Woods heads star-studded leaderboard at Doral

By Jay CoffinMarch 8, 2013, 9:28 pm

DORAL, Fla. – Raise your hand if you wish the Masters began next week?

After two days here in the glorious South Florida sun the WGC-Cadillac Championship leaderboard is slicker than Doral owner Donald Trump’s hair.

This is a veritable golf smorgasbord. There’s something for everyone.

The Masters can’t get here soon enough with the game’s biggest names (save for Rory McIlroy) all in top form.

There are PGA Championship winners, several Masters champions and a U.S. Open victor all within striking distance. They’ve all turned the Blue Monster at Doral into the Cookie Monster the past two days, with birdies galore being made all over the lot.

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Highlights: Woods takes lead to Doral weekend

But above all stands Tiger Woods, this generation’s ultimate champion. Woods already has a victory this year at his beloved Torrey Pines and the game’s greatest frontrunner now takes a two-shot lead into the weekend at another place he’s dominated.

Woods backed up a first-round 66 with a 65 Friday to record a 13-under-par total.

The 14-time major champion achieved another first this week – he recorded 17 birdies over the first 36 holes. (Woods' previous record was 16 birdies in the first two rounds of the 1999 Byron Nelson. He ultimately tied for seventh place.)

“That’s a good start,” Woods said in the understatement of the century. “I’m playing well and I made a bunch of putts. But more importantly I left myself in the right spots to make putts and I think that’s probably the biggest key. I kept leaving myself where I could be aggressive.”

Funny thing is, Woods said he warmed up terribly Friday morning.

After making nine birdies in the first round, Woods began his second round with three consecutive pars and admittedly didn’t hit too many stellar shots. A laser 4-iron from 238 yards on the par-3 fourth hole landed 4 feet from the hole and that swing was enough to propel Woods into a more positive mindset. In the next 12 holes Woods made seven birdies and a lone bogey.

“All I need is one shot and as soon as I felt it on one, I can pretty much carry that through,” Woods said.

Woods hit 15-of-18 greens in Round 2 and needed only 26 putts. He has now hit 28-of-36 greens in two days and has taken 49 strokes with the putter.

“It’s funny, he sort of just plods along,” McIlroy said. “He’s putted well the last couple of days, which has been a big thing.

“He hit a lot of really quality iron shots and put the ball in the fairway for the most part and putted really nicely. He looked really solid.”

Most noticeable is that Woods has put no stress on himself. The lone bogey on Friday was the result of a poor drive on No. 14. His tee shot on the par-3 15th hole found the back bunker, leaving him with little green to work with because of a tucked hole. Woods blasted out to 15 feet and calmly made the putt to help momentum.

Graeme McDowell is Woods’ closest pursuer heading into the weekend. Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker are a shot behind McDowell and others including Bubba Watson, Charl Schwartzel, Keegan Bradley and Dustin Johnson are all in the top 10.

Weekend conditions are supposed to be more difficult, with the potential of turning this cupcake of a course into more of the monster that it’s named. Sunday's forecast calls for more wind and players all say they expect the greens will be baked out.

Sure, we’re midway through this World Golf Championship event but it’s difficult not to view this as another Woods coronation. He held a four-shot lead after 36 holes at the Farmers Insurance Open and cruised to PGA Tour victory No. 75.

This one is sure to be more difficult to win than that one in San Diego, as the closest pursuers there don’t hold a candle to those here.

McDowell, for one, has stared down Woods recently as much as anyone. Woods was in contention at the 2010 U.S. Open that McDowell ultimately won and, although it’s a year-end cash grab, McDowell also beat Woods head-to-head in a playoff at Woods’ World Challenge later that same year.

“I’ve played with Tiger many times, many stages,” McDowell said. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot over the years playing with him.

“Tomorrow is not about winning the golf tournament. Tomorrow is just about maintaining position, maintaining the way I’m playing and trying to give myself a chance come Sunday afternoon.”

True. But a hungry Woods, seemingly firing on all cylinders a month before the Masters, has to be a scary sight.

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.

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Tour's Integrity Program raises gambling questions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 17, 2018, 7:00 pm

The video begins with an eye-opening disclaimer: “Sport betting markets produce revenues of $1 trillion each year.”

For all the seemingly elementary elements of the 15-minute video PGA Tour players have been required to watch as part of the circuit’s newly created Integrity Program, it’s the enormity of the industry – $1 trillion annually – that concerns officials.

There are no glaring examples of how sport betting has impacted golf, no red flags that sent Tour officials into damage control; just a realization that with that kind of money it’s best to be proactive.

“It's important that in that world, you can operate not understanding what's happening week in and week out, or you can assume that all of our players and everybody in our ecosystem understands that that's not an acceptable activity, or you can just be proactive and clarify and educate,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan explained earlier this month. “That's what we have attempted to do not with just the video, but with all of our communication with our players and will continue to do that.”

But if clarification is the goal, a copy of the training video obtained by GolfChannel.com paints a different picture.

Although the essence of the policy is straightforward – “prohibit players from betting on professional golf” – the primary concern, at least if the training video is any indication, is on match fixing; and warns players to avoid divulging what is considered “inside information.”

“I thought the questions were laughable. They were all like first-grade-level questions,” Chez Reavie said. “I would like to think everyone out here already knows the answer to those questions. But the Tour has to protect themselves.”

Monahan explained that the creation of the integrity policy was not in reaction to a specific incident and every player asked last week at the Sony Open said they had never encountered any type of match fixing.

“No, not at all,” Reavie said. “I have friends who will text me from home after a round, ‘Oh, I bet on you playing so-and-so.’ But I make it clear I don’t want to know. I don’t gamble like that. No one has ever approached me about losing a match.”

It was a common answer, but the majority of the video focuses on how players can avoid being placed in a compromising situation that could lead to match fixing. It should be noted that gamblers can place wagers on head-to-head matchups, provided by betting outlets, during stroke-play rounds of tournaments – not just in match-play competitions.

Part of the training video included questions players must answer to avoid violating the policy. An example of this was how a player should respond when asked, “Hello, buddy! Well played today. I was following your progress. I noticed your partner pulled out of his approach on 18, looked like his back. Is he okay for tomorrow?”

The correct answer from a list of options was, “I don’t know, sorry. I’m sure he will get it looked at if it’s bothering him.”

You get the idea, but for some players the training created more questions.

How, for example, should a player respond when asked how he’s feeling by a fan?

“The part I don’t understand, let’s say a member of your club comes out and watches you on the range hitting balls, he knows you’re struggling, and he bets against you. Somehow, some way that could come back to you, according to what I saw on that video,” said one player who asked not to be identified.

Exactly what constitutes a violation is still unclear for some who took the training, which was even more concerning considering the penalties for a violation of the policy.

The first violation is a warning and a second infraction will require the player to retake the training program, but a third violation is a fine “up to $500,000” or “the amount illegally received from the betting activity.” A sixth violation is a lifetime ban from the Tour.

Players are advised to be mindful of what they post on social media and to “refrain from talking about odds or betting activity.” The latter could be an issue considering how often players discuss betting on other sports.

Just last week at the Sony Open, Kevin Kisner and Justin Thomas had a “friendly” wager on the College Football Playoff National Championship. Kisner, a Georgia fan, lost the wager and had to wear an Alabama football jersey while playing the 17th hole last Thursday.

“If I'd have got the points, he'd have been wearing [the jersey], and I was lobbying for the points the whole week, and he didn't give them to me,” Kisner said. “So I'm still not sure about this bet.”

It’s unclear to some if Kisner’s remark, which was a joke and didn’t have anything to do with golf, would be considered a violation. From a common sense standpoint, Kisner did nothing wrong, but the uncertainty is an issue.

Much like drug testing, which the Tour introduced in 2008, few, if any, think sport betting is an issue in golf; but also like the anti-doping program, there appears to be the danger of an inadvertent and entirely innocent violation.

The Tour is trying to be proactive and the circuit has a trillion reasons to get out in front of what could become an issue, but if the initial reaction to the training video is any indication they may want to try a second take.

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Lexi looks to shine as LPGA season begins next week

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 6:06 pm

Lexi Thompson may be No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in so many ways she became the new face of the women’s game last year.

That makes her the headliner in a fairly star-studded season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic next week.

Three of the top four players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to tee it up on Paradise Island, including world No. 1 Shanshan Feng and co-Rolex Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu.

From the heartache at year’s start with the controversial loss at the ANA Inspiration, through the angst in the middle of the year with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, to the stunning disappointment at year’s end, Thompson emerged as the story of the year because of all she achieved in spite of those ordeals.

Next week’s event will mark the first time Thompson tees it up in an LPGA tournament since her season ended in stunning fashion last November with a missed 2-foot putt that cost her a chance to win the CME Group Tour Championship and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and become the world No. 1.

She still walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average.

She also walked away sounding determined to show she will bounce back from that last disappointment the same way she bounced back from her gut-wrenching loss at the year’s first major, the ANA, where a four-shot Sunday penalty cost her a chance to win her second major.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds ... it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said leaving the CME Group Tour Championship. “This won’t either.”

Thompson was named the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year in a vote of GWAA membership. Ryu and Sung Hyun Park won the tour’s points-based Rolex Player of the Year Award.

With those two victories and six second-place finishes, three of those coming after playoff losses, Thompson was close to fashioning a spectacular year in 2017, to dominating the tour.

The new season opens with Thompson the center of attention again. Consistently one of the tour’s best ball strikers and longest hitters, she enjoyed her best year on tour last season by making dramatic improvements in her wedge play, short game and, most notably, her putting.

She doesn’t have a swing coach. She fashioned a better all-around game on her own, or under the watchful eye of her father, Scott. All the work she put in showed up in her winning the Vare Trophy.

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will also feature defending champion Brittany Lincicome, as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, I.K. Kim, Danielle Kang and Charley Hull.