The bumpy, winding road to Augusta National

By Ryan LavnerMarch 3, 2014, 7:00 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – This Road to Augusta is littered with potholes, roadblocks and detours.

Tiger Woods is in need of a physiotherapist. Rory McIlroy could use a punching bag. Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson might want to cue a highlight tape of their 2013 seasons.

And at the end of a star-studded Honda Classic – which, you might recall, featured seven of the top nine players in the world – there was No. 8 McIlroy squaring off against No. 77 Ryan Palmer, No. 110 Russell Henley and No. 206 Russell Knox.

Not exactly the showdown we anticipated.

It’s easy to chalk that up to coincidence, a bad week for a lot of good players on a course that doesn’t always identify the best talent in the field. (Anyone remember the 2013 final group of Michael Thompson and Luke Guthrie?) But the biggest takeaway is that in the absence of a dominant star, golf is deeper and more unpredictable than ever, and the sport faces three major questions with Masters Monday now only five weeks away.

The biggest question, of course, is: What’s wrong with Tiger?

Already off to his slowest start ever as a pro, Woods bailed with five holes to play Sunday, citing lower back spasms. That’s the same injury that sent him to his knees in pain during The Barclays in August, and the same injury that forced him to shelve the clubs during the winter. Not particularly sharp in any of his three appearances this year, it’s unknown whether that suspect play is because of inactivity or injury, or perhaps a combination of the two.

What’s clear is that both his short- and long-term future is in doubt. His reign at world No. 1 could end this week at Doral, and his Masters prospects (and beyond) will grow even bleaker if his condition does not improve. Soon.

Will Woods, at 38, ever enjoy another injury-free season? Only once in the past seven years (2009) has he not had to skip a tournament or withdraw because of injury. That the official reason has been five different ailments (knee, Achilles, neck, elbow, back) only provides further proof that his brittle body is breaking down.

But with all of the focus on Woods, let’s not forget that his chief rival hasn’t exactly sprinted out of the gates, either. Since winning the Open last July, Mickelson has just one top-10 in his last 12 PGA Tour starts, including last week’s trunk-slammer at the Honda. After six starts he ranks 114th in putting – an ominous sign with the Masters fast approaching.

The phasing out of the old guard leads directly to the season’s second big question: Is the PGA Tour’s youth movement here to stay?

No doubt, as Henley, 24, became the eighth under-30 winner in 15 starts this season, following the triumphs of Webb Simpson, Chris Kirk, Dustin Johnson, Harris English, Patrick Reed, Scott Stallings and Jason Day. Henley is also now one of four players under 25 with multiple wins.

The best young player of them all, of course, is McIlroy, 24, and he hasn’t won on the PGA Tour in 18 months. That he was in contention in his third consecutive stroke-play event was encouraging, but his Sunday 74 at the Honda was his biggest setback since the mid-round walk-off a year earlier. In command all week, and with no one racing to catch him on the final day, McIlroy lost five shots to par during an 11-hole stretch and failed to birdie the par 5 in the playoff.

“It was a perfect opportunity to win,” he admitted afterward, and moral victories are of little interest to a former world No. 1 with grand ambitions.

Assuming he can dust himself off, McIlroy, a two-time major winner already, figures to once again be a factor at all of the year’s biggest tournaments. But for all of the talk about the Tour’s new breed of stars, he is one of the few 20-somethings who have enjoyed success in the majors in recent years. Of the 33 majors since the 2005 PGA, only nine have been won by a player in his 20s. Sure, there remains a learning curve, but the major championships are more wide open than ever before.

Oh, and speaking of majors, the season’s other big question: Who is the early Masters favorite, anyway?

In our instant-analysis world, the answer seemingly changes every week. First it was Jimmy Walker. Then it was 2012 champion Bubba Watson. Then it was Match Play champion and last year’s late leader, Jason Day. Now, it seems, it might be whichever big star can shake off the early-season doldrums and rise to the occasion.  

Hey, no one ever said the Road to Augusta was a straight shot north.

If Park is nervous, she sure doesn't show it

By Randall MellNovember 17, 2017, 11:24 pm

NAPLES, Fla. – Sung Hyun Park says she can feel her heart pounding every time she steps to the first tee.

She says she always gets nervous starting a round.

You don’t believe it, though.

She looks like she would be comfortable directing a sky full of Boeing 737s as an air traffic controller at Incheon International Airport . . .

Or talking people off the ledges of skyscrapers . . .

Or disarming ticking bombs . . .

“In terms of golf, I always get nervous,” she insists.

Everything about Park was at odds with that admission Friday, after she took control halfway through the CME Group Tour Championship.

Her Korean nickname is “Dan Gong,” which means “Shut up and attack.” Now that sounds right. That’s what she looks like she is doing, trying to run roughshod through the Tour Championship in a historic sweep of all the LPGA’s most important awards and honors.

Park got just one look at Tiburon Golf Club before this championship began, playing in Wednesday’s pro-am. Then she marched out Thursday and shot 67, then came out Friday and shot 65.

At 12 under overall, Park has a three-shot lead on Caroline Masson and Sarah Jane Smith.

She is six shots up on Lexi Thompson, who leads the CME Globe point standings in the race for the $1 million jackpot.

She is 11 shots up on world No. 1 Shanshan Feng.

And 11 shots up on So Yeon Ryu, who leads the Rolex Player of the Year point standings.

CME Group Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the CME Group Tour Championship

There’s a long way to go, but Park is in position to make an epic sweep, to win the Tour Championship, that CME Globe jackpot, the Rolex Player of the Year Award, the Rolex Rookie of the Year Award, the Vare Trophy for low scoring average, the LPGA money-winning title and the Rolex world No. 1 ranking.

Nobody’s ever dominated a weekend like that in women’s golf.

It’s all there for the taking now, if Park can keep this going.

Park has another nickname back in South Korea. Her fans call her “Namdalla.” That means “I am different.” She’ll prove that if she owns this weekend.

Park, 24, isn’t assuming anything. She’s humbly aware how much talent is flooding the LPGA, how the tour’s depth was underscored in a year where five different players have reigned as world No. 1, five different players won majors and 22 different winners stepped forward in 32 events.

“I don’t think it’s quite that far a lead,” Park said of her three-shot advantage. “Two, three shots can change at any moment.”

About those nerves that Park insists plague her, even Hall of Famer Judy Rankin can’t see it.

Not when Park unsheathes a driver on a tee box.

“She’s the most fearless driver of the ball out here,” Rankin said. “I would put Lexi a close second and everybody else a distant third. She hits drivers on holes where you shouldn’t, and she hits it long and she just throws it right down there between hazard stakes that are 10 yards apart, like it’s nothing. Now, that’s a little hyperbole, but she will hit driver almost everywhere.”

David Jones, Park’s caddie, will attest to that. He was on Park’s bag when she won the U.S. Women’s Open in July and won the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open in August.

“She reaches for driver a lot because she is a good driver,” Jones said. “She isn’t reckless. She’s as accurate with a driver as she is a 3-wood.”

Park and Thompson played together in the first round. Park is eighth on tour in driving distance, averaging 270 yards per drive, and Thompson is third, averaging 274.

Thompson loves to hit driver, too, but . . . 

“Lexi hit a lot of 3-woods compared to us when we played together yesterday,” Jones said.

Jones doesn’t find himself talking Park out of hitting driver much.

“It’s really simple,” Jones said. “When you hit driver as straight as she does, why mess around?”

Count Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, a student of the swing, among admirers of Park’s abilities.

“No other swing in the game comes close to her technical perfection and elegance in my opinion,” Chamblee tweeted Friday.

Come Sunday, Park hopes to complete a perfect sweep of the LPGA’s most important awards.

National champion Sooners meet with Trump in D.C.

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 17, 2017, 11:10 pm

The national champion Oklahoma men's golf team visited Washington D.C. on Frday and met with President Donald Trump.

Oklahoma topped Oregon, 3 1/2 to 1 1/2, in last year's national final at Rich Harvest Farms to win their second national championship and first since 1989.

These pictures from the team's trip to Washington popped up on social media late Friday afternoon:

Rookie Cook (66-62) credits prior Tour experience

By Rex HoggardNovember 17, 2017, 10:36 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Austin Cook is a rookie only on paper. At least, that’s the way he’s played since joining the circuit this season.

This week’s RSM Classic is Cook’s fourth start on Tour, and rounds of 66-62 secured his fourth made cut of the young season. More importantly, his 14-under total moved him into the lead at Sea Island Resort.

“I really think that a couple years ago, the experience that I have had, I think I've played maybe 10 events, nine events before this season,” Cook said. “Being in contention a few times and making cuts, having my card has really prepared me for this.”

RSM Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the RSM Classic

Cook has been perfect this week at the RSM Classic and moved into contention with four consecutive birdies starting at No. 13 (he began his round on the 10th hole of the Seaside course). A 6-footer for birdie at the last moved him one stroke clear of Brian Gay.

In fact, Cook hasn’t come close to making a bogey this week thanks to an equally flawless ball-striking round that moved him to first in the field in strokes gained: tee to green.

If Cook has played like a veteran this week, a portion of that credit goes to long-time Tour caddie Kip Henley, who began working for Cook during this year’s Tour finals.

“He’s got a great golf brain,” Henley said. “That’s the most flawless round of golf I’ve ever seen.”

Cook fires 62 for one-shot lead at RSM Classic

By Associated PressNovember 17, 2017, 10:26 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – PGA Tour rookie Austin Cook made a 6-foot birdie putt on his final hole for an 8-under 62 and a one-shot lead going into the weekend at the RSM Classic.

Cook has gone 36 holes without a bogey on the Plantation and Seaside courses at Sea Island Golf Club. He played Seaside - the site of the final two rounds in the last PGA Tour event of the calendar year - on Friday and ran off four straight birdies on his opening nine holes.

''We've just been able to it hit the ball really well,'' Cook said. ''Speed on greens has been really good and getting up-and-down has been great. I've been able to hit it pretty close to the hole to make some pretty stress-free putts. But the couple putts that I have had of some length for par, I've been able to roll them in. Everything's going well.''

The 26-year-old former Arkansas player was at 14-under 128 and had a one-stroke lead over Brian Gay, who shot 64 on Seaside. No one else was closer than five shots going into the final two rounds.

The 45-year-old Gay won the last of his four PGA Tour titles in 2013.

RSM Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the RSM Classic

''I've hit a lot of greens and fairways,'' Gay said. ''I've hit the ball, kept it in front of me. There's a lot of trouble out here, especially with the wind blowing, so I haven't had to make too many saves the first couple days and I putted well.''

Cook has made the weekend cuts in all four of his starts this season. He earned his PGA Tour card through the Tour, and has hired Gay's former caddie, Kip Henley.

''With him being out here so long, he knows everybody, so it's not like I'm completely the new kid on the block,'' Cook said. ''He's introduced me to a lot of people, so it's just making me feel comfortable out here. He knows his way around these golf courses. We're working really well together.''

First-round leader Chris Kirk followed his opening 63 on the Plantation with a 70 on the Seaside to drop into a tie for third at 9 under with C.T. Pan (65) and Vaughn Taylor (66).

Brandt Snedeker is looking strong in his first start in some five months because of a sternum injury. Snedeker shot a 67 on the Plantation course and was six shots back at 8 under.

''I was hitting the ball really well coming down here,'' Snedeker said. ''I was anxious to see how I would hold up under pressure. I haven't played a tournament in five months, so it's held up better than I thought it would. Ball-striking's been really good, mental capacity's been unbelievable.

''I think being so fresh, excited to be out there and thinking clearly. My short game, which has always been a strength of mine, I didn't know how sharp it was going to be. It's been really good so far.''