From caddies to clubs, pros will always tinker

By Will GrayAugust 3, 2017, 8:38 pm

AKRON, Ohio – As Russell Knox walked to the interview podium that sits a few feet from the clubhouse steps at Firestone Country Club, he took off his hat, ran his hand through his hair and breathed a deep sigh of relief.

It’s been a while since Knox has had reason to address a handful of reporters after one of his rounds. The affable Scot has been mired in a lengthy slump, missing each of his last three cuts as his world ranking plummeted from 18th in January to 50th as of this week.

With his on-course efforts not translating into results, Knox found himself beginning to tinker. He recently tried new iron shafts for the first time in five years. And he rifled through his personal collection of putters, spending a rainy afternoon last week at home in Jacksonville Beach effectively holding a tryout on a 12-foot mat.

After spending hours in search of a spark, Knox ended up coming full circle by reinstating the putter he used to win the 2015 WGC-HSBC Invitational. Why it ever left his bag – or what exactly it did to turn his fate around on the greens during his opening-round 66 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational – remains a mystery.

“We’re sick, man,” Knox said. “Us golfers are sick. I mean, it’s amazing. I’ve probably went through 20 putters since then, just in doing the search, but today felt unbelievable.”

In a sport with endless variables, there’s never a shortage of options for players looking to point the finger of blame. For some, the focus is off the course. Bubba Watson explained after a 3-under 67 that a shift in diet has boosted his energy levels and helped him lose 18 pounds since November from his already slight frame.

Others look to the man carrying the bag as a possible solution. Rory McIlroy’s first round with friend Harry Diamond looping went well, but his departure from J.P. Fitzgerald was clearly an effort to turn around his season before it’s too late. Adam Scott has had Steve Williams on the bag for each of the first three majors this year, but for this week and next the job is back in the hands of David Clark.

For many, though, the greatest temptation – and the change that’s easiest to make mid-season – is to tinker with the 14 clubs in the bag.

WGC-Bridgestone Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

When it comes to changes on the fly, few can match the passion or frequency of Phil Mickelson. Whether it’s two drivers, no drivers, wedges of variable loft or a new putting grip, Mickelson is not shy about making adjustments.

“I’ve always sided on doing it rather than not, because I feel like if there’s something that gives me a chance to play better, gives me an advantage or an opportunity to shoot a lower score, I want to do it,” Mickelson said.

While all players inevitably swap out old equipment, the question of timing remains a very personal one. Some are willing to make tweaks up until the eve of the tournament, while others like to run their sticks into the ground.

“I hate it,” said Dustin Johnson. “I don’t like to change clubs ever. So when I find stuff I like, I play with it as long as I can.”

Of course, the world No. 1 made a notable exception to his longstanding philosophy this week, swapping in a new driver with higher loft to help him better hit a fade around Firestone. The results, including a 439-yard bomb on No. 16, speak for themselves.

While Jordan Spieth dabbled with a new putter at the AT&T Byron Nelson in May, he explained after a 3-under 67 that such actions for him are more the exception than the rule when the results have dried up.

“For me, that adds another thing with what I have to do and what’s already going wrong with myself,” Spieth said. “I actually would rather figure it out with my stuff, and if I feel like I’m on, then at certain times where I get plenty of time to put something new into play, then it’s the time to do it. It’s rare.”

Amid a busy two-month stretch that kicks off this week and includes a WGC, a major, four playoff events and the Presidents Cup, the range was buzzing early in the week. Even the PGA Tour’s elite, those who have earned entry into this limited-field event, sometimes believe that the secret could be unlocked with one more slight change.

According to Mickelson, this is actually the best time of the year to do your tinkering.

“A lot of guys like to wait until the season’s over to do stuff, but the problem with that for me is [that] I usually stop practicing those last two months of the year. My game isn’t sharp,” Mickelson said. “I can’t really tell the difference, the subtle differences of a club because I haven’t been playing. So it’s actually easier for me to do it in an off week during the year.”

The search continues, even among the best players and even after a good round, because golf is a game that simply can’t be solved. The maddening beauty of such a proposition makes the wins all the sweeter, and it can frustrate indiscriminately when the chips are down.

For Knox, it’s one round on the good side of the ledger, the first in a while. And it comes knowing full well that a race through another 20 putters in search of inspiration may not be that far away.

“You always blame your equipment rather than yourself,” Knox said. “So maybe I just have to take the blame and say I sucked and the putter worked.”

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McCoy earns medalist honors at Q-School

By Will GrayDecember 11, 2017, 12:30 am

One year after his budding career was derailed by a car accident, Lee McCoy got back on track by earning medalist honors at the final stage of Tour Q-School.

McCoy shot a final-round 65 at Whirlwind Golf Club in Chandler, Ariz., to finish the 72-hole event at 28 under. That total left him two shots ahead of Sung-Jae Im and guaranteed him fully-exempt status on the developmental circuit in 2018.

It's an impressive turnaround for the former University of Georgia standout who finished fourth at the 2016 Valspar Championship as an amateur while playing alongside Jordan Spieth in the final round. But he broke his wrist in a car accident the day before second stage of Q-School last year, leaving him without status on any major tour to begin the year.

McCoy was not the only player who left Arizona smiling. Everyone in the top 10 and ties will be exempt through the first 12 events of the new Tour season, a group that includes former amateur standouts Curtis Luck (T-3), Sam Burns (T-10) and Maverick McNealy (T-10).

Players who finished outside the top 10 but inside the top 45 and ties earned exemptions into the first eight events of 2018. That group includes Cameron Champ (T-16), who led the field in driving at this year's U.S. Open as an amateur, and Wyndham Clark (T-23).

Everyone who advanced to the final stage of Q-School will have at least conditional Tour status in 2018. Among those who failed to secure guaranteed starts this week were Robby Shelton, Rico Hoey, Jordan Niebrugge, Joaquin Niemann and Kevin Hall.

Els honored with Heisman Humanitarian Award

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 10, 2017, 11:41 pm

The annual Heisman Trophy award ceremony is one of the biggest moments in any football season, but there was a touching non-football moment as well on Saturday night as Ernie Els received the Heisman Humanitarian Award.

The award, which had been announced in August, recognized Els' ongoing efforts on behalf of his Els for Autism foundation. Els received the award at Manhattan's PlayStation Theater, where Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy.

Els, 47, founded Els for Autism in 2009 with his wife after their son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism. Their efforts have since flourished into a 26-acre campus in Jupiter, Fla., and the creation of the Els Center for Excellence in 2015.

The Heisman Humanitarian Award has been given out since 2006. Past recipients include NBA center David Robinson, NFL running back Warrick Dunn, soccer star Mia Hamm and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon.

A native of South Africa, Els won the U.S. Open in 1994 and 1997 and The Open in 2002 and 2012. He has won 19 times on the PGA Tour and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011.

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Monday finish for Joburg Open; Sharma leads by 4

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 10, 2017, 8:57 pm

Rain, lightning and hail pushed the Joburg Open to a Monday finish, with India’s Shubhankar Sharma holding a four-stroke lead with 11 holes to play in Johannesburg.

Play is scheduled to resume at 7:30 a.m. local time.

South Africa’s Erik van Rooyen will have a 3-foot putt for birdie to move within three shots of Sharma wen play resumes at the Randpark Golf Club. Sarma is at 22 under par.

Tapio Pulkkanen of Finland and James Morrison of England are tied for third at 14 under. Pulkkanen has 10 holes remaining, Morrison 11.

The top three finishers who are not already exempt, will get spots in next year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie.



Stricker, O'Hair team to win QBE Shootout

By Will GrayDecember 10, 2017, 8:55 pm

It may not count in the official tally, but Steve Stricker is once again in the winner's circle on the PGA Tour.

Stricker teamed with Sean O'Hair to win the two-person QBE Shootout, as the duo combined for a better-ball 64 in the final round to finish two shots clear of Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry. It's the second win in this event for both men; Stricker won with Jerry Kelly back in 2009 while O'Hair lifted the trophy with Kenny Perry in 2012.

Stricker and O'Hair led wire-to-wire in the 54-hole, unofficial event after posting a 15-under 57 during the opening-round scramble.

"We just really gelled well together," Stricker said. "With his length the first day, getting some clubs into the greens, some short irons for me, we just fed off that first day quite a bit. We felt comfortable with one another."

Full-field scores from the QBE Shootout

Stricker won 12 times during his PGA Tour career, most recently at the 2012 Tournament of Champions. More recently the 50-year-old has been splitting his time on the PGA Tour Champions and captained the U.S. to a victory at the Presidents Cup in October. O'Hair has four official Tour wins, most recently at the 2011 RBC Canadian Open.

Pat Perez and Brian Harman finished alone in third, four shots behind Stricker and O'Hair. Lexi Thompson and Tony Finau, the lone co-ed pairing in the 12-team event, finished among a tie for fourth.