The Bear's Club preps young guns for Tour stardom

By Rex HoggardMay 28, 2015, 2:56 pm

Some would consider this classic name-dropping.

“It’s been big for me. This being my rookie year I didn’t really play with many big [named] guys [before],” Justin Thomas said recently. “Down at The Bear’s Club, I’ve played with Camilo; I’ve played with Luke and going out and playing with MJ.”

Morgan Hoffmann added, “Keegan’s [Bradley] around, but he plays with Michael most of the time. There are so many guys.”

Of course, “MJ” would be Jordan, Michael not Spieth, along with Villegas and Donald and whatever other “A” list professional or celebrity who lops up on the first tee at The Bear’s Club.

But for the likes of Thomas, Hoffmann and Patrick Rodgers it’s less about the name than it is the game when it comes to their adopted Tour home.

Consider it on-the-job training.

For the up-and-coming threesome – who set out today at the AT&T Byron Nelson in search of a spot in the elite 20-something club that currently includes Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy – South Florida’s Bear’s Club is like a never-ending PGA Tour combine.

As stressful as Tour life can be for a newcomer – Hoffmann is playing his third year in the big leagues, while Thomas is a rookie, and Rodgers is closing in on Tour status – it’s nothing compared to the nerves one will face on the first tee at The Bear’s Club.

“At The Players, playing with Graeme [McDowell] and Sergio [Garcia] I wasn’t too nervous,” said Thomas, who is currently 39th on the FedEx Cup point list with five top-10 finishes. “Last year, it would have been, ‘Wow, I’m playing with Sergio today. This is going to be big.’ That for me has been the biggest thing.”

The ready-made games also add for a rare level of familiarity on Tour at times when things normally feel as foreign as the metric system, like earlier this month when Rodgers found himself in contention at the Wells Fargo Championship.

He set out on Sunday in the penultimate group paired with Thomas and despite a tough finish at Quail Hollow – he played his last two holes in 3 over to finish tied for second – the week moved him closer to his goal of playing the Tour.

“It was like just hanging out playing at The Bear's Club,” Rodgers said. “I was telling my caddie walking off the first tee it almost didn't feel like a tournament, playing with Justin in a twosome. We had a lot of fun. We're both really lucky. This means a lot to us.”

But as beneficial as it is to punch a clock next to the likes of Donald, Bradley and McIlroy, who all call the Bear’s Club home, it’s the internal competition that gives the would-be world beaters an edge.

The three have regular games back home, something simple like a Nassau or just a team match, and normally it doesn’t even involve The Bear’s Club’s championship layout. The trio often eschews the 7,164-yard layout for the facility’s par-3 course.

At just 1,133 yards, with the longest hole little more than a 7-iron for most Tour players, the par-3 course fulfills two needs for the likes of Hoffmann and Thomas – a place to hone their short games and perfect their trash talking.

“Justin and I go to the par-3 course pretty much every time we’re home and try to kill each other,” Hoffmann said. “We’ve really been pushing each other and we’ve really gotten a lot better because of it.

“My wedges when I first turned pro were terrible, but they’ve gotten a lot better.”

Along with Hoffmann’s wedge game, he said his trash talking has also improved thanks to Thomas.

“Every hole, it’s great. There are really not many compliments. Just putting each other down to pump the other guy up,” Hoffmann said. “He’s so skinny and small, he has to have something to back it up.”

Thomas had a slightly different take on the games as well as an interesting glimpse into what those rounds must be like.

“On the par-3 course there’s really not much competition [with Hoffmann]. I beat him every time,” smiled Thomas with only a hint of good-natured ribbing.

For Thomas, who at 5-foot-10, 145 pounds possesses an uncanny ability to bomb it with the best on Tour, he comes by his ability to talk trash naturally and it’s allowed him to fit in at The Bear’s Club like a 20-year Tour veteran.

“I take pride in being able to talk more crap than anyone else,” Thomas said. “I sometimes get on guy’s nerves. I definitely irritated some guys on the team at Alabama. I just think it’s a part of it. You’ve got to go out and have some fun. That’s why I go out and play with MJ and those guys. We talk a lot of trash and it gets me more prepared.”

MJ, Rory, Keegan.

For the likes of Thomas, Hoffmann and Rodgers it’s not so much about dropping names as much as it is trying to add there’s to the list.

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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.