Hawk's Nest: A little controversy's not a bad thing

By John HawkinsMarch 10, 2014, 4:00 pm

You’ve gotta love a kid who steps up to the microphone and declares himself one of the top five players in the world, as 23-year-old Patrick Reed did Sunday evening after winning at Doral. It’s not like Steve Sands needed to trick up the question or goad Reed into donning a Cassius Clay mask during the post-victory interview.

Braggarts simply don’t exist in pro golf, so any departure from the humility-steeped, cliché-stacked quickie behind the 18th green should be embraced with open ears. Truth be told, and it frequently isn’t, these types of straight-to-the-viewer Q&A’s have become perhaps the biggest waste of breath in all of sports.

Whether it’s some ESPNer talking to an NBA coach after the first quarter or a devoutly religious wide receiver taking the opportunity to thank his Lord and savior, the 35-second chat packs all the nutritional value of a Kit Kat bar. Unless it involves Erin Andrews and Richard Sherman, we’re talking about a photo-op with sound.

After ticking off his various accomplishments as both an amateur and professional golfer, however, Reed submitted his claim as one of the very best in the game. And good for him. Never mind that what he did at Augusta State University has no bearing on his position in the world ranking, or that a couple of weak-field victories (prior to this one) really don’t count when it comes to reaching the PGA Tour pantheon.

In a world full of caution, where how you say it has become more important than what you say, Reed punched passivity right in the nose. If this guy even contends at the Masters, I say we consider a redesign of Mount Rushmore.

SPEAKING OF REDESIGNS, I suppose the dead-calm weekend at Doral will help everyone forget what happened Friday, when Gil Hanse’s version of the Blue Monster appeared inadequate as a Tour venue in a heavy South Florida breeze. There are no hard-and-fast rules in determining when a course becomes unfair, as the U.S. Open has reminded us over the years, but the second round in Miami was a rarity.

We just don’t see actual PGA Tour events where iron shots land in the middle of a lengthy green and end up in the water, as was the case with Dustin Johnson’s approach at the par-5 eighth. Phil Mickelson’s second into the 18th Thursday also blew my mind – it tumbled down a false front on the green’s left edge and rolled into Lake Donald, or whatever they’re calling it nowadays.

Player reaction was predictably strong, especially given the high praise Hanse’s remodeling job had been accorded earlier in the week. Nobody loves a hypocrite, at least until the wind blows. “Good shot after good shot [repeatedly] ended up in the water because there was no good place to go,” Mickelson said. “I expected a little bit more from Gil, because he’s really good.”

As gripes go, my personal favorite came from Graham DeLaet: “I’d bet $1,000 to any ‘scratch’ golfer that they wouldn’t break 90 on that course [Friday].” Given that it costs about $450 to play the Blue Monster under Doral’s new ownership, you probably need to have a real job to even consider accepting DeLaet’s offer, but the message is clear.

“Look forward to coming back next year and playing Trump Doral after the changes,” tweeted Billy Horschel, who said he had three balls land on a putting surface but end up wet. “Should be a good course then.”

Changes? Didn’t they just blow up the place? First and foremost, there were some critical tee- and pin-position mistakes Friday by the Tour, which rarely errs on the side of extreme difficulty. It’s as if the field staff never saw the 30-mph winds coming, which is hard to explain. We’re talking about Miami – at a resort no more than 10 minutes from an international airport.

That front-left pin Thursday on 18 – the one that cost Mickelson at least a stroke – didn’t work. Again, we’re talking about a substantial, almost wholesale redesign, but then, the Tour consistently does an outstanding job at setting up first-time venues. This was a perfect storm, so to speak, and it will be interesting to see how Camp Ponte Vedra reacts to the situation.

As much as I disapprove of some of the stuff I saw earlier in the week, I also like the idea of a World Golf Championship being won at 4 under par. It enlivens the non-existent WGC brand and gives this tournament a more distinct competitive identity. We’ve got enough 22 unders on the schedule. Tweak a few flagsticks, and Doral will be just fine.

LET’S MOVE ON to another Donald – the Englishman named Luke. As big a deal as was made of the British Invasion in 2010-11, when Lee Westwood and Donald held Nos. 1 and 2 in the world ranking, the only Brit currently in the top 10 is Justin Rose (seventh). Westwood has fallen to 36th, Donald to 25th, and neither is exactly trending north.

In Donald’s case, the numbers do not adequately explain his decline. His rise to becoming one of the game’s best was predicated largely on improved ball-striking; neither his percentages nor his rankings in those categories have fallen off much, if at all. He remains one of the game’s best putters. His short game is still much tidier than most.

As consistent as Donald was at the peak of his career, I stand by my theory that “control players” have a much more difficult time winning tournaments (and climbing to the top of the ranking), simply because every week, at least a couple of bombers are going to get hot with the putter.

You look at Dustin Johnson, who, at this point in 2014, appears on the verge of becoming a top-three player. Without question, Johnson’s mid-range putting has held him back in the past. This year, he ranks 10th in the overall putting stat and third in par-4 scoring. If a guy with that kind of length hits his wedges close and makes his 10-footers, he’s going to win tournaments.

On the average, Donald drives the ball 26.5 yards shorter than Johnson. This enormous discrepancy in distance doesn’t mean anything if Donald hits his 8-iron as close as Johnson hits his gap wedge – or if Donald holes five 10-footers per round to Johnson’s two. If Johnson converts his opportunities, however, it’s no longer a fair fight, pun intended.

When you widen the lens and see long hitters such as Johnson, Jimmy Walker, Bubba Watson and Scott Stallings all among the top 30 in strokes gained per round through 10 events, you begin to understand the plight players such as Donald face. Fifteen yards means a ton at this level. When you double that difference, it can seem almost insurmountable.

AS FOR MY man Patrick Reed, he has all the tools. He’s 32nd in driving distance and 23rd in putting, although the year is still young. Who cares if he’s 114th in driving accuracy? Hitting it in the fairway doesn’t mean much on the PGA Tour – Tour pros of all shapes and sizes can hit a 9-iron on the green from the rough. Simply put, long and crooked is not a bad thing to be.

What I love about Reed, however, has nothing to do with his statistical profile. This kid may not slam the door down the stretch, but he manages to shut the thing – they don’t cut your first-place earnings by 20 percent if you blow a big lead but hold on to win. I wanted to see him win a premium-field event, and he did that Sunday.

He missed a 3-footer for par at the 14th and held himself together. He made a stupid play off the tee at the par-4 16th – laying up with an iron into a lousy lie in a fairway bunker – then responded with a terrific second just off the back of the green. Reed got it done, and at the end of the day, that’s all anyone needs to remember.

I’m not sure the guy is one of the five best players in the game, but Reed has soared to 20th in the latest world ranking. And he is trending north, unlike a couple of guys I know.

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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 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."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

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.