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.

Getty Images

Winning on Kerr's mind this week and beyond

By Randall MellMarch 24, 2018, 2:11 am

Cristie Kerr moved into position Friday to do more than win the 21st LPGA title of her career.

She moved into position to claim an LPGA Hall of Fame point this week.

Yes, winning is foremost on her mind at the Kia Classic, where she took the lead with an 8-under-par 64 in the second round, she’s on a larger quest, too.

After turning 40 last fall, Kerr was asked what her goals are.

“The Hall of Fame is attainable, if I stick with it,” she said.

Kerr is five shots ahead of Lizette Salas (67), In-Kyung Kim (69), Hee Young Park (70) and Caroline Hedwall (70).

It’s a good time for Kerr to get on a hot streak, with the year’s first major championship, the ANA Inspiration, next week. She has long been one of the best putters in the women’s game, but her ball-striking is impressive this week. She hit 17 greens in regulation Thursday, and she hit 16 on Friday.

“I like winning,” Kerr said. “I like challenging myself. Definitely doesn't get any easier as you get older, with the travel and recovery time. I got up this morning and I'm like, `Man, why does my hamstring hurt?’ From working around this hilly golf course.”

Kerr acknowledged Friday that her body is more vulnerable to time’s realities, but her mind isn’t.

Full-field scores from the Kia Classic

“The golf ball doesn't know an age,” Kerr said. “I've always said that. As long as I stay hungry, going to just keep playing.”

Kerr won two weeks after her 40th birthday last fall, boosting her LPGA Hall of Fame point total to 22. She is five points short of eligibility for induction. A player earns one point for an LPGA victory and two points for a major championship title. So there’s a lot of Hall of Fame ground to gain this week and next.

It’s a long-term goal that motivates Kerr to take care of her body.

“I don't think the golf changes,” Kerr said. “I think, physically, it gets harder as you get older. Like I said, I've got tape on my hamstring. I strained it, just a little bit yesterday, walking around this golf course. It's tough as you get older, just being fresh and rested. I put more focus into that as I've gotten older. I still practice, but off the course I try to get more rest.”

Getty Images

Big names chasing Kerr into the weekend at Kia Classic

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 1:55 am

CARLSBAD, Calif. - Cristie Kerr shot an 8-under 64 on Friday in the Kia Classic to take a five-stroke lead into the weekend.

The 40-year-old Kerr had eight birdies in her second straight bogey-free round to reach 13-under 131 at rain-softened Aviara.

''I like winning. I like challenging myself,'' Kerr said. ''Definitely doesn't get any easier as you get older with the travel and recovery time. I got up this morning and I'm like, 'Man, why does my hamstring hurt?' From working around this hilly golf course. The golf ball doesn't know an age. I've always said that. As long as I stay hungry, going to just keep playing.''

She has 20 LPGA victories, winning at Aviara in 2015. She won twice last year and helped the U.S. beat Europe in her ninth Solheim Cup appearance.

''It's tough as you get older just being fresh and rested,'' Kerr said. ''I put more focus into that as I've gotten older. I still practice, but off the course I try to get more rest.''

Lizette Salas, In-Kyung Kim, Hee Young Park and Caroline Hedwall were tied for second. Salas shot 67, Kim 69, and Park and Hedwall 70.

''I really like this golf course. I really like the environment,'' said Salas, the former University of Southern California player from Azusa. ''My family gets to come out. So much confidence at the beginning of the week, and definitely showed the first two days.

Jeong Eun Lee was 7 under after a 69, and defending ANA champion So Yeon Ryu had a 70 to get to 6 under.

Full-field scores from the Kia Classic

Ariya Jutanugarn (72), Brooke Henderson (70) and 2016 winner Lydia Ko (71) were 5 under. Shanshan Feng (68) was another stroke back, and Singapore winner Michelle Wie (72) was 1 under.

Lexi Thompson was 2 over after a 74, making the cut on the number in the final event before the major ANA Inspiration next week at Mission Hills.

Kerr opened with birdies on the par-5 10th and par-3 11th, added birdies on the par-4 16th, 18th and second, and ran off three in a row on the par-3 sixth, par-4 seventh and par-5 eighth.

''I don't think you can fall asleep on one shot,'' Kerr said. ''It's a really good golf course. I think I play better on courses that demand the focus, so I think that's why I've played well here in the past. ... I'm trying not to put limits on myself right now. I've got some good things going on with my swing.''

She has long been one best putters and green-readers in the world.

''I can see the subtleties that a lot of people can't,'' Kerr said. ''It's a gift from God being able to do that. I've always had that, so I'm lucky.''

Laura Davies withdrew after an opening 82. The 54-year-old Davies tied for second last week in the Founders Cup in Phoenix, playing through painful left Achilles and calf problems.

Getty Images

DJ hits 489-yard drive, but it doesn't count for history

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 12:22 am

AUSTIN, Texas – Dustin Johnson is no stranger to big drives, but even for DJ this one was impressive.

Trailing in his Day 3 match at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Johnson launched a drive at the par-5 12th hole that traveled 489 yards, but that number comes with an asterisk.

“He got lucky it hit the road,” smiled Kevin Kisner, who was leading the world No. 1, 3 up, at the time. “I thought he would make an eagle for sure, he only had 80 yards [to the hole]. He didn’t hit a very good putt.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Scoring | Group standings

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

Johnson’s drive, which was 139 yards past Kisner’s tee shot, is the longest recorded on the PGA Tour in the ShotLink era, surpassing Davis Love III’s drive of 476 yards in 2004 at the Tournament of Champions.

The drive will not go into the record books, however, because the Tour doesn’t count statistics from the Match Play.

It should also be noted, Kisner halved the 12th hole with a birdie and won the match, 4 and 3, to advance to the round of 16.

Getty Images

Durant leads Champions event in Mississippi

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 12:21 am

BILOXI, Miss. - Joe Durant had three straight birdies in a back-nine burst and a shot 6-under 66 on Friday to take the first-round lead in the PGA Tour Champions' Rapiscan Systems Classic.

Durant birdied the par-4 11th and 12th and par-5 13th in the bogey-free round at breezy and rain-softened Fallen Oak. Because of the wet conditions, players were allowed to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairway.

''It just sets up nice to my eye,'' Durant said. ''It's a beautiful golf course and it's very challenging. The tee shots seem to set up well for me, but the greens are maybe as quick as I've ever seen them here. You really have to put the ball in the right spots. I played very nice today. With the wind swirling like it was, I'm really happy.''

He won the Chubb Classic last month in Naples, Florida, for his third victory on the 50-and-over tour.

Full-field scores from the Rapiscan Systems Classic

''Done this long enough, Friday's just one day,'' Durant said. ''Especially in a three-day tournament, you've got to go out and shoot three good numbers. Fortunate to put one on the board, but I know I have to back it up with a couple of good days because you can get passed very quickly out here.''

Mark Calcavecchia was a stroke back. He won last month in Boca Raton, Florida

''It's probably my best round I've ever had here and it was a tough day to play,'' Calcavecchia said. ''The greens are just lightning fast. They're pretty slopey greens, so very difficult to putt.''

Steve Stricker was third at 68. He took the Tucson, Arizona, event three weeks ago for his first senior victory.

''Just getting it around and managing my game I think like I always do,'' Stricker said. ''You get in the wrong position here with the greens being so fast and you're going to be in trouble. I did that a couple times today.''

Billy Mayfair, Billy Andrade and David McKenzie shot 69. Jerry Kelly, the winner of the season-opening event in Hawaii, was at 70 with Wes Short Jr., Glen Day, Gene Sauers and Jesper Parnevik.

Bernhard Langer opened with a 71, and two-time defending champion Miguel Angel Jimenez had a 72.

Vijay Singh, coming off his first senior victory two weeks ago in Newport Beach, California, had a 73.