Spieth is in Houston, but with eyes on Augusta

By Will GrayMarch 30, 2016, 7:38 pm

HUMBLE, Texas – The calendar has yet to hit April, but it’s already been a banner year for chalk in golf.

Week in and week out, the best in the game are showing, well, why they’re the best in the game. Players currently ranked inside the top 21 have won on Tour seven of the last eight weeks, and only one player has managed to punch his ticket to the Masters by virtue of a win. (Take a bow, Vaughn Taylor.)

Jordan Spieth kicked off this recent run of top-shelf dominance with his eight-shot romp at Kapalua, a signal that he was eager to pick up right where he left off following an all-everything season.

But in subsequent weeks, Spieth has stalled while other top players around him picked up steam.

Granted, the sky is not exactly falling on the newly minted world No. 2. Spieth’s “drought,” if that term even applies, consists of four top-25 finishes in five starts since leaving Maui. But he was visibly frustrated during rounds at Riviera and Innisbrook, and he was hardly a factor at Doral.

Returning to his college roots last week in Austin, Spieth appeared in command before a poor range session led to an upset loss to Louis Oosthuizen in the Round of 16.

“I just couldn’t grab a shot that I knew I could go to the course with,” he said. “It was just a very off day.”

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One year ago, Spieth arrived at the Shell Houston Open brimming with confidence and on a mission. He had won the Valspar Championship and finished second at the Valero Texas Open in his two most recent starts, and he stated his clear goal during a pre-tournament news conference.

“I’m trying to trim the fat this week,” he said at the time. “Trying to find the little straighter ball flight to take into Augusta versus working it quite a bit both ways, then especially nailing down my short game.”

Needless to say, he accomplished what he set out to do. Spieth lost in a playoff to J.B. Holmes, then headed east and promptly laid waste to the field at Augusta National.

It’s a two-step that Spieth would certainly love to repeat. But this time around, there’s some extra gristle left on the bone.

“I need to do a little bit more than just trimming the fat,” Spieth said Wednesday. “Last year my consistency was there. We had just won and finished runner-up, coming in here off better finishes than I am this year.”

Spieth was quick to note that, on the heels of a five-win season, he feels better equipped to perform in the clutch than he did a year ago. And, after some thought, he added that an early-week consult with swing coach Cameron McCormick has his major prep back on track.

“Everything is there,” he said. “It’s right where we want it to be going into the Masters.”

But in listening to Spieth’s self-evaluation, it’s clear that there’s work to be done and, what’s more, he knows it. Things may have been on autopilot 52 weeks ago, but he is forced to take a much more hands-on approach this time.

It marks a bit of a paradigm shift for the 22-year-old, who has essentially been at the center of the golf universe since he first slipped an arm inside the green jacket. Now he is one of a handful of Masters favorites, relegated to the sidelines in recent weeks while Bubba Watson, Adam Scott and Jason Day racked up trophy after trophy.

Spieth noted that this year’s Masters could be one of the most difficult to predict in recent memory, simply because so many top players are performing so well. But if that creates a more muddled upper echelon heading into the season’s first major, that’s fine with the defending champ.

“I don’t really care about spotlight or not,” Spieth said. “We go and do our thing that week. Hopefully we’re the ones that are in contention, and we’re the most recent winners of it. We’ve got it fresh in our mind. Hopefully it’s an advantage.”

As the Masters approaches with increasing speed, the time for finding one’s game has passed. Momentum, however, can still be harnessed, and it can sometimes make all the difference under the crucible of major championship pressure.

Charl Schwartzel knows all about winning at Augusta National, but he’s enjoying a recent boost from his playoff win at Innisbrook, his first on the PGA Tour since his major breakthrough.

“You feel your game is good enough to win, but to know it’s good enough is a different thing,” Schwartzel said. “Just having that win makes you believe more.”

For Spieth, the emphasis isn’t necessarily on winning – it’s simply being near the lead, as evidenced by last year’s results. Contending breeds confidence, and it leads to invaluable opportunities to execute under pressure.

“It’s just a matter now of hitting nerve-racking shots and putts before that week, which means I’ve got to get myself into contention this week,” he said.

Spieth is hardly alone in mapping out his early-season schedule with an eye on Augusta. He could also miss the cut this week and still find a way to successfully defend his title next week.

But for Spieth, the plan has always been to peak for what he views as the biggest event of the year. While he’s not quite there by his own admission, he has one more opportunity this week to make up some ground.

The Masters may be on the horizon, but right now it’s time for Spieth to go to work in Houston.

“There’s a lot I need to do this week to better prepare for the Masters and feel that I have the confidence to win,” he said. “I just need a little more consistency.” 

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Kelly, Sauers co-lead in Hawaii; Monty, Couples in mix

By Associated PressJanuary 19, 2018, 3:52 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Fresh off a solid performance on Oahu, Jerry Kelly shot an 8-under 64 on the Big Island on Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 51-year-old Kelly, who tied for 14th at the PGA Tour's Sony Open last week in Honolulu, birdied five of his final seven holes to shoot 30 on the back nine at Hualalai. He won twice last season, his first on the over-50 tour.

Gene Sauers also shot 64, going bogey-free amid calm conditions. Thirty-two of the 44 players broke par in the limited-field event, which includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Rocco Mediate and Colin Montgomerie were one shot back, and Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland and Kirk Triplett were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was in the middle of the pack after a 69.

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Rahm (62) fires career low round

By Will GrayJanuary 19, 2018, 12:03 am

The scores were predictably low during the opening round of the CareerBuilder Challenge, where the top-ranked player in the field currently sits atop the standings. Here's how things look after the first day in Palm Springs as Jon Rahm is out to an early advantage:

Leaderboard: Jon Rahm (-10), Austin Cook (-9), Andrew Landry (-9), Jason Kokrak (-9), Brandon Harkins (-8), Martin Piller (-8), Aaron Wise (-8), Beau Hossler (-8)

What it means: Rahm is coming off a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Kapalua, and he picked up right where he left off with a 10-under 62 at La Quinta Country Club. It marked his lowest career round on the PGA Tour, and it gave him a one-shot lead heading to the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Cook is the only player within two shots of Rahm who has won already on Tour.

Round of the day: Rahm got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under, and he made it around La Quinta without dropping a shot. The 62 bettered his previous career low on Tour by two shots and it included an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole to go along with eight birdies.

Best of the rest: Cook was a winner earlier this season at the RSM Classic, and he's now in the mix for trophy No. 2 following a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Like Rahm, he opened with a seven-hole stretch at 6 under and turned in a scorecard without a bogey. He'll now head to the more difficult Stadium Course for his second round.

Biggest disappointment: Patrick Reed blitzed the three-course rotation in Palm Springs en route to his first career Tour title back in 2014, but he's unlikely to repeat that feat after opening with a 2-over 74 on the Nicklaus Tournament course. Reed made only one birdie against three bogeys and was one of only 32 players in the 156-man field who failed to break par in the opening round.

Main storyline heading into Friday: Rahm deserves the spotlight, as he entered the week as one of the event's headliners and did nothing to lose that billing in the opening round. But the pack of contenders is sure to keep pace, while players like Phil Mickelson (-2) will look to put up a low score in order to build some momentum heading into the weekend.

Shot of the day: Wesley Bryan's 7-under 65 on the Nicklaus Tournament course was helped in large part by an eagle on the par-4 10th, where he holed a 54-degree wedge from 112 yards away. Bryan went on to birdie the next hole amid a five-hole stretch of 5 under play.

Quote of the day: "Shot 10 under par. There's not much more I can ask for." - Rahm

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Recent winner Cook contending at CareerBuilder

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 11:45 pm

Patton Kizzire is currently the only two-time PGA Tour winner this season, but Austin Cook hopes to join him this week at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

Cook won for the first time in November at the RSM Classic, a victory that catapaulted him from the Web.com Tour graduate category into an entirely new echelon. Cook notched a pair of top-25 finishes over the last two weeks in Hawaii, and he's again in the mix after an opening 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course left him one shot behind Jon Rahm.

"Today was great," Cook told reporters. "The conditions were perfect, but I always loved desert golf and I was just hitting the ball well and seeing good lines on the greens and hitting good putts."

Cook got off to a fast start, playing his first seven holes in 6 under highlighted by an eagle on the par-5 fourth hole. He briefly entertained the notion of a sub-60 round after birdies on Nos. 10 and 11 before closing with six pars and a birdie.

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Cook was a relative unknown before his victory at Sea Island earlier this season, but now with the flexibility and confidence afforded by a win he hopes to build on his burgeoning momentum this week in California.

"That was a big, proud moment for myself, knowing that I can finish a tournament," Cook said. "I think it was one of those things that I've proven to myself that now I can do it, and it just meant the world to me."

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Photo: Fleetwood's phone cover is picture of Bjorn

By Jason CrookJanuary 18, 2018, 11:40 pm

There's phone covers and then there are Phone Covers.

Paul Casey has himself a Phone Cover, showing off the protective case that features a picture of his wife at last year's U.S. Open.

Now, it appears, Tommy Fleetwood has joined the movement.

Fleetwood, last year's season-long Race to Dubai winner, has a phone cover with a picture of Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on it. And not even a current Thomas Bjorn. This is a young Bjorn. A hair-having Bjorn.


A post shared by Alex Noren (@alexnoren1) on

The 26-year-old is a virtual lock for this year's European Ryder Cup team, but just in case, he's carrying around a phone with a picture of the team captain attached to the back of it.

It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off for him.