Mid-season grades: Sergio, DJ, Tiger and more

By Rex HoggardApril 19, 2017, 5:06 pm

The major championship season may have just gotten underway and the calendar is still littered with several decisive events, but this week’s Valero Texas Open, the 24th of 47 events, is the official turn of the 2016-17 PGA Tour season and time for the annual mid-term update.

España, A+. On what would have been the 60th birthday for Seve Ballesteros, Sergio Garcia ended almost two decades of major misfortune with his playoff victory over Justin Rose at the Masters.

As if that wasn’t enough to earn Spain high marks, Garcia has been joined on the world stage by fellow Spaniard and first-year Tour player Jon Rahm.

Rahm won in just his fifth start as a Tour member at the Farmers Insurance Open, and dropped close decisions to Dustin Johnson at the WGC-Mexico Championship and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. The most-recent Spanish Armada has arrived.

Justin Thomas, A. JT’s repeat performance in this year’s #SB2K17 trip to the Bahamas is certainly a reason to celebrate, but it’s Thomas’ play that’s truly impressed this season.

Before this season Thomas was better known as Jordan Spieth’s buddy, but the 23-year-old proved to be so much more with three victories in his first five starts of the season, including a clean sweep of the Hawaii swing.

Although Thomas has cooled since his torrid start, he has emerged in 2017 as a bona fide world-beater.

Jay Monahan, A-. Officially, Monahan took over as commissioner of the Tour in January, but he’d been handling the day-to-day operations for some time and almost immediately settled in to the corner office in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Dubbed by many as a forward-thinking and dynamic leader, Monahan has shown his progressive side, like the introduction of next week’s team event in New Orleans, and he has been clear that he’s looking to dramatically rearrange the schedule in order to end the season on Labor Day.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. Two World Golf Championships in four weeks earlier this spring impacted fields from Innisbrook to Bay Hill, and continued scheduling conflicts with the European Tour need to be addressed. But those ongoing concerns aside, Monahan’s first 100 days have been impressive.

Rules of Golf, B+. This may not be a popular take given the ongoing rules snafus (see Thompson, Lexi 2017 ANA Inspiration), but the USGA and R&A have actually had a relatively good year.

Earlier this spring, golf’s rule makers unveiled a sweeping list of proposed changes and initiated a six-month feedback period. Among the proposed “modernizations,” are relaxed rules regarding penalty areas and putting greens and a focus on pace of play.

“We embraced these things because people said to heck with the rules,” said Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director and CEO. “What this has done is gotten people thinking about the rules, and that’s a good thing.”

Golf still has plenty of room to grow on the rules front, but the proposed changes are a good start and by all accounts the current discussion is just the beginning of a fundamental overhaul.

Dustin Johnson, B+. This might seem a tad nitpicky, but the standard for DJ has escalated in recent years.

Johnson won three consecutive starts heading into the Masters, overtook Jason Day at No. 1 in the world and began the week at Augusta National as the easy favorite only to be sent to the disabled list when he injured his back on the eve of the first round.

He’s scheduled to return to the Tour in two weeks at the Wells Fargo Championship, but the real test for Johnson will come at the U.S. Open in June and at the remaining majors.

Tiger Woods, C. Let’s call this grading on a scale. Woods’ grand return ended after just 54 substandard holes and he missed the Masters for the second consecutive year, but there’s no denying the effort.

Maybe his schedule to begin the season was too aggressive, with back-to-back starts in San Diego and Dubai, but the frustration among Woods’ fans has only grown in recent weeks and this current setback appears to be more concerning than simply back spasms.

“I have good days and bad days,” Woods said on Tuesday at Big Cedar Lodge. “I’ve had three back operations, and that’s the nature of the business unfortunately. That’s all I can say.”

Notah Begay III suggested two weeks ago that Woods could return in time for the U.S. Open, which seems overly optimistic given his most-recent update. But right now optimism may be all Tiger has.

Speed control, D. In the annual review of driving distances published by the USGA and R&A in February those charged with keeping tabs on such gains noted that there has been a “slight uptick” in how far current professionals are hitting the golf ball.

Using data collected from five world tours, “between 2003 and the end of the 2016 season, average driving distance has increased by approximately 1.2 percent, around 0.2 yards per year.”

Statistical debates are about as much fun as an Uber driver with personal space issues, but it’s worth noting that there are currently 31 players on the PGA Tour who are averaging over 300 yards off the tee, compared to the ’03 season when there were just nine players averaging over 300 yards.

Whether these distance gains are a real problem is an entirely different conversation and statistically driving averages seemed to have ebbed, but there is no ignoring the fact that long-hitters are now the norm, not the exception.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.