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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Ortiz takes Web.com Tour clubhouse lead in Bahamas

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 16, 2018, 2:19 am

Former Web.com Tour Player of the Year Carlos Ortiz shot a bogey-free, 4-under-par 68 Monday to take the clubhouse lead in The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay.

Four other players - Lee McCoy, Brandon Matthews, Sung Jae Im and Mark Anderson - were still on the course and tied with Ortiz at 6-under 210 when third-round play was suspended by darkness at 5:32 p.m. local time. It is scheduled to resume at 7:15 a.m. Tuesday.

Ortiz, a 26-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, is in search of his fourth Web.com Tour victory. In 2014, the former University of North Texas standout earned a three-win promotion on his way to being voted Web.com Tour Player of the Year.

McCoy, a 23-year-old from Dunedin, Fla., is looking to become the first player to earn medalist honors at Q-School and then win the opening event of the season.

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Randall's Rant: Can we please have some rivalries?

By Randall MellJanuary 16, 2018, 12:00 am

Memo to the golf gods:

If you haven’t finalized the fates of today’s stars for the new year, could we get you to deliver what the game has lacked for so long?

Can we get a real, honest-to-goodness rivalry?

It’s been more than two decades since the sport has been witness to one.

With world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship this week, an early-season showdown would percolate hope that this year might be all about rivalries.

It seems as if the stars are finally aligned to make up for our long drought of rivalries, of the recurring clashes you have so sparingly granted through the game’s history.

We’re blessed in a new era of plenty, with so many young stars blossoming, and with Tiger Woods offering hope he may be poised for a comeback. With Johnson, McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler among today’s dynamic cast, the possibility these titans will time their runs together on the back nine of Sundays in majors excites.

We haven’t seen a real rivalry since Greg Norman and Nick Faldo sparred in the late '80s and early '90s.

Woods vs. Phil Mickelson didn’t really count. While Lefty will be remembered for carving out a Hall of Fame career in the Tiger era, with 33 victories, 16 of them with Tiger in the field, five of them major championships, we get that Tiger had no rival, not in the most historic sense.

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Phil never reached No. 1, was never named PGA Tour Player of the Year, never won a money title and never dueled with Woods on Sunday on the back nine of a major with the title on the line.  Still, it doesn’t diminish his standing as the best player not named Tiger Woods over the last 20 years. It’s a feat so noteworthy it makes him one of the game’s all-time greats.

We’ve been waiting for an honest-to-goodness rivalry since Faldo and Norman took turns ruling at world No. 1 and dueling in big events, including the back nine of multiple majors. 

In the '70s, we had Nicklaus-Watson. In the '60s, it was Nicklaus-Palmer. In the '40s and '50s, it was Hogan, Snead and Nelson in a triumvirate mix, and in the '20s and '30s we had Hagen and Sarazen.

While dominance is the magic ingredient that can break a sport out of its niche, a dynamic rivalry is the next best elixir.

Dustin Johnson looks capable of dominating today’s game, but there’s so much proven major championship talent on his heels. It’s hard to imagine him consistently fending off all these challengers, but it’s the fending that would captivate us.

Johnson vs. McIlroy would be a fireworks show. So would Johnson vs. Thomas, or Thomas vs. Day or McIlroy vs. Rahm or Fowler vs. Koepka ... or any of those combinations.

Spieth is a wild card that intrigues.

While he’s not a short hitter, he isn’t the power player these other guys are, but his iron game, short game, putter and moxie combine to make him the most compelling challenger of all. His resolve, resilience and resourcefulness in the final round of his British Open victory at Royal Birkdale make him the most interesting amalgam of skill since Lee Trevino.

Woods vs. any of them? Well, if we get that, we promise never to ask for anything more.

So, if that cosmic calendar up there isn’t filled, how about it? How about a year of rivalries to remember?

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McIlroy: 2018 may be my busiest season ever

By Will GrayJanuary 15, 2018, 6:28 pm

With his return to competition just days away, Rory McIlroy believes that the 2018 season may be the most action packed of his pro career.

The 28-year-old has not teed it up since the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in early October, a hiatus he will end at this week's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. It will be the start of a busy spring for the Ulsterman, who will also play next week in Dubai before a run of six PGA Tour events leading up to the Masters.

Speaking to the U.K.'s Telegraph, McIlroy confirmed that he will also make a return trip to the British Masters in October and plans to remain busy over the next 12 months.

"I might play more times this year than any before. I played 28 times in 2008 and I'm on track to beat that," McIlroy said. "I could get to 30 (events), depending on where I'm placed in the Race to Dubai. But I'll see."

McIlroy's ambitious plan comes in the wake of a frustrating 2017 campaign, when he injured his ribs in his first start and twice missed chunks of time in an effort to recover. He failed to win a worldwide event and finished the year ranked outside the top 10, both of which had not happened since 2008.

But having had more than three months to get his body and swing in shape, McIlroy is optimistic heading into the first of what he hopes will be eight starts in the 12 weeks before he drives down Magnolia Lane.

"I've worked hard on my short game and I'm probably feeling better with the putter than I ever have," McIlroy said. "I've had a lot of time to concentrate on everything and it all feels very good and a long way down the road."

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What's in the Bag: Sony Open winner Kizzire

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 15, 2018, 6:05 pm

Patton Kizzire earned his second PGA Tour victory by winning a six-hole playoff at the Sony Open in Hawaii. Take a look inside his bag.

Driver: Titleist 917D3 (10.5 degrees), with Fujikura Atmos Black 6 X shaft

Fairway Wood: Titleist 917F2 (16.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Blue 95 TX shaft

Hybrid: Titleist 913H (19 degrees), with UST Mamiya AXIV Core 100 Hybrid shaft

Irons: Titleist 718 T-MB (4), 718 CB (5-6), 718 MB (7-9), with True Temper Dynamic Gold X100 shafts

Wedges: Titleist SM7 prototype (47, 52, 56, 60 degrees), with True Temper Dynamic Gold X100 shafts

Putter: Scotty Cameron GoLo Tour prototype

Ball: Titleist Pro V1x