Masters Sunday filled with intrigue and diversity

By Rex HoggardApril 13, 2014, 12:32 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – For two days Augusta National culled the herd, sending some of the game’s biggest names spiraling out of town and leaving just enough daylight between Bubba Watson and the pack to give the 78th playing the faint hue of a boat race.

But as is the Masters modus operandi, congestion returned under a warm spring sun thanks to what the venerable course does best – two-way traffic.

Bubba Watson, Adam Scott and John Senden gave; Jordan Spieth, Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler took. And now 11 players are within four strokes of the lead with Sunday’s final loop looming. As is the case most years on the former Fruitland Nursery, equal parts mistakes and miracles defined Day 3 with more on the menu on Sunday.

Watson, a former champion two comfortable years removed from his maiden Masters victory, started to fray on the front nine on Saturday but closed with a 74 to share the lead with 20-year-old first-timer Jordan Spieth at 5 under par.

Masters champion vs. Augusta National rookie.

On paper this is a 4-and-3 rout.

“There’s a reason why no one has won the Masters in their first start since Fuzzy (Zoeller) in 1979,” figured Butch Harmon earlier this week. “It’s hard for a first-time to know the nuances.”

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But in practice, Watson will likely have his hands and his head full on Sunday when the two set out together in the final two-ball, which will have an interesting start if Spieth follows through on his plan to greet the 2012 champion with a thoughtful, “Mr. Watson.”

“Just because it will mess with him,” joked Spieth, who has now carded three steady rounds (71-70-70) thanks to clutch putting and a dialed-down game plan.

“That’s fine when I’m hitting it past him,” Watson playfully fired back when told of Spieth’s intended greeting.

But then keeping Spieth at bay will only be one facet of Watson’s Sunday agenda.

Trending Matt Kuchar is a stroke back after a third-round 68; Jonas Blixt kept pace with the front-runners with an eventful 71; Rickie Fowler climbed up the leaderboard with a 67, and the erstwhile Miguel Angel Jimenez did what 50-year-olds always seem to do at Augusta National and was two back.

“My thing is enjoy yourself, enjoy what you are doing and smile. Not enough people smile on the golf course,” Jimenez waxed following a turn-back-the-clock 66.

Not bad for a player poised to make his Champions Tour debut next week.

Without Tiger Woods, who missed the Masters following back surgery last week, and Phil Mickelson, who missed the cut, in the weekend field for the first time since 1994, Augusta National did what it always does and delivered birdies and bogeys with equal abandon and an eclectic and evolving leaderboard.

Watson blinked first with bogeys at Nos. 6 and 7 to drop into a tie with Blixt, Thomas Bjorn and, moments later, Kuchar as the ebb and flow of the year’s first major championship dictated the pace.

In the span of 15 minutes, Blixt (No. 13), Jim Furyk (No. 15) and Bjorn (No. 15) all found various water hazards and potential contenders began dropping off faster than the azalea flower petals in the spring heat.

Conversely, the youngest at heart endured the late-afternoon challenge, with Spieth posting an inward nine of 35 to grab a share of the lead and Fowler making the biggest move through the final turn with a 33 to finish at 3 under.

“It’s about time I step up and start playing well on the weekend, especially at the majors,” Fowler said.

If Spieth seemed a tad naïve he’s come by it honestly considering this week’s Masters is just his fifth major, but he has a pretty good idea what to expect after Survival Saturday.

“It was almost like putting on rolling gravel. It was crazy out there,” Spieth said. “I had to make a lot of 3-, 4-footers and I felt comfortable with those. I felt like my lag putting was good and it needs to be out here.”

The great misnomer in Masters lore is that this tournament is little more than a putting contest. To be precise, it is a lag-putting contest, particularly on greens that have become markedly crustier since Monday’s deluge sent players and patrons dashing for cover.

It may be where Watson has his most distinct advantage, as he demonstrated on the 14th after his approach caught a ridge in the green and he two-putted from the better part of a country mile. “Bubba ball” may get the headlines, but it was his putting that delivered his first green jacket and will determine whether he collects his second.

“I knew the key was just making some putts down the stretch, and luckily I did that on the last two holes to get in the final group,” said Watson, who ended his streak of six consecutive sub-par rounds at Augusta National.

Ditto for Fowler, who is pacing the field with a 1.50 putting average and has just two three-putts in 54 holes. For all the attention paid to Fowler’s move to Harmon’s stable and the ensuing swing change, it has been his putting that has been wanting through the early part of 2014.

“He started putting better at Bay Hill and this place fits his creativity so well,” said Fowler’s caddie Joe Skovron. “At No. 9 he turned his back to the hole and almost made the putt.”

At first blush, the lines are clear. Sunday appears to be the tipping point between young and old, experienced and fresh-faced with Watson, Kuchar and Jimenez in one corner and Spieth, Fowler and Blixt in the burnt yellow trunks.

But that’s not Augusta National’s style. Patience and panache, not pedigree, count on Sunday when the leaderboard begins to resemble I-20 at rush hour.

“I’ll lose some more hair as we go on this week,” Spieth said of the building pressure.

Spoken like a wise man.

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Confident Lincicome lurking after 54 holes at Founders

By Randy SmithMarch 18, 2018, 2:45 am

PHOENIX – Brittany Lincicome is farther back than she wanted to be going into Sunday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she’s in a good place.

She’s keeping the momentum of her season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas Classic victory going this year.

Her confidence is high.

“Last year, I won in the Bahamas, but then I didn't do anything after that,” Lincicome said. “I don't even know if I had a top 10 after my win in the Bahamas. Obviously, this year, I want to be more consistent.”

Lincicome followed up her victory in the Bahamas this year with a tie for seventh in her next start at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And now she’s right back on another leaderboard with the year’s first major championship just two weeks away. She is, by the way, a two-time winner at the ANA Inspiration.

Missy Pederson, Lincicome’s caddie, is helping her player keep that momentum going with more focus on honing in the scoring clubs.

“One of our major goals is being more consistent,” Pederson said. “She’s so talented, a once in a generation talent. I’m just trying to help out in how to best approach every golf course.”

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Pederson has helped Lincicome identify the clubs they’re likely to attack most with on the particular course they are playing that week, to spend more time working with those clubs in practice. It’s building confidence.

“I know the more greens we hit, and the more chances we give ourselves, the more our chances are to be in contention,” Pederson said. “Britt is not big into stats or details, so I have to figure out how to best consolidate that information, to get us exactly where we need to be.”

Lincicome’s growing comfort with clubs she can attack with is helping her confidence through a round.

“I’ve most noticed consistency in her mental game, being able to handle some of the hiccups that happen over the course of a round,” Pederson said. “Whereas before, something might get under her skin, where she might say, `That’s what always happens,’ now, it’s, `All right, I know I’m good enough to get this back.’ I try to get her in positions to hit the clubs we are really hitting well right now.”

That’s leading to a lot more birdies, fewer bogeys and more appearances on leaderboards in the start to this year.

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Returning Park grabs 54-hole Founders lead

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 2:09 am

PHOENIX – In the long shadows falling across Wildfire Golf Club late Saturday afternoon, Inbee Park conceded she was tempted to walk away from the game last year.

While healing a bad back, she was tempted to put her clubs away for good and look for a second chapter for her life.

But then . . .

“Looking at the girls playing on TV, you think you want to be out there” Park said. “Really, I couldn't make my mind up when I was taking that break, but as soon as I'm back here, I just feel like this is where I belong.”

In just her second start after seven months away from the LPGA, Park is playing like she never left.

She’s atop a leaderboard at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, looking like that’s exactly where she belongs.

With a 9-under-par 63 Saturday, Park seized the lead going into the final round.

At 14 under overall, she’s one shot ahead of Mariajo Uribe (67), two ahead of Ariya Jutanugarn (68) and three ahead of 54-year-old World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies (63) and Chella Choi (66).

Park’s back with a hot putter.

That’s not good news for the rest of the tour. Nobody can demoralize a field with a flat stick like Park. She’s one of the best putters the women’s game has ever seen, and on the front nine Saturday she looked as good as she ever has.

“The front nine was scary,” said her caddie, Brad Beecher, who was on Park’s bag for her long run at world No. 1, her run of three consecutive major championship victories in 2013 and her gold medal victory at the Olympics two years ago.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The front nine was great . . . like 2013,” Park said.

Park started her round on fire, going birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie. She was 6 under through five holes. She holed a wedge from 98 yards at the third hole, making the turn having taken just 10 putts. Yeah, she said, she was thinking about shooting 59.

“But I'm still really happy with my round today,” she said.

Park isn’t getting ahead of herself, even with this lead. She said her game isn’t quite where she wants it with the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship, just two weeks away, but a victory Sunday should go a long way toward getting her there.

Park is only 29. LPGA pros haven’t forgotten what it was like when she was dominating, when she won 14 times between 2013 and ’15.

They haven’t forgotten how she can come back from long layoffs with an uncanny ability to pick up right where she left off.

Park won the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in her first start back after missing two months because of a ligament injury in her left thumb. She took eight months off after Rio and came back to win the HSBC Women’s World Championship last year in just her second start. She left the tour again in the summer with an aching back.

“I feel like Inbee could take off a whole year or two years and come back and win every week,” said Brittany Lincicome, who is four shots behind Park. “Her game is just so consistent. She doesn't do anything flashy, but her putting is flashy.

“She literally walks them in. It's incredible, like you know it's going in when she hits it. It's not the most orthodox looking stroke, but she can repeat it.”

Park may not play as full a schedule as she has in the past, Beecher said, but he believes she can thrive with limited starts.

“I think it helps her get that fight back, to get that hunger back,” Beecher said. “She knows she can play 15 events a year and still compete. There aren’t a lot of players who can do that.”

Park enjoyed her time away last year, and how it re-energized her.

“When I was taking the long break, I was just thinking, `I can do this life as well,’” Park said. “But I'm glad I came back out here. Obviously, days like today, that's the reason I'm playing golf.”

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Joh on St. Patrick's ace: Go broke buying green beers

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:57 am

PHOENIX – Tiffany Joh was thrilled making a run into contention to win her first LPGA title Saturday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she comically cracked that her hole-in-one might have been ill-timed.

It came on St. Patrick’s Day.

“This is like the worst holiday to be making a hole-in-one on,” Joh said. “You'll go broke buying everyone green beers.”

Joh aced the fifth hole with a 5-iron from 166 yards on her way to an 8-under-par 64. It left her four shots behind the leader, Inbee Park (63).

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

One of the more colorful players on tour, Joh said she made the most of her hole-in-one celebration with playing partner Jane Park.

“First I ran and tackled Jane, then I high-fived like every single person walking to the green,” Joh said.

Joh may be the LPGA’s resident comedian, but she faced a serious challenge on tour last year.  Fourteen months ago, she had surgery to remove a malignant melanoma. She won the LPGA’s Heather Farr Perseverance Award for the way she handled her comeback.

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Davies, 54, still thinks she can win, dreams of HOF

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:22 am

PHOENIX – Laura Davies limped around Wildfire Golf Club Saturday with an ache radiating from her left Achilles up into her calf muscle at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“Every step is just misery,” Davies said after. “It’s just getting older. Don’t get old.”

She’s 54, but she played the third round as if she were 32 again.

That’s how old she was when she was the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year and won two major championships.

With every sweet swing Saturday, Davies peeled back the years, turning back the clock.

Rolling in a 6-foot birdie at the 17th, Davies moved into a tie for the lead with Inbee Park, a lead that wouldn’t last long with so many players still on the course when she finished. Still, with a 9-under-par 63, Davies moved into contention to try to become the oldest winner in LPGA history.

Davies has won 20 LPGA titles, 45 Ladies European Tour titles, but she hasn’t won an LPGA event in 17 years, since taking the Wegmans Rochester International.

Can she can surpass the mark Beth Daniel set winning at 46?

“I still think I can win,” Davies said. “This just backs that up for me. Other people, I don’t know, they’re always asking me now when I’m going to retire. I always say I’m still playing good golf, and now here’s the proof of it.”

Davies knows it will take a special day with the kind of final-round pressure building that she hasn’t experienced in awhile.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The pressure will be a lot more tomorrow,” she said. “We'll see, won’t sleep that well tonight. The good news is that I’ll probably be four or five behind by the end of the day, so the pressure won’t be there as much.”

Davies acknowledged confidence is harder to garner, as disappointments and missed cuts pile up, but she’s holding on to her belief she can still win.

“I said to my caddie, `Jeez, I haven't been on top of the leaderboard for a long time,’” Davies said. “That's nice, obviously, but you’ve got to stay there. That's the biggest challenge.”

About that aching left leg, Davies was asked if it could prevent her from challenging on Sunday.

“I’ll crawl around if I have to,” she said.

Saturday’s 63 was Davies’ lowest round in an LPGA event since she shot 63 at the Wendy’s Championship a dozen years ago.

While Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in ’01. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.

Davies said she still dreams about qualifying.

“You never know,” she said.