Cut Line: Big Three, NCAA finish, Doral controversy

By Rex HoggardJune 3, 2016, 8:43 pm

The Big Three reunite this week at the Memorial, a big finish at the NCAA Championship and a big decision to leave Doral could lead to a difficult future for the World Golf Championship and Florida swing.

Made Cut

A true title bout. With the exception of Longhorn nation, few could consider the final outcome of the NCAA Men’s Championship anything less than an instant classic.

Texas, the top-ranked team looking to be the first No. 1 seed to win the title since the event transitioned to match play in 2009, would have been the 800-pound gorilla if not for a game-time decision by Beau Hossler to not play in the final with an injured shoulder.

The drama further escalated when the title came down to the last match, with Oregon’s Sulman Raza rolling in a 6-footer for birdie on the 21st hole to secure the Ducks’ first golf title.

Hossler’s conceded match aside (seriously, for a title this important there has to be an option for replacements), the final was, by definition, a classic.

Big Three-peat. In consecutive weeks at the game’s highest level the best three players proved yet again they deserve their lofty status.

Jason Day cruised to victory at The Players, Rory McIlroy rolled at the Irish Open (arguably the Northern Irishman’s “fifth major”) and Jordan Spieth won the Dean & Deluca Invitational (again, a tournament with increased personal value given its proximity to his Dallas home).

“I heard a couple of weeks ago that it bothered Jordan that I was winning tournaments and have the No. 1 spot in the world, and it should. It should bother guys who are competitive and want to stay on top as well,” Day said this week at the Memorial. “I know I'm pushed that way as well when I see Rory or Jordan on top of the world.”

The era of Tiger Woods was defined by singular dominance and it was certainly historic; but the age of parity – be it among the Big Three or beyond – is proving to be just as entertaining.

“Unfriended.” The golf world got its first glimpse of Ted Bishop’s new book, “Unfriended,” on Callaway Live this week. While the book seems to have no shortage of controversy, by early accounts it is neither a tell-all nor sour grapes.

Bishop, who was removed as president of the PGA of America in 2014 after tweeting insensitive comments, said he hoped the book would offer some insight into many important historical events in golf during his tenure at the PGA.

“For me, it helped bring a little closure to the situation,” Bishop said. “I wanted the book to be positive.”

History will ultimately judge Bishop’s time in office, but having a platform to tell his side of the story is a good start.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

Always about money. Funny how it goes when someone says it’s not about the money, it’s always about the money. In the case of the PGA Tour’s split with Donald Trump and Doral, the circuit has told anyone who will listen it’s all about the cash.

“I know everybody's talking about politics, but it's actually not that,” commissioner Tim Finchem said on Wednesday. “It's more Donald Trump is a brand, a big brand, and when you're asking a company to invest millions of dollars in branding a tournament and they're going to share that brand with the host, it's a difficult conversation.”

From that difficult conversation will emerge an even more strained dialogue in the coming months as the Tour explains the World Golf Championship’s transition to Mexico City.

There has been no official announcement regarding the host venue in Mexico City for next year’s WGC and the scheduling will likely be awkward, at best.

Doral has always slid neatly into the Florida swing and even though travel has never been easier, this will not be a painless move for the other Sunshine State tournaments hoping to secure solid fields.

Whether it was money or politics, leaving Doral will not be easy.

Lefty’s legal issues. For the first time since being named a “relief defendant” in a federal lawsuit Phil Mickelson spoke publicly this week.

“I'd like to say that I'm disappointed to have been a part of that whole thing, but after a thorough investigation, I'm pleased that it's behind me, that it's over,” Mickelson said.

The bigger comments, however, came from Finchem when he was asked about Mickelson’s association with noted sports gambler Billy Walters, who is accused in the federal lawsuit of insider trading.

The Tour’s player handbook specifically says a member shall not “associate with or have dealings with persons whose activities, including gambling, might reflect adversely upon the integrity of the game of golf.”

Yet when asked if Mickelson’s association with Walters would prompt any kind of disciplinary action Finchem declined to comment, which is the Tour’s default response to uncomfortable situations. In this case, that silence only makes things more uncomfortable.

Missed Cut

Law & Order. Lawsuits are, by nature, rarely friendly situations, but Vijay Singh’s litigation against the Tour has become particularly acrimonious.

Singh’s attorneys filed a request for partial summary judgment in the Fijian’s lawsuit against the Tour over his use of deer-antler spray, which was initially considered a violation of the Tour’s anti-doping policy but later dismissed.

Among the legal issues, Singh has claimed that his treatment was arbitrary and the circuit breached its duty of good faith in administrating the policy.

Part of that claim involves Finchem’s statement to the media that the Tour dropped its case against Singh when the World Anti-Doping Agency adjusted its list of prohibited substances.

Singh’s lawyers, however, say WADA’s view of deer-antler spray had long been established but the Tour failed to keep up with the changes. During his deposition in December 2014 Finchem was asked to explain his public comments.

“Remarkably, Finchem refused to respond to the questioning about whether WADA ever changed the list or why he told the world that WADA had changed the list and, instead, stormed out of the deposition, and refused to return,” the filing for summary judgment read.

And here we thought the legal system was supposed to keep things civil.

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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.