Paradise lost: Shaky start for big names at TOC

By Rex HoggardJanuary 6, 2017, 4:26 am

KAPALUA, Hawaii – Like most all-star tilts in professional sports, there’s rarely any defense at the SBS Tournament of Champions.

The winds that normally whistle up the mountainside off the Pacific Ocean at the year's lid-lifter, which is the closest thing golf has to a “midsummer classic,” were little more than a cooling breeze on Thursday on a Plantation Course that has been made even more vulnerable by heavy rains earlier in the week.

Idyllic views and fairways wide enough to hold even the most wayward shots, the Tournament of Champions is where pars go to die, and Day 1 at Kapalua didn’t disappoint.

Twenty-seven of the 32 players who made the trip to Maui were under par, led by Jimmy Walker, whose 8-under 65 included an eagle at the par-5 fifth hole and not even the hint of a bogey (he missed just one green).

It’s what the field has come to expect at the winners-only event, where the field average on a picturesque Thursday was 70.34 (par is 73).

Put an umbrella in an adult beverage and Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwoʻole’s “Over the Rainbow” on a loop and score becomes relative, not to par but to how the rest of the pack is picking apart the sprawling layout.

Like the leaderboard on Sunday at the Masters, things can change quickly on the Plantation Course. Consider that Ryan Moore got off to a less-than-stellar start with back-to-back pars, which at Kapalua is movement in the wrong direction. Three holes later Moore was 4 under par with eagles at Nos. 3 and 5 and on his way to an opening 67 that left him tied for second place with Jim Herman and Justin Thomas.

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Rookie Cody Gribble was in an even worse position following bogeys at the first and third holes, but finished his day at 4 under.

“You're reeling, no doubt,” Gribble said. “But I played much better after that, hit more fairways, had plenty of opportunities to make birdie. A little disappointed that I couldn't get to 5 or 6 [under], because that was right there to really push to 7.”

Only at Kapalua, which is Hawaiian for “go low,” or something like that, is a 4-under card after early miscues a score worth lamenting.

But low scores are part of the charm of the TOC, where Jordan Spieth scorched the field and the history books with a 30-under total and an eight-stroke romp last year.

There will be plenty of time for “good pars” and damage control as the season inches toward the major championships; for one week let them eat cake and enjoy the walk.

But then it wasn’t the scoring onslaught that was curious on Day 1, it was those who weren’t joining in the mayhem that stood out. With a few notable exceptions, the top of the game’s marquee got off to a more measured start than most of the rank and file.

It started with Spieth, who managed just two birdies on his outward loop and played his closing nine in 1 over par for a 72 to tie for 22nd.

“Looking at the board right now, somewhere in the low 20s is probably the winning score,” said Spieth, who in two previous starts at the TOC had just a single round in the 70s and was a combined 48 under par. “I need to try and shoot 7 [under] each day. It's certainly easier said than done, but we've also done it here before.”

But Spieth wasn’t the only star who didn’t exactly appear ready for primetime. Dustin Johnson, a former winner at Kapalua and the kind of bomber one would expect to feast on the defenseless course, rallied with a birdie at the last for a 4-under 69, but that was well off the pace set by Walker.

After more than three months of rest and rehabilitation, world No. 1 Jason Day bogeyed his second hole and carded a wild 70 that left him mired in the middle of the pack.

Although the Australian has plenty of room for improvement after being sidelined late last season with a back injury, he seemed pleased with his ball-striking if not his ability to score.

“The average winning score at this tournament is 22 under, so you’ve got to build on it each day and not make silly errors,” Day said. “If I can take out the errors tomorrow I can play some decent golf.”

But then “decent” golf really isn’t a recipe for success at the Tournament of Champions, particularly without the kona winds that normally gust across the former pineapple plantation.

A successful start to the new year requires a singular mindset and plenty of offense, just like every other all-star game.

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.