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Wind, greens cancel Honda as Masters prep

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 23, 2018, 11:23 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – PGA National is 530 miles from Augusta National, but it might as well have been a world away Friday.

For the first two rounds of the Honda Classic, players here fought through 30-mph gusts, sailed mis-hits into the water and putted on khaki-colored greens that have only about a 5-o’clock-shadow worth of grass.

And so, Rory McIlroy: Come Sunday, what are you hoping to take away from this event, one of just six tournaments between now and the first major of the year?

“World ranking points, FedExCup points and some cash, hopefully,” he said. “That’s about it. There’s nothing I’ve done over the last two days where I can say, ‘Oh, yeah, that will help at Augusta.’”

That’s problematic, of course, since the road to Augusta begins here, in Florida. This is the time of year that players are trying to fine-tune their games, to protect their confidence at all costs. In that regard, it’s essentially a wasted week of Masters prep.

“It’s Open conditions with U.S. Open scoring,” McIlroy said. “Pretty much the preparation for everything but what we want it to be. It’s probably the furthest thing from Augusta right now around here.”

Which is why players who exited the scoring area on the wrong side of the cut line Friday weren’t overly discouraged. Just the opposite, in fact. They almost looked relieved.

Relieved they wouldn’t have to throw themselves into a wind tunnel for the next two rounds. Relieved they wouldn’t have to restock their bag with golf balls. Relieved they wouldn’t have to putt on some of the worst surfaces they’ll face all year.

Rickie Fowler doesn’t have a negative thing to say about anyone, or anything, and yet even he was critical of the greens here.

“I’ll leave it at everyone is playing the same greens,” he said, smirking.

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

The course is playing even firmer and faster after a dry month. The TifEagle Bermuda greens are 18 years old, and set for a re-grassing next summer, but that project seems long overdue. Players described them using adjectives like “crusty” and “spotty” and “dicey.” And those are just the ones we could print.

“The first seven greens on the front nine are really thin, almost like spray-painted sand,” said Luke Donald, who shot 10 over. “It’s a different look and speed to what we’re used to.”

This is Donald’s eighth appearance at PGA National, and he knows the greens fairly well. But the ball has reacted differently this week on chips and pitches. “And putts seem to be breaking differently than what I remember and what’s in my yardage book,” he said.

The Tour didn’t do the players any favors with the setup, either.

Eight of the back-nine hole locations Friday were on the opposite side of the wind direction. That made getting the ball to the hole virtually impossible. And with an easterly wind, the par 3s in the Bear Trap, Nos. 15 and 17, played almost straight into the fan, making the margins of error even smaller. Seventeen of the first 37 players who teed it up on the 180-yard 17th hole found the water.

Among those was Rory McIlroy, who got ahead of his cut 5-iron and ballooned his tee shot into the pond. He made triple.

“Tried to play the shot that was the right one,” said McIlroy, who shot 73, his seventh consecutive over-par round here. “I just didn’t make a good swing.”

Because of the difficulty of the Champion Course, it’s reasonable to wonder whether McIlroy and others would play the Honda if it weren’t in their backyard, if they didn’t feel an obligation to play their hometown event.

They need tournament rounds under their belt before the Masters, and they have to test themselves under pressure. But what is the benefit of playing in this?

Only four players in the morning wave broke par. The second-round scoring average was more than three shots over par (73.166). The 5-over cut line was the highest on Tour in nearly three years.

And this was a typical South Florida day.

After missing the cut with rounds of 71-76, Fowler was looking forward to spending the weekend in his new indoor simulator, away from the wind. Only then would he be able to tell whether his swing was faulty, or if it’s just a product of the treacherous conditions.

“I was a little bit off,” he said, “and the wind is going to make it look like you’re a terrible weekend golfer.”

Not exactly the confidence boost players need before Augusta.

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Rosaforte Report: Faxon helps 'free' McIlroy's mind and stroke

By Tim RosaforteMarch 19, 2018, 8:00 pm

With all the talk about rolling back the golf ball, it was the way Rory McIlroy rolled it at the Arnold Palmer Invitational that was the story of the week and the power surge he needed going into the Masters.

Just nine days earlier, a despondent McIlroy missed the cut at the Valspar Championship, averaging 29 putts per round in his 36 holes at Innisbrook Resort. At Bay Hill, McIlroy needed only 100 putts to win for the first time in the United States since the 2016 Tour Championship.

The difference maker was a conversation McIlroy had with putting savant Brad Faxon at The Bears Club in Jupiter, Fl., on Monday of API week. What started with a “chat,” as McIlroy described it, ended with a resurrection of Rory’s putting stroke and set him free again, with a triumphant smile on his face, headed to this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and Augusta National in two weeks.

The meeting with Faxon made for a semi-awkward moment for McIlroy, considering he had been working with highly-regarded putting coach Phil Kenyon since missing the cut in the 2016 PGA Championship. From “pathetic” at Baltusrol, McIlroy became maker of all, upon the Kenyon union, and winner of the BMW Championship, Tour Championship and FedExCup.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

As a professional courtesy, Faxon laid low, respecting McIlroy’s relationship with Kenyon, who also works with European stars Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Tommy Fleetwood and Henrik Stenson. Knowing how McIlroy didn’t like the way Dave Stockton took credit after helping him win multiple majors, Faxon let McIlroy do the talking. Asked about their encounter during his Saturday news conference at Bay Hill, McIlroy called it “more of a psychology lesson than anything else.”

“There was nothing I told him he had never heard before, nothing I told him that was a secret,” Faxon, who once went 327 consecutive holes on Tour without a three-putt, said on Monday. “I think (Rory) said it perfectly when he said it allowed him to be an athlete again. We try to break it down so well, it locks us up. If I was able to unlock what was stuck, he took it to the next level. The thing I learned, there can be no method of belief more important than the athlete’s true instinct.”

Without going into too much detail, McIlroy explained that Faxon made him a little more “instinctive and reactive.” In other words, less “mechanical and technical.” It was the same takeaway that Gary Woodland had after picking Faxon’s brain before his win in this year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Sunday night, after leading the field in strokes gained-putting, McIlroy was more elaborative, explaining how Faxon “freed up my head more than my stroke,” confessing that he was complicating things a bit and was getting less athletic.

“You look at so many guys out there, so many different ways to get the ball in the hole,” he said. “The objective is to get the ball in the hole and that’s it. I think I lost sight of that a little bit.”

All of this occurred after a conversation I had Sunday morning with swing instructor Pete Cowen, who praised Kenyon for the work he had done with his player, Henrik Stenson. Cowen attributed Henrik’s third-round lead at Bay Hill to the diligent work he put in with Kenyon over the last two months.

“It’s confidence,” Cowen said. “(Stenson) needs a good result for confidence and then he’s off. If he putts well, he has a chance of winning every time he plays.”

Cowen made the point that on the PGA Tour, a player needs 100-110 putts per week – or an average of 25-27 putts per round – to have a chance of winning. Those include what Cowen calls the “momentum putts,” that are especially vital in breaking hearts at this week’s WGC-Dell Match Play.

Stenson, who is not playing this week in Austin, Texas, saw a lot of positives but admitted there wasn’t much he could do against McIlroy shooting 64 on Sunday in the final round on a tricky golf course.

“It's starting to come along in the right direction for sure,” Stenson said. “I hit a lot of good shots out there this week, even though maybe the confidence is not as high as some of the shots were, so we'll keep on working on that and it's a good time of the year to start playing well.”

Nobody knows that better than McIlroy, who is hoping to stay hot going for his third WGC and, eventually, the career Grand Slam at Augusta.

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Golf's Olympic format, qualifying process remain the same

By Rex HoggardMarch 19, 2018, 6:25 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Potential Olympic golfers for the 2020 Games in Tokyo were informed on Monday that the qualification process for both the men’s and women’s competitions will remain unchanged.

According to a memo sent to PGA Tour players, the qualification process begins on July 1, 2018, and will end on June 22, 2020, for the men, with the top 59 players from the Olympic Golf Rankings, which is drawn from the Official World Golf Ranking, earning a spot in Tokyo (the host country is assured a spot in the 60-player field). The women’s qualification process begins on July 8, 2018, and ends on June 29, 2020.

The format, 72-holes of individual stroke play, for the ’20 Games will also remain unchanged.

The ’20 Olympics will be held July 24 through Aug. 9, and the men’s competition will be played the week before the women’s event at Kasumigaseki Country Club.

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Webb granted U.S. Women's Open special exemption

By Will GrayMarch 19, 2018, 6:22 pm

Karrie Webb's streak of consecutive appearances at the U.S. Women's Open will continue this summer.

The USGA announced Monday that the 43-year-old Aussie has been granted a special exemption into this year's event, held May 31-June 3 at Shoal Creek in Alabama. Webb, a winner in both 2000 and 2001, has qualified for the event on merit every year since 2011 when her 10-year exemption for her second victory ended.

"As a past champion, I'm very grateful and excited to accept the USGA's special exemption into this year's U.S. Women's Open," Webb said in a release. "I have always loved competing in the U.S. Women's Open and being tested on some of the best courses in the country."

Webb has played in the tournament every year since 1996, the longest such active streak, meaning that this summer will mark her 23rd consecutive appearance. She has made the U.S. Women's Open cut each of the last 10 years, never finishing outside the top 50 in that span.

Webb's exemption is the first handed out by the USGA since 2016, when Se Ri Pak received an invite to play at CordeValle. Prior to that the two most recent special exemptions went to Juli Inkster (2013) and Laura Davies (2009). The highest finish by a woman playing on a special exemption came in 1994, when Amy Alcott finished sixth.

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Notah: Driver is Tiger's No. 1 pre-Masters concern

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 19, 2018, 5:49 pm

Tiger Woods mounted a Sunday charge at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, sending shockwaves through Bay Hill when it looked as though he might finally claim PGA Tour victory No. 80.

But the charge came to an end at the par-5 16th, where Woods had missed wide-right three days in a row before going OB-left on Sunday en route to bogey.

Woods’ API performance featured just a handful of drivers each day, as firm and fast conditions allowed him to make frequent use of a 2-iron off the tee.

That strategy led to a second top-5 finish in as many weeks, but if Woods wants to win again, if he wants claim another major, he is going to sort out his issues with the big stick.

A guest Monday morning on the Dan Patrick Show, Golf Channel’s Notah Begay believes the driver will be a focus for Woods in his pre-Masters preparation.

“Project No. 1 over the next two weeks is going to be the driver. … Any time he has to turn a shot right to left with trouble on the left, he struggles a little bit,” Begay said.

“Off the sixth tee, off the ninth tee, there was some errant shots. And then we saw the really horrible tee shot yesterday at 16. He talked about in the post-round comments. He just didn’t commit to a shot, and the worst thing that a professional athlete can do to themselves to compromise performance is not commit.

“And so he made a terrible swing, and that’s the miss that is really difficult for him to recover from, because the majority of his misses are out to the right. So, when you eliminate one half of the golf course, you can really make your way around … a lot easier. When you have a two-way miss going, which sometimes creeps into his driver, it really makes it difficult to take out some of the trouble that you’re looking at when you’re standing on the tee box.

“So he has to focus in on trying to find some way to navigate Augusta National with the driver, because it’s a course that’s going to force you to hit driver.”