paula Creamer both lost in Sunday singles two years ago in Ireland, which set the tone for a European victory. How will they respond this time?

Can Wie deal with the pressure of being a captain’s pick? Will she be able to make a crucial 5-footer in crunch time?

All are questions that will be answered here, outside the Mile High City, over the next few days. If the heavily-favored Americans win, Mallon will be credited. If they lose, well, she’ll take her share of the blame. Such is life as a captain in a team event.

One thing is certain, this team loves Mallon and is united behind her every move. Admittedly, that’s the battle cry at most cups, but you get the sense that this week it’s the truth.

“Meg was always one of those players I idolized growing up,” Kerr said. “She just had such a beautiful golf swing and a beautiful way about her around the golf course and off the golf course.

“I think everybody on this team really admires her and respects her. When she speaks you listen.”

Said Lewis: “Meg’s the best. She’s taken care of us this week. She’s made it relaxed and easy and she’s been very clear about what she wants to do.

“Overall it’s just been really good.”

Hopefully for Mallon, it’ll be good enough to end the week with a celebration. If so, you can count on her to be the life of the party.

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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.

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That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.

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Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.

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The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”