Hawks Nest: The Players needs a dose of drama

By John HawkinsMay 6, 2013, 2:39 pm

The list of things that scare me is rather short: driving over a bridge on a windy day, the unruly presence of nose hair as my life approaches the 13th tee – and stroke play. Back when I hit a 6-iron 155 yards and missed one 4-footer a month, counting every swing in a tournament didn’t bother me. I even won a couple of rattle-bottom championships at the Little Brown Dog, mainly because my ball was easier to find than those of other competent players.

For some perverse reason, our golf chairman added an 18-hole stroke-play event to the spring calendar, and this past weekend we cranked out more doubles and triples than a Wendy’s franchise – our fearless medalist piled up six birdies, shot 2 over par and still won by five.

The key to coping with those inexcusable 7s? Relax, someone else will make an 8 in a matter of minutes. It’s not every day that I shoot 84 without losing a ball, or that such a bloated score earns me a tie for fourth overall. Hey, it’s early. When it comes to knowing where it’s going, my GPS doesn’t show up until June 1 at the earliest.

“That’s 84 gross, right?” my assistant pro asked.

“You’re not kidding,” I told him.

IT IS WHAT it is. Before those five words became America’s answer to everything, the default explanation promoted to contemporary cliché, the phrase had relevance as a description of The Players Championship. And what is The Players? A very good golf tournament marketed ceaselessly by an organization that boasts a majority of the world’s best golfers – but holds no jurisdiction over the game’s four major championships.

This will be the seventh Players held in May since it was moved from late March in 2007. Is it bigger and better now? I would say not. The event’s competitive disposition and scoring trends haven’t changed much, if at all. Other than in 2005 and ’08, when high winds made TPC Sawgrass much tougher, the winning total has landed between 272 and 276 every year since 2004.

Over that stretch, only Phil Mickelson had won a major title before claiming a Players. Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, the list of guys who hoisted Tim Finchem’s crystal was full of top-tier players, which isn’t to demean the guys who have won it since. Simply put, the golf course was designed to punish bad shots far more than reward good ones, and in recent years, the emphasis on playing safe, position-oriented golf has almost become mandatory.

That has led to some mundane finishes. Or someone losing the tournament instead of a player catching fire down the stretch to win it. The Players is about treading gently around the landmines, as Matt Kuchar did last year, because nobody’s going to chase down a leader with birdies on the 17th and 18th.

Drama can come in many forms, however, and there have been some thrilling Players finishes: Fred Couples over Colin Montgomerie and Tommy Tolles in 1996; Hal Sutton over Tiger Woods in 2000; Craig Perks in 2002. I guess you could throw in Sergio Garcia over Paul Goydos in 2008, but like many editions of this tournament, that one was decided on a Goydos mistake.

We’re due for a slam-bang conclusion this week. Sooner or later, the law of averages has to prevail, doesn’t it?

SOME RANDOM THOUGHTS on the old fifth major – pro golf’s version of what Stu Sutcliffe was in the Beatles:

• The par-5 16th at Sawgrass is a great hole – a terrific risk-reward opportunity and not marred by an over-cluttered design, as are so many holes on the course. Sort of like a poor man’s 13th at Augusta, at least in terms of scoring swings; although, the two holes couldn’t look more different. (Click here for Frank Nobilo's tee-to-green look at TPC Sawgrass)

• I’ve never understood why they haven’t added some tee boxes at the par-3 17th. There is plenty of room on both sides of the current teeing ground to change the angle of the shot (often a 9-iron or wedge) and make things more interesting. I totally agree with Woods’ assessment that it’s silly to have an island green on the second-to-last hole on the course but hey, it’s not like they’re going to change that anytime over the next couple of centuries.

• Speaking of Woods, why hasn’t Eldrick Almighty played well at Sawgrass in recent years? There are a lot of restrictive driving holes, which not only compromises his power, but his ability to get comfortable visualizing certain tee shots. Back when he lost to Sutton, then picked up his only Players victory a year later, there wasn’t a golf course Woods couldn’t play.

He had a 43-inch driver with a steel shaft, which allowed him to shape the ball more efficiently and position himself for scoring chances. At this point, I’m not totally convinced he cares whether he wins another Players.

ON AUG. 1, 1999, I spent four hours on the back of the Sawgrass practice range with Vijay Singh, my tape recorder running until I ran out of cassettes. As one might expect at that time of the year in northern Florida, it was a brutally hot day, but I don’t recall Singh not hitting balls for any extended length of time during the interview.

I’d ask a question and Singh would answer it, sometimes while hitting a shot in mid-sentence. The man came across as fiercely proud, speaking of his struggles as a young pro in the early 1980s with a cool defiance. Make no mistake: the guy could be very engaging, his playful sense of humor punctuated by a high-pitched laugh. He also made it clear that you didn’t want to cross him, either.

We spoke at length about the cheating incident that led to an indefinite suspension on the Asian Tour in 1985. Singh was candid, perhaps a little defensive, but things went fine until we reached the Sawgrass parking lot that afternoon and I asked for permission to speak to his wife.

He told me that wasn’t going to happen. I told him I couldn’t produce a responsible piece of journalism without talking to the one person who had gone through all the tough times with him, but it didn’t matter. Singh wasn’t giving in, and I wasn’t going to push the issue to the point where things got confrontational.

That said, the story was dead. When Singh won the Masters the following spring, I used stuff from the Sawgrass interview for my article in Golf World magazine, driving home the point that Singh’s career immediately began to take flight after the suspension. He’d spent the year beating balls and getting motivated. When he moved on to the European Tour in the mid-1980s, nothing was going to stop him from making it big.

The piece was highly complementary – I mean, the guy had just won the Masters – but when I ran into him at Hilton Head the following week and asked him if he’d seen the story, Singh responded, “I’m never talking to you again.” I was blown away by his reaction. And to this day, other than when I tried to reconcile the situation eight or nine years later, that has indeed been the case.

Fast forward to last week, when Tour commissioner Tim Finchem decided not to penalize Singh for his admitted use of deer-antler spray. Having previously written here that I thought a suspension was in order, I underestimated Finchem’s ability to think his way through a tough issue, and ultimately, find legal justification for letting Singh off the hook.

In this case, it came in the form of a recent conclusion by scientists that deer-antler spray provided little or no advantage to athletes – and that testing for the substance was hit or miss. This doesn’t change the fact that Singh used a banned substance when it was on the banned-substance list, but what’s done is done. I don’t agree with the commissioner’s action but respect and understand his position.

A number of Tour pros expressed mixed feelings on the ruling, which probably says more about the verdict than anything. During six hours of chat last Thursday and Friday, however, I received a grand total of one question on the Singh pardon. This in stark contrast to the dozens of replies regarding my belief that Woods won’t break Jack Nicklaus’ career-majors record.

Maybe even serious golf fans don’t really care about Singh anymore. Or maybe his legacy has been further tainted by this whole affair, and at this point, there’s nothing left for anyone to say.

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Korda happy to finally be free of jaw pain

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 2:43 am

PHOENIX – Jessica Korda isn’t as surprised as everyone else that she is playing so well, so quickly, upon her return from a complex and painful offseason surgery.

She is inspired finally getting to play without recurring headaches.

“I’d been in pain for three years,” she said after posting a 4-under-par 68 Friday to move two shots off the lead at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

Korda had her upper jaw broken in three places and her low jaw broken in two places in December in a procedure that fixed the alignment of her jaw.

Korda, 25, said the headaches caused by her overbite even affected her personality.

“Affects your moods,” Korda said. “I think I was pretty snappy back then as well.”

She was pretty pleased Friday to give herself a weekend chance at her sixth LPGA title, her second in her last three starts. She won the Honda LPGA Thailand three weeks ago in her first start after returning from surgery.

“I'm much happier now,” Korda said. “Much calmer.”

Even if she still can’t eat the things she would really like to eat. She’s still recuperating. She said the lower part of her face remains numb, and it’s painful to chew crunchy things.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“Chips are totally out of question,” Korda said.

She can eat most things she likes, but she has to cut them into tiny pieces. She can’t wait to be able to eat a steak.

“They broke my palate, so I can't feel anything, even heat,” Korda said. “So that's a bit difficult, because I can't feel any heat on my lip or palate. I don't know how hot things are going in until they hit my throat.”

Korda has 27 screws in her skull holding the realignment together. She needed her family to feed her, bathe her and dress her while she recovered. The procedure changed the way she looks.

While Korda’s ordeal and all that went into her recovery has helped fans relate to her, she said it’s the desire to move on that motivates her.

“Because I was so drugged up, I don't remember a lot of it,” Korda said. “I try to forget a lot of it. I don't think of it like I went through a lot. I just think of it as I'm pain-free. So, yeah, people are like, `Oh, you're so brave, you overcame this and that.’ For me, I'm just going forward.”

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Finally adapted to short putter, Martin near lead

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 1:54 am

PHOENIX – Mo Martin loved her long putter.

In fact, she named her “Mona.”

For 10 years, Martin didn’t putt with anything else. She grew up with long putters, from the time she started playing when she was 5.

While Martin won the Ricoh Women’s British Open in 2014, about nine months after giving up Mona for a short putter, she said it’s taken until today to feel totally comfortable with one.

And that has her excited about this year.

Well, that and having a healthy back again.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“I've had a feeling that this year was going to be a good one,” Martin said. “My game is in a special place.”

Martin was beaming after a 6-under-par 66 Friday moved her two shots off the lead at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“Just a beautiful day,” Martin said. “I was able to play my game, make my putts.”

Martin hit all 14 fairways in the second round, hit 15 greens in regulation and took just 27 putts. After struggling with nagging back pain last year, she’s pain free again.

She’s happy to “just to get back to a place now where my ball striking is where it has been the last few years.”

Martin, by the way, says Mona remains preserved in a special place, “a shrine” in her home.

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Clanton rides hole-out eagle to lead at Founders

By Associated PressMarch 17, 2018, 1:47 am

PHOENIX - Cydney Clanton holed out from the fairway for eagle on the par-4 13th and closed with a birdie Friday to take the second-round lead in the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

Clanton shot a 5-under 67, playing the back nine at Desert Ridge in 5-under 31 to reach 9-under 135.

Clanton's wedge on the 13th flew into the cup on the first bounce. She also birdied the par-5 11th and 15th and the par-4 18th. The 28-year-old former Auburn player is winless on the LPGA.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Ariya Jutanugarn, Marina Alex, Karine Icher and Mariajo Uribe were a stroke back on a calmer day after wind made scoring more difficult Thursday.

Jessica Korda and Mo Martin were 7 under, and Michelle Wie topped the group at 6 under.

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Ko's struggles continue with Founders MC

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 1:26 am

PHOENIX – Lydia Ko loves the Bank of Hope Founders Cup and its celebration of the game’s pioneers, and that made missing the cut Friday sting a little more.

With a 1-over-par 73 following Thursday’s 74, Ko missed the cut by four shots.

After tying for 10th at the HSBC Women’s World Championship in her last start, Ko looked to be turning a corner in her quest to find her best form again, but she heads to next week’s Kia Classic with more work to do.

“I just have to stay patient,” Ko said. “I just have to keep my head high.”

It was just the fifth missed cut in Ko’s 120 career LPGA starts, but her fourth in her last 26 starts.

Ko’s ball striking has been erratic this year, but her putting has been carrying her. She said her putting let her down Friday.

“It seemed like I couldn’t hole a single putt,” she said. “When I missed greens, I just wasn’t getting up and down. When I got a birdie opportunity, I wasn’t able to hole it.”

Ko came to Phoenix ranked 112th in driving distance, 121st in driving accuracy and 83rd in greens in regulation. She was sixth in putting average.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Cristie Kerr saw the struggle playing two rounds with Ko.

“Her game’s not in good shape,” Kerr said. “She seemed a little lost.”

Ko, 20, made those sweeping changes last year, starting 2017 with a new coach (Gary Gilchrist), a new caddie (Peter Godfrey) and new equipment (PXG). She made more changes at this year’s start, with another new coach (Ted Oh) and new caddie (Jonnie Scott).

Ko doesn’t have to look further than Michelle Wie to see how a player’s game can totally turn around.

“It always takes time to get used to things,” Ko said. “By the end of last year, I was playing solid. I’m hoping it won’t take as much time this year.”

Ko had Oh fly to Asia to work with her in her two starts before the Founders Cup, with their work showing up in her play at the HSBC in Singapore. She said she would be talking to Oh again before heading to the Kia Classic next week and then the ANA Inspiration. She has won both of those events and will be looking to pull some good vibes from that.

“This is my favorite stretch of events,” she said. “And I love the Founders Cup, how it celebrates all the generations that have walked through women’s golf. And I love the West Coast swing. Hopefully, I’ll make more putts next week.”

Ko, whose run of 85 consecutive weeks at Rolex world No. 1 ended last summer, slipped to No. 12 this week.