Getty Images

Exploring the PGA Tour's top basketball talent

By Rex HoggardFebruary 16, 2018, 10:30 pm

LOS ANGELES – Bubba Watson completed his second-round 70 at the Genesis Open and bolted Riviera Country Club in search of a rare daily double – a spot near the top of a PGA Tour leaderboard and MVP honors at the annual NBA All-Star Celebrity Game.

“I wasn't very good at dribbling [in high school] so I definitely didn't dribble it up,” Watson smiled as he rushed off property just three strokes off the lead to participate in the annual celebrity game, which was played at the Verizon Up Arena at the Los Angeles Convention Center as part of NBA All-Star weekend. “I just played outside, played on the wing, tried to shoot 3-pointers. I can shoot, I have a little bit of touch. So it worked out when I was in high school. When I say ‘worked out,’ I made one out of 20.”

Although Watson certainly qualifies as a celebrity and is married to a former WNBA player, with apologies to the 6-foot-3 southpaw, there was a real sense that golf wasn’t exactly sending its best to the celebrity game - at least according to the results of a wildly unofficial Twitter poll.

Early Friday, your scribe offered his version of the PGA Tour’s all-hoops team – a squad that included Watson, Dustin Johnson, Gary Woodland, Jordan Spieth and Chris Wood – but the reaction from many of the circuit’s best and brightest painted a much different picture.

Smylie Kaufman, who was the point guard on his state high school championship basketball team during his junior year in 2009, was one of the first to offer his services at point guard before allowing, “[Jordan Spieth] and I have epic games of H.O.R.S.E. Usually he makes a ridiculous shot to win. Weird.”

Chesson Hadley, a 6-foot-4 player with some reach, also got into the act: “I certainly have the height to play but would probably be dominated in the paint. I’d like to be considered for the guy that runs the bench celebrations.”

It turns out the depth of basketball talent runs much deeper than one might expect on Tour.

Full-field scores from the Genesis Open

Genesis Open: Articles, photos and videos

Although Johnson, who declined an offer to play in Friday’s celebrity game, can still dunk, and at 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, would be a natural swingman; and Woodland, who set a 3-point shooting record as a freshman at Washburn (Kan.) University before transferring to Kansas to play golf, were easy early picks, Tony Finau might be golf’s best.

“We’d have a pretty mean team, not a lot of height but we’d have a solid top 5,” said Finau, who added that he plays pickup basketball three to four times a week in the offseason and can still throw down two-handed dunks.

Finau, who is also in contention at Riviera following a second-round 71, played center in high school and helped his team reach the state tournament his junior and senior seasons, averaging 11 rebounds per game as a senior.

“Have to throw Finau and [Andrew] Loupe in there. [Kaufman] can get buckets, too,” Thomas tweeted.

Harris English echoed that endorsement, “[Russell] Henley and Loupe need to be in that lineup.” While Ricky Barnes made his own pitch, “I must be a reserve but I will play my way into the lineup soon.”

It turns out that Loupe is something of a sneaky good option in any all-hoops Tour draft as evidenced by Harold Varner III’s offer to coach the team.

“I would love to coach, it would be awesome,” Varner smiled before his second round at Riviera. “Already have my first pick, Tony [Finau]. Second pick would be tough, probably DJ, but Loupe is good, man.”

Loupe earned all-state basketball honors in Louisiana twice and was invited to the Louisiana All-Star game, averaging 21.6 points per game during his senior season and setting his high school’s all-time record for 3-pointers in a season.

Spieth, who reportedly has some legitimate shooting range and whose brother, Steven, plays professional basketball in Argentina, would be a popular pick, but the social media scouting report suggests he may be better suited coming off the bench.

According to various sources, Henley is a pure shooter and would likely be the sixth man; while 6-foot-4 Jamie Lovemark – who is also in the top 10 through 36 holes at the Genesis Open – was a popular choice to replace Wood, who at 6-foot-5 is the Tour’s tallest player but doesn’t appear to have much experience on the hardwood having grown up in England.

While there seems to be no shortage of talent to represent golf on the NBA’s most star-studded stage, it will be Watson who received the nod for Friday’s celebrity bout. Although he may not top the list of Tour ballers, he did get one piece of solid advice from his wife, Angie.

“She said, ‘Don't get hurt,’” Watson smiled. “She said, ‘If you go in the paint, you're in trouble.’ I was a Ryder Cup vice captain [in 2016], that's what I enjoyed, so I'm not afraid to give an assist. I'm scared of shooting. I'll just pass it real fast.”

Getty Images

Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Tee times

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

Getty Images

This week, let the games(manship) begin

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Tee times

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.

Getty Images

Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana

By Will GrayMarch 20, 2018, 6:43 pm

While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.

The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.

"I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."

Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.

According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."

"I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."

Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.

Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.

"I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."

Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.

Getty Images

Spieth vs. Reed random? Hmm, wonders Spieth

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 6:42 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Monday’s blind draw to determine the 16 pods for this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play didn’t exactly feel “blind” for Jordan Spieth, whose group includes Patrick Reed.

Spieth and Reed have become a staple of U.S. teams in recent years, with a 7-2-2 record in the Ryder and Presidents Cup combined. So when the ping-pong ball revealed Reed’s number on Monday night Spieth wasn’t surprised.

“It seems to me there's a bit more to this drawing than randomness,” laughed Spieth, whose pod also includes Haotong Li and Charl Schwartzel. “It's not just me and him. It's actually a lot of groups, to have Luke List and Justin [Thomas] in the same group seems too good to be true. It might be some sort of rigging that's going on, I'm not sure.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Tee times

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

Spieth will play Reed on Friday in the round-robin format and knows exactly what to expect from the fiery American.

“I've seen it firsthand when he's been at his best. And we have history together in a couple of different playoffs, which is a match-play scenario,” Spieth said. “I've got to take care of work tomorrow and the next day for that day to even matter. But even if it doesn't matter, trust me, it will matter to both of us.”