Spieth rising from 'valley' after Pebble win

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 13, 2017, 2:04 am

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Boring golf was the plan, and it produced a thrilling result.

Staked to a six-shot lead, Jordan Spieth’s only goal Sunday was to hit as many greens as possible in the final round. He found 17 of them, making two birdies and zero mistakes, stiff-arming the field and winning the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am by four shots for his first PGA Tour title in nine months.

“Tee to green,” he said, “it was exactly what I was looking for.”

With all of the discussion about the game’s young stars, Spieth issued a timely reminder of his standing in the sport. At 23, he’s the second-youngest player in the modern era to win nine Tour events, behind only Tiger Woods. Comparisons to Woods are best viewed with context – Spieth has nine wins in 100 Tour starts; Woods had 28 in that span – but Spieth’s sustained excellence somehow seems underappreciated in today’s what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? sports culture. He’s a historically great player.

“He’s what you call the greatest player in the world right now,” said Jake Owen, his amateur partner this week. “He’s going to be really hard to beat for a lot of years, because it’s not just his golf swing. It’s what’s between his ears. He does not stop. He’s always there for the win. He’s dominating these guys mentally.”

AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am: Articles, photos and videos

After a few learning experiences early in his career, Spieth has turned into a reliable closer. Seven of the past eight times he’s held the 54-hole lead, he went on to win. The only time he didn’t? Yeah, it was a biggie – last year’s Masters – but it’s a testament to his resolve, and his short-term memory, that he’s 2-for-2 since then. What’s more, he has posted 13 consecutive under-par final rounds on Tour, and his Sunday scoring average since July is a shade over 67.

Here at Pebble, Spieth’s six-shot lead was sliced in half, but he remained in total control, putting for birdie on all but one hole. Caddie Michael Greller reminded Spieth to "keep playing boring golf," and he did.

“This was as well as I’ve struck the ball closing a tournament, I think ever,” Spieth said. “The only stress I had was why the birdie putts weren’t going in. That’s awesome. I can take that going forward.”

Added Greller: “He knows what to do, and it was good to see him have those feelings and respond how he has historically under pressure.”

Still, it felt like a long time coming for Spieth, who hadn’t won on Tour since Colonial last May. Coming off a historic season, 2016 was bound to be a transitional year, a time when Spieth found his footing as a global superstar, when he was, Greller said, "the hunted instead of the hunter."

There were growing pains, no doubt. Spieth’s swing didn’t always cooperate, and his patience was tested, and he grew frustrated with the media and himself for trying to compare the two seasons, 2015 and ’16. But last year he still won three worldwide titles and could have – should have – added another major. For all of the handwringing about Spieth’s game, only Hideki Matsuyama collected more hardware a year ago.

At times, only Spieth could see the big picture.

“If this is a valley,” he said on more than one occasion, “then it’s going to be a lot of fun when we get back up to a peak.”

And so it was Sunday at Pebble Beach, where under a bright blue sky Spieth teamed with Owen, helping the country-music star with lines off the tee and reads on the green. They had a blast all four days, but in the final round Spieth grew mildly frustrated when his speed control was off. He even apologized to Owen on the 17th tee, for not being as social as usual.

“I’m kind of grinding a little bit,” Spieth said.

“Yeah, man,” Owen said with a laugh, “what’s up with that?”

But 10 minutes later, Spieth was all smiles. Owen overheard Spieth giving himself a pep talk as he lined up his 30-footer.

“All right, come on,” Spieth muttered. “This is the one. This one’s going in. You’re due.”

The birdie putt dropped, pushing Spieth’s lead to the final margin of victory, four shots over Kelly Kraft.

“Dude, you called that!” Owen said, walking off the green. “I knew that was going in once you were calling it!”

“I’m glad you knew it was going in,” Spieth replied. “I was just trying to hit it the right speed.”

One of Spieth’s goals for this year was to enjoy the process more, to smile on the course, to remember that he’s living out his dream. They’re little things that are easily forgotten during the grind of a 25-tournament schedule, but further proof that Spieth is growing more comfortable in his own skin.

He has reached an understanding that, in all likelihood, he will never again duplicate his two-major 2015 season, because it requires exceptional play, yes, but also some good fortune.

“But that kind of play can be the normal for me,” he said, “because I’ve seen it before. It can happen again.”

And so far, it has. In 2015, Spieth ranked in the top 15 in strokes-gained driving, approaches, short game and putting. It was clinical. But Spieth’s ball-striking tailed off last season, and he said he worked as hard as he ever has during the offseason with swing coach Cameron McCormick.

“He’s always hungry,” Greller said. “He’s not somebody who is ever going to coast. It’s fun to work for a guy like that. Always hungry. Always driven.”

The hard work has paid off. Though he has bemoaned a cold putter – the middle two rounds boosted his confidence, pouring in putts on spongy, bumpy greens – Spieth has been one of the best iron players on Tour and ranks inside the top 10 in strokes gained overall.

“People think it’s only his putter,” Greller said, “but he’s incredibly well-rounded when you really break down the stats.”

This has been the best start of Spieth’s five-year career. Pebble was his fourth consecutive top-10, and he’s now played all 16 of his rounds under par.

“It’s validation of all the hard work he’s put in this offseason,” Greller said.

And now another peak is in sight.

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Kelly, Sauers co-lead in Hawaii; Monty, Couples in mix

By Associated PressJanuary 19, 2018, 3:52 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Fresh off a solid performance on Oahu, Jerry Kelly shot an 8-under 64 on the Big Island on Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 51-year-old Kelly, who tied for 14th at the PGA Tour's Sony Open last week in Honolulu, birdied five of his final seven holes to shoot 30 on the back nine at Hualalai. He won twice last season, his first on the over-50 tour.

Gene Sauers also shot 64, going bogey-free amid calm conditions. Thirty-two of the 44 players broke par in the limited-field event, which includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Rocco Mediate and Colin Montgomerie were one shot back, and Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland and Kirk Triplett were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was in the middle of the pack after a 69.

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Rahm (62) fires career low round

By Will GrayJanuary 19, 2018, 12:03 am

The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:

Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)

What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.

Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.

Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.

Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.

Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.

Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.

Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm

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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.