Players starting to focus on Ryder Cup

By John HawkinsMay 14, 2014, 7:57 pm

IRVING, Texas — The Ryder Cup is still 20 weeks away, but with the Players Championship in the rear-view mirror and the heart of the season upon us, we’ve reached the point where playing for no paycheck becomes more important than a lot of the tournaments that give out humongous ones.

“It’s very high on my radar,” Jordan Spieth says of the biennial matches against Europe, which has beaten the U.S. seven times in the last nine meetings. “It’s a huge priority of mine to make that team. I know I’m in a good position now, but with quite a few events weighted heavily going forward, it doesn’t mean a whole lot.”

Not yet, anyway. That T-4 at the Players moved Spieth to fourth in the U.S. standings. He’s one spot ahead of Jim Furyk, who significantly enhanced his chances of playing in a ninth Ryder Cup with a solo second at TPC Sawgrass. Furyk has been making these teams for a long time. He may be getting old, but playing for Old Glory never does.

“Honestly, I didn’t look at it this year until a couple of weeks ago,” Furyk says. “I knew I was in decent shape at the start of the year, played well in Charlotte and jumped to seventh. Then I had a nice week at the Players and jumped to fifth.”

Ask a Tour pro where he stands in the FedEx Cup derby, and there’s a pretty good chance he’s not exactly sure. Ask him where he stands in Ryder Cup qualifying, however, and he’s likely to already have plumb-bobbed it twice. What’s interesting is how the current generation of Yanks doesn’t have to listen to people wondering aloud about whether they care about beating the Euros.

In the modern era, it has always mattered. And it always will.

Nobody cares more than Keegan Bradley, currently 20th on the list, meaning he needs to get busy. “I really think I’ve got to win to make the team,” Bradley says. “We’re so deep and it’s so tough - and we’ll probably have Tiger [Woods] on the outside [of the nine automatic qualifiers]. So many guys are deserving of captain’s picks. I’ve got to make the team on points. That’s very important to me.”

A couple of administrative matters are worth repeating. In an attempt to strengthen the U.S. squad, victorious skipper Paul Azinger successfully lobbied for changes to the qualifying process in 2007. American players now earn points only at the majors during non-Ryder Cup years.

The pace picks up considerably when the new calendar arrives. A point is awarded for every $1,000 earned at all “regular” Tour events in 2014. The reward is doubled at the majors and cut in half at opposite-field events, which forces guys to play well in the months leading up to the matches to make the squad.

Also, current captain Tom Watson reduced the number of his picks from four to three. “Three feels right,” Furyk says. “Two wasn’t enough, and four - that’s one-third of the team being made up of [non-qualifiers], which sounds a little high to me.”

Furyk knows all about changes to the system. He had a huge 2003, then hurt his wrist and had one of the poorest seasons of his career in 2004. Despite missing five months with the injury and posting just two top 10s in nine ’04 starts prior to the Ryder Cup, he finished fourth in the U.S. standings.

“I’ve seen it both ways, [but] I’ve never really concerned myself with the process,” Furyk says. “If you’re asking me whether I like the system we have now, I’d say yes.”

If anyone’s complaining, nobody’s listening. “I’ve got to dig in,” Spieth says. “I know Bubba [Watson] is pretty much secure. Everyone else has to play great golf. Even guys who have won three times this year. That’s why I’m putting so much emphasis on the majors - because they’re weighted so heavily.”

The Woods situation, meanwhile, will remain a factor all summer. Tiger’s back issues are likely to keep him out of action for another two months. Unless he returns and plays at a level far below his standard, you would think Watson would add him to the team, regardless of how the naysayers feel about it.

In effect, that would leave Watson with two picks. There was a similar scenario with Woods and the 2011 Presidents Cup: he was injured for most of the summer but was added to the team by skipper Fred Couples despite finishing 29th in points and 50th in the world ranking.

Woods would go 2-3 at Royal Melbourne. In 2011, then again earlier this season, his play prior to the injury wasn’t close to Tigeresque. Watson has always been known as an independent thinker and a risk-taker, leaving us to wonder which is the bigger gamble: taking Woods to Gleneagles or leaving him behind.

Given the Azinger changes - and how the PGA Tour schedule has gotten bottom-heavy since 2007 - you get a pretty good idea of who’s Ryder Cup-worthy and who isn’t. If America doesn’t pick up its first victory overseas since 1993, it won’t be because the Yanks don’t care. Or because Watson didn’t field his best team.

Or because guys such as Bradley didn’t have a chance to make it.

“It’s always a priority,” Dustin Johnson says. “I mean, I don’t even know where I’m at, but I think I’m doing pretty well, to be honest.”

Having fallen from fourth to sixth after the Players, Johnson needs to pick it up again, to be perfectly honest.

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.

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Hot Seat: Rory jumps into the fire early

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 2:11 pm

The world’s top tours head to desert regions this week, perfect locales for The Hot Seat, the gauge upon which we measure the level of heat the game’s top personalities are facing ...

Sahara sizzle: Rory McIlroy

McIlroy won’t have to look far to see how his form measures up to world No. 1 Dustin Johnson at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

McIlroy will make his 2018 debut with Johnson in his face, literally.

McIlroy will be grouped with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood in the first two rounds.

Players like to downplay pairings early in a tournament, but it’s hard to believe McIlroy and Johnson won’t be trying to send each other messages in this European Tour event in the United Arab Emirates. That’s the alpha-dog nature of world-class players looking to protect their turf, or in the case of McIlroy, take back his turf.

“When you are at the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Trevor Immelman said about pairings during Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge last month.

And that was an offseason event.

“They want to show this guy, ‘This is what I got,’” Immelman said.

As early season matchups go, Abu Dhabi is a heavyweight pairing that ought to be fun.

So there will be no easing into the new year for McIlroy after taking off the last three months to regroup from the stubborn rib injury that plagued him last season. He is coming off a winless year, and he will be doing so alongside a guy who just won the first PGA Tour event of 2018 in an eight-shot rout. Johnson’s victory in Hawaii two weeks ago was his fifth since McIlroy last won.

“Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place, and that was because of where I was physically,” McIlroy said of 2017. “I feel prepared now. I feel ready, and I feel ready to challenge. I feel really good about where I’m at with my health. I’ve put all that behind me, which has been great.”

Sonoran Smolder: Phil Mickelson

Mickelson will turn 48 this summer.

His world ranking is sliding, down to No. 43 now, which is the lowest he has ranked in 24 years.

It’s been more than four years since he last won, making him 0 for his last 92 starts.

There’s motivation in all of that for Mickelson. He makes his 2018 debut at the CareerBuilder Challenge in the Palm Springs area this week talking like a man on a renewed mission.

There’s a Ryder Cup team to make this season, which would be his 12th straight, and there’s a career Grand Slam to claim, with the U.S. Open returning to Shinnecock Hills, where Mickelson finished second in ’04.

While Mickelson may not feel old, there are so many young stars standing in his way that it’s hard not to be constantly reminded that time isn’t on his side in these events anymore.

There has only been one player in the history of the game to win a major championship who was older than Mickelson is right now. Julius Boros won the PGA Championship when he was 48 back in 1968.

Campaign fever: Jordan Spieth

Spieth’s respect in the game’s ranks extends outside the ropes.

He was just selected to run for the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council’s chairman position. He is facing Billy Hurley III in an election to see who will succeed Davis Love III on the Tour’s Policy Board next year.

Spieth, just 24, has already made Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People.” He made that back in 2016, with the magazine writing that “he exemplifies everything that’s great about sports.” Sounds like a campaign slogan.

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CareerBuilder Challenge: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 1:10 pm

The PGA Tour shifts from Hawaii to Southern California for the second full-field event of the year. Here are the key stats and information for the CareerBuilder Challenge. Click here for full-field tee times.

How to watch (all rounds on Golf Channel):

Thursday, Rd. 1: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Friday, Rd. 2: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Saturday, Rd. 3: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Sunday, Rd. 4: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Purse: $5.9 million ($1,062,000 to winner)

Courses: PGA West, Stadium Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,113); PGA West, Nicklaus Tournament Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,159); La Quinta Country Club, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,060) NOTE: All three courses will be used for the first three rounds but only the Stadium Course will be used for the final round.

Defending champion: Hudson Swafford (-20) - defeated Adam Hadwin by one stroke to earn his first PGA Tour win.

Notables in the field

Phil Mickelson

* This is his first start of 2018. It's the fourth consecutive year he has made this event the first one on his yearly calendar.

* For the second year in a row he will serve as the tournament's official ambassador.

* He has won this event twice - in 2002 and 2004.

* This will be his 97th worldwide start since his most recent win, The Open in 2013.

Jon Rahm

* Ranked No. 3 in the world, he finished runner-up in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

* In 37 worldwide starts as a pro, he has 14 top-5 finishes.

* Last year he finished T-34 in this event.

Adam Hadwin

* Last year in the third round, he shot 59 at La Quinta Country Club. It was the ninth - and still most recent - sub-60 round on Tour.

* In his only start of 2018, the Canadian finished 32nd in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Brian Harman

* Only player on the PGA Tour with five top-10 finishes this season.

* Ranks fifth in greens in regulation this season.

* Finished third in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and T-4 in the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Brandt Snedeker

* Making only his third worldwide start since last June at the Travelers Championship. He has been recovering from a chest injury.

* This is his first start since he withdrew from the Indonesian Masters in December because of heat exhaustion.

* Hasn't played in this event since missing the cut in 2015.

Patrick Reed

* Earned his first career victory in this event in 2014, shooting three consecutive rounds of 63.

* This is his first start of 2018.

* Last season finished seventh in strokes gained: putting, the best ranking of his career.

(Stats provided by the Golf Channel editorial research unit.)