Big names add spark to early West Coast events

By Rex HoggardJanuary 13, 2016, 7:00 pm

Rumors of the West Coast swing’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

If last week’s left coast kickoff is any indication, concerns that a crowded dance card later this year with golf’s return to the Olympic Games and last season’s relocation of the WGC-Match Play would leave the swing, well, on a participation island were unfounded.

The West Coast, the theory went, would suffer as players would bank a few off weeks before what promises to be a hectic summer – consider that after the U.S. Open top players will face a 16-week stretch with 10 “must-play” events, including two majors (Open Championship and PGA Championship) in a three-week run.

Making things even more dire was the Match Play’s move last year to May. The WGC, which had anchored the West Coast swing, was a prime draw for Europeans to venture to this side of the transatlantic divide.

But the reality, at least based on last week’s field at Kapalua and an unofficial survey of top players, paints a much-more optimistic picture for the West Coast.

The Hyundai Tournament of Champions enjoyed its best tee sheet since 2005 with six of the top 10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, including No. 1 Jordan Spieth and No. 2 Jason Day.

Nor does it seem the winners-only event will be a cameo for the game’s marquee.

Spieth, who has been guarded about his schedule, gave a glimpse of what we can expect.

“I'm not sure if I'm supposed to or allowed to voice [his schedule] right now,” he said on Sunday at Kapalua. “But I'll be back at Pebble Beach and I'll be at L.A. and I'll be back to Tampa.”

It’s not a huge surprise Spieth will play the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am the second week of February given his status as an AT&T spokesman, but the addition of the Northern Trust Open to his starting lineup was encouraging.

After the Tournament of Champions, the Los Angeles stop may be the year’s most-improved field with Spieth, who tied for fourth place last year at Riviera Country Club, joined by Rory McIlroy, currently the world’s third-ranked player.

The Farmers Insurance Open, traditionally the unofficial start of the season for many of the top players in previous years, also has an impressive list of early commitments, including defending champion Day, Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson.

Even Kevin Kisner, who has admitted he’s not a “West Coast guy,” will make a few starts, including the year’s first two starts in Hawaii and the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

“I think I made two cuts in my career on the West Coast before,” he said last week. “There's no reason to go. I don't have to do it anymore, so I don't need to beat my head against the wall trying to beat these guys on courses I know I can't.”

This week’s Sony Open, which has traditionally been one of the West Coast’s weaker fields, includes 22 of the 32 players who teed it up last week in Maui.

Among those who made the short hop to Oahu were Open champion Zach Johnson; while Adam Scott, who didn’t make a PGA Tour start until Bay Hill last year, will make his 2016 debut at Waialae.

Much of this improved participation seems to be the byproduct of changing priorities among the game’s young champions.

The perceived lack of star power at West Coast stops is largely based on Tiger Woods, who from 2000-10 condensed his starts out west.

In 2000 and ’01, the then-world No. 1 played five times annually on the West Coast (that included the Match Play before its exodus to the early summer), but that number dropped to four from ’02 through ’05, and from ’07 to ’09 he played just twice each year out west.

Yet where Woods subscribed to a less-is-more approach to scheduling, the likes of Spieth, Day and McIlroy have embraced a more inclusive docket, be that on the West Coast or around the globe.

McIlroy will get his year underway at next week’s Abu Dhabi Golf Championship on the European Tour before shifting his focus to the United States. Similarly, Spieth will also play the Abu Dhabi stop as well as the Singapore Open at the end of January before closing out the West Coast in Los Angeles.

Whatever the changing motivations among the game’s elite, the result is a West Coast that’s not nearly as wanting as some thought it would be.

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Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

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Duke to fill in for injured Pavin at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:25 pm

Ken Duke will fill in for Corey Pavin for the next two rounds of the CareerBuilder Challenge – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard.

Pavin was 4 over par when he withdrew after 17 holes Thursday because of a neck injury. Tournament officials contacted Duke, the first alternate, and asked if he would take Pavin’s spot and partner with Luis Lopez for the next two rounds, even though he would not receive any official money.

Duke accepted and explained his decision on Twitter:

Playing on past champion’s status, the 48-year-old Duke has made only four starts this season, with a best finish of a tie for 61st at the RSM Classic.

Pavin received a sponsor exemption into the event, his first PGA Tour start since the 2015 Colonial.