Inaugural International Crown a stirring success

By Randall MellJuly 28, 2014, 8:36 pm

OWINGS MILLS, Md.  Move over, Solheim Cup, you've got a rival.

Well, not really a rival, but an alter ego, one seemingly destined to rival the Solheim Cup in popularity and appeal.

The International Crown opened as a hit at Caves Valley Golf Club this past week, even with the featured-attraction Americans flopping.

Yeah, you may point to Sunday's diminished crowds and disagree, with Baltimore-area golf fans disappointed they weren't going to see the Americans in Sunday singles after the U.S. team was eliminated in pool play. Sure, that was a setback to the event's debut, but that's all on the Americans. That wasn't about the format not being good enough. That was all about the Americans not being good enough. It wasn't just disappointing that the home team didn't make it to Sunday. It was disappointing so many top-ranked players exited the event as the Americans featured four of the top 12 players in the world rankings, including No. 1 Stacy Lewis.

And still, the International Crown couldn't have delivered a more dynamic quartet of personalities as its inaugural champions.

The Spaniards won with flair and a fun-loving bravado unmatched in the competition.

All the folks who didn't show up Sunday missed the show the Spaniards put on, sweeping all four of their singles matches, playing with unrivaled passion.

In Carlota Ciganda, Belen Mozo, Azahara Munoz and Beatriz Recari, the International Crown showcased what this event is all about  nationalistic golfing fervor. Nobody showed more of it than the Spaniards.

"We feel the flag," Recari said afterward. "Our blood boils when we hear the anthem, and when we see the flag."

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan wanted to create a complement to the Solheim Cup that would be different from a women's version of the Presidents Cup. He wanted a team event that would include players outside the United States and Europe, but he didn't want to create a "rest of the world" team. He wanted nations playing for their own flags, and that simple concept proved a stroke of genius. It made all the difference in the world to this event's success and its bright future.

The Presidents Cup feels coldly contrived. The International Crown felt naturally heated, like it was always meant to be.

Yes, an initial reaction watching the teams during the opening introductions at the first tee Thursday couldn't help draw comparisons to the Solheim Cup. The wild intensity of a Solheim Cup was missing, but if you looked closely, you saw something just as compelling. You saw intense emotion in the faces of the players listening to their national anthems. You saw what instantly connected these players in a powerfully meaningful way to the competition. You saw what will make this event just as emotionally meaningful to golf fans as it catches on.

The International Crown will grow larger in impact than the Solheim Cup because its scale is potentially so much larger. This encompasses the entire world of women's golf with the same passions that make the Solheim Cup work. The International Crown is only lacking history as a big event.

As soon as this biennial competition is played for the first time in South Korea or Japan, it will become super-sized. This will be a Super Bowl in those countries, where women's golf is so popular. It's definitely destined to be played somewhere in Asia, Whan pledged on Sunday when meeting with reporters.

The next International Crown will be played in 2016 at Rich Harvest Farms outside Chicago, and it will have a title sponsor, Whan confirmed. The inaugural event was funded by an aggregate of sponsors, but a deal with a major title sponsor that will run for at least the next three events is nearly ready to be announced. The first year it's possible to take the International Crown outside the United States is 2018, and a date in Asia would seem likely then. Whan, however, said future sites will be put up for bids.

Given all the details that go into putting on a first-time event with a format that's never been tried before, Whan was more than pleased with the International Crown's debut.

"Would it be better for an event played in America for the Americans to play in it [on Sunday]? Of course it would," Whan said. "I've never believed 2014 was going to define the International Crown. I think when we look back, we'll remember things about this, but 2014 was about building something that would lead to significance in the game.

"I don't know any player or caddie I've talked to this week who doesn't believe this is going to be one of the showcase events in women's golf. That's what we're trying to do, build another event that the rest of the world pays attention to."

While there will be some tweaks to the event, don't expect a major format change just because the Americans didn't make it out of pool play. Whan has heard pleas to change the format so all eight teams make it to Sunday, assuring a home team like the United States doesn't get shut out of singles play again.

"That's great, but you take out 75 percent of the drama," Whan said. "You could say every team in the NFL gets in the playoff at the end of the season, but then the regular season is kind of ho-hum. What makes this interesting, what makes it compelling, is those players knew standing on the 16th tee [of Saturday's playoff] that 'a couple of us aren't going to be back tomorrow.' That's what makes it great.

"For all the Americana I've gotten on Twitter, Facebook, I don't buy into that. I think this is better and more robust, including for Americans down the road, if it's harder to get to Sunday."

There's one change that is almost certain. Qualifying for the event will be backed up into later in the summer, so players who get hot, like Michelle Wie did this year, don't get shut out of the event. Whan defended the March 31 qualifying deadline for the inaugural event as being important in assuring the best players all showed up. He said it was pivotal to the first year that the biggest names could commit early and plan to play.

While Whan said his staff needs time to fully evaluate what happened this past week before making tweaks, a change to the Saturday sudden-death playoff format isn't likely, either. He said the fourballs with a tiebreaker on the second ball assures the playoff doesn't run on into dark, especially if more than two teams are in that playoff.

Also, don't expect the number of teams to grow beyond eight or the roster sizes beyond four.

"If you get to six players, if you want more than eight countries, you start to get diluted, in terms of the talent that is at that first tee," Whan said.

Whan has time to ponder changes, but he knows the foundation for a successful new event is set.

"I really believe we are on to something that people will circle on their calendar," he said. "Long term, this will be an event you won't miss as a golfer."

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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.