Getty Images

Alternate Conners (67) leads despite spotlight on Woods

By Doug FergusonMarch 9, 2018, 12:35 am

PALM HARBOR, Fla. - Tiger Woods discovered how tough Innisbrook can be in a swirling wind, and he was up to the task.

Woods smacked his hands into an oak as he let loose of the club during a bold escape from the trees, came within inches of an ace on the next hole, and most importantly was among 27 players - just under 20 percent of the field - to break par Thursday in the Valspar Championship.

Canadian rookie Corey Conners, who got into the field as an alternate not long after he failed to get through Monday qualifying, didn't make a bogey until his final hole at No. 9 and shot a 4-under 67.

That gave him a one-shot lead over Nick Watney, Whee Kim and Kelly Kraft. Only three other players, including former PGA champion Jimmy Walker broke 70.

Woods made five birdies to counter his mistakes in his round of 70, the first time he broke par in the opening round of a PGA Tour event since his 64 in the Wyndham Championship in August 2015 - just six Tour events ago because of back surgeries.

This was his first time playing the Valspar Championship, and it got his attention.

''I enjoy when par is a good score. It's a reward,'' Woods said. ''There are some tournaments when about four holes you don't make a birdie, you feel like you're behind. Today, made a couple of birdies, all of a sudden puts me fourth, fifth, right away. That's how hard it is.''

It was like for everybody, especially Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy.

Full-field scores from the Valspar Championship

Valspar Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Spieth, who won at Innisbrook in a playoff in 2015, didn't make a birdie after the par-5 opening hole and shot a 76. Only six other players had a higher score. Rory McIlroy, who like Woods was making his debut in this event, played in the morning and shot 74.

Henrik Stenson, who played with Spieth and Woods, also shot 74.

Morning or afternoon, it didn't matter. There was a chill in the Florida air, and the wind made it feel colder. Ultimately, the wind swirling through the tree-lined fairways made it tough to get the ball close.

Innisbrook produced the highest average score for the opening round - 72.86 - of the 23 courses used this season.

Conners managed just fine, taking advantage of a tournament he wasn't sure he would be playing. He went through Monday qualifying and shot 71, but moments after walking off the course, he was told he got in as an alternate.

''Kind of had a mindset of trying to take advantage of a good break, I guess,'' he said.

Watney holed a bunker shot on the par-4 16th, made the turn and had an eagle on the first hole.

''Maybe I need to steal a few shots here and there and get some good things going,'' said Watney, winless since August 2012.

Walker (69) and past Innisbrook champion Luke Donald (70) managed to go bogey-free, a rarity on a day like this. Also at 70 were Justin Rose, Masters champion Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott and Steve Stricker, who won last week on the PGA Tour Champions.

Woods is playing his fourth PGA Tour event since returning from fusion surgery on his lower back, his fourth surgery since the spring of 2014. He has shown steady progress, and this might have been his most steady performance, even with four bogeys. Those were inevitable.

One of the came at the par-3 fourth, when he was fooled by the wind and sent his tee shot sailing. It was next to a tree that Woods had to straddle just to advance toward the green. He also came up well short on the 12th into a strong wind.

''Into the wind, it felt like you just hit walls,'' he said.

Woods got within two shots of the lead by ripping a long iron from the top collar of a bunker on the par-5 11th and using the slope to chip close for a tap-in birdie. He dropped shots on the next two holes, going short into the wind on No. 12 and over the green with the wind at his back on No. 13.

The only unnerving moment came at the 16th, when he tugged his iron off the tee into the trees. Woods realized he would hit the tree on his follow through, asking the gallery - thousands of them - to be careful in case the club snapped. He had to take it toward the lake on the right and bend it back to the left, and it came off perfectly.

But it looked painful.

Because he had to generate so much club speed, his left forearm and hands struck the oak and Woods dropped the club and winced on impact.

''It didn't feel very good,'' he said.

Woods followed with a 5-iron that rolled just right of the cup for a tap-in birdie and finished with a long two-putt par after getting fooled again by the shifting wind.

''This is a tough golf course. Not too often in Florida do you find elevation. Great driving golf course,'' Woods said. ''I asked Henrik, 'What do you around this golf course when there's no wind here?' He said it's still a hell of a test. We can all see that.''

Getty Images

Senden playing first event since son's brain tumor

By Will GrayMarch 21, 2018, 3:03 pm

John Senden is back inside the ropes for the first time in nearly a year at this week's Chitimacha Louisiana Open on the Tour.

Senden took a leave of absence from professional golf in April, when his teenage son, Jacob, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He didn't touch a club for nearly four months as Jacob endured six rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, a gauntlet that stretched from April until mid-November.

But Senden told that his son's tumor has shrunk from the size of a thumbnail to the size of a pinky nail, and after a promising MRI in January he decided to plan his comeback.

"I haven't really played in 12 months, but in that time Jacob has really, really hung tough," Senden said. "His whole body was getting slammed with all these treatments, and he was so strong in his whole attitude and his whole body. Just really getting through the whole thing. He was tough."

Senden was granted a family crisis exemption by the Tour, and he'll have 13 starts to earn 310 FedExCup points to retain his playing privileges for the 2018-19 season. He is allowed five "rehabilitation" starts as part of the exemption, but will reportedly only make one this week before returning to the PGA Tour at the RBC Heritage, followed by starts in San Antonio, Charlotte and Dallas.

Senden, 46, has won twice on Tour, most recently the 2014 Valspar Championship.

Getty Images

Added videos shed light on Reed rules controversy

By Will GrayMarch 21, 2018, 2:39 pm

Additional fan videos shed some light on a rules controversy involving Patrick Reed during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, when Reed suggested that Jordan Spieth would have gotten free relief after he was denied a favorable ruling.

Reed had sailed the green with his approach on the 11th hole Sunday at Bay Hill, coming to rest under a palm tree. As the below thread of videos from fan Tyler Soughers illustrates, Reed wanted a free drop because he believed a nearby television tower was in the way of the shot he planned to play.

The initial rules official didn't "see" the shot Reed planned to attempt given the tight confines, and his decision to deny Reed a free drop was upheld by a second rules official. Reed eventually tried to play the ball, moving it a few feet, before being granted relief from the tower from the ball's new position. He ultimately made double bogey on the hole and tied for seventh.

After finally taking his free drop away from the tower, Reed was heard muttering to nearby fans, "What a crock of s---."

Reed and Spieth will have plenty of time to discuss their favorite rulings Friday, when the two players face off on the final day of round-robin play in Group 4 during the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin.

Getty Images

Callaway’s $1 Million FanBeat Challenge

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 21, 2018, 2:30 pm

Callaway’s $1 Million FanBeat Challenge is a new live-action game presented by Golf Channel, where golf fans answer trivia and predictive-play questions during tournament coverage for a chance to win $1 million and dozens of other Callaway-sponsored prizes.

Click here or on the image below to play now!

Here's how to play:

  • Two pre-round questions are available to answer anytime.
  • Additional questions are posted during breaks in the action of each round of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play (previously contested at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Valspar Championship, WGC-Mexico Championship).
  • Users will earn points for every correct answer to move up the prize leaderboard during each round.
  • Players earn chances to win additional “instant win” and tournament prizes just by playing along and answering questions.

Callaway’s $1 Million FanBeat Challenge is a play-along game that makes watching golf coverage on Golf Channel and NBC more interesting and entertaining. Answer fun questions like “Where did Phil Mickelson play his college golf?” or “How many birdies will Sergio Garcia have on the back nine?”.

The start times to play during this week's API are:

  • Group play, Wednesday: 5 p.m. ET
  • Group play, Thursday: 5 p.m ET
  • Group play, Friday: 5 p.m. ET
  • Round of 16, Saturday: 11:30 a.m. ET
  • Quarterfinals, Saturday: 3 p.m. ET
  • Semifinals, Sunday: 11:30 a.m. ET
  • Finals, Sunday: 4 p.m. ET

Ace all questions during any of the up to 19 rounds (over the course of the four events) for a chance to win $1 million. Or, compete for a chance to win one of dozens of other prizes offered by Callaway, including full sets of clubs with custom fittings at the Callaway Performance Center in Carlsbad, Calif.; Rogue drivers; Toulon-design putters; MD4 wedges and much more. Click here for full details of the official rules.

Disclaimer: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Void where prohibited. Legal residents of the 50 U.S. or DC who are 18 or older. Begins February 27, 2018 at 12:01 a.m. ET and ends March 25, 2018 at 11:59 p.m. ET. Limit 1 entry per person. To enter, and for official rules, odds, and prize details, visit Sponsor: FanBeat, Inc. The $1 million grand prize may be awarded in an annuity or lesser lump sum. Should there be multiple winners, the grand prize will be divided evenly among qualifying winners.

Getty Images

Group standings at WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 21, 2018, 1:00 pm

Here are the group standings for pool play at the 2018 WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship in Austin, Texas. The player with the most points in each pool advanced to Saturday's Round of 16 in Austin, Texas. Click here for scoring and click here for the bracket.

Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Group 4
(1) D. Johnson (2) J. Thomas (3) J. Rahm (4) J. Spieth
(32) K. Kisner (21) F. Molinari (28) K. Aphibarnrat (19) P. Reed
(38) A. Hadwin
(48) P. Kizzire (43) C. Reavie (34) H. Li
(52) B. Wiesberger
(60) L. List (63) K. Bradley (49) C. Schwartzel
Group 5 Group 6 Group 7 Group 8
(5) H. Matsuyama (6) R. McIlroy (7) S. Garcia (8) J. Day
(30) P. Cantlay
(18) B. Harman (20) X. Schauffele (25) L. Oosthuizen
(46) C. Smith (44) J. Vegas (41) D. Frittelli (42) J. Dufner
(53) Y. Miyazato (51) P. Uihlein (62) S. Sharma (56) J. Hahn
Group 9 Group 10 Group 11 Group 12
(9) T. Fleetwood (10) P. Casey (11) M. Leishman (12) T. Hatton
(26) D. Berger (31) M. Fitzpatrick (23) B. Grace (22) C. Hoffman
(33) K. Chappell (45) K. Stanley (35) B. Watson (36) B. Steele
(58) I. Poulter (51) R. Henley (64) J. Suri (55) A. Levy
Group 13 Group 14 Group 15 Group 16
(13) A. Noren (14) P. Mickelson (15) P. Perez (16) M. Kuchar
(29) T. Finau (17) R. Cabrera Bello (24) G. Woodland (27) R. Fisher
(39) T. Pieters (40) S. Kodaira (37) W. Simpson (47) Y. Ikeda
(61) K. Na (59) C. Howell III (50) S.W. Kim (54) Z. Johnson