Burning a Trail to Firestone
Competing against the five-time major champion are his fellow 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup Team members, the members of both the recently named 2000 U.S. and International Presidents Cup Teams and the top twelve players from the European Tour's current Order of Merit.
The last of those qualifications has caused quite a stir among European-born players. Last year, members of the 1999 European Ryder Cup Team were invited to Akron. That was expected to be the case in 2000, until the European Tour decided to replace those players with the top twelve on their Order of Merit. The reason -- to try and entice many of Europe's best (who have been playing more tournaments stateside) to compete on their home soil.
The decision to alter the qualification has affected nine players: Jesper Parnevik, Jean Van de Velde, Jarmo Sandelin, Sergio Garcia, Paul Lawrie, Gary Orr, Phillip Price, Paul McGinley and Ian Woosnam.
Parnevik, Van de Velde, Sandelin, Garcia and Lawrie are out. Orr, Price, McGinley and Woosnam are in.
This has infuriated those left on the outside, particularly Parnevik. The Swede announced his decision to quit the European Tour (though he will probably try to rejoin next season to qualify for the Ryder Cup.)
This week, Parnevik will be resting his ailing hip, while Garcia and Van de Velde will be in Nevada for the Reno-Tahoe Open. Lawrie is back home, playing in the Scottish PGA Championship. Sandelin, well, he's probably laying out his wardrobe for his next start.
In all, 37 players are in the NEC field. David Duval is not in attendance, neither is Vijay Singh. For the third time in his last three expected starts, Duval has been forced to withdraw from an event due to his continued battle with back pain. The world's #3 ranked player withdrew prior to The International three weeks ago; as well as last week's PGA Championship.
Singh withdrew Wednesday due to a sprained left forearm. This year's Masters champion made news last week at Valhalla by firing his caddie, Dave Renwick. Renwick, who recently married, looped for Singh for both of his major victories (1998 PGA Championship.)
Last year, Woods defeated Phil Mickelson by a shot to win the NEC. It marked the third consecutive year Mickelson has finished runner-up at this event. After winning the tournament - formerly known as the NEC World Series of Golf - in 1996, the lefty has come up short to Greg Norman in 1997 and David Duval in 1998.
If Mickelson can regain his winning form of '96, he'll garner a paycheck of $1 million - first prize in the $5 million purse. Currently, the three-time 2000 PGA TOUR winner is over $3.5 million behind Woods.
Tiger will be making his 100th career TOUR start (including as an amateur) this week. His first start came at Riviera in 1992. The 16-year-old Woods missed the cut at the Nissan Open. Since then, Woods has missed only two cuts in 85 professional starts. In that time, he's won 22 times and has collected over $18 million in earnings.
This is the second of four WGC events in 2000. Darren Clarke defeated Woods in the finals of the first event, the Andersen Consulting World Match Play Championship. The third event, the American Express Championship (which Tiger will also defend), will be contested in November; with the fourth, the EMC World Cup, taking place in December.
Kelly, Sauers co-lead in Hawaii; Monty, Couples in mix
KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Fresh off a solid performance on Oahu, Jerry Kelly shot an 8-under 64 on the Big Island on Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.
The 51-year-old Kelly, who tied for 14th at the PGA Tour's Sony Open last week in Honolulu, birdied five of his final seven holes to shoot 30 on the back nine at Hualalai. He won twice last season, his first on the over-50 tour.
Gene Sauers also shot 64, going bogey-free amid calm conditions. Thirty-two of the 44 players broke par in the limited-field event, which includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.
Rocco Mediate and Colin Montgomerie were one shot back, and Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland and Kirk Triplett were another shot behind.
Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was in the middle of the pack after a 69.
Rahm (62) fires career low round
The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:
Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)
What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.
Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.
Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.
Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.
Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.
Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.
Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm
Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder
Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.
Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.
"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."
Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.
Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.
"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."
Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn
There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.
Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.
Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.
Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.
The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.