Good Course Draws Great Field

By John FeinsteinMarch 1, 2011, 8:43 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The answer to the question is no – as in no Tiger and no Phil.

For both better and worse, many golf fans judge a tournament field based on whether Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson tee it up. This week at the Honda Classic, Mickelson is home resting after playing six straight weeks. Woods is home resting something, most likely his bruised ego. His body certainly can’t be that tired since he’s only played nine tournament rounds in the first two months of 2011.

Woods has never played here. Mickelson hasn’t been in the field since 2002. And yet, the Honda is proof that there can be Life on Tour Without Phil and Tiger. This year’s field, even though the tournament is sandwiched between two World Golf Championship events, is stellar. It includes two of last year’s major winners – Louis Oosthuizen and Graeme McDowell – for starters and guys like Ernie Els, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar, Davis Love III. Even Nick Price, who was once the No. 1 player in the world, can still draw a crowd.

So how has the Honda done it even with all the scheduling odds stacked against it? A lot of it comes down to the golf course. For years, the Honda was the Flying Dutchman of the Tour (that’s an opera reference in honor of my dad who ran an opera company) seemingly destined to wander from port-to-port, or in this case course-to-course, with no real home. From 1982 to 2006 the tournament was played at five different venues, none of them especially appealing.

When Ken Kennerly, who had worked for years for Jack Nicklaus, was hired as tournament director, he knew that all the pleading in the world wasn’t going to get the tournament a better spot on the schedule – especially with the Accenture Match Play almost always coming at the end of the West Coast Swing and Doral becoming a WGC event – so his best chance for a better field was to find a better golf course.

What many people don’t understand is that many players decide where to play based on the golf course. For years, the one tournament Woods almost always played regardless of who sponsored it or how it set him up for the next major was Charlotte. Why? Because he liked Quail Hollow Golf Club. That’s not to say there aren’t other reasons players decide where to tee it up but the quality of a golf course and how it suits their games is frequently a factor.

Kennerly knew there was a high-quality course right under his nose in Palm Beach County: PGA National. Once, in 1987, it hosted a PGA Championship and the results were disastrous. The greens died in the heat and so did most players and spectators (not literally) and the PGA of America quickly figured out that a golf tournament in south Florida in mid-August wasn’t a great idea.

After that, the PGA decided to move its Senior Championship to the course (which is across the street from its headquarters) and it was played there each April through 2000 when the decision was made to move the event around the country again. And so, the course sat for the next six years, used primarily by snow-birds escaping winter in the northeast, even though players had always spoken very highly of it, especially the trademark, ‘Bear Trap,’ holes (Nicklaus design) that come late in the back nine.

And so Kennerly decided to move the event to PGA National. He got Nicklaus involved based on their past relationship, his design of the golf course and the fact that the Nicklaus Hospital became the event’s primary charity. Nicklaus has played in the pro-am in the past and talks up the tournament whenever he gets the chance.

But the genius was in the golf course decision. Word quickly spread among the players once the event moved to PGA National in 2007 that this was no longer the old Honda where you tolerated the golf course because the purse was big enough to make it worthwhile if you weren’t in the Match Play, Doral or Bay Hill. The fact that the March Florida Swing is now four weeks instead of five since The Players was moved back to May didn’t hurt either.

And so now, in year five at PGA National, the Honda is thriving. A year ago PGA National was ranked the second-hardest golf course on Tour statistically. Hard doesn’t always translate to good in the minds of players because sometimes hard can be created with trickery. That’s not the case at PGA National. It’s just hard.

“It’s actually a pretty simple golf course,” said Paul Goydos, who was on the Players Advisory Committee when the tournament was moved five years ago. “If you keep the ball in front of you, you can score. If you don’t, you’re in serious trouble. The golf course becomes unbelievably difficult.”

Or, as Nicklaus might put it, it becomes a bear.

The best description of PGA National might have come last year from Perry Moss, a veteran Tour player, who Monday qualified for the tournament while trying to play his way back to the Tour after a series of injuries. After shooting 81 in the first round on Thursday, Moss shook his head and said, “coming from the golf courses I’ve been playing to this one is like going from hitting minor league pitching to trying to hit Mariano Rivera in Yankee Stadium.”

Good players like hard golf courses – especially fair ones.

That’s why more and more quality players are coming to the Honda these days. The first winner at PGA National was Mark Wilson, who was the only two-time winner on the West Coast this year. Then came Els, Y.E. Yang and Camilo Villegas. Not a bad list.

Chances are the leaderboard this weekend will have quality players on it. No Tiger, no Phil but still pretty good for an event that spent so many years looking for a home.

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up right where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.