With revamped stroke, Steele fires 'basic' 63

By Ryan LavnerOctober 15, 2015, 10:21 pm

NAPA, Calif. – Brendan Steele had just poured in his third 20-footer in the last four holes when one of his fellow playing competitors decided he had seen enough.

“Just hang in there, it’s a long season,” Steve Wheatcroft quipped as they walked off the 15th green at Silverado. “You’ll make one eventually.”

Oh, Steele made more than a few Thursday during a 9-under 63 that gave him a one-shot lead over Jhonattan Vegas at the season-opening Frys.com Open.

With the anchoring ban now just two-and-a-half months away, Steele is relieved just to watch a few putts drop.

He went to the belly putter because he believed it was a better way to putt, but he conceded that he wouldn’t have gone to the method if he’d known it eventually would be banned.

“It put everybody behind,” he said.

Steele was one of several players forced to make the switch, though the 32-year-old decided to transition in spring 2014, once he’d locked up his card. So, for the first time in eight years, he ditched the belly putter and went back to a conventional-length putter with a claw grip, which he has used since college.

“It was scary,” he said, before adding, “but I figured there was nothing to lose. If I putted well, I would be ahead of the game.”

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That turned out to be the case, at least initially, as he finished fifth in his next two starts. But by no means did he light up leaderboards last season – he was ranked 121st in strokes gained-putting.

“Keegan (Bradley) and I have talked about this a lot,” he said. “Basically, everybody is thousands of hours of practice behind with the short putter. So that’s where everybody has to kind of catch up. We have to outwork everybody now to pick up those little idiosyncrasies that we’ve missed over the last eight or 10 years.”

At times, the greatest battle was mental. The anchoring brigade felt increased scrutiny every time they made a switch and played an event.

“You know everybody is paying attention,” Steele said, “so when you have a 4- or 5-footer on your first hole, you’re like, 'Just don’t miss this one,' instead of, 'OK, what do I need to do here?' You start thinking about, What is everybody going to say if I miss this one?'”

Steele is over that stage fright now, his confidence surging after what he says was his best season as a pro, even better than his breakout in 2011, when he won his first (and only) event and shared the 54-hole lead at the PGA.

He has been stunningly consistent in each of his five full seasons on Tour – a similar number of starts (24-27), a similar number of top 10s (2-4), a similar paycheck at the end of the year.

But in 2014-15, he posted more good finishes in fewer events. He had a better made-cut percentage (20 of 24). He even played well overseas.

A number of factors contributed to that, whether it was his continued work with swing coach Rick Smith and putting guru Chris Mayson, a reliable caddie in Christian Donald, or the time spent in the gym that has seen his driving distance spike 13 yards in the past two years.  

“Maybe each one is worth a quarter of a shot a round,” he said, “and it ends up being a big deal at the end of the year.”

His season ended three weeks ago in Chicago, and he couldn’t wait for the restart.

Last week, he shot 62 in a casual round with friends. In the Wednesday pro-am here, he felt in total control of his game and started to get antsy.

“I hate it when I’m home and I feel really good; it’s hard to keep it,” he said. “I always say your game is either coming or going. So when it’s coming, you want to be in the right place.”

Like, you know, wine country?

On a postcard day, Steele went out in 29 and made par on his last four holes for his lowest opening round in 16 months. With that revamped putting stroke, he brushed in nine birdies, six of which came from inside 7 feet.

“Kind of a basic 63,” he shrugged.

It's a long season with an auspicious start. 

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Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:45 pm

Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.

"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."

Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.

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Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.

"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."

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Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn

By Jason CrookJanuary 18, 2018, 11:40 pm

There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.

Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.

Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.

Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.


A post shared by Alex Noren (@alexnoren1) on

The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.

It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off for him.

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Mickelson starts fast, fades to 70 at La Quinta

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:07 pm

Phil Mickelson got off to a fast start in his first competitive round of 2018 - for six holes, at least.

The 47-year-old is making his first start since the WGC-HSBC Champions this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, and only his third competitive appearance since the BMW Championship in September. Four birdies over his first six holes indicated that a strong opener might be in the cards, but Mickelson played his subsequent holes in 2 over.

It added up to a 2-under 70 at La Quinta Country Club, typically the easiest of the three courses in rotation this week, and left Mickelson eight shots behind Jon Rahm.

"It was fun to get back out and be competitive," Mickelson told reporters. "I for some reason am stuck on 70 here at La Quinta, whether I get off to a good start or a bad one, I end up shooting the same score."

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

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Mickelson stunted his momentum with a tee shot out of bounds on the par-4 eighth hole, but he managed to save bogey and otherwise drove the ball relatively well. Instead, he pointed to his normally reliable iron play as the culprit for his back-nine backslide on a day when more than 120 players in the 156-man field broke par.

Mickelson will now head to the Nicklaus Tournament Course with the Stadium Course on tap for Saturday's third round. While there were several low scores Thursday at La Quinta, Mickelson remains bullish about the birdie opportunities that still lie ahead.

"This isn't the course where I go low on," Mickelson said. "I feel more comfortable on Stadium and Nicklaus. Neither of them are nearly as tight and I tend to score a lot lower on those other two than I do here, historically."

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Rahm (62) shoots career low round at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 10:33 pm

After a banner year in 2017, Jon Rahm found a way to add yet another accolade to his growing list of accomplishments during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Rahm got off to a fast start at La Quinta Country Club, playing his first seven holes in 6 under en route to a 10-under 62. The score marked his career low on the PGA Tour by two shots and gave him an early lead in an event that utilizes a three-course rotation.

La Quinta was the site of Adam Hadwin's 59 during last year's event, and Rahm knew full well that a quick start opened the door to a memorably low score.

"Any time you have that going for you, you get thoughts come in your head, 60, maybe 59," Rahm told reporters. "I knew that if I kept playing good I was going to have more birdie opportunities, and I tried not to get ahead of myself and I was able to do it."

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

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Rahm birdied his first two holes before an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole sparked him to an outward 30. He added four more birdies on the inward half without dropping a shot.

The Spaniard is the highest-ranked player in the field this week, and while many players opted for a two-week stint in Hawaii he instead came home for some practice after opening the new year with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. That decision appears to have paid some early dividends as Rahm gets set to defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Low scores were plentiful on all three courses during the opening round, and Rahm remained pleased with his effort even though he fell short of matching Hadwin's sub-60 score from a year ago.

"That's golf. You're not going to make every single putt, you're not going to hit every shot perfect," he said. "Overall, you've got to look at the bigger picture. I birdied the last hole, had a couple of great sand saves coming in, shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for."