Day, Spieth, McIlroy in search of momentum

By Rex HoggardJune 21, 2017, 7:12 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Perspective can be a funny thing.

At one end of the spectrum, fans at this week’s Travelers Championship see perhaps the strongest field ever assembled at TPC River Highlands that includes the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, the world Nos. 3, 4 and 6, respectively.

It’s the kind of star power tournament directors dream about and draws fans in record numbers. It doesn’t matter to the masses that this week’s Big 3 arrived in New England looking for answers.

Or maybe momentum would be a more accurate goal considering that in each of their last five combined stops that trio has just four top-10 finishes, missed five cuts and seriously contended for a title twice.

Although all three have made the game look exceedingly easy at times in recent years, getting one’s competitive mojo back is a little more complicated than simply flipping a switch, and for each of the game’s leading men the cause and effect behind their recent form varies wildly.

In Spieth’s case, the culprit is a normally magical putter that has gone cold. After back-to-back seasons of finishing inside the top 10 in strokes gained: putting on the PGA Tour, Spieth is currently 40th on that list today and is fresh from one his most pedestrian performances at the U.S. Open where he needed 122 putts.

Although Spieth said his recent issues on the greens is “frustrating,” he pointed out that he’s gone through similar periods in his career in 2013 and ’14, and that he and swing coach Cameron McCormick have studied his stroke enough to know the key to turning things around.

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“From the Tour Championship in '15 to the Masters in '15, very different strokes. You wouldn't necessarily look and see by the naked eye, but if you looked at the intricacies of the stroke and the way the putter traveled, they were actually tremendously different,” Spieth said on Wednesday. “The one similarity is the consistency in it was up at 95 percent or higher. That's what I'm trying to get is that consistency level.”

For McIlroy his recent play, particularly his missed cut last week at Erin Hills, comes down to competitive rust, which is the byproduct of an extended break after The Players to rest a recurring rib injury.

After playing his first 21 holes in 9 over par at the U.S. Open, McIlroy played his final 15 holes in 4 under par to finish an abbreviated week. It was the Northern Irishman’s seventh start of the year on the Tour and his first since The Players in May.

“In a perfect world, last week wouldn't have been my first week back at the U.S. Open. It's a high pressure, high-stress sort of event,” McIlroy said. “I think once you get into a run of events, there are certain situations on a course that you're just going to handle better because you've played a little bit and you've had a scorecard in your hand and you experienced it.”

Similarly, Day can take some solace in knowing the reason behind his relative struggles. The Australian’s mother, Dening, was diagnosed with lung cancer last year and she underwent surgery in March. Although Dening’s prognosis has improved since Day withdrew from the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, it’s been an understandably difficult year professionally.

“I’m about a month behind my work load, all the practice and all the balls I should have hit because of what happened earlier in the year, to be honest I didn’t want to be on the course because of what happened,” Day said.

Although each of the Big 3 have their own unique issues they are currently dealing with, there’s a common theme that connects them as they work their way back to top form – patience.

Last week a friend of Day’s, Davis Lutterus, failed to Monday qualify for a Tour event and he thumbed out a text message that he quickly recognized as a classic glass houses deal.

“My text to him was, ‘Don’t worry, be patient. Things will happen. Just keep working hard,’” Day said. “I give advice, but sometimes when you give advice to your buddies you kind of over look it yourself and you really need to be patient and not try to force it.”

All three were upbeat on the eve of this week’s Travelers Championship, particularly Spieth who saw flashes of his normal self on Sunday at Erin Hills.

Spieth needed just 29 putts for the final round on his way to a tie for 35th, posting what was arguably the day’s best round from the more-demanding morning wave (69) when the winds reached 25 mph.

“I know that the putting is going to get there. I really only had, I would say, two solid putting tournaments out of all the events I played this year,” Spieth said. “It only takes one or two events in a row before we're right back on track, and I know that, and that's what I believe.”

All three players have come by their optimism honestly – they have, after all, each been ranked No. 1 – and if the crowds that have already gathered at TPC River Highlands are any indication it really doesn’t matter what they’ve done in recent weeks, it’s what they do next.

Day: Woods feeling good, hitting it long

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 22, 2017, 9:33 pm

Jason Day says Tiger Woods told him he feels better than he has in three years, which is good news for Woods a week ahead of his return to the PGA Tour at the Hero World Challenge.

Day, a fellow Nike endorser, was asked about Woods during his news conference at the Emirates Australian Open on Wednesday. "I did talk to him," Day said, per a report in the Sydney Morning Herald,"and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years'" Day said.

"He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great. I said to him, 'Look, it's great to be one of the best players ever to live, but health is one thing that we all take for granted and if you can't live a happy, healthy life, then that's difficult.'"

The Hero World Challenge will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in the Bahamas and broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC.

Day, who has had his own health issues, said he could empathize with Woods.

"I totally understand where he's coming from, because sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me 10 minutes to get out of bed, and for him to be in pain for three years is very frustrating."

Woods has not played since February after undergoing surgery following a recurrence of back problems.

"From what I see on Instagram and what he's been telling me, he says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is, because from what I hear, he's hitting it very long," Day said.

"And if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.

"There's no pressure. I think it's a 17- or 18-man field, there's no cut, he's playing at a tournament where last year I think he had the most birdies at."

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Ko released this statement through the LPGA on Wednesday: 

"It has been my dream since I was young to play on the LPGA Tour and I look forward to testing myself against the best players on a worldwide stage. I know it is going to be tough but making a first win as an LPGA member and winning the Rolex Rookie of the Year award would be two of the biggest goals I would like to achieve next year."

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.