Players' opinions – and results – differ on major prep

By Will GrayApril 1, 2015, 8:21 pm

HUMBLE, Texas – To rest, or not to rest: that is the question.

The Golf Club of Houston offers players at the Shell Houston Open a sneak peek of what they will see next week at the Masters. The rough has been trimmed to a nice backyard length. The areas around the greens are mown closely, and the putting surfaces offer a glossy shine while running at 12 or higher on the Stimpmeter.

It’s a bona fide dress rehearsal, but then again, Augusta National is a test unto itself. In baseball, a rehab start in AAA only goes so far to prepare a batter before he has to step in and face Madison Bumgarner.

For 35 players, this week’s stop will serve as final preparations for the season’s first major. It’s a number that could reach 36 if this week’s winner is not otherwise exempt for the Masters, and one that was expected to be higher before 11th-hour withdrawals from Henrik Stenson (flu) and Jimmy Walker (illness).

With the field at Augusta National pushing the century mark, the vast majority of next week’s participants are getting in final prep work elsewhere. So is there merit to competing the week before one of the game’s biggest pressure-cookers, or is it better to remain outside the ropes?

It’s tough to say.

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“Some weeks you play terrible and then the next week you play amazing,” Sergio Garcia said. “Some weeks you play great and then the next week you play terrible, and some weeks you play great and then you play great.”

Garcia knows just how fickle this stretch can be. Last year he played well in Houston, taking the 36-hole lead before finishing third. He went on to miss the cut at Augusta by a shot.

“You never know what’s going to come out,” he reasoned.

Recent Masters results show an even divide in strategy. Of the 14 winners since 2001, seven have played in a tournament the week before, seven have practiced elsewhere. That includes three green jackets apiece for Tiger Woods, who has never played the week before the Masters, and Phil Mickelson, who makes it a point to play the week before majors.

Each of the last three Masters have been won by rested players, while each winner from 2008-11 had played the week prior.

A look at the recent near-misses, though, tips the scales in favor of those teeing it up this week in Houston. Louis Oosthuizen and Angel Cabrera both showed signs of progress at Shell before playoff losses at Augusta National in 2012 and 2013, respectively, while the two players who shared second last year followed the same schedule.

That includes Jordan Spieth, who bounced back from a missed cut in Houston to finish second in his maiden Masters trip. This week he headlines the field, fresh off a win last month in Tampa and a runner-up finish last week in San Antonio.

“Historically, I’ve played well the second, third week in a row on a stretch,” Spieth said. “I just seem to get some of the kinks out of the way early in the first couple weeks and not make as many mental errors.”

Last year 47 players teed it up in both events, with the results again divided: 22 missed the cut in Houston, while 23 went on to miss the cut at the Masters. Only three players managed a top-10 at both stops, led by Matt Kuchar who went P2-T5. Rory McIlroy was among that select group a year ago, as was Rickie Fowler, who next week will look for a fifth consecutive top-five result in a major.

“Playing the week before majors, I feel like can help you a lot, especially if you play well,” Fowler said. “I feel like you can go through a bit of a checklist and understand where your game is at, what you may need to work on … versus sitting at home working on the game and then kind of finding out what you have the Thursday of a major.”

The poster child for the prep-by-playing movement is Mickelson, who in 2006 won the now-defunct BellSouth Classic the week before claiming his second green jacket. He remains the only player to pull off such a double-dip since 1989.

But more and more players are following in his footsteps, including Patrick Reed. A Houston resident, Reed skipped his hometown event last year in advance of his first Masters but this week will tee it up in the Lone Star State.

“I played the week before in two of them (last year), made both of the cuts, and then the other two I did not play at all, I didn’t make a single cut,” Reed said. “So we’re going to see if that’s part of it.”

There is no shortage of theories in play this week in Houston, some of which will pan out while others will send players back to the drawing board. Is the Masters winner in this week’s field?

Only time will tell.

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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.