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But what if ... 2017 played out differently?

By Will GrayDecember 7, 2017, 1:00 pm

There were plenty of highlights over the past year on the course, from thrilling tournament conclusions to heart-stopping drama at majors. Golf fans were granted a bevy of impressive champions, each with a unique story that led them to the winner’s circle.

But what if the many-dimpled ball had bounced in a slightly different direction? How might the landscape have shifted with minor changes in some of the biggest tournaments of the year?

Without further ado, a look at five of the biggest “what-ifs” from the year in golf:

What if…the Royal Birkdale driving range was out of bounds?

The lore of Jordan Spieth’s Open triumph will always be inextricably linked to the chaotic scene that played out to the right of the 13th fairway during the final round. Spieth had sprayed his drive wildly off-line, but he had the wherewithal to realize that he could take a penalty drop on the adjacent driving range. He managed to save bogey and jump-started an electric finish that earned him the claret jug.

But at many tournament courses, the driving range is considered out of bounds. Had the range been off-limits, Spieth would have either had to take a risky drop on an enormous hillside, setting up a blind and difficult third shot, or trudge back to the tee to take another crack at one of the hardest holes Birkdale had to offer.

At that point even a double bogey would have been a noble goal, meaning Matt Kuchar would have walked to the 14th tee with at least a two-shot lead –  en route to what would have been a breakthrough major title.

What if…Dustin Johnson didn’t slip?

This will likely go down as one of the bigger hypotheticals in recent memory, as an 11th-hour freak injury kept the world No. 1 from playing in the Masters and derailed the momentum he accrued by winning each of his last three starts leading down Magnolia Lane.

Johnson was the man to beat for nearly the entire spring, and without a back injury sustained on the eve of the opening round he would have maintained that status throughout the season’s first major. Instead of Sergio Garcia, it would have been Johnson facing off with Justin Rose down the stretch, each vying for green jacket No. 1 and major No. 2.

Johnson still won four times in 2017, but the floodgates would have opened for a truly historic year with a Masters triumph. And Garcia would probably still be viewed as the best player without a major.

What if…Lexi Thompson had marked her ball correctly?

The biggest rules controversy of the year played out at the ANA Inspiration, where Lexi Thompson was assessed a retroactive, four-shot penalty in the middle of the final round for improperly marking her ball the day prior. A phone call from a TV viewer fundamentally altered the outcome of a major championship, as Thompson went on to lose a playoff to So Yeon Ryu.

While Ryu’s name was etched on the trophy, the tournament was Thompson’s to lose – and she wouldn’t have lost it without the penalty. A proper mark would have led to her second win in four years at Mission Hills, and it would have kicked off a torrid season that still netted her the $1 million Race to the CME Globe bonus despite her controversial runner-up.

It would have even meant a little less scar tissue lingering over Thompson as she addressed the 2-foot putt at the season finale in Naples that would have taken her to world No. 1 for the first time.

What if…Jason Day had chipped out?

The Aussie was still in the hunt at the PGA Championship, four shots off the lead when disaster struck on the final hole of his third round. An errant drive onto pine straw led to an ambitious rescue attempt through the trees, one that backfired and led to a quadruple bogey. Any hopes of a second major title vanished in the span of 15 minutes.

While Day still would have faced an uphill battle in the final round, a simple pitch back to the fairway would have likely resulted in bogey at worse. Day would have remained within arm’s length of Kevin Kisner, who went on to bogey the same hole, and would have been an intimidating presence on a leaderboard filled with first-time major hopefuls.

In the end, Justin Thomas’ run to the Wanamaker Trophy may have continued uninterrupted. But Day’s chances would have been kept alive for a win that would have turned around an otherwise disappointing season – and perhaps salvaged his partnership with caddie Col Swatton, which ended a month later.

What if…Brian Gay didn’t crunch the numbers?

Granted, this one didn’t impact the outcome of a major. But Ian Poulter’s resurgent season, highlighted by his runner-up finish at The Players, would have never happened without some number-crunching from Gay and his wife, Kimberly.

When Poulter missed the cut at the Valero Texas Open in April, he believed that he had exhausted his major medical extension without earning enough FedExCup points to keep his PGA Tour card. But after the Gays unearthed an issue with the Tour’s math, the status of both players was adjusted and the Englishman wasted little time in putting his reinstated card to use.

Without a mathematical assist from Gay, Poulter would have been scrapping for playing opportunities all summer long while trying to keep pace with players nearly half his age. Instead, he’ll end the year knocking on the door of the OWGR top 50, with a return to the Masters within reach and a spot on next year’s European Ryder Cup team in Paris a very real possibility.

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Korda happy to finally be free of jaw pain

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 2:43 am

PHOENIX – Jessica Korda isn’t as surprised as everyone else that she is playing so well, so quickly, upon her return from a complex and painful offseason surgery.

She is inspired finally getting to play without recurring headaches.

“I’d been in pain for three years,” she said after posting a 4-under-par 68 Friday to move two shots off the lead at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

Korda had her upper jaw broken in three places and her low jaw broken in two places in December in a procedure that fixed the alignment of her jaw.

Korda, 25, said the headaches caused by her overbite even affected her personality.

“Affects your moods,” Korda said. “I think I was pretty snappy back then as well.”

She was pretty pleased Friday to give herself a weekend chance at her sixth LPGA title, her second in her last three starts. She won the Honda LPGA Thailand three weeks ago in her first start after returning from surgery.

“I'm much happier now,” Korda said. “Much calmer.”

Even if she still can’t eat the things she would really like to eat. She’s still recuperating. She said the lower part of her face remains numb, and it’s painful to chew crunchy things.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“Chips are totally out of question,” Korda said.

She can eat most things she likes, but she has to cut them into tiny pieces. She can’t wait to be able to eat a steak.

“They broke my palate, so I can't feel anything, even heat,” Korda said. “So that's a bit difficult, because I can't feel any heat on my lip or palate. I don't know how hot things are going in until they hit my throat.”

Korda has 27 screws in her skull holding the realignment together. She needed her family to feed her, bathe her and dress her while she recovered. The procedure changed the way she looks.

While Korda’s ordeal and all that went into her recovery has helped fans relate to her, she said it’s the desire to move on that motivates her.

“Because I was so drugged up, I don't remember a lot of it,” Korda said. “I try to forget a lot of it. I don't think of it like I went through a lot. I just think of it as I'm pain-free. So, yeah, people are like, `Oh, you're so brave, you overcame this and that.’ For me, I'm just going forward.”

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Finally adapted to short putter, Martin near lead

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 1:54 am

PHOENIX – Mo Martin loved her long putter.

In fact, she named her “Mona.”

For 10 years, Martin didn’t putt with anything else. She grew up with long putters, from the time she started playing when she was 5.

While Martin won the Ricoh Women’s British Open in 2014, about nine months after giving up Mona for a short putter, she said it’s taken until today to feel totally comfortable with one.

And that has her excited about this year.

Well, that and having a healthy back again.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

“I've had a feeling that this year was going to be a good one,” Martin said. “My game is in a special place.”

Martin was beaming after a 6-under-par 66 Friday moved her two shots off the lead at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

“Just a beautiful day,” Martin said. “I was able to play my game, make my putts.”

Martin hit all 14 fairways in the second round, hit 15 greens in regulation and took just 27 putts. After struggling with nagging back pain last year, she’s pain free again.

She’s happy to “just to get back to a place now where my ball striking is where it has been the last few years.”

Martin, by the way, says Mona remains preserved in a special place, “a shrine” in her home.

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Clanton rides hole-out eagle to lead at Founders

By Associated PressMarch 17, 2018, 1:47 am

PHOENIX - Cydney Clanton holed out from the fairway for eagle on the par-4 13th and closed with a birdie Friday to take the second-round lead in the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.

Clanton shot a 5-under 67, playing the back nine at Desert Ridge in 5-under 31 to reach 9-under 135.

Clanton's wedge on the 13th flew into the cup on the first bounce. She also birdied the par-5 11th and 15th and the par-4 18th. The 28-year-old former Auburn player is winless on the LPGA.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Ariya Jutanugarn, Marina Alex, Karine Icher and Mariajo Uribe were a stroke back on a calmer day after wind made scoring more difficult Thursday.

Jessica Korda and Mo Martin were 7 under, and Michelle Wie topped the group at 6 under.

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Ko's struggles continue with Founders MC

By Randall MellMarch 17, 2018, 1:26 am

PHOENIX – Lydia Ko loves the Bank of Hope Founders Cup and its celebration of the game’s pioneers, and that made missing the cut Friday sting a little more.

With a 1-over-par 73 following Thursday’s 74, Ko missed the cut by four shots.

After tying for 10th at the HSBC Women’s World Championship in her last start, Ko looked to be turning a corner in her quest to find her best form again, but she heads to next week’s Kia Classic with more work to do.

“I just have to stay patient,” Ko said. “I just have to keep my head high.”

It was just the fifth missed cut in Ko’s 120 career LPGA starts, but her fourth in her last 26 starts.

Ko’s ball striking has been erratic this year, but her putting has been carrying her. She said her putting let her down Friday.

“It seemed like I couldn’t hole a single putt,” she said. “When I missed greens, I just wasn’t getting up and down. When I got a birdie opportunity, I wasn’t able to hole it.”

Ko came to Phoenix ranked 112th in driving distance, 121st in driving accuracy and 83rd in greens in regulation. She was sixth in putting average.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Cristie Kerr saw the struggle playing two rounds with Ko.

“Her game’s not in good shape,” Kerr said. “She seemed a little lost.”

Ko, 20, made those sweeping changes last year, starting 2017 with a new coach (Gary Gilchrist), a new caddie (Peter Godfrey) and new equipment (PXG). She made more changes at this year’s start, with another new coach (Ted Oh) and new caddie (Jonnie Scott).

Ko doesn’t have to look further than Michelle Wie to see how a player’s game can totally turn around.

“It always takes time to get used to things,” Ko said. “By the end of last year, I was playing solid. I’m hoping it won’t take as much time this year.”

Ko had Oh fly to Asia to work with her in her two starts before the Founders Cup, with their work showing up in her play at the HSBC in Singapore. She said she would be talking to Oh again before heading to the Kia Classic next week and then the ANA Inspiration. She has won both of those events and will be looking to pull some good vibes from that.

“This is my favorite stretch of events,” she said. “And I love the Founders Cup, how it celebrates all the generations that have walked through women’s golf. And I love the West Coast swing. Hopefully, I’ll make more putts next week.”

Ko, whose run of 85 consecutive weeks at Rolex world No. 1 ended last summer, slipped to No. 12 this week.