Finchem balancing Trump, politics, new sponsor at Doral

By Rex HoggardMarch 7, 2016, 10:05 pm

DORAL, Fla. – Before Donald Trump ever arrived at Doral last week, Adam Scott – the eventual WGC-Cadillac Championship winner – wistfully hoped that golf could stay above the political fray.

“Hopefully they don't intersect at all,” he said on Wednesday after being asked about the intersection of golf and politics. “Should be the beauty of sport.”

Scott did his part to maintain a separation of sport and state, closing with a gritty 69 for a one-stroke victory, but as a surreal Sunday unfolded it became increasingly clear that the game’s apolitical aspirations might not be possible.

With apologies to Scott and the world’s other top players, the biggest buzz last week was created when Donald Trump’s helicopter settled onto the adjacent golf course just before the final group went off on Sunday.

The GOP front-runner worked the crowd, both inside and outside the ropes. He stopped to speak with third-round leader Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson moments before they teed off. Trump smiled for fans and subtly reminded those in golf that you may or may not like his politics, but you do have to work with him.

McIlroy said as much on Wednesday when asked about the possibility of not playing a Tour event next year at Doral. After a thoughtful pause, the Northern Irishman showed an impressive level of political savvy.

“This time next year if [Trump] is president it would be silly for the Tour not to keep some sort of relationship with him,” McIlroy said.


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PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who is no stranger to politics after working for the Jimmy Carter administration, seemed to acknowledge as much on Sunday – both in his words and his actions.

“Our relationship [with Trump] is good,” Finchem said. “We try to compartmentalize these things, but in terms of his focus on the game, on some of the facilities around the country and internationally, he brings a lot of energy to it. He's done a lot of good things.”

Following his news conference on Sunday, Finchem met with Trump at Doral to discuss the future of the south Florida stop. Cadillac’s sponsorship of the event ended last week and there were no indications the Tour was poised to name a new sponsor.

According to various reports, the Tour’s contract with Doral runs through 2023, but there is a stipulation that a new title sponsor would have the right to take the tournament elsewhere.

But then Finchem has been to the mat numerous times in his career with sponsor issues, and more often than not he finds a way to grind out a victory – much like Scott did at Doral.

For the Tour and Finchem the task at hand goes well beyond saving the circuit’s south Florida stop or even “making Doral great again,” a tongue-in-cheek line circulated by players and caddies last week.

Trump, in his not-so-subtle bombastic way, also suggested as much.

“My relationship [with golf’s ruling bodies] is very good, I’m also the front-runner [for the Republican presidential nomination],” Trump said. “Being the front-runner people like you more than if you were No. 12.”

Last year when Trump’s presidential campaign was just getting started, golf’s ruling bodies – including the PGA Tour, LPGA, PGA of America and USGA – took a stand when the businessman-turned-candidate made derogatory remarks about Mexican immigrants.

In a joint statement the governing bodies said Trump’s comments were, “inconsistent with our strong commitment to an inclusive and welcoming environment in the game of golf.”

On Sunday, however, Finchem appeared to make the distinction between distancing the game from a particular candidate and simply keeping golf outside of the political landscape.

“We work very hard to not be involved in presidential politics, not be involved in partisan politics generally,” Finchem said. “We don't think it's in the interests of what our fans want to see us do or be. The same thing with our players and candidly, we don't think it's smart.”

But walking the fine line of abstract objectivity becomes more complicated for an organization like the Tour when a potential commander in chief has become such a large part of the golf universe.

Distancing yourself from derogatory remarks is understandable. Distancing yourself from a sitting president is unacceptable.

“I would be very good for golf [if he were elected] because, very simply, I love the game,” Trump said. “If you had a president who didn’t like golf that would be a very different thing, but I’ve been good for golf.”

How a Trump presidency would help golf is unclear, particularly considering there is a long line of golfers who have occupied the White House.

But much like that larger-than-life helicopter that stole the spotlight on Sunday, Finchem recognized the obvious.

“For any head of state to show an interest in golf is a positive thing,” Finchem said.

Finchem may be able to remain above a contentious campaign cycle, but he understands better than most that he can’t sidestep political realty.

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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.


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That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.


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Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.


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The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”