For now, PGA still last shot for golf's big shots

By Ryan LavnerAugust 9, 2017, 6:20 pm

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Better savor this while we can, a PGA Championship that stays true to its identity as golf’s final major.

That won’t be true in two years, after one of the sport’s worst-kept secrets was made public: Beginning in 2019, the PGA will slide from its traditional August date to the third week in May.

The benefits look good on a PowerPoint presentation – ending the season before football begins, opening up venues around the country and offering five consecutive months of big-time tournaments – but there’s no doubt that the PGA’s core identity will change.

That’s a shame, because this week offers a reminder of precisely what makes this tournament unique. It’s the final opportunity to bag a major before eight months of reflection and excruciating buildup.

For Rory McIlroy, that means one last shot to reaffirm his status as golf’s alpha dog.

For Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, it’s one last shot to redeem a lost major season.

And for Jordan Spieth, well, it’s one last shot to make this a historic year.

This week he has a chance to – all together now – become the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam, and at 24, he’d be the youngest to accomplish the feat.

Listening to Spieth, though, you’d never know what’s at stake. Perhaps in an effort to deflect attention, he opined that he isn’t the favorite this week – your serve, Rory – nor is he burdened by the possibilities in front of him.

PGA Championship: Tee times | Full coverage

Become the youngest to win all four majors? Nope, not a “burning desire.”

Check off the Grand Slam on his career to-do list? Eh, there’s plenty of time – this is his first of 30 PGAs.

Already with a major this year, Spieth is approaching this week with the casualness of a Panthers preseason game.

“I’m free-rolling,” he said, “and it feels good. I’m as free and relaxed at a major as I think I’ve ever felt.”

Must be nice, because the scrutiny of McIlroy has rarely been this intense.

What could have been a monster season has been reduced to a “transitional” year after a rib injury, a wedding, an equipment change and a caddie split. And yet here we are, at Quail Hollow, in a major that seems like his destiny ever since it was announced in 2010. In seven career trips around this place, McIlroy has two wins, a playoff loss and three other finishes inside the top 10.

“Once you go back to a place where you do have great memories,” he said, “all that starts to come flooding back to you and it makes you feel good about yourself.”

On Wednesday, McIlroy carried drives 365 yards (with only 7 feet of curve!) and cracked 3-woods three bills off the deck, rendering the range useless. Historically, Quail Hollow has been the launching pad for some of the best driving performances of his career, but all of that firepower will be of little use if he can’t control his wedges.

Last week at Firestone, he pounded driver all over the lot and had 35 approach shots from inside 125 yards. He played those holes in – gulp – 4 under par. From 125-150 yards, McIlroy would rank dead last in proximity to the hole this season if he had enough rounds to qualify.

This week, he has added a 3-iron but eliminated one of his wedges, a curious move, because it leaves a six-degree gap (48, 54 and 60) that will require even more precision with his shorter clubs.

Now three years removed from his last major title – and with his chief rival, Spieth, claiming three in that span – there is a sense of urgency for McIlroy to reassert his authority, even if the former Boy Wonder continues to stress patience.

“I don’t want to be in the mindset this week of wanting to make any type of statement or go out and prove myself. I’m past that point,” he said. “I’ve proven myself over the last nine years of my career.”

So have Johnson and Day, but unlike in previous years they’ve fallen flat in the majors in 2017.

Running off three titles in a row, and playing the best golf of his life, Johnson entered the Masters as the prohibitive favorite. Then he slipped on a set of stairs, injuring his back, defusing his explosive driver and leading to a string of middling results, a rarity for one of the game’s most consistent performers. Now, though, he says that his body feels good. And so does his swing. And so, most importantly, does his driver.

“I feel it’s close to when I was playing really well before Augusta,” Johnson said, but failing to snag major No. 2, or at least contend, would be a disappointment for a player who this spring appeared on the verge of utter domination.

Day, meanwhile, admitted that he’s still searching, that he’s growing increasingly impatient with the “plateau” in his game that has dropped his world ranking from No. 1 to No. 7 in the past six months. His slide is most noticeable in the big events: He has posted 10 major top-10s since 2013, but this year hasn’t finished better than 22nd.

“You’re not panicking or anything,” he said, “you’re just wondering why. You’re up at night thinking, OK, what do I need to do to get back to that winning form?”

Day posed that question to Phil Mickelson Tuesday night at the PGA Champions Dinner. Mickelson explained that the key to busting out of a slump is to keep practicing and stay disciplined, because players at this level are usually one small tweak away.

“You just never know what’s around the corner,” Day said.

Well, what we do know is that after this week, there isn’t a career-defining event for the next eight months. That’s the subtle beauty of the PGA. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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TT postscript: Tiger (E) survives difficult day

By Tiger TrackerFebruary 22, 2018, 6:40 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Here are some observations after watching Tiger Woods’ even-par 70 in the first round of the Honda Classic:

• Whew, that was tough. Like, by far the most difficult conditions Woods has faced this year. The wind blew about 20 mph all day, from different directions, and that affected every part of the game, especially putting.

• And though the stats aren’t necessarily pretty – half the fairways hit, just 10 greens – this was BY FAR his best ball-striking round of the new year. He even said so himself. When he walked off the course, he was just four off the lead.

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

• Woods had only one bad hole Thursday. It came on the par-5 third hole, his 12th of the day. He blew his driver into the right bunker. He had to lay way back, to clear the lip of the bunker. And then he tugged his third shot just barely in the greenside trap. And then his bunker shot didn’t get onto the green. Then he chipped on and missed a 4-footer. A truly ugly double bogey.

• The driver is still a concern – he found the fairway only once in five attempts. But only one of those misses was way off-line. That came on the 12th, when he double-crossed one way left.

• Though the driver is uncooperative, he has showed a lot of improvement with his 3-wood. The four times he used it, he controlled the ball flight beautifully and hit it 300-plus. His 2-iron is making a comeback, too, in a big way.

• After this round, he should have a little wiggle room Friday to make the cut, barring a blowup round. It’s playing tough, and the 36-hole cut should be over par. Tiger needs four rounds of competitive reps. If he plays like this Friday, he’ll get them. 

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Tiger Tracker: Honda Classic

By Tiger TrackerFebruary 22, 2018, 5:45 pm

Tiger Woods is making his third start of the year at the Honda Classic. We're tracking him at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

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Pepperell among co-leaders early in Qatar

By Associated PressFebruary 22, 2018, 5:06 pm

DOHA, Qatar – Eddie PepperellGregory Havret, and Aaron Rai made the most of calm early morning conditions at Doha Golf Club to set the pace in the opening round of the Qatar Masters at 7-under-par 65 on Thursday.

Havret went bogey free, Pepperell made one bogey and eight birdies, while fellow English golfer Rai eagled his last hole to add to five birdies.

One shot behind the leaders were four players, including former Ryder Cup player Edoardo Molinari of Italy and former champion Alvaro Quiros of Spain.

Defending champion Jeunghun Wang of South Korea started with a 68, and Race to Dubai leader Shubhankar Sharma of India shot 69 despite a double bogey on the 15th hole.

Full-field scores from the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters

Pepperell, who is fast gaining a reputation on the European Tour for his irreverent tweets and meaningful blogs, showed his clubs can also do an equal amount of talking after missing cuts in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Malaysia.

Pepperell birdied Nos. 10, 11, 14, 16 and 18 with a single blemish on 13 after starting on the back nine. He made three more birdies on his back nine.

He was joined on top of the leaderboard by Havret, who made five birdies in six holes from the sixth, and Rai, who eagled the last.

''I surprised myself, really,'' said Pepperell, who finished third in Portugal and Netherlands last year.

''I've made some changes this week with personnel, so I've been working on a couple of new things and I surprised myself out there with how well I managed to trust it.

''I hit some quality tee shots, that's the area I feel that I've been struggling with a bit lately. We had a good time.

''It's definitely a bigger picture for me this week than tomorrow and indeed the weekend. I'm not overly-fussed about my early season form.”

Molinari, a three-time champion on the tour including last year in Morocco, started with eight straight pars, and then made seven birdies in his last 10 holes, including a chip-in for birdie on the last.

''I hit every green apart from the last one. I hit a lot of fairways, I had a lot of chances for birdie,'' said Edoardo, the older brother of Francesco.

''Last week in Oman, I had a decent week, I had a bad first round and then three very good rounds. It's been the case for the last few weeks so my focus this week was to try and get a good start.''

Oliver Fisher of England was the best among the afternoon groups with a 6-under 66, joining Molinari, Quiros and Germany's Marcel Schneider in a tie for fourth.

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Honda Classic: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalFebruary 22, 2018, 2:15 pm

The PGA Tour heads back east to kick off the Florida Swing at PGA National. Here are the key stats and information for the Honda Classic. Click here for full-field tee times.

How to watch:

Thursday, Rd. 1: Golf Channel, 2-6PM ET; live stream:

Friday, Rd. 2: Golf Channel, 2-6PM ET; live stream:

Saturday, Rd. 3: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream:; CBS, 3-6PM ET

Sunday, Rd. 4: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream:; CBS, 3-6PM ET

Purse: $6.6 million ($1,188,000 to the winner)

Course: PGA National, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida (par-70; 7,140 yards)

Defending champion: Rickie Fowler (-12) won by four, picking off his fourth PGA Tour victory.

Notables in the field:

Tiger Woods

• Making his fourth start at the Honda Classic and his first since withdrawing with back spasms in 2014.

• Shot a Sunday 62 in a T-2 finish in 2012, marking his lowest career final-round score on the PGA Tour.

• Coming off a missed cut at last week's Genesis Open, his 17th in his Tour career.

Rickie Fowler

• The defending champion owns the lowest score to par and has recorded the most birdies and eagles in this event since 2012.

• Fowler's last start was at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he failed to close a 54-hole lead. Fowler is 1-for-6 with 54-hole leads in his Tour career, with his only successful close coming at last year's Honda.

• On Tour this year, Fowler is first in scrambling from the fringe, second in total scrambling and third in strokes gained around the green. 

Rory McIlroy

• It's been feast or famine for McIlroy at the Honda. He won in 2012, withdrew with a toothache in 2013, finished T-2 in 2014 and missed the cut in 2015 and 2016.

• McIlroy ascended to world No. 1 with his victory at PGA National in 2012, becoming the second youngest player at 22 years old to top the OWGR, behind only Woods. McIlroy was later edged by a slightly younger 22-year-old Jordan Spieth.

• Since the beginning of 2010, only Dustin Johnson (15) has more PGA Tour victories than McIlroy (13).