Stenson, DJ turn 2016 into year of the breakthrough

By Ryan LavnerJuly 25, 2016, 8:45 pm

What had been a theme-less 2016 will now be remembered as the year that golf’s nearlymen finally broke through for their first major title.

Resounding victories in the past month by Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson offer hope to the frequent contenders who were thought to be too damaged and scarred by their past failures. After years of wilting under pressure, they each played boldly on their Open Sundays, authoring the most stirring performances of the year and shifting the narratives of their underachievement.

Uber-talented but enigmatic, Johnson had won every season as a pro but also endured a checkered history with on-course blunders and off-course recklessness. From Pebble Beach to Whistling Straits to Royal St. George’s to Chambers Bay, he woulda-coulda-shoulda bagged a couple of majors already. Instead, he entered this year empty-handed.    

Then came Oakmont, where the USGA gave him every opportunity to fold. In an unprecedented move, the rules officials interfered with the rhythm of Johnson’s round and informed him on the 12th hole that he may face a one-shot penalty after the round. The confusion about his score could have sent Johnson into a downward spiral, again, but this time he bashed his way to the top of the leaderboard on arguably the most difficult course in America. Remarkably, the very attribute for which he’d been so relentlessly criticized – a lack of mental toughness – was the main reason he won golf’s most grueling major. And so now, after years of making head-scratching blunders in big spots, no deficit or distraction will ever seem insurmountable.

“He’s a fantastic talent,” Jack Nicklaus said last month, “and I think he’s probably one of the later bloomers. He’s just starting in the prime of his career, and I think he’s got a great future.”

Though talent usually prevails, sports history is littered with cautionary tales of what-if superstars. It’s simply human nature: The more a player crumbles in crunch time, the more difficult the task becomes. The only relief from the pressure and the scrutiny – even Stenson admitted that the incessant questions about his major-less status were “annoying” – is to win.

“But if it continues to happen,” Nicklaus said of the major near-misses, “then all of a sudden it gets in your head and you can’t really get it out.”

What goes on upstairs has always been Stenson’s greatest weakness. He’s a world-class player and ball-striker who has weathered two career-threatening slumps, but it’s his drive for perfection that ultimately has capped his success. Sure, he’d captured 15 titles worldwide (including the FedEx Cup and a World Golf Championship) and had seven major top-5s prior to The Open, but equally as memorable were his tantrums in which he decapitated his driver and trashed a locker.

“It’s all about the melon, isn’t it?” said Stenson’s longtime swing coach, Pete Cowen. “If it’s a dark gray, he’s fine. But if it’s a dark green, he’s in trouble.”

Stenson’s brain certainly didn’t resemble the Hulk’s at Royal Troon. Though his putter had often tormented him in big spots previously, Stenson filled up the cup at an astounding rate Sunday, rolling in 10 birdies (including a pair of cold-blooded 30-plus-footers on the back nine) to outduel Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson in one of the greatest head-to-head clashes in the game’s long history. The Swede became just the second player to win a major after closing with 63, and his 20-under 264 set a major-championship record. 

Seems a gray melon led to a silver claret jug.

“I felt like this was going to be my turn,” he would say later.

Johnson and Stenson’s breakthroughs should be welcome sights for Sergio Garcia, 36, and Lee Westwood, 43, who now assume the mantle of the best players not to have won a major. Though there was a sense of inevitability to Johnson’s victory, given his incredible skill set, the 40-year-old Stenson proved that it’s not too late for these battle-scarred stars.

After all, Garcia’s 12 top-5s in majors are the most all time without a victory. But considering the way this major season has gone, with the Revenge of the Nearlymen, this week’s PGA could change the trajectory of his complicated career.

Just look at the transformation that is already underway within Stenson. His Open victory wasn’t but an hour old when he began looking ahead to another big prize.

“We’re only just getting started, aren’t we?” he said. “You never know once you open the floodgates what might happen.”

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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:

Friday, Rd. 2: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Saturday, Rd. 3: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Sunday, Rd. 4: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

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.)