The Year So Far Best Player Biggest Surprise
The West Coast swing usually sets the tone for the rest of the season, or at least builds excitement as golf heads toward The Players Championship and the Masters. This one had about as much buzz as the United States against Britain for the bronze medal in curling.
Four of eight tournaments were decided by three shots or more, and the Match Play Championship in effect ended with six holes remaining. Nine players won nine tournaments, which is not unusual and certainly not a bad thing, but there were no back-nine duels among the top players.
Then again, the top five players competed against each other only once.
Tiger Woods has played only nine rounds on the PGA Tour this year. Ernie Els did not show up until Riviera, and didn't stick around more than one day at La Costa. Seven of the nine winners were ranked outside the top 25 when the season began, the exceptions being Woods and David Toms.
Maybe the Florida swing couldn't get here fast enough.
Woods is the defending champion in the Ford Championship at Doral, where a year ago he rallied in a scintillating Sunday showdown against Phil Mickelson. Nine of the top 10 players in the world ranking are at the Blue Monster, and Ford didn't even have to pay them this year.
Woods already has won, in a playoff at the Buick Invitational. But even that conjures memories of a West Coast swing that fell flat. He won in somber fashion, after Jose Maria Olazabal missed a 4-foot par putt. Woods' last four wins worldwide have been in playoff, a trend that might age him.
Before moving forward, here are a few trends that emerged from two months on the West Coast:
The guy atop the money list is Rory Sabbatini, with a victory and two second-place finishes. He also has made the most significant climb in the world ranking, starting the year at No. 71 and moving up to No. 18.
But the best player was Chad Campbell.
Sabbatini had a chance to win only one tournament, which he did at Riviera. Campbell was tied for the lead going into the final round of the Sony Open before Toms beat him by five, he won the Bob Hope Classic, and he advanced to the quarterfinals of Match Play by beating Woods.
Jack Nicklaus was the last player to win a PGA Tour event during his tenure as Ryder Cup captain. Tom Lehman played as if he wants to be the next.
Lehman hasn't seriously threatened to win, but he had backdoor top 10s at Pebble Beach and Riviera, and advanced to the semifinals of the Accenture Match Play Championship. He is 10th in the Ryder Cup standings heading into the Florida Swing.
Any week in the Ryder Cup standings.
One reason Lehman as a playing-captain might be forgotten by the end of March is the new system that awards quadruple points this year, plus a 75-point bonus for winning. And those are just regular PGA Tour events.
J.B. Holmes, the 23-year-old rookie, won in Phoenix and was 10th in the standings. Arron Oberholser won his first PGA Tour event at Pebble Beach and moved up to sixth. Chris DiMarco was third at the start of the year, and could be out of the top 10 by the end of the week.
It might not be until after the British Open that Lehman has any idea how his team is shaping up, and whether he needs to worry about his putting or shirt sizes.
It seems ludicrous to raise questions about Phil Mickelson when he has finished in the top 10 at four of his first five tournaments. But Mickelson usually makes his mark on the West Coast swing, and this was only fourth time in his 14 full seasons on the PGA Tour that he didn't have a trophy upon arriving in Florida.
Vijay Singh now has gone 13 consecutive starts on the PGA Tour, his longest drought since 2002.
After winning Q-school straight out of college, J.B. Holmes pounded the TPC of Scottsdale into submission to win the FBR Open by seven shots. The kid is long, no doubt, but his age (23) and pedigree (played on the Walker Cup team last year) make his potential tantalizing.
Mike Weir must be having some serious self-doubts.
The Canadian who showed such grit in winning the Masters has wilted twice in the last three weeks. Tied for the lead at Pebble Beach, all he needed was a mediocre game to put heat on Oberholser, but Weir couldn't find the green with a wedge and stumbled to a 78. He had a 4-up lead with four holes to play on Geoff Ogilvy and appeared a lock to get into the quarterfinals until he missed three putts inside 12 feet to close the match, and lost in 21 holes.
Stuart Appleby made clutch putts on two of the last three holes to get into a playoff against Singh at Kapalua, then beat him with an exquisite bunker shot from behind the 18th green that nearly went in.
If not many remember that sequence, maybe they weren't watching.
And if they weren't watching, maybe it was because Woods, Mickelson and Retief Goosen didn't show up, and Els wasn't eligible for the winners-only event.
They all played together for the first time last week at La Costa, and they are together again at the Blue Monster, along with Singh. Perhaps that's what it takes for people to pay attention to the PGA Tour.
People used to say the tour didn't start until Doral.
This year, that might be the case.
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Bhatia loses U.S. Am match after caddie-cart incident
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – One of the hottest players in amateur golf had his U.S. Amateur run end Wednesday under unusual circumstances.
Akshay Bhatia, the 16-year-old left-hander who has been dominating the junior golf circuit over the past year, squandered a late lead in his eventual 19-hole loss to Bradford Tilley in the Round of 64.
Bhatia was all square against Tilley as they played Pebble Beach’s par-5 14th hole. After knocking his second shot onto the green, Bhatia and his caddie, Chris Darnell, stopped to use the restroom. Bhatia walked up to the green afterward, but Darnell asked what he thought was a USGA official for a ride up to the green.
“The gentleman was wearing a USGA pullover,” Darnell explained afterward. “I asked if I could get a ride to the green to keep up pace, and he said yes. So I hopped on the back, got up to the green, hopped off and thought nothing of it.”
Conditions of the competition prohibit players and caddies from riding on any form of transportation during a stipulated round unless authorized.
It turns out that the cart that Darnell rode on was not driven by a USGA official. Rather, it was just a volunteer wearing USGA apparel. A rules official who was in the area spotted the infraction and assessed Bhatia an adjustment penalty, so instead of winning the hole with a birdie-4 to move 1 up, the match remained all square.
Even more interesting was what Darnell said happened earlier in the match.
“I had already seen the other caddie in our group do it on the ninth hole,” Darnell said. “Same thing – USGA pullover, drove him from the bathroom up to the fairway – so I assumed it was fine. I didn’t point it out at the time because everything seemed kosher. He had the USGA stuff on, and I didn’t think anything of it.”
Bhatia won the 15th hole to go 1 up, but lost the 17th and 19th holes with bogeys to lose the match. He didn’t blame the outcome on the cart incident.
“What can you do? I’ll have plenty of opportunities to play in this tournament, so I’m not too upset about it,” he said. “It’s just frustrating because I deserved to win that match. That wasn’t the outcome I wanted, but I can’t do anything about it.”
Bhatia, of Wake Forest, N.C., has been a dominant force in the junior ranks, going back-to-back at the Junior PGA (including this dramatic hole-out), capturing the AJGA Polo, taking the Sage Valley Invitational and reaching the finals of the U.S. Junior.
1, 2, 3 out: Thornberry, Suh, Morikawa lose at U.S. Am
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The top three players in the world had a tough afternoon Wednesday at Pebble Beach.
Braden Thornberry, Justin Suh and Collin Morikawa – Nos. 1-3, respectively, in the World Amateur Golf Ranking – all lost their Round of 64 matches at the U.S. Amateur.
Thornberry lost, 2 and 1, to Jesus Montenegro of Argentina. As the No. 1 amateur in the world, the Ole Miss senior was in line to receive the McCormack Medal, which would exempt him into both summer Opens in 2019, provided he remains amateur. But now he’ll need to wait and see how the rankings shake out.
Suh and Morikawa could have played each other in the Round of 32, but instead they were both heading home early.
Suh, a junior at USC, never led in his 1-up loss to Harrison Ott, while Cal's Morikawa lost to another Vanderbilt player, John Augenstein, in 19 holes.
Englishman Matthew Jordan is the fourth-ranked player in the world, but he didn’t make the 36-hole stroke-play cut.
The highest-ranked player remaining is Oklahoma State junior Viktor Hovland, who is ranked fifth. With his college coach, Alan Bratton, on the bag, Hovland beat his Cowboys teammate, Hayden Wood, 3 and 2, to reach the Round of 32.
Fiery Augenstein outduels Morikawa at U.S. Amateur
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Around the Vanderbilt golf team John Augenstein’s nickname is “Flash,” and it’s easy to see why.
The swing loaded with speed.
The on-course charisma.
The big shot in the big moment.
The Commodores junior added another highlight to his growing collection Wednesday, when he defeated world No. 3 Collin Morikawa in 19 holes during a Round of 64 match at the U.S. Amateur.
Out of sorts early at Pebble Beach, Augenstein was 2 down to Morikawa after butchering the short seventh and then misplaying a shot around the green on 8.
Standing on the ninth tee, he turned to Vanderbilt assistant coach/caddie Gator Todd: "I need to play the best 10 holes of my life to beat Collin."
And did he?
“I don’t know,” he said later, smirking, “but I did enough.”
Augenstein won the ninth hole after Morikawa dumped his approach shot into the hazard, drained a 30-footer on 10 to square the match and then took his first lead when he rolled in a 10-footer on 14.
One down with three holes to go, Morikawa stuffed his approach into 16 while Augenstein, trying to play a perfect shot, misjudged the wind and left himself in a difficult position, short and right of the green. Augenstein appeared visibly frustrated once he found his ball, buried in the thick ryegrass short of the green. He told Todd that he didn’t think he’d be able to get inside of Morikawa’s shot about 6 feet away, but he dumped his pitch shot onto the front edge, rode the slope and trickled it into the cup for an unlikely birdie.
“Come on!” he yelled, high-fiving Todd and tossing his wedge at his bag.
“It was beautiful,” Todd said. “I’m not sure how he did that, but pretty cool that it went in.”
Morikawa answered by making birdie, then won the 17th with a par before both players halved the home hole with birdies.
On the first extra hole, Augenstein hit his approach to 15 feet while Morikawa left it short. Morikawa raced his first putt by 6 feet and then missed the comebacker to lose the match.
It may not have been the best 10-hole stretch of Augenstein’s career, but after that pep talk on 9 tee, he went 4 under to the house.
“He’s a fiery little dude,” Morikawa said of his 5-foot-8-inch opponent. “You don’t want to get him on the wrong side because you never know what’s going to happen. He’s not going to give shots away.”
The first-round match was a rematch of the Western Amateur quarterfinals two weeks ago, where Augenstein also won, that time by a 4-and-2 margin.
“It’s the most fun format and where I can be my true self – emotional and aggressive and beat people,” Augenstein said.
That’s what he did at the 2017 SECs, where he won the deciding points in both the semifinals and the finals. He starred again a few weeks later at the NCAA Championship, last season went 3-0 in SEC match play, and now has earned a reputation among his teammates as a primetime player.
“I’ve hit a lot of big shots and putts in my career,” said Augenstein, ranked 26th in the world after recently winning the Players Amateur. “I get locked in and focused, and there’s not a shot that I don’t think I can pull off. I’m not scared to fail.”
The comeback victory against Morikawa – a three-time winner last season at Cal and one of the best amateurs in the world – didn’t surprise Todd. He’s seen firsthand how explosive Augenstein can be on the course.
“He’s just fiery,” Todd said. “He does things under pressure that you’re not supposed to do. He’s just a special kid.”
Fowler (oblique) withdraws from playoff opener
The injury that slowed Rickie Fowler at last week's PGA Championship will keep him out of the first event of the PGA Tour's postseason.
Fowler was reportedly hampered by an oblique injury at Bellerive Country Club, where he started the third round two shots off the lead but faded to a tie for 12th. He confirmed the injury Tuesday in an Instagram post, adding that an MRI revealed a partial tear to his right oblique muscle.
According to Fowler, the injury also affected him at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he tied for 17th. After receiving the test results, he opted to withdraw from The Northern Trust next week at Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey.
"My team and I feel like it's best not to play next week in the Northern Trust," Fowler wrote. "I will be back healthy and competitive ASAP for the FedEx Cup and more than ready for the Ryder Cup!!!"
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News got out last week that I was dealing with an oblique injury the past two tournaments...it was confirmed yesterday, via MRI, that I have a partial tear in my right oblique...my team and I feel like it’s best not to play next week in the Northern Trust...I will be back healthy and competitive ASAP for the FedEx Cup and more than ready for the Ryder Cup!!
Fowler is one of eight players who earned automatic spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup team when the qualifying window closed last week. His next opportunity to tee it up would be at the 100-man Dell Technologies Championship, where Fowler won in 2015.
Fowler has 12 top-25 finishes in 18 starts, highlighted by runner-up finishes at both the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in the fall and at the Masters. He is currently 17th in the season-long points race, meaning that he's assured of starts in each of the first three playoff events regardless of performance and in good position to qualify for the 30-man Tour Championship for the fourth time in the last five years.