Spieth's dominance begins, peaks in Georgia

By Rex HoggardSeptember 27, 2015, 11:47 pm

ATLANTA – It’s only fitting that Jordan Spieth would end his historic season just down Interstate-20 from where it essentially all began in April.

The 22-year-old king of the golf world went 2-for-2 in Georgia this season with his victory on Sunday at East Lake, a four-stroke statement that lacked the style points of his historic victory in April at Augusta National but provided an apropos exclamation point to what was already a breakout season.

As he has all year, Spieth made it look much easier than it actually was, grinding out a 1-under 69 to become the youngest FedEx Cup champion and the first Tour player to reach $12 million in earnings in a single season, lapping the old mark by more than $1 million.

“[Caddie Michael Greller] told me when we were going to the 18th tee box, ‘You did this with your head this week,’” said Spieth, who is now 4-for-8 in converting 54-hole leads. “He knew that I wasn’t comfortable over the ball, but we kept our head in it.” 

In completing the Georgia Slam, Spieth became the first player to win the Masters and Tour Championship in the same season. He also put a neat bow on what could have been a muddy ending both on and off a soggy East Lake layout.

Heading into the finale the background noise had reached a crescendo, with players split in a Player of the Year vote that until five weeks ago had been a foregone conclusion.

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But then Jason Day won The Barclays and the BMW Championship to add to his PGA Championship title, and while Spieth’s dominance wasn’t diminished the electorate was certainly divided.

On Saturday, however, Spieth did what Spieth has done all season, plod his way around a demanding golf course and convert crucial putts, like his 20-footer at the 54th hole to move one stroke clear of Henrik Stenson.

As expected, Sunday’s finale quickly turned into a two-man race for the Tour Championship hardware and the FedEx Cup riches with Spieth and Stenson keeping the field at bay with steady if not stellar play early.

After making just two bogeys in his first 54 holes, the Teflon talent rattled off back-to-back miscues in less than 15 minutes on Nos. 5 and 6, but Spieth rebounded with closing birdies at Nos. 8 and 9 to grab a two-shot lead in what appeared to be a nine-hole match for all the millions.

But the two-man race quickly became a coronation.

After trading birdies with Stenson at the 11th, Spieth slowly pulled away and played his final six holes in straight pars that were anything but routine.

After rolling in a 46-footer for birdie at the 11th, Spieth converted par putts from 9 feet after making a mess of the par-5 15th hole, 8 feet after finding a greenside bunker at No. 16 and 8 feet after being overly aggressive with his birdie attempt at the last. But by then the big check was already in the mail.

“Jordan was putting unbelievably well,” said Stenson, who closed with a 72 after making a double-bogey 6 at the 16th hole to tie for second. “Whenever he had to make a putt, he did it. He’s hard to beat on the greens, we know that. I just couldn’t keep pace with him today.”

Spieth finished third in total putts for the week and first in putts-made distance, averaging just under 8 feet per putt. But that’s nothing new for a player who has seemed to make every clutch putt he’s faced this season in Georgia and beyond.

While critics seem to focus on what Spieth can’t do, most notably a driver that left him ranked in the middle of the Tour pack (he finished the year 78th out of 184 players in driving distance), his clutch putting and a clarity of thought that transcends his 22 years separated him in 2014-15.

Earlier in the week Jason Day joked that if Spieth and McIlroy had a baby, he would be it. After the way he turned the playoffs into a chess match Heir Jordan had the look of a Tiger Woods-Bobby Fischer hybrid.

With his spot inside the top five on the FedEx Cup points list locked up through to the Tour Championship, Spieth organized his priorities accordingly, conserving energy until he arrived at East Lake even if that meant relatively pedestrian performances at the first three postseason stops.

“Like I said before New York, everything now is to prepare to peak in Atlanta,” Spieth said. “Approach Atlanta like a major championship. The whole year it's been about the major championships, and I consider this to be the fifth one at the end.”

After missing back-to-back cuts to begin the playoffs at The Barclays and Deutsche Bank Championship for the first time in his Tour career, Spieth seemed to get back to work last week with a tie for 13th at the BMW Championship that set the stage for East Lake.

The payoff for Spieth was an astronomical payday. Beyond his $12 million in earnings he also collected the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus. That’s $22 million in 25 starts, or $880,000 per event.

But it was the victory, his fifth this season, that finally quieted the Player of the Year debate and propelled him back to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking that meant the most to Spieth.

As he made his way down the hill to the 18th green on Sunday, his tee shot safely on the green and his status as the game’s alpha male soundly reestablished, it was a moment Greller wanted to savor.

“I said, ‘Hey, you’re No. 1 in the world again.’ He said, ‘That’s why you keep your self belief,’” Greller said. “You hear all the noise. That’s why you block that out and believe in yourself. You’re trying to peak this week and that’s what he did.”

It was a perfect ending to what was a nearly perfect year that began and fittingly ended at a pair of Georgia gems.

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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.

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Tour's Integrity Program raises gambling questions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 17, 2018, 7:00 pm

The video begins with an eye-opening disclaimer: “Sport betting markets produce revenues of $1 trillion each year.”

For all the seemingly elementary elements of the 15-minute video PGA Tour players have been required to watch as part of the circuit’s newly created Integrity Program, it’s the enormity of the industry – $1 trillion annually – that concerns officials.

There are no glaring examples of how sport betting has impacted golf, no red flags that sent Tour officials into damage control; just a realization that with that kind of money it’s best to be proactive.

“It's important that in that world, you can operate not understanding what's happening week in and week out, or you can assume that all of our players and everybody in our ecosystem understands that that's not an acceptable activity, or you can just be proactive and clarify and educate,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan explained earlier this month. “That's what we have attempted to do not with just the video, but with all of our communication with our players and will continue to do that.”

But if clarification is the goal, a copy of the training video obtained by GolfChannel.com paints a different picture.

Although the essence of the policy is straightforward – “prohibit players from betting on professional golf” – the primary concern, at least if the training video is any indication, is on match fixing; and warns players to avoid divulging what is considered “inside information.”

“I thought the questions were laughable. They were all like first-grade-level questions,” Chez Reavie said. “I would like to think everyone out here already knows the answer to those questions. But the Tour has to protect themselves.”

Monahan explained that the creation of the integrity policy was not in reaction to a specific incident and every player asked last week at the Sony Open said they had never encountered any type of match fixing.

“No, not at all,” Reavie said. “I have friends who will text me from home after a round, ‘Oh, I bet on you playing so-and-so.’ But I make it clear I don’t want to know. I don’t gamble like that. No one has ever approached me about losing a match.”

It was a common answer, but the majority of the video focuses on how players can avoid being placed in a compromising situation that could lead to match fixing. It should be noted that gamblers can place wagers on head-to-head matchups, provided by betting outlets, during stroke-play rounds of tournaments – not just in match-play competitions.

Part of the training video included questions players must answer to avoid violating the policy. An example of this was how a player should respond when asked, “Hello, buddy! Well played today. I was following your progress. I noticed your partner pulled out of his approach on 18, looked like his back. Is he okay for tomorrow?”

The correct answer from a list of options was, “I don’t know, sorry. I’m sure he will get it looked at if it’s bothering him.”

You get the idea, but for some players the training created more questions.

How, for example, should a player respond when asked how he’s feeling by a fan?

“The part I don’t understand, let’s say a member of your club comes out and watches you on the range hitting balls, he knows you’re struggling, and he bets against you. Somehow, some way that could come back to you, according to what I saw on that video,” said one player who asked not to be identified.

Exactly what constitutes a violation is still unclear for some who took the training, which was even more concerning considering the penalties for a violation of the policy.

The first violation is a warning and a second infraction will require the player to retake the training program, but a third violation is a fine “up to $500,000” or “the amount illegally received from the betting activity.” A sixth violation is a lifetime ban from the Tour.

Players are advised to be mindful of what they post on social media and to “refrain from talking about odds or betting activity.” The latter could be an issue considering how often players discuss betting on other sports.

Just last week at the Sony Open, Kevin Kisner and Justin Thomas had a “friendly” wager on the College Football Playoff National Championship. Kisner, a Georgia fan, lost the wager and had to wear an Alabama football jersey while playing the 17th hole last Thursday.

“If I'd have got the points, he'd have been wearing [the jersey], and I was lobbying for the points the whole week, and he didn't give them to me,” Kisner said. “So I'm still not sure about this bet.”

It’s unclear to some if Kisner’s remark, which was a joke and didn’t have anything to do with golf, would be considered a violation. From a common sense standpoint, Kisner did nothing wrong, but the uncertainty is an issue.

Much like drug testing, which the Tour introduced in 2008, few, if any, think sport betting is an issue in golf; but also like the anti-doping program, there appears to be the danger of an inadvertent and entirely innocent violation.

The Tour is trying to be proactive and the circuit has a trillion reasons to get out in front of what could become an issue, but if the initial reaction to the training video is any indication they may want to try a second take.

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Lexi looks to shine as LPGA season begins next week

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 6:06 pm

Lexi Thompson may be No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in so many ways she became the new face of the women’s game last year.

That makes her the headliner in a fairly star-studded season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic next week.

Three of the top four players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to tee it up on Paradise Island, including world No. 1 Shanshan Feng and co-Rolex Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu.

From the heartache at year’s start with the controversial loss at the ANA Inspiration, through the angst in the middle of the year with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, to the stunning disappointment at year’s end, Thompson emerged as the story of the year because of all she achieved in spite of those ordeals.

Next week’s event will mark the first time Thompson tees it up in an LPGA tournament since her season ended in stunning fashion last November with a missed 2-foot putt that cost her a chance to win the CME Group Tour Championship and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and become the world No. 1.

She still walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average.

She also walked away sounding determined to show she will bounce back from that last disappointment the same way she bounced back from her gut-wrenching loss at the year’s first major, the ANA, where a four-shot Sunday penalty cost her a chance to win her second major.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds ... it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said leaving the CME Group Tour Championship. “This won’t either.”

Thompson was named the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year in a vote of GWAA membership. Ryu and Sung Hyun Park won the tour’s points-based Rolex Player of the Year Award.

With those two victories and six second-place finishes, three of those coming after playoff losses, Thompson was close to fashioning a spectacular year in 2017, to dominating the tour.

The new season opens with Thompson the center of attention again. Consistently one of the tour’s best ball strikers and longest hitters, she enjoyed her best year on tour last season by making dramatic improvements in her wedge play, short game and, most notably, her putting.

She doesn’t have a swing coach. She fashioned a better all-around game on her own, or under the watchful eye of her father, Scott. All the work she put in showed up in her winning the Vare Trophy.

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will also feature defending champion Brittany Lincicome, as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, I.K. Kim, Danielle Kang and Charley Hull.