Hughes' moxie helps propel rookie to first Tour title

By Rex HoggardNovember 21, 2016, 4:36 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – It was not an easy night for Mackenize Hughes.

Against his better judgment, he watched replays of Sunday’s action at the RSM Classic – his bogeys at Nos. 2, 6 and 11 to make the last official PGA Tour event a five-man free-for-all, his missed 10-footer at the second extra hole that would have been a twilight walk-off.

He received a text message from his idol, fellow Canadian Mike Weir, that read: “Good luck.” He even envisioned holding the trophy high and all that would mean, like an invitation to the Masters and a two (plus)-year Tour exemption.

No pressure there.

He did everything a sports psychologist would probably tell him to avoid like a slippery, downhill putt, before finally doing the only thing he could control, roll in that 17-footer for par at the third playoff hole on a blustery morning at Sea Island Resort.

“Slowly but surely I kept going and kept pushing forward,” said Hughes, a Tour rookie in name only after one of the more audacious performances of 2016. “But it was so hard, every night leaving the golf course being the leader and dealing with all these things for the first time.”

Hughes, a 25-year-old Charlotte, N.C., resident via Ontario, led wire-to-wire at Sea Island, opening with a 61 and playing his first 45 holes without a mistake, without even a hint of uncertainty.

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He slept on the lead every night, although he acknowledged that he didn’t do much sleeping on Sunday after finishing 72 holes tied with four others. Hughes had a chance to avoid just the third unscheduled Monday finish this year on Tour, but his 10-footer for birdie on the second playoff hole slid by the cup.

Nice try, Mac. See you in the morning.

“I would have loved to have won it right there rather than having to wait the whole night and think about that 10-foot putt,” he shrugged, offering a glimpse into his no-nonsense personality.

But then Hughes has spent a good amount of time since leaving Kent State and turning pro in 2013 with his back against the metaphorical wall. He did little in 2014 on the Tour that would suggest he was ready for primetime and until the Price Cutter Charity Championship on the secondary circuit in August he was eyeing another trip to Q-School.

But he won that event to secure his first trip to the Tour. It’s called moxie, the unquantifiable element that separates would-be champions from the genuine article.

There were signs of that fight on Saturday, when Hughes went from a four-stroke lead early in the round to trailing with a triple bogey-7 at the 11th hole. But he rebounded with three birdies late in his round to reclaim the lead.

And he did it again on Sunday, after bogeys at Nos. 2 and 6. Like a Sea Island sand gnat, Hughes wouldn’t go away, wouldn’t play the role of wide-eyed rookie even against veterans like Billy Horschel and Camilo Villegas.

On a course that had played to the softer side of fun all week, Hughes played his last seven holes (including the three playoff frames) in even par. It was so Mackenzie.

After trading pars on the first two playoff holes and enduring a fitful extra night, Hughes tried to hold a 4-iron against a biting wind early Monday, but he pulled his tee shot long and left at the par-3 17th hole into what he called “jail.”

His chip was less-than-stellar and left him a downhill, 17-footer for par.

“Before I hit it, the thought was just make them think about it. Put this putt in first and if you can be the first guy in, put the pressure back on them, and that's what happened,” Hughes said.

The remaining three contenders – Horschel bogeyed the first extra hole to narrow the field to four – also missed the green and faced par putts of various lengths. Blayne Barber missed from 13 feet, Henrik Norlander from 12 feet, and finally Villegas’ attempt from 8 feet grazed the right edge of the cup.

“Standing there watching them all putt, I was way more nervous than when I was putting mine, just to watch them because as each guy went down, it just became that much more real that it might happen,” Hughes said. “Then when it came down to Camilo, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, if he doesn't make this, then I'm the winner.’

“I was at a loss for words at that moment.”

It took 75 holes and five days, but for Hughes his breakthrough was a study in psychological strength if not a stellar short game.

Earlier in the week, Hughes called his swing unconventional, and the same could be said for his mental approach to what was a mentally exhausting week. He didn’t hide from the obvious – Masters invitation, Tour exemption, etc.

He didn’t have to.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.