Hawk's Nest: Masters greats; McIlroy's good move

By John HawkinsApril 1, 2013, 2:15 pm

My bracket is a mess and the taxman is knocking, but I’m happy. We’re playing golf in the Northeast, swinging and cussing, and then exchanging Hamiltons and Jacksons over adult beverages and cigar smoke. It wasn’t so much a harsh winter – it was a late one. Still, our season has begun in March for the second consecutive year.

I’ve stuck a peg in the ground on many of the finest courses in the land, but for me, it’s not where you play, but with whom you play. I hadn’t seen my golf buddies in a few months and had plenty to yap about, but the conversation still turned to pro golf as we approached the sixth green.

“You know what you should write about?” Scully proposed, at which point I thought he’d pitch something irrelevant, perverse or worse. “How come every time a European guy gets to the top of the world ranking, he loses the No. 1 spot so quickly?”

I’ve got a 30-footer for birdie on greens that were covered in snow 10 days ago, which is no time to be taking questions, but this was a terrific one. I tried to explain that changes made to the ranking’s mathematical formula in recent years had resulted in more volatility, but the longer I talked, the more I realized I wasn’t really answering the query.

Luke Donald has since fallen to fourth, Lee Westwood to 13th, Martin Kaymer all the way to 31st. Along with Rory McIlroy, who recently relinquished the top spot to Tiger Woods, those four Euros were ranked first, second, third and sixth at this point a year ago. You can’t blame math for a decline like that. Actually, you can, but it’s the type of arithmetic largely frowned upon in golf – you add up the scorecard and realize you’ve turned a 68 into a 71.

American players have won all 13 events played on the PGA Tour in 2013, leaving me to wonder if a couple of those former No. 1s, all of whom now spend a significant amount of time in the United States, were getting fat on ranking points against those thinner international fields. The U.S. may not win many Ryder Cups, but they’ve got the most good players. Period.

Speaking of losing the top spot….

CADDIES ARE SUPPOSED to show up, keep up and shut up, but when veteran looper J.P. Fitzgerald spoke up to Rory McIlroy about the state of his game in Houston, the Irish lad listened. The result is a win-win that has McIlroy playing in the Valero Texas Open – the smartest thing he’s done as a golfer in 2013.

As one might expect, McIlragged’s poor start this season has been a consistently hot topic on the live chats I’ve hosted on this website. The kneejerk among theorists has been to blame his financially lucrative equipment switch from Titleist to Nike, but I haven’t bought into that simple explanation. Not yet, anyway.

My response has been the same all year: McIlrust needs to play more competitive rounds. Fitzgerald clearly saw the same thing, which led to this week’s unexpected commitment – a significant boost for a tournament that has struggled to gain attention and lure anything resembling star power during the FedEx Cup era.

Rory’s emulation of Tiger Woods has been well-documented in recent years, and we all know Woods plays a rather select schedule. I think McIlreplicate decided he should do the same thing to remain atop the world ranking. His first start of ’13 was at Abu Dhabi after a two-month layoff, and he missed the cut. Then he took another four weeks off and got bumped in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play.

He headed straight to the Honda Classic, where he walked off after 26 holes, then played for a third consecutive week at Doral, where a final-round 65 earned him a soft T-8. It was the first time McIlroy had played a full event on any tour in 3 ½ months. So what does he do? He takes another two weeks off.

You can hit those new clubs on the range all day, but at some point, you have to make money with them. When you look back on McIlready’s brief career, you see that his best golf has come during periods of high activity. When he’s away from the game for a month, which has been the case a couple of times, he takes a while to get going again.

Kids. They’re so hardheaded sometimes, even the good ones. Why hasn’t McIlrational noticed this trend? Greatness is a hard thing to manage on a day-to-day basis. You get people offering you $200,000 to show up here and $300,000 to show up there, and the next thing you know, you’re quitting on a Friday morning because your wisdom tooth hurts.

AFTER A STRETCH of clunkers, the Masters has produced three consecutive riveting tournaments. Here’s to hoping next week gives us something as good as this collection: my version of the five best Masters in the last 20 years, presented here in reverse order.

• 2011: It’s fifth in my countdown solely on account of its remarkable finish, a 90-minute homestretch full of remarkable play and constant shifts atop the leaderboard. Charl Schwartzel became the first man ever to birdie the final four holes and win, knocking off five or six other guys who were almost as good. A classic case of somebody shooting lights out to win a big tournament, not a handful of others finding a way to lose it.

• 1997: The polar opposite of two years ago; an overwhelming display of dominance that will forever remain one of the landmark performances in golf history. Woods didn’t just break Masters records – he basically rewrote the entire book. To open the week with a front-nine 40, then win by 12 shots at 18 under par is almost unfathomable. In retrospect, it was pro golf’s equivalent to the Beatles landing at JFK Airport in February 1964. 

• 1995: Ben Crenshaw’s second Masters triumph was the feel-great of feel-good stories: The aging, slumping ex-star pulling off the improbable shortly after the death of Harvey Penick, his coach since childhood? Who knew Augusta National also writes movie scripts? Crenshaw’s swing was a mess at the beginning of the week, but caddie Carl Jackson saw something that fixed it, turning Gentle Ben into the player he’d once been.

• 1998: Just a great tournament from start to finish, featuring a leaderboard stacked with big-name Americans and Mark O’Meara’s 18-footer at the buzzer to beat Fred Couples. What made this Masters super-duper, however, was the Sunday charge by 58-year-old Jack Nicklaus. Walking the grounds that afternoon, I will never forget the depth of the gallery roars as Nicklaus tore apart the front nine and worked his way into the hunt. I got married a week later, which was almost as good.

• 2004: I’ve covered Super Bowls, Final Fours, Wimbledons and a Winter Olympics, but this might be the best sporting event I’ve ever been to. Phil Mickelson’s heroic charge and game-winner on the 18th green ended a decade of questions about his ability to get it done at the biggest events. Get this: Ernie Els led by three on the 14th tee, played par golf over the final five holes and still lost in regulation. The final two hours that Sunday turned into an extended display of shot-making fireworks. I could live another 50 years and not see golf any finer.

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Chappell returns to Valero as defending champ

By Will GrayApril 18, 2018, 9:48 pm

It's impossible for any of the players at this week's Valero Texas Open to forget who captured the trophy last year.

That's because most players stay at the JW Marriott hotel that's a short walk from the first tee at TPC San Antonio, and the defending champion's face is emblazoned on the hotel's room keys. This week, that honor belongs to Kevin Chappell.

"You get some sly comments from players about their room key," Chappell told reporters Wednesday. "'Oh, I'm tired of looking at you.' And I'm saying, 'Believe me, I'm tired of being in everyone's room.'"

The position of defending champ is one Chappell relishes this week as he returns to the site of his maiden PGA Tour victory. A one-shot win over Brooks Koepka led to a euphoric celebration on the 72nd green, and it helped propel Chappell to his first career spot on the Presidents Cup team in October.

Chappell has missed the cut each of the last two weeks, including the Masters, but he also recorded top-10 finishes at the CareerBuilder Challenge, AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and Arnold Palmer Invitational. It's reason enough for Chappell to feel optimistic heading back to a course where he was a runner-up in 2011 and finished T-4 in 2016.

"This year's been a little bit of a strange year for me. I usually don't find form until about here, usually a slow starter," Chappell said. "But having three top-10s before this event, I've kind of found some form. I'm looking to turn those top-10s into top-5s, and the top-5s into wins. That's the challenge moving forward this year."

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Scott returns to Valero with major streak in jeopardy

By Will GrayApril 18, 2018, 8:34 pm

Adam Scott is back in the Lone Star State as he looks to keep alive a majors streak that has stretched across nearly two decades.

The Aussie tends to play a relatively light schedule during the spring, often times skipping every event between the Masters and The Players. But this time around he opted to return to the Valero Texas Open for the first time since 2011 in an effort to capitalize on the form he found two weeks ago at Augusta National, where he tied for 32nd.

"Hopefully kind of pick up where I left off on the weekend, which was really solid, and get a bit of momentum going because that's what I haven't had this year," Scott told reporters. "Trying to put four good rounds together and get the most out of my game for a change."

Scott has won each of the four stroke-play events held annually in Texas, completing the so-called "Texas Slam" before the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play relocated to Austin. That includes his win at TPC San Antonio back in 2010, when he closed with rounds of 66-67 for a one-shot victory.

After a seven-year hiatus, Scott is back San Antonio after a solid but underwhelming spring stretch. He cracked the top 20 at both the Honda Classic and Valspar Championship, but his worldwide top-10 drought stretches back nearly a year to the FedEx St. Jude Classic in June. As a result, the former world No. 1 has dropped to No. 59 in the latest rankings.

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"I'm trying to be really in tune with where my game's at and identify why I'm just not having better results," Scott said. "To kind of change that, I've got to change something, otherwise I'm just going to do the same thing."

That ranking will become even more important in the coming weeks as Scott looks to keep his streak of consecutive majors intact. He has played in 67 straight dating back to The Open in 2001, second only to Sergio Garcia's 75 among active players. But Scott's five-year exemption for winning the 2013 Masters has run its course, meaning he is not yet exempt for the upcoming U.S. Open.

Barring a win next month at TPC Sawgrass, Scott's only way to avoid a trip to sectional qualifying will be to maintain a position inside the top 60 in the world rankings on either May 21 or June 11.

The key for Scott remains easy to identify but hard to fix. While he ranks fifth on Tour this season in strokes gained: tee-to-green, he's 194th in strokes gained: putting. Scott won in consecutive weeks in 2016 with a short putter, but otherwise has largely struggled on the greens since the anchoring ban took effect more than two years ago.

"Hopefully a quick turnaround here and things start going in the right direction, because I think I can have a really great back end of the season," Scott said. "My ball-striking is where I want it; I like where my short game's at. I just need to get a bit of momentum going on the greens. It's easy to do that on the putting green at home, but that doesn't always translate out here. I think I've just got to make it happen out here."

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After personal struggles, Compton still standing

By Rex HoggardApril 18, 2018, 4:08 pm

The first line of Erik Compton’s PGA Tour biography provides all the context you need to understand the 38-year-old’s plight: “Because of viral cardiomyopathy, had first heart transplant on Feb. 26, 1992 and took up the game of golf as part of his rehabilitation.”

The second heart transplant came in 2008. Those brushes with mortality can produce some next-level introspection, but as Compton closed his eyes and contemplated his most recent situation, his mind drifted to places that most professional athletes spend a lifetime trying to avoid.

Following his opening round late last month at the Web.com Tour’s Savannah Golf Championship, Compton considered retirement. He openly unpacked the emotions of going through a divorce. He conceded that the trappings of life on the PGA Tour can be consuming and, at least for him, uncomfortable.

Throughout his eventful career Compton has donned many hats. He’s been a hero to many who see his perseverance through so many medical setbacks as an example of what can be accomplished when you stop listening to people who are quick to tell you something can’t be done.

He’s been a contender, finishing second at the 2014 U.S. Open and spending five full seasons competing against the game’s best at the highest level.

But on this spring day in Savannah, he embraces the role of sage.

“The competition,” Compton answers, when asked what he misses the most about the PGA Tour. “The lifestyle is grueling, but it was eating at me before. When I was married, there was a lot of pressure. It’s easy to get caught up and spend a lot of money. You live a different lifestyle when you have some success. I made a lot of money for a couple of years, and I didn’t really feel comfortable with it, to be honest. You know one day it’s not going to be here. Guys don’t understand how quickly it can be taken away.”

Compton understands, maybe better than anyone in the game.

He understands that one moment you’re standing on the 18th green at Pinehurst, being cheered by thousands of fans for what was by any measure a magical performance at the ’14 U.S. Open; and the next moment, you’re back in a hospital bed, attached to another IV contemplating an unknown future.

Compton lost his Tour card in 2016 and spent last season on the Web.com Tour trying to play his way back to the big leagues with even worse results.

His divorce, which was emotionally complicated by his daughter, Petra, made competing difficult.

“It’s a tough thing to go through, with kids there’s a lot emotions that go into that. It’s hard to play golf and make a living. You get off the golf course and you’re dealing with attorneys and trying to figure out how to do that while you’re playing golf. It’s not easy,” he said. “A lot of guys have had to go through that. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. It’s a tough thing to go through. We had some differences, and that’s what needed to happen.”

Beyond his divorce, there were more health issues. The two-time heart transplant recipient was sidelined last year by arthritis in his feet, the byproduct of gout. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple. It never is with Compton.

Compton’s foot issues were initially misdiagnosed, and he was advised to ice his right foot after every round, but that only crystalized the gout and forced him to undergo a procedure on his right toe to alleviate the pain.

His condition was further complicated when he contracted cellulitis, a bacterial infection of the skin that was caused by athlete’s foot. That led to two days in a South Florida hospital last month that forced him to miss the Mexico Open, which he won in 2011, helping him earn his Tour card.

Compton has spent more time in hospitals than some people spend commuting to work, which would prompt the inevitably question – why me?

“No,” he laughs. “I’m excited now. This is the best I’ve felt in a year and a half. I have a doctor who can look out for me when I have these issues. I thought with the arthritis I’d have to take a medical [exemption]. These are the things that go through my head at night.”

If Compton’s glass seems a bit half full considering his plight, both professionally and personally, he’s arrived at his optimistic crossroads honestly. Whereas most athletes depend on compartmentalization and a reluctance for linear thinking, Compton has chosen retrospection.

“We all have a tendency to live in our minds beyond where we are, and that’s Tour life,” he said. “You think you’re a better player than you might be. You think you have more money than you might have.”

But for Compton those memories that others work to bury deep have provided a focal point in his journey back to the Tour. Every day, for example, he revisits that final round at Pinehurst, when he proved to himself and the world that he had the game to compete in a major championship.

He remembers the thrill of competing at the highest level and how energizing golf can be when your mind and body cooperate.

“I’ve moved on, and I’m trying to get my life in order and simplify and rebuild the work that I put in for so many years. The players are so good, but I still think that if I can get off of the [Web.com Tour] and onto the PGA Tour, I still have the game to play,” he said. “You don’t realize how great you have it until it’s gone.”

There doesn’t seem to be much that Compton doesn’t perceive these days, and it appears that the last line of that biography hasn’t been written yet.

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Power Rankings: 2018 Valero Texas Open

By Will GrayApril 18, 2018, 2:43 pm

The PGA Tour heads back to Texas this week for the Valero Texas Open. A field of 156 players will tackle the AT&T Oaks Course at TPC San Antonio, where the winner receives a pair of cowboy boots in addition to the trophy.

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 www.playfantasygolf.com to submit your picks for this week's event.

Kevin Chappell won this event last year by one shot over Brooks Koepka. Here are 10 names to watch in San Antonio:

1. Charley Hoffman: This event may soon be christened the Hoffman Invitational given the veteran's dominance in hill country. Hoffman has finished T-13 or better 10 times since 2006, including a runner-up in 2011 and a victory two years ago. He has four top-25s in his last six starts entering the week, including a T-12 finish at the Masters.

2. Matt Kuchar: Kuchar remains his reliable self, with a T-23 finish at Harbour Town his fourth top-30 finish in as many weeks. In a field devoid of starpower and on a course where a controlled ball flight will be key, Kuchar's name rises to the top and that position is reinforced by his four straight top-25s here from 2012-15.

3. Luke List: List nearly broke through at the Honda Classic earlier this spring, but he hasn't let up since that playoff loss to Justin Thomas. List tied for third last week in South Carolina, and he has finished T-26 or better in each of his eight stroke-play starts dating back to the Farmers Insurance Open.

4. Sergio Garcia: Garcia had a hand in re-designing this week's venue along with Greg Norman, but he hasn't played here since 2010. Still, he's the only player ranked inside the top 20 and outside of a disaster on the 15th hole at Augusta National has been playing some solid golf this year, with three top-10s preceding his Masters missed cut.

5. Brendan Steele: Steele earned his first career victory at this event during his rookie season back in 2011, and he tends to play some of his best golf in San Antonio with three top-15 finishes since. Steele has played sparingly since a T-3 finish in Phoenix, but he notched a pair of top-20s in two WGC events before missing the cut in Augusta.

6. Billy Horschel: Horschel has been feast-or-famine in this event, with three top-4 finishes sandwiched around a pair of missed cuts over the last five years. The former FedExCup champ has been quiet this season, but he broke through last week with a T-5 finish at Harbour Town which showed that some more good play could be in store for a player known to ride a hot streak or two.

7. Ryan Moore: Moore has quietly bounced back from a disappointing 2017 season, with three straight top-30 finishes highlighted by a T-5 finish last month at Bay Hill. Moore has played sparingly in San Antonio, but over his last two trips (a T-8 finish in 2012 and a T-18 finish last year) he has only one round over par on a difficult track.

8. Adam Scott: Scott has won every stroke-play event contested in Texas, including a win at TPC San Antonio in 2010. While he has played only once since, he returns this week as he looks to get his game back to its former heights. The results haven't all been bad, though, as Scott notched a pair of top-20s in Florida and now heads to a course that should accentuate his tee-to-green advantages.

9. Kevin Chappell: The defending champ hasn't been heard from much in recent weeks, but he's still a name worth mentioning at this event. Chappell earned his maiden win in dramatic fashion last year, and he was also a runner-up in 2011 and finished T-4 in 2016. He has missed the cut each of the last two weeks but did crack the top 10 in Palm Springs, Pebble Beach and Orlando.

10. Jimmy Walker: A resident of nearby Boerne, Walker will have plenty of fan support this week at an event where he outlasted Jordan Spieth for the title back in 2015. That remains the highlight of a four-year run that included three top-20 finishes, as Walker tied for 13th last year and returns on the heels of a T-20 finish at the Masters.