Weather makes disaster of Evian's major debut

By Randall MellSeptember 16, 2013, 6:40 pm

EVIAN-LES-BAINS, France – If you believe in golf gods, you couldn’t watch the Evian Championship’s start without wondering if they felt blasphemed by the event’s new designation as the LPGA’s fifth major.

It didn’t rain frogs, locusts never arrived and the pond in front of the 18th green didn’t turn to blood, but until Sunday’s merciful break in the weather this event sure felt like it was battling the wrath of cosmic forces.

Suzann Pettersen won with a game that was major championship caliber. She drove the ball fearlessly through narrow corridors, attacked flagsticks with surgical precision and erased her few mistakes with a brilliant short game and putting stroke.

No slight to Pettersen intended, but the Evian Resort Golf Club wasn’t major championship caliber.

It was no match for her game, nor equal to the standard she has raised her game to this summer. The Evian Championship didn’t look, feel or play like a major championship.

There’s no getting around that in any reasonable assessment of its debut.

This event was a few hundred square feet of tarp away from being a total disaster.

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If not for LPGA agronomist John Miller’s stroke of genius and Evian’s resourcefulness in somehow gathering all the tarp needed to cover the greens, Sunday’s finish might never have come off.

Half the golf course seemed to be marked as ground under repair with the property pockmarked with bare patches of turf. The greens were bumpy and even “bubbly” with all the saturation. They didn’t roll true. On Saturday, Pettersen said players were relying on some “lucky bounces” to hole putts. The greens were also inconsistent in how they reacted to shots with Paula Creamer wondering how to hit approaches that unpredictably bit or skipped. The bunkering looked gorgeous, but the faces of the bunker walls were too soft. Lydia Ko hit her tee shot at the fifth hole Saturday into the top of a steep face of a greenside bunker and watched it plug. With an impossible stance, with her ball barely visible, she showed her precocious skill somehow blasting to a far corner of the green.

There are drainage issues that need to be addressed.

There were decisions, too, that irked the guardians of the game’s traditions. There was the early decision on Friday night to shorten the event to 54 holes, a move that further challenged an event desperate for credibility as a true major championship test. Those entire 54 holes were played under lift, clean and place.

So much of this was due to the weather, to be sure. That’s going all the way back to last winter, one of the region’s most brutal, a winter that started with a surprisingly early snow fall and with a surprisingly late one in May. The spring was abnormally cold and wet. The summer was equally challenging with a scorching stretch of heat in August challenging healthy growth.

For architect Steve Smyers and the European Golf Design team he collaborated with, this was the equivalent of biblical plague. With a little more than 14 months to work, the most brilliant changes were doomed by impossible challenges to execution.

Overall, the design concept seemed to be embraced by the players, but it was all about course conditions.

You want more evidence of a cosmic conspiracy?

“This is normally a dry month,” LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said. “The average rainfall here in September is 3.5 inches. We got more than that in two days this week. There’s 25 to 30 percent less rain in September than July. It’s one of the reasons we moved the event to this month.”

It was all enough to make a greenskeeper shake his fist at the heavens and curse.

Maybe the problem was the LPGA’s decision as to where to juxtapose Evian’s debut as a major. The tour scheduled it as the major directly after the Women’s British Open at St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf. Maybe that was the last straw for the golf gods. You play a major on ground as revered as The Old Course and you risk the fate of the damned taking the next major to a golf course barely more than a year into a major redesign.

You can argue LPGA officials were victims of elements totally out of their control, but the decision to designate a fifth major was monumental. There was a gamble making Evian a major on such a freshly overhauled golf course. There was risk playing it as a major without first testing how the redesign stands up to less scrutiny as a regular tour event. There are reasons the USGA plays U.S. Amateurs at venues before playing U.S. Opens on them.

You can also argue the LPGA isn’t the USGA or the PGA Tour and the resources are limited. It’s true, and it’s unfair making the same comparisons, but it takes an apologist to overlook the LPGA played high-risk poker and lost by not waiting a year to play Evian as a major.

The failure this past week is rooted in that choice.

As harsh as all this is, there’s something else that any reasonable assessment must include. This event’s loaded with promise. The Evian Championship has an unlimited upside, untold potential as a shining new star in the LPGA’s schedule.

This might have been a painful start, but the Evian Championship has more possibilities as a newly imagined stage to showcase LPGA pros than any other event on the schedule.

Evian benefactor Franck Riboud’s ambitious vision and indefatigable will is an invaluable LPGA asset. So is his commitment to making the Evian Championship a world-class showcase. Whan saw that, and give him credit for the bold stroke in harnessing what Riboud brings to the utmost for his players. Rolex also saw it with its important commitment.

The LPGA isn’t the PGA Tour. The women’s tour was on wobbly legs a few years back when Whan was hired to revitalize a wilting product that had sagged to a scant 23 tournaments. Whan is building it back up. He has built it up to 28 events now with strong indications that next year it will top 30, including an exciting new International Crown competition, a sort of mini-Olympics. The PGA Tour has World Golf Championships now, also the FedEx Cup. The LPGA can use as many big events as it can create to showcase its deserving stars, and so a fifth major works for that tour. There are more good reasons for the women to play a fifth than bad ones.

The failure at Evian this last week was only in its premature start as a major.

“I don’t have a lot of corporate sponsors who talk about how things should look in 20 or 25 years,” Whan said. “We usually talk in three-, four- and five-year deals. Frank and Jacque {Bungert] talk in decades. There’s no doubt in my mind what this is going to feel like in 10, 15 and 20 years. It’s going to be the place to be.

“My father used to say you should surround yourself with people who think bigger than you do. Frank thinks bigger than I do. Sometimes he drives me crazy, sometimes I drive him crazy, but together I really believe we are going to create something great for women’s golf, long term.”

Here’s something that also needs to be said about Whan in any fair assessment of the week’s failure. When something isn’t working, he is the first to say so, and he’s the first to roll up his sleeves and try to fix it. In Riboud, Whan and LPGA senior vice president of tour operations Heather Daly-Donofrio, there’s a baseball bet a home run follows a strikeout.

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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.