Don't crown Henley golf's Next Big Thing just yet

By John HawkinsJanuary 14, 2013, 2:08 pm

BACK WHEN I covered tackle football for a living, I was doing a piece on Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders, who was eliminating all suspense in the balloting for the 1988 Heisman Trophy. At some point in the story, I used the word “athleticism,” which did not fly with my friends on the copy desk.

“That’s not a word!” the editor shrieked, a verdict I appealed all the way to the supreme court, where the guy who ran the sports department looked up “athleticism” in three dictionaries, couldn’t find it, then ruled against me.

Amid the slew of college bowl games and NFL playoff tilts, I chuckle every time I hear some analyst use the word “athleticism” to describe some freakish linebacker or oversized wide receiver. This happens about 35 times per telecast, so if Noah Webster didn’t acknowledge the noun in the early 19th century, we’re getting it rammed down our throats 200 years later.

Thank goodness I don’t have to hear it when I’m watching golf.

THERE ARE TWO ways of looking at Russell Henley’s ultra-impressive victory in his official PGA Tour debut at the Sony Open. Many of us will see a kid who won his first start as a Tour member and declare him as the Next Big Thing, which has been the kneejerk reaction among the droolers for as long as they’ve been cutting 18 holes in the grass.

As an alternative, you might consider a similar situation that occurred just two years ago, when Jhonattan Vegas won the Humana Challenge in his second career event, then almost won at Torrey Pines the very next week. To say Vegas would soon vanish off the face of the competitive earth sounds a bit harsh, but it’s not inaccurate. He has just three top-10s in 47 tournaments since and really hasn’t contended on Sunday.

Now I know Henley was cut from a finer cloth than Vegas as prospects go, but one of the guys he held off in Honolulu Sunday was Charles Howell III. Among the post-Tiger Woods phenoms, there wasn’t a better college player than CH3, whose Tour performance has fallen far short of expectations: two victories in 365 starts.

We’ve seen a number of unproven players launch their careers on the West Coast Swing – Mark Wilson immediately comes to mind – then fail to sustain that level for any significant length of time. Henley certainly appears capable of becoming a top-tier player, perhaps even a fixture on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, but there was a time not so long ago when Anthony Kim was going to rule the universe.

The fact that Henley beat Howell and Tim Clark, two of the game’s most decorated second-place finishers – a whopping 24 runner-ups but just three Ws – means as much or as little as you want it to mean. Yes, the kid shot a 63 to win by three, but nobody applied any real pressure on him in the final round. Considering the relevant data involved, this should come as no surprise. 

FOR ALL THERE is not to like about the PGA Tour’s two celebrity-splashed pro-ams – six-hour rounds, the Bill Murray factor, the multi-venue formats – I enjoyed covering those tournaments for one reason: atmosphere. The size of the galleries and the energy level of those in attendance is often the difference between a fun event and a boring one. Simply put, you can’t simulate excitement.

This week’s Humana Challenge has never gotten the public affection generated by the gatherings at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, which has more stars and a sexier setting, but if you like watching pro athletes chop it around without dealing with crowds that run five or 10 deep, Palm Springs is the better place.

The greatest pro-am story I ever heard came from the former Hope. Phil Mickelson was playing with NFL great Lawrence Taylor, who is supposedly a decent golfer but was having a tough day. On one hole, LT drove his ball into outer space, and then vanished for 10 or 15 minutes. Mickelson, meanwhile, hit the green and had a mid-range putt for birdie, which he struck beautifully and was tracking toward the center of the cup.

Out of nowhere, another ball arrived on the green in a hurry – a screaming line drive headed straight for the players and caddies. It landed on the front of the putting surface, took one sharp hop, then began rolling briskly until it collided with Mickelson’s ball about 2 feet short of the hole.

All heads turned in the same direction. There was LT, trudging greenward with a bewildered look on his face. “Hey, you guys seen my ball?” he asked. Everybody laughed, including Mickelson, but it wasn’t long before he asked out of the Hope’s celebrity draw, then stopped playing in the tournament altogether.

OF ALL THE famous types I saw pass through Pebble Beach’s 18th green and into the herd of gallery worship, nobody caused more commotion than New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. You forget how big those guys are, but then, a lot of guys are 6 feet 4, and a fair amount of them are built like a male stripper.

I watched Brady deal with the throng for a good 15 minutes, throwing the aw-shucks disposition at everyone and posing for photos like a boy scout. The guy has a magnetism that is hard to define and almost impossible to ignore, and while I’m sure the fact that Brady is from the Bay Area had something to do with his popularity that day, it was pretty hard not to think he was the coolest thing since ice-cream cake.

No, Giselle was not with him.

SPEAKING OF THE Patriots, New England and Pittsburgh were locked in a tight early-season battle when the triumphant 2005 U.S. Presidents Cup team entered the media center early that Sunday evening. It remains the closest the Internationals have come to beating the Yanks on American soil; Fred Couples and Chris DiMarco came up big down the stretch and the U.S. held on to win by three, but it was closer than the final score indicated.

That was the year Vijay Singh recommended that someone leave a cart behind the 14th green after he disposed of Couples, and thus, wouldn’t have to wait for transportation back to the clubhouse. Couples beat Singh, however, and when the entire U.S. squad came in for the post-victory press conference, a dozen of the world’s finest golfers collectively froze when the journey to the interview room took them near a television.

“We’ll go in after this is over,” more than one of them said. A slightly persistent PGA Tour official tried to convince the fellas that the final six minutes of Patriots-Steelers could take a half-hour to play.

“Too bad,” was the group response.

The U.S. team reluctantly made its way to the microphones a few minutes later, an amusing concession by a bunch of middle-aged guys who love golf but, at least on occasion, like football even better. With or without the frequent references to athleticism.

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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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.