Many names, many favorites at wide-open Masters

By Joe PosnanskiApril 6, 2016, 6:57 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Welcome to the first post-Tiger major championship, where a traffic jam of young stars line up to become the dominant player in the world. It feels a bit like the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889.

Probably we should start by saying: Tiger Woods could still come back and play great golf. It’s possible. Some people are even betting on it. Jack Nicklaus says he is all but certain that Woods will still “have his 1986,” referring to his own magical victory at Augusta when he was 46 years old. Woods is still only 40 and, though he has set no timetable for his return, there is time yet.

Still, there is most definitely a post-Tiger feel to this year’s Masters. It isn’t just that Woods is not here – missing his second Masters in three years – it is that nobody is really talking about him except when asked.

“We all miss him and want him back.” Phil Mickelson said politely when asked directly if it was strange to play the Masters without Woods, though first he said this:

“Well, it’s not like we shared a house together.”

Woods is out of the picture, at least for now. He has not won a major championship in almost eight years, and in the last two years he has missed three majors and missed the cut in three more. For so long it felt like the golf world was in pause while waiting for Woods to get things in motion again. Guys like Rory McIlroy flashed moments of brilliance. Jordan Spieth had himself a year for the ages. Jason Day overcame his demons and became the No. 1 player in the world. None of it felt quite bona fide though, not with Tiger Woods in limbo.

“Just wait,” everyone seemed to be thinking, “until Tiger comes back.”

Now, though, nobody knows when – or even if – Tiger will come back. And the golf world is in play. The rush begins at Augusta with the most wide-open field in memory. It’s so wide open, there’s no clear-cut favorite even in Las Vegas.

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“Isn’t Jason the favorite?” Spieth asks. “So nice. He can be the favorite.”

Day probably should be the favorite with the way he has been playing since breaking through and winning the PGA Championship. He moved up to No. 2 in the world when he held off the field and won the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month. He then returned to No. 1 when he won the Match Play a week later.

“His trajectory is higher than an anybody else’s in golf,” Nicklaus says. “He has a beautiful golf swing.”

Day created a bit of early buzz at Augusta when he admitted that he strongly considered quitting golf before he played in his first Masters in 2011. While the statement created more than a little bit of skepticism (“You believe that?” Nicklaus asked), it does speak to the extreme emotions that have marked Day’s career.

He did not grow up in the comfortable and family-supported way of his rivals Spieth and McIlroy. He has talked about how his father, in an alcoholic rage, beat him mercilessly after he’d played a poor round. Alvin Day died when Jason was just 11. Day came on tour with extraordinary talent (he finished second at his first Masters and then finished second at his first U.S. Open) but he couldn’t quite break through until late last year.

He admits now that the pressure did affect him, especially here at Augusta, the golf tournament he has always dreamed of winning.

“Everybody would keep asking me, you know, ‘When are you going to win it? And how are you going to win it?' And all that stuff,” Day says. “I guess I thought about it and just said, ‘OK, I’ve got to force it this year.' And that’s when I started missing stuff and making mental errors. I kind of shot myself tournaments.”

Day promises to try and put less pressure on himself.

Spieth, meanwhile, wants to put more pressure on himself this year because, well, he responds to that pressure. He loves it. Spieth came into last year’s Masters feeling confident, even though he was just 21 years old and few gave him a chance. Spieth had finished second in 2014 (along the way becoming the youngest third round leader in Masters history).

“I knew I was in form,” he says, “and I had that close call in 2014. So it was all kind of set up for me to at least contend.”

He more than contended. Spieth shot 64 on the first day and then ran away with the Masters. He set all sorts of records in the process. He had the lowest 36-hole (14 under) and 54-hole scores (16 under) in Masters history and tied Tiger Woods for the lowest score (18 under) at the end. He made the most birdies for one Masters with 26. He became the first to ever reach 19 under at Augusta. He was also the first since Ray Floyd 40 years ago to lead by himself wire-to-wire.

“I would say it’s pretty similar to last year,” Spieth says. “Sure, I’m putting pressure on myself to contend this year, just like last year. And I feel like I’m in form. But it’s also going to be a lot of fun walking these fairways, reliving those memories with the crowds and the roars and the echoes.”

Then there’s Rory McIlroy, who in a weird way has become something of an afterthought. McIlroy is the most accomplished of this generation having won four major championships and been No. 1 in the world for 95 weeks. He comes to Augusta needing only a green jacket to become the sixth player (Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tiger Woods) to win the career Grand Slam.

But even he senses that Day and Spieth, with their remarkable runs of late, have threatened to pull away. McIlroy is No. 3 in the world by a fairly substantial amount.

“I’d be lying if I said those guys’ success doesn’t motivate me,” he says. “Of course it does. What Jordan did last year, the U.S. Open and the whole way through the summer ... what Jason did during the summer and this year ... yeah, I don’t want to be left behind. I want to be part of that conversation. I’m clinging on at the moment. A few wins will change that.”

Actually just one win, right here in Augusta, would change that.

Rickie Fowler is another young golfer trying to break through here. He has spoken openly about needing a victory at a major championship in order to be in the conversation with Day, Spieth and McIlroy. Two years ago, he finished top five in all four major championships but didn’t win any of them. Then last year, he had his biggest victory at The Players Championship and it sparked him into winning four times around the world.

“I feel like the perfect storm – combine 2014 and 2015 together – equals winning a major,” he says. “That’s the way I look at it.”

There are other young guys, but then you look at the 30-somethings. Dustin Johnson is 31 and, as everyone knows, can overpower any golf course including Augusta (“He’s definitely not going to end his career without (a major),” Fowler says).

Adam Scott plays some of the best golf of his life – especially with the putter – and at 35 he can be poised to become the dominant force in golf.

Justin Rose is 35 and has a similar chance.

Bubba Watson is 37 but seems ageless at Augusta, where he has won twice with his miraculous and sweeping shots.

And then there’s Phil Mickelson who is almost 46, but age doesn’t seem to matter much when he comes to Augusta. He tied for second a year ago and says, coming into this one, he is so confident in his game that he really isn’t working on anything in particular.

“This year I feel a little bit more relaxed because, like I said, I’m not really trying to find anything,” he says. “It’s a lot more stress free golf because I’m driving the ball in play and now we come to the Masters where the corridors are much wider.”

There are other interesting players – Henrik Stenson looking to break through and win his first major, the ambitious Patrick Reed trying to insert himself into this post-Tiger world of golf and so on – and, yes, this year’s Masters is unquestionably different. For so many years, all eyes were on one guy.

But Tiger Woods is, for the moment, gone. And so many of the players he inspired, motivated and galvanized – along with many he defeated – finally seem ready to take his place.

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Kelly beats Monty with two-shot swing on final hole

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 3:21 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Jerry Kelly made an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole, Colin Montgomerie missed a 6-footer for par and Kelly turned a one-shot deficit into a victory Saturday in the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

After Kelly drove it well right into lava rocks on the par-4 16th, leading to bogey and giving Montgomerie the lead, Montgomerie made a mistake with his tee shot on the last, finding a fairway bunker. Montgomerie's approach went over the green and after Kelly converted his birdie, the 54-year-old Scot jammed his par putt well past the hole.

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It was the third win on the over-50 tour for the 51-year-old Kelly, who finished tied for 14th last week at the PGA Tour's Sony Open in Honolulu. That gave him confidence as he hopped over to the Big Island for his tournament debut at Hualalai. The limited-field event includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Kelly closed with a 6-under 66 for a three-day total of 18-under 198. Montgomerie shot 69. David Toms shot 67 and finished two shots back, and Miguel Angel Jimenez was another stroke behind after a 66.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, closed with a 70 to finish at 10 under.

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Rahm manages frustration, two back at CareerBuilder

By Randall MellJanuary 21, 2018, 1:21 am

Jon Rahm managed the winds and his frustrations Saturday at the CareerBuilder Challenge to give himself a chance to win his fourth worldwide title in the last year.

Rahm’s 2-under-par 70 on the PGA West Stadium Course left him two shots off the lead going into the final round.

“I wasn’t really dealing with the wind that much,” Rahm said of his frustrations. “I was dealing with not being as fluid as I was the last two days.”

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The world’s No. 3 ranked player opened with a 62 at La Quinta Country Club on Thursday and followed it up with a 67 on Friday at PGA West. He made six birdies and four bogeys on the Stadium Course on Saturday.

“The first day, everything was outstanding,” Rahm said. “Yesterday, my driver was a little shaky but my irons shots were perfect. Today, my driver was shaky and my irons shots were shaky. On a course like this, it’s punishing, but luckily on the holes where I found the fairway I was able to make birdies.”

Rahm is projected to move to No. 2 in the world rankings with a finish of sixth or better on Sunday.

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Cook leads by one entering final round at CareerBuilder

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 12:51 am

LA QUINTA, Calif. – Austin Cook hit a hybrid into the fairway bunker on the par-4 18th on a breezy Saturday afternoon at La Quinta Country Club, then chunked a wedge and raced a chip 20 feet past the hole.

Kip Henley, the longtime PGA Tour caddie who guided Cook to a breakthrough victory at Sea Island in November, stepped in to give the 26-year-old former Arkansas star a quick pep talk.

''Kip said, 'Let's finish this like we did on the first day at the Nicklaus Course.' We made a big par putt on 18 there and he said, 'Let's just do the same thing. Let's get this line right and if you get the line right it's going in.'''

It did, giving Cook an 8-under 64 and a one-stroke lead in the CareerBuilder Challenge going into the final round on the Stadium Course at PGA West. Fellow former Razorback Andrew Landry and Martin Piller were tied for second, and Jon Rahm and Scott Piercy were a another stroke back after a tricky day in wind that didn't get close to the predicted gusts of 40 mph.

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''I know that I wouldn't have wanted to play the Stadium today,'' Cook said. ''I think we got a great draw with the courses that we got to play on the days that we got to play them.''

Cook played the final six holes on the front nine in 6 under with an eagle and four birdies.

''Starting on my fourth hole, I was able to make a birdie and kind of get the ball rolling and it never really stopped rolling,'' Cook said. ''Kip and I were doing really good at seeing the line on the greens.''

After a bogey on 10, he birdied 11, 12 and 15 and parred the final three to get to 19-under 197.

''I think that tonight the nerves, the butterflies, all that will kind of be a little less,'' Cook said. ''I've been in the situation before and I was able to finish the job on Sunday. I think it would be a little different if I didn't play like I did on Sunday at Sea Island.''

He's making his first start in the event.

''I came in from Hawaii on Monday, so I only had two days to prepare for three courses,'' Cook said.

Landry, the second-round leader, had a 70 at the Stadium. Piller, the husband of LPGA tour player Gerina Piller, shot a 67 at La Quinta. Winless on the PGA Tour, they will join Cook in the final threesome.

''Piller's a good guy and we have played a lot together and same with Cookie,'' said Landry, the only player without a bogey after 54 holes. ''Hope the Hogs are going to come out on top.''

Rahm had a 70 at the Stadium to reach 17 under. The third-ranked Rahm beat up the par 5s again, but had four bogeys – three on par 3s. He has played the 12 par 5s in 13 under with an eagle and 11 birdies.

''A little bit of a survival day,'' Rahm said.

The wind was more of a factor on the more exposed and tighter Stadium Course.

''The course is firming up,'' Rahm said. ''I know if we have similar wind to today, if we shoot something under par, you'll be way up there contesting it over the last few holes.''

Piercy had a 66 at the Stadium.

''I controlled my ball really well today,'' he said.

Adam Hadwin had a 67 at La Quinta a year after shooting a third-round 59 on the course. The Canadian was 16 under along with Grayson Murray and Brandon Harkins. Murray had a 67 on the Nicklaus Course, and Harkins shot 68 at the Stadium.

Phil Mickelson missed the cut in his first tournament of the year for the second time in his career, shooting a 74 on the Stadium to finish at 4 under – four strokes from a Sunday tee time. The 47-year-old Hall of Famer was playing for the first time since late October. He also missed the cut in the Phoenix Open in his 2009 opener.

Charlie Reiter, the Palm Desert High School senior playing on the first sponsor exemption the event has given to an amateur, also missed the cut. He had three early straight double bogeys in a 77 on the Stadium that left him 1 over.

John Daly had an 80 at La Quinta. He opened with a triple bogey and had six bogeys – four in a row to start his second nine - and only one birdie. The 51-year-old Daly opened with a 69 on the Nicklaus layout and had a 71 on Friday at the Stadium.

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Phil misses CareerBuilder cut for first time in 24 years

By Randall MellJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 am

Phil Mickelson missed the cut Saturday at the CareerBuilder Challenge. It’s a rare occurrence in his Hall of Fame career.

He has played the event 15 times, going back to when it was known as the Bob Hope Classic. He has won it twice.

How rare is his missing the cut there?

The last time he did so, there was no such thing as a DVD, Wi-Fi, iPods, Xbox, DVR capability or YouTube.

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

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The PGA Tour’s Jon Rahm didn’t exist, either.

The last time Mickelson missed a cut in this event was 1994, nine months before Rahm was born.

Mickelson struggled to a 2-over-par 74 in the heavy winds Saturday on the PGA West Stadium Course, missing the 54-hole cut by four shots. He hit just four of 14 fairways, just nine of 18 greens. He took a double bogey at the 15th after requiring two shots to escape the steep-walled bunker on the left side of the green.

Mickelson won’t have to wait long to try to get back in the hunt. He’s scheduled to play the Farmers Insurance Open next week at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif.