LPGA's heavy-hitters set their sights on Founders Cup

By Randall MellMarch 14, 2017, 11:34 pm

PHOENIX – Cue the fireworks.

Marriott Wildfire Golf Club hosts the LPGA American home opener this week, the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, with the game’s top players looking poised to deliver another shootout in the desert.

Sei Young Kim was a human fireworks show here a year ago, winning with a 27-under-par total, equaling Annika Sorenstam’s record for the lowest 72-hole score in LPGA history.

Kim will be looking to repeat against a strong field, with nine of the top 10 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, and 16 of the top 20, in the field. Shanshan Feng is the only top-10 player who isn’t here.

“I have a new goal,” Kim said. “I want to shoot 28 under and break the record.

“I love this course. It’s going to be fun.”

The stakes are elevated with so many of the game’s best already rounding into form coming into just the fifth event of the year.

“It’s the same cast of characters that have started out playing so well,” said Judy Rankin, the Hall of Famer and Golf Channel analyst. “There are five or six, maybe eight players that kind of drive each other.”

Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko is looking to heat up after an offseason of sweeping changes, with No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn and a host of other stars looking to challenge for the top spot. Ko’s reign at No. 1 has reached 73 consecutive weeks, but her once large margin at the top is beginning to shrink. Ko has lost almost six points off her world ranking average since her last victory eight months ago. She’s just 1.8 average points ahead of Jutanugarn this week.

There’s more than one player pressing to overtake Ko.

“There’s no Big Two or Big Three,” said Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz. “There are five to eight and maybe a few more capable of winning without their best stuff, and that’s pretty incredible.”

Ko is still adjusting to a new swing coach, new equipment and a new caddie. The year’s first major championship looms just two weeks away. Ko will be defending her title at the ANA Inspiration.

“If all these players stay in the mix, it could be one of the great major championships ever for the LPGA,” Rankin said.

Ko is looking for her first victory since the Marathon Classic last July, and she’s coming off a pair of top-10 finishes in Asia.

Jutanugarn finished second at the HSBC Women’s Champions in the last LPGA event, and she tied for third at the Women’s Australian Open last month.

Ha Na Jang won in Australia, her fourth LPGA title in 13 months.

Brittany Lincicome, a two-time winner of the ANA Inspiration, won the season opener in the Bahamas.

And then there’s Hall of Famer Inbee Park. She served notice she’s ready to challenge Ko again for the top spot after winning the HSBC Women’s Champions.

“Inbee at the top of the leaderboard and winning has given all of those other players, your Lydia Kos, your Ariya Jutanugarns, your Lexi Thompson, everybody, pause for thought: 'Oh, she’s back! That’s the Inbee of old,’” Golf Channel’s Karen Stupples said. “It’s good to see that she’s healthy and back to full strength.”

Count Thompson, Feng, In Gee Chun and Brooke Henderson in this battle for No. 1. They’re all in the field this week.

And don’t count out Stacy Lewis, who got into contention in the Bahamas, finishing third. Lewis, 32, is just three years removed from sweeping the Rolex Player of the Year, Vare Trophy and money-winning title. Wildfire looks like a favorable place for her 12th LPGA title, her first in 33 months. She has a victory, two seconds and a T-4 in her last four starts on this course. She’s also proven at the ANA, where she won the first of her two majors in 2011.

Rankin sees the competition for the game’s biggest prizes only getting more interesting with players pushing each other to new heights.

“It’s impressive that they imagine getting even better than they were,” Rankin said.

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.