Spieth faces difficult road toward second green jacket

By Rex HoggardApril 10, 2016, 3:26 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – It’s not supposed to be like this.

The Masters is the feel-good story to the drama that is the U.S. Open and the intrigue of the Open Championship.

Fans flock to Augusta National to rattle the pines with cheers, not recoil from one pile-up after another. But then, it was always going to be like this.

After Jordan Spieth ran the table in 2015 with an 18-under total that matched the tournament record, the seeds of spite were planted early and often heading into this year’s tournament.

On Tuesday players talked of greens with Sunday speeds, and the only sound that could be heard on Thursday was the hum of the Sub-Air system draining the putting surfaces of much-needed moisture.

We want birdies and eagles and heroic charges, but what we have been given is pars and bogeys and harried moments.

Even the man who would be king, Spieth, felt the cold sting of the tougher side of Augusta National this week. After cruising through a first-round 66 the world No. 2 has posted cards of 74-73 to set an intriguing Sunday stage.

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After opening his Masters career with nine consecutive at- or under-par rounds, Spieth has spent the last two blustery days trying to keep things together.

“I think it will be tough to put it behind me,” Spieth admitted. “I think I will, but that wasn't a fun last couple holes to play from the position I was in. I'm not going to dodge the question by any means. It's not going to be fun tonight for a little while, and hopefully I just sleep it off and it's fine tomorrow.”

It could have been a much different scenario.

With his second birdie of the day at No. 8, Spieth extended his lead to three strokes and appeared headed for another Sunday celebration like the one he enjoyed last year when he began the final round four strokes clear of the pack.

But things began to go sideways when he three-putted the 11th hole for double bogey, and he compounded the problem with a pair of wayward drives at Nos. 17 and 18 to finish bogey, double bogey for a 3-under total and a one-stroke lead.

Sunday will not be a “walk in the Georgia pines,” as Tom Watson waxed on Friday following his last Masters round, not with six players within three strokes and a Spieth game that is something less than 100 percent.

Unlike last year, Spieth won’t be able to play a prevent defense on Sunday, and that reality was etched into his face following a windswept day.

“With very little wind tomorrow, someone gets on a run and shoots 6, 7 under, I know I have to shoot a significant under-par round in order to win this tournament, when I could have played a different style of golf like I did on Sunday last year,” Spieth said.

Spieth could take some solace in the final act of this year’s Masters in his company atop a crowded leaderboard, if not the margin of his advantage.

PGA Tour rookie Smylie Kaufman is a stroke back and will be playing for the first time from the final pairing on Sunday after a round-best 69.

As unsteady as Spieth looked coming down the stretch in Round 3, Kaufman, with birdies at Nos. 13, 14 and 16, was the lone highlight from a day that offered few reasons to cheer.

Still, the 24-year-old acknowledged that heading out in the last two-ball with Spieth brings an entirely new set of challenges.

“He's probably 1000-0,” Kaufman said when asked his record against Spieth when the two played junior and amateur golf. “He's always beating me. Granted, he was so much better than I was as a junior and amateur. I was kind of a late bloomer in that regard.”

Although Kaufman rallied for his lone Tour victory earlier this season with a final-round 61, most will be looking to the likes of players named Matsuyama, Day, Johnson and Langer to push Spieth.

That’s right, Langer.

On Wednesday Gary Player was asked if he thought Jack Nicklaus’ record of being the oldest player to win the Masters at 46 would ever be broken and the Black Knight didn’t hold back.

“I've always said that a man at 50 would win the Masters and I was ridiculed,” Player railed. “Raymond Floyd needed to birdie No. 17 with a 9-iron, and he would have won the Masters at 49, nearly 50. Don't forget, Julius Boros won the PGA at 48. People forget about these things.”

On the 30th anniversary of Nicklaus’ historic victory in 1986, certainly no one would forget it if the 58-year-old German shattered a mark many still believe is unbreakable.

“If I play my best, I can shoot 4 or 5 under tomorrow, if the conditions are a little bit better,” Langer said. “But so can Jordan Spieth or any of the others on the leaderboard, so it all depends how the rest of the other 15 guys do. I can only play my game and see how that holds up.”

Of course, there is still a chance the stars align in the desired position and Spieth is challenged by those he is most often associated with, most notably Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. Until now it had been nothing more than water-cooler talk – theoretical debates with no right answer.

To be fair, McIlroy didn’t have his best stuff on a swirling Saturday, but on Day 3 at the Masters the metaphysical was given a healthy dollop of the material.

The esoteric debate over who, if both players are at their best, would prevail in a duel between Spieth and McIlroy – power vs. pure putting – now has a quantifiable data point.

Spieth clipped McIlroy, who struggled to find fairways and failed to make a single birdie, by four strokes after the Northern Irishman ballooned to a 77. That outcome, of course, means nothing in the big picture, Spieth will tell you as much.

Whatever confidence Spieth may have drawn from clipping McIlroy, who is five strokes off the lead, was quickly dismissed with a quick glance at a leaderboard as backed up as Sunday traffic on Washington Road.

Unlike last year’s romp to his first green jacket, Spieth will face a much more demanding and different test on this Sunday, both on the course and the leaderboard.

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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.