Group thoughts: Breaking down the Masters field

By Will GrayApril 8, 2015, 12:14 pm

The wait is almost over.

Yes, the first three days of Masters week can border on excruciatingly slow. The field is already set, the groupings have been announced and the Par 3 Contest will soon be won by some brave soul willing to tempt fate.

The Masters offered 19 categories by which players could qualify for this week’s event. In turn, let’s break the field of 97 into 19 categories before play begins. If the number works for Augusta National, then …

1. Winner: Bubba Watson

Watson is going for three green jackets in four years, and signs are pointing toward the southpaw entering rarified Masters air. His advantage off the tee, touch around the greens and strong results this year all show that he’s ready to serve some more grilled chicken at next year’s dinner.

2. Jacket measurements, please: Jordan Spieth, Jimmy Walker, Jason DayDustin Johnson

These guys will be close enough to the lead heading into Sunday that the club will ask if they’re a 40 regular or a 42 long. Unfortunately for them, they won’t have a starring role in this year’s green jacket ceremony.

3. Weekend contenders: Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Patrick Reed, Justin Rose, Matt Kuchar, Lee Westwood, Louis Oosthuizen, Hideki MatsuyamaJ.B. Holmes

All guys that will appear around the first page of the leaderboard at some point over the final 36 holes. It will make for a solid week and a nice paycheck, but not quite what some in this group – especially those chasing the career Grand Slam – had hoped for.

4. Please come back next year: Paul Casey, Chris Kirk, Brooks Koepka, Shane LowryRyan Palmer

The top 12 plus ties earn invitations back for the 2016 Masters, a select group that included the likes of John Senden, Jonas Blixt and Kevin Stadler a year ago. These guys all have the game to put together a sneaky-good result, and can perhaps get a head start on booking next year’s travel.

5. Silently solid: Bill Haas, Jim Furyk, Jamie Donaldson, Billy Horschel, Martin Kaymer, Hunter Mahan, Senden

These are the players who will finish about T-28; you’ll see their name on the final leaderboard scroll and realize you never actually watched them hit a shot. Some consistent golf on a tough track, but not anything that will warrant the attention of the leaders.

6. Please pass the OWGR points: Thomas Bjorn, Thongchai Jaidee, Branden Grace, Anirban Lahiri, Joost Luiten, Bernd Wiesberger, Victor Dubuisson

The world rankings are the gift that keeps on giving: crack the top 50 and you receive more chances to earn points to remain inside the top 50, and the beat goes on. These internationals will look to pad their point total, with a few eyeing a potential jump in the early Presidents Cup standings.

7. Might want to confirm the hotel’s cancellation policy: Sangmoon Bae, Blixt, Luke Donald, Jason Dufner, Matt Every, Rickie Fowler, Stephen Gallacher, Morgan Hoffmann, Graeme McDowell, Stadler, Kevin Streelman, Steve Stricker

This motley crew includes players with mediocre records at Augusta National, questionable form entering this week, or both. They might play their way past the 36-hole cut, but … to be on the safe side, it’s still good to double check the hotel’s policy. Last thing you want is to get stuck with an extra night on the bill after going 78-74.

8. Players named Tiger: Tiger Woods

The guy gets his own category, because your guess is as good as mine.

9. Glad to be back: Ben Crane, Padraig Harrington, Mikko Ilonen, Ben Martin, Geoff Ogilvy, Camilo Villegas

All players making return trips after Masters absences short (one year for Harrington) and long (14 years for Ilonen). It must be a little extra rewarding to reach the summit of the game, slip back down and then find a way to get back to the top.

10. Frame that invitation: Erik Compton, James Hahn, Brian Harman, Seung-Yul Noh, Robert Streb, Brendon Todd, Cameron Tringale, Danny Willett

All first-time participants in this year’s Masters. Inevitably, some will play their way back into the field at Augusta National – perhaps as soon as next year. But just in case … don’t be afraid to splurge on a nice frame.

11. First-round leader: Miguel Angel Jimenez

Admittedly, some wishful thinking. But a boy can dream, just like the Most Interesting Man in Golf can open with a tidy 66 on a course where he finished fourth a year ago. Right?

12. Flashes of brilliance: Phil Mickelson, Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson

Five men who are fully capable of putting up a 31 for nine holes at any time, but likely won’t sustain a run. For Stenson, Bradley and Simpson, any title chances will be defined by their work on the greens – although that’s hardly a revelation at Augusta National.

13. Solid sleeper picks: Russell Henley, Charley Hoffman, Ryan Moore, Kevin Na, Brandt Snedeker, Gary Woodland

Every good office pool entry (for entertainment purposes only) needs a quality sleeper pick to round out the roster. These are guys who have been playing well this year, have played well at Augusta National before, and have the ability to make an unexpected run up the leaderboard this weekend.

14. Hope you enjoyed the Champions Dinner: Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson, Larry Mize, Mark O’Meara, Jose Maria Olazabal, Charl Schwartzel, Vijay Singh, Tom Watson, Mike Weir, Ian Woosnam

All deserving winners who have earned their way into the most exclusive fraternity in golf. But for the majority of this list, the week’s biggest highlights will be made before the final putt drops on Friday – and perhaps even before the first shot is struck on Thursday.

15. Good enough to warrant flashback highlights: Fred Couples, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle

For Couples and Langer, this is old hat: play well for a couple of rounds and force the folks in the TV trucks to cue up footage from your Masters victories. It makes for a heartwarming story, even if the level of play drops off a bit over the weekend. Lyle gets a promotion into this category after making two consecutive Masters cuts.

16. Claret jug crew: Darren Clarke, Ernie Els

Two worthy champions who have qualified based on their recent Open Championship wins. They’ll both play with the reassurance that they’ll be back in 2016 regardless of their finish this week.

17. See you in Butler Cabin on Sunday: Corey Conners

The low amateur always gets a front-row seat for the green jacket ceremony in Butler Cabin, and this week that distinction will go to Conners, a runner-up at last year’s U.S. Amateur who will play the first two rounds alongside fellow Canadian Weir.

18. Take plenty of pictures: Antonio Murdaca, Matias Dominguez, Scott Harvey, Byron Meth, Gunn Yang, Bradley Neil

The rest of the amateurs will likely enjoy 36 holes of memorable golf, a few hours of restless sleep in the Crow’s Nest and the experience of a lifetime. Soak it in, because chances are you won’t be back inside these ropes again.

19. Once more, with feeling: Ben Crenshaw

Crenshaw will take his 44th and final competitive lap around Augusta National this week. A two-time winner, few players have a better understanding of the tournament’s tradition and history than does Crenshaw. He’ll be missed, but not before he gets one final send-off.

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Match Play security tightens after Austin bombings

By Rex HoggardMarch 19, 2018, 8:06 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – A fourth bombing this month in Austin injured two men Sunday night and authorities believe the attacks are the work of a serial bomber.

The bombings have led to what appears to be stepped-up security at this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club.

“I was out here [Sunday]; typically that's the most relaxed day. But they had security officials on every corner of the clubhouse and on the exterior, as well,” said Dylan Frittelli, who lives in Austin and is playing the Match Play for the first time this week. “It was pretty tough to get through all the protocols. I'm sure they'll have stuff in place.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

The PGA Tour told The Associated Press on Monday that it doesn't comment on the specifics of its security measures, but that the safety of players and fans is its top priority. The circuit is also coordinating closely with law enforcement to ensure the safety of players and fans.

Despite the bombings, which have killed two people and injured two others, the Tour has not yet reached out to players to warn of any potential threat or advise the field about increased security.

“It’s strange,” Paul Casey said. “Maybe they are going to, but they haven’t.”

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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.