Longtime rivals Stroud, Stefani contending at Shell

By Will GrayApril 3, 2015, 9:30 pm

HUMBLE, Texas – Chris Stroud remembers the first time he took note of Shawn Stefani’s ability.

It was at a junior event in Dallas, probably sometime in the summer of 1998, when a 16-year-old Stefani ripped a 2-iron into a par-5 that found the green from about 280 yards.

“He was a phenomenal golfer from the get-go,” Stroud recalled. “He hit the ball a mile when he was really young.”

While Stroud and Stefani may not be household names to casual golf fans, their paths have been linked for nearly 20 years. After growing up as junior golf rivals in East Texas and attending the same college, the Houston residents are both on the leaderboard through two rounds at the Shell Houston Open, hoping to get a breakthrough win at what is now their hometown event.

Stefani, 33, is two months older, but growing up Stroud was the more decorated player. He played four years at Lamar University in Beaumont, about an hour outside Houston, and became the first player from the school to earn all-conference honors all four years. He added first-team All-American honors in 2004, his senior year.

After a brief stint at the University of Houston, Stefani walked on at Lamar in 2002 and joined forces with Stroud to create a strong college team at a largely unheralded outpost.

“When he came out, we were the No. 1 team in the country,” Stroud said. “We had one of the best golf programs I had ever seen.”

Stefani continues to root for his former teammate, but he described their lengthy past as more of a “competitive friendship.”

“We had some good rivalries. There were a lot of good rivalries growing up in high school and even in college,” Stefani said. “It’s fun to have that. I think it’s good for both of us because we can kind of push each other.”

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Stefani has logged significant practice at the Golf Club of Houston in recent weeks, and for the second year in a row those efforts are paying off during tournament week. Last year he came here needing a solid showing to secure his card and left with both a fifth-place finish and full-time status.

This time around, he has made only one bogey through 36 holes and heads into the weekend at 9 under. After watching guys like Fred Couples play in this event when he was a teenager, Stefani is eager to capitalize on an opportunity this week to play in front of friends and family.

“Growing up as a kid, I always wanted to play in this thing,” he said. “It’s always good to be back and obviously playing well at home.”

While Stroud has been playing full-time on the PGA Tour since 2007, Stefani took longer to gain his footing as a professional, finally earning a card in 2013. Since then he has continually improved, just missing out on his first win in a playoff loss to Justin Rose last year at the Quicken Loans National.

Stroud was quick to point to his former teammate’s work off the tee as the reason for his recent success. Stefani ranked sixth last season on Tour in total driving, and he ranks 18th in the category this season.

“He turned a weakness into a strength,” Stroud said. “Any time you can do that in this game at this level, you’re going to see a big change in your game.”

Stroud’s best result came in 2013, a playoff loss at the Travelers Championship, and last season he racked up more than $1.8 million in earnings. The results have dried up this season, though, with only five made cuts in 12 prior starts.

Those struggles led him back to a familiar face: Brian White, who had served as an instructor and coach while Stroud and Stefani were at Lamar, and someone who has been a mentor for Stroud throughout his professional career.

After a six-month “leave of absence” that led him to other instructors, including a brief stop with Butch Harmon, Stroud found that he was “losing the scope of actually playing golf.” He sat down with White earlier this week, and his longtime coach straightened him out.

“He said, ‘Look, let’s get out there, let’s not try to work on your swing too much, let’s get you playing golf. Let’s hit golf shots,’” Stroud said. “Just keep to some simple stuff.”

The pep talk from White yielded immediate results. Stroud has carded matching rounds of 4-under 68, hitting 29 of 36 greens in regulation, and has no plans to change instructors anytime soon.

“To be honest, with all the circles I’ve been in with this game, he’s the answer for me,” Stroud said. “I won’t be leaving him again.”

Twenty years after first crossing paths as teens, Stroud and Stefani are now established on the PGA Tour and remain staunch advocates for each other. Flanked by partisan crowds, they’re playing well at the right time and now sit two rounds away from a potentially life-changing result: first win, first seven-figure check, and oh yeah – first trip to the Masters.

Not a bad scenario for a couple of former Cardinals.

“We’ve had a good relationship for a long time. I’ve really been rooting for him since I’ve been out here, and I know he roots on me,” Stefani said. “Hopefully we can have a Lamar alumni showdown come Sunday.”

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.