New-era stars thriving with friends-first mentality

By Ryan LavnerAugust 14, 2017, 10:00 pm

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Last month, Justin Thomas stood behind the 18th green at Royal Birkdale, waiting to congratulate one of his pals on another major victory.

Wearing basketball shorts and a sweatshirt, Thomas, who had missed the cut two days earlier, politely answered questions about Jordan Spieth’s wild back nine, his remarkable ability to rebound from calamity, and what type of debauchery would ensue on their plane ride home.

This spot was nothing new for Thomas, of course. Once the mainstream sports media learned that Spieth and Thomas had competed against each other since they were 14, they became a package deal. But now Spieth had won again, resuming a historic major pace, and Thomas couldn’t help but feel as though he was losing ground.

“He’s not mad because Jordan wins,” said Mike Thomas, Justin’s father and swing coach. “He’s happy for Jordan. But he’s like, I’ve beaten Jordan before, and Jordan is winning [majors], so why can’t I do this, too?”

Sometimes, that’s all the motivation a player needs. A month after The Open, Thomas won his own major, surviving Quail Hollow’s notoriously difficult closing stretch to capture the PGA Championship.

This time, it was Spieth who waited behind the green to welcome his buddy into the major club.

“So awesome, dude,” he said.

The youth movement on the PGA Tour is here to stay, and these fun, rich, congenial, ambitious, social-media savvy and fiercely competitive 20-somethings seem to be propelling each other to new heights.

Gone is the edginess, the animosity, the simmering tension of other eras.

Jack and Arnie.

Faldo and Norman.

Tiger and Phil.

Today’s young stars forged these friendships a decade ago, when they were battling on the AJGA circuit. But now, instead of needling each other during practice rounds or heated games of Ping-Pong, they’re vying for a piece of history and the biggest titles in golf, all while raking in millions, flying in private jets and socializing with other famous athletes.

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The meteoric spike in prize and endorsement money may have dulled the motivation for the Tour’s middle class, but the elite, overflowing with swagger and ego, remain locked in an arms race, and no one wants to get left behind or forfeit bragging rights.

Do television viewers prefer bitter rivals over best buds? We’ll find out definitively over the next few years. But there’s little doubt this chummy dynamic has raised the quality of play, if not the intensity.

“It’s cool because you can learn so much from watching your friends play well and get the job done,” Rickie Fowler said. “It’s fun to see because it also motivates you to go out and push yourself to another level.

“It’s fun to see them play well and win, but at the same time it’s even more satisfying when you get to go out and beat all your buddies.”

On Sunday, it was Fowler who once again had a front-row seat. Make no mistake, he was thrilled for one of his closest friends, documenting Thomas’ speech, signing duties and plane ride home with the Wanamaker Trophy for his millions of Snapchat followers. But to hear Fowler on the 18th green, the moment clearly was bittersweet.  

“It’s a good kind of rivalry between all the young guys,” he said. “We’re all good friends. We all travel together. We all play practice rounds together. JT and I live right down the street from each other. It’s only going to push me even harder to want to get back and go beat him up the next time we tee it up.”

Members of the popular spring-break crew aren’t the only beneficiaries of the new fratty vibe on Tour.  

After winning the U.S. Open, Brooks Koepka credited his friendship with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. After all, they work out together. Practice together. Play together. Wherever they are – in the gym, on the range, on the course – the bash brothers are competing. Partly through osmosis, then, Koepka became a major champion.

“Whenever you’re really good friends with somebody, that’s what happens, isn’t it?” said Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliott. “If you can do it, I can do it.”

And that’s what makes this new breed so appealing. Sure, there’s respect and admiration among the young stars, but there also is a serious case of trophy envy.

“That kind of shows where the game is right now, where all of us are,” Thomas said. “Obviously we all want to win. We want to beat the other person. But if we can’t win, then we at least want to enjoy it with our friends.

“I know it’s going to make them even more hungry, just like it did for me, seeing Jordan at the British.”

And just like it likely will for Fowler, who, during a five-minute interview Sunday, alternated between praising his pal and lamenting his own mistakes that cost him the title.

Unprompted, he said: “My time is coming. It’s not long.”

His friends will be waiting.

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Confident Lincicome lurking after 54 holes at Founders

By Randy SmithMarch 18, 2018, 2:45 am

PHOENIX – Brittany Lincicome is farther back than she wanted to be going into Sunday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she’s in a good place.

She’s keeping the momentum of her season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas Classic victory going this year.

Her confidence is high.

“Last year, I won in the Bahamas, but then I didn't do anything after that,” Lincicome said. “I don't even know if I had a top 10 after my win in the Bahamas. Obviously, this year, I want to be more consistent.”

Lincicome followed up her victory in the Bahamas this year with a tie for seventh in her next start at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And now she’s right back on another leaderboard with the year’s first major championship just two weeks away. She is, by the way, a two-time winner at the ANA Inspiration.

Missy Pederson, Lincicome’s caddie, is helping her player keep that momentum going with more focus on honing in the scoring clubs.

“One of our major goals is being more consistent,” Pederson said. “She’s so talented, a once in a generation talent. I’m just trying to help out in how to best approach every golf course.”

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Pederson has helped Lincicome identify the clubs they’re likely to attack most with on the particular course they are playing that week, to spend more time working with those clubs in practice. It’s building confidence.

“I know the more greens we hit, and the more chances we give ourselves, the more our chances are to be in contention,” Pederson said. “Britt is not big into stats or details, so I have to figure out how to best consolidate that information, to get us exactly where we need to be.”

Lincicome’s growing comfort with clubs she can attack with is helping her confidence through a round.

“I’ve most noticed consistency in her mental game, being able to handle some of the hiccups that happen over the course of a round,” Pederson said. “Whereas before, something might get under her skin, where she might say, `That’s what always happens,’ now, it’s, `All right, I know I’m good enough to get this back.’ I try to get her in positions to hit the clubs we are really hitting well right now.”

That’s leading to a lot more birdies, fewer bogeys and more appearances on leaderboards in the start to this year.

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Returning Park grabs 54-hole Founders lead

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 2:09 am

PHOENIX – In the long shadows falling across Wildfire Golf Club late Saturday afternoon, Inbee Park conceded she was tempted to walk away from the game last year.

While healing a bad back, she was tempted to put her clubs away for good and look for a second chapter for her life.

But then . . .

“Looking at the girls playing on TV, you think you want to be out there” Park said. “Really, I couldn't make my mind up when I was taking that break, but as soon as I'm back here, I just feel like this is where I belong.”

In just her second start after seven months away from the LPGA, Park is playing like she never left.

She’s atop a leaderboard at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, looking like that’s exactly where she belongs.

With a 9-under-par 63 Saturday, Park seized the lead going into the final round.

At 14 under overall, she’s one shot ahead of Mariajo Uribe (67), two ahead of Ariya Jutanugarn (68) and three ahead of 54-year-old World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies (63) and Chella Choi (66).

Park’s back with a hot putter.

That’s not good news for the rest of the tour. Nobody can demoralize a field with a flat stick like Park. She’s one of the best putters the women’s game has ever seen, and on the front nine Saturday she looked as good as she ever has.

“The front nine was scary,” said her caddie, Brad Beecher, who was on Park’s bag for her long run at world No. 1, her run of three consecutive major championship victories in 2013 and her gold medal victory at the Olympics two years ago.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The front nine was great . . . like 2013,” Park said.

Park started her round on fire, going birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie. She was 6 under through five holes. She holed a wedge from 98 yards at the third hole, making the turn having taken just 10 putts. Yeah, she said, she was thinking about shooting 59.

“But I'm still really happy with my round today,” she said.

Park isn’t getting ahead of herself, even with this lead. She said her game isn’t quite where she wants it with the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship, just two weeks away, but a victory Sunday should go a long way toward getting her there.

Park is only 29. LPGA pros haven’t forgotten what it was like when she was dominating, when she won 14 times between 2013 and ’15.

They haven’t forgotten how she can come back from long layoffs with an uncanny ability to pick up right where she left off.

Park won the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in her first start back after missing two months because of a ligament injury in her left thumb. She took eight months off after Rio and came back to win the HSBC Women’s World Championship last year in just her second start. She left the tour again in the summer with an aching back.

“I feel like Inbee could take off a whole year or two years and come back and win every week,” said Brittany Lincicome, who is four shots behind Park. “Her game is just so consistent. She doesn't do anything flashy, but her putting is flashy.

“She literally walks them in. It's incredible, like you know it's going in when she hits it. It's not the most orthodox looking stroke, but she can repeat it.”

Park may not play as full a schedule as she has in the past, Beecher said, but he believes she can thrive with limited starts.

“I think it helps her get that fight back, to get that hunger back,” Beecher said. “She knows she can play 15 events a year and still compete. There aren’t a lot of players who can do that.”

Park enjoyed her time away last year, and how it re-energized her.

“When I was taking the long break, I was just thinking, `I can do this life as well,’” Park said. “But I'm glad I came back out here. Obviously, days like today, that's the reason I'm playing golf.”

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Joh on St. Patrick's ace: Go broke buying green beers

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:57 am

PHOENIX – Tiffany Joh was thrilled making a run into contention to win her first LPGA title Saturday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she comically cracked that her hole-in-one might have been ill-timed.

It came on St. Patrick’s Day.

“This is like the worst holiday to be making a hole-in-one on,” Joh said. “You'll go broke buying everyone green beers.”

Joh aced the fifth hole with a 5-iron from 166 yards on her way to an 8-under-par 64. It left her four shots behind the leader, Inbee Park (63).

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

One of the more colorful players on tour, Joh said she made the most of her hole-in-one celebration with playing partner Jane Park.

“First I ran and tackled Jane, then I high-fived like every single person walking to the green,” Joh said.

Joh may be the LPGA’s resident comedian, but she faced a serious challenge on tour last year.  Fourteen months ago, she had surgery to remove a malignant melanoma. She won the LPGA’s Heather Farr Perseverance Award for the way she handled her comeback.

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Davies, 54, still thinks she can win, dreams of HOF

By Randall MellMarch 18, 2018, 12:22 am

PHOENIX – Laura Davies limped around Wildfire Golf Club Saturday with an ache radiating from her left Achilles up into her calf muscle at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“Every step is just misery,” Davies said after. “It’s just getting older. Don’t get old.”

She’s 54, but she played the third round as if she were 32 again.

That’s how old she was when she was the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year and won two major championships.

With every sweet swing Saturday, Davies peeled back the years, turning back the clock.

Rolling in a 6-foot birdie at the 17th, Davies moved into a tie for the lead with Inbee Park, a lead that wouldn’t last long with so many players still on the course when she finished. Still, with a 9-under-par 63, Davies moved into contention to try to become the oldest winner in LPGA history.

Davies has won 20 LPGA titles, 45 Ladies European Tour titles, but she hasn’t won an LPGA event in 17 years, since taking the Wegmans Rochester International.

Can she can surpass the mark Beth Daniel set winning at 46?

“I still think I can win,” Davies said. “This just backs that up for me. Other people, I don’t know, they’re always asking me now when I’m going to retire. I always say I’m still playing good golf, and now here’s the proof of it.”

Davies knows it will take a special day with the kind of final-round pressure building that she hasn’t experienced in awhile.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“The pressure will be a lot more tomorrow,” she said. “We'll see, won’t sleep that well tonight. The good news is that I’ll probably be four or five behind by the end of the day, so the pressure won’t be there as much.”

Davies acknowledged confidence is harder to garner, as disappointments and missed cuts pile up, but she’s holding on to her belief she can still win.

“I said to my caddie, `Jeez, I haven't been on top of the leaderboard for a long time,’” Davies said. “That's nice, obviously, but you’ve got to stay there. That's the biggest challenge.”

About that aching left leg, Davies was asked if it could prevent her from challenging on Sunday.

“I’ll crawl around if I have to,” she said.

Saturday’s 63 was Davies’ lowest round in an LPGA event since she shot 63 at the Wendy’s Championship a dozen years ago.

While Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in ’01. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.

Davies said she still dreams about qualifying.

“You never know,” she said.