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Randall's Rant: How to stop slow play

By Randall MellJanuary 29, 2018, 8:17 pm

Maybe golf fans need a “honking horn” cellphone app.

So when traffic on the PGA Tour slows like rush hour on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, fans can lay on their horns, like New Yorkers do, to vent at a problem that continues to plague the game.

So when a player like J.B. Holmes chooses to become a one-man traffic jam, as he did in the 18th fairway Sunday at the end of the Farmers Insurance Open, fans can express their frustration.

Or maybe fans should just start booing when play slows down.

Or heckle offenders.

Or get creative and serenade slow players with a mocking variation of the Pointer Sisters hit song from the ‘80s:

I don’t want a man with a slow hand

I want a player in a heated rush

Yeah, OK, these are not serious proposals as solutions for the kind of slow play Holmes was guilty of at Torrey Pines. Still, the furor he created taking 4 minutes and 10 seconds to decide to fly the white flag and lay up appears to call for some extreme measures.

The “honking horn” app and other proposals offered here are intentionally over the top, designed to make a couple serious points:

1. Fans can’t depend on the PGA Tour to do anything serious about slow play, and so any real solution needs to start by changing the Tour’s attitude toward the issue.

2. Public and media pressure can motivate Tour officials to implement change.

We saw a social media mob take up pitchforks in a public-shaming campaign on Sunday. Holmes got lambasted, not only for his slow play, but for the effect his lack of courtesy may have had on playing partners also trying to win.

Bless Luke Donald.

The former No. 1 applied some pressure by boldly weighing in, taking Holmes to task. Donald served a higher purpose by daring to single out a fellow player.

“Last group was over a hole behind, we can all blame JB,” Donald tweeted.

Donald didn’t stop after calling out Holmes. He also called out the rules officials.

“They needed to step in a while ago,” he tweeted.

Mark Calcavecchia, the 13-time PGA Tour winner and three-time PGA Tour Champions winner, wielded a surgeon’s scalpel pointing out that Holmes’ conduct was as much a violation of the spirit of the game as it was any rule.

“Horrendous sportsmanship to [Alex] Noren and [Ryan] Palmer,” Calcavecchia tweeted.

It should be acknowledged that slow play is a complex problem, and it can’t truly be solved, not with 156- and 144-player fields, not with limited daylight, not with the fast greens you get in PGA Tour events and not with the wind that periodically complicates pace of play, as it did Sunday at Torrey Pines.

But that doesn’t mean pace of play can’t be significantly improved, if there is a real will inside the PGA Tour to do so. That won’t happen until the Tour takes it more seriously. When commissioner Jay Monahan revealed last year that a “comprehensive pace-of-play review” was under way, there was hope, but we’ve heard nothing since.

The one-stroke penalty PGA Tour officials assessed at the Zurich Classic last year is the only slow-play penalty issued in the last 23 years. That’s all you need to know about how seriously they take it.

There’s an old saying: First we make our habits, then our habits make us.

That’s how this changes, with the PGA Tour changing player habits.

There are a lot of factors contributing to slow play, and the Tour’s lack of enforcement of its own rules ranks high on the list.

The problem is that sloths and turtles on Tour know how to circumvent the slow-play rules (40 seconds to play a shot, with certain exceptions when playing first, when 60 seconds is permitted). The sloths and turtles also know they get warnings before a penalty. They know how to speed up when they are on the clock, then slow back down when they’re off it.

Obviously, PGA Tour officials let a lot of “bad times” go unsanctioned. How else do you explain one penalty in two decades?

It would be great if the PGA Tour would hire rules officials to time every group. That would be the ideal enforcement effort, as effective as having a State Patrol car in every driver’s rearview mirror. It’s not practical, though.

There are answers in technology.

Monahan hinted as much last year when he revealed the Tour’s Shotlink dashboard records “time par” averages for every player. If that’s a reliable metric, find a way to use it. Identify the sloths and turtles and post time par averages with other public stats.

Also, create a different set of rules for the 30 or so slowest players in any field, based on their time-par average. Tell the sloths and turtles they should assume they are on the clock at the first tee, that they could be timed (as individuals) without notice, and that they won’t be warned with a first “bad time.” They will go directly to a one-stroke penalty and $5,000 fine with their first violation.

Put sloths and turtles on notice.

Use Shotlink’s technology to help police them.

And then start enforcing the rules, start assessing penalty shots.

It’s all about changing habits, but there has to be discretion and allowances, when players are in contention on Sundays. This is why slow play is a complex problem, because it’s different on the back nine on Sundays. There are going to be those extraordinary circumstances when a contender like Jordan Spieth is getting a complicated drop at Royal Birkdale, or Tiger Woods is figuring out how to hole a circuitous chip at the 16th at Augusta National or Phil Mickelson sends his caddie 70 yards ahead at the last hole to tend the flagstick at the Farmers Insurance Open in a bid to hole out from the fairway and force a playoff (that one didn’t work out, but it was cool).

The hope here is that the PGA Tour can change a player’s habits before he unnecessarily creates a traffic jam when he’s in contention late on a Sunday.

Maybe J.B. Holmes isn’t being publicly shamed today if the PGA Tour worked harder to change habits.

Honk your horn if you agree.

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McIlroy, Scott have forgettable finish at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 11:03 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy and the rest of his group had a forgettable end to their rounds Thursday at the Honda Classic.

McIlroy was even par for the day and looking for one final birdie to end his opening round. Only two players had reached the par-5 finishing hole, but McIlroy tried to hold a 3-wood up against the wind from 268 yards away. It found the water, leading to a double bogey and a round of 2-over 72.  

“It was the right shot,” McIlroy said. “I just didn’t execute it the right way.”

He wasn’t the only player to struggle coming home.

Adam Scott, who won here in 2016, found the water on both par 3s in the Bear Trap, Nos. 15 and 17. He made double on 15, then triple on 17, after his shot from the drop area went long, then he failed to get up and down. He shot 73, spoiling a solid round.

The third player in the group, Padraig Harrington, made a mess of the 16th hole, taking a triple.

The group played the last four holes in a combined 10 over.

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Woods (70) better in every way on Day 1 at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:40 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Consider it a sign of the times that Tiger Woods was ecstatic about an even-par score Thursday at the Honda Classic.

It was by far his most impressive round in this nascent comeback.

Playing in a steady 20-mph wind, Woods was better in all facets of the game Thursday at PGA National. Better off the tee. Better with his irons. And better on and around the “scratchy” greens.

He hung tough to shoot 70 – four shots better than his playing partner, Patton Kizzire, a two-time winner this season and the current FedExCup leader – and afterward Woods said that it was a “very positive” day and that he was “very solid.”

It’s a small sample size, of course – seven rounds – but Woods didn’t hesitate in declaring this “easily” his best ball-striking round of the year.

And indeed it was, even if the stats don’t jump off the page.

Officially, he hit only seven of 14 fairways and just 10 greens, but some of those misses off the tee were a few paces into the rough, and some of those iron shots finished just off the edge of the green.

The more telling stat was this: His proximity to the hole (28 feet) was more than an 11-foot improvement over his first two starts this year. And also this: He was 11th among the early starters in strokes gained-tee to green, which measures a player’s all-around ball-striking. Last week, at Riviera, he ranked 121st.

“I felt very comfortable,” he said. “I felt like I hit the ball really well, and it was tough out there. I had to hit a lot of knockdown shots. I had to work the golf ball both ways, and occasionally downwind, straight up in the air.

“I was able to do all that today, so that was very pleasing.”

The Champion Course here at PGA National is the kind of course that magnifies misses and exposes a player if he’s slightly off with his game. There is water on 15 of the 18 holes, and there are countless bunkers, and it’s almost always – as it was Thursday – played in a one- or two-club wind. Even though it’s played a half hour from Woods’ compound in Hobe Sound, the Honda wasn’t thought to be an ideal tune-up for Woods’ rebuilt game.

But maybe this was just what he needed. He had to hit every conceivable shot Thursday, to shape it both ways, high and low, and he executed nearly every one of them.

The only hole he butchered was the par-5 third. With 165 yards for his third shot, he tried to draw a 6-iron into a stiff wind. He turned it over a touch too much, and it dropped into the bunker. He hit what he thought was a perfect bunker shot, but it got caught in the overseeded rye grass around the green and stayed short. He chipped to 3 feet and then was blown off-balance by a wind gust. Double.

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But what pleased Woods most was what he did next. Steaming from those unforced errors, he was between a 2- and 3-iron off the tee. He wanted to leave himself a 60-degree wedge for his approach into the short fourth hole, but a full 2-iron would have put him too close to the green.

So he took a little off and “threw it up in the air” – 292 yards.

“That felt really good,” Woods said, smiling. And so did the 6-footer that dropped for a bounce-back birdie.

"I feel like I'm really not that far away," he said. 

To illustrate just how much Woods’ game has evolved in seven rounds, consider this perspective from Brandt Snedeker.

They played together at Torrey Pines, where Woods somehow made the cut despite driving it all over the map. In the third round, Woods scraped together a 70 while Snedeker turned in a 74, and afterward Snedeker said that Woods’ short game was “probably as good or better than I ever remember it being.”

A month later, Snedeker saw significant changes. Woods’ short game is still tidy, but he said that his iron play is vastly improved, and it needed to be, given the challenging conditions in the first round.

“He controlled his ball flight really well and hit a bunch of really good shots that he wasn’t able to hit at Torrey, because he was rusty,” said Snedeker, who shot 74. “So it was cool to see him flight the ball and hit some little cut shots and some little three-quarter shots and do stuff I’m accustomed to see him doing.”

Conditions are expected to only get more difficult, more wind-whipped and more burned out, which is why the winning score here has been single-digits under par four of the past five years.

But Woods checked an important box Thursday, hitting the shots that were required in the most difficult conditions he has faced so far.

Said Snedeker: “I expect to see this as his baseline, and it’ll only get better from here.”

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Players honor victims of Parkland school shooting

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:36 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – PGA Tour players are honoring the victims in the Parkland school shooting by wearing ribbons on their hats and shirts.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is located about 45 miles from PGA National, site of this week’s Honda Classic.

“It’s awful what happened, and anytime the Tour can support in any way a tragedy, we’re always going to be for it,” Justin Thomas said. “Anytime there’s a ribbon on the tees for whatever it may be, you’ll see most, if not all the guys wearing it. Something as simple and easy as this, it’s the least we could do.”

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

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The school shooting in Parkland, which claimed 17 lives, is the second-deadliest at a U.S. public school.

Tiger Woods, who lives in South Florida, offered this: “It’s just a shame what people are doing now, and all the countless lives that we’ve lost for absolutely no reason at all. It’s just a shame, and what they have to deal with, at such a young age, the horrible tragedy they are going to have to live with and some of the things they’ve seen just don’t go away.”

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Thomas' game on track for Masters

By Randall MellFebruary 22, 2018, 8:22 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas likes where his game is trending.

He said that on the eve of the Honda Classic.

With the Masters just six weeks away, that’s where trends are aimed as the Florida swing makes its start.

Thomas made another encouraging move Thursday to get his game ready for a chance at winning back-to-back major championships.

A 3-under-par 67 moved him a shot off the lead in the first round at PGA National’s Champion Course.

Thomas, who won five times on his way to winning PGA Tour Player of the Year honors last season, is feeling something special brewing as he seeks to claim his first title of this calendar year.

“I've been playing well all year,” Thomas said. “Just haven't had much to show for it. I feel like I'm close to reeling off a couple tournaments here. I just need to stay patient.”

Thomas put together a strong start playing in a pairing in front of Tiger Woods, a spot that comes with challenges, with galleries on the move setting up to watch Woods.

Thomas, who played with fans causing problems at Riviera last week, said galleries weren’t an issue.

The Honda Classic isn’t a major, but it looks like it will present the sternest test of the year so far.

The Champion Course is always a brute, but it sets up as a particularly grueling test this year, with Florida’s winter winds blowing briskly right from Thursday morning’s start.

“It was a very tough day out there, very windy, tough crosswinds,” Thomas said. “I was a little bummed to see that the weather showed a little bit more wind in the morning than the afternoom.”

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

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The course is also playing firmer and faster than it typically does.

Thomas, 24, confirmed how solid his ball striking is in a round of six birdies and three bogeys.

“The players know it's a tough golf course,” Jack Nicklaus said earlier this week. “It's going to be a handfull this week, with a dry golf course. This golf course plays much more difficult when it's dry ... and it's a little breezy.

“You're going to see some very interesting rounds. You might hear a couple complaints.”

Not from Thomas, who lives in nearby Jupiter.

“Any time you're even or better on this course, on a day like today, was definitely positive,” he said.

Thomas’ 67 is confirmation his game is shaping up for the test at Augusta National, where he will be looking to add a green jacket to the Wanamaker Trophy he won at the PGA Championship last August.

“I love where my game is trending for Augusta,” Thomas said Wednesday. ”I feel like I'm getting, just very, very slowly, better every week ... I'm improving on the things I need to improve on.”

A victory would be the ultimate confirmation he’s getting major championship ready.

“I'd like to have a chance to win one of these next three events before Augusta,” he said.

Thomas is coming off a tie for ninth at the Genesis Open last week. He was T-17 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open before that and T-14 at the Sony Open before that.

Thursday’s round heated up with Thomas making four birdies in the middle of the round. He chipped in for birdie at the seventh (his 16th hole of the day) to get to 4 under before making bogey at the difficult 17th, where he just missed the green short playing into the wind and left his chip 20 feet short.

“I hit probably one of my better shots in the Bear Trap, that just ended up in a horrible lie,” he said.

Thomas headed home eager to keep his promising trend going.

“It's definitely a little better feeling going to sleep and waking up in your own bed,” Thomas said.