Laird wins wild one at Arnold Palmer Invitational

By Jay CoffinMarch 28, 2011, 2:21 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Until Sunday, most of Orlando’s infamous pileups and traffic jams all had occurred on Interstate 4.

But like many fender benders on Central Florida’s main highway, someone here at the Arnold Palmer Invitational had to walk away victorious on a day that produced heat, wind, difficult hole locations and firm, crispy greens.

There was plenty of rubbernecking too.

Perhaps then it was fitting that Martin Laird was the last man standing at Arnold Palmer’s beloved Bay Hill. The long-hitting Scot held the 54-hole lead, converted three key par putts on the first five holes of the final round, looked steady, then made double bogey on the 11th hole to fall back before rebounding down the stretch when everyone else faltered.

Proof Sunday was an awkward day? Laird walked off the 14th hole two shots off the lead then walked off the 16th hole two ahead.

Laird, 28, shot 70-65-70-75 for an 8-under-par 280 total to capture his second PGA Tour victory. Steve Marino again failed to collect his first Tour hardware when he coughed up the lead late with a double bogey on 17. He regained his composure and made birdie on the final hole but ended second at 281. Justin Rose, Marc Leishman and David Toms tied for third at 282.

The final-round 75 by Laird was the highest finish by a winner on the PGA Tour since Trevor Immelman won The Masters in 2008 with the same score. It’s the highest score by a winner in a non-major since Peter Lonard shot 75 to win the 2005 Heritage.

“I knew it was going to be this tough to win,” said Laird, who admits he’s already made goals of playing for Europe in the 2012 Ryder Cup. “I knew there was going to be someone playing well. It was a battle out there, but you know, it makes it even sweeter.”

Laird’s first Tour victory came two years ago at the Justin Timberlake Open in Las Vegas but he may be more remembered for his two near misses. Laird was one of the victims to Jonathan Byrd’s walk-off playoff ace at last year’s Justin Timerblake Open and he had the 2010 Barclays in the bag on the final hole but three-putted from inside 25 feet to back into a playoff he’d eventually lose to Matt Kuchar.

Putting, the thing that’s hurt him most in the past, was the key to victory this week. Laird made numerous par-saving attempts the first three days, and did so on Sunday in spades.

None were bigger than putts on 17 and 18. On the penultimate hole, Laird made a par putt from 5 feet to assure he’d take the lead into the home hole.

Once Marino made birdie at 18, Laird knew that he needed par to win. He drove the ball through the fairway into deep rough then hacked out to the front portion of the 18th green, 87 feet from the hole. Laird calmly stroked the putt to 3 feet and made the putt to claim the one-shot victory.

“I never thought about not winning,” Laird said. “That’s not to say I thought I knew I was going to win, but that was the focus. I was not going to let this one get away.”

Meanwhile, Marino’s woes continue. He now has collected 21 top-10 finishes in this, his fifth PGA Tour season, and is at the top of the discussion for Best Player on Tour Without a Victory.

This one was the closest of them all. Although the scorecard shows that Marino shot 72 on a day where par was a great score, his double bogey on the 17th should haunt him for some time. Holding a one-shot lead standing on the tee Marino hit 6-iron into a front greenside bunker that produced a nasty fried-egg lay. He blasted out to the back fringe and three-putted for double bogey.

Hand it to Marino, he had the moxie to make birdie from 8 feet on the difficult final hole to put pressure on Laird, but it wasn’t enough.

“I felt like I just played so well all day and just a couple bad breaks, and one bad putt was all it took to take me out of it,” Marino said. “I was real proud of the way I hung in there and hit two great shots into 18. If there’s any positive to draw on this, that definitely is a positive for sure.”

Marino, 31, seems to take the myriad close calls in stride but they’re starting to pile up like snow during a harsh Northeast winter. He’s now 0-for-4 with a 54-hole lead.

Two of the most recent hiccups have come this year. Marino finished second to Mark Wilson at the Sony Open and was two shots off the lead last month at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am standing on the 18th tee. He hit his drive in the bunker, chipped out and, trying to force eagle for the tie, blew his 4-iron third shot well into the water. He made triple-bogey 8 and tied for fourth.

While Marino has continued to put himself in position to win, Tiger Woods cannot say the same. For consecutive days he struggled to close out a round. On Saturday, he double bogeyed 13 and bogeyed 16. Sunday was worse. Woods was 3 under through 16 holes but finished bogey, double bogey to tie for 24th at Bay Hill, a place he’s owened for the better part of a decade with six victories.

This week didn’t produce the results he was looking for in his last tune-up before his quest begins for a fifth green jacket. Or did it?

“Especially today, I really hit the ball well and the things that we’re working on the last couple weeks felt comfortable,” Woods said. “I felt I was able to control just about every shot today.”

The old Woods used to be disappointed when he shot 68, the new one says he played well when he shoots 72.

Phil Mickelson will get another Masters tune-up this week at the Houston Open. He shot a final-round 73 and tied for 24th with Woods, but remains ranked behind him in the Official World Ranking (Woods is fifth, Mickelson sixth.)

In the end it was Laird, the Scot, standing with the hardware, which produced two firsts. It was the first time Laird met Arnold Palmer and it was the first time a European won here at Bay Hill.

Beats a pileup on I-4 any day.

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After Further Review: Spieth needs a break

By Golf Channel DigitalJune 25, 2018, 1:11 am

Each week, takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On Jordan Spieth's much-needed break ...

Jordan Spieth is heading for a break, and that’s probably a good thing.

Spieth just wrapped a run of six events in seven weeks that featured largely underwhelming results. A third-place finish at the Masters that stemmed from a nearly-historic final round deflects attention away from the fact that Spieth has yet to enter a final round this year less than six shots off the lead.

A return to his home state didn’t work, nor did a fight against par at Shinnecock or a title defense outside Hartford where everything went so well a year ago. His putting woes appear to have bottomed out, as Spieth finished 21st in putting at Travelers, but now the alignment issue that plagued his putting appears to have bled into other parts of his game.

So heading into another title defense next month at Carnoustie, Spieth plans to take some time off and re-evaluate. Given how fast things turned around last summer, that might prove to be just what he needs. - Will Gray

On the difference between this week and last week ...

There wasn’t a single outraged tweet, not a lone voice of descent on social media following Bubba Watson’s victory at the Travelers Championship, a 17-under par masterpiece that included a closing loop of 30.

Nobody declared that golf was broken, no one proclaimed the royal and ancient game a victim of technology and the age of uber athletes. The only response was appreciation for what Watson, a bomber in the truest form, was able to accomplish.

At 6,840 yards, TPC River Highlands was built for fun, not speed. Without wild weather or ill-advised hole locations and greens baked to extinction, this is what the best players in the game do, and yet no one seemed outraged. Weird. - Rex Hoggard

On the emergence of another LPGA phenom ...

Add another young star to the favorites list heading to the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes outside Chicago next week.

Nasa Hataoka, the 19-year-old Japanese standout who needed her rookie season last year to acclimate to the LPGA, broke through for her first LPGA title Sunday at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

This wasn’t a surprise to LPGA followers. Hataoka won the Japan Women’s Open when she was 17, the first amateur to win a major on the Japan LPGA Tour, and she has been trending up this year.

Her tie for 10th at the U.S. Women’s Open three weeks ago was her fourth consecutive top-10 finish. She won going away in Arkansas, beating a deep field that included the top nine in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. She outplayed world No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn and No. 3 Lexi Thompson on Sunday. - Randall Mell

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Bubba waiting for Furyk's text about Ryder Cup

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:39 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – After winning his third PGA Tour title in the span of five months, Bubba Watson is now waiting by his phone.

Watson’s victory at the Travelers Championship, his third at TPC River Highlands since 2010, accompanies recent victories at both the Genesis Open and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play from earlier this year. It also moved the southpaw from No. 7 to No. 5 in the latest U.S. Ryder Cup standings, with the top eight after the PGA Championship qualifying automatically.

After serving as an assistant captain at Hazeltine despite ranking No. 7 in the world at the time, Watson made it clear that he hopes to have removed any doubt about returning to the role of player when the biennial matches head to Paris this fall.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“It still says in my phone that (U.S. captain) Jim (Furyk) hasn’t texted me yet. So I’d really like for him to say I’m going to pick you no matter what,” Watson said. “The motivation is I’ve never won a Ryder Cup, so making the Ryder Cup team and trying to win a Ryder Cup as a player would be another tournament victory to me. It would be a major championship to me just because I’ve never done it, been a part of it.”

Watson turns 40 in November, and while he reiterated that his playing career might not extend too far into the future as he looks to spend more time at home with son Caleb and daughter Dakota, he’s also hoping to make an Olympic return in Tokyo in 2020 after representing the U.S. in Rio two years ago.

“Talking about the Olympics coming up, that’s motivating me,” he said. “It was the best experience of my life to watch all the other events, and then the golf tournament got in the way. I’d love to do it again. I’d love to watch all the events and then have to play golf as well.”

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Casey comes up short (again) to Bubba at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:07 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – Staked to a four-shot lead entering the final round of the Travelers Championship, Paul Casey watched his opening tee shot bounce off a wooden wall and back into the middle of the fairway, then rolled in a 21-foot birdie putt off the fringe.

At the time, it appeared to be a not-so-subtle indicator that Casey was finally going to get his hands on a trophy that has barely eluded him in the past. Instead it turned out to be the lone highlight of a miserable round that left the Englishman behind only Bubba Watson at TPC River Highlands for the second time in the last four years.

Casey shot the low round of the tournament with a third-round 62 that distanced him from the field, but that opening birdie turned out to be his only one of the day as he stalled out and ultimately finished three shots behind Watson, to whom he lost here in a playoff in 2015.

Casey’s score was 10 shots worse than Saturday, as a 2-over 72 beat only five people among the 73 others to play the final round.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“I mean, I fought as hard as I could, which I’m proud of,” Casey said. “Not many times you put me on a golf course and I only make one birdie. I don’t know. I’d be frustrated with that in last week’s event, but it is what it is.”

Casey led by as many as five after his opening birdie, but he needed to make a 28-foot par save on No. 10 simply to maintain a one-shot edge over a hard-charging Watson. The two men were tied as Casey headed to the 16th tee, but his bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 combined with a closing birdie from Watson meant the tournament was out of reach before Casey even reached the final tee.

Casey explained that a “bad night of sleep” led to some neck pain that affected his warm-up session but didn’t impact the actual round.

“Just frustrating I didn’t have more,” he said. “Didn’t have a comfortable swing to go out there and do something with.”

Casey won earlier this year at the Valspar Championship to end a PGA Tour victory drought that dated back to 2009, but after being denied a second victory in short succession when he appeared to have one hand on the trophy, he hopes to turn frustration into further success before turning the page to 2019.

“I’m probably even more fired up than I was post-Tampa to get another victory. This is only going to be more fuel,” Casey said. “I’ve got 12 events or something the rest of the year. So ask me again in November, and if I don’t have another victory, then I will be disappointed. This is merely kind of posturing for what could be a very good climax.”

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Bubba thrives in his comfort zone

By Will GrayJune 25, 2018, 12:02 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – The 1:20 p.m. pairing Sunday at TPC River Highlands spanned the spectrum on the PGA Tour. In one corner stood science. Bryson DeChambeau, whose quantitative approach to golf seemingly knows no bounds, was looking to add another victory after winning a playoff earlier this month at Jack’s Place.

On the other side was art.

Bubba Watson doesn’t float golf balls in Epsom salt to identify minor imperfections. He doesn’t break out a compass to find the slightest errors in the Tour-supplied pin sheet. Even when he texts caddie Ted Scott, he prefers to use voice text rather than rely on his admittedly sub-optimal spelling.

But strolling along one of his favorite landscapes, Bubba the artist came out on top. Again.

Watson is in the midst of a resurgent season, one that already included a third victory at one of his favorite haunts in Riviera Country Club. It featured a decisive run through the bracket at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and a return to the leaderboards at Augusta National where he fell short of a third green jacket.

It only makes sense, then, that he’d build upon that burgeoning momentum at the Travelers Championship, where he earned his first PGA Tour victory in 2010 and Sunday joined Billy Casper as the tournament’s only three-time champ with a final-round 63 to catch and pass Paul Casey.

This is a place where Watson can bomb drives by feel and carve short irons at will, and one where he officially put his stamp on the best season to date on Tour.

“His hand-eye coordination is by far one of the best I’ve ever seen,” DeChambeau said. “You’ve got me who was just struggling off the tee, and he’s just swiping shots down there. It was cool to watch. I wish I could do that. I probably could do that, but I just don’t feel like I’d be as consistent as he is.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Consistency wasn’t an apt descriptor a year ago, as Watson went from two-time major champ to completely off the radar. His world ranking, which began last year at No. 10 and is now back up to No. 13 after he became the first three-time winner this season, fell as far as 117th before his win at Riviera in February.

Watson attributes much of the turnaround to a change in health. Never really one to tip the scales, he lost 25 pounds in a three-month span last year while battling an undisclosed health concern. After putting some of the weight back on, he’s now able to focus more of his time and energy on fine-tuning one of the Tour’s most distinctive approaches.

“Anytime any of these guys kind of get comfortable with just being them, and golf is secondary in a sense, it helps them reach their potential,” said Scott. “I think the hype and the pressure can sometimes put things out of sort. And right now he’s just very comfortable with who he is as a person, and I think in his life. It helps him relax on the golf course.”

What Watson doesn’t prefer to mention is the equipment change he made that serves as a not-so-subtle line of demarcation. The southpaw turned heads at the end of 2016 when he agreed to play a colored Volvik ball on Tour during the 2017 season, only to watch his results fall off a cliff. A return to the Titleist ball he previously used has coincided with some of the best results of his 12-year career.

“I don’t think it has had any (role) in my success,” Watson said. “My clubs weren’t going the distance that I used to. I couldn’t shape it the way I want to. Luckily for me, I know the problem, and the problem was with health and not all these other things.”

But regardless of the true source of his turnaround, Watson is back to doing what he does best. That includes carving up the handful of venues that most fit his unique eye, be they lined by thick kikuyu rough outside Los Angeles or dotted with menacing water hazards outside Hartford.

The artistic touch was on full display with his final swing of the day. Facing exactly 71 yards to a pin tucked barely over the edge of a yawning bunker on No. 18, Watson laid the face open on his 63-degree wedge and hit a cut shot that spun and checked to inside 3 feet.

“Teddy put his arm around me, like, ‘That was an amazing shot,’” Watson said. “He’s seen a lot of shots, he’s been out here for many years. So for him to realize it, and other players to text me and realize it, it was special.”

While it seemed at the time like a shot that gave Watson a glimmer of hope in his pursuit of Casey, it ultimately turned out to be the final highlight of a three-shot victory. It’s the type of shot that few, if any, of his peers can visualize, let alone execute with such exact precision with the tournament hanging in the balance.

It’s the type of shot that separates Watson – the quirky left-hander with the pink driver who openly talks about his struggles with on-course focus and abhors few things more than trying to hit a straight shot – from even the best in the game when things are firing on all cylinders.

“The skills have always been there, as you know. But he’s just more relaxed now,” Scott said. “And when these guys, obviously when they enjoy it, they can play at their best and not get too stressed.”