New generation of stars restores TOC to prominence

By Rex HoggardJanuary 6, 2016, 11:03 pm

KAPALUA, Hawaii – Not since the halcyon days before the game’s titans made the year’s leadoff event in Maui a “bye” week has there been so much firepower aligned at the Plantation Course.

For organizers of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions the New Year brought a new feel by way of a field that hasn’t been seen on this island in more than a decade.

This week’s tee sheet at Kapalua includes six of the top 10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, including Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on the global lineup.

It’s the first time the world’s best player is starting his year at the limited-field, no-cut event since 2005, and has added up to the strongest field since then-Nos. 1 through 4 (Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, respectively) kicked off the year in Maui 11 years ago.

It’s a dramatic makeover for an event that’s felt more like a preseason exhibition than the Tour’s most elite club of winners. The tipping point for the Tournament of Champions began in the early 2000s, first when Phil Mickelson took the event off his dance card in 2002. The final blow was struck by Woods, who played Kapalua for the last time in 2005.


Hyundai Tournament of Champions: Articles, photos and videos


Maybe it was the Kona winds or Bermuda grass greens with more grain than a Nebraska wheat silo or the diminishing returns of an expanding Tour schedule - whatever the reason, a trip to paradise lost its luster to the game’s most high-profile players.

But that aversion to sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and migrating whales made a generational U-turn this year.

Spieth, who emerged as the clubhouse leader in the game of musical chairs that ensued for the top spot in the world ranking last year, made it clear Tuesday that he has penciled the year-opener into his schedule for the foreseeable future.

“This is one that we strive to make each year, and if I am eligible to play in this tournament and [I don’t], I hope every single one of you [media] calls me and bashes me for it,” Spieth said Tuesday.

Day, who withdrew from last month’s Hero World Challenge and Franklin Templeton Shootout following the birth of his second child, seems to be following a similar script, having played the Tournament of Champions every year (2011, ’15 and ’16) he’s been eligible.

The only notable exceptions from this week’s leaderboard are Rory McIlroy, who has never played the opener as he prepares for the start of his season on the European Tour, and Justin Rose.

The only other players missing from the top 10 in the world are Henrik Stenson, who didn’t qualify, and Jim Furyk, who is recovering from a left-wrist injury.

Otherwise attendance has been nearly universal, with just four players (McIlroy, Rose, Furyk and Shane Lowry) who won last season skipping Kapalua.

For Davis Love III, who returned to the event for the first time since 2009 following his victory last fall at the Wyndham Championship, the buzz created by the improved field didn’t go unnoticed.

“It's exciting there's so many guys here,” Love said. “The top players are here. Obviously Jason and Jordan and all the guys that are hot right now are here. ... So it's exciting to be here with them.”

A portion of that turnout can be attributed to Spieth and Day’s dominance last season. The duo combined to win more than one-fifth of the Tour’s events last season (10 victories), while Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker (who are all playing this week) collected a half-dozen other starts from the 2014-15 season.

That, however, doesn’t diminish the impact the improved marquee has had on the opener, which has been hurt by weak fields and the creation of the Tour’s wraparound schedule two years ago.

Instead of opening day, the Tournament of Champions was bounced a half-dozen events into the schedule with the start of the wraparound lineup. A move to a Monday finish in recent years did little to help bolster the stop’s relatively weak field.

It turns out the only thing the Hyundai needed was the fresh perspective of youth.

Time is the ultimate judge. Perhaps Spieth and Day will hit the metaphorical wall after a few years and opt out of the Tour’s New Year’s bash. Maybe the new-car smell that makes the Hyundai seem like a must-play event right now fades and a week of rest back home takes precedence over a trip halfway around the world.

For now, however, the game’s emerging stars have given this one-time afterthought a new identity.

“This is definitely at the top of my list of goals to start the year every year here,” said Justin Thomas, who earned his spot in the Tournament of Champions by winning last fall’s CIMB Classic. “It's pretty relaxing, it's a great field and a great course, and I think it's pretty cool.” It seems all it took was a new generation to make Kapalua cool again.

Getty Images

Mackay still a caddie at heart, even with a microphone

By Doug FergusonJanuary 16, 2018, 7:34 pm

HONOLULU – All it took was one week back on the bag to remind Jim ''Bones'' Mackay what he always loved about being a caddie.

It just wasn't enough for this to be the ultimate mic drop.

Mackay traded in his TV microphone at the Sony Open for the 40-pound bag belonging to Justin Thomas.

It was his first time caddying since he split with Phil Mickelson six months ago. Mackay was only a temporary replacement at Waialae for Jimmy Johnson, a good friend and Thomas' regular caddie who has a nasty case of plantar fasciitis that will keep him in a walking boot for the next month.

''The toughest thing about not caddying is missing the competition, not having a dog in the fight,'' Mackay said before the final round. ''There's nothing more rewarding as a caddie, in general terms, when you say, 'I don't like 6-iron, I like 7,' and being right. I miss that part of it.''

The reward now?

''Not stumbling over my words,'' he said. ''And being better than I was the previous week.''

He has done remarkably well since he started his new job at the British Open last summer, except for that time he momentarily forgot his role. Parts of that famous caddie adage – ''Show up, keep up, shut up'' – apparently can apply to golf analysts on the ground.

During the early hours of the telecast, before Johnny Miller came on, Justin Leonard was in the booth.

''It's my job to report on what I see. It's not my job to ask questions,'' Mackay said. ''I forgot that for a minute.''

Leonard was part of a booth discussion on how a comfortable pairing can help players trying to win a major. That prompted Mackay to ask Leonard if he found it helpful at the 1997 British Open when he was trying to win his first major and was paired with Fred Couples in the final round at Royal Troon.

''What I didn't know is we were going to commercial in six seconds,'' Mackay said. ''I would have no way of knowing that, but I completely hung Justin out to dry. He's now got four seconds to answer my long-winded question.''

During the commercial break, the next voice Mackay heard belonged to Tommy Roy, the executive golf producer at NBC.

''Bones, don't ever do that again.''

It was Roy who recognized the value experienced caddies could bring to a telecast. That's why he invited Mackay and John Wood, the caddie for Matt Kuchar, into the control room at the 2015 Houston Open so they could see how it all worked and how uncomfortable it can be to hear directions coming through an earpiece.

Both worked as on-course reporters at Sea Island that fall.

And when Mickelson and Mackay parted ways after 25 years, Roy scooped up the longtime caddie for TV.

It's common for players to move into broadcasting. Far more unusual is for a caddie to be part of the mix. Mackay loves his new job. Mostly, he loves how it has helped elevate his profession after so many years of caddies being looked upon more unfavorably than they are now.

''I want to be a caddie that's doing TV,'' he said. ''That's what I hope to come across as. The guys think this is good for caddies. And if it's good for caddies, that makes me happy. Because I'm a caddie. I'll always be a caddie.''

Not next week at Torrey Pines, where Mickelson won three times. Not a week later in Phoenix, where Mackay lives. Both events belong to CBS.

And not the Masters.

He hasn't missed Augusta since 1994, when Mickelson broke his leg skiing that winter.

''That killed me,'' he said, ''but not nearly as much as it's going to kill me this year. I'll wake up on Thursday of the Masters and I'll be really grumpy. I'll probably avoid television at all costs until the 10th tee Sunday. And I'll watch. But it will be, within reason, the hardest day of my life.''

There are too many memories, dating to when he was in the gallery right of the 11th green in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman. He caddied for Mize for two years, and then Scott Simpson in 1992, and Mickelson the rest of the way. He was on the bag for Lefty's three green jackets.

Mackay still doesn't talk much about what led them to part ways, except to say that a player-caddie relationship runs its course.

''If you lose that positive dynamic, there's no point in continuing,'' he said. ''It can be gone in six months or a year or five years. In our case, it took 25 years.''

He says a dozen or so players called when they split up, and the phone call most intriguing was from Roy at NBC.

''I thought I'd caddie until I dropped,'' Mackay said.

He never imagined getting yardages and lining up putts for anyone except the golfer whose bag he was carrying. Now it's for an audience that measures in the millions. Mackay doesn't look at it as a second career. And he won't rule out caddying again.

''It will always be tempting,'' he said. ''I'll always consider myself a caddie. Right now, I'm very lucky and grateful to have the job I do.''

Except for that first week in April.

Getty Images

The Social: The end was nigh, then it wasn't

By Jason CrookJanuary 16, 2018, 7:00 pm

The star power at the Sony Open may have been overshadowed by a missile scare, but there were plenty of other social media stories that kept the golf world on its toes this week, including some insight on Tiger Woods from a round with President Obama and some failed trick shots.

All that and more in this week's edition of The Social.

By now you've undoubtedly heard about the false alarm in Hawaii on Saturday, where just about everyone, including most Sony Open participants, woke up to an emergency cell phone alert that there was a ballistic missile heading toward the islands.

Hawaiian emergency management officials eventually admitted the original message was mistakenly sent out, but before they did, people (understandably) freaked out.

As the situation unfolded, some Tour pros took to social media to express their confusion and to let the Twittersphere know how they planned on riding out this threat:

While I would've been in that bathtub under the mattress with John Peterson, his wife, baby and in-laws (wait, how big is this tub?), here's how Justin Thomas reacted to the threat of impending doom:

Yeah, you heard that right.

“I was like ‘there’s nothing I can do,'” Thomas said. ”I sat on my couch and opened up the sliding door and watched TV and listened to music. I was like, if it’s my time, it’s my time.”

Hmmm ... can we just go ahead and award him all the 2018 majors right now? Because if Thomas is staring down death in mid-January, you gotta like the kid's chances on the back nine Sunday at Augusta and beyond.

Before the Hawaiian Missile Crisis of 2018, things were going about as well as they could at Waialae Country Club, starting with the Wednesday pro-am.

Jordan Spieth might have been the third-biggest star in his own group, after getting paired with superstar singer/songwriter/actor Nick Jonas and model/actress Kelly Rohrbach.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more photogenic group out on the course, and the "Baywatch" star has a gorgeous swing as well, which makes sense, considering she was a former collegiate golfer at Georgetown.

As impressive as that group was, they were somehow outshined by an amateur in another group, former NFL coach June Jones.

Jones, who now coaches the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats, played his round in bare feet and putted with his 5-iron, a remedy he came up with to battle the yips.

Former NFL and current CFL coach June Jones: A master of 5-iron putting?

A post shared by PGA TOUR (@pgatour) on

Considering he made back-to-back birdies at one point during the day, it's safe to say he's won that battle.

With Tiger Woods' return to the PGA Tour about a week away, that sound you hear is the hype train motoring full speed down the tracks.

First, his ex-girlfriend Lindsey Vonn told Sports Illustrated that she hopes this comeback works out for him.

“I loved him and we’re still friends. Sometimes, I wish he would have listened to me a little more, but he’s very stubborn and he likes to go his own way," the Olympic skiier said. "I hope this latest comeback sticks. I hope he goes back to winning tournaments.”

Vonn also mentioned she thinks Woods is very stubborn and that he didn't listen to her enough. That really shouldn't shock anyone who watched him win the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg. Don't think there were a lot of people in his ear telling him that was a great idea at the time.

We also have this report from Golf Channel Insider Tim Rosaforte, stating that the 14-time major champ recently played a round with former president Barack Obama at The Floridian in Palm City, Fla., where he received rave reviews from instructor Claude Harmon.

The Farmers Insurance Open is sure to be must-see TV, but until then, I'm here for all of the rampant speculation and guesses as to how things will go. The more takes the better. Make them extra spicy, please and thanks.

These poor New Orleans Saints fans. Guess the only thing you can do is throw your 65-inch TV off the balcony and get 'em next year.

Here's two more just for good measure.

Farts ... will they ever not be funny?

Perhaps someday, but that day was not early last week, when Tommy Fleetwood let one rip on his European teammates during EurAsia Cup team photos.

Fleetwood went 3-0-0 in the event, helping Europe to a victory over Asia, perhaps by distracting his opponents with the aid of his secret weapon.

Also, how about the diabolical question, "Did you get that?"

Yeah Tommy, we all got that.

Ahhh ... golf trick shot videos. You were fun while you lasted.

But now we’ve officially come to the point in their existence where an unsuccessful attempt is much more entertaining than a properly executed shot, and right on cue, a couple of pros delivered some epic fails.

We start with Sony Open runner-up James Hahn’s preparation for the event, where for some reason he thought he needed to practice a running, jumping, Happy Gilmore-esque shot from the lip of a bunker. It didn’t exactly work out.

Not to be outdone, Ladies European Tour pro Carly Booth attempted the juggling-drive-it-out-of-midair shot made famous by the Bryan Bros, and from the looks of things she might have caught it a little close to the hosel.

PSA to trick-shot artists everywhere: For the sake of the viewing public, if you feel a miss coming on, please make sure the camera is rolling.

Seriously, though, who cares? Definitely not these guys and gals, who took the time to comment, "who cares?" They definitely do not care.

Getty Images

Spieth selected by peers to run for PAC chairman

By Will GrayJanuary 16, 2018, 6:43 pm

Jordan Spieth may still be relatively young, but he has gained the confidence of some of the PGA Tour's most seasoned voices.

Spieth is one of two players selected by the current player directors of the Tour's Policy Board to run for Chairman of the Player Advisory Council (PAC). Spieth will face Billy Hurley III in an election that will end Feb. 13, with the leading vote-getter replacing Davis Love III next year on the Policy Board for a three-year term through 2021.

Last year's PAC chairman, Johnson Wagner, replaces Jason Bohn as a player director on the Policy Board beginning this year and running through 2020. Other existing player directors include Charley Hoffman (2017-19), Kevin Streelman (2017-19) and Love (2016-18).

The 16-member PAC advises and consults with the Policy Board and Tour commissioner Jay Monahan on "issues affecting the Tour."

In addition to Spieth and Hurley, other PAC members for 2018 include Daniel Berger, Paul Casey, Stewart Cink, Chesson Hadley, James Hahn, Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Anirban Lahiri, Geoff Ogilvy, Sam Saunders, Chris Stroud, Justin Thomas, Kyle Thompson and Cameron Tringale.

Getty Images

Florida golfers encounter python-wrapped alligator

By Grill Room TeamJanuary 16, 2018, 6:29 pm

Alligator sightings are pretty common on Southern golf courses - see here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Also, here. (RIP, Timmy the Turtle.)

But here's one that deserves distinction.

Those images come from the Golf Club at Fiddler's Creek, down in Naples - in case you're booking a vacation to Southwest Florida or just looking for a Hot Deal this week. Hit 'em straight, folks.