Hawk's Nest: Johnson trending toward Hall of Fame

By John HawkinsJanuary 7, 2014, 2:40 pm

Considering that it lasted for about 20 minutes, it was a fairly busy offseason. Tiger Woods gained ground on Jack Nicklaus by picking up a 38th birthday candle. Rory McIlroy got engaged. And Will Ferrell was given another 10,000 chances to remind everyone that he’s just not very funny.

I would bet against Ferrell taking class-clown honors in a seminary school. LeBron James trying to hit golf balls while Kevin Hart makes fun of him? Quite funny. McIlroy vs. that cocky robot on the practice range? Pretty funny. Some curly-haired dude firing stoner-friendly sarcasm in a ’70s suit? Mute button, please.

(Hey Hawkins, you’re not exactly Richard Bleeping Pryor. Let’s move on …)

NEVER MIND WHAT the Chinese calendar says – welcome to the Year of the Question Mark. Can Woods finally hunt down major title No. 15 and rekindle serious talk of his scaling Mount Nicklaus? Any chance McIlwrongturn stumbled upon the user’s manual for his golf swing en route to the jewelry store? If Phil Mickelson can win a British Open, might he finally claim his own national championship, a landmark title that has eluded him no less than a half-dozen times?

Really, how good is Jordan Spieth? Is there another Spieth waiting in the on-deck circle? Is Dustin Johnson finally ready for his close-up? Matt Kuchar, major champion? What happened to that British Invasion of a few years back? Adam Scott: man, myth or legend?

Will the United States ever win another Ryder Cup on European soil?

INQUIRING MINDS WANT to know, so Vanna spins the wheel, which comes to a stop on … Scott. It may mean absolutely nothing, but I love that last year’s Masters champ began his ’14 season at Kapalua – and will stick around to play in this week’s Sony Open. Back when I was flying halfway around the world to get an early sunburn and cover the old Tournament of Champions, the young Aussie seemed to have other things on his mind besides winning in Maui.

There was the year he frittered about on the beach with actress Kate Hudson, which bought Scott a few jabs from the paparazzi, which might have had something to do with his spotty attendance since. Not that you can’t play good golf while a pretty young movie star rubs lotion on your back, but after finishing solo second at Kapalua in 2007, Scott finished well off the pace on return trips in ’09 and ’11.

“A couple of times I’ve qualified and decided not to come, and I’ve ended up regretting it because I like coming here so much,” Scott admitted last week.

Pardon my optimism, but I see more to it. I see a guy hungry to become the No. 1 player in the world and eager to capitalize on his excellent late-season play in Australia. A guy who wants to develop the mental toughness necessary not only to unseat Woods atop the world ranking, but to perform well in any potential showdown.

More often than not in recent years, Scott has begun his PGA Tour schedule at Riviera in mid- to late-February. You might think he wouldn’t want to change a thing, coming off such a magnificent year, but his playing in Hawaii amounts to a minor alteration – he’ll still skip the first four California events on the West Coast swing. I don’t see how cutting a 10-week break in half is anything but a positive sign.

IT WASN’T MORE than a couple of years ago that I was pleading for Matt Kuchar to win more golf tournaments. On the “Grey Goose 19th Hole” in late 2011, we were asked if Kooch was the best player not to win a major, and I smirked. The guy had three career victories at the time. Steve Stricker, by comparison, had 11.

The fascination with identifying the “best player never to …” has always struck me as a bit odd – shouldn’t we be talking about the guys who have won majors? Still, the question is raised all the time on my live chats, so I’m cool with the premise, and Kuchar is now my pick. First and foremost, he wins premium-field events, including a Players, a WGC Match Play and a Memorial in the last 20 months.

You go all the way back to 1998, when Kooch was just a big, smiley amateur with his dad on the bag. Even then, he had a knack for performing well on golf’s grandest stages. I believe that to be a quality you never lose. Some guys embrace the most intense pressure. Others say they love it but really don’t.

Kuchar’s game has journeyed a thousand miles forward since ’98, when one veteran Tour pro described his golf swing as “having more moving parts than a Tom Landry offense.” The winning score at each of his last three victories has landed on either 12 or 13 under par, so Kooch is an outstanding tough-course player, which is generally what they hold the majors on.

It’s easy to see his career trending steadily toward a major title, more than, say, Dustin Johnson, whom I’m still not convinced has the mental toughness to avoid trouble down the stretch or get himself out of it at crucial moments. Kuchar is my best player not to win a major, but not for long.

AROUND THE TIME Zach Johnson qualified for the PGA Tour in 2003, his search for an experienced full-time caddie led him to Damon Green, who had spent years working for Scott Hoch, one of the most consistent money-winners of his generation. Hoch was still active 10 years ago, but at age 47, his future was on the Champions Tour, which might have been one reason the rookie approached Green.

“I’d like you to work for me,” Johnson said.

“Work for you? I can beat you.” the caddie replied.

Now let it be known that Green is more than a very good golfer – you may recall him contending well into the weekend at the 2011 U.S. Senior Open. He collected more than 70 victories during his years as a mini-tour player, so we’re not talking about some 3 handicap with an attitude.

“Tell you what,” Johnson proposed. “We’ll play next week, and if I beat you, you come work for me.”

Zach would knock off Damon by a couple of shots – the best loss of Green’s life. The two men have been together since, and if there’s a story more symbolic of Johnson’s competitive tenacity, I’d love to hear it. Monday’s victory at Kapalua was the 11th of Johnson’s career. Only Woods, Mickelson and Vijay Singh have collected more on the PGA Tour over the last decade.

I don’t know if Johnson is a Hall of Fame candidate at this point, but he’s hanging around a few guys already in. There is something to be said about the company you keep.

AS MANY OF you know, this year’s major championship sites offer Woods a golden opportunity to get off the schneid and resume his pursuit of Nicklaus’ all-time record (18). To call it now-or-never time is probably a bit of a stretch, but unless they start playing the U.S. Open at Firestone or move the Masters to Bay Hill, Sir Eldrick might want to get busy in 2014.

Pinehurst, Royal Liverpool, Valhalla. Three Tiger-friendly venues where Woods has performed well in the past, although all three come with a caveat. Let’s start with the Donald Ross masterpiece in North Carolina – Woods finished T-3 at the U.S. Open in 1999 and solo second to Michael Campbell six years later.

They were two very different U.S. Opens in terms of weather and course conditions: cool and very cloudy with some rain in ’99; hot and dry in ’05. It’s not like Tiger won either event, as his putter betrayed him down the stretch on both Sundays, so to think of Pinehurst as a mortal lock is certainly a reach.

Royal Liverpool hosted the 2006 British Open, where Woods won his 11th major title with one of the best ball-striking weeks of his career. Tiger’s father, Earl, had passed away 2 ½ months earlier, which is why the grieving son looked so unprepared at the U.S. Open that June – his first missed cut as a pro at a major.

It led to an ultra-motivated Woods at the British, which was played on a bone-dry racetrack that allowed him to completely eschew his driver. He hit it just once all week, on the 16th hole of the first round, then dominated the field with 3-woods off the tee and middle-irons in. What are the chances of those same conditions occurring again? Tiger won a unique British Open in very impressive fashion, but clearly, there is the possibility of a limited carry-over effect.

Onto Valhalla, where Woods outlasted Bob May in an unforgettable playoff – another performance for the ages. That was at the 2000 PGA, more than 13 years ago, before Pro-V1s and another equipment-related advances helped narrow the gap between Tiger and the rest of his fellow competitors.

He was virtually unstoppable that summer, pushed by the rapid emergence of Sergio Garcia and the brilliance of David Duval, a tireless worker whose 24-year-old body really hadn’t begun to break down. These are different times, a different competitive landscape, and the man trying to reclaim an outrageous level of supremacy feels far more pressure than he did at the turn of the century.

I do believe Woods will win one of the four in 2014, but I also think Johnny Miller made a terrific point during the Friday telecast from Kapalua when he said Tiger gets a little “freaked out” when he doesn’t win the Masters. The tournament Nicklaus himself once predicted Woods would win “10 or 12” times has become an annual exercise in frustration.

To make an honest run at Jack, Tiger needs a fifth green jacket.

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Monty grabs lead entering final round in season-opener

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 4:00 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Colin Montgomerie shot a second straight 7-under 65 to take a two-shot lead into the final round of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 54-year-old Scot, a six-time winner on the over-50 tour, didn't miss a fairway on Friday and made five birdies on the back nine to reach 14 under at Hualalai.

Montgomerie has made 17 birdies through 36 holes and said he will have to continue cashing in on his opportunities.

''We know that I've got to score something similar to what I've done – 66, 67, something like that, at least,'' Montgomerie said. ''You know the competition out here is so strong that if you do play away from the pins, you'll get run over. It's tough, but hey, it's great.''

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

First-round co-leaders Gene Sauers and Jerry Kelly each shot 68 and were 12 under.

''I hit the ball really well. You know, all the putts that dropped yesterday didn't drop today,'' Kelly said. ''I was just short and burning edges. It was good putting again. They just didn't go in.''

David Toms was three shots back after a 66. Woody Austin, Mark Calcavecchia and Doug Garwood each shot 67 and were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was six shots back after a 67.

The limited-field tournament on Hawaii's Big Island includes last season's winners, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

''We've enjoyed ourselves thoroughly here,'' Montgomerie said. ''It's just a dramatic spot, isn't it? If you don't like this, well, I'm sorry, take a good look in the mirror, you know?''

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The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.

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Woods, Rahm, Rickie, J-Day headline Torrey field

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 20, 2018, 12:47 am

Tiger Woods is set to make his 2018 debut.

Woods is still part of the final field list for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, the headliner of a tournament that includes defending champion Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.

In all, 12 of the top 26 players in the world are teeing it up at Torrey Pines.

Though Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, he hasn’t broken 71 in his past seven rounds there and hasn’t played all four rounds since 2013, when he won. Last year he missed the cut after rounds of 76-72, then lasted just one round in Dubai before he withdrew with back spasms.

After a fourth back surgery, Woods didn’t return to competition until last month’s Hero World Challenge, where he tied for ninth. 

Woods has committed to play both the Farmers Insurance Open and next month's Genesis Open at Riviera, which benefits his foundation. 

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Even on 'off' day, Rahm shoots 67 at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 20, 2018, 12:36 am

Jon Rahm didn’t strike the ball as purely Friday as he did during his opening round at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

He still managed a 5-under 67 that put him just one shot off the lead heading into the weekend.

“I expected myself to go to the range (this morning) and keep flushing everything like I did yesterday,” said Rahm, who shot a career-low 62 at La Quinta on Thursday. “Everything was just a little bit off. It was just one of those days.”

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

After going bogey-free on Thursday, Rahm mixed four birdies and two bogeys over his opening six holes. He managed to settle down around the turn, then made two birdies on his final three holes to move within one shot of Andrew Landry (65).

Rahm has missed only five greens through two rounds and sits at 15-under 129. 

The 23-year-old Spaniard won in Dubai to end the year and opened 2018 with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He needs a top-6 finish or better this week to supplant Jordan Spieth as the No. 2 player in the world.