Getty Images

Eight huge questions for golf in 2018

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 2, 2018, 7:00 pm

A new year means new storylines. And though some might wish 2017 never ended (here’s looking at you, JT), others couldn’t wait for the calendar to flip to January 1.

Here are eight burning questions as we roll into 2018:

1. Can the U.S. Win the Ryder Cup?

It’s the most-anticipated event of 2018, and it’s not particularly close. The Americans haven’t won a Ryder Cup on foreign soil since 1993, a squad that was captained, coincidentally, by Tom Watson, whose disastrous reign was the impetus for this U.S. revival. Over the past two international team competitions, the Americans have won by a combined score of 36-22.

Promisingly, the same core will make the trip to France in September, where they will take on a European team headlined by Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood, but whose foundation is built on aging leaders such as Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia.

Never has snapping the U.S. team’s 25-year drought seemed more attainable. Which only adds to the pressure.


2. What Does Tiger Have Left in the Tank?

Here we are again, contemplating Woods’ short- and long-term future an an auspicious return at the Hero World Challenge. We did this very thing last year … except this time it feels different, more promising, after he showed plenty of speed following his last-ditch fusion surgery and vowed to go it alone with his swing.

That last part is important: Over the past few years, it was painfully clear that Woods’ brilliant golf mind was cluttered (remember “release patterns”?) as he morphed from artist to scientist. Woods’ holiday news dump that he’s ditching swing coach Chris Como was welcome news – not because Como had Woods on the wrong path but because it shows that Woods is once again taking ownership of his game, that he’s relying more on his instincts and less on technique.

As of this writing, it’s not yet known what the early part of his 2018 schedule will look like, but here’s hoping (perhaps unrealistically) that it doesn’t include Torrey Pines or any unnecessary international travel. He has only one chance to make this “comeback” work, so he needs to pick his spots where he can fine-tune for the majors.


3. Is It Make-Or-Break Time for Rory?

The former world No. 1 was so out of sorts by the end of his disappointing 2017 campaign that he decided to shut it down for the last three months of the year. That should have been ample time to heal both his injured rib and his battered psyche.

Instead of challenging Spieth as golf’s alpha dog, McIlroy hasn’t looked like the same dominant player over the past few seasons, his hot streak in the 2016 playoffs skewing what was another pedestrian year. Injuries have been a factor, no doubt, but the holes in his game (shaky putting and shoddy wedge play) were obvious, and his occasional disappearing acts prompted some to question his motivation and desire.

Announcing an ambitious, PGA Tour-centric schedule with eight events in the lead-up to the Masters suggests that the fire is back, and hopefully he’ll be sharp by early April.

The game is more interesting with Rory in the mix.


4. What Will Justin Thomas Do For an Encore?

At this time last year, Thomas was among the Tour’s most promising up-and-comers whose only titles had come in Malaysia. He matched that win total with a Hawaiian doubleheader, then kept rolling with three more victories, including his first major at the PGA, to sweep the FedExCup and Player of the Year honors. So complete was his game, he checked off nearly all of his individual goals.

Thomas has always thrived when playing with a Kentucky-sized chip on his shoulder, but slights are hard to find now. He’s the third-ranked player in the world, and no one refers to him as merely Jordan Spieth’s good buddy.

Where will his edge come from? That’s for Thomas to learn this year, his first as a bona fide superstar.


5. How Will Lexi (and Lydia) Rebound?

No player endured more on-course heartbreak than Thompson, the 22-year-old mega-talent whose self-inflicted miscues in bookend big events cost her a major, Player of the Year and the No. 1 ranking. (And that doesn’t even include the off-course distraction of her mother, Judy, being treated for uterine cancer.)

Sure, that’s a lot of scar tissue for someone so young, but Thompson is unlikely to be so careless again, either while marking her ball or attempting 2-footers.

She has all of the physical tools to take over the tour. (Despite her various blunders, she managed two victories and six runners-up last year.) What a story it’d be in 2018 if she finally does.

Though Thompson has never reached world No. 1, Ko is trying to return to the top after her 84-week run ended in June.

By any measure, 2017 was a massive disappointment for Ko, who went winless and baffled observers by changing swing coaches, equipment and caddies. Unlike Thompson, Ko doesn’t have the power to make up for average iron play and putting. If those areas don’t improve, her slide seems likely to continue, especially with the emergence of even more young South Korean talent.


6. What’s Next for Jordan Spieth?

The Golden Child is not a kid anymore – he’s engaged to high school sweetheart Annie Verrett – and his resume is all grown up, too.

His memorable run to the claret jug leaves him only one major shy of the career Grand Slam, and at 24, he’s still on a pace that puts him in the same conversation as Jack and Tiger.

Spieth’s game took a massive step forward in 2017. Viewed by many as just a red-hot putter, he became the best iron player in the game, leading the Tour in strokes gained-approach the green. Interestingly, it was his putter that cost him at times last year, and it’s fair to assume that he spent the majority of his offseason working on his stroke and his driver.

His average is nearly three wins a year, with a boatload of other top-10s, so count on similar production in 2018. The only question is whether he adds to his major haul.


7. Are the Governing Bodies and Equipment Manufacturers on a Collision Course?

It sure seems that way, with the endless chatter about the distance that today’s high-performance golf balls fly. (Which is a gross oversimplification of the issue, but that’s a column for another day.) That the USGA’s Mike Davis opined that the impact of the distance boom has been “horrible” set off alarms in Fairhaven and Carlsbad, though any implementation of a reduced-flight ball would be met with resistance, lawsuits and confusion.

It’s a messy situation that affects only about 20 players on the PGA Tour – no one on the LPGA or Champions circuit, and especially no one at your local club, is complaining about the ball going too far – but the optics are terrible when par 5s are reduced to driver-7-iron.

What’s the solution? Hey, beats us, but distance figures to be a hot topic all year, as will the revamped Rules of Golf set to go into effect in 2019.


8. Who is This Year’s Xander Schauffele?

Tip of the cap to those of you who tabbed Schauffele as the breakout star of a rookie class that included Bryson DeChambeau, Ollie Schniederjans and Wesley Bryan.

Because we sure didn’t see it coming.

Fighting for his card midway through the year, Schauffele starred at the U.S. Open, won his first title at the Greenbrier and then beat the Tour’s best at East Lake.  

This year’s list of newcomers includes former U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein, Keith Mitchell and Aaron Wise. (Technically, Beau Hossler isn’t a rookie, but he already has a pair of top-10s this season.) Austin Cook has already won once, in Sea Island, and he won’t be the only newbie to hoist some hardware. 

Getty Images

Teenager Im wins Web.com season opener

By Will GrayJanuary 16, 2018, 10:23 pm

South Korea's Sungjae Im cruised to a four-shot victory at The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic, becoming just the second teenager to win an event on the Web.com Tour.

Im started the final day of the season-opening event in a share of the lead but still with six holes left in his third round. He was one shot behind Carlos Ortiz when the final round began, but moved ahead of the former Web.com Player of the Year thanks to a 7-under 65 in rainy and windy conditions. Im's 13-under total left him four clear of Ortiz and five shots ahead of a quartet of players in third.

Still more than two months shy of his 20th birthday, Im joins Jason Day as the only two teens to win on the developmental circuit. Day was 19 years, 7 months and 26 days old when he captured the 2007 Legend Financial Group Classic.

Recent PGA Tour winners Si Woo Kim and Patrick Cantlay and former NCAA champ Aaron Wise all won their first Web.com Tour event at age 20.

Other notable finishes in the event included Max Homa (T-7), Erik Compton (T-13), Curtis Luck (T-13) and Lee McCoy (T-13). The Web.com Tour will remain in the Bahamas for another week, with opening round of The Bahamas Great Abaco Classic set to begin Sunday.

Getty Images

Mickelson grouped with Z. Johnson at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 16, 2018, 8:28 pm

He's not the highest-ranked player in this week's field, but Phil Mickelson will likely draw the biggest crowd at the CareerBuilder Challenge as he makes his first start of 2018. Here are a few early-round, marquee groupings to watch as players battle the three-course rotation in the Californian desert (all times ET):

12:10 p.m. Thursday, 11:40 a.m. Friday, 1:20 p.m. Saturday: Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson

Mickelson is making his fourth straight trip to Palm Springs, having cracked the top 25 each of the last three times. In addition to their respective amateur partners, he'll play the first three rounds alongside a fellow Masters champ in Johnson, who tied for 14th last week in Hawaii and finished third in this event in 2014.


11:40 a.m. Thursday, 1:20 p.m. Friday, 12:50 p.m. Saturday: Jon Rahm, Bubba Watson

At No. 3 in the world, Rahm is the highest-ranked player teeing it up this week and the Spaniard returns to an event where he finished T-34 last year in his tournament debut. He'll play the first two rounds alongside Watson, who is looking to bounce back from a difficult 2016-17 season and failed to crack the top 50 in two starts in the fall.


11:40 a.m. Thursday, 1:20 p.m. Friday, 12:50 p.m. Saturday: Patrick Reed, Brandt Snedeker

Reed made the first big splash of his career at this event in 2014, shooting three straight rounds of 63 en route to his maiden victory. He'll be joined by Snedeker, whose bid for a Masters bid via the top 50 of the world rankings came up short last month and who hasn't played this event since a missed cut in 2015.


1:10 p.m. Thursday, 12:40 p.m. Friday, 12:10 p.m. Saturday: Patton Kizzire, Bill Haas

Kizzire heads east after a whirlwind Sunday ended with his second win of the season in a six-hole playoff over James Hahn in Honolulu. He'll play alongside Haas, who won this event in both 2010 and 2015 to go with a runner-up finish in 2011 and remains the tournament's all-time leading money winner.

Getty Images

Mackay still a caddie at heart, even with a microphone

By Doug FergusonJanuary 16, 2018, 7:34 pm

HONOLULU – All it took was one week back on the bag to remind Jim ''Bones'' Mackay what he always loved about being a caddie.

It just wasn't enough for this to be the ultimate mic drop.

Mackay traded in his TV microphone at the Sony Open for the 40-pound bag belonging to Justin Thomas.

It was his first time caddying since he split with Phil Mickelson six months ago. Mackay was only a temporary replacement at Waialae for Jimmy Johnson, a good friend and Thomas' regular caddie who has a nasty case of plantar fasciitis that will keep him in a walking boot for the next month.

''The toughest thing about not caddying is missing the competition, not having a dog in the fight,'' Mackay said before the final round. ''There's nothing more rewarding as a caddie, in general terms, when you say, 'I don't like 6-iron, I like 7,' and being right. I miss that part of it.''

The reward now?

''Not stumbling over my words,'' he said. ''And being better than I was the previous week.''

He has done remarkably well since he started his new job at the British Open last summer, except for that time he momentarily forgot his role. Parts of that famous caddie adage – ''Show up, keep up, shut up'' – apparently can apply to golf analysts on the ground.

During the early hours of the telecast, before Johnny Miller came on, Justin Leonard was in the booth.

''It's my job to report on what I see. It's not my job to ask questions,'' Mackay said. ''I forgot that for a minute.''

Leonard was part of a booth discussion on how a comfortable pairing can help players trying to win a major. That prompted Mackay to ask Leonard if he found it helpful at the 1997 British Open when he was trying to win his first major and was paired with Fred Couples in the final round at Royal Troon.

''What I didn't know is we were going to commercial in six seconds,'' Mackay said. ''I would have no way of knowing that, but I completely hung Justin out to dry. He's now got four seconds to answer my long-winded question.''

During the commercial break, the next voice Mackay heard belonged to Tommy Roy, the executive golf producer at NBC.

''Bones, don't ever do that again.''

It was Roy who recognized the value experienced caddies could bring to a telecast. That's why he invited Mackay and John Wood, the caddie for Matt Kuchar, into the control room at the 2015 Houston Open so they could see how it all worked and how uncomfortable it can be to hear directions coming through an earpiece.

Both worked as on-course reporters at Sea Island that fall.

And when Mickelson and Mackay parted ways after 25 years, Roy scooped up the longtime caddie for TV.

It's common for players to move into broadcasting. Far more unusual is for a caddie to be part of the mix. Mackay loves his new job. Mostly, he loves how it has helped elevate his profession after so many years of caddies being looked upon more unfavorably than they are now.

''I want to be a caddie that's doing TV,'' he said. ''That's what I hope to come across as. The guys think this is good for caddies. And if it's good for caddies, that makes me happy. Because I'm a caddie. I'll always be a caddie.''

Not next week at Torrey Pines, where Mickelson won three times. Not a week later in Phoenix, where Mackay lives. Both events belong to CBS.

And not the Masters.

He hasn't missed Augusta since 1994, when Mickelson broke his leg skiing that winter.

''That killed me,'' he said, ''but not nearly as much as it's going to kill me this year. I'll wake up on Thursday of the Masters and I'll be really grumpy. I'll probably avoid television at all costs until the 10th tee Sunday. And I'll watch. But it will be, within reason, the hardest day of my life.''

There are too many memories, dating to when he was in the gallery right of the 11th green in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman. He caddied for Mize for two years, and then Scott Simpson in 1992, and Mickelson the rest of the way. He was on the bag for Lefty's three green jackets.

Mackay still doesn't talk much about what led them to part ways, except to say that a player-caddie relationship runs its course.

''If you lose that positive dynamic, there's no point in continuing,'' he said. ''It can be gone in six months or a year or five years. In our case, it took 25 years.''

He says a dozen or so players called when they split up, and the phone call most intriguing was from Roy at NBC.

''I thought I'd caddie until I dropped,'' Mackay said.

He never imagined getting yardages and lining up putts for anyone except the golfer whose bag he was carrying. Now it's for an audience that measures in the millions. Mackay doesn't look at it as a second career. And he won't rule out caddying again.

''It will always be tempting,'' he said. ''I'll always consider myself a caddie. Right now, I'm very lucky and grateful to have the job I do.''

Except for that first week in April.

Getty Images

The Social: The end was nigh, then it wasn't

By Jason CrookJanuary 16, 2018, 7:00 pm

The star power at the Sony Open may have been overshadowed by a missile scare, but there were plenty of other social media stories that kept the golf world on its toes this week, including some insight on Tiger Woods from a round with President Obama and some failed trick shots.

All that and more in this week's edition of The Social.

By now you've undoubtedly heard about the false alarm in Hawaii on Saturday, where just about everyone, including most Sony Open participants, woke up to an emergency cell phone alert that there was a ballistic missile heading toward the islands.

Hawaiian emergency management officials eventually admitted the original message was mistakenly sent out, but before they did, people (understandably) freaked out.

As the situation unfolded, some Tour pros took to social media to express their confusion and to let the Twittersphere know how they planned on riding out this threat:

While I would've been in that bathtub under the mattress with John Peterson, his wife, baby and in-laws (wait, how big is this tub?), here's how Justin Thomas reacted to the threat of impending doom:

Yeah, you heard that right.

“I was like ‘there’s nothing I can do,'” Thomas said. ”I sat on my couch and opened up the sliding door and watched TV and listened to music. I was like, if it’s my time, it’s my time.”

Hmmm ... can we just go ahead and award him all the 2018 majors right now? Because if Thomas is staring down death in mid-January, you gotta like the kid's chances on the back nine Sunday at Augusta and beyond.

Before the Hawaiian Missile Crisis of 2018, things were going about as well as they could at Waialae Country Club, starting with the Wednesday pro-am.

Jordan Spieth might have been the third-biggest star in his own group, after getting paired with superstar singer/songwriter/actor Nick Jonas and model/actress Kelly Rohrbach.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more photogenic group out on the course, and the "Baywatch" star has a gorgeous swing as well, which makes sense, considering she was a former collegiate golfer at Georgetown.

As impressive as that group was, they were somehow outshined by an amateur in another group, former NFL coach June Jones.

Jones, who now coaches the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats, played his round in bare feet and putted with his 5-iron, a remedy he came up with to battle the yips.

Former NFL and current CFL coach June Jones: A master of 5-iron putting?

A post shared by PGA TOUR (@pgatour) on

Considering he made back-to-back birdies at one point during the day, it's safe to say he's won that battle.

With Tiger Woods' return to the PGA Tour about a week away, that sound you hear is the hype train motoring full speed down the tracks.

First, his ex-girlfriend Lindsey Vonn told Sports Illustrated that she hopes this comeback works out for him.

“I loved him and we’re still friends. Sometimes, I wish he would have listened to me a little more, but he’s very stubborn and he likes to go his own way," the Olympic skiier said. "I hope this latest comeback sticks. I hope he goes back to winning tournaments.”

Vonn also mentioned she thinks Woods is very stubborn and that he didn't listen to her enough. That really shouldn't shock anyone who watched him win the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg. Don't think there were a lot of people in his ear telling him that was a great idea at the time.

We also have this report from Golf Channel Insider Tim Rosaforte, stating that the 14-time major champ recently played a round with former president Barack Obama at The Floridian in Palm City, Fla., where he received rave reviews from instructor Claude Harmon.

The Farmers Insurance Open is sure to be must-see TV, but until then, I'm here for all of the rampant speculation and guesses as to how things will go. The more takes the better. Make them extra spicy, please and thanks.

These poor New Orleans Saints fans. Guess the only thing you can do is throw your 65-inch TV off the balcony and get 'em next year.

Here's two more just for good measure.

Farts ... will they ever not be funny?

Perhaps someday, but that day was not early last week, when Tommy Fleetwood let one rip on his European teammates during EurAsia Cup team photos.

Fleetwood went 3-0-0 in the event, helping Europe to a victory over Asia, perhaps by distracting his opponents with the aid of his secret weapon.

Also, how about the diabolical question, "Did you get that?"

Yeah Tommy, we all got that.

Ahhh ... golf trick shot videos. You were fun while you lasted.

But now we’ve officially come to the point in their existence where an unsuccessful attempt is much more entertaining than a properly executed shot, and right on cue, a couple of pros delivered some epic fails.

We start with Sony Open runner-up James Hahn’s preparation for the event, where for some reason he thought he needed to practice a running, jumping, Happy Gilmore-esque shot from the lip of a bunker. It didn’t exactly work out.

Not to be outdone, Ladies European Tour pro Carly Booth attempted the juggling-drive-it-out-of-midair shot made famous by the Bryan Bros, and from the looks of things she might have caught it a little close to the hosel.

PSA to trick-shot artists everywhere: For the sake of the viewing public, if you feel a miss coming on, please make sure the camera is rolling.

Seriously, though, who cares? Definitely not these guys and gals, who took the time to comment, "who cares?" They definitely do not care.