Keep your happiness to yourself, OK?

By John FeinsteinOctober 19, 2011, 6:21 pm

It is impossible to escape the irony. Disney World is, as the marketers tell us, “the happiest place on earth.”

The two golf courses – the Magnolia and the Palm – both have holes that are close enough to the theme park that one can hear the happiness coming from the rides and, often, the sound of the famous Disney train.

It’s the perfect place to escape the realities of life.

Except that the golf this week at the Mag and the Palm is about as real as it gets on the PGA Tour. For some players, Disney is a fun week, a place to come with your family and make one last check before the year ends while earning father/husband points along the way.

But for many this week there is nothing fun about being surrounded by so much happiness. The shrieks of joy coming from the park sound more taunting than anything else as players plow through four days of trying to save their job for another year.

“There are times,” Brian Claar said several years ago, “that you want to turn around when you hear the train or people shouting and say, ‘Will you please shut up!’ ”

Claar, now a rules official on the Champions Tour, is as calm and likeable a person as anyone who has ever played golf for a living. But when he came to Disney knowing he needed a top-20 finish to avoid returning to Qualifying School, it was impossible for him to keep that calm demeanor on Sunday afternoon.

Players always know what they need to do to reach a goal – Claar knew he was one birdie shy of where he needed to be as he plodded through the final holes. He had several chances but couldn’t convert. Just as he tapped in for par at 18, fighting tears by then, one could hear the train whistle from Disney loud and clear.

A couple of years after that, Frank Lickliter was in a similar position as Claar. Lickliter is NOT one of the more easy-going players on Tour and, even behind sunglasses, the tension on his face was evident the final few holes. A bogey on No. 17 ended his chances of keeping his card. Walking off the green Lickliter couldn’t keep his emotions in check and his wayward putter ended up in the pond near the green.

Jeff Sluman was playing with Lickliter that day. Sluman understood what Lickliter was going through and had tried very hard to stay out of his way all day. But when the putter found the pond, Sluman couldn’t resist.

“I gave you a 9.5 Frank,” he said as Lickliter walked onto the 18th tee after the putter had been retrieved.

If Lickliter found that funny he didn’t show it.

This week will be no different. While most of those who show up to watch will focus on Luke Donald’s attempt to run Webb Simpson down for the money title, there will be players dealing with a lot more pressure than Donald or Simpson. Sure, either one would love to finish on top of the money list and earn the five-year exemption that comes with it. If either wins the event, he will likely win the Player of the Year award.

But Donald and Simpson have won millions already this year and their spots on the Tour are secure for at least three years (Simpson) and two years (Donald) regardless of what happens this weekend.

The same cannot be said for many of those fighting for a spot in the top 125 or the top 150 on the money list. The Tour showed a little bit of humor when it paired Robert Gates and James Driscoll for the first two rounds. Gates and Driscoll are 124th and 125th on the money list and hanging on for dear life. Still, they’re in better shape than those outside the top 125 – although Bill Lunde at No. 126 is comfortable since he won last year and is exempt through 2012.

That can’t be said for Billy Horschel (No. 133) who last week at Sea Island appeared on the verge of at least a top-five finish and a big enough check to wrap up a spot in the top 125. But Horschel spun back late on Sunday and ended up improving only from 139th to 133rd. Now, he’s down to one last chance to avoid a trip to Q-School.

At least Horschel knows that his worst-case scenario is going to Q-School finals. Players who finish between 126th and 150th retain a partial exemption for next year, meaning that they will get into events when not enough fully exempt players show up to play. That usually means about a dozen starts unless you pick up some sponsor exemptions. And it means you automatically qualify for Q-School finals without having to go back to second stage.

Outside the top 150 is purgatory. If you haven’t won at least once on Tour you are no longer a member and have to go back to the second stage of Q-School and are guaranteed nothing for next year. As Disney begins, the player sitting just outside the top 150 at No. 151 is David Duval.

Duval won’t be in complete purgatory if he doesn’t make the cut, but he’ll be close. As a past Tour winner, he’ll still have membership status and will be able to get into tournaments on sponsor exemptions the way John Daly has in recent years. As a past British Open champion, Duval isn’t likely to be turned down by anyone he asks for an exemption.

But he isn’t thrilled about the idea of having to ask. “I don’t like to depend on the kindness of strangers in order to play golf,” he said with a smile.

Duval has already used up the one-year exemption he earned by being in the top 25 on the all-time money list and another exemption for being in the top 50. If Justin Leonard (currently No. 144) doesn’t jump into the top 125 this week, he will use his exemption next year as the 10th-leading money winner of all time. Duval no longer has that option. If he doesn’t at least make the top 150 he would face going back to second stage if he wants any status beyond past champion for next year. He hadn’t even planned to play at Disney but, after missing the cut last week, decided to play.

“I can’t really do myself much good unless I win there but the only way to win is to tee it up and compete,” he said. “I feel like I’m playing well enough to do that but I have to show up to have a chance.”

Duval hasn’t won on Tour since the 2001 British Open at Royal Lytham. But he still has hope and the belief that he can play well again. So, he will be out there grinding along with all the others who know this is the last chance they will get to be able to live “The Life” again next year.

Last year Robert Garrigus came to Disney sitting 122nd on the money list. He figured he had to at least finish in the top 20 to keep his card. He won. A year later, he’s here with a big smile on his face knowing he’s exempt through 2012 regardless of what happens this weekend.

“It feels so different,” he said. “All I’m thinking about right now is winning again. I like the golf courses and I feel relaxed and confident.”

He can afford to feel relaxed. The same isn’t true of Gates or Driscoll; Horschel or Duval and a host of others who will feel every bit of tension there is to feel when they tee it up on Thursday. Some will come through and leave Disney with a big smile the way Garrigus did last year.

Others will leave with an uncertain future and a lot to be concerned about. And you can bet they’ll want to tell that damn train to shut up on their way out of town.

Getty Images

Lopez fires flawless 63 for lead in Arkansas

By Associated PressJune 23, 2018, 12:41 am

ROGERS, Ark. – Since its first year on the LPGA Tour in 2007, the crowds at the NW Arkansas Championship have belonged to Stacy Lewis.

Another former University of Arkansas star staked her claim as the hometown favorite Friday when Gaby Lopez shot a career-low 8-under 63 to take the first-round lead at Pinnacle Country Club.

Like Lewis, the two-time winner of the tournament, Lopez starred as a three-time All-American for the Razorbacks before joining the LPGA Tour in 2016. Despite flashes of potential, Lopez had yet to join Lewis among the ranks of the world's best - missing the cut in her last two tournaments and entering this week ranked 136th in the world.

For a day, at least, the Mexican standout felt right at home atop the leaderboard in her adopted home state.

''I feel like home,'' Lopez said. ''I feel so, so comfortable out here, because I feel that everyone and every single person out here is just rooting for us.''

Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship

Moriya Jutanugarn was a stroke back along with Minjee Lee, Catriona Matthew, Nasa Hataoka, Lizette Salas, Mirim Lee and Aditi Ashok. Six others finished at 6 under on a day when only 26 of the 144 players finished over par, thanks to some mid-week rain that softened the greens and calm skies throughout the day.

Jutanugarn finished second at the tournament last year and is trying to win for the second time on the LPGA Tour this year. Her younger sister, Ariya, is already a two-time winner this year and shot an opening-round 66.

Lewis, the former world No. 1 who won the event in 2007 in 2014, finished with a 66. She's expecting her first child in early November

Defending champion So Yeon Ryu, coming off a victory Sunday in Michigan, shot a 67.

Friday was Lopez's long-awaited day to standout, though, much to the delight of the pro-Arkansas crowd.

After missing the cut her last two times out, Lopez took some time off and returned home to Mexico City to rest her mind and work on her game. The work paid off with two straight birdies to open her round and a 6-under 30 on her front nine.

Lopez needed only 25 putts and finished two shots off the course record of 61, and she overcame a poor drive on the par-5 18th to finish with a par and keep her place at the top of the leaderboard. Her previous low score was a 64 last year, and she matched her career best by finishing at 8 under.

''(Rest) is a key that no one really truly understands until you're out here,'' Lopez said. ''... Sometimes resting is actually the part you've got to work on.''

Getty Images

Harman rides hot putter to Travelers lead

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 12:28 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – There are plenty of big names gathered for the Travelers Championship, and through two rounds they’re all chasing Brian Harman.

Harman opened with a 6-under 64, then carded a 66 during Friday’s morning wave to become the only player to finish the first two rounds in double digits under par. The southpaw is currently riding a hot putter, leading the field in strokes gained: putting while rolling in 12 birdies and an eagle through his first 36 holes.

“Putted great today,” said Harman, who ranks 22nd on Tour this season in putting. “Got out of position a couple of times, but I was able to get myself good looks at it. I started hitting the ball really well coming down the stretch and made a few birdies.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Harman, 31, has won twice on the PGA Tour, most recently at last year’s Wells Fargo Championship. While he doesn’t have a win this year, he started his season in the fall by reeling off five straight finishes of T-8 or better to quickly install himself as one of the leaders in the season-long points race.

Now topping a leaderboard that includes the likes of Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy, he realizes that he’ll have his work cut out for him if he’s going to leave Connecticut with trophy No. 3.

“The putter has been really good so far, but I’ve been in position a lot. I’ve had a lot of good looks at it,” Harman said. “I’m just able to put a little pressure on the course right now, which is nice.”

Getty Images

10-second rule costs Zach Johnson a stroke

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 12:06 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – Zach Johnson heads into the weekend one shot back at the Travelers Championship, but he was a matter of seconds away from being tied for the lead.

Johnson had an 18-foot birdie putt on No. 3 at TPC River Highlands, his 12th hole of the day, but left the ball hanging on the lip. As Johnson walked up to tap the ball in, it oscillated on the edge and eventually fell in without being hit.

Was it a birdie, or a par?

According to the Rules of Golf, and much to Johnson’s chagrin, the answer was a par. Players are afforded “reasonable” time to walk to the hole, and after that they are allowed to wait for 10 seconds to see if the ball drops of its own accord. After that, it either becomes holed by a player’s stroke, or falls in and leads to a one-shot penalty, resulting in the same score as if the player had hit it.

According to Mark Russell, PGA Tour vice president of rules and competitions, Johnson’s wait time until the ball fell in was between 16 and 18 seconds.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“Once he putts the ball, he’s got a reasonable amount of time to reach the hole,” Russell said. “Then once he reaches the hole, he’s got 10 seconds. After 10 seconds, the ball is deemed to be at rest.”

Johnson tried to emphasize the fact that the ball was oscillating as he stood over it, and even asked rules officials if marking his ball on the edge of the hole would have yielded a “bonus 10 seconds.” But after signing for a 2-under 68 that brought him within a shot of leader Brian Harman, the veteran took the ruling in stride.

“The 10-second rule has always been there. Vague to some degree,” Johnson said. “The bottom line is I went to tap it in after 10 seconds and the ball was moving. At that point, even if the ball is moving, it’s deemed to be at rest because it’s on the lip. Don’t ask me why, but that’s just the way it is.”

While Johnson brushed off any thoughts of the golf gods conspiring against him on the lip, he was beaming with pride about an unconventional par he made on No. 17 en route to a bogey-free round. Johnson sailed his tee shot well right into the water, but after consulting his options he decided to drop on the far side of the hazard near the 16th tee box.

His subsequent approach from 234 yards rolled to within 8 feet, and he calmly drained the putt for an unexpected save.

“I got a great lie. Just opened up a 4-hybrid, and it started over the grandstands and drew in there,” Johnson said. “That’s as good of an up-and-down as I’ve witnessed, or performed.”

Getty Images

Travelers becoming marquee event for star players

By Will GrayJune 22, 2018, 11:29 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Get lost in the throngs following the defending champ, or caught up amongst the crowds chasing the back-to-back U.S. Open winner, and it’s easy to forget where this tournament was a little more than a decade ago.

The Travelers Championship was without a sponsor, without a worthwhile field, without a consistent date and on the verge of being jettisoned to the PGA Tour Champions schedule. The glory days of the old Greater Hartford Open had come and gone, and the PGA Tour’s ever-increasing machine appeared poised to leave little old Cromwell in its wake.

The civic pride is booming in this neck of the woods. Main Street is lined with one small business after the next, and this time of year there are signs and posters popping up on every corner congratulating a member of the most recent graduating class at Cromwell High School, which sits less than two miles from the first tee at TPC River Highlands.

Having made it through a harrowing time in the event’s history, the local residents now have plenty of reason to take pride.

The Tour’s best have found this little New England hamlet, where tournament officials roll out the red carpet in every direction. They embrace the opportunity to decompress after the mind-numbing gauntlet the USGA set out for them last week, and they relish a return to a course where well-struck shots, more often than not, lead to birdies.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Ten years ago, this tournament was also held the week after the U.S. Open. Stewart Cink won, and for his efforts he received a paltry 36 world ranking points. But thanks to a recent influx of star-power, this week’s winner will pocket 58 points – the same amount Rory McIlroy won at Bay Hill, and two more than Justin Rose got at Colonial. Now at the halfway point, the leaderboard backs up the hefty allocation.

While Brian Harman leads at 10 under, the chase pack is strong enough to strike fear in the heart of even the most seasoned veteran: McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Zach Johnson, they of the combined eight major titles, all sit within three shots of the lead. Former world No. 1 Jason Day is one shot further back, and reigning Player of the Year Justin Thomas will start the third round inside the top 20.

Paul Casey and Bryson DeChambeau, both likely participants at the Ryder Cup this fall, are right there as well at 8 under. Casey lost a playoff here to Watson in 2015 and has come back every year since, witnessing first-hand the tournament’s growth in scope.

“It speaks volumes for what Travelers have done and how they treat everybody, and the work that Andy Bessette and his team put in to fly around the country and speak highly of this event,” Casey said. “And do things which matter, to continue to improve the event, not just for players but for spectators.”

Part of the increased field strength can be attributed to the Tour’s recent rule change, requiring players who play fewer than 25 events in a season to add a new event they haven’t played in the last four years. Another portion can be attributed to the short commute from Shinnecock Hills to TPC River Highlands, a three-hour drive and even shorter across the Long Island Sound – an added bonus the event will lose two of the next three years with West Coast U.S. Opens.

But there’s no denying the widespread appeal of an event named the Tour’s tournament of the year, players’ choice and most fan-friendly in 2017. While Spieth’s return to defend his title was assumed, both Day and McIlroy are back for another crack this year after liking what they saw.

“Anyone that I talked to could only say good things about the tournament about the golf course, how the guys are treated here, how the fans come out, and how the community always gets behind this event,” McIlroy said. “Obviously I witnessed that for the first time last year, and I really enjoyed it.”

After starting the week with all four reigning major champs and five of the top 10 players in the latest world rankings, only Masters champ Patrick Reed got sent packing following rounds of 72-67. The remaining top-flight contingent will all hit the ground running in search of more low scores Saturday, with Spieth (-4) still retaining a glimmer of hope to keep his title defense chances alive, perhaps with a 63 like he fired in the opening round.

The Tour’s schedule represents a zero-sum game. Outside of the majors and WGCs that essentially become must-play events for the game’s best, the rest of the legs of the weekly circus become victim of a 12-month version of tug-of-war. Some players like to play in the spring; others load up in the fall. Many play the week before majors, while a select group block off the week after for some R&R far away from a golf course.

But in an environment where one tournament’s ebbs can create flows for another, the Travelers has continued a steady climb up the Tour’s hierarchy. Once in jeopardy of relegation, it has found its footing and appears in the process of turning several of the Tour’s one-name stars into regular participants.

Rory. Jordan. Bubba. JT.

It’s been a long battle for tournament officials, but the proof is in the pudding. And this weekend, the reward for the people of Cromwell – population 14,000 – looks to be a star-studded show.

“All the events are incredible,” Thomas said. “But this is kind of one of those underrated ones that I think until people come and play, do they realize how great it is.”