Nice guy Spieth wins Masters in cold-blooded fashion

By Rex HoggardApril 13, 2015, 1:12 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Those prone to sentimentality or encumbered by hair-trigger waterworks should reach for the Kleenex now.

Twenty years after Jordan Spieth’s mentor and hero Ben Crenshaw won an emotional Masters following the death of his swing coach, Harvey Penick, the 21-year-old pulled off every shot that mattered and on every heartstring.

As Crenshaw was completing his 44th and final Masters on Friday a light splash of rain began to fall, thunder rumbled in the distance and the crowd gasped.

Sappy stuff, but the moment wasn’t lost on Spieth, who is every bit the sentimental soul. He’s the kind of guy who cherishes spending time with his special-needs sister, Ellie; doesn’t like to talk about how humble he is because that wouldn’t be humble; and corrected one scribe this week who asked him about “Ben,” with a pointedly polite, “You’re talking about Mr. Crenshaw, right?”

Ben Hogan, the quintessential Texan and two-time Masters champion, would have hated this. That is, the Hawk would hate the symmetry, the fawning and the niceties – not Spieth’s clinical, some would even say cold, dismantling of the 97-player field as well as the storied 18-hole field in record fashion.

One would imagine Hogan appreciating the kid’s second shot at the par-5 13th hole from 204 yards to 14 feet. “Go, go, go hard, go,” yelled Spieth, who would birdie the hole to go from four clear to a cool five-stroke advantage with five to play.

A heart of gold, the head of an assassin.

And the glare. Hogan – dubbed the Hawk for his icy gaze – would have loved that glare.

“When I first met him, I tell you, I'll never forget it. I looked right at him and he looked at me and I thought I was looking at Wyatt Earp. He just had that look about him, just wonderful,” Crenshaw said.

With eyes filled with tears the young man who would have been a senior at the University of Texas this year had he not gone the one-and-done route hugged most everyone in the family tree after putting out on the 18th green, and the enormity of his accomplishment closed in all around him.

In ’95, after his second Masters victory, the Gatlin Brothers serenaded Crenshaw on the veranda of the old clubhouse. On Friday, the group performed at his farewell party, bringing the house down with a chorus of “The Eyes of Texas.”

At this rate, the iconic tune will become Spieth’s anthem.

For the record, Spieth became the second-youngest Masters champion, behind Tiger Woods; set the 36-, 54- and 72-hole scoring records with rounds of 64-66-70-70, and became the first player in Masters history to reach 19 under par when he birdied the 15th hole on Sunday.

It was a dominant performance from the outset. Heading out in Sunday’s final group – just as he did last year – four strokes clear, he was expected to play defense.

It’s what 21-year-olds do with a green jacket hanging in the balance.

Instead, he birdied two of his first three holes and added one more before the turn to build his advantage.

Remember when Nick Faldo won the 1987 Open Championship with 18 pars on Sunday? Yeah, this wasn’t like that.

Justin Rose, playing with Spieth in the day’s final pairing, made a run with back-to-back birdies to start his round; Phil Mickelson tried to threaten on the closing nine with an eagle at No. 15, but they always needed help and as kind a soul as Spieth is he wasn’t interested in charity on Sunday.

Under that kind exterior is a player with an edge, a chip on his shoulder forged after he began the final round last year at the Masters tied with Bubba Watson only to card a 72 and join the bridesmaids. There was also last week’s playoff loss to J.B. Holmes at the Shell Houston Open to consider.

“I was already hungry from last year having already had an opportunity and watched it slip away and watched Bubba win and everything that came with Bubba being the Masters champion,” he said. “That definitely left me hungry.”

Spieth’s performance at least temporarily suspended the thread that the Masters had become a long-drive contest, won by those willing to swing with abandon particularly if they do so from the left side of the ball. But Spieth, like his mentor Crenshaw, won the Putting Invitational the old-fashioned way, on the greens.

For 72 holes, Spieth was nearly flawless on Augusta National’s flawless putting surfaces, holing crucial putts every time the moment called for heroics. None was bigger than his twisting 20-footer for birdie at the 10th hole to move six shots clear of the world and set the Masters record for most birdies in a week (26).

“He steps up to every putt and thinks it’s going in. He’s not afraid of any putts,” Spieth’s caddie Michael Greller said. “When he has nerves, that motivates him in a very positive way.”

That Mickelson was able to record his 10th runner-up finish in a major championship after more than a year of putting woes is a testament to Lefty’s abilities as a quick study.

Following an opening 70, Mickelson reconnected with putting coach Dave Stockton Sr. on Friday with predictably prolific results. For the week, he had just four three-putts and his putting average improved each day.

At 44, Mickelson continues to be reinvigorated by the smell of dogwoods and the lure of a fourth green jacket. What else could explain how a player with just a single top-10 finish in his last 29 Tour starts can play the year’s first major with such confidence?

“The fact is, I would have taken 14 under at the start of the week. I would have been happy with that,” Mickelson said. “I've played really well to shoot 14 under and I just simply got outplayed by a young player who just played some incredible golf.”

The other half of the marquee, Woods and Rory McIlroy, also began Sunday with great expectations but quickly settled into an inglorious duel for “B” flight honors.

The two had a best-ball score of 65, which still wouldn’t have been enough to catch Heir Jordan on Sunday.

Still, the high-profile twosome provided an interesting juxtaposition. McIlroy’s fourth-place finish was still well short of an appointment in Butler Cabin after he began the week on the cusp of the career Grand Slam.

“I wish I would have finished off a little bit better. But happy with how I played over the last couple of days,” said McIlroy, who, for the fifth consecutive year, carded a nine in the 40s at Augusta National on Friday. “I obviously left myself with a bit too much to do after 27 holes of this tournament and that's what really cost me.”

Likewise, Woods, playing his first event since he withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open in February, wasn’t reciting his “second sucks” motto following rounds of 73-69-68-73 to finish tied for 17th place, his first top-20 finish on the Tour since the 2013 BMW Championship.

“It was mostly positives,” said Woods, who had a brush with a tree root on the ninth hole that caused a few anxious moments but appeared unscathed afterwards.

“You saw the state of my short game at the time, because again I was caught in between two different patterns. But now my short game’s my strength again, which is good stuff.”

Of course, in retrospect he may become less optimistic considering how dominant Spieth was in just his second Masters start.

Not only did Spieth win in record fashion but he did so with a cast of contenders behind him that had collected a combined 10 major championships (not counting Tiger’s 14). But with last year’s finish – not to mention that runner-up in Houston – driving him, the nicest guy in golf turned in the meanest of performances.

“He wanted so badly to come back right away after what happened last year and we all believed in him,” Spieth’s father Shawn said. “You can see it in his eyes.”

Kind and caring, cold and calculating - it’s all in the Texas eyes.

Getty Images

Match Play security tightens after Austin bombings

By Rex HoggardMarch 19, 2018, 8:06 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – A fourth bombing this month in Austin injured two men Sunday night and authorities believe the attacks are the work of a serial bomber.

The bombings have led to what appears to be stepped-up security at this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club.

“I was out here [Sunday]; typically that's the most relaxed day. But they had security officials on every corner of the clubhouse and on the exterior, as well,” said Dylan Frittelli, who lives in Austin and is playing the Match Play for the first time this week. “It was pretty tough to get through all the protocols. I'm sure they'll have stuff in place.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

The PGA Tour told The Associated Press on Monday that it doesn't comment on the specifics of its security measures, but that the safety of players and fans is its top priority. The circuit is also coordinating closely with law enforcement to ensure the safety of players and fans.

Despite the bombings, which have killed two people and injured two others, the Tour has not yet reached out to players to warn of any potential threat or advise the field about increased security.

“It’s strange,” Paul Casey said. “Maybe they are going to, but they haven’t.”

Getty Images

Rosaforte Report: Faxon helps 'free' McIlroy's mind and stroke

By Tim RosaforteMarch 19, 2018, 8:00 pm

With all the talk about rolling back the golf ball, it was the way Rory McIlroy rolled it at the Arnold Palmer Invitational that was the story of the week and the power surge he needed going into the Masters.

Just nine days earlier, a despondent McIlroy missed the cut at the Valspar Championship, averaging 29 putts per round in his 36 holes at Innisbrook Resort. At Bay Hill, McIlroy needed only 100 putts to win for the first time in the United States since the 2016 Tour Championship.

The difference maker was a conversation McIlroy had with putting savant Brad Faxon at The Bears Club in Jupiter, Fl., on Monday of API week. What started with a “chat,” as McIlroy described it, ended with a resurrection of Rory’s putting stroke and set him free again, with a triumphant smile on his face, headed to this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and Augusta National in two weeks.

The meeting with Faxon made for a semi-awkward moment for McIlroy, considering he had been working with highly-regarded putting coach Phil Kenyon since missing the cut in the 2016 PGA Championship. From “pathetic” at Baltusrol, McIlroy became maker of all, upon the Kenyon union, and winner of the BMW Championship, Tour Championship and FedExCup.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

As a professional courtesy, Faxon laid low, respecting McIlroy’s relationship with Kenyon, who also works with European stars Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Tommy Fleetwood and Henrik Stenson. Knowing how McIlroy didn’t like the way Dave Stockton took credit after helping him win multiple majors, Faxon let McIlroy do the talking. Asked about their encounter during his Saturday news conference at Bay Hill, McIlroy called it “more of a psychology lesson than anything else.”

“There was nothing I told him he had never heard before, nothing I told him that was a secret,” Faxon, who once went 327 consecutive holes on Tour without a three-putt, said on Monday. “I think (Rory) said it perfectly when he said it allowed him to be an athlete again. We try to break it down so well, it locks us up. If I was able to unlock what was stuck, he took it to the next level. The thing I learned, there can be no method of belief more important than the athlete’s true instinct.”

Without going into too much detail, McIlroy explained that Faxon made him a little more “instinctive and reactive.” In other words, less “mechanical and technical.” It was the same takeaway that Gary Woodland had after picking Faxon’s brain before his win in this year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Sunday night, after leading the field in strokes gained-putting, McIlroy was more elaborative, explaining how Faxon “freed up my head more than my stroke,” confessing that he was complicating things a bit and was getting less athletic.

“You look at so many guys out there, so many different ways to get the ball in the hole,” he said. “The objective is to get the ball in the hole and that’s it. I think I lost sight of that a little bit.”

All of this occurred after a conversation I had Sunday morning with swing instructor Pete Cowen, who praised Kenyon for the work he had done with his player, Henrik Stenson. Cowen attributed Henrik’s third-round lead at Bay Hill to the diligent work he put in with Kenyon over the last two months.

“It’s confidence,” Cowen said. “(Stenson) needs a good result for confidence and then he’s off. If he putts well, he has a chance of winning every time he plays.”

Cowen made the point that on the PGA Tour, a player needs 100-110 putts per week – or an average of 25-27 putts per round – to have a chance of winning. Those include what Cowen calls the “momentum putts,” that are especially vital in breaking hearts at this week’s WGC-Dell Match Play.

Stenson, who is not playing this week in Austin, Texas, saw a lot of positives but admitted there wasn’t much he could do against McIlroy shooting 64 on Sunday in the final round on a tricky golf course.

“It's starting to come along in the right direction for sure,” Stenson said. “I hit a lot of good shots out there this week, even though maybe the confidence is not as high as some of the shots were, so we'll keep on working on that and it's a good time of the year to start playing well.”

Nobody knows that better than McIlroy, who is hoping to stay hot going for his third WGC and, eventually, the career Grand Slam at Augusta.

Getty Images

Golf's Olympic format, qualifying process remain the same

By Rex HoggardMarch 19, 2018, 6:25 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Potential Olympic golfers for the 2020 Games in Tokyo were informed on Monday that the qualification process for both the men’s and women’s competitions will remain unchanged.

According to a memo sent to PGA Tour players, the qualification process begins on July 1, 2018, and will end on June 22, 2020, for the men, with the top 59 players from the Olympic Golf Rankings, which is drawn from the Official World Golf Ranking, earning a spot in Tokyo (the host country is assured a spot in the 60-player field). The women’s qualification process begins on July 8, 2018, and ends on June 29, 2020.

The format, 72-holes of individual stroke play, for the ’20 Games will also remain unchanged.

The ’20 Olympics will be held July 24 through Aug. 9, and the men’s competition will be played the week before the women’s event at Kasumigaseki Country Club.

Getty Images

Webb granted U.S. Women's Open special exemption

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 6:22 pm

Karrie Webb's streak of consecutive appearances at the U.S. Women's Open will continue this summer.

The USGA announced Monday that the 43-year-old Aussie has been granted a special exemption into this year's event, held May 31-June 3 at Shoal Creek in Alabama. Webb, a winner in both 2000 and 2001, has qualified for the event on merit every year since 2011 when her 10-year exemption for her second victory ended.

"As a past champion, I'm very grateful and excited to accept the USGA's special exemption into this year's U.S. Women's Open," Webb said in a release. "I have always loved competing in the U.S. Women's Open and being tested on some of the best courses in the country."

Webb has played in the tournament every year since 1996, the longest such active streak, meaning that this summer will mark her 23rd consecutive appearance. She has made the U.S. Women's Open cut each of the last 10 years, never finishing outside the top 50 in that span.

Webb's exemption is the first handed out by the USGA since 2016, when Se Ri Pak received an invite to play at CordeValle. Prior to that the two most recent special exemptions went to Juli Inkster (2013) and Laura Davies (2009). The highest finish by a woman playing on a special exemption came in 1994, when Amy Alcott finished sixth.