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With game trending longer, Donald could be last of his kind

By Rex HoggardFebruary 7, 2018, 7:31 pm

Although he doesn’t look the part of an athletic anomaly, Luke Donald may end up being his generation’s unicorn.

At 5-foot-9, 165-pounds, the Englishman could generously be considered a mid-length player on the PGA Tour. Some may even say a short hitter.

“Average [hitter],” he smiled when asked his status among the play-for-pay set.

Either way, what Donald accomplished is nothing short of astounding. On May 29, 2011, he ascended to No. 1 in the World Golf Ranking. All total, he spent 56 weeks atop the world heap, which is well short of Tiger Woods’ 683 weeks as No. 1.

What makes Donald’s accomplishment unique is that he ranked 165th on Tour in driving distance at that moment. It should come as no surprise that when he was unseated atop the ranking for good on May 27, 2012, it was Rory McIlroy who claimed the crown and ranked 15th on Tour in driving distance.

Donald may well be the last of his kind, a short/mid-length hitter who consistently found a way to beat the best.

“No,” Russell Knox shrugged when asked if it could happen again. “I think I’m really good at golf and I hate to limit myself and say I couldn’t be No. 1 in the world, but the ball and the clubs just go so straight now I feel like everyone has gained from it but the guys who hit it further and the courses are so long now and the greens are firmer and faster, it’s such a massive advantage to be 320 [yards] plus off the tee.”

Defining exactly what qualifies a player as a short/mid-length hitter may be up for debate, but there’s no uncertainty as to where these outliers now stand on the world scale.

Consider Knox, who won twice on Tour in 2016 including a signature victory over a world-class field at the WGC-HSBC Champions, as the voice of reason. His victory at the ’16 Travelers Championship moved him to 18th in the world rankings. He’s never been any higher despite one of the most consistent games on Tour.

It’s not as though the likes of Donald and Knox don’t aspire to such lofty positions ... they’re just realistic.

 “You look at the guys in the top 10, there’s not too many of them [mid-length],” Donald said. “It makes me proud of what I did. I did it at a time when not too many thought I could have done it.”

To prove the point, look no further than the current Official World Golf Ranking which is a new age Murderer’s Row, with Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose rounding out the top 5. Only Spieth (75th) ranks outside the top 35 in driving distance.

It’s become a popular notion that Speith is a mid-length hitter on Tour, but the statistics show he’s more upper-middle class off the tee. The average drive on Tour last year was 292 yards, which would technically make Spieth (295-yard average) above average.

“I’d say 180th [in driving distance] is on the shorter end and 100th is mid-length,” estimated Zach Johnson, who like Donald has defied convention his entire career.

The more intriguing numbers, at least for Donald, come down to simple math. When he moved to world No. 1 in 2011, he was picking up 2.27 strokes per round on the field, which is a combination of the various strokes-gained statistics. It’s the secret sauce, at least that’s what Donald and Mark Broadie, a professor at Columbia Business School who helped the Tour create the strokes-gained concept, concluded.

“The magic formula is you have to gain two strokes on the field per round,” Donald explained. “I’m losing 1 1/2 [strokes] off the tee if I’m not hitting it 300 [yards] all the time or hitting it straight, so I have to find 3 1/2 [strokes] in the rest of my game, which is almost impossible. That’s what it was when I was No. 1.”

Simply put, without the benefit of 320-yard drives, every other aspect of a player’s game must be nearly flawless for a sustained period of time.

This reality is compounded by golf course set-up that caters to the long-driving set, particularly at major championships where players generally make up the most ground in the world rankings.

That doesn’t necessarily mean long golf courses as much as it means layouts that reward length disproportionate to other aspects of a player’s game.

“The shorter hitters need courses with more rough, even a course like Torrey Pines, it’s not a bad course for a medium or shorter hitter. You have to be in the fairway even if it’s 7,500 yards,” Knox said. “But if you get a 7,500-yard course with little rough, a short hitter has no chance.”

At venues like Waialae Country Club, site of last month’s Sony Open, and Harbour Town Golf Links, which hosts the RBC Heritage in April, the short/mid-length players can compete, but those types of ballparks are becoming increasingly rare at the highest level.

Instead, the Tour offers a steady diet of courses like the 7,452-yard Plantation Course at Kapalua, where Dustin Johnson lapped the field by eight strokes last month. In fairness, the current world No. 1 also ranks eighth this season in strokes gained around-the-green, but averaging 296 yards off the tee certainly doesn’t hurt.

Sport defies absolutes and perhaps there’s a short/mid-length hitter who could follow Donald’s footsteps all the way to the top of the mountain, but even those who aspire to such greatness have a hard time seeing the way.

“No, it’s hard,” Zach Johnson figured when asked if a short/mid-length hitter could ever ascend to world No. 1. “[Donald’s] short game was sickening, in a good way, one of the best sand games I’ve ever seen, putter was pure.”

No one played “small ball” better than Donald, which makes his time atop the world so impressive, and very likely makes him the last of his kind.

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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.”