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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Ortiz takes Tour clubhouse lead in Bahamas

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 16, 2018, 2:19 am

Former Tour Player of the Year Carlos Ortiz shot a bogey-free, 4-under-par 68 Monday to take the clubhouse lead in The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay.

Four other players - Lee McCoy, Brandon Matthews, Sung Jae Im and Mark Anderson - were still on the course and tied with Ortiz at 6-under 210 when third-round play was suspended by darkness at 5:32 p.m. local time. It is scheduled to resume at 7:15 a.m. Tuesday.

Ortiz, a 26-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, is in search of his fourth Tour victory. In 2014, the former University of North Texas standout earned a three-win promotion on his way to being voted Tour Player of the Year.

McCoy, a 23-year-old from Dunedin, Fla., is looking to become the first player to earn medalist honors at Q-School and then win the opening event of the season.

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Randall's Rant: Can we please have some rivalries?

By Randall MellJanuary 16, 2018, 12:00 am

Memo to the golf gods:

If you haven’t finalized the fates of today’s stars for the new year, could we get you to deliver what the game has lacked for so long?

Can we get a real, honest-to-goodness rivalry?

It’s been more than two decades since the sport has been witness to one.

With world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship this week, an early-season showdown would percolate hope that this year might be all about rivalries.

It seems as if the stars are finally aligned to make up for our long drought of rivalries, of the recurring clashes you have so sparingly granted through the game’s history.

We’re blessed in a new era of plenty, with so many young stars blossoming, and with Tiger Woods offering hope he may be poised for a comeback. With Johnson, McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler among today’s dynamic cast, the possibility these titans will time their runs together on the back nine of Sundays in majors excites.

We haven’t seen a real rivalry since Greg Norman and Nick Faldo sparred in the late '80s and early '90s.

Woods vs. Phil Mickelson didn’t really count. While Lefty will be remembered for carving out a Hall of Fame career in the Tiger era, with 33 victories, 16 of them with Tiger in the field, five of them major championships, we get that Tiger had no rival, not in the most historic sense.

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Phil never reached No. 1, was never named PGA Tour Player of the Year, never won a money title and never dueled with Woods on Sunday on the back nine of a major with the title on the line.  Still, it doesn’t diminish his standing as the best player not named Tiger Woods over the last 20 years. It’s a feat so noteworthy it makes him one of the game’s all-time greats.

We’ve been waiting for an honest-to-goodness rivalry since Faldo and Norman took turns ruling at world No. 1 and dueling in big events, including the back nine of multiple majors. 

In the '70s, we had Nicklaus-Watson. In the '60s, it was Nicklaus-Palmer. In the '40s and '50s, it was Hogan, Snead and Nelson in a triumvirate mix, and in the '20s and '30s we had Hagen and Sarazen.

While dominance is the magic ingredient that can break a sport out of its niche, a dynamic rivalry is the next best elixir.

Dustin Johnson looks capable of dominating today’s game, but there’s so much proven major championship talent on his heels. It’s hard to imagine him consistently fending off all these challengers, but it’s the fending that would captivate us.

Johnson vs. McIlroy would be a fireworks show. So would Johnson vs. Thomas, or Thomas vs. Day or McIlroy vs. Rahm or Fowler vs. Koepka ... or any of those combinations.

Spieth is a wild card that intrigues.

While he’s not a short hitter, he isn’t the power player these other guys are, but his iron game, short game, putter and moxie combine to make him the most compelling challenger of all. His resolve, resilience and resourcefulness in the final round of his British Open victory at Royal Birkdale make him the most interesting amalgam of skill since Lee Trevino.

Woods vs. any of them? Well, if we get that, we promise never to ask for anything more.

So, if that cosmic calendar up there isn’t filled, how about it? How about a year of rivalries to remember?

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McIlroy: 2018 may be my busiest season ever

By Will GrayJanuary 15, 2018, 6:28 pm

With his return to competition just days away, Rory McIlroy believes that the 2018 season may be the most action packed of his pro career.

The 28-year-old has not teed it up since the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in early October, a hiatus he will end at this week's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. It will be the start of a busy spring for the Ulsterman, who will also play next week in Dubai before a run of six PGA Tour events leading up to the Masters.

Speaking to the U.K.'s Telegraph, McIlroy confirmed that he will also make a return trip to the British Masters in October and plans to remain busy over the next 12 months.

"I might play more times this year than any before. I played 28 times in 2008 and I'm on track to beat that," McIlroy said. "I could get to 30 (events), depending on where I'm placed in the Race to Dubai. But I'll see."

McIlroy's ambitious plan comes in the wake of a frustrating 2017 campaign, when he injured his ribs in his first start and twice missed chunks of time in an effort to recover. He failed to win a worldwide event and finished the year ranked outside the top 10, both of which had not happened since 2008.

But having had more than three months to get his body and swing in shape, McIlroy is optimistic heading into the first of what he hopes will be eight starts in the 12 weeks before he drives down Magnolia Lane.

"I've worked hard on my short game and I'm probably feeling better with the putter than I ever have," McIlroy said. "I've had a lot of time to concentrate on everything and it all feels very good and a long way down the road."

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What's in the Bag: Sony Open winner Kizzire

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 15, 2018, 6:05 pm

Patton Kizzire earned his second PGA Tour victory by winning a six-hole playoff at the Sony Open in Hawaii. Take a look inside his bag.

Driver: Titleist 917D3 (10.5 degrees), with Fujikura Atmos Black 6 X shaft

Fairway Wood: Titleist 917F2 (16.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Blue 95 TX shaft

Hybrid: Titleist 913H (19 degrees), with UST Mamiya AXIV Core 100 Hybrid shaft

Irons: Titleist 718 T-MB (4), 718 CB (5-6), 718 MB (7-9), with True Temper Dynamic Gold X100 shafts

Wedges: Titleist SM7 prototype (47, 52, 56, 60 degrees), with True Temper Dynamic Gold X100 shafts

Putter: Scotty Cameron GoLo Tour prototype

Ball: Titleist Pro V1x