JT's 'terrible' week has happy ending

By Rex HoggardJanuary 16, 2017, 5:01 am

HONOLULU – If this began as the worst week of Justin Thomas’ life, just imagine what a good week would look like.

To be completely accurate, following Alabama’s loss in Monday’s national championship game Thomas tweeted, “Without a doubt most upset I've ever been in my life. Just hate to see those guys lose that game after a great season. Congrats to Clemson.”

That he was less than 24 hours removed from his third PGA Tour victory, a three-stroke gem at the SBS Tournament of Champions, was reason to dismiss Thomas’ musings as a heat-of-the-moment lapse. That he was less than seven days away from his second consecutive appointment with a victory lei only served to highlight the emotional ebb and flow of his fortnight in Hawaii.

Even after he opened with an 11-under 59 to become just the seventh player in PGA Tour history to post a sub-60 round, the Crimson Tide’s loss lingered.

“We talked about it all week,” said Trey Mullinax, Thomas’ roommate for the week on Oahu and a former teammate at Alabama. “It wasn’t until solid Wednesday, both of us had a hard time with that. Deep down it was about Wednesday until he was fully over it.”

In fact, it was probably all the way to the starting bell on Thursday before Thomas’ mind was able to wrest free from the heavy thoughts of Alabama’s loss.

But they faded quickly.

He chipped in for eagle from 34 yards at his first hole of the week (No. 10), rolled in a bookend 15-footer for eagle to complete his historic opening round and never looked back.

For the week, Thomas matched the first-round 18-hole Tour scoring record (Paul Goydos is the only other player to begin a tournament with a 59), broke the 36-hole record (123), tied the 54-hole mark (188) and closed his week with a birdie at the 18th for a final-round 65 and 27-under 253 total, which eclipsed the circuit’s 72-hole standard.

But it was another footnote in history that Thomas spent the better part of Sunday morning mulling. Told on the eve of the final round that no player had ever lost a lead of seven or more strokes the noise became deafening.

“I was more nervous teeing off today then I was in the other [wins],” said Thomas, who won for the third time in his last four Tour starts and his fourth big league tilt. “I had to turn off Twitter, I couldn't look anymore. It was just like, no one has ever lost a seven-shot lead, no one has ever lost a seven-shot lead. I'm like, I go out and play OK, a bad break here and there, if someone shoots 9 under, I lose.”

Thomas said he planned to play the final round with a “smart aggressive” approach, and his first nine holes, a bogey, two birdies and six pars, certainly qualified.

With his lead trimmed to five strokes, however, Thomas delivered with a grit that even Mason Crosby, the Green Bay kicker who deep sixed the Dallas Cowboys just as the leaders were making the turn in Hawaii, would be proud of.

He birdied the 11th hole to go six ahead, added another at No. 12 to jump eight clear and when he birdied the 14th hole he took a staggering nine-shot advantage. By the time he made his way up the 18th fairway it wasn’t the field that Thomas was thinking about, it was the 72-hole record.

“I was telling [caddie Michael Greller] out there, honestly it felt like we were playing a different tournament. I honestly felt like I was trying to win the tournament for second place,” smiled Jordan Spieth, who closed with a 63 to finish alone in third place. “JT is just pretty unbelievable what he's doing right now. He's got full control of his game, full confidence, and he's executing under pressure.”

In a twist to the duo’s friendship, a creative jokester turned the sign around marking Spieth’s parking spot at Kapalua last week and scribbled “Golden Child,” which is Spieth’s nickname on Tour. Some believe the most likely culprit was Thomas, although he hasn’t taken credit for the gag.

After playing eight rounds in Hawaii in 49 under to become the first player to claim the Aloha Slam since Ernie Els in 2003, it is now Thomas whose turning everything he touches to gold.

Like the other members of the high school class of 2011, a growing list that includes Spieth and Daniel Berger, Thomas has never wanted for confidence. He always knew he was capable of this kind of golf, vividly envisioned joining Spieth and the other members of the game’s elite atop the marquee, but until he beat Hideki Matsuyama, arguably the hottest player in the world at the time, at last fall’s CIMB Classic he was somewhat lost in the mix of up-and-coming players.

“I've always felt like I had the game to do so,” said Thomas, who moved to eighth in the world. “You can't expect wins or you can't be like, look, I'm going into this event and I should win this. It's more of just like, I'm playing well enough, if I manage everything well and I'm smart out there, I should have a chance to win.”

Both Thomas’ caddie Jimmy Johnson and his father, Mike, have seen the transition over the last few months from anxious prodigy to a player at ease with the spotlight and pressure that comes with winning.

“His confidence is crazy, he’s more comfortable in that situation now and his patience level is much better,” Mike Thomas said. “He expected to win before, but that’s easy to say when you haven’t won, but once you start winning it gets easier.”

As he celebrated with the Waialae members late into a balmy January night, that gutting loss in the national championship game seemed a lifetime away; but it turns out Clemson’s upset wasn’t the only lowlight of Thomas’ week. Each night he and Mullinax would pass the time playing gin.

“I’ve been kicking his butt. I’m the only person kicking his butt this week,” Mullinax laughed.

So, it turns out there was room for improvement.

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Ortiz takes Web.com Tour clubhouse lead in Bahamas

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 16, 2018, 2:19 am

Former Web.com Tour Player of the Year Carlos Ortiz shot a bogey-free, 4-under-par 68 Monday to take the clubhouse lead in The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay.

Four other players - Lee McCoy, Brandon Matthews, Sung Jae Im and Mark Anderson - were still on the course and tied with Ortiz at 6-under 210 when third-round play was suspended by darkness at 5:32 p.m. local time. It is scheduled to resume at 7:15 a.m. Tuesday.

Ortiz, a 26-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, is in search of his fourth Web.com Tour victory. In 2014, the former University of North Texas standout earned a three-win promotion on his way to being voted Web.com Tour Player of the Year.

McCoy, a 23-year-old from Dunedin, Fla., is looking to become the first player to earn medalist honors at Q-School and then win the opening event of the season.

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Randall's Rant: Can we please have some rivalries?

By Randall MellJanuary 16, 2018, 12:00 am

Memo to the golf gods:

If you haven’t finalized the fates of today’s stars for the new year, could we get you to deliver what the game has lacked for so long?

Can we get a real, honest-to-goodness rivalry?

It’s been more than two decades since the sport has been witness to one.

With world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship this week, an early-season showdown would percolate hope that this year might be all about rivalries.

It seems as if the stars are finally aligned to make up for our long drought of rivalries, of the recurring clashes you have so sparingly granted through the game’s history.

We’re blessed in a new era of plenty, with so many young stars blossoming, and with Tiger Woods offering hope he may be poised for a comeback. With Johnson, McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler among today’s dynamic cast, the possibility these titans will time their runs together on the back nine of Sundays in majors excites.

We haven’t seen a real rivalry since Greg Norman and Nick Faldo sparred in the late '80s and early '90s.

Woods vs. Phil Mickelson didn’t really count. While Lefty will be remembered for carving out a Hall of Fame career in the Tiger era, with 33 victories, 16 of them with Tiger in the field, five of them major championships, we get that Tiger had no rival, not in the most historic sense.

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Phil never reached No. 1, was never named PGA Tour Player of the Year, never won a money title and never dueled with Woods on Sunday on the back nine of a major with the title on the line.  Still, it doesn’t diminish his standing as the best player not named Tiger Woods over the last 20 years. It’s a feat so noteworthy it makes him one of the game’s all-time greats.

We’ve been waiting for an honest-to-goodness rivalry since Faldo and Norman took turns ruling at world No. 1 and dueling in big events, including the back nine of multiple majors. 

In the '70s, we had Nicklaus-Watson. In the '60s, it was Nicklaus-Palmer. In the '40s and '50s, it was Hogan, Snead and Nelson in a triumvirate mix, and in the '20s and '30s we had Hagen and Sarazen.

While dominance is the magic ingredient that can break a sport out of its niche, a dynamic rivalry is the next best elixir.

Dustin Johnson looks capable of dominating today’s game, but there’s so much proven major championship talent on his heels. It’s hard to imagine him consistently fending off all these challengers, but it’s the fending that would captivate us.

Johnson vs. McIlroy would be a fireworks show. So would Johnson vs. Thomas, or Thomas vs. Day or McIlroy vs. Rahm or Fowler vs. Koepka ... or any of those combinations.

Spieth is a wild card that intrigues.

While he’s not a short hitter, he isn’t the power player these other guys are, but his iron game, short game, putter and moxie combine to make him the most compelling challenger of all. His resolve, resilience and resourcefulness in the final round of his British Open victory at Royal Birkdale make him the most interesting amalgam of skill since Lee Trevino.

Woods vs. any of them? Well, if we get that, we promise never to ask for anything more.

So, if that cosmic calendar up there isn’t filled, how about it? How about a year of rivalries to remember?

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McIlroy: 2018 may be my busiest season ever

By Will GrayJanuary 15, 2018, 6:28 pm

With his return to competition just days away, Rory McIlroy believes that the 2018 season may be the most action packed of his pro career.

The 28-year-old has not teed it up since the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in early October, a hiatus he will end at this week's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. It will be the start of a busy spring for the Ulsterman, who will also play next week in Dubai before a run of six PGA Tour events leading up to the Masters.

Speaking to the U.K.'s Telegraph, McIlroy confirmed that he will also make a return trip to the British Masters in October and plans to remain busy over the next 12 months.

"I might play more times this year than any before. I played 28 times in 2008 and I'm on track to beat that," McIlroy said. "I could get to 30 (events), depending on where I'm placed in the Race to Dubai. But I'll see."

McIlroy's ambitious plan comes in the wake of a frustrating 2017 campaign, when he injured his ribs in his first start and twice missed chunks of time in an effort to recover. He failed to win a worldwide event and finished the year ranked outside the top 10, both of which had not happened since 2008.

But having had more than three months to get his body and swing in shape, McIlroy is optimistic heading into the first of what he hopes will be eight starts in the 12 weeks before he drives down Magnolia Lane.

"I've worked hard on my short game and I'm probably feeling better with the putter than I ever have," McIlroy said. "I've had a lot of time to concentrate on everything and it all feels very good and a long way down the road."

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What's in the Bag: Sony Open winner Kizzire

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 15, 2018, 6:05 pm

Patton Kizzire earned his second PGA Tour victory by winning a six-hole playoff at the Sony Open in Hawaii. Take a look inside his bag.

Driver: Titleist 917D3 (10.5 degrees), with Fujikura Atmos Black 6 X shaft

Fairway Wood: Titleist 917F2 (16.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Blue 95 TX shaft

Hybrid: Titleist 913H (19 degrees), with UST Mamiya AXIV Core 100 Hybrid shaft

Irons: Titleist 718 T-MB (4), 718 CB (5-6), 718 MB (7-9), with True Temper Dynamic Gold X100 shafts

Wedges: Titleist SM7 prototype (47, 52, 56, 60 degrees), with True Temper Dynamic Gold X100 shafts

Putter: Scotty Cameron GoLo Tour prototype

Ball: Titleist Pro V1x