Masters finale chock full of storylines

By Rex HoggardApril 9, 2017, 12:35 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – If not for recent history, the 81st Masters would have nothing even approaching potential drama on Sunday.

Jordan Spieth has, after all, never started a Masters Sunday anywhere but the day’s anchor group and he mused just last week that he “strikes fear” in the field when it comes to the year’s first major.

Just imagine what his résumé would look like if he’d been able to avoid the dreaded “quad” the last two years, but then those train-wreck moments did occur. Despite a comfort level that defies explanation on the game’s most uncomfortable golf course and a Masters résumé that reads like binary code – 2nd, 1st, 2nd – there is nothing inevitable about Sunday’s final frame.

Spieth will begin the day in fourth place, which is uncharted waters for the 2015 champion.

“So new experience for me, coming from behind on Sunday at the Masters, which is kind of fun to say,” said Spieth, who has clawed back from 10 strokes down after an opening 75 to within two shots of the lead despite a quadruple bogey-9 on the 15th hole on Thursday. “Tomorrow might free me up a bit, being behind. I plan to play aggressive because at this point, it's win or go home.”

It will also be something of a new experience for the rest of the would-be champions on Sunday – a handsome list that includes the likes of Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler.

Rose made the day’s biggest move on Day 3, posting a 5-under 67 that included five birdies over his final seven holes to move into a share of the lead. Although the Englishman appreciates Spieth’s history on the former plant nursery, he didn’t sound like a man who would spend Sunday looking over his shoulder.

“I'm a major champion, but I'm looking for more and I'm certainly looking for my first Masters and my first green jacket,” said Rose, who has never missed a cut at the Masters in a dozen trips down Magnolia Lane. “This is a place I dearly love and would dearly love to be part of the history here.”


 

 

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He’ll head out in the day’s last group with Garcia, whose major championship career is littered with missed opportunities and meltdowns.

This week’s Masters is the Spaniard’s 74th major start, a snapshot of trial and largely error that includes 22 top-10 finishes and four runner-up showings, most recently at the 2014 Open.

At 37 years old it only seems like Garcia’s major window has closed because he started chipping away at Grand Slam glory so long ago when he famously dueled and lost to Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship.

But that same spark he showed at Medinah in ’99 has returned. Always among the game’s best ball-strikers, this week he has demonstrated surprisingly consistent play on those slippery greens. He’s 19th in the field in strokes gained: putting and has just a single three-putt on his way to a share of the lead.

But perhaps the most compelling example of why it might be El Nino’s time after all this time came early on the inward nine on Saturday when his 4-iron dropped short of the 13th green and drifted down the bank toward the creek before defying gravity and stopping short of a watery fate.

“My mentality has kind of changed a little bit, the way I'm thinking things, particularly this week here at Augusta,” said Garcia, who in the past has suggested that luck has not always favored him in the majors. “I've definitely had some good breaks throughout all three rounds.”

Fowler will have the advantage of proximity on Sunday when he tees off in the day’s penultimate group paired with Spieth. Like Garcia, Fowler’s major record isn’t what one would consider sparkling. Following a breakout year in 2014 when he became the first player to finish inside the top 5 in all four majors without winning, he’s failed to contend when it matters the most until this week.

But thanks to a 67 on Friday in blustery conditions and a 1-under 71 on Day 3, he will enjoy his best chance to date to join the major club. He also understands as well as anyone that Sundays at the Masters are defined by volatility.

“With it being fairly crowded, a handful of guys being within a few shots of the lead, I think it's going to be tough for someone to really run and distance themselves too much, with the possibilities of what you can do on the back nine,” said Fowler, who is alone in third place a stroke off the lead.

All told, there are eight players within five strokes of the lead, a “who’s who” list of contenders that includes former champions Adam Scott (3 under) and Charl Schwartzel (2 under), last year’s European Ryder Cup standout Thomas Pieters (1 under) and even Lee Westwood (1 under), a perennial bridesmaid at the year’s first major following a pair of runner-up finishes including last year.

“Everybody has a storyline,” Rose said. “A one-shot lead to start the day really doesn’t mean much.”

Nor does it seem Spieth’s dominance the last three years at Augusta National will be the difference maker, thanks to his well-documented miscues. A year ago he was deep into the back nine on Sunday when he rinsed his title chances into the creek at the 12th hole, and on Thursday it was a bad decision that cost him four shots on the par-5 15th hole.

Things will be different on Sunday, they always are. It’s the secret sauce that makes the Masters unique among the Grand Slam landscape. What have been “tough pars” all week become pine-rattling birdies and eagles late on the back nine and no advantage, be it actual or psychological, is safe.

There may be some fear among Spieth’s rivals as he suggested last week, but it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion.

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"


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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.