Spieth's uncertainty further clouds Olympic return

By Will GrayJune 28, 2016, 10:09 pm

AKRON, Ohio – What once was considered a slow bleed has turned into a gaping wound.

The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational kicks off this week, not that you would know it from the pre-tournament buzz that centers on who is playing in the Olympics. Or more specifically, who is not.

The high-profile withdrawals last week of Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Branden Grace were followed Tuesday by a bigger blow when world No. 1 Jason Day pulled out, citing concerns over the Zika virus. Minutes later, newly-married Shane Lowry followed Day in grabbing a spot on the bench.

Rest assured, this mass exodus is not what Olympic organizers or golf executives had in mind when the sport was voted back into the Olympics several years ago. But now the situation has reached a level where it is not only overshadowing this week’s proceedings in Akron, but threatens to serve as a dark cloud hanging over the festivities in Rio – perhaps even impacting the sport’s Olympic future.

And that’s before we get an answer from the biggest domino still left standing.

WGC-Bridgestone Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

Jordan Spieth, the all-American poster boy with corporate ties to a noted Olympic sponsor, approached the microphone Tuesday and offered a very firm “maybe” regarding his Rio prospects. It wasn’t the answer many hoped to hear from the 22-year-old wunderkind, and it also portends that the Olympic field could suffer some further deterioration.

“Right now, I’m uncertain,” Spieth said, 43 days before the opening round in Brazil. “Always been excited about the possibility, but there’s quite a few different factors that would turn somebody away from going.”

All credit to Spieth for addressing the elephant in the room: while Zika and potential birth defects may be a motivating factor for family men like Day and McDowell, it’s hardly the only issue for others.

There’s the wear-and-tear of an overly ambitious schedule that failed to properly accommodate a new event of such stature, and there are other concerns once players set foot in the host country.

“Just the security threats that Brazil and Rio have. I’ve heard some stories on both sides,” Spieth said. “Transportation is a big security issue down there, how to get from one place to another with the different kind of violence that we don’t see here.”

It’s a complicated issue, and one that has now thrust the foursome clad in red, white and blue under an even bigger microscope.

While Bubba Watson reiterated his plans to play in Rio, at age 37 he is in a different stage of life than Spieth, Rickie Fowler or Dustin Johnson. After Day’s withdrawal, they now comprise four of the five highest-ranking spots in the projected 60-man field, and Spieth is fully aware that the magnitude of any American defection would be significant.

“Do I feel an added burden? Potentially. I think all four of the Americans do,” he said. “I feel like one of four with maybe a slightly higher burden now that the guys have dropped out.”

Watson and his wife, Angie, are unable to bear children, and have two adopted children. While he remains enthused about the opportunity to compete, he’ll do so without his regular caddie, Ted Scott, who will not travel to Brazil because of safety and health concerns.

Watson also pointed out that his perspective would have shifted dramatically if his circumstances were different.

“If I was the other way and I was planning on having more kids, I would not go,” Watson said. “But I’m not. I’m in a situation where that’s not happening, so my decision was a lot easier.”

The mounting pressure on the Olympic participants who remain ambivalent is exacerbated by the fact that, frankly, this seems like a golf-centric issue. Swimmers, runners, tennis players – even female golfers – are not backing out of the Olympics much at all.

The most recent withdrawals are set against the backdrop of the U.S. Olympic trials, where American athletes have come from far and wide to take their shot at maybe, hopefully, earning a trip to Rio.

But those athletes strive to reach the pinnacle of their sport, and it’s an opportunity that is offered only once every four years. For golfers with no pre-existing concept of their sport in the Olympics, it’s simply a prestigious tournament that falls short of the four majors.

“Golf has never been on anyone’s radar in the Olympics,” Day said. “I never grew up thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to represent my country in the Olympics,’ because there was never an opportunity to.”

Therein lies another wrinkle to this layered dilemma: golf’s return to the Games could be short-lived.

While the sport is guaranteed a spot in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, where many believe participation issues will be largely minimized, the vote on golf’s Olympic future will take place next year.

The only data that officials will have at their disposal will be what happened in Rio, a tournament that is likely to be defined as much by who wasn’t there as by who ultimately stood atop the medal podium.

“No matter what I do, it’s already – there’s already been enough players (withdrawing) that I think it’ll definitely have an impact,” Spieth said. “Pending some crazy, great finish or whatever, I think there’s a significantly lower likelihood now of it staying in the Olympics than there was six months ago.”

The factors involved with Olympic participation are complicated, personal and nuanced. Players are attempting to evaluate a dynamic situation where one of the greatest fears – the unknown – continues to play a significant role.

Day’s withdrawal was a setback, as was McIlroy’s before that. But their choices also served to ratchet up the pressure on Spieth, whose decision – fair or otherwise – could create ripples that impact whether golf remains an Olympic mainstay, or simply becomes an ill-fated experiment cut short by a confluence of factors.

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.

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Hot Seat: Rory jumps into the fire early

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 2:11 pm

The world’s top tours head to desert regions this week, perfect locales for The Hot Seat, the gauge upon which we measure the level of heat the game’s top personalities are facing ...

Sahara sizzle: Rory McIlroy

McIlroy won’t have to look far to see how his form measures up to world No. 1 Dustin Johnson at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

McIlroy will make his 2018 debut with Johnson in his face, literally.

McIlroy will be grouped with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood in the first two rounds.

Players like to downplay pairings early in a tournament, but it’s hard to believe McIlroy and Johnson won’t be trying to send each other messages in this European Tour event in the United Arab Emirates. That’s the alpha-dog nature of world-class players looking to protect their turf, or in the case of McIlroy, take back his turf.

“When you are at the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Trevor Immelman said about pairings during Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge last month.

And that was an offseason event.

“They want to show this guy, ‘This is what I got,’” Immelman said.

As early season matchups go, Abu Dhabi is a heavyweight pairing that ought to be fun.

So there will be no easing into the new year for McIlroy after taking off the last three months to regroup from the stubborn rib injury that plagued him last season. He is coming off a winless year, and he will be doing so alongside a guy who just won the first PGA Tour event of 2018 in an eight-shot rout. Johnson’s victory in Hawaii two weeks ago was his fifth since McIlroy last won.

“Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place, and that was because of where I was physically,” McIlroy said of 2017. “I feel prepared now. I feel ready, and I feel ready to challenge. I feel really good about where I’m at with my health. I’ve put all that behind me, which has been great.”

Sonoran Smolder: Phil Mickelson

Mickelson will turn 48 this summer.

His world ranking is sliding, down to No. 43 now, which is the lowest he has ranked in 24 years.

It’s been more than four years since he last won, making him 0 for his last 92 starts.

There’s motivation in all of that for Mickelson. He makes his 2018 debut at the CareerBuilder Challenge in the Palm Springs area this week talking like a man on a renewed mission.

There’s a Ryder Cup team to make this season, which would be his 12th straight, and there’s a career Grand Slam to claim, with the U.S. Open returning to Shinnecock Hills, where Mickelson finished second in ’04.

While Mickelson may not feel old, there are so many young stars standing in his way that it’s hard not to be constantly reminded that time isn’t on his side in these events anymore.

There has only been one player in the history of the game to win a major championship who was older than Mickelson is right now. Julius Boros won the PGA Championship when he was 48 back in 1968.

Campaign fever: Jordan Spieth

Spieth’s respect in the game’s ranks extends outside the ropes.

He was just selected to run for the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council’s chairman position. He is facing Billy Hurley III in an election to see who will succeed Davis Love III on the Tour’s Policy Board next year.

Spieth, just 24, has already made Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People.” He made that back in 2016, with the magazine writing that “he exemplifies everything that’s great about sports.” Sounds like a campaign slogan.

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CareerBuilder Challenge: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 1:10 pm

The PGA Tour shifts from Hawaii to Southern California for the second full-field event of the year. Here are the key stats and information for the CareerBuilder Challenge. Click here for full-field tee times.

How to watch (all rounds on Golf Channel):

Thursday, Rd. 1: 3-7PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Friday, Rd. 2: 3-7PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Saturday, Rd. 3: 3-7PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Sunday, Rd. 4: 3-7PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Purse: $5.9 million ($1,062,000 to winner)

Courses: PGA West, Stadium Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,113); PGA West, Nicklaus Tournament Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,159); La Quinta Country Club, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,060) NOTE: All three courses will be used for the first three rounds but only the Stadium Course will be used for the final round.

Defending champion: Hudson Swafford (-20) - defeated Adam Hadwin by one stroke to earn his first PGA Tour win.

Notables in the field

Phil Mickelson

* This is his first start of 2018. It's the fourth consecutive year he has made this event the first one on his yearly calendar.

* For the second year in a row he will serve as the tournament's official ambassador.

* He has won this event twice - in 2002 and 2004.

* This will be his 97th worldwide start since his most recent win, The Open in 2013.

Jon Rahm

* Ranked No. 3 in the world, he finished runner-up in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

* In 37 worldwide starts as a pro, he has 14 top-5 finishes.

* Last year he finished T-34 in this event.

Adam Hadwin

* Last year in the third round, he shot 59 at La Quinta Country Club. It was the ninth - and still most recent - sub-60 round on Tour.

* In his only start of 2018, the Canadian finished 32nd in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Brian Harman

* Only player on the PGA Tour with five top-10 finishes this season.

* Ranks fifth in greens in regulation this season.

* Finished third in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and T-4 in the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Brandt Snedeker

* Making only his third worldwide start since last June at the Travelers Championship. He has been recovering from a chest injury.

* This is his first start since he withdrew from the Indonesian Masters in December because of heat exhaustion.

* Hasn't played in this event since missing the cut in 2015.

Patrick Reed

* Earned his first career victory in this event in 2014, shooting three consecutive rounds of 63.

* This is his first start of 2018.

* Last season finished seventh in strokes gained: putting, the best ranking of his career.

(Stats provided by the Golf Channel editorial research unit.)