Thompson plays for all the right reasons and wins

By Randall MellMarch 4, 2013, 2:00 am

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The challenge echoed out from all the boisterous noise in the bar above the Bear Trap’s 17th hole early Sunday evening at the Honda Classic.

“War Eagle!”

Michael Thompson heard it, and even as he fought to close out the first PGA Tour victory of his career, he couldn’t let that go as a former University of Alabama golfer.

He barked an answer before marching to the 18th tee.

“Roll Tide!”

There were so many questions about Thompson and whether he had the pedigree to hold off a couple of big names in the final round at PGA National’s Champion Course. He had answers for all of them with his terrific shot-making in the high winds Sunday, and yet this triumph might not have been possible if he didn’t find the answers to the tough questions he asked himself heading here last week.

Why was he really playing this game? Why was he putting himself through the torment?

Even Thompson didn’t see this breakthrough coming after the misery he endured in his last start at the Northern Trust Open.

He shot 80 and 78 at Riviera and missed the cut, finishing 138th, dead last with the six withdrawals. It was his third missed cut in four starts with his best finish a lowly T-78 at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Thompson uncannily made the leap from dead last to first in one start.

What turned him around so quickly?

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“I don’t know, other than him being completely at the bottom, being utterly broken down and feeling like he had nothing going for him, and just being able to focus on enjoying the game again, and practicing, and feeling like he was playing for himself and the passion he has for golf, rather than trying to please people and everyone around him,” his wife, Rachel, said as her husband signed for a closing 1-under-par 69, good for a two-shot victory. “I think he was able to let go of all the expectations with that last-place finish and just come out here and feel completely free to play the way he wanted to play.”

Thompson is a man of faith, and he found the answers to the hard questions he was asking himself in his Christian beliefs.

“I thought I would come out this year and play great,” said Thompson, who played collegiately at Alabama and Tulane. “As a golfer, that's what you want to believe. I do believe the Lord has different plans, and the best way He can humble us is by allowing us to experience a low point, whether it's rock bottom, or just the bottom of wherever you are.”

Thompson left Riviera with his confidence battered and little hope he was going to win anything anytime soon.

'I was having thoughts of, 'I'm going to miss every cut this year, I'm not going to play great at all, I’m going to lose my card,'' Thompson said. 'And then what?'

Thompson came to the conclusion that as long as he had a tour to play golf, even if it was a developmental tour, he was going to be happy.

“The Northern Trust was a good thing in my life,” Thompson said. “It allowed me to focus on what I needed to do in order to play like I did this week.”

Thompson arrived at PGA National one full week before the event started.

“He kept telling me he was going to find the answers in the dirt,” said Matt Bednarski, Thompson’s caddie.

PGA National played so difficult this week. With a couple par 5s turned into par 4s, and with howling winds making par a good score, Thompson thrived in a setup that almost felt major championship tough. He likes that kind of golf. He likes survival golf. He showed that when he made a stunning run at winning the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club last summer. In 51 PGA Tour starts heading to that U.S. Open, he had just four top-10 finishes.

Thompson tied for second at The Olympic Club.

“I've always been a scrappy player,” Thompson said. “One thing Coach [Jay] Seawell said to me was that while I was at Alabama, I hit the fewest number of fairways and the fewest number of greens compared to the rest of the team, but I made the most birdies. That's a perfect example of just who I am. I'm not a great ball striker. I think I'm pretty good. I was pretty good this week. But my putting is what saves me.”

Thompson grew up with a mentality that still serves him well.

“I think I've always been very good at having the mindset of just, 'Go struggle. Just go get it done,'' Thompson said. “I remember telling myself when I was 14, 15 years old, just get the ball in the hole, and all your playing competitors are going to be mad at you for that. That's just what I do.”

Rachel says Michael has learned his struggles have purpose. She says the pastor who married them, Stephen Bunn, helped him understand that when they met in Birmingham, Ala., before the marriage.

“Michael couldn’t really figure out how golf and God were related to each other,” said Rachel, who has a doctorate in physical therapy from Tulane, where she met Michael. “Stephen sat Michael down and basically pointed out that `You are playing golf because God gave you this talent, and he expects you to go out and use it.’ I think Michael gained confidence from that, knowing God expects him to work hard, work his butt off, achieve his goals and always do a little bit better every time he goes out there.”

Thompson did a lot better than his last start at Riviera.

“Michael just looked a lot calmer, a lot more confident, a lot more at peace with everything,” Thompson said.

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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 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.