Two years later, is U.S. ready for task at hand?

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 27, 2016, 1:00 pm

CHASKA, Minn. – A few blunt answers started a Ryder Cup revolution.

Undermined by poor leadership and a lack of player input, the Americans were throttled at the 2014 Ryder Cup in Scotland, their third consecutive defeat in the biennial matches. In the awkward news conference afterward, a reporter asked any of the 12 team members to identify what worked in 2008 (when the U.S. last won) and what has gone wrong since.

That’s when Phil Mickelson leaned into the microphone.

Having made 10 consecutive Ryder Cup teams, Lefty was an authoritative source. He described in detail how every member of the Paul Azinger-led squad was “invested in the process” – the picks, the pairings, the pods. Everything.

“Unfortunately,” Mickelson said, “we have strayed from a winning formula in 2008 for the last three Ryder Cups, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula that helped us play our best.”

It sounded like a damning indictment of that year’s captain, Tom Watson, who was positioned only a few seats away. So to follow up, Mickelson was asked: Players weren’t involved at Gleneagles?

“Uh, no,” he said. “Nobody here was in [on] any decision.”

For the next few weeks, the focus was not on another European victory but how the Americans – losers of eight of the past 10 competitions – were seemingly imploding. Hours of airtime were devoted to whether Mickelson violated some unwritten code by calling out his captain on live TV, but it’s clear now, two years later, that expressing those views, in that forum, in front of his teammates and PGA officials, was the only way to initiate meaningful change.

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Asked recently whether the U.S. team would be in its current position without his public stance, Mickelson smirked. “It doesn’t really matter, because are we here. How we got here doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’re trying to look forward now. We have this fresh start, this fresh involvement. We have an actual game plan. We know who is going to be playing with who, when they’re going to be playing, what matches – we have time now to work together and create that partnership.

“We’re not being told 30 minutes before we tee off who we’re going to play. These vice captains and captains have given us a real game plan and sense of continuity well before the Ryder Cup has even started.”

That’s because 15 days after Mickelson’s candid assessment of the U.S. team, the PGA of America announced the creation of an 11-man task force, comprised of past captains, top players (including two of the game’s biggest stars, Mickelson and Tiger Woods) and PGA leaders. In the release, then-president Ted Bishop trumpeted the task force as part of larger goal in “developing the right strategy and building ongoing processes and infrastructure for future generations of U.S. teams.”

Across the pond, and even here in the States, the formation of a task force was widely mocked and viewed as the ultimate sign of desperation. After all, Europe has gone 8-2 despite having, at least according to the world rankings, the inferior team on paper. Why have the Europeans been so successful of late? “It’s not rocket science,” Rory McIlroy shrugged.

No, maybe not, but the task-force announcement was significant in that, for the first time, the PGA had agreed to surrender control of its most prized asset. “I think we’re all very appreciative that they have made that big step,” Mickelson said, “because we feel like, as a group, we are giving ourselves an opportunity to succeed, rather than obstacles to overcome.”  

The initial task force was disbanded once Davis Love III was named captain, for a second time, in February 2015, and replaced with a smaller six-man committee that still includes Mickelson and Woods.

Whatever the name, this week’s matches at Hazeltine will be a referendum on Team USA’s revamped system.

“You don’t want to get too tied up in the results,” Mickelson said, “but certainly what we’re looking at is, are we able to play our best golf?”

That’s been the main difference, he contends, for the Europeans’ success – that they have such faith in their system and each other that it allowed one-hit wonders like Peter Baker (3-1 in 1993), Philip Walton (singles win in ’95) and Philip Price (singles win in 2002) to play some of the best golf of their lives during the taut three-day exhibition.

“That’s not a fluke when you have a real team, a partnership, and you lift each other up to new heights,” Mickelson said. “We haven’t had that type of continuity, support system, game plan and structure from year to year.”

While Watson was an autocrat, Love has opted for a more inclusive approach, like Azinger in 2008. Love has gathered a dizzying amount of insights from a variety of sources – players, statisticians and even weatherman/vice captain Tom Lehman, who has studied the past three decades of late-September forecasts in his native Minnesota.

It all sounds so silly, of course, a classic case of American overthinking. While the U.S. side has publicized every team-building exercise – a dinner at Jack Nicklaus’ house, a night at the Patriots’ stadium, a scouting trip last week to Hazeltine – the European team has quietly gone about its preparations, clinging to the template that is passed down from captain to captain, like a playbook.

The 12-man European team was finalized four weeks ago. The Americans, meanwhile, determined to put the hottest players on the squad, turned the FedEx Cup Playoffs into a three-week audition for Captain Love. Problem was, with the added stress and expectation of competing for a spot, only one of the contenders elevated his game. (Even Mickelson conceded they waited too long.) For the final spot, the committee settled on Ryan Moore, a wise choice, but the announcement was made late Sunday night, after the season finale and during halftime of a primetime NFL game. It was another sign that the PGA might still be more interested in marketing than molding a team of 12.

Tasked with spawning a new era in USA golf, the committee instead recycled many of the same ol’ names. Brooks Koepka and Moore are the only newcomers on this year’s roster.

“If America doesn’t win,” said world No. 1 and neutral observer Jason Day, with a wry smile, “who knows what will happen to that task force.”

Over the past year and a half, Love and Co. have stuck to the script, that the formation of the task force was not just about trying to win this year, but for decades to come, creating continuity and a system to promote inclusivity, groom captains and select players.

Though the task force might have been a subtle way to shift blame away from the captain – hey, win or lose, it has been a team effort – it’s evident that the player under the most pressure this week is the same one who agitated for change: Mickelson.

The Americans can plan dinners and discuss pairings and study weather reports until they’re red, white and blue in the face. But even Mickelson concedes that the Ryder Cup still comes down to who performs best in the most pressurized environment in the sport.

Only now, he says, “we have our best chance to play our best golf.”

And that’s all he really wanted two years ago. 

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After Further Review: Tiger's return comes at perfect time

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 2:19 am

Each week, takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On the current state of golf as Tiger Woods returns to competition ...

Less than four days before Tiger Woods returns to official competitive golf for the first time in a year, Jon Rahm, the new second-ranked player in the world, won on the PGA Tour and Rory McIlroy made an impressive 2018 debut on the European Tour (T-3).

Not since Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus crossed paths at the 1960 U.S. Open has there been so many superstars all poised for big seasons, with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson having already won this year and Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas both coming off stellar seasons.

It’s a good time for golf. - Rex Hoggard

On Tommy Fleetwood's continued success ...

There have been scores of talented European players whose skills didn’t translate to the PGA Tour … and maybe, in a few years, Tommy Fleetwood will prove to be no different.

He sure looks like the real deal, though.  

His title defense in Abu Dhabi – on the strength of a back-nine 30 in windy conditions – was his third title in the past 12 months and 11th top-10 overall. A few of those have come in majors and World Golf Championship events, too, which led the reigning Race to Dubai champion to accept PGA Tour membership for this season.

Beginning at Riviera, he plans to play exclusively in the States through May, then reassess for the rest of the year. Hope he sticks, because he’s a fun personality with tons of game. - Ryan Lavner

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Rahm passes Spieth to become world No. 2

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:25 am

With his win Sunday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, Jon Rahm picked up his second PGA Tour victory and moved to No. 2 in the FedExCup points standings.

He picked up one more No. 2, too.

The 23-year-old Spaniard passed Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, behind only Dustin Johnson.

In 19 months, since June 2016, Rahm has rocketed from No. 776 in the world to No. 2, thanks in part to his low divisor, his number of events played.

Asked after his playoff victory over Andrew Landry to discuss his rapid ascent up the world rankings, Rahm was almost at a loss.

“It's hard to believe to be honest, passing Jordan Spieth,” he said. “That's a three-time major champion. I only have two wins. He's got 10-plus, right? It's again – I've said it many times – I never thought I was going to be at this point in my life right now.”

Rahm may only have two PGA Tour titles, but this is his fourth worldwide win in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. He also took the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and the DP World Tour Championship on his way to claiming the European Tour’s 2017 Rookie of the Year Award.

Dating back to the start of last season on the PGA Tour, Rahm has racked up 12 top-10s, three runner-ups, and two wins.

He will head to Torrey Pines next week ready to defend for the first time.

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Brady compares self to Woods after winning AFC title

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 1:05 am

Tom Brady and Tiger Woods are two of the all-time greats in their respective sports ... a fact that is not lost on the five-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.

Fresh off leading the New England Patriots to a AFC Championship victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Brady was asked about winning the game despite a cut on his throwing hand - which made national news heading into the matchup.

His response invoked the name of a certain 14-time major winner, something that would be tough to pull off, if not for the fact that he is, you know, Tom Brady.

“I think it's kind of arrogant to say it bothered me when we had a pretty good game, so I wouldn't say that," the 40-year-old told reporters after the game. "It's like when Tiger Woods said, ‘That was my C game’ and he won the tournament."

Tiger Woods winning with his "C game" may be a distant memory for golf fans, but no matter what game he brings, his next chance to win comes next week at Torrey Pines during his official comeback to the PGA Tour.

Brady has a shot at his sixth Super Bowl title in two weeks. The Patriots would probably benefit from him bringing a little better than his "C game" as well.

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Rahm beats Landry in playoff to win CareerBuilder

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:00 am

Jon Rahm birdied the fourth extra hole Sunday to defeat Andrew Landry in a playoff, win the CareerBuilder Challenge and move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Here’s how things played out in overtime at PGA West:

Leaderboard: Rahm (-22), Landry (-22), John Huh (-20), Adam Hadwin (-20), Martin Piller (-20), Kevin Chappell (-19), Scott Piercy (-19)

What it means: This is Rahm’s second PGA Tour win and his fourth worldwide victory in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. Rahm took the early lead Thursday with an opening 62 and after rounds of 67-70, he started the final round two back. On Sunday, he made five birdies without dropping a single shot on the intimidating Stadium Course. In the clubhouse at 22 under, Rahm watched as Landry made birdie on 18 to force a playoff.

Rahm missed birdie putts that would have ended the tournament on the final hole of regulation and on each playoff hole. Finally, on his fourth trip down 18 of the day, his birdie bid found the cup. With the victory, Rahm passes Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, trailing only Dustin Johnson. He enters next week at Torrey Pines looking to defend for the first time.

Best of the rest: A two-time winner playing his second full season on the PGA Tour, Landry shot 68 Sunday, making birdie on the 72nd hole to force extras. Once Rahm finally made birdie on the fourth playoff hole, Landry's putt to extend slid by on the right edge. This is Landry's best career finish on the PGA Tour. Had he won, he would have secured full Tour status through the 2019-20 season and earned invites to the Masters, Players, and PGA Championships.

Round of the day: Sam Saunders fired an 8-under 64 to register this best finish of the season, a tie for eighth at 18 under. The reigning Tour Championship winner was 9 under par through 12 holes before making bogey at 13 and parring his way into the clubhouse.

Biggest disappointment: Overnight leader Austin Cook was eyeing his second win of the season but never contended. The RSM champion carded two double bogeys Sunday en route to a 3-over 75, dropping him from the 54-hole lead to a tie for 14th.

Shot of the day: Rahm's putt to win:

Quote of the day: "One of us had to do it and either one of us would have been a well-deserving champion." - Rahm on his playoff victory over Landry