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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.


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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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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.


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That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.


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Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.


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The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”