Woods, Westwood two realistic contenders Sunday

By Rex HoggardJuly 20, 2013, 8:51 pm

GULLANE, Scotland – This much seems certain, one way or another a major drought will end at the Dust Bowl Open on Sunday.

With respect to the pack, this has all the markings of a two-man race – one man looking to get off a five-year major schnied, the other hoping to reach the mountain after 40 years of major misses – on a golf course that is showing no signs of letting up despite the R&A’s best efforts with hoses.

He would never say as much, but when Tiger Woods sets out on Sunday in the penultimate group at the 142nd Open Championship it will mark his best chance to date to win what has turned out to be his most elusive major – No. 15.

Woods will start the final turn two strokes behind Lee Westwood, but if Saturday’s spell was any indication that could change in a matter of minutes.

Consider that Saturday’s action seemed to turn with each gust of wind. Through three holes Woods found himself two shots clear of Westwood and pacing the field, four holes later it was the Englishman three shots clear of the world No. 1.

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Call it a Muirfield minute, made possible by a crusty course blown so dry that the R&A may want to consider banning lighters and matches for fear the ancient links will accidentally combust.

Westwood emerged from the dust late Saturday, with birdies on two of his last four holes for a 68 and a 3-under total. It was almost enough to make one forget the lifetime of heartache Westwood has endured at the majors.

“I've had lots of chances, sometimes I've played well, other times I've played not too well,” Westwood said. “I know what it takes. Even though I haven't won a major, I know what it takes to win one. It's just a case of going out there tomorrow and having the confidence in my game, which I've got, and putting it to the test.”

As much focus has been on Westwood’s recent move to Sean Foley’s stable and a series of impromptu lessons from Ian Baker-Finch, it has been his attitude that has steadied his every step this week on the East Lothian links.

That was particularly evident on Saturday paired with Woods. Each time the game’s alpha male took a step in his direction, Westwood coolly countered. But on Sunday he will be playing history, as well as a bouncy links and the best player of his generation.

Westwood has finished in the top 3 at every major and his history of heartache includes a runner-up at the 2010 Masters and Open Championship and ties for third at the ’11 U.S. Open and ’12 Masters.

“You try and picture yourself winning the Open Championship tonight, but forget about it tomorrow and go and tee off down the first, and focus on it in the middle of the fairways with the first tee shot and then go from there,” he said late Saturday.

And besides, it’s not as though Woods’ Grand Slam record since 2008 is the stuff of legend. In his quest to win his 15th major, Woods has six top-10 finishes in his last 16 majors, but with each try the pressure has built.

There’s also the reality that Woods has never won a major when trailing after 54 holes, but then he hasn’t played a venue so uniquely suited to his skills since 2006 at Hoylake.

The brown and bouncy links have proven to be the perfect canvas for Woods, who has lived on a steady diet of fairway woods and long irons off tees – he hit his only driver this week on the par-5 fifth on Saturday – and near flawless ball-striking from the parched turf.

“I’m only two back with one guy ahead of me and we’ll see what they do tomorrow,” said Woods, whose round was marred late when his second shot into the par-5 17th hole “spun” into the cool wind and into a cross bunker.

Late Friday, the question du jour was who had the most pressure on them on Day 3, Woods or Westwood? But on the eve of the final round it will be who will handle the pressure on Sunday, because it will be inevitable.

“I’ve got 14 of these things,” Woods said. “I know what it takes to do it, but it’s not just us. There are a lot of guys who have a chance.”

Given Saturday’s turbulent leaderboard, Woods may have a point.

There are 16 players within six strokes of the lead, a margin of error at Muirfield that can be covered in a few holes if Saturday’s action was any indication.

Among the supporting cast, Hunter Mahan should draw the most attention following a round-of-the-day 68 on Saturday to move to 1 under par and earn a spot in the final tee time for the second consecutive major.

Although Mahan came up short last month at Merion, the ballstriker had the look of a player who had paid his dues and was ready to make that final major step.

“It can be overwhelming at times being in the last group,” said Mahan, who has one top-10 in eight Open starts. “You have to believe before you can win. I think you actually have to see it happening.”

Angel Cabrera, whose two PGA Tour wins are both majors, would also be considered a serious contender despite his third-round 73 that left him in a large group at 1 over; along with Zach Johnson, fresh off his own heartbreaking overtime loss last Sunday at the John Deere Classic, whose game also seems perfectly suited for the links exam.

Or maybe the gatecrasher will be Adam Scott, gutted at last year’s Open Championship by Ernie Els and suddenly looking more comfortable in the major spotlight after his Masters breakthrough.

All eyes, however, will be on Westwood and Woods, both playing for more than a date with the engraver and the claret jug. They will be separated by 10 minutes and a few hundred yards on Sunday at Muirfield, but this will be a mano-y-mano match. The only question is who blinks first?

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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.