Big week in Europe as tour tries to narrow U.S. gap

By Doug FergusonMay 24, 2017, 12:45 pm

The European Tour has reason to celebrate, as long as it can avoid comparisons.

The BMW PGA Championship this week is the signature event on the European Tour schedule and will be held on a revamped West course at Wentworth that has players raving. At least before they have to put scores on their cards.

The tournament kicks off the new Rolex Series, the first of eight tournaments that offer $7 million in prize money ($8 million for the last one in Dubai).

These are important steps for European Tour chief Keith Pelley, the Canadian who took over the difficult task of making the tour relevant. He already has introduced two innovative formats designed to make golf faster and a lot more fun. The idea behind the Rolex Series is to make Europe more appealing to the best young players, instead of watching them follow so many others to America to chase a more lucrative life.

Realistically, these are merely baby steps.

BMW PGA Championship: Articles, photos and videos

It would be surprising if the Rolex Series made any long strides in trying to close the gap on the PGA Tour, which is as wide as the Atlantic.

While it's a significant improvement for the European Tour to play for $7 million in prize money, that's not even the average purse of a regular PGA Tour event. Throw out the four majors and the four World Golf Championships (and the four opposite-field events), and the average prize money on the U.S. tour is $7.06 million.

As NBC analyst Roger Maltbie so famously said watching Tiger Woods beat up on the field at the 2000 U.S. Open, it's not a fair fight. But then, it never has been.

The great Seve Ballesteros became the first European to win the Masters in 1980, when he took a 10-shot lead into the back nine and won by four.

What gets overlooked in that benchmark victory is that he was among just four Europeans in the 91-man field. The others were Sandy Lyle, who won the Masters eight years later, Mark James and Peter McEvoy.

This year, Sergio Garcia won the Masters. He was among 28 European-born players in the 93-man field.

It doesn't help that Garcia is playing Colonial this week on the PGA Tour (with a $6.9 million purse) instead of Europe's flagship event. He has played Wentworth only twice in 17 years. The bigger blow was Rory McIlroy's rib injury resurfacing two weeks ago at The Players Championship. Doctors advised he rest this week.

The brightest young star in golf is Jon Rahm of Spain, already No. 12 in the world after just 20 tournaments as a pro. He is No. 3 in the Race to Dubai on the European Tour, though he has yet to play a regular European Tour event. Rahm also is playing Colonial.

Pelley chose to focus Tuesday on who was playing – Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose among them – instead of who wasn't, which is how the PGA Tour used to talk about fields that didn't have Woods.

Schedules are personal, especially as golf has become more global than ever. Then again, it's really only a global sport for those born outside America. While most young Americans are more apt to travel than the previous generation -Jordan Spieth in Australia, Dustin Johnson in Asia, Patrick Reed practically anywhere – they don't have to fulfill membership duties on more than one tour.

The Rolex Series will make that easier.

The meat of the series is two weeks after the U.S. Open, with successive weeks of the French Open, the Irish Open and the Scottish Open. Those are sure to attract stronger fields, although they might have done that even without a bump in prize money. Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson are regulars at the Scottish Open to get acclimated to links golf ahead of the British Open. McIlroy is the host of the Irish Open. The course at the French Open will host the Ryder Cup next year.

The other four tournaments – Italian Open, Turkish Airlines Open, Nedbank Challenge and DP World Tour Championship in Dubai – don't face strong opposition from the PGA Tour because they are held in October and November.

Baby steps. But important steps.

Even with so many Europeans making America their home base, there is no shortage of pride when it comes to their home tour. They were livid a decade ago when the PGA Tour, wanting to promote its developmental tour, encouraged players to refer to it as the ''second-best tour in the world.'' That became a rallying cry for Europeans at the 2006 Ryder Cup, even if they didn't need one. They romped to an 18 ½ - 9 ½ victory.

''Hopefully, we won't get asked if the Nationwide Tour is the second-best tour in the world anymore,'' Garcia said that day.

''Behind Europe,'' Luke Donald followed as the team erupted in laughter.

The Ryder Cup is the financial lifeline for the European Tour, and an immense source of pride when Europe wins. But that's all it measures.

The strength – and the money – is in America. And that's where the best players will continue to go.

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Minjee Lee co-leads Walmart NW Arkansas Championship

By Associated PressJune 24, 2018, 12:25 am

ROGERS, Ark. - Minjee Lee wasn't all that concerned when she missed her first cut of the year this month at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

The ninth-ranked Australian has certainly looked at ease and back in form at Pinnacle Country Club in her first event since then.

Lee and Japan's Nasa Hataoka each shot 6-under 65 on Saturday to share the second-round lead in the NW Arkansas Championship 13-under 129. Lee is chasing her fifth victory since turning pro three years ago. It's also an opportunity to put any lingering frustration over that missed cut two weeks ago behind her for good.

''I didn't particularly hit it bad, even though I missed the cut at ShopRite, I just didn't really hole any putts,'' Lee said. ''I'd been hitting it pretty solid going into that tournament and even into this tournament, too. Just to see a couple putts roll in has been nice.''

The 22-year-old Lee needed only 24 putts during her opening 64 on Friday, helping her to match the low round of her career. Despite needing 28 putts Saturday, she still briefly took the outright lead after reaching as low as 14 under after a birdie on the par-5 seventh.

Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship

Lee missed the green on the par-4 ninth soon thereafter to lead to her only bogey of the day and a tie with the 19-year-old Hataoka, who is in pursuit of her first career win.

Hataoka birdied six of eight holes midway through her bogey-free round on Saturday. It was yet another stellar performance from the Japanese teenager, who has finished in the top 10 in four of her last five tournaments and will be a part of Sunday's final pairing.

''I try to make birdies and try to be under par, that's really the key for me to get a top ten,'' Hataoka said. ''Golf is just trying to be in the top 10 every single week, so that's the key.''

Third-ranked Lexi Thompson matched the low round of the day with a 64 to get to 11 under. She hit 17 of 18 fairways and shot a 5-under 30 on her opening nine, The American is in search of her first win since September in the Indy Women in Tech Championship.

Ariya Jutanugarn and Celine Boutier were 10 under.

First-round leader Gaby Lopez followed her opening 63 with a 75 to drop to 4 under. Fellow former Arkansas star Stacy Lewis also was 4 under after a 72.

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Henley will try to put heat on Casey in final round

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:55 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While it will be a tall task for anyone to catch Paul Casey at the Travelers Championship, the man who will start the round most within reach of the Englishman is Russell Henley.

Henley was in the penultimate group at TPC River Highlands on Saturday, but he’ll now anchor things during the final round as he looks to overcome a four-shot deficit behind Casey. After a 3-under 67, Henley sits at 12 under through 54 holes and one shot clear of the three players tied for third.

Henley closed his third round with a run of five straight pars, then became the beneficiary of a pair of late bogeys from Brian Harman that left Henley alone in second place.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“Could have made a couple more putts, but to end with two up-and-downs like that was nice,” Henley said. “I felt a little bit weird over the shots coming in, put me in some bad spots. But it was nice to have the short game to back me up.”

Henley has won three times on Tour, most recently at the 2017 Houston Open, and he cracked the top 25 at both the Masters and U.S. Open. But with Casey riding a wave of confidence and coming off an 8-under 62 that marked the best round of the week, he knows he’ll have his work cut out for him in order to nab trophy No. 4.

“I think I can shoot a low number on this course. You’ve got to make the putts,” Henley said. “I’m definitely hitting it well enough, and if I can get a couple putts to fall, that would be good. But I can’t control what he’s doing. I can just try to keep playing solid.”

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Back from back injury, Casey eyeing another win

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:36 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Given his four-shot cushion at the Travelers Championship and his recent victory at the Valspar Championship, it’s easy to forget that Paul Casey hit the disabled list in between.

Casey had to withdraw from The Players Championship because of a bad back, becoming the only player in the top 50 in the world rankings to miss the PGA Tour’s flagship event. He flew back to England to get treatment, and Casey admitted that his T-20 finish at last month’s BMW PGA Championship came while he was still on the mend.

“I wasn’t 100 percent fit with the back injury, which was L-4, L-5, S-1 (vertebrae) all out of place,” Casey said. “Big inflammation, nerve pain down the leg and up the back. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Thanks in large part to a combination of MRIs, back adjustments and anti-inflammatories, Casey finally turned the corner. His T-16 finish at last week’s U.S. Open was the first event for which he felt fully healthy since before the Players, and he’s on the cusp of a second title since March after successfully battling through the injury.

“We thought we were fixing it, but we weren’t. We were kind of hitting the effects rather than the cause,” Casey said. “Eventually we figured out the cause, which was structural.”

Casey started the third round at TPC River Highlands two shots off the lead, but he’s now four clear of Russell Henley after firing an 8-under 62 that marked the low round of the week.

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Bubba thinks he'll need a Sunday 60 to scare Casey

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:15 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Perhaps moreso than at most PGA Tour venues, a low score is never really out of reach at TPC River Highlands. Positioned as a welcome change of pace after the U.S. Open, the Travelers Championship offers a lush layout that often pushes the balance much closer to reward than risk.

This is where Jim Furyk shot a 58 on the par-70 layout two years ago – and he didn’t even win that week. So even though Paul Casey enters the final round with a commanding four-shot lead, there’s still plenty of hope for the chase pack that something special could be in store.

Count Bubba Watson among the group who still believe the title is up for grabs – even if it might require a Herculean effort, even by his standards.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Watson has won the Travelers twice, including in a 2015 playoff over Casey. But starting the final round in a large tie for sixth at 10 under, six shots behind Casey, he estimates that he’ll need to flirt with golf’s magic number to give the Englishman something to worry about.

“My 7 under yesterday, I need to do better than that. I’m going to have to get to like 10 [under],” Watson said. “The only beauty is, getting out in front, you have a chance to put a number up and maybe scare them. But to scare them, you’re going to have to shoot 10 under at worst, where I’m at anyway.”

Watson started the third round three shots off the lead, and he made an early move with birdies on Nos. 1 and 2 en route to an outward 32. The southpaw couldn’t sustain that momentum, as bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 turned a potential 65 into a relatively disappointing 67.

“Bad decision on the par-3, and then a very tough tee shot for me on 17, and it just creeped into the bunker,” Watson said. “Just, that’s golf. You have mistakes every once in a while.”