Zurich's team format a success among players

By Ryan LavnerMay 2, 2017, 3:50 pm

AVONDALE, La. – During yet another weather delay at TPC Louisiana, tournament director Steve Worthy passed through the clubhouse to solicit feedback from the players who had showed up for the first team event on the PGA Tour since 1981.

The response was surprising, especially for a guy with nearly 30 years of experience running tournaments.

“I haven’t had anybody say anything negative,” he said Sunday. “I had emails from guys who missed the cut who said that it was so much fun and they can’t wait to get back next year.”

Nothing negative? From PGA Tour players?

“I would say that’s probably a first,” he said with a smile.

Monday’s finale was the culmination of five months of planning and promotion as the Zurich Classic, one of a handful of overlooked stops on the Tour schedule, underwent a dramatic restoration. It was a trial run for future events, not just in New Orleans (where the team format is under contract through 2019) but also around the country, and it proved an unqualified success long before the heavens opened and Cam Smith and Jonas Blixt strapped on their WWE-style championship belts.

Though 72-hole stroke play is the purest form of the game and often produces the most deserving champion, it was revealing that seven of the top 11 players in the world, and 13 of the top 25, came to the Crescent City for an event that annually struggles to attract the big names who don’t have financial ties to the tournament (such as Zurich ambassadors Jason Day, Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose).

The implication was clear: They all wanted to try something new.

“It does get a little lackadaisical out here week to week,” John Peterson said. “We do the same thing all week every week, and it gets a little old. That’s why this was so welcome. We all love team golf. I loved college golf – it was my favorite time of my life. This is about as close as it can get to that.”

Two days each of alternate shot and fourballs offered a much-needed break from the monotony of 72-hole stroke play. With no world-ranking points at stake – even more of an incentive to play, some said, because the start didn’t count against their divisor – players seemed more at ease, competing mostly for the cash, FedEx Cup boost, and personal and team pride.

“Would I want to do it every week? Probably not,” Jason Dufner said. “But a couple of weeks a year, I think it’s good for the game, and I think it’s good for us. It makes it a little bit more relaxed atmosphere. You get to have a week with a friend where we’re not trying to beat each other and we’re trying to be a team.”

Even though some of the pre-tournament favorites missed the cut (Day-Fowler; Rose-Henrik Stenson; Thomas Pieters-Daniel Berger), the early exits didn’t sting quite as badly. “A problem shared is a problem halved,” smirked Rose.

The most popular question last week was how the teams were formed, an interesting study in both psychology and relationship-building. Most were pals who shared college, state or country allegiances. Some had grown close while traveling the Tour. And a few were just plain random. Kevin Kisner and Scott Brown, the tournament runners-up, were such obvious partners that no formal request was even made.

“There was an assumption,” Kisner said. “I just asked him if he committed yet.”

The good ol’ boys didn’t exactly overflow with team spirit, but they were so desperate to contend that they “sneaky practiced” together the previous week at Palmetto. Next year should involve even more preparation, with Worthy mentioning the possibility of adding walk-up music, team names and uniforms.

Despite some initial concern that scores and tempers could spike in the uncomfortable alternate-shot format, the average for Rounds 1 and 3 was a shade under par (71.907) on the modest, nondescript layout. (TPC Louisiana is under contract through at least 2019, but there are rumblings locally that the event could – and should – move to the recently redesigned Bayou Oaks, which aspires to join Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines as one of the country’s premier public-access courses.)

Not surprisingly, better-ball play produced more fireworks, with the team of Retief Goosen-Tyrone Van Aswegen making a run at 59 on Friday, and several teams pushing into double digits under par on Sunday, including Kisner and Brown’s closing 12-under 60.

Kelly Kraft also took it deep in the final round, combining with Kevin Tway to fire a 61. Afterward, Kraft raved about the experience, describing his third-place finish, with a partner, as even more rewarding than his runner-up showing earlier this year at Pebble Beach.

“That’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a golf tournament, playing with one of my best friends and having someone to celebrate with you, not just you and your caddie out there,” Kraft said. “I hope they keep this tournament around. It was really fun.”

More than a dozen players took to Twitter to share their enthusiasm and support for the event and its format change.

And it wasn’t just the Tour types who were interested, either. TV ratings for the first round were the best for the event since at least 2007, and an estimated 25,000 fans were on the grounds Saturday – by far the most in the dozen years that the tournament has been held at TPC Louisiana.

“When we announced the format change, we had hoped for good things,” said Worthy, CEO of the Fore!Kids Foundation. “I certainly thought we’d see a boost in the field and spectator attendance and interest. And while I had high expectations, this has certainly exceeded that. It’s been great to hear all the good things from the most important people, which is the players and our spectators.”

All of the good vibes have sparked an obvious question: Should the Tour introduce even more alternative formats?

Commissioner Jay Monahan has already floated the idea of a mixed team event at the Tournament of Champions to start the year. This week, the European Tour will debut GolfSixes, with six-hole matches between two-man teams. Even an event with a limited set of clubs could be a fun twist in the fall.

After the success of the Zurich, Worthy said, “I certainly think there would be more interest in exploring other opportunities.”

Of course, having too many outside-the-box tournaments appears gimmicky and could damage the Tour’s brand. After all, a player’s livelihood is at stake, and it shouldn’t necessarily be determined by whether he can hit a 6-iron through a hula hoop while blindfolded.

“Just once or twice a year, because it adds something different,” Fowler said. “You don’t want to have too many – then it doesn’t have a unique-kind-of-week feel to it.”

Striking that balance is the upcoming challenge for Monahan and Co. But if Worthy’s informal survey was any indication, the commissioner should have the full support of an enthusiastic member base.

“‘Fun’ is probably the word that I heard the most this week,” Worthy said.

Refreshing, isn’t it?

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.

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Hot Seat: Rory jumps into the fire early

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 2:11 pm

The world’s top tours head to desert regions this week, perfect locales for The Hot Seat, the gauge upon which we measure the level of heat the game’s top personalities are facing ...

Sahara sizzle: Rory McIlroy

McIlroy won’t have to look far to see how his form measures up to world No. 1 Dustin Johnson at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

McIlroy will make his 2018 debut with Johnson in his face, literally.

McIlroy will be grouped with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood in the first two rounds.

Players like to downplay pairings early in a tournament, but it’s hard to believe McIlroy and Johnson won’t be trying to send each other messages in this European Tour event in the United Arab Emirates. That’s the alpha-dog nature of world-class players looking to protect their turf, or in the case of McIlroy, take back his turf.

“When you are at the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Trevor Immelman said about pairings during Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge last month.

And that was an offseason event.

“They want to show this guy, ‘This is what I got,’” Immelman said.

As early season matchups go, Abu Dhabi is a heavyweight pairing that ought to be fun.

So there will be no easing into the new year for McIlroy after taking off the last three months to regroup from the stubborn rib injury that plagued him last season. He is coming off a winless year, and he will be doing so alongside a guy who just won the first PGA Tour event of 2018 in an eight-shot rout. Johnson’s victory in Hawaii two weeks ago was his fifth since McIlroy last won.

“Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place, and that was because of where I was physically,” McIlroy said of 2017. “I feel prepared now. I feel ready, and I feel ready to challenge. I feel really good about where I’m at with my health. I’ve put all that behind me, which has been great.”

Sonoran Smolder: Phil Mickelson

Mickelson will turn 48 this summer.

His world ranking is sliding, down to No. 43 now, which is the lowest he has ranked in 24 years.

It’s been more than four years since he last won, making him 0 for his last 92 starts.

There’s motivation in all of that for Mickelson. He makes his 2018 debut at the CareerBuilder Challenge in the Palm Springs area this week talking like a man on a renewed mission.

There’s a Ryder Cup team to make this season, which would be his 12th straight, and there’s a career Grand Slam to claim, with the U.S. Open returning to Shinnecock Hills, where Mickelson finished second in ’04.

While Mickelson may not feel old, there are so many young stars standing in his way that it’s hard not to be constantly reminded that time isn’t on his side in these events anymore.

There has only been one player in the history of the game to win a major championship who was older than Mickelson is right now. Julius Boros won the PGA Championship when he was 48 back in 1968.

Campaign fever: Jordan Spieth

Spieth’s respect in the game’s ranks extends outside the ropes.

He was just selected to run for the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council’s chairman position. He is facing Billy Hurley III in an election to see who will succeed Davis Love III on the Tour’s Policy Board next year.

Spieth, just 24, has already made Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People.” He made that back in 2016, with the magazine writing that “he exemplifies everything that’s great about sports.” Sounds like a campaign slogan.

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CareerBuilder Challenge: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 1:10 pm

The PGA Tour shifts from Hawaii to Southern California for the second full-field event of the year. Here are the key stats and information for the CareerBuilder Challenge. Click here for full-field tee times.

How to watch (all rounds on Golf Channel):

Thursday, Rd. 1: 3-7PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Friday, Rd. 2: 3-7PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Saturday, Rd. 3: 3-7PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Sunday, Rd. 4: 3-7PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Purse: $5.9 million ($1,062,000 to winner)

Courses: PGA West, Stadium Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,113); PGA West, Nicklaus Tournament Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,159); La Quinta Country Club, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,060) NOTE: All three courses will be used for the first three rounds but only the Stadium Course will be used for the final round.

Defending champion: Hudson Swafford (-20) - defeated Adam Hadwin by one stroke to earn his first PGA Tour win.

Notables in the field

Phil Mickelson

* This is his first start of 2018. It's the fourth consecutive year he has made this event the first one on his yearly calendar.

* For the second year in a row he will serve as the tournament's official ambassador.

* He has won this event twice - in 2002 and 2004.

* This will be his 97th worldwide start since his most recent win, The Open in 2013.

Jon Rahm

* Ranked No. 3 in the world, he finished runner-up in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

* In 37 worldwide starts as a pro, he has 14 top-5 finishes.

* Last year he finished T-34 in this event.

Adam Hadwin

* Last year in the third round, he shot 59 at La Quinta Country Club. It was the ninth - and still most recent - sub-60 round on Tour.

* In his only start of 2018, the Canadian finished 32nd in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Brian Harman

* Only player on the PGA Tour with five top-10 finishes this season.

* Ranks fifth in greens in regulation this season.

* Finished third in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and T-4 in the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Brandt Snedeker

* Making only his third worldwide start since last June at the Travelers Championship. He has been recovering from a chest injury.

* This is his first start since he withdrew from the Indonesian Masters in December because of heat exhaustion.

* Hasn't played in this event since missing the cut in 2015.

Patrick Reed

* Earned his first career victory in this event in 2014, shooting three consecutive rounds of 63.

* This is his first start of 2018.

* Last season finished seventh in strokes gained: putting, the best ranking of his career.

(Stats provided by the Golf Channel editorial research unit.)