Don't crown Henley golf's Next Big Thing just yet

By John HawkinsJanuary 14, 2013, 2:08 pm

BACK WHEN I covered tackle football for a living, I was doing a piece on Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders, who was eliminating all suspense in the balloting for the 1988 Heisman Trophy. At some point in the story, I used the word “athleticism,” which did not fly with my friends on the copy desk.

“That’s not a word!” the editor shrieked, a verdict I appealed all the way to the supreme court, where the guy who ran the sports department looked up “athleticism” in three dictionaries, couldn’t find it, then ruled against me.

Amid the slew of college bowl games and NFL playoff tilts, I chuckle every time I hear some analyst use the word “athleticism” to describe some freakish linebacker or oversized wide receiver. This happens about 35 times per telecast, so if Noah Webster didn’t acknowledge the noun in the early 19th century, we’re getting it rammed down our throats 200 years later.

Thank goodness I don’t have to hear it when I’m watching golf.

THERE ARE TWO ways of looking at Russell Henley’s ultra-impressive victory in his official PGA Tour debut at the Sony Open. Many of us will see a kid who won his first start as a Tour member and declare him as the Next Big Thing, which has been the kneejerk reaction among the droolers for as long as they’ve been cutting 18 holes in the grass.

As an alternative, you might consider a similar situation that occurred just two years ago, when Jhonattan Vegas won the Humana Challenge in his second career event, then almost won at Torrey Pines the very next week. To say Vegas would soon vanish off the face of the competitive earth sounds a bit harsh, but it’s not inaccurate. He has just three top-10s in 47 tournaments since and really hasn’t contended on Sunday.

Now I know Henley was cut from a finer cloth than Vegas as prospects go, but one of the guys he held off in Honolulu Sunday was Charles Howell III. Among the post-Tiger Woods phenoms, there wasn’t a better college player than CH3, whose Tour performance has fallen far short of expectations: two victories in 365 starts.

We’ve seen a number of unproven players launch their careers on the West Coast Swing – Mark Wilson immediately comes to mind – then fail to sustain that level for any significant length of time. Henley certainly appears capable of becoming a top-tier player, perhaps even a fixture on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, but there was a time not so long ago when Anthony Kim was going to rule the universe.

The fact that Henley beat Howell and Tim Clark, two of the game’s most decorated second-place finishers – a whopping 24 runner-ups but just three Ws – means as much or as little as you want it to mean. Yes, the kid shot a 63 to win by three, but nobody applied any real pressure on him in the final round. Considering the relevant data involved, this should come as no surprise. 

FOR ALL THERE is not to like about the PGA Tour’s two celebrity-splashed pro-ams – six-hour rounds, the Bill Murray factor, the multi-venue formats – I enjoyed covering those tournaments for one reason: atmosphere. The size of the galleries and the energy level of those in attendance is often the difference between a fun event and a boring one. Simply put, you can’t simulate excitement.

This week’s Humana Challenge has never gotten the public affection generated by the gatherings at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, which has more stars and a sexier setting, but if you like watching pro athletes chop it around without dealing with crowds that run five or 10 deep, Palm Springs is the better place.

The greatest pro-am story I ever heard came from the former Hope. Phil Mickelson was playing with NFL great Lawrence Taylor, who is supposedly a decent golfer but was having a tough day. On one hole, LT drove his ball into outer space, and then vanished for 10 or 15 minutes. Mickelson, meanwhile, hit the green and had a mid-range putt for birdie, which he struck beautifully and was tracking toward the center of the cup.

Out of nowhere, another ball arrived on the green in a hurry – a screaming line drive headed straight for the players and caddies. It landed on the front of the putting surface, took one sharp hop, then began rolling briskly until it collided with Mickelson’s ball about 2 feet short of the hole.

All heads turned in the same direction. There was LT, trudging greenward with a bewildered look on his face. “Hey, you guys seen my ball?” he asked. Everybody laughed, including Mickelson, but it wasn’t long before he asked out of the Hope’s celebrity draw, then stopped playing in the tournament altogether.

OF ALL THE famous types I saw pass through Pebble Beach’s 18th green and into the herd of gallery worship, nobody caused more commotion than New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. You forget how big those guys are, but then, a lot of guys are 6 feet 4, and a fair amount of them are built like a male stripper.

I watched Brady deal with the throng for a good 15 minutes, throwing the aw-shucks disposition at everyone and posing for photos like a boy scout. The guy has a magnetism that is hard to define and almost impossible to ignore, and while I’m sure the fact that Brady is from the Bay Area had something to do with his popularity that day, it was pretty hard not to think he was the coolest thing since ice-cream cake.

No, Giselle was not with him.

SPEAKING OF THE Patriots, New England and Pittsburgh were locked in a tight early-season battle when the triumphant 2005 U.S. Presidents Cup team entered the media center early that Sunday evening. It remains the closest the Internationals have come to beating the Yanks on American soil; Fred Couples and Chris DiMarco came up big down the stretch and the U.S. held on to win by three, but it was closer than the final score indicated.

That was the year Vijay Singh recommended that someone leave a cart behind the 14th green after he disposed of Couples, and thus, wouldn’t have to wait for transportation back to the clubhouse. Couples beat Singh, however, and when the entire U.S. squad came in for the post-victory press conference, a dozen of the world’s finest golfers collectively froze when the journey to the interview room took them near a television.

“We’ll go in after this is over,” more than one of them said. A slightly persistent PGA Tour official tried to convince the fellas that the final six minutes of Patriots-Steelers could take a half-hour to play.

“Too bad,” was the group response.

The U.S. team reluctantly made its way to the microphones a few minutes later, an amusing concession by a bunch of middle-aged guys who love golf but, at least on occasion, like football even better. With or without the frequent references to athleticism.

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Spieth offers Owen advice ahead of debut

By Will GrayMay 23, 2018, 6:22 pm

As his former pro-am partner gets set to make his Tour debut, Jordan Spieth had a few pieces of advice for country music sensation Jake Owen.

Owen played as a 1-handicap alongside Spieth at this year's AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and this week he is playing his own ball on a sponsor invite at the Nashville Open. Owen joked with a Tour reporter that Spieth "shined" him by not answering his text earlier in the week, but Spieth explained to reporters at the Fort Worth Invitational that the two have since connected.

"We texted a bit yesterday. I was just asking how things were going," Spieth said. "I kind of asked him the state of his game. He said he's been practicing a lot. He said the course is really hard. I mean, going into it with that mindset, maybe he'll kind of play more conservative."

Owen is in the field this week on the same type of unrestricted sponsor exemption that NBA superstar Steph Curry used at the's Ellie Mae Classic in August. As Owen gets set to make his debut against a field full of professionals, Spieth noted that it might be for the best that he's focused on a tournament a few hundred miles away instead of walking alongside the singer as he does each year on the Monterey Peninsula.

"Fortunately I'm not there with him, because whenever I'm his partner I'm telling him to hit driver everywhere, even though he's talented enough to play the golf course the way it needs to be played," Spieth said. "So I think he'll get some knowledge on the golf course and play it a little better than he plays Pebble Beach. He's certainly got the talent to be able to shoot a good round."

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Rahm ready to bomb and gouge around Colonial

By Will GrayMay 23, 2018, 3:40 pm

Faced with one of the PGA Tour's most traditional layouts, Jon Rahm has no plans to take his foot off the gas pedal.

Rahm is one of four players ranked inside the top six headlining the field at this week's Fort Worth Invitational, where the Spaniard dazzled with bookend rounds of 66 to share runner-up honors in his tournament debut a year ago. Set to make his return, Rahm explained that Colonial Country Club is similar to the narrow, tree-lined course in Spain where he first learned the game with driver in hand.

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So while many other players in the field will play for position, Rahm plans to employ the same strategy he did on his boyhood course by letting it rip off the tee and taking his chances.

"I felt like if I am going to miss the fairway, I would rather be 60 or 70 yards away than laying up and having 130, especially with this rough being unpredictable and these small greens," Rahm told reporters Wednesday. "The closer you are to the green, the easier it will be to hit the green. That's kind of the idea I have."

Rahm struggled in his most recent start at The Players, but otherwise has had a strong spring highlighted by a win in Spain and a fourth-place showing at the Masters. The 23-year-old added that he feels "a lot more comfortable" off the tee with driver in hand than a fairway wood or long iron, so expect more counterintuitive strategy this week from a player who had no trouble solving one of the Tour's oldest riddles a year ago.

"I like traditional golf courses," he said. "You know, everything that says it shouldn't be good for me, in my mind, is good for me."

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Power Rankings: 2018 Fort Worth Invitational

By Will GrayMay 23, 2018, 2:54 pm

The PGA Tour stays in Texas this week, heading across town for the Fort Worth Invitational. A field of 120 players will tackle venerable Colonial Country Club, where Ben Hogan won a record five times.

Be sure to join the all-new Golf Channel Fantasy Challenge - including a new One & Done game offering - to compete for prizes and form your own leagues, and log on to to submit your picks for this week's event.

Kevin Kisner won this event last year by one shot over Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm and Sean O Hair. Here are 10 names to watch in Fort Worth:

1. Jordan Spieth: When it comes to Spieth at Colonial, throw out the stats. He has gone T-2, Win, T-2 over the last three years and hasn't finished worse than T-14 in five career trips. While his putter has continued to hold him back, including last week in Dallas, Spieth lists Colonial among his favorite venues on Tour and plays accordingly.

2. Webb Simpson: Simpson is making his first start since a decisive win at TPC Sawgrass, one that capped a string of impressive play this year. Now he returns to a course where he finished fifth last year and T-3 the year before, with nine of his last 10 competitive rounds at Colonial in the 60s.

3. Zach Johnson: Johnson is a two-time champ and the tournament's all-time leading money winner, having averaged almost a $300,000 payday in 12 prior appearances. Like Spieth, he speaks openly about his affinity for the type of golf Colonial demands and his fifth-place finish last month in San Antonio proves another win may be on the horizon.

4. Jimmy Walker: Walker has finished T-6 or better in each of his last three starts across three pretty different tracks: TPC San Antonio, TPC Sawgrass and Trinity Forest. While he doesn't have the best history at Colonial, Walker did tie for 10th in 2014 and clearly has momentum on his side now that he's feeling healthy for the first time in months.

5. Jon Rahm: The Spaniard impressed in his Colonial debut last year, missing out on a possible playoff by a single shot. While many other top-ranked players have received more acclaim in recent weeks, Rahm has quietly gone about his business including a fourth-place showing at the Masters and a win in his home country. He struggled at The Players, but a similar result didn't impact him much last year once he got to Fort Worth.

6. Kevin Kisner: Don't discount the defending champ, who has now cracked the top 10 each of the last three years at this event. Kisner thrives on the "small ball" style of layouts like Colonial and Harbour Town, and he would be higher on this list were it not for missed cuts in each of his last two starts.

7. Rickie Fowler: Fowler's missed cut at Sawgrass, largely the result of a slow start and a lost ball in a tree, can be discounted since his play up until then this year has been largely strong, highlighted by his Masters runner-up. Fowler hasn't played Colonial since a missed cut in 2014, but he did finish T-16 and T-5 in 2011-12.

8. Adam Scott: Once again equipped with the long putter and with his sights set on qualifying for the U.S. Open, Scott's game is starting to turn around. A T-11 finish at Sawgrass was followed by a T-9 finish last week, his first top-10 anywhere since June. Now he heads across town to a course where he won in 2013 and where his stellar tee-to-green play should again be rewarded.

9. Matt Kuchar: A frustrated Kuchar saw his consecutive made cuts streak end last week at Trinity Forest, but he'll likely start a new one this week on a course where he has missed the cut only once in 10 appearances. Kuchar was a runner-up at Colonial in 2013 and has finished T-16 or better in four of his last six trips to Fort Worth.

10. Justin Rose: The Englishman opted out of the European Tour's flagship event to make his return to Colonial for the first time since 2010. While his T-13 finish back in 2005 remains his best result in four prior appearances, Rose has cracked the top 25 in four of his last five individual starts and seems likely to continue that run on a course that should play to his strengths.

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Rosaforte Report: What makes Wise so good, while so young

By Tim RosaforteMay 23, 2018, 2:39 pm

Is Aaron Wise the real deal?

It may be too early to answer that question – or even make that proclamation; after all, the baby-faced 21-year-old had zero top-10s in his first 15 starts as a PGA Tour rookie. Now, one month after a missed the cut in the Valero Texas Open, Wise is being associated with phrases like “phenom” and “It kid,” thanks to a strong showing at Quail Hollow and a victory at Trinity Forest.

But that’s how it works in this transient time of golf, where there’s always room to join the party and become one of the guys hanging out with Rickie Fowler. You watch: Next we will see Wise playing practice rounds with Tiger Woods, next to Bryson DeChambeau. It would be the wise thing to do.

As for certifiable greatness, we really won’t know about Wise until he’s played some majors and established himself beyond this two-tournament stretch. Had he not turned pro, he would have been a college senior leading Oregon into the NCAA finals.

But what we do know, based on the opinions of those closest to him, is that Wise has the “instinctual” and “emotionally strong” qualities of a great one – the “real deal” qualities, so to speak.

From “knowing how to win” (college coach Casey Martin), to “being a natural in picking the right shot” (swing instructor Jeff Smith) to “the way he embraced mental training, very much like Tiger.” (sports psychologist Jay Brunza), Wise ranks high in all the nuances required of greatness.

Asked if he was surprised with Wise’s second-place finish at the Wells Fargo Championship and win at the AT&T Byron Nelson, Smith said without hesitation, “Not at all. The tough part as a coach was tempering expectations. I have to keep reminding him over and over and over, you’re only 21 years old.”

This week’s Fort Worth Invitational will provide further opportunity to gauge where Wise ranks in the spectrum of potential greatness. One of the elements that surfaced in his last two starts: While not physically imposing, the kid’s athleticism is a noticeable byproduct of the tennis he played during middle school and early high school growing up in Lake Elsinore, Calif., just 54 miles from where Woods grew up in Cypress. Wise was good enough to be “pretty highly ranked,” and was torn between a golf coach that wanted him to quit tennis, and a tennis coach that wanted him to quit golf.

Golf won out, but what we have seen recently is Wise’s hand-eye athleticism at work, the ability of knowing what shot to hit and how to hit the off-speed and stroke-saving shots that are necessary under the gun. “He’s like a natural in the feel side of the game,” says Smith.

In the mental game, there are even some intuitive comparisons to Woods drawn by Brunza, who started working with Tiger when he was 13. The best example, thus far, of those qualities was the fifth shot Wise holed for bogey to close out his third round at Wells Fargo. After whiffing his third shot and blading his fourth, it was the most meaningful shot in Wise’s short time in the big leagues.

It was what Brunza would so aptly describe as “managing the nervous arousal level within.” Instead of being rattled, Wise chipped in for bogey. He would call it “huge,” and “awesome,” and made the promise that it would carry him into the final round – which it did.

Wise closed with a 68 that Sunday and lost by two strokes to Jason Day, never appearing to be nervous or out of place. After a week off for not qualifying for The Players, that relaxed confidence carried over to Dallas, to the point where closing out a PGA Tour win for the first time felt like it did at the NCAAs, Canada and the Tour.

“To not only compete, but to play as well as I did, with all that pressure, gave me confidence having been in that situation (with Day at Quail Hollow),” Wise said on “Morning Drive.”

Wise was accompanied at Trinity Forest by his mother, who engaged in what Wise characterized as a joking conversation Sunday morning of just how much money Aaron would make with a win. It was a reminder of the short time span was between winning on Tour, at 21, and not being able the handle costs of playing on the AJGA circuit. Showing poise and patience with the last tee time, Wise did the smart thing and went back to sleep.

Wise didn’t come on radar until he won the 2016 NCAA Men’s DI individual title and helped lead the Ducks to the team title.

Playing mostly what Oregon coach Martin calls local events in Southern Cal hurt his exposure, but not his potential. “He came on really fast,” Martin remembers. “He was a very good junior player but wasn’t the greatest and he didn’t come from a ton of money so he didn’t play AJGA [much] and wasn’t recruited like other kids.”

Instead of pursing pre-law at Oregon, Wise went to the tour’s development schools and won the Syncrude Oil Country Championship on PGA Tour Canada and the Air Capital Classic.

Before Quail Howllow, there was nothing to indicate this sort of transcendent greatness. Statistically, none of numbers (except for being ninth in birdies) jump off the stat sheet. He’s 32nd in driving distance and 53rd in greens hit in regulation. But there are no strokes saved categories for the instinctual qualities he displayed on the two Sundays when he’s had a chance to win. “He’s a really cool customer that doesn’t get rattled,” says Martin. “He doesn’t overreact, good or bad.”

Lately, it’s been all good.