Thompson sticking it to ANA field with favorite putter

By Randall MellApril 2, 2017, 3:09 am

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Lexi Thompson twirled her Bettinardi Queen Bee putter as if it were a favorite baton as she left the 10th green Saturday at Mission Hills.

She had just rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt there.

It was where she started taking command at the ANA Inspiration, making a third consecutive birdie.

At 13 under overall, Thompson leads the year’s first major going into Sunday.

Her 5-under-par 67 pushed her two shots ahead of Suzann Pettersen (68) and three ahead of Inbee Park (68), So Yeon Ryu (69) and Minjee Lee (68).

Thompson is loving that Queen Bee putter and what all her work with it is doing in her run to win this championship again.

Nobody’s going to be hanging that putter in a tree anytime soon.

If you want to know how far Thompson’s putting has come, ask her about the tree outside John Fry’s home on his private course, The Institute, in California. That’s John Fry of Fry’s Electronics, who was host to Lexi and her family as she played the U.S. Women’s Open at CordeValle last summer.

Thompson was so frustrated with her putting at the national championship, she used a different putter in every round.

With the tension building that week, Lexi’s father, Scott, thought it was time to loosen things up going into Sunday’s final round. So he got some help hanging all four of the putters in a tree outside Fry’s home, for Lexi to see as she left the house on her way to the course.

“We got her to laugh,” Scott said.

Thompson experimented a lot with her putting last year, even putting with her eyes closed. She devoted her offseason to honing a dependable stroke, but she didn’t have to change putters.

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Thompson put that Bettinardi Queen Bee in her bag last July and she hasn’t parted with it since.

“That’s a long time for me, the way I was going with putters,” Thompson said. “Absolutely love this putter, just the way it sets up and just the way I stroke it.”

Thompson is looking awfully comfortable making her way around Mission Hills again.

It’s as if she’s playing in her backyard, as if she owns this place and wants to turn Poppie’s Pond into her own swimming pool again.

Thompson is rocking her driver with impunity, just like she did when she won here three years ago, when she played a game of bomb and gouge nobody could touch. She averaged 301 yards per drive Saturday. She leads the field in driving distance (289.5) for the week.

It’s more than that, though.

Thompson has a combination of power and touch working for her.

Through the offseason, she went to work on her putting like never before. She worked, worked, worked to try to tame the stroke, to make the putter a tool she would fight less and love more.

“I felt really good about it coming into the season,” Thompson said.

Aside from a missed 4-footer for par at the fourth, Thompson was solid on the greens.

“It’s all confidence,” said Scott, her father. “She’s built her confidence with all the work, and it’s only going to get better. It hasn’t gotten as good as it’s going to get.”

Thompson hit 9 of 14 fairways Saturday, but the misses didn’t seem to matter.

She attacked anyway, gouging herself out of any trouble she got into. She hit every green in regulation. Even when she looked stymied at the 13th, after missing wide right, she punched under and between the trees there, brilliantly running her approach onto the green.

When Thompson won in ’14, she took a share of the lead with Michelle Wie into the final round. They pulled away from everyone else, but Thompson pulled away from Wie, winning by three shots.

While Wie played for position that Sunday, hitting 3-woods into fairways, Thompson overpowered the course.

Thompson’s doing it again.

“I'm playing it the same way, drivers a lot out there,” Thompson said.

Thompson hit drivers on 12 of 14 holes when she won here three years ago. She isn’t hitting quite as many drivers, but she’s hitting a lot of them.

“That's what I love most about it,” Thompson said. “I usually just aim up the right side of the fairway and just hit a baby draw out there.”

At the 11th, Thompson hammered a drive Golf Channel estimated at 330 yards. She split the fairway with it. She followed that up carving a 7-iron from 200 yards to the middle of the green and two-putted for birdie.

Thompson wouldn’t let herself look too far ahead when asked if she’s thinking about another leap into Poppie’s Pond, but if she stays hot with the driver and putter . . .

“With golf, you never want to get ahead of yourself,” Thompson said. “You never know what can happen. It’s always something we imagine as golfers, jumping into Poppies Pond, but we'll see what tomorrow will bring.”

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.

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Ortiz leads LAAC through 54; Niemann, Gana one back

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 8:15 pm

Mexico's Alvaro Ortiz shot a 1-under 70 Monday to take the 54-hole lead at the Latin America Amateur Championship in Chile.

At 4 under for the week, he leads by one over over Argentina's Jaime Lopez Rivarola, Chile's Toto Gana and Joaquin Niemann, and Guatemala's Dnaiel Gurtner.

Ortiz is the younger brother of three-time winner Carlos. Alvaro, a senior at Arkansas, finished tied for third at the LAAC in 2016 and lost in a three-way playoff last year that included Niemann and Gana, the champion.

Ortiz shared the 54-hole lead with Gana last year and they will once again play in the final group on Tuesday, along with Gurtner, a redshirt junior at TCU.

“Literally, I've been thinking about [winning] all year long," Ortiz said Monday. "Yes, I am a very emotional player, but tomorrow I want to go out calm and with a lot of patience. I don't want the emotions to get the better of me. What I've learned this past year, especially in the tournaments I’ve played for my university, is that I have become more mature and that I have learned how to control myself on the inside on the golf course.”

In the group behind, Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who is poised to turn professional, unless of course he walks away with the title.

“I feel a lot of motivation at the moment, especially because I am the only player in the field that shot seven under (during the second round), and I am actually just one shot off the lead," he said. "So I believe that tomorrow I can shoot another very low round."

Tuesday's winner will earn an invitation to this year's Masters and exemptions into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open, and final qualifying for The Open.