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Halfway home, more playoff thrills to come?

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 12, 2017, 11:40 am

Criticized in the past for failing to identify the best player, the FedExCup might not have that problem this year.

Check out the top 5 in the points standings and the Official World Golf Ranking. Their positions are different, but the players – Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm – are the same.

The cream is rising to the top this postseason.

Part of it is fortuitous timing, the best playing their best at the right time, but other factors are involved, too. Those near the top of the standings have a sense of freedom, focused more on contending than a cutoff for the top 30, 70 or 100. Big-game experience also helps – these guys know how to handle pressure and win important titles.

And then there’s this: “We treat these three events and Atlanta as a major,” Thomas said. “We are trying to be peaking this time.”

So much can change over the next two weeks, of course, but the start to these playoffs couldn’t have gone much better for the Tour.

BMW Championship: Articles, video and photos

Current FedExCup Playoff points standings

For years, Camp Ponte Vedra pushed the narrative that the FedExCup crowned a season-long champion. That was a tough sell, however, when wild points’ fluctuations allowed Bill Haas (2011), Brandt Snedeker (2012) and Billy Horschel (2014) to seemingly come out of nowhere and bag the $10 million prize, leaving those who had better seasons to scratch their heads. Even last year, there was a dreaded scenario in which Paul Casey, who entered the Tour Championship at No. 5 in the standings, could walk away with the cup without a win that season. 

Maybe that happens this year – we’re looking at you, once again, Mr. Casey – but it doesn’t seem likely. The last 10 playoff events have been won by some of the game’s biggest stars: Thomas, Johnson (twice), Rory McIlroy (twice), Patrick Reed, Spieth, Jason Day (twice) and Rickie Fowler.

To kick off this year’s postseason, Johnson overcame a five-shot deficit at the Northern Trust, forcing a playoff with Spieth and then overpowering him on the first extra hole. But even more important for the Tour: Fans were paying attention. No, the cup likely won’t ever generate the same level of interest as the majors, but the final round on Long Island had the fourth-best TV rating for a non-major this year, and the best at that event since 2013 (when needle-mover Tiger Woods contended).

On Labor Day, Thomas overtook Spieth on the back nine – signaling, perhaps, the beginning of a compelling rivalry – to win the second playoff event and solidify his case as PGA Tour Player of the Year.

The off-week may have halted some of the postseason momentum, but the current top 5 in points – which, as a reminder, aligns with the players in the top 5 in the world ranking – should have no shortage of motivation these next two weeks.

Thomas has been this season’s breakout star, powering his way to five wins, including the PGA, and finally emerging from the considerable shadow of Spieth, his longtime friend and healthy rival.

It seems the only two players who could steal Thomas’ Player of the Year votes are Spieth and Johnson.

Spieth has three wins this season (including the year’s most memorable major) and three runners-up, owns the best scoring average (68.8) and has only one less top-10 than Thomas while playing two fewer events. Boston was a missed opportunity, however, and now Spieth likely needs to win out to take the Jack Nicklaus Trophy.

Fair or not, 2017 will always be remembered as a bittersweet year for Johnson, who has won four times (second-most on Tour) but can’t help but wonder what could have been if he didn’t injure his lower back on the eve of the Masters. Lest we forget: This spring, DJ evoked memories of Woods the way he steamrolled his competition.

Assessing Johnson’s Player of the Year chances is more difficult, because the award is voted on by his peers, who, if history is any indication, significantly weight major victories. His four victories include two World Golf Championships, a playoff event and the tournament at Riviera, which boasts one of the strongest non-major fields of the year. If he takes the final two events – getting to six wins overall, and bookending his campaign with the best golf we’ve seen all year – then he deserves serious Player of the Year consideration, too.  

As for the rest of the top 5? Matsuyama has had a quiet playoffs so far, dropping a few spots in the standings after getting his heart broken at the PGA, while Rahm, who just 15 months ago had no status on any tour, ascended to No. 5 in the world (and the FedExCup) on the strength of an early-season victory and eight other top-10s, including back-to-back top-4s to start the playoffs.

Considering their form this year, any of those five players would be a satisfying season-long winner.

Just as the PGA Tour designed it.

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Fowler among 5 to skip WGC-Match Play

By Ryan LavnerMarch 17, 2018, 2:24 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. – Five of the top 64 players in the world will skip next week’s WGC-Dell Match Play.

Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson, Brooks Koepka and Adam Scott all will miss the second WGC event of the year, held next week at Austin Country Club.

As a result, the last man into the field is world No. 69 Luke List. Kevin Na, Charles Howell III, Joost Luiten and Keegan Bradley also got into the field.

Julian Suri and Bill Haas are the first two alternates, if anyone else withdraws from the round-robin-style match-play event.

This is the second year in a row that Rose, Fowler, Stenson and Scott will not play in Austin. Koepka reached the quarterfinals each of the past two years, but he is still recovering from a wrist injury.

The final seeding for the event will be determined after this week’s tournaments. The bracket show is at 7:30 p.m. Monday, live on Golf Channel.

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Korda happy to finally be free of jaw pain

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 2:43 am

PHOENIX – Jessica Korda isn’t as surprised as everyone else that she is playing so well, so quickly, upon her return from a complex and painful offseason surgery.

She is inspired finally getting to play without recurring headaches.

“I’d been in pain for three years,” she said after posting a 4-under-par 68 Friday to move two shots off the lead at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

Korda had her upper jaw broken in three places and her low jaw broken in two places in December in a procedure that fixed the alignment of her jaw.

Korda, 25, said the headaches caused by her overbite even affected her personality.

“Affects your moods,” Korda said. “I think I was pretty snappy back then as well.”

She was pretty pleased Friday to give herself a weekend chance at her sixth LPGA title, her second in her last three starts. She won the Honda LPGA Thailand three weeks ago in her first start after returning from surgery.

“I'm much happier now,” Korda said. “Much calmer.”

Even if she still can’t eat the things she would really like to eat. She’s still recuperating. She said the lower part of her face remains numb, and it’s painful to chew crunchy things.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“Chips are totally out of question,” Korda said.

She can eat most things she likes, but she has to cut them into tiny pieces. She can’t wait to be able to eat a steak.

“They broke my palate, so I can't feel anything, even heat,” Korda said. “So that's a bit difficult, because I can't feel any heat on my lip or palate. I don't know how hot things are going in until they hit my throat.”

Korda has 27 screws in her skull holding the realignment together. She needed her family to feed her, bathe her and dress her while she recovered. The procedure changed the way she looks.

While Korda’s ordeal and all that went into her recovery has helped fans relate to her, she said it’s the desire to move on that motivates her.

“Because I was so drugged up, I don't remember a lot of it,” Korda said. “I try to forget a lot of it. I don't think of it like I went through a lot. I just think of it as I'm pain-free. So, yeah, people are like, `Oh, you're so brave, you overcame this and that.’ For me, I'm just going forward.”

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Finally adapted to short putter, Martin near lead

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 1:54 am

PHOENIX – Mo Martin loved her long putter.

In fact, she named her “Mona.”

For 10 years, Martin didn’t putt with anything else. She grew up with long putters, from the time she started playing when she was 5.

While Martin won the Ricoh Women’s British Open in 2014, about nine months after giving up Mona for a short putter, she said it’s taken until today to feel totally comfortable with one.

And that has her excited about this year.

Well, that and having a healthy back again.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“I've had a feeling that this year was going to be a good one,” Martin said. “My game is in a special place.”

Martin was beaming after a 6-under-par 66 Friday moved her two shots off the lead at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“Just a beautiful day,” Martin said. “I was able to play my game, make my putts.”

Martin hit all 14 fairways in the second round, hit 15 greens in regulation and took just 27 putts. After struggling with nagging back pain last year, she’s pain free again.

She’s happy to “just to get back to a place now where my ball striking is where it has been the last few years.”

Martin, by the way, says Mona remains preserved in a special place, “a shrine” in her home.

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Clanton rides hole-out eagle to lead at Founders

By Associated PressMarch 17, 2018, 1:47 am

PHOENIX - Cydney Clanton holed out from the fairway for eagle on the par-4 13th and closed with a birdie Friday to take the second-round lead in the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

Clanton shot a 5-under 67, playing the back nine at Desert Ridge in 5-under 31 to reach 9-under 135.

Clanton's wedge on the 13th flew into the cup on the first bounce. She also birdied the par-5 11th and 15th and the par-4 18th. The 28-year-old former Auburn player is winless on the LPGA.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Ariya Jutanugarn, Marina Alex, Karine Icher and Mariajo Uribe were a stroke back on a calmer day after wind made scoring more difficult Thursday.

Jessica Korda and Mo Martin were 7 under, and Michelle Wie topped the group at 6 under.