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Blown lead in China won't be on DJ's mind

By Rex HoggardJanuary 7, 2018, 1:35 am

KAPALUA, Hawaii – There are definite benefits to the uncluttered mind, particularly for a professional golfer.

Dustin Johnson, the game’s preeminent heavyweight, was asked what, if anything, he remembers from his runner-up finish in October at the WGC-HSBC Champions.

“I didn't until [Golf Channel] just asked me about it a minute ago,” he shrugged. “I mean, look, it was a long time ago. It's a completely different golf course. It was, what, two months ago or something. So, yeah, I'm going to try not to think about it tomorrow. Hopefully I won't.”

To fill in the blanks from that bygone event (it was just two starts ago for DJ in October), Johnson began the final round in China six strokes clear of the field and rolling following rounds of 68-63-68. On Sunday, the world No. 1 bogeyed the first, bogeyed the second and failed to make a birdie on his way to a closing 77. He finished two strokes behind champion Justin Rose.

But those are details that Johnson has little interest in.

“I try to forget whether I win or lose,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s famous short-term memory is considered one of his best attributes, right up there with that power game off the tee and sublime wedge play (see Open, U.S., 2015).

That blinders mentality is worth noting because Johnson will again take a lead - two strokes this time - into the final round on Sunday at the Sentry Tournament of Champions with some of the game’s best and brightest closing in from all sides.

Those around Johnson confirm his ability to so easily forget ghosts of past tournaments.

Full-field scores from the Sentry Tournament of Champions

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“D.J.'s a guy that forgets pretty quickly,” said Rickie Fowler, who is among the group of would-be party crashers at Kapalua. “I don't think he remembers China. So that's one of the reasons why he is the best player in the world right now. He quickly forgets, moves on.”

Of course, short-term memory won’t help Johnson negotiate winds that have whipped to 30 mph this week. Credit for that goes to a game that appears dangerously close to the level he was at when he won three consecutive starts last spring and turned down Magnolia Lane the runaway favorite to win the Masters.

Earlier this week Johnson said his game is almost back to that level after enduring a back injury on the eve of the 2017 Masters. So far this week his statistics back that up. He’s first in the field in strokes gained: tee-to-green, third in strokes gained: around-the-green and first in driving distance (324-yard average).

He also seems to have dialed his wedge play back in, as evidenced by his pitch at the 12th hole from 60 yards that bounced just short of the green and ran into the hole for eagle and solo possession of the lead.

“I was kind of looking just left of the flag, but short of the green and it hit and rolled on the green,” Johnson said. “I knew once it got on the green that it was going to be pretty good. And, obviously, it went in, so that was definitely a nice bonus.”

If there is to be a sequel to Johnson’s meltdown in China, there are plenty of potential dark-horse options.

Fowler is five strokes back after a third-round 68 and has some recent history in come-from-behind victories, having rallied from seven strokes back heading into the final round on his way to victory last month at the Hero World Challenge.

Jon Rahm is also positioned to make a move after a third-round 66 moved him to within four strokes. The Spaniard had a similar clash with Johnson at last year’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play when the duo went head-to-head in the final match, which was won by Johnson; and again at the World Golf Championship in Mexico City when Rahm finished two strokes behind Johnson.

“I do enjoy it, but the outcome hasn't been great for me,” Rahm said when asked about his duels with Johnson. “Hopefully I can play good down the stretch like I've been doing and just start a little better on the front nine.”

The most likely candidate to unseat Johnson, however, may be the most unconventional.

Brian Harman has played the role of giant slayer before, just last year, in fact, at the Wells Fargo Championship when the 5-foot-7 southpaw went toe-to-toe with the 6-foot-4 leviathan.

He closed with back-to-back birdies at Eagle Point Golf Club to beat Johnson, who was, at the time, on a dominant run having won three consecutive events.

It’s a role Harman cherishes, an us-against-the-world mentality born from a 360cc chip on his shoulder.

“I'm going to try to put as much pressure on the golf course as I can. I'm going to try to do the best I can on every shot,” said Harman, who is alone in second place two strokes back and will be paired with Johnson in the final round. “I can't control what Dustin does. He's a fabulous player, he's going to be really hard to beat tomorrow, but trying to do something I'm not capable of is not the way to do it.”

It will be a classic clash of styles – Johnson’s power against Harman’s precision (he’s second this week in greens in regulation and seventh in putting) and grit – and potentially something to remember. Well, something to remember for everyone except Johnson.

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Koepka (wrist) likely out until the Masters

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 9:08 pm

Defending U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka is expected to miss at least the next two months because of a torn tendon in his left wrist.

Koepka, who suffered a partially torn Extensor Carpi Ulnaris (ECU), is hoping to return in time for the Masters.

In a statement released by his management company, Koepka said that doctors are unsure when the injury occurred but that he first felt discomfort at the Hero World Challenge, where he finished last in the 18-man event. Playing through pain, he also finished last at the Tournament of Champions, after which he underwent a second MRI that revealed the tear.

Koepka is expected to miss the next eight to 12 weeks.

“I am frustrated that I will now not be able to play my intended schedule,” Koepka said. “But I am confident in my doctors and in the treatment they have prescribed, and I look forward to teeing it up at the Masters. … I look forward to a quick and successful recovery.”

Prior to the injury, Koepka won the Dunlop Phoenix and cracked the top 10 in the world ranking. 

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Cut Line: Color Rory unafraid of the Ryder Cup

By Rex HoggardJanuary 19, 2018, 7:09 pm

In this week’s edition, Rory McIlroy gets things rolling with some early Ryder Cup banter, Dustin Johnson changes his tune on a possible golf ball roll-back, and the PGA Tour rolls ahead with integrity training.

Made Cut

Paris or bust. Rory McIlroy, who made his 2018 debut this week on the European Tour, can be one of the game’s most affable athletes. He can also be pointed, particularly when discussing the Ryder Cup.

Asked this week in Abu Dhabi about the U.S. team, which won the last Ryder Cup and appears to be rejuvenated by a collection of new players, McIlroy didn’t disappoint.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

McIlroy has come by his confidence honestly, having won three of the four Ryder Cups he’s played, so it’s understandable if he doesn't feel like an underdog heaidng to Paris.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that,” he said. “The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

September can’t get here quick enough.

Mr. Spieth goes to Ponte Vedra Beach. The Tour announced this year’s player advisory council, the 16-member group that works with the circuit’s policy board to govern.

There were no real surprises to the PAC, but news that Jordan Spieth had been selected to run for council chair is interesting. Spieth, who is running against Billy Hurley III and would ascend to the policy board next year if he wins the election, served on the PAC last year and would make a fine addition to the policy board, but it is somewhat out of character for a marquee player.

In recent years, top players like Spieth have largely avoided the distractions that come with the PAC and policy board. Of course, we’ve also learned in recent years that Spieth is not your typical superstar.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

On second thought. In December at the Hero World Challenge, Dustin Johnson was asked about a possible golf ball roll-back, which has become an increasingly popular notion in recent years.

“I don't mind seeing every other professional sport. They play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball,” he said in the Bahamas. “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.”

The world No. 1 appeared to dial back that take this week in Abu Dhabi, telling BBC Sport, “It's not like we are dominating golf courses. When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy?”

Maybe it didn’t feel that way, but DJ’s eight-stroke romp two weeks ago at the Sentry Tournament of Champions certainly looked pretty easy.

Long odds. I had a chance to watch the Tour’s 15-minute integrity training video that players have been required view and came away with a mixture of confusion and concern.

The majority of the video, which includes a Q&A element, focuses on how to avoid match fixing. Although the circuit has made it clear there is no indication of current match fixing, it’s obviously something to keep an eye on.

The other element that’s worth pointing out is that although the Tour may be taking the new program seriously, some players are not.

“My agent watched [the training video] for me,” said one Tour pro last week at the Sony Open.

Missed Cut

Groundhog Day. To be fair, no one expected Patton Kizzire and James Hahn to need six playoff holes to decide last week’s Sony Open, but the episode does show why variety is the spice of life.

After finishing 72 holes tied at 17 under, Kizzire and Hahn played the 18th hole again and again and again and again. In total, the duo played the par-5 closing hole at Waialae Country Club five times (including in regulation play) on Sunday.

It’s worth noting that the playoff finally ended with Kizzire’s par at the sixth extra hole, which was the par-3 17th. Waialae’s 18th is a fine golf hole, but in this case familiarity really did breed contempt.

Tweet of the week:

It was a common theme last Saturday on Oahu after an island-wide text alert was issued warning of an inbound ballistic missile and advising citizens to “seek immediate shelter.”

The alert turned out to be a mistake, someone pushed the wrong button during a shift change, but for many, like Peterson, it was a serious lesson in perspective.

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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.”