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.”

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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 beats Monty with two-shot swing on final hole

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 3:21 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Jerry Kelly made an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole, Colin Montgomerie missed a 6-footer for par and Kelly turned a one-shot deficit into a victory Saturday in the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

After Kelly drove it well right into lava rocks on the par-4 16th, leading to bogey and giving Montgomerie the lead, Montgomerie made a mistake with his tee shot on the last, finding a fairway bunker. Montgomerie's approach went over the green and after Kelly converted his birdie, the 54-year-old Scot jammed his par putt well past the hole.

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It was the third win on the over-50 tour for the 51-year-old Kelly, who finished tied for 14th last week at the PGA Tour's Sony Open in Honolulu. That gave him confidence as he hopped over to the Big Island for his tournament debut at Hualalai. The limited-field event includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Kelly closed with a 6-under 66 for a three-day total of 18-under 198. Montgomerie shot 69. David Toms shot 67 and finished two shots back, and Miguel Angel Jimenez was another stroke behind after a 66.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, closed with a 70 to finish at 10 under.

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Rahm manages frustration, two back at CareerBuilder

By Randall MellJanuary 21, 2018, 1:21 am

Jon Rahm managed the winds and his frustrations Saturday at the CareerBuilder Challenge to give himself a chance to win his fourth worldwide title in the last year.

Rahm’s 2-under-par 70 on the PGA West Stadium Course left him two shots off the lead going into the final round.

“I wasn’t really dealing with the wind that much,” Rahm said of his frustrations. “I was dealing with not being as fluid as I was the last two days.”

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The world’s No. 3 ranked player opened with a 62 at La Quinta Country Club on Thursday and followed it up with a 67 on Friday at PGA West. He made six birdies and four bogeys on the Stadium Course on Saturday.

“The first day, everything was outstanding,” Rahm said. “Yesterday, my driver was a little shaky but my irons shots were perfect. Today, my driver was shaky and my irons shots were shaky. On a course like this, it’s punishing, but luckily on the holes where I found the fairway I was able to make birdies.”

Rahm is projected to move to No. 2 in the world rankings with a finish of sixth or better on Sunday.

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Cook leads by one entering final round at CareerBuilder

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 12:51 am

LA QUINTA, Calif. – Austin Cook hit a hybrid into the fairway bunker on the par-4 18th on a breezy Saturday afternoon at La Quinta Country Club, then chunked a wedge and raced a chip 20 feet past the hole.

Kip Henley, the longtime PGA Tour caddie who guided Cook to a breakthrough victory at Sea Island in November, stepped in to give the 26-year-old former Arkansas star a quick pep talk.

''Kip said, 'Let's finish this like we did on the first day at the Nicklaus Course.' We made a big par putt on 18 there and he said, 'Let's just do the same thing. Let's get this line right and if you get the line right it's going in.'''

It did, giving Cook an 8-under 64 and a one-stroke lead in the CareerBuilder Challenge going into the final round on the Stadium Course at PGA West. Fellow former Razorback Andrew Landry and Martin Piller were tied for second, and Jon Rahm and Scott Piercy were a another stroke back after a tricky day in wind that didn't get close to the predicted gusts of 40 mph.

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''I know that I wouldn't have wanted to play the Stadium today,'' Cook said. ''I think we got a great draw with the courses that we got to play on the days that we got to play them.''

Cook played the final six holes on the front nine in 6 under with an eagle and four birdies.

''Starting on my fourth hole, I was able to make a birdie and kind of get the ball rolling and it never really stopped rolling,'' Cook said. ''Kip and I were doing really good at seeing the line on the greens.''

After a bogey on 10, he birdied 11, 12 and 15 and parred the final three to get to 19-under 197.

''I think that tonight the nerves, the butterflies, all that will kind of be a little less,'' Cook said. ''I've been in the situation before and I was able to finish the job on Sunday. I think it would be a little different if I didn't play like I did on Sunday at Sea Island.''

He's making his first start in the event.

''I came in from Hawaii on Monday, so I only had two days to prepare for three courses,'' Cook said.

Landry, the second-round leader, had a 70 at the Stadium. Piller, the husband of LPGA tour player Gerina Piller, shot a 67 at La Quinta. Winless on the PGA Tour, they will join Cook in the final threesome.

''Piller's a good guy and we have played a lot together and same with Cookie,'' said Landry, the only player without a bogey after 54 holes. ''Hope the Hogs are going to come out on top.''

Rahm had a 70 at the Stadium to reach 17 under. The third-ranked Rahm beat up the par 5s again, but had four bogeys – three on par 3s. He has played the 12 par 5s in 13 under with an eagle and 11 birdies.

''A little bit of a survival day,'' Rahm said.

The wind was more of a factor on the more exposed and tighter Stadium Course.

''The course is firming up,'' Rahm said. ''I know if we have similar wind to today, if we shoot something under par, you'll be way up there contesting it over the last few holes.''

Piercy had a 66 at the Stadium.

''I controlled my ball really well today,'' he said.

Adam Hadwin had a 67 at La Quinta a year after shooting a third-round 59 on the course. The Canadian was 16 under along with Grayson Murray and Brandon Harkins. Murray had a 67 on the Nicklaus Course, and Harkins shot 68 at the Stadium.

Phil Mickelson missed the cut in his first tournament of the year for the second time in his career, shooting a 74 on the Stadium to finish at 4 under – four strokes from a Sunday tee time. The 47-year-old Hall of Famer was playing for the first time since late October. He also missed the cut in the Phoenix Open in his 2009 opener.

Charlie Reiter, the Palm Desert High School senior playing on the first sponsor exemption the event has given to an amateur, also missed the cut. He had three early straight double bogeys in a 77 on the Stadium that left him 1 over.

John Daly had an 80 at La Quinta. He opened with a triple bogey and had six bogeys – four in a row to start his second nine - and only one birdie. The 51-year-old Daly opened with a 69 on the Nicklaus layout and had a 71 on Friday at the Stadium.

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Phil misses CareerBuilder cut for first time in 24 years

By Randall MellJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 am

Phil Mickelson missed the cut Saturday at the CareerBuilder Challenge. It’s a rare occurrence in his Hall of Fame career.

He has played the event 15 times, going back to when it was known as the Bob Hope Classic. He has won it twice.

How rare is his missing the cut there?

The last time he did so, there was no such thing as a DVD, Wi-Fi, iPods, Xbox, DVR capability or YouTube.

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The PGA Tour’s Jon Rahm didn’t exist, either.

The last time Mickelson missed a cut in this event was 1994, nine months before Rahm was born.

Mickelson struggled to a 2-over-par 74 in the heavy winds Saturday on the PGA West Stadium Course, missing the 54-hole cut by four shots. He hit just four of 14 fairways, just nine of 18 greens. He took a double bogey at the 15th after requiring two shots to escape the steep-walled bunker on the left side of the green.

Mickelson won’t have to wait long to try to get back in the hunt. He’s scheduled to play the Farmers Insurance Open next week at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif.