Putting a wrap on a stellar West Coast swing

By Rex HoggardFebruary 23, 2016, 1:00 pm

LOS ANGELES – Before the year’s final redeye flight, it’s time for a few West Coast revelations. From Maui to Monterey, the PGA Tour’s annual Left Coast swing didn’t disappoint.

Most improved. When the WGC-Match Play Championship packed up and headed east (Austin, Texas) for the warmer confines of spring it left a hole in the West Coast lineup that was filled by the circuit’s annual soiree to Tinsel Town.

With five of the world’s top 10 players and 60 world ranking points going to the Northern Trust Open winner, the Los Angeles stop wasn’t just the best event on the West Coast this year, but the deepest field in golf in 2016.

“This is definitely going to be a regular for me on the schedule going forward. I really enjoyed it so much,” said Rory McIlroy, who played Riviera for the first time. “The golf course is great, but the area, staying in Santa Monica and having the beach there, there's so many great things to do.”

West Coast dreaming. Whether you count Hideki Matsuyama’s victory over Rickie Fowler at the Waste Management Phoenix Open as an upset – the Japanese player was ranked 19th in the world when he outdueled Fowler in a playoff – the Left Coast produced its share of surprise champions.

Fabian Gomez stunned Brandt Snedeker to win the Sony Open and Vaughn Taylor (above) won for the first time in more than a decade at Pebble Beach when he finished a stroke ahead of four-time Crosby winner Phil Mickelson.

The new time zones also helped change the narrative for the 30-somethings. Five of the seven West Coast winners were in there 30s, including the last two Watson (37) and Taylor (39).

Bon Appétit. West Coast exit fare normally starts with fish tacos at the Brigantine in Del Mar, Calif., the week of the Farmers Insurance Open, and ends with a late-night dinner at In-N-Out Burger (double-double, animal-style, please).

But new digs emerged this year at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Slappy Cakes in Lahaina, Hawaii, is worth the 13-hour trip from the East Coast.

The Hawaiian pancakes with banana, pineapple, macadamia nuts and whipped cream are the perfect remedy for jetlag.

Tale of two Jordans. Jordan Spieth won by eight strokes to start his year in Maui and missed the cut by five shots after an opening-round 79 at Riviera.

In between he showed flashes of inspired play mixed with mediocre results, all of which seemed to be the likely byproduct of a hectic schedule that stretched from Hawaii to the United Arab Emirates and back to California.

Bounding up the hill two steps at a time following his second-round 68 at Riviera, however, he seemed to suggest he wasn’t too worried as golf inches toward the major championship season.

“I guess Rory is considering this the start of his run to the Masters. This was not my start to the run at the Masters. Mine will start the next time,” he smiled.

Something Left. For a guy who has won more on the West Coast than anyone not named Tiger, Phil Mickelson likely wouldn’t consider this year’s swing a victory, be it moral or otherwise.

But after a difficult few years, his tie for third at the CareerBuilder Challenge and runner-up showing at Pebble Beach were signs of progress for a player that doesn’t have much left to prove.

Torrey tough. Snedeker likely shot the round of the year (69) in brutal conditions on Sunday at the Farmers Insurance Open, not that many will remember by the time we reach September.

To put Sneds’ final round in perspective, he beat the field average by 8.9 strokes, which was the most shots better than the field by a winner in the last 20 years on Tour.

“It's like playing a British Open on a U.S. Open setup. This course is so tough, it's blowing 25 mph, gusting out there and windy and rainy conditions, it's really tough,” Snedeker said following his final round.

Snedeker had to wait nearly 24 hours after completing his round before being able to hoist the hardware, but at least he wasn’t on that golf course any longer.

Maui magic. They say timing is everything, which should be good news for the folks at Kapalua who enjoyed the deepest field in a decade as well as an endearing champion in Spieth.

After Hyundai announced it would replace Northern Trust as a title sponsor of the Los Angeles stop next year, that left the folks in Maui searching for a replacement title.

The good news for fans of sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and whale watching is after one of its most successful years in recent memory the Tour’s year opener will be an easier sell to any potential replacement.

405’ed. Kudos to the Northern Trust Open folks and tournament director O.D. Vincent for transforming the L.A. stop into a must-play event, but logistically the tournament ranks just behind the likes of Bethpage Black and Merion in degree of difficulty.

There’s not an event on Tour that challenges one’s patience, both on and off the golf course, like Riviera.

“If someone compares the traffic in [Atlanta] with LA you know one thing about that person. They've either never been to [Atlanta] or never been to LA,” Roberto Castro tweeted on Friday.

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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.

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That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.

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Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.

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The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”