Different paths for Wie, Thompson, Pak

By Randall MellApril 4, 2014, 10:55 pm

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Lexi Thompson is the one without scars.

Yeah, you can’t see them on Michelle Wie and even the legend, Se Ri Pak, but they have struggled to return to this kind of stage, to a weekend on the leaderboard at a major championship. Sure, their stories are vastly different, but Wie and Pak share a common struggle in giving themselves the chance to win this Kraft Nabisco Championship.

There’s still a long way to go, but if Wie or Pak is going to walk away with the Dinah Shore Trophy Sunday at Mission Hills Country Club, they might have to go through the big-hitting, youthful Thompson to get there.

With an 8-under-par 64 Friday, Thompson shot up the leaderboard to gain a share of the lead with Pak (70). Thompson left Mission Hills with momentum after posting the best round of the day.

At 7-under 137, Thompson and Pak were a shot ahead of Wie (71) after two rounds.

Thompson is just 19, but she’s already a three-time LPGA winner. When she won the Navistar Classic at 16, she was the youngest player to win an LPGA event. When she was 12, she played in her first major, becoming the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open.

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“This is one of my goals, to win a major this year,” Thompson said.

Thompson is full of confidence and youthful ambition. She’s the kind of fearless player that Wie said she used to be when she was young.

“You don’t know what failure is,” Wie said after Thursday's first round. “I’ve had my ups and downs.”

Wie, a two-time LPGA winner, knows failure. She has battled through injuries, slumps and burnout but looks poised for what swing coach David Leadbetter calls her “second coming.” She said her swoon is part of who she is today.

“You just go out there and you’re grinding and grinding, and you don’t see any improvement,” Wie said. “I think that’s when you get most frustrated, with the least confidence.

“I’m just really grateful that I went through that because I know how I overcame that. If I ever get where I’m not confident, I know how to get past it now.”

Wie’s swing looks free again. Her ball-striking this year has been impressive. That’s partly due to the fact that she is less technical and analytical. She’s trying to play with the feel she played with as that young phenom. Wie is so committed to that, she quit looking at video of her swing.

“It’s always a battle for me because I’m such a perfectionist,” Wie said. “I try to do everything perfectly. I’m really trying not to look at my swing, just really feel it and just try not to be perfect, just kind of hit some shots instead of trying to make a perfect swing.

“It was hard. I almost felt like a bit of an addict. I really wanted to look, `Am I doing it right?’ But once I stopped looking at it, I don’t even want to look at my swing anymore. I don't want to rely on my eyes again.”

Wie is playing golf again, instead of just making swings.

“When I was young, way younger, I just tried to hit the ball hard, to hit it far,” Wie said. “I definitely think I’m kind of going back towards that.”

Wie’s putting, with that unorthodox “tabletop stance,” has been mostly good, but there’s still the occasional short miss between good par saves. She missed a 2 ½-footer for par on Thursday. She missed a 3-footer for birdie on Friday.

“I was really proud of myself for making those par saves today,” Wie said.

And a little good fortune never hurts. Wie got a lucky break at No. 2, her 11th hole. She hooked her tee shot hard toward the out-of-bounds stakes, but it hit a tree and bounced into the middle of the fairway. She made birdie.

“Pretty lucky shot there,” Wie said.

Pak, 36, is feeling fortunate to get herself in position to win her sixth major championship, her first Kraft Nabisco. Pak, of course, inspired a nation of South Korean girls with her U.S. Women’s Open and LPGA Championship titles in ‘98. A Hall of Famer, Pak has won 25 titles but just one over the last seven seasons with her last major coming eight years ago.

Burned out after her meteoric rise, Pak came to a crossroads.

“One moment, all of a sudden, I just hated golf,” Pak said.

Pak found herself on driving ranges not wanting to be there, but she said she's finding balance in her life.

“I now understand the game of golf,” Pak said.

If she found herself hoisting the Dinah Shore Trophy come Sunday, Pak said she might relish the moment more than she did winning majors in her youth.

“Right now, this moment is probably the best I’ve ever had,” Pak said. “I find my game, I find my life. It’s just great to be out here.”

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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.

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Tour's Integrity Program raises gambling questions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 17, 2018, 7:00 pm

The video begins with an eye-opening disclaimer: “Sport betting markets produce revenues of $1 trillion each year.”

For all the seemingly elementary elements of the 15-minute video PGA Tour players have been required to watch as part of the circuit’s newly created Integrity Program, it’s the enormity of the industry – $1 trillion annually – that concerns officials.

There are no glaring examples of how sport betting has impacted golf, no red flags that sent Tour officials into damage control; just a realization that with that kind of money it’s best to be proactive.

“It's important that in that world, you can operate not understanding what's happening week in and week out, or you can assume that all of our players and everybody in our ecosystem understands that that's not an acceptable activity, or you can just be proactive and clarify and educate,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan explained earlier this month. “That's what we have attempted to do not with just the video, but with all of our communication with our players and will continue to do that.”

But if clarification is the goal, a copy of the training video obtained by GolfChannel.com paints a different picture.

Although the essence of the policy is straightforward – “prohibit players from betting on professional golf” – the primary concern, at least if the training video is any indication, is on match fixing; and warns players to avoid divulging what is considered “inside information.”

“I thought the questions were laughable. They were all like first-grade-level questions,” Chez Reavie said. “I would like to think everyone out here already knows the answer to those questions. But the Tour has to protect themselves.”

Monahan explained that the creation of the integrity policy was not in reaction to a specific incident and every player asked last week at the Sony Open said they had never encountered any type of match fixing.

“No, not at all,” Reavie said. “I have friends who will text me from home after a round, ‘Oh, I bet on you playing so-and-so.’ But I make it clear I don’t want to know. I don’t gamble like that. No one has ever approached me about losing a match.”

It was a common answer, but the majority of the video focuses on how players can avoid being placed in a compromising situation that could lead to match fixing. It should be noted that gamblers can place wagers on head-to-head matchups, provided by betting outlets, during stroke-play rounds of tournaments – not just in match-play competitions.

Part of the training video included questions players must answer to avoid violating the policy. An example of this was how a player should respond when asked, “Hello, buddy! Well played today. I was following your progress. I noticed your partner pulled out of his approach on 18, looked like his back. Is he okay for tomorrow?”

The correct answer from a list of options was, “I don’t know, sorry. I’m sure he will get it looked at if it’s bothering him.”

You get the idea, but for some players the training created more questions.

How, for example, should a player respond when asked how he’s feeling by a fan?

“The part I don’t understand, let’s say a member of your club comes out and watches you on the range hitting balls, he knows you’re struggling, and he bets against you. Somehow, some way that could come back to you, according to what I saw on that video,” said one player who asked not to be identified.

Exactly what constitutes a violation is still unclear for some who took the training, which was even more concerning considering the penalties for a violation of the policy.

The first violation is a warning and a second infraction will require the player to retake the training program, but a third violation is a fine “up to $500,000” or “the amount illegally received from the betting activity.” A sixth violation is a lifetime ban from the Tour.

Players are advised to be mindful of what they post on social media and to “refrain from talking about odds or betting activity.” The latter could be an issue considering how often players discuss betting on other sports.

Just last week at the Sony Open, Kevin Kisner and Justin Thomas had a “friendly” wager on the College Football Playoff National Championship. Kisner, a Georgia fan, lost the wager and had to wear an Alabama football jersey while playing the 17th hole last Thursday.

“If I'd have got the points, he'd have been wearing [the jersey], and I was lobbying for the points the whole week, and he didn't give them to me,” Kisner said. “So I'm still not sure about this bet.”

It’s unclear to some if Kisner’s remark, which was a joke and didn’t have anything to do with golf, would be considered a violation. From a common sense standpoint, Kisner did nothing wrong, but the uncertainty is an issue.

Much like drug testing, which the Tour introduced in 2008, few, if any, think sport betting is an issue in golf; but also like the anti-doping program, there appears to be the danger of an inadvertent and entirely innocent violation.

The Tour is trying to be proactive and the circuit has a trillion reasons to get out in front of what could become an issue, but if the initial reaction to the training video is any indication they may want to try a second take.

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Lexi looks to shine as LPGA season begins next week

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 6:06 pm

Lexi Thompson may be No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in so many ways she became the new face of the women’s game last year.

That makes her the headliner in a fairly star-studded season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic next week.

Three of the top four players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to tee it up on Paradise Island, including world No. 1 Shanshan Feng and co-Rolex Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu.

From the heartache at year’s start with the controversial loss at the ANA Inspiration, through the angst in the middle of the year with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, to the stunning disappointment at year’s end, Thompson emerged as the story of the year because of all she achieved in spite of those ordeals.

Next week’s event will mark the first time Thompson tees it up in an LPGA tournament since her season ended in stunning fashion last November with a missed 2-foot putt that cost her a chance to win the CME Group Tour Championship and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and become the world No. 1.

She still walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average.

She also walked away sounding determined to show she will bounce back from that last disappointment the same way she bounced back from her gut-wrenching loss at the year’s first major, the ANA, where a four-shot Sunday penalty cost her a chance to win her second major.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds ... it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said leaving the CME Group Tour Championship. “This won’t either.”

Thompson was named the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year in a vote of GWAA membership. Ryu and Sung Hyun Park won the tour’s points-based Rolex Player of the Year Award.

With those two victories and six second-place finishes, three of those coming after playoff losses, Thompson was close to fashioning a spectacular year in 2017, to dominating the tour.

The new season opens with Thompson the center of attention again. Consistently one of the tour’s best ball strikers and longest hitters, she enjoyed her best year on tour last season by making dramatic improvements in her wedge play, short game and, most notably, her putting.

She doesn’t have a swing coach. She fashioned a better all-around game on her own, or under the watchful eye of her father, Scott. All the work she put in showed up in her winning the Vare Trophy.

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will also feature defending champion Brittany Lincicome, as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, I.K. Kim, Danielle Kang and Charley Hull.