Augusta playing as tough as ever in first two rounds

By Rex HoggardApril 12, 2014, 12:08 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – This wasn’t how things were supposed to play out according to those who read tea leaves and the grain on Tea Olive, the name for Augusta National’s climbing opening hole.

Between Monday’s deluge, the destruction of the Eisenhower Tree and the rebuilding of Tiger Woods’ back, the path to the green jacket in 2014 was supposed to be, if not less encumbered, then at the least a tad more accommodating.

But the combination of surprisingly difficult pins on Day 1 and devilishly confusing winds on Friday has produced the harder side of Augusta National.

If the year’s first major is defined by pine-rattling cheers, the sound track for this week’s edition has been largely moans for anyone not named Bubba.

There were moans when Phil Mickelson went from bunker to bunker to bunker at the 12th hole and signed for a triple-bogey 6 – his second triple in two days – when Jason Dufner signed for opening round of 80 and when Rory McIlroy airmailed the green at the fourth and introduced the world to a previously unseen corner of the historic club.

With the lone exception of Bubba Watson, who scorched the closing nine with five consecutive birdies, the soft and scorable course many envisioned during Monday’s downpour had gone rogue.

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It’s hardly a surprise, no course in golf changes as much from Monday to Thursday as Augusta National thanks to a time-tested setup and the best maintenance tech money can buy. Nor will it be a surprise when officials take the lid off on Sunday and white knuckles give way to red scorecards.

But for two days, Augusta National has been as testy as the traffic that chokes Washington Road the first week of April.

“In ’07 on that Saturday it probably played harder, that wind was going around like something at a fair,” Henrik Stenson said. “But today was really tough. At 13 I had a shot from the pine needles and hit 6-iron on the green, by the time I got to 14 it had turned down wind from the other direction . . . in 15 minutes.”

The consensus among the field - that after ’07 this was the most demanding two days to open a Masters in recent memory is not open to interpretation. Augusta National played nearly a stroke and a half higher on Thursday than it did for Round 1 last year and almost a half stroke higher than the cumulative average for the layout going back to 1942.

And Friday wasn’t much easier despite an apparent move by those who call the shots to dial back the hole locations, with a 74.08 average for a two-day average of 74.27. While that is well below the frigid blast that sent the 2007 field into a deep freeze (75.9), it wasn’t what players expected.

Winds that gusted past 20 mph on Friday seemed to be the primary culprit, but some of the confusion stems from a rare dose of creativity in coming up with this week’s hole locations.

“There were some good (hole locations) today, and yesterday they were harder than you normally get on a Thursday,” said Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Masters winner making his 43rd start at Augusta National.

Specifically, players were surprised to see a never-before-used hole location on No. 5, where the hole was placed on the lower plateau of the green five paces from the right edge.

“They broke the ice at No. 5,” said one caddie on Friday who has looped in a few dozen Masters. “I’ve never seen it there, not even during a practice round.”

They also broke some backs.

Gone for the weekend will be Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Dustin Johnson; while McIlroy, the favorite entering the week, finished two days on the number at 4 over and 11 strokes back.

For those who made it to the weekend, however, there is the prospect of better days. On Friday it appeared as though officials dialed back the hole locations and the wind is forecast to subside on Saturday and Sunday.

“It looks like they're doing six, six, six. Six (holes) you can get at and six you can kind of get at and six you're lucky if you get to it, kind of thing. Which is great,” Lucas Glover said. “That's the way it ought to be. It's a major.”

There will be roars on the weekend at Augusta National, there always are. The field and the fans just had to endure two days of moans to get there.

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Stenson leads strong cast of Bay Hill contenders

By Ryan LavnerMarch 17, 2018, 11:38 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – Henrik Stenson has a tortured history here at Bay Hill, a collection of close calls that have tested his mettle and certainly his patience.

Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational won’t get any easier. Not with a course that is already firm and fast and fiery, just the way the King would have wanted it. And not with 13 players within five shots of the lead, a group that includes Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler and, yes, even Tiger Woods.

Without his best stuff Saturday, Stenson still managed to edge ahead of Bryson DeChambeau to take a one-shot lead heading into the final round. It’s familiar territory for the Swede, who posted four consecutive top-10s here from 2013-16, including a few agonizing near-misses.

Three years ago, Stenson appeared on his way to victory when he was put on the clock on the 15th hole. Rattled, he three-putted the next two holes and lost by a stroke. The following year, he was tied for the lead with three holes to play, then hit it in the water on 16 and bogeyed two of the last three holes.

“It wouldn’t be the only tournament where you feel like you’ve got some unfinished business,” Stenson said, “but I’ve been up in the mix a few times and we’re here again, so of course I would like to see a different outcome.”

What will be interesting Sunday is whether history repeats itself.

Neither Stenson nor DeChambeau is quick-paced, with DeChambeau even acknowledging that he’s one of the game’s most methodical players, stepping off pitch shots and checking (and re-checking) his reads on the green. With so much at stake, it’s not a stretch to imagine both players grinding to a halt on a course that got “crusty” in the late-afternoon sun.

“We’ve got a lot of guys behind me,” DeChambeau said, “so I’ve got to go deep tomorrow.”

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The 24-year-old earned his breakthrough victory last July at the John Deere Classic, but that was one hot week as he tried to play his way out of a slump.

Even this week’s performance was unexpected, after he withdrew from the Valspar Championship because of a balky back.

Last weekend he underwent an MRI (clean), didn’t touch a club for three days and showed up here cautiously optimistic. His ball-striking hasn’t suffered at all – in fact, he’s ranked fifth in strokes gained-tee to green – and now he’s relishing the chance to take on some of the game’s biggest names.

“Whatever happens,” he said, “it’s going to be a great learning experience.”

Of the 13 players within five shots of the lead, 10 are Tour winners. That includes McIlroy, whose putter has finally come alive, and Rose, who shot a third-round 67 to move within three shots, and Fowler, whose game is finally rounding into form, and also Woods, who has won a record eight times at Bay Hill. 

Even if he doesn’t pick up a pre-Masters victory – he’s five shots back, the same deficit he erased here in 2009 – Woods has showed flashes of his old self at one of his favorite playgrounds, whether it’s the blistered 2-irons off the tee, the daring approach shots or the drained 40-footers.

“I’ve got a chance,” he said.

And so do the rest of the major champions and PGA Tour winners assembled near the top of the leaderboard.

It should be a wild final round at Arnie’s Place – even if Stenson, for once, is hoping for a drama-free Sunday.

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DeChambeau uses big words to describe back injury

By Will GrayMarch 17, 2018, 11:24 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – Bryson DeChambeau needed just 30 seconds of explaining the state of his lower back to send the media center at the Arnold Palmer Invitational spinning.

DeChambeau shot an even-par 72 in the third round at Bay Hill, and he will start the final round one shot behind Henrik Stenson as he looks to win for the second time in his young PGA Tour career. DeChambeau’s strong play this week comes in the wake of his decision to withdraw from last week’s Valspar Championship because of a bad back.

DeChambeau is no stranger to new vocabulary words or adopting a scientific take on matters, and it was when he delved into the details of his injury that things got interesting.

“It was because my quadratus lumborum wasn’t working. My iliacus, longissimus thoracis, they were all kind of over-working if you want to get technical on that,” DeChambeau said. “But they weren’t working very well, and I overworked them. Pretty much my lower right back was hurting and I rested it. How about that?”

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DeChambeau tied for fifth at the Waste Management Phoenix Open last month, but he has struggled to find results in the weeks since. One of the keys to a quick recovery between Innisbrook and Bay Hill was some time on the couch this past weekend and a binge session of The Walking Dead on Netflix.

“I literally didn’t do anything, and that’s really the first time I’ve done that in my entire life. I’ve never actually taken three days off where I didn’t touch a club,” DeChambeau said. “So that was unique for me and actually took me some time to acclimate to that, my body to get comfortable to get in a rested state. And then once it was finally able to rest, it healed a little bit and I was able to make a run for it this week.”

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Woods fielding Masters practice-round requests

By Will GrayMarch 17, 2018, 10:50 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – Heading into what is likely his final competitive round before the Masters, Tiger Woods is starting to set up his schedule for the days leading into the season’s first major.

Woods has won the Masters four times, most recently in 2005, and in the wake of a runner-up at the Valspar Championship and a strong showing at the Arnold Palmer Invitational he’ll head down Magnolia Lane with more momentum than he’s had in years. As a result, it’s not surprising that he has received more than a few inquiries about a possible practice round at Augusta National Golf Club during Masters week.

“I’ve gotten a couple requests here and there,” Woods said with a grin after a third-round 69 at Bay Hill.

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Woods has played the Masters only once since 2014, but don’t expect him to try out some unfamiliar pairings on Tuesday and Wednesday amid the azaleas. Woods still plans to rely on a rotation he’s had for several years, playing with former champs Fred Couples and Mark O’Meara. O’Meara, who received his green jacket from Woods in 1998, plans to make this year his final Masters start.

“I traditionally have played with Freddie, if he can. We’re hoping he can come back and play again and play Augusta. I’ve played with Mark just about every single year,” Woods said. “It’s generally been those two guys, and those are the two guys I’ve grown up with out here on Tour. We sit next to each other actually at the champions’ dinner, and so we have known each other for a very long time.”

While Woods is no stranger to fielding offers for tips and advice from younger players, especially on a course he knows as well as Augusta National, one top-ranked name continues to stick out among the requests he’s received in recent weeks.

“Just the normal JT (Justin Thomas),” Woods said. “He’s always trying to get some practice rounds in.”

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Stenson one clear of loaded leaderboard at Bay Hill

By Nick MentaMarch 17, 2018, 10:10 pm

Four of the top 15 players in the world and two men with stellar amateur resumes will do battle Sunday to win Arnold Palmer Invitational. Here’s how things look through 54 holes at Bay Hill, where Tiger Woods sits five back at 7 under par.

Leaderboard: Henrik Stenson (-12), Bryson DeChambeau (-11), Rory McIlroy (-10), Justin Rose (-9), Ryan Moore (-9), Charley Hoffman (-8), Rickie Fowler (-8), Talor Gooch (-8), Ben An (-8)

What it means:  For the second straight day, Stenson (71) will go off in the final pairing with DeChambeau (72), after both players failed to separate themselves from the field in Round 3, shooting a combined 1 under. Stenson really should have a win at Bay Hill by now. He finished in the top-10 four years in a row from 2013-2016, with three top-5s. The closest he came to victory was in 2015, when he lost to Matt Every by one shot after being put on the clock and three-putting the 15th and 16th greens. If he’s finally going to close the deal Sunday, the world No. 15 will need to hold off challenges from three of the top 13 players in the OWGR – No. 5 Rose, No. 7 Fowler and No. 13 McIlroy – and two men who won both the NCAA individual championship and the U.S. Amateur – DeChambeau and Moore.

Round of the day: John Huh and Austin Cook both made the 1-over cut on the number and shot 66 Saturday to move into a tie for 18th at 5 under.

Best of the rest: McIlroy, Rose and Jason Day (-5) all signed for 67. McIlroy remains in search of his first worldwide win since he walked away from East Lake with the Tour Championship and the FedExCup in 2016.

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Biggest disappointment: Fowler was 11 under for the week but dropped three shots in his last two holes. He failed to get up and down from the front bunker at 17 and then had his ball almost fully bury in the lip of a greenside trap at 18. With only a small portion of the ball visible, Fowler took two to get out of the sand and two-putted his way to a double-bogey 6, dropping him to 2 under for the day and 8 under for the championship.

Shot of the day: Woods’ 210-yard 5-iron from the fairway bunker at the par-5 16th:

Quote of the day: "I'm going to have to shoot a low one tomorrow, and probably get a little bit of help. But my responsibility is to go out there and shoot a low one first." – Woods