Thomas refuses to let disastrous hole derail him

By Rex HoggardJanuary 9, 2017, 2:26 am

KAPALUA, Hawaii – At no other stop is the style of victory as much a personality trait as it is at the SBS Tournament of Champions.

All 32 are champions, card-carrying members of the game’s most exclusive club and all are somewhat defined by those varied accomplishments.

William McGirt, for example, won the Memorial last June in a gutsy playoff for his first PGA Tour victory, a testament to perseverance and pluck; while Justin Thomas’ ticket to Kapalua was punched just a few weeks ago with an impressive three-stroke statement over red-hot Hideki Matsuyama at the CIMB Classic, a lofty victory to go along with all that untapped potential.

In simplest terms, you are what your victory says you are – be it a gritty journeyman or a prodigy with something to prove. So on Sunday with a fresh wind giving the Plantation Course some much-needed teeth, Thomas’ play and pluck spoke volumes.

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard, not when the 23-year-old began the final round with a two-stroke lead, a mountain of momentum and one of the most powerful swings pound-for-pound in the big leagues.

Thomas was virtually business-like for nine holes with birdies at Nos. 3, 5 and 8 to turn at 21 under and five strokes clear of McGirt. Matsuyama, widely considered the hottest player in golf at the moment following three victories in his last four global starts, stumbled early with a series of poor putts that would come back to haunt him.

That’s when things became interesting.

On Saturday, McGirt said he felt like he would have "putted better blindfolded.” When he four-putted the 10th hole from 49 feet on his way to a double bogey-6 the entire affair started to have a firing-squad air to it as the veteran faded from contention.

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At the Plantation Course, however, not even five up with nine to play is safe. The final loop began to resemble the final two minutes of an NBA game with three dramatic swings over the closing stretch.

The first came at the 14th hole when Matsuyama eagled the par 4 and Thomas could only manage a birdie. At the next hole, Thomas hit what he called a “fat-hooked” 4-iron into a hazard on his way to a double bogey-7.

“I told [caddie Jimmy Johnson] walking up to 17 tee, I was like, we would have taken this spot before the week started,” said Thomas, whose lead had been trimmed to a single stroke. “I was still playing great. I was hitting a lot of good shots. It was just a lot slimmer lead than it could have been.”

The final swing came at the 17th hole when Matsuyama three-putted from 29 feet for bogey and Thomas converted from 3 feet for birdie to pull a field goal clear.

For Thomas it was his third Tour victory and moves him into the top 15 in the world ranking. But just as it is with all victories, the subtext of his accomplishment was much more meaningful, if not a tad more difficult to quantify.

Infinitely talented and considered by many a future superstar, Thomas’ play hadn’t been as consistent as some would have expected, including Thomas. The golf swing has never been a question, but his ability to withstand the pressures of contending has been.

But on Sunday after his worst swing of the week on the 15th hole, he never showed any signs of frustration, not a hint of impatience.

“He didn’t even flinch. He didn’t say anything, he just keeps playing now,” Johnson said. “A year and a half ago he would have kept playing but there would have been more turmoil in his head. His head was clear the whole day.”

Thomas was not as kind when asked how he would have reacted to the dramatic turn of events on No. 15 just two years ago. “I probably would still be out there crying or whining about it,” he conceded with a smile and a shrug.

Instead, he’s now won twice in his first four starts of the 2016-17 season and solidified himself as one of the game’s established players. At 23, some would consider that ahead of schedule, but in some ways Thomas has suffered by association.

A longtime friend and frequent practice-round partner of Jordan Spieth, the external comparisons between the two always felt unfair, not because Thomas was an inferior player but because few in the history of the game have been able to develop, and deliver, as quickly as Spieth.

But moments after Spieth congratulated him for his victory on the Plantation Course’s 18th green, Thomas conceded the internal pressure had been the most difficult over his first two seasons on Tour.

“I wasn't mad, but it was maybe a little frustrating sometimes seeing some friends and peers my age do well,” Thomas said. “Not because I wasn't cheering for them, [but] because I feel like I was as good as them. It's just immature of me. I mean, the fact of the matter is, over the course of a long career, we're going to beat each other. That's just how it is.”

It was his victory in October at the CIMB Classic, his second consecutive triumph at the Asian stop, where Thomas said he started to truly feel comfortable in his Tour skin, but it will most likely be his three-stroke coronation at Kapalua that propels him to that coveted next level.

“I think it's potentially floodgates opening,” Spieth said of Thomas’ victory. “The guy hits it forever. He's got a really, really nifty short game. He manages the course well ... I’m really excited for him. It's awesome. He's going to be tough to beat next week [Sony Open], too.”

Each victory has a personality, and Thomas’ eventful triumph in Maui fits the new champion perfectly – confident, surprisingly cool and comfortable.

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Kelly, Sauers co-lead in Hawaii; Monty, Couples in mix

By Associated PressJanuary 19, 2018, 3:52 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Fresh off a solid performance on Oahu, Jerry Kelly shot an 8-under 64 on the Big Island on Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 51-year-old Kelly, who tied for 14th at the PGA Tour's Sony Open last week in Honolulu, birdied five of his final seven holes to shoot 30 on the back nine at Hualalai. He won twice last season, his first on the over-50 tour.

Gene Sauers also shot 64, going bogey-free amid calm conditions. Thirty-two of the 44 players broke par in the limited-field event, which includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Rocco Mediate and Colin Montgomerie were one shot back, and Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland and Kirk Triplett were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was in the middle of the pack after a 69.

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Rahm (62) fires career low round

By Will GrayJanuary 19, 2018, 12:03 am

The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:

Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)

What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.

Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.

Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.

Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.

Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.

Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.

Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm

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Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:45 pm

Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.

"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."

Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.

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Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.

"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."

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Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn

By Jason CrookJanuary 18, 2018, 11:40 pm

There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.

Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.

Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.

Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.


A post shared by Alex Noren (@alexnoren1) on

The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.

It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off for him.