Conditions at Sawgrass far different than last year

By Rex HoggardMay 9, 2017, 8:15 pm

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – By many accounts, TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course is in the best condition it’s been in years, groomed to agronomic perfection by a particularly warm winter in north Florida and a few architectural nip/tucks.

Twelve months removed from one of the most comical – or cruel depending on one’s point of view – chapters in the tournament’s history, it doesn’t even seem like the same layout to many who played Round 3 at last year’s Players Championship.

James Hahn shutters when he recalls that Saturday at the 2016 Players when winds gusted to 20 mph and the course’s greens took on a brownish hue and the rigid consistency of a pool table.

“I’m going to say unfair,” Hahn said when asked about the greens on Day 3 at the ’16 Players. “They were the fastest and with certain pin locations, if you are expecting the greens to be 15 [on the Stimpmeter] you can’t put them in the same pin locations we’ve had for the last 20 years.”

Like many of his Tour frat brothers, Hahn wasn’t happy with the conditions. Unfair, unplayable, unbearable, pick your poison, everybody had something to say about the Stadium Course.

Sawgrass played to a 75.59 stroke average that fateful day which was the third highest single-round total last season and highest for a non-major.

The Players Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Tour officials prepared the greens for Saturday’s round the same as they had all week by double cutting and double rolling them, but were caught off guard by the wind and unexpectedly low humidity.

The result was a round that quickly turned into a free-for-all.

Kevin Streelman three-putted his first hole from 18 feet on his way to an 80; as did Steve Wheatcroft to kickoff a round of 79, and Hahn thought his 27 footer for birdie at his first hole (No. 10) was a perfect chance to get off to a good start before he raced that attempt by 9 feet.

Hahn was paired with Ken Duke that black Saturday and Duke remembers Hahn and Jon Curran, who were on opposite sides of the hole, both about the same distance, essentially trade places with their first attempts at the group’s first hole.

“They both three-putted right out of the gate, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh boy,’” Duke said.

Hahn wanted to be angry with the PGA Tour staff for a poor setup that embarrassed the players, but he kept watching Duke roll in putt after putt on his way to a 7-under 65, which was by far the day’s best and more than 10 strokes better than the field average.

“It was the most impressive round I’ve seen in my life, he not only hit it close, he was making 18, 20 footers that had 2 or 3 feet of break and he was jarring them. His speed, if he didn’t make the putt his ball would roll by 5 or 6 feet at times,” Hahn said. “He knew it was going in the hole, but for me I was always worried about the second putt.”

Duke took just 24 putts on Day 3, made one bogey (at No. 11) and was 16-of-17 on putts from 10 feet and in. It was a clinic within a competitive catastrophe.

“I hit it in the right spot where you could make putts,” Duke said. “I got ahold of the speed of the greens early, and that was the difference.”

What Duke lacks in hyperbole he makes up for with his southern simplicity, but his take on that surreal Saturday really doesn’t do it justice.

No one was immune to greens that most say were faster than Augusta National’s, faster than even Oakmont during the U.S. Open.

“My caddie [James Edmondson] kept telling me, ‘Hit it softer,’” Ryan Palmer recalled, “ and I’m like, ‘I’m trying.’”

Eventual champion Jason Day needed 32 putts on Day 3 on his way to a 73 and a tie for third that week in total putts.

“It was miserable,” said Hudson Swafford, who recalled running his chip at his first hole 4 feet by the hole. “And then I watched Freddie Jacobson, who is a notoriously good putter, almost putt it off the green from 12 feet and I was like, wow. It was comical.”

Golf is hard, but this was something bordering on cruel and unusual.

For Hahn, the tipping point came at the sixth hole and a 3-footer for birdie that he estimated had about a half foot of break, which he missed on the low side and that rolled out 5 feet. To this day, the California-Berkeley graduate still doesn’t know how he could have made that putt.

“For perfect [Dave] Pelz speed, 17 inches past the hole, where would you putt that putt? What would the line be?” Hahn said. “I couldn’t do the math on it because I’ve never really thought about greens like that other than it just being illegal.”

The greens may not have been illegal, but most agree they were wrong. Wrong for everyone, that is, except Duke.

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.

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Hot Seat: Rory jumps into the fire early

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 2:11 pm

The world’s top tours head to desert regions this week, perfect locales for The Hot Seat, the gauge upon which we measure the level of heat the game’s top personalities are facing ...

Sahara sizzle: Rory McIlroy

McIlroy won’t have to look far to see how his form measures up to world No. 1 Dustin Johnson at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

McIlroy will make his 2018 debut with Johnson in his face, literally.

McIlroy will be grouped with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood in the first two rounds.

Players like to downplay pairings early in a tournament, but it’s hard to believe McIlroy and Johnson won’t be trying to send each other messages in this European Tour event in the United Arab Emirates. That’s the alpha-dog nature of world-class players looking to protect their turf, or in the case of McIlroy, take back his turf.

“When you are at the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Trevor Immelman said about pairings during Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge last month.

And that was an offseason event.

“They want to show this guy, ‘This is what I got,’” Immelman said.

As early season matchups go, Abu Dhabi is a heavyweight pairing that ought to be fun.

So there will be no easing into the new year for McIlroy after taking off the last three months to regroup from the stubborn rib injury that plagued him last season. He is coming off a winless year, and he will be doing so alongside a guy who just won the first PGA Tour event of 2018 in an eight-shot rout. Johnson’s victory in Hawaii two weeks ago was his fifth since McIlroy last won.

“Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place, and that was because of where I was physically,” McIlroy said of 2017. “I feel prepared now. I feel ready, and I feel ready to challenge. I feel really good about where I’m at with my health. I’ve put all that behind me, which has been great.”

Sonoran Smolder: Phil Mickelson

Mickelson will turn 48 this summer.

His world ranking is sliding, down to No. 43 now, which is the lowest he has ranked in 24 years.

It’s been more than four years since he last won, making him 0 for his last 92 starts.

There’s motivation in all of that for Mickelson. He makes his 2018 debut at the CareerBuilder Challenge in the Palm Springs area this week talking like a man on a renewed mission.

There’s a Ryder Cup team to make this season, which would be his 12th straight, and there’s a career Grand Slam to claim, with the U.S. Open returning to Shinnecock Hills, where Mickelson finished second in ’04.

While Mickelson may not feel old, there are so many young stars standing in his way that it’s hard not to be constantly reminded that time isn’t on his side in these events anymore.

There has only been one player in the history of the game to win a major championship who was older than Mickelson is right now. Julius Boros won the PGA Championship when he was 48 back in 1968.

Campaign fever: Jordan Spieth

Spieth’s respect in the game’s ranks extends outside the ropes.

He was just selected to run for the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council’s chairman position. He is facing Billy Hurley III in an election to see who will succeed Davis Love III on the Tour’s Policy Board next year.

Spieth, just 24, has already made Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People.” He made that back in 2016, with the magazine writing that “he exemplifies everything that’s great about sports.” Sounds like a campaign slogan.

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CareerBuilder Challenge: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 1:10 pm

The PGA Tour shifts from Hawaii to Southern California for the second full-field event of the year. Here are the key stats and information for the CareerBuilder Challenge. Click here for full-field tee times.

How to watch (all rounds on Golf Channel):

Thursday, Rd. 1: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Friday, Rd. 2: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Saturday, Rd. 3: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Sunday, Rd. 4: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Purse: $5.9 million ($1,062,000 to winner)

Courses: PGA West, Stadium Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,113); PGA West, Nicklaus Tournament Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,159); La Quinta Country Club, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,060) NOTE: All three courses will be used for the first three rounds but only the Stadium Course will be used for the final round.

Defending champion: Hudson Swafford (-20) - defeated Adam Hadwin by one stroke to earn his first PGA Tour win.

Notables in the field

Phil Mickelson

* This is his first start of 2018. It's the fourth consecutive year he has made this event the first one on his yearly calendar.

* For the second year in a row he will serve as the tournament's official ambassador.

* He has won this event twice - in 2002 and 2004.

* This will be his 97th worldwide start since his most recent win, The Open in 2013.

Jon Rahm

* Ranked No. 3 in the world, he finished runner-up in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

* In 37 worldwide starts as a pro, he has 14 top-5 finishes.

* Last year he finished T-34 in this event.

Adam Hadwin

* Last year in the third round, he shot 59 at La Quinta Country Club. It was the ninth - and still most recent - sub-60 round on Tour.

* In his only start of 2018, the Canadian finished 32nd in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Brian Harman

* Only player on the PGA Tour with five top-10 finishes this season.

* Ranks fifth in greens in regulation this season.

* Finished third in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and T-4 in the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Brandt Snedeker

* Making only his third worldwide start since last June at the Travelers Championship. He has been recovering from a chest injury.

* This is his first start since he withdrew from the Indonesian Masters in December because of heat exhaustion.

* Hasn't played in this event since missing the cut in 2015.

Patrick Reed

* Earned his first career victory in this event in 2014, shooting three consecutive rounds of 63.

* This is his first start of 2018.

* Last season finished seventh in strokes gained: putting, the best ranking of his career.

(Stats provided by the Golf Channel editorial research unit.)