Even battling injury, Day a few steps ahead at WGC

By Ryan LavnerMarch 28, 2016, 12:44 am

AUSTIN, Texas – Sprawled out on the massage table or laid up in the hotel room, Jason Day heard four members of his inner circle trying to persuade him to withdraw from the WGC-Dell Match Play.

Don’t be a hero.

Don’t risk further injury.  

Don’t ruin your chances at Augusta.  

“I’m glad I didn’t listen,” Day said with a smile, the baby blue World Golf Championships trophy to his right.

It was another eventful week in a career full of them: No practice round at the new tournament venue on Tuesday, a back injury on Wednesday, a return to No. 1 on Saturday and now this on Sunday – Day's second Match Play title in the past three years, after he stormed past Louis Oosthuizen, 5 and 4, in the scheduled 18-hole final.

Day made such quick work of his opponent that they finished before the consolation match ended. It was the most lopsided championship match since 2008, and it was his sixth worldwide title in his last 13 starts, the most of any player over that span.

“It was a very, very strange week,” Day said. “But I’m glad to gut it out and get the win.”

Oosthuizen actually won the first hole Sunday afternoon, after driving the 393-yard opener, but he got steamrolled from there. The match turned quickly after some shoddy wedge play by Oosthuizen on the front nine and a few sky-high irons by Day that dropped next to the flag. Suddenly, Oosthuizen was 3 down, and reeling, and running out of holes against a relentless opponent. Even when he had an opening, even when Day flared his second shot into the par-5 12th way right, Oosthuizen couldn’t capitalize. Trying to force the issue, he overcooked his fairway wood into the lake, halving the hole and effectively ending his chances. Day closed him out, mercifully, with a wedge to 4 feet on 14.

“You put yourself in a situation where if you play a guy like that, he’s going to take the toughest shot on, and nine out of 10 times he’ll probably pull it off in the form that he’s in,” Oosthuizen said. “You know you need to make birdies. You need to make putts. You’re under pressure the whole time because your opponent is playing that good of golf.”

WGC-Dell Match Play: Full coverage | Bracket

The worry, of course, was that Day would expend so much energy during his morning semifinal match against Rory McIlroy – a rare tussle between the second and third overall seeds – that he’d come out flat in the second 18. And make no mistake, that battle with McIlroy was draining – seven times in eight tries Day got up and down from around the green, including on the last, when he sank a nail-biting 13-footer to avoid a playoff.

But Day has an innate ability to dig deep, to keep pushing, to drain every last ounce of his ability. He had suggested (incorrectly) that he doesn’t have the ball-striking skills of McIlroy, or the dependable crunch-time stroke of Jordan Spieth, but he does enjoy one advantage against his star-studded peers.

“I just don’t quit,” he said. “And I’ll keep fighting until it’s over, until I either have lost or have won.”

But it’s never that straightforward, is it?

Whether it’s vertigo at the U.S. Open or the flu at Torrey Pines or his wife getting bowled over at a NBA game, drama has long surrounded Day, and this week was no exception.

He didn’t even play a practice round this week, a bold move with the event moving to Austin Country Club. While walking the course for the first time on Tuesday afternoon, something flew into his eye and he bailed after seven holes. Then, the next day, out of nowhere, his back seized up on the 15th hole in his match against Graeme McDowell. Within 15 minutes, Day was dropping his club after impact, clutching his lower back, hobbling up the fairway and sliding sideways into a bunker. He was in such rough shape that he was fortunate, perhaps, that the match ended there, with “searing pain” running down both legs.

Breathless debate ensued about whether he should continue. Day's medical team – trainer Cornell Driessen, doctor James Bradley and fill-in therapist Brian Smith – discussed their options. But after a long night of treatment, he tested his sore back on the range the following afternoon, ripping long irons to simulate how he’d swing on the course.

“I wanted to win,” he said. “I just want to win. I wanted to win so bad that I felt with how I was playing, I would be holding the trophy at the end of the week. That’s what kept me going.”

After declaring himself fit to continue, Day smoked Thongchai Jaidee in the second round. The next day, he received the break of the tournament, beating Paul Casey after the Englishman conceded after only six holes with a stomach virus.

To suggest that Day simply got lucky with his draw and logged the fewest holes of anyone (101) overlooks his remarkable play. It’s an imperfect stat, sure, but including concessions, he was 28 under par this week. No doubt, the best player won.  

“I would have been very, very disappointed and frustrated with myself if I didn’t get the win,” he said, “because I’ve come so far.”

This week, yes, and also this year.

Prior to Day’s gritty victory last week at Bay Hill, most of the questions he faced were about his slow start. But was it that unexpected? After all, he was coming off a career year, and he’d just won his first major, and he’d ticked off a lifelong goal by ascending to No. 1, and he had put away his clubs, completely, for nearly three months following the birth of his second child.

“It takes time to get back in the groove,” said his caddie and coach, Colin Swatton, and now Day has rediscovered that torrid form, bashing tee shots, hitting moonshot irons and rolling in seemingly every critical putt he faces.

“He’s definitely at the moment a few steps ahead of everyone,” Oosthuizen said.

And the way he’s playing, he’s only gaining more separation.

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images

One & Done: 2018 CareerBuilder Challenge

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 5:55 pm

Beginning in 2018, Golf Channel is offering a "One & Done" fantasy game alternative. Choose a golfer and add the salary they earn at the event to your season-long total - but know that once chosen, a player cannot be used again for the rest of the year.

Log on to www.playfantasygolf.com to start your own league and make picks for this week's event.

Here are some players to consider for One & Done picks this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, where Hudson Swafford returns as the defending champion:

Zach Johnson. The two-time major champ has missed the cut here three years in a row. So why include him in One & Done consideration? Because the three years before that (2012-14) included three top-25s highlighted by a third-place finish, and his T-14 at the Sony Open last week was his fifth straight top-25 dating back to September.

Bud Cauley. Cauley has yet to win on Tour, but that could very well change this year - even this week. Cauley ended up only two shots behind Swafford last year and tied for 14th the year prior, as four of his five career appearances have netted at least a top-40 finish. He opened the new season with a T-7 in Napa and closed out the fall with a T-8 at Sea Island.

Adam Hadwin. Swafford left last year with the trophy, but it looked for much of the weekend like it would be Hadwin's tournament as he finished second despite shooting a 59 in the third round. Hadwin was also T-6 at this event in 2016 and now with a win under his belt last March he returns with some unfinished business.

Charles Howell III. If you didn't use him last week at the Sony Open, this could be another good spot for the veteran who has four top-15 finishes over the last seven years at this event, highlighted by a playoff loss in 2013. His T-32 finish last week in Honolulu, while not spectacular, did include four sub-70 scores.

David Lingmerth. Lingmerth was in that 2013 playoff with Howell (eventually won by Brian Gay), and he also lost here in overtimei to Jason Dufner in 2016. The Swede also cracked the top 25 here in 2015 and is making his first start since his wife, Megan, gave birth to the couple's first child in December. Beware the sleep-deprived golfer.

Getty Images

DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

Getty Images

Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.