Volvik WLD: Top 16 set, but No. 1 ousted

By Will GraySeptember 5, 2017, 12:48 am

THACKERVILLE, Okla. – The primetime lights have not yet been turned on, with players instead toiling under the beaming heat of a summer sun. But the primal screams and eye-popping yardages emanating from “the grid” indicate that the Volvik World Long Drive Championship is already in full swing.

The Winstar World Casino and Resort will take center stage over the next two evenings, but when a world championship is at stake the sport of long drive becomes more of a marathon than a sprint. For the most prolific drivers who have all gathered at this Oklahoma outpost, one good shot won’t do the trick.

Instead they were asked to navigate a meandering, double-elimination bracket that has already whittled the field from 96 entrants to 16. Along the way there have been plenty of surprises, with more likely in store once the cameras are turned on and the music gets pumping Tuesday before a national television audience.

For the uninitiated, there remains a simple question: How did we get to this point?

Seventy men qualified through past world championship performance, regional qualifiers or results in one of the other nine long-drive events contested this year. The final 26 spots were decided during a “last chance” qualifier conducted last week.

Pool play started Saturday, with players split into 16-man qualifying groups while vying for a handful of spots in the next round. Over the course of two days, the top 32 drivers were identified and re-bracketed based on world ranking.


Volvik World Long Drive Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Volvik World Long Drive Championship scoring and brackets


Monday’s head-to-head matches included a 3-minute time clock during which players stood side-by-side while hitting eight balls apiece. The player with the longest single drive won the “set,” with each match a best-of-3 affair. Players could afford to drop a single match, but were eliminated after their second loss.

It’s a change from last year’s format which saw the top 64 square off in a single-elimination, match-play bracket. A larger sample size should benefit the top players, but there were still upsets aplenty as three of the top five ranked players in the world lost their initial match Monday morning.

That group included world No. 1 Maurice Allen, who made headlines earlier this year with his Ric Flair-inspired monologue at the Mile High Showdown. But after twice losing to unheralded Wes Patterson, the lowest-ranked player in the field, Allen’s title run came to an abrupt halt.

“Today just wasn’t my day,” Allen said. “I think 2017 is the hardest field in world championships history. You’re looking at a lot of big names going home. Like I’ve said many, many times, this sport is growing. The guys are getting better and the competition is getting stiffer, so that’s why when you get a win you truly try to relish it. You don’t know when a win will be your last win.”

While Allen will be relegated to a spectator when a champion is crowned Wednesday night, there are still plenty of notable contenders standing. Two-time winner Tim Burke rallied to make the Round of 16 after losing his opening match, while defending champ Joe Miller breezed through after uncorking four different drives of at least 375 yards.

“I’m sure there’s a target on my back, but I try not to think about it too much. Let the talking be done on the tee box,” Miller said. “Once we get under the lights, just concentrate on game, go out there and hit your ball.”

With the top 16 now identified, players will be re-seeded based on ranking and put into a single-elimination bracket. When the competition resumes Tuesday night, they’ll each face an opponent equipped with eight balls, a driver that utilizes every last spec afforded by USGA regulations and a swing speed that would make any Trackman machine blush.

The winners move on to Wednesday’s high-octane finale, where the final eight players will vie for the coveted championship belt. The loser of each Round of 16 match heads home.

And the men aren’t the only show this week in Thackerville. The women’s division gets underway Tuesday, with the four longest drivers facing off during Wednesday’s primetime competition.

With three days of competition in the books, there are still a few unexpected names on the men’s leaderboard. Patterson is a former pitcher who was considering Web.com Tour Q-School as recently as last month, while Kyle Berkshire was playing collegiate golf at nearby University of North Texas last fall.

But after launching a couple 400-plus yard drives during tournament practice rounds, his teammates encouraged him to try the long-drive circuit and his coach at UNT gave him a one-semester redshirt to give it a shot.

Berkshire hit a 474-yard shot during his first qualifier, turned pro and hasn’t looked back.

“That’s when I knew this was something that I was one of the best at,” Berkshire said. “It’s just something that I really want to reach my potential in.”

That chase toward potential will now include a spot under the lights, where the 20-year-old will stand toe-to-toe against the world’s best with a world championship up for grabs.

“Anything less than a win for me is a disappointment, because I know how good I am,” Berkshire said while sporting the UNT logo on his shoes. “It’s not about being cocky or being conceited. It’s about keeping your head down, hitting your shots and letting your clubs do the talking.”

The work under the sun is in the books. Now the focus shifts to primetime, where the only certainty is that there will be plenty of high-energy fireworks as the longest drivers in the game continue their chase deep into the night sky, with the biggest title of the year at stake.

Open Qualifying Series kicks off with Aussie Open

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 21, 2017, 4:24 pm

The 147th Open is nearly eight months away, but there are still major championship berths on the line this week in Australia.

The Open Qualifying Series kicks off this week, a global stretch of 15 event across 10 different countries that will be responsible for filling 46 spots in next year's field at Carnoustie. The Emirates Australian Open is the first event in the series, and the top three players among the top 10 who are not otherwise exempt will punch their tickets to Scotland.

In addition to tournament qualifying opportunities, the R&A will also conduct four final qualifying events across Great Britain and Ireland on July 3, where three spots will be available at each site.

Here's a look at the full roster of tournaments where Open berths will be awarded:

Emirates Australian Open (Nov. 23-26): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

Joburg Open (Dec. 7-10): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

SMBC Singapore Open (Jan. 18-21): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

Mizuno Open (May 24-27): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

HNA Open de France (June 28-July 1): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

The National (June 28-July 1): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

Dubai Duty Free Irish Open (July 5-8): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

The Greenbrier Classic (July 5-8): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open (July 12-15): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

John Deere Classic (July 12-15): Top player (not otherwise exempt) among top five and ties

Stock Watch: Lexi, Justin rose or fall this week?

By Ryan LavnerNovember 21, 2017, 2:36 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Jon Rahm (+9%): Just imagine how good he’ll be in the next few years, when he isn’t playing all of these courses for the first time. With no weaknesses in his game, he’s poised for an even bigger 2018.

Austin Cook (+7%): From Monday qualifiers to Q-School to close calls on the Web.com, it hasn’t been an easy road to the big leagues. Well, he would have fooled us, because it looked awfully easy as the rookie cruised to a win in just his 14th Tour start.

Ariya (+6%): Her physical tools are as impressive as any on the LPGA, and if she can shore up her mental game – she crumbled upon reaching world No. 1 – then she’ll become the world-beater we always believed she could be.  

Tommy Fleetwood (+4%): He ran out of gas in Dubai, but no one played better on the European Tour this year than Fleetwood, Europe’s new No. 1, who has risen from 99th to 18th in the world.   

Lexi (+1%): She has one million reasons to be pleased with her performance this year … but golf fans are more likely to remember the six runners-up and two careless mistakes (sloppy marking at the ANA and then a yippy 2-footer in the season finale) that cost her a truly spectacular season.


FALLING

J-Rose (-1%): Another high finish in Dubai, but his back-nine 38, after surging into the lead, was shocking. It cost him not just the tournament title, but also the season-long race.  

Hideki (-2%): After getting blown out at the Dunlop Phoenix, he made headlines by saying there’s a “huge gap” between he and winner Brooks Koepka. Maybe something was lost in translation, but Matsuyama being too hard on himself has been a familiar storyline the second half of the year. For his sake, here’s hoping he loosens up.

Golf-ball showdown (-3%): Recent comments by big-name stars and Mike Davis’ latest salvo about the need for a reduced-flight ball could set up a nasty battle between golf’s governing bodies and manufacturers.

DL3 (-4%): Boy, the 53-year-old is getting a little too good at rehab – in recent years, he has overcome a neck fusion, foot injury, broken collarbone and displaced thumb. Up next is hip-replacement surgery.

LPGA Player of the Year (-5%): Sung Hyun Park and So Yeon Ryu tied for the LPGA’s biggest prize, with 162 points. How is there not a tiebreaker in place, whether it’s scoring average or best major performance? Talk about a buzzkill.

Titleist's Uihlein fires back at Davis over distance

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 21, 2017, 12:59 am

Consider Titleist CEO Wally Uihlein unmoved by Mike Davis' comments about the evolution of the golf ball – and unhappy.

In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, the outlet which first published Davis' comments on Sunday, Uihlein took aim at the idea that golf ball distance gains are hurting the sport by providing an additional financial burden to courses.

"Is there any evidence to support this canard … the trickle-down cost argument?” he wrote (via Golf.com). “Where is the evidence to support the argument that golf course operating costs nationwide are being escalated due to advances in equipment technology?"

Pointing the blame elsewhere, Uihlein criticized the choices and motivations of modern architects.

"The only people that seem to be grappling with advances in technology and physical fitness are the short-sighted golf course developers and the supporting golf course architectural community who built too many golf courses where the notion of a 'championship golf course' was brought on line primarily to sell real estate," he wrote.

The Titleist CEO even went as far as to suggest that Tiger Woods' recent comments that "we need to do something about the golf ball" were motivated by the business interersts of Woods' ball sponsor, Bridgestone.

"Given Bridgestone’s very small worldwide market share and paltry presence in professional golf, it would seem logical they would have a commercial motive making the case for a reduced distance golf ball," he added.

Acushnet Holdings, Titleist's parent company, announced in September that Uihlein would be stepping down as the company's CEO at the end of this year but that he will remain on the company's board of directors.

Class of 2011: Who's got next?

By Rex HoggardNovember 20, 2017, 9:00 pm

The sprawling legacy of the Class of 2011 can be traced to any number of origins, but for some among what is arguably the most prolific class ever, it all began in June 2009.

The 99-player field that descended on Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., for the AJGA’s FootJoy Invitational included Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and so many others, like Michael Kim, who up to that moment had experienced the weight of the ’11 class only from afar.

“It was that year that Justin won the FootJoy Invitational and that got him into [the Wyndham Championship]," Kim recalled. "That was my first invitational and I was like 'these guys are so good’ and I was blown away by what they were shooting. I remember being shocked by how good they were at that time.”

Tom Lovelady, who like former Cal-Berkeley Bear Kim is now on the PGA Tour, remembers that tournament as the moment when he started to realize how special this particular group could be, as well as the genesis of what has become lifetime friendships.

In the third round, Lovelady was paired with Spieth.

“We kind of hit it off and became friends after that," Lovelady recalled. "The final round I got paired with Justin Thomas and we became friends. On the 10th hole I asked [Thomas], ‘Where do you want to go to school?’ He said, ‘Here. Here or Alabama.’ My first reaction was, ‘Don’t go to Alabama.’ He’s like, ‘Why?’ I wanted to go there. I knew the class was strong and they only had so many spots, but that’s where I really wanted to go.”

Both ended up in Tuscaloosa, and both won an NCAA title during their time in college. They also solidified a friendship that endures to this day in South Florida where they live and train together.

While the exploits of Thomas, Spieth and Daniel Berger are well documented, perhaps the most impressive part of the ’11 class is the depth that continues to develop at the highest level.

To many, it’s not a question as to whether the class will have another breakout star, it’s when and who?



There’s a good chance that answer could have been found on the tee sheet for last week’s RSM Classic, a lineup that included Class of ’11 alums Lovelady; Kim; Ollie Schniederjans, a two-time All-American at Georgia Tech; Patrick Rodgers, Stanford's all-time wins leader alongside Tiger Woods; and C.T. Pan, a four-time All-American at the University of Washington.

Lovelady earned his Tour card this year via the Web.com Tour, while Schniederjans and Rodgers are already well on their way to the competitive tipping point of Next Level.

Rodgers, who joined the Tour in 2015, dropped a close decision at the John Deere Classic in July, where he finished a stroke behind winner Bryson DeChambeau; and Schniederjans had a similar near-miss at the Wyndham Championship.

To those who have been conditioned by nearly a decade of play, it’s no surprise that the class has embraced a next-man-up mentality. Nor is it any surprise, at least for those who were forged by such an exceedingly high level of play, that success has seemed to be effortless.

“First guy I remember competing against at a high level was Justin. We were playing tournaments at 10, 11 years old together,” Rodgers said. “He was really, really good at that age and I wasn’t really good and so he was always my benchmark and motivated me to get better.”

That symbiotic relationship hasn’t changed. At every level the group has been challenged, and to a larger degree motivated, by the collective success.

By all accounts, it was Spieth who assumed the role of standard-bearer when he joined the Tour in 2013 and immediately won. For Rodgers, however, the epiphany arrived a year later as he was preparing to play a college event in California and glanced up at a television to see his former rival grinding down the stretch at Augusta National.

“Jordan’s leading the Masters. A couple years before we’d been paired together battling it out at this exact same college event,” he laughed. “I think I even won the tournament. It was just crazy for me to see someone who is such a peer, someone I was so familiar with up there on the biggest stage.”

It was a common theme for many among the Class of ’11 as Spieth, Thomas and others emerged, and succeeded, on a world stage. If familiarity can breed contempt, in this case it created a collective confidence.

Success on Tour has traditionally come slowly for new pros, the commonly held belief being that it took younger players time to evolve into Tour professionals. That’s no longer the case, the byproduct of better coaching, training and tournaments for juniors and top-level amateurs.

But for the Class of ’11, that learning curve was accelerated by the economies of scale. The quality and quantity of competition for the class has turned out to be a fundamental tenet to the group’s success.

“Since the mindset of the class has been win, win, win, you don’t know anything other than that, it’s never been just be good enough,” Lovelady said. “You don’t think about being top 125 [on the FedExCup points list], you think about being as high as you can instead of just trying to make the cut, or just keep your card. It’s all you’ve known since you were 14, 15 years old.”

It’s a unique kind of competitive Darwinism that has allowed the class to separate itself from others, an ever-present reality that continues to drive the group.

“It was constantly in my head motivating me,” Rodgers said. “Then you see Jordan turn pro and have immediate success and Justin turn pro and have immediate success. It’s kind of the fuel that drives me. What makes it special is these guys have always motivated me, maybe even more so than someone like Tiger [Woods].”

The domino effect seems obvious, inevitable even, with the only unknown who will be next?

“That’s a good question; I’d like for it to be myself,” Lovelady said. “But it’s hard to say it’s going to be him, it’s going to be him when it could be him. There are just so many guys.”