Good Course Draws Great Field

By John FeinsteinMarch 1, 2011, 8:43 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The answer to the question is no – as in no Tiger and no Phil.

For both better and worse, many golf fans judge a tournament field based on whether Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson tee it up. This week at the Honda Classic, Mickelson is home resting after playing six straight weeks. Woods is home resting something, most likely his bruised ego. His body certainly can’t be that tired since he’s only played nine tournament rounds in the first two months of 2011.

Woods has never played here. Mickelson hasn’t been in the field since 2002. And yet, the Honda is proof that there can be Life on Tour Without Phil and Tiger. This year’s field, even though the tournament is sandwiched between two World Golf Championship events, is stellar. It includes two of last year’s major winners – Louis Oosthuizen and Graeme McDowell – for starters and guys like Ernie Els, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar, Davis Love III. Even Nick Price, who was once the No. 1 player in the world, can still draw a crowd.

So how has the Honda done it even with all the scheduling odds stacked against it? A lot of it comes down to the golf course. For years, the Honda was the Flying Dutchman of the Tour (that’s an opera reference in honor of my dad who ran an opera company) seemingly destined to wander from port-to-port, or in this case course-to-course, with no real home. From 1982 to 2006 the tournament was played at five different venues, none of them especially appealing.

When Ken Kennerly, who had worked for years for Jack Nicklaus, was hired as tournament director, he knew that all the pleading in the world wasn’t going to get the tournament a better spot on the schedule – especially with the Accenture Match Play almost always coming at the end of the West Coast Swing and Doral becoming a WGC event – so his best chance for a better field was to find a better golf course.

What many people don’t understand is that many players decide where to play based on the golf course. For years, the one tournament Woods almost always played regardless of who sponsored it or how it set him up for the next major was Charlotte. Why? Because he liked Quail Hollow Golf Club. That’s not to say there aren’t other reasons players decide where to tee it up but the quality of a golf course and how it suits their games is frequently a factor.

Kennerly knew there was a high-quality course right under his nose in Palm Beach County: PGA National. Once, in 1987, it hosted a PGA Championship and the results were disastrous. The greens died in the heat and so did most players and spectators (not literally) and the PGA of America quickly figured out that a golf tournament in south Florida in mid-August wasn’t a great idea.

After that, the PGA decided to move its Senior Championship to the course (which is across the street from its headquarters) and it was played there each April through 2000 when the decision was made to move the event around the country again. And so, the course sat for the next six years, used primarily by snow-birds escaping winter in the northeast, even though players had always spoken very highly of it, especially the trademark, ‘Bear Trap,’ holes (Nicklaus design) that come late in the back nine.

And so Kennerly decided to move the event to PGA National. He got Nicklaus involved based on their past relationship, his design of the golf course and the fact that the Nicklaus Hospital became the event’s primary charity. Nicklaus has played in the pro-am in the past and talks up the tournament whenever he gets the chance.

But the genius was in the golf course decision. Word quickly spread among the players once the event moved to PGA National in 2007 that this was no longer the old Honda where you tolerated the golf course because the purse was big enough to make it worthwhile if you weren’t in the Match Play, Doral or Bay Hill. The fact that the March Florida Swing is now four weeks instead of five since The Players was moved back to May didn’t hurt either.

And so now, in year five at PGA National, the Honda is thriving. A year ago PGA National was ranked the second-hardest golf course on Tour statistically. Hard doesn’t always translate to good in the minds of players because sometimes hard can be created with trickery. That’s not the case at PGA National. It’s just hard.

“It’s actually a pretty simple golf course,” said Paul Goydos, who was on the Players Advisory Committee when the tournament was moved five years ago. “If you keep the ball in front of you, you can score. If you don’t, you’re in serious trouble. The golf course becomes unbelievably difficult.”

Or, as Nicklaus might put it, it becomes a bear.

The best description of PGA National might have come last year from Perry Moss, a veteran Tour player, who Monday qualified for the tournament while trying to play his way back to the Tour after a series of injuries. After shooting 81 in the first round on Thursday, Moss shook his head and said, “coming from the golf courses I’ve been playing to this one is like going from hitting minor league pitching to trying to hit Mariano Rivera in Yankee Stadium.”

Good players like hard golf courses – especially fair ones.

That’s why more and more quality players are coming to the Honda these days. The first winner at PGA National was Mark Wilson, who was the only two-time winner on the West Coast this year. Then came Els, Y.E. Yang and Camilo Villegas. Not a bad list.

Chances are the leaderboard this weekend will have quality players on it. No Tiger, no Phil but still pretty good for an event that spent so many years looking for a home.

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Pregnant Lewis playing final events before break

By Randall MellJune 19, 2018, 9:27 pm

Stacy Lewis will be looking to make the most of her last three starts of 2018 in her annual return to her collegiate roots this week.

Lewis, due to give birth to her first child on Nov. 3, will tee it up in Friday’s start to the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship at Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers, Arkansas. She won the NCAA individual women’s national title in 2007 while playing at the University of Arkansas. She is planning to play the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship next week and then the Marathon Classic two weeks after that before taking the rest of the year off to get ready for her baby’s arrival.

Lewis, 33, said she is beginning to feel the effects of being with child.

“Things have definitely gotten harder, I would say, over the last week or so, the heat of the summer and all that,” Lewis said Tuesday. “I'm actually excited. I'm looking forward to the break and being able to decorate the baby's room and do all that kind of stuff and to be a mom - just super excited.”

Lewis says she is managing her energy levels, but she is eager to compete.

“Taking a few more naps and resting a little bit more,” she said. “Other than that, the game's been pretty good.”

Lewis won the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship in 2014, and she was credited with an unofficial title in ’07, while still a senior at Arkansas. That event was reduced to 18 holes because of multiple rain delays. Lewis is a popular alumni still actively involved with the university.

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Just like last year, Spieth in desperate need of a spark

By Will GrayJune 19, 2018, 8:38 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Jordan Spieth has arrived at the Travelers Championship in need of a turnaround. Again.

Spieth’s playoff victory last year over Daniel Berger, complete with a bunker hole-out and raucous celebration, went down as one of the most electrifying moments of 2017. It also propelled Spieth to some more major glory, as he won The Open in his very next start.

So it’s easy to forget the state of Spieth’s game when he first stepped foot on the grounds of TPC River Highlands a year ago. Things were, quite plainly, not going well.

He was struggling on the greens, even going so far as to switch putters at the AT&T Byron Nelson. He then failed to contend at Erin Hills, only netting a T-35 finish thanks to a final-round 69 that came hours before the leaders teed off.

So here we are again, with Spieth in search of a spark after a series of underwhelming performances that included last week’s effort at Shinnecock Hills, where he bogeyed the last two holes of his second round to miss the cut by a shot. Except this time, the climb back to the top may be even steeper than it was a year ago.

“I’m not sure where the state of my game is right now,” Spieth said. “If I strike the ball the way I have been this year, then the results are coming. But the last couple weeks I’ve played Muirfield and then the (U.S.) Open, and I hit the ball really poorly and didn’t give myself that many opportunities to let the putter do the work.”

While many big names play sporadically in the time between the Masters and U.S. Open, Spieth remained as busy as ever thanks to the Tour’s swing through Texas. So even after failing to contend much in the spring outside of a memorable finale in Augusta, and even after struggling for much of his week at TPC Sawgrass, Spieth looked out at his schedule and saw a myriad of possible turning points.

There was the AT&T Byron Nelson, played in his hometown and at a venue on which he was one of only a handful with any experience (T-21). Then a trip across town to Colonial, where he had beaten all but two players in a three-year stretch (T-32).

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Throw in the missed cuts at Muirfield Village and Shinnecock Hills, and Spieth has made it to the last leg of a six-event stretch that has included only one off week and, to date, zero chances to contend come Sunday.

“I think here this week, the key for me is just to get out in the first round and try not to do too much,” Spieth said. “I mean, 90-plus percent of the tournaments the last two years I’ve thrown out my chances to win a golf tournament on Thursday. I’ve had too much to do from here on.”

That was certainly the case last week on Long Island, where Spieth’s hopes for a fourth major title evaporated well before course conditions became a focal point over the weekend. He was 4 over through his first two holes and spent much of the next 34 stuck in a fit of frustration. He gave himself a glimmer of hope with four late birdies Friday followed by a pair of bogeys that snuffed it out with equal speed.

Spieth has continued to preach patience throughout the year, but there’s no getting around some eye-popping stats; he's 188th on Tour this year in strokes gained: putting and 93rd in fairways hit. It can foster a pressure to find a cure-all in any given week, especially given how quickly he got a middling summer back on track last year.

“It’s something that you fight, sure,” Spieth said. “It’s been that way just about every tournament except Muirfield, because then you go to the U.S. Open and think you don’t even have to shoot under par to win this golf tournament. So as much as that kind of comes into your head, it’s not bothering me this time. I’m going to try and have fun, and make progress.”

After this week, Spieth will have some down time with family before making the trip overseas to Carnoustie. He plans to have a few private dinners accompanied by the claret jug, one last toast to last year’s success before turning the trophy back over to the R&A.

But even Spieth admitted that as it pertains to his chances to follow in Brooks Koepka’s footsteps by successfully defending a major title, he’ll be greatly aided by working his way into the mix this weekend. It represents the last chance in this early-summer swing to get his name back on the leaderboard, an opportunity to light fire to a pedestrian campaign like he did a year ago.

No pressure.

“It’s your basic stuff that sometimes gets off, that the harder you try to get them back on sometimes, the worse it gets,” Spieth said. “It can be frustrating, or you can just kind of wait for it to come to you. I think I’m OK with where things are, whether it’s the rest of this year or next year. I feel like there are good scores coming.”

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Twice winner Kizzire on missing U.S. Open: 'Fuel to my fire'

By Will GrayJune 19, 2018, 5:59 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Based on recent form, there likely wasn’t a more decorated player watching last week’s U.S. Open from home than Patton Kizzire.

Kizzire is in the midst of a breakthrough season that has already included two wins: a maiden victory at the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in November, and a marathon playoff triumph over James Hahn at the Sony Open in January. While those titles got him into the Masters and the PGA Championship, they didn’t mean an exemption to Shinnecock Hills.

Kizzire got as high as 51st in the world rankings after his win in Honolulu, but his game started to turn shortly thereafter. A T-12 finish at the WGC-Mexico Championship is his lone top-25 finish in 12 starts since his Sony victory, and he missed four straight cuts from the Masters to The Players Championship.

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The U.S. Open grants exemptions to the top 60 in the world at two different cutoff points close to the tournament. But in the midst of a cold streak, Kizzire was 63rd and 65th at each of those deadlines. He attempted to earn a spot at sectional qualifying in Columbus, only to find that his score of 5 under was one shot too many.

“I guess just adding a little fuel to my fire, adding insult to injury,” Kizzire said. “Just to have narrowly missed several different ways of qualification was disappointing. But I just tried to spin it as a positive. I got two weeks off, and I did watch those guys struggle a little bit. I wasn’t struggling at home, we’ll just say that.”

Kizzire hopes to put the disappointment behind him this week at the Travelers Championship, where he finished T-53 a year ago. And while his pair of trophies didn’t get him a tee time last week – or guarantee him a berth in The Open next month – they put him in prime position to make the season-ending Tour Championship, which would mean spots in the first three majors of 2019.

The combination of two recent wins and a ranking outside the top 60 isn’t one that comes up often on Tour, but Kizzire maintains a balanced perspective as he looks to get back to playing the kind of golf that will ensure he doesn’t miss any more majors in the near future.

“If I would have played better in between the U.S. Open and my last win, I would have gotten in. So my play was the reason I wasn’t in,” Kizzire said. “You certainly could look at it and say, ‘This guy’s got two wins, he should be in.’ But I’m not making too much of it.”

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Masters, Players and U.S. Open champs grouped at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 19, 2018, 5:50 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Fresh off a second straight U.S. Open victory, Brooks Koepka is getting right back to work at the Travelers Championship.

Koepka has stood by his commitment to tee it up at TPC River Highlands, becoming the first U.S. Open champ to play the following week on the PGA Tour since Justin Rose played the Travelers after his 2013 win at Merion. Koepka will play the first two rounds alongside Masters champ Patrick Reed and Webb Simpson, who captured The Players Championship last month.

Here’s a look at some of the other marquee, early-round groupings for a star-studded field outside Hartford (all times ET):

7:50 a.m. Thursday, 12:50 p.m. Friday: Jason Day, Xander Schauffele, Daniel Berger

Day is making his second straight Travelers appearance, having missed the cut both last year in Cromwell and last week at Shinnecock Hills. He’ll be joined by reigning Rookie of the Year Schauffele and Berger, who took home ROY honors in 2015 and last year was on the losing end of Jordan Spieth’s playoff dramatics at this event.

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8 a.m. Thursday, 1 p.m. Friday: Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Webb Simpson

Koepka is making his third tournament appearance overall, but his first since a T-9 finish in 2016, before he had either of his two U.S. Open trophies. Reed has become a regular at this event and enters off a fourth-place showing on Long Island, while Simpson cruised to victory last month at TPC Sawgrass and tied for 10th last week.

12:50 p.m. Thursday, 7:50 a.m. Friday: Jordan Spieth, Marc Leishman, Russell Knox

This was the tournament that turned things around last year for Spieth, who took home the title in his debut thanks to one of the most dramatic shots of the year in a playoff against Berger. He’ll start his title defense alongside a pair of past champs, as Leishman won here for his first Tour title back in 2012 and Knox was a winner two years ago when the tournament was played in August.

1 p.m. Thursday, 8 a.m. Friday: Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas

This group should get plenty of attention in the early rounds, with Thomas entering as the highest-ranked player in the field at No. 2 and joined a pair of players who will launch drives all across TPC River Highlands. Watson has feasted on this layout, winning in both 2010 and 2015 among five top-10 finishes, while McIlroy tied for 17th last year in his tournament debut but missed the cut last week at Shinnecock.