What's a WGC worth? These guys would all take one

By Will GrayAugust 5, 2017, 11:29 pm

The four WGC events held each year occupy a peculiar spot on the pro golf hierarchy.

They’re not majors, nor are they treated as such. But they’re also a step above the so-called “regular” Tour stops, even those that annually head to some of the game’s most iconic layouts.

A WGC win, then, can mean different things to different players, and heading into the finale of the Bridgestone Invitational, the scenarios are spanning the spectrum. But the focus begins with the two men sharing the lead, a duo that traded punches at Hazeltine last fall and now will share the tournament’s final pairing.

Zach Johnson’s resumé is lacking little, as the two-time major winner is perhaps the biggest overachiever of his generation. At age 41, he could retire tomorrow and still receive a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame in a few years.

But he has never won a WGC event, and he has never been better than T-4 at Firestone despite playing each of the last 13 years – an active streak surpassed only by Phil Mickelson. Johnson appeared mired in a slump for much of this year, and in March he fell out of the top 50 in the world rankings for the first time since 2007. His spot in this week’s field came only thanks to his place on last year’s Ryder Cup squad.

A T-5 finish at the John Deere Classic was his first top-10 in months, and he followed it with a T-14 showing at Royal Birkdale. Now with three straight rounds in the 60s, he’s again flashing the form that has helped him to lift a dozen trophies.

“I don’t know how many top-10s I’ve had here, but it’s probably been a handful,” Johnson said. “I feel like I can compete here. That goes without saying.”

Johnson still has not won since capturing the claret jug more than two years ago, a drought he hopes to end Sunday. But in order to do so he’ll need to play from the pole position, an unfamiliar spot given that each of his last six wins have been of the come-from-behind variety.

He’ll also be leaning on an unusual weapon for a player best known for his wedges and short game. Johnson cracked the face of his driver at The Open, and the replacement has exceeded his expectations this week in Akron.

WGC-Bridgestone Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

“This is the best I’ve driven it probably all year,” Johnson said. “It’s probably the best driver I’ve had in my bag all year, if not ever. So, very encouraged.”

Then there’s Pieters, a budding prospect whose record over the last year has seemingly been building toward a breakthrough on a big stage. The Belgian starred as a captain’s pick at the Ryder Cup, then notched top-5 finishes this spring at the Genesis Open (T-2), WGC-Mexico Championship (T-5) and Masters (T-4).

While he hasn’t done much since Augusta, Pieters now has an opportunity to emulate Shane Lowry’s feat from two years ago, using a win at Firestone to transform from a highly-touted European into a PGA Tour staple.

“I think the ones I’ve gotten in contention this year, I’ve gotten very quick,” Pieters said. “Not so much nervous, but just anxious to finish and to have a good finish. Maybe tomorrow I have to get back to being calm and just let it come to me.”

Pieters has been pessimistic about his driving all week, and the stats back it up, as the Belgian has hit only 13 fairways through three rounds. But at one point he amassed a three-shot lead during the third round thanks to six birdies over his first 10 holes, and while he regressed down the stretch, a closing birdie drew him even with Johnson heading into the final round.

“My bad golf is getting better,” Pieters said. “That’s always good. That’s why you practice, I guess.”

Granted, this is far from a two-horse race. Aussie Scott Hend sits one shot back in search of what would be a watershed victory at age 43, while two of the game’s biggest stars are still very much in the mix.

Hideki Matsuyama won a WGC event earlier this season and had claret jug aspirations until blasting his opening tee shot out of bounds during the final round at Royal Birkdale. He’s again ideally positioned, just two shots off the pace and one of only five players to break par each of the first three rounds.

Another member of that select group is Rory McIlroy, who has bent Firestone to his will off the tee but largely failed to capitalize from there. The Ulsterman is doing the heavy lifting this week with friend Harry Diamond on the bag, but he now has a chance to repeat his rally from three years ago, when he raced past Sergio Garcia to grab the trophy.

“I was three behind going into Sunday last time and I think I took the lead by the sixth tee box,” McIlroy said. “There’s obviously a few more guys up around the lead this time around, but I’m going to need to start like that again.”

With the season’s final major on the horizon, players have a tangible goal toward which to build momentum with their final loop around Firestone. But for those still with title aspirations, the allure of a trophy from golf’s not-quite-top shelf has plenty of appeal on its own.

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TT postscript: Tiger (E) survives difficult day

By Tiger TrackerFebruary 22, 2018, 6:40 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Here are some observations after watching Tiger Woods’ even-par 70 in the first round of the Honda Classic:

• Whew, that was tough. Like, by far the most difficult conditions Woods has faced this year. The wind blew about 20 mph all day, from different directions, and that affected every part of the game, especially putting.

• And though the stats aren’t necessarily pretty – half the fairways hit, just 10 greens – this was BY FAR his best ball-striking round of the new year. He even said so himself. When he walked off the course, he was just four off the lead.

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

• Woods had only one bad hole Thursday. It came on the par-5 third hole, his 12th of the day. He blew his driver into the right bunker. He had to lay way back, to clear the lip of the bunker. And then he tugged his third shot just barely in the greenside trap. And then his bunker shot didn’t get onto the green. Then he chipped on and missed a 4-footer. A truly ugly double bogey.

• The driver is still a concern – he found the fairway only once in five attempts. But only one of those misses was way off-line. That came on the 12th, when he double-crossed one way left.

• Though the driver is uncooperative, he has showed a lot of improvement with his 3-wood. The four times he used it, he controlled the ball flight beautifully and hit it 300-plus. His 2-iron is making a comeback, too, in a big way.

• After this round, he should have a little wiggle room Friday to make the cut, barring a blowup round. It’s playing tough, and the 36-hole cut should be over par. Tiger needs four rounds of competitive reps. If he plays like this Friday, he’ll get them. 

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Tiger Tracker: Honda Classic

By Tiger TrackerFebruary 22, 2018, 5:45 pm

Tiger Woods is making his third start of the year at the Honda Classic. We're tracking him at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

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Pepperell among co-leaders early in Qatar

By Associated PressFebruary 22, 2018, 5:06 pm

DOHA, Qatar – Eddie PepperellGregory Havret, and Aaron Rai made the most of calm early morning conditions at Doha Golf Club to set the pace in the opening round of the Qatar Masters at 7-under-par 65 on Thursday.

Havret went bogey free, Pepperell made one bogey and eight birdies, while fellow English golfer Rai eagled his last hole to add to five birdies.

One shot behind the leaders were four players, including former Ryder Cup player Edoardo Molinari of Italy and former champion Alvaro Quiros of Spain.

Defending champion Jeunghun Wang of South Korea started with a 68, and Race to Dubai leader Shubhankar Sharma of India shot 69 despite a double bogey on the 15th hole.

Full-field scores from the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters

Pepperell, who is fast gaining a reputation on the European Tour for his irreverent tweets and meaningful blogs, showed his clubs can also do an equal amount of talking after missing cuts in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Malaysia.

Pepperell birdied Nos. 10, 11, 14, 16 and 18 with a single blemish on 13 after starting on the back nine. He made three more birdies on his back nine.

He was joined on top of the leaderboard by Havret, who made five birdies in six holes from the sixth, and Rai, who eagled the last.

''I surprised myself, really,'' said Pepperell, who finished third in Portugal and Netherlands last year.

''I've made some changes this week with personnel, so I've been working on a couple of new things and I surprised myself out there with how well I managed to trust it.

''I hit some quality tee shots, that's the area I feel that I've been struggling with a bit lately. We had a good time.

''It's definitely a bigger picture for me this week than tomorrow and indeed the weekend. I'm not overly-fussed about my early season form.”

Molinari, a three-time champion on the tour including last year in Morocco, started with eight straight pars, and then made seven birdies in his last 10 holes, including a chip-in for birdie on the last.

''I hit every green apart from the last one. I hit a lot of fairways, I had a lot of chances for birdie,'' said Edoardo, the older brother of Francesco.

''Last week in Oman, I had a decent week, I had a bad first round and then three very good rounds. It's been the case for the last few weeks so my focus this week was to try and get a good start.''

Oliver Fisher of England was the best among the afternoon groups with a 6-under 66, joining Molinari, Quiros and Germany's Marcel Schneider in a tie for fourth.

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Honda Classic: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalFebruary 22, 2018, 2:15 pm

The PGA Tour heads back east to kick off the Florida Swing at PGA National. Here are the key stats and information for the Honda Classic. Click here for full-field tee times.

How to watch:

Thursday, Rd. 1: Golf Channel, 2-6PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Friday, Rd. 2: Golf Channel, 2-6PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream

Saturday, Rd. 3: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream; CBS, 3-6PM ET

Sunday, Rd. 4: Golf Channel, 1-2:45PM ET; live stream: http://www.golfchannel.com/pgastream; CBS, 3-6PM ET

Purse: $6.6 million ($1,188,000 to the winner)

Course: PGA National, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida (par-70; 7,140 yards)

Defending champion: Rickie Fowler (-12) won by four, picking off his fourth PGA Tour victory.

Notables in the field:

Tiger Woods

• Making his fourth start at the Honda Classic and his first since withdrawing with back spasms in 2014.

• Shot a Sunday 62 in a T-2 finish in 2012, marking his lowest career final-round score on the PGA Tour.

• Coming off a missed cut at last week's Genesis Open, his 17th in his Tour career.

Rickie Fowler

• The defending champion owns the lowest score to par and has recorded the most birdies and eagles in this event since 2012.

• Fowler's last start was at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he failed to close a 54-hole lead. Fowler is 1-for-6 with 54-hole leads in his Tour career, with his only successful close coming at last year's Honda.

• On Tour this year, Fowler is first in scrambling from the fringe, second in total scrambling and third in strokes gained around the green. 

Rory McIlroy

• It's been feast or famine for McIlroy at the Honda. He won in 2012, withdrew with a toothache in 2013, finished T-2 in 2014 and missed the cut in 2015 and 2016.

• McIlroy ascended to world No. 1 with his victory at PGA National in 2012, becoming the second youngest player at 22 years old to top the OWGR, behind only Woods. McIlroy was later edged by a slightly younger 22-year-old Jordan Spieth.

• Since the beginning of 2010, only Dustin Johnson (15) has more PGA Tour victories than McIlroy (13).