It's DJ's time, but he's no lock

By Rex HoggardApril 5, 2017, 6:22 pm

UPDATE: Dustin Johnson injured his lower back in a fall down a staircase Wednesday at His Augusta rental home. He hopes to be able to play Thursday. More details here.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – No Arnie. No Tiger. No Par 3 Contest.

Oh, and no favorite, at least if history is any indication.

In the strangest of starts to the year’s first major, it’s the absence of so many Masters staples – from the late Arnold Palmer who will be missed on the first tee early Thursday morning to the second consecutive year without Tiger Woods, who continues to recover from what is increasingly becoming a more concerning back ailment – that has defined the proceedings at Augusta National.

The last straw came on Wednesday when a wall of thunderstorms forced officials to cancel the annual Par 3 Contest for the first time after just a few holes had been played.

Of course, those narratives will quickly give way to the competitive complexities of what is always one of the year’s most eventful tournaments. They always do.

Players will quietly mourn Palmer’s passing and lament another missed major for Woods, but attention spans have a tendency to be in direct relation to the action on the field, and if potential is any indicator this year’s edition is destined to be riddled with distraction.

It’s a conversation that begins, and very well may end, with Dustin Johnson. The bomber has won his last three starts, including a pair of World Golf Championship stops, and has evolved from an athletic curiosity into a bona fide force of nature.

“The confidence he has right now when he plays well, he’s like Tiger and no one can beat him,” said Butch Harmon, Johnson’s swing coach. “Dustin knows that.”

Johnson is first on the PGA Tour this season in strokes gained: tee-to-green, driving distance, greens in regulation and pretty much every other measure of ability. He’s confident and completely indifferent to the background noise that’s such a large part of any major, particularly this major.

He’s also the man to beat according to those in Las Vegas who determine such things, but we may want to hold off on fitting DJ for a green jacket just yet.

His record at Augusta National is decent, but not dominant. In seven trips down Magnolia Lane he finished in the top 10 just twice, albeit both of those performances came in the last two years and his tie for fourth place last year was still a distant four strokes behind eventual champion Danny Willett.

Johnson’s recent form aside, penciling him in as the undisputed favorite ignores Jordan Spieth’s body of work amid the Georgia pines. The 2015 champion has started every Sunday he’s played the Masters in the day’s anchor group and if not for a momentary lapse last year on the back nine he’d be well on his way to a closet full of green keepsakes.

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For all the talk of how Spieth’s performance on the 12th hole during the final round last year - a quadruple-bogey-7 that included two shots that found the creek, may haunt him this week, his resilience is born from a resume that runs much deeper than just a pair of untimely iron shots.

“I think we know, and the other players that are playing next week know, that we strike fear in others,” Spieth said last week at the Shell Houston Open. “So that’s our idea, that’s going to be my confidence level going in, and we’ll step on the first tee ready to play.”

That Johnson’s dominance and Spieth’s ghosts have consumed the lion’s share of pre-tournament talk have in a curious way paved a more direct path for the likes of Rory McIlroy and Jason Day.

This is, after all, the only item on McIlroy’s “to do” list that remains to complete the career Grand Slam and since winning the Open in 2014 it’s been the elephant in the Augusta National clubhouse for the Northern Irishman. But this week those whispers have been downright subdued thanks to a crowded list of talking points.

“It's been a relatively quiet buildup to the Masters for me, which has been quite nice,” said McIlroy, who missed much of the early season while nursing a rib injury. “It's made for a bit of a change from the last couple of years, especially '15, coming off the back of two major wins in a row and going for the career Grand Slam.”

Day can relate to that relative obscurity. After being unseated atop the World Golf Ranking by Johnson at the Genesis Open, the Australian has been understandably distracted as his mother, Dening, continues her battle against lung cancer.

Although Day has just a single top-10 finish this season and arrived at Augusta National with admittedly less preparation, the lower expectations may actually work in his favor at an event that stands above all others on his wish list.

“I think that the biggest thing for me is that I'm really thankful just to be here,” Day said. “When you get in a situation like I am in the world rankings, you're just so used to coming here and playing Augusta National and playing on the Tour every single year. That's just your job. But I think the overall outlook on it is I'm actually thankful.”

Nor does the Johnson narrative acknowledge a central tenet of Augusta National that gives experience equal footing with form. What else could explain Bernhard Langer and Miguel Angel Jimenez, who were both well into their retirement years when they last contended at the Masters?

At 46, Phil Mickelson would qualify as an elder statesman whose window of opportunity is firmly still open, or perhaps Lee Westwood, who at 42 years old finished tied for second last year, could finally deliver on all that major promise.

Conversely, the conventional wisdom that Augusta National is no place for first-time winners (Fuzzy Zoeller was the last to win his first start in 1979) may be challenged this year considering a rookie list that includes Jon Rahm, who is already a winner this year on Tour, world No. 10 Alex Noren and European Ryder Cup star Thomas Pieters.

“It's much easier for a first-timer to win here because the greens have been so much more receptive the last seven, eight, 10 years since the course has been lengthened and the greens aren't the only defense,” Mickelson said when asked about Rahm’s chances. “What that allows you to do is miss it in a spot that normally would be bad but you can get away with it because the greens are more receptive. I think ... players who have not played here as many times are able to recover because the greens will receive shots that they didn't use to receive.”

Johnson has come by his status as Masters favorite honestly and there is no doubt he’s the man to beat. There’s no Arnie, no Tiger and no telling what’s in store over the next four days.

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Kelly beats Monty with two-shot swing on final hole

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 3:21 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Jerry Kelly made an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole, Colin Montgomerie missed a 6-footer for par and Kelly turned a one-shot deficit into a victory Saturday in the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

After Kelly drove it well right into lava rocks on the par-4 16th, leading to bogey and giving Montgomerie the lead, Montgomerie made a mistake with his tee shot on the last, finding a fairway bunker. Montgomerie's approach went over the green and after Kelly converted his birdie, the 54-year-old Scot jammed his par putt well past the hole.

Full-field scores from the Mitsubishi Electric Championship

It was the third win on the over-50 tour for the 51-year-old Kelly, who finished tied for 14th last week at the PGA Tour's Sony Open in Honolulu. That gave him confidence as he hopped over to the Big Island for his tournament debut at Hualalai. The limited-field event includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Kelly closed with a 6-under 66 for a three-day total of 18-under 198. Montgomerie shot 69. David Toms shot 67 and finished two shots back, and Miguel Angel Jimenez was another stroke behind after a 66.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, closed with a 70 to finish at 10 under.

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Rahm manages frustration, two back at CareerBuilder

By Randall MellJanuary 21, 2018, 1:21 am

Jon Rahm managed the winds and his frustrations Saturday at the CareerBuilder Challenge to give himself a chance to win his fourth worldwide title in the last year.

Rahm’s 2-under-par 70 on the PGA West Stadium Course left him two shots off the lead going into the final round.

“I wasn’t really dealing with the wind that much,” Rahm said of his frustrations. “I was dealing with not being as fluid as I was the last two days.”

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

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The world’s No. 3 ranked player opened with a 62 at La Quinta Country Club on Thursday and followed it up with a 67 on Friday at PGA West. He made six birdies and four bogeys on the Stadium Course on Saturday.

“The first day, everything was outstanding,” Rahm said. “Yesterday, my driver was a little shaky but my irons shots were perfect. Today, my driver was shaky and my irons shots were shaky. On a course like this, it’s punishing, but luckily on the holes where I found the fairway I was able to make birdies.”

Rahm is projected to move to No. 2 in the world rankings with a finish of sixth or better on Sunday.

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Cook leads by one entering final round at CareerBuilder

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 12:51 am

LA QUINTA, Calif. – Austin Cook hit a hybrid into the fairway bunker on the par-4 18th on a breezy Saturday afternoon at La Quinta Country Club, then chunked a wedge and raced a chip 20 feet past the hole.

Kip Henley, the longtime PGA Tour caddie who guided Cook to a breakthrough victory at Sea Island in November, stepped in to give the 26-year-old former Arkansas star a quick pep talk.

''Kip said, 'Let's finish this like we did on the first day at the Nicklaus Course.' We made a big par putt on 18 there and he said, 'Let's just do the same thing. Let's get this line right and if you get the line right it's going in.'''

It did, giving Cook an 8-under 64 and a one-stroke lead in the CareerBuilder Challenge going into the final round on the Stadium Course at PGA West. Fellow former Razorback Andrew Landry and Martin Piller were tied for second, and Jon Rahm and Scott Piercy were a another stroke back after a tricky day in wind that didn't get close to the predicted gusts of 40 mph.

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

''I know that I wouldn't have wanted to play the Stadium today,'' Cook said. ''I think we got a great draw with the courses that we got to play on the days that we got to play them.''

Cook played the final six holes on the front nine in 6 under with an eagle and four birdies.

''Starting on my fourth hole, I was able to make a birdie and kind of get the ball rolling and it never really stopped rolling,'' Cook said. ''Kip and I were doing really good at seeing the line on the greens.''

After a bogey on 10, he birdied 11, 12 and 15 and parred the final three to get to 19-under 197.

''I think that tonight the nerves, the butterflies, all that will kind of be a little less,'' Cook said. ''I've been in the situation before and I was able to finish the job on Sunday. I think it would be a little different if I didn't play like I did on Sunday at Sea Island.''

He's making his first start in the event.

''I came in from Hawaii on Monday, so I only had two days to prepare for three courses,'' Cook said.

Landry, the second-round leader, had a 70 at the Stadium. Piller, the husband of LPGA tour player Gerina Piller, shot a 67 at La Quinta. Winless on the PGA Tour, they will join Cook in the final threesome.

''Piller's a good guy and we have played a lot together and same with Cookie,'' said Landry, the only player without a bogey after 54 holes. ''Hope the Hogs are going to come out on top.''

Rahm had a 70 at the Stadium to reach 17 under. The third-ranked Rahm beat up the par 5s again, but had four bogeys – three on par 3s. He has played the 12 par 5s in 13 under with an eagle and 11 birdies.

''A little bit of a survival day,'' Rahm said.

The wind was more of a factor on the more exposed and tighter Stadium Course.

''The course is firming up,'' Rahm said. ''I know if we have similar wind to today, if we shoot something under par, you'll be way up there contesting it over the last few holes.''

Piercy had a 66 at the Stadium.

''I controlled my ball really well today,'' he said.

Adam Hadwin had a 67 at La Quinta a year after shooting a third-round 59 on the course. The Canadian was 16 under along with Grayson Murray and Brandon Harkins. Murray had a 67 on the Nicklaus Course, and Harkins shot 68 at the Stadium.

Phil Mickelson missed the cut in his first tournament of the year for the second time in his career, shooting a 74 on the Stadium to finish at 4 under – four strokes from a Sunday tee time. The 47-year-old Hall of Famer was playing for the first time since late October. He also missed the cut in the Phoenix Open in his 2009 opener.

Charlie Reiter, the Palm Desert High School senior playing on the first sponsor exemption the event has given to an amateur, also missed the cut. He had three early straight double bogeys in a 77 on the Stadium that left him 1 over.

John Daly had an 80 at La Quinta. He opened with a triple bogey and had six bogeys – four in a row to start his second nine - and only one birdie. The 51-year-old Daly opened with a 69 on the Nicklaus layout and had a 71 on Friday at the Stadium.

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Phil misses CareerBuilder cut for first time in 24 years

By Randall MellJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 am

Phil Mickelson missed the cut Saturday at the CareerBuilder Challenge. It’s a rare occurrence in his Hall of Fame career.

He has played the event 15 times, going back to when it was known as the Bob Hope Classic. He has won it twice.

How rare is his missing the cut there?

The last time he did so, there was no such thing as a DVD, Wi-Fi, iPods, Xbox, DVR capability or YouTube.

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

The PGA Tour’s Jon Rahm didn’t exist, either.

The last time Mickelson missed a cut in this event was 1994, nine months before Rahm was born.

Mickelson struggled to a 2-over-par 74 in the heavy winds Saturday on the PGA West Stadium Course, missing the 54-hole cut by four shots. He hit just four of 14 fairways, just nine of 18 greens. He took a double bogey at the 15th after requiring two shots to escape the steep-walled bunker on the left side of the green.

Mickelson won’t have to wait long to try to get back in the hunt. He’s scheduled to play the Farmers Insurance Open next week at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif.