Hawk's Nest: Spieth has distance to go to be great

By John HawkinsMay 12, 2014, 12:50 pm

A day or two prior to the start of the 2004 Bay Hill Invitational, I was given the opportunity to play nearby Isleworth G&CC with PGA Tour veteran John Cook. This was shortly after a course redesign had made Isleworth much longer and tougher, but I was up for the challenge of playing it from the tips.

My game was in excellent shape. I was driving the ball wonderfully. Heck, I was even thinking I’d knock it past Cookie, a very straight hitter who certainly wasn’t long by tour-pro standards. So what if it was 7,500 yards from the Tiger Tees? Just a number on the scorecard, pal.

Some morons learn faster than others. Cook shot 69 and might have missed one fairway by three yards. I fired a nice little 90-something and spent the afternoon at least 30 yards behind him. We basically played two different courses that day, and mine wasn’t really playable. He’d hit 7-irons into greens where I had hybrids. He’d tap in for par while I fought to avoid double-bogey.

This exercise in humility came with a reminder: hitting the ball a long way makes life much easier. At the game’s highest level, almost every great player has been one of the era’s longest drivers. In short, length is a requisite to premium success.

WHICH BRINGS US to Jordan Spieth, who has terminated any discussion as to the identity of America’s best young golfer. To do what Spieth has done over the last 10 months – on courses he had hardly played or never seen at all – is very rare. The kid seems to live on a leader board, although his inability to close the deal has become a valid discussion point.

“Plenty of chances to win, and it’s eating at me a little that I haven’t taken advantage of them yet,” Spieth said in his pre-tournament news conference at The Players. “The Masters was a humbling experience, not being able to pull that off.”

We can talk about how he’s just 20 years old and pass off his Sunday stumbles as a scourge of youth. We can look at other top-tier guys who have done nothing in 2014 and rationalize that faltering late is better than not contending at all. Perception is derived through context, however, and with each missed opportunity to claim a second Tour victory, Spieth’s halo loses some of its glow.

Fact: The Texan’s lone win came against a relatively weak field last summer at the John Deere Classic.

Opinion: His ability to perform under playoff pressure was quite admirable, but if all the big boys had shown up, who knows? He might have finished T-6.

Fact: Spieth entered The Players ranked 111th in driving distance. He finished 80th on the Tour in 2013.

Opinion: Great players are long hitters, and Spieth needs to get longer. His head-to-head matchup against Bubba Watson at the Masters might be an unfair comparison, as Bubba obviously belts it a mile, but quality length is a commodity that travels everywhere. Shorter irons into greens lead to shorter birdie putts.

Fact: The kid ranks 153rd in putting from 20 to 25 feet – and 183rd in putting from beyond that distance.

Opinion: Numbers don’t lie, but they can be misleading, although Spieth’s statistical profile reveals some plain truth. Players of average distance who rank 142nd in driving accuracy must be superb long-range putters to win tournaments. As good as Spieth has been, there is a ton of room for improvement.

He knows it. The clarity of his perspective is one of his many great assets. Most of Spieth’s strengths are things you can’t really teach.

“You guys [media] catch me five minutes after a round and it’s hard – I’m not mature enough to be extremely positive,” he admitted Sunday night. “I will be in about an hour, but right now, it just really, really stings.”

NOBODY HAS GOTTEN more out of his putter in recent years than Brandt Snedeker. From early 2011 to the summer of 2013, he won five times in a 27-month stretch while ranking 10th, first and fourth in strokes gained per round. Snedeker won the ’12 FedEx Cup sweepstakes not because he finished 134th in total driving or 132nd in GIR, but because he was among the Tour leaders in holing putts from almost every measured distance.

Things have been very different in 2014. Sneds’ scoring average has risen a whopping 2.12 strokes despite his driving the ball straighter than in any season since ’09. He’s one of a handful of players making less than half his putts from five to 10 feet – most of the others are guys you haven’t heard of.

He’s 175th in that category and 153rd from 20-25 feet, and it all adds up to a lousy year. Snedeker’s only top 10 in 13 starts came at Bay Hill back in March. A T-48 at TPC Sawgrass is nothing to call mom about, but he shot a 67 Saturday after making a slight adjustment in his putting setup.

“I was lining up the ball too much on the heel,” Snedeker said Saturday. “I moved it out towards the toe and the ball is coming off a lot faster, rolling a lot better and hugging the line better. I’m able to hit some quality putts day in, day out now.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t mention that Snedeker fired a 76 Sunday and didn’t make anything outside 10 feet, but it does provide for a tidy segue into my next item …

FOR THOSE OF you hoping for some fresh blood on this fall’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get what you’re looking for. There are three “rookies” safely inside the top 10: Jimmy Walker, Spieth and Patrick Reed. Phil Mickelson’s continued poor play has knocked him onto the automatic-qualifier bubble, and at this point, it’s hard to imagine Tiger Woods making the team unless Tom Watson gives him a captain’s pick.

Long way to go, sure, but at this point, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea for some of America’s big names to improve their position in the standings. Rickie Fowler, Keegan Bradley and Hunter Mahan are among the notables who need to start playing better – I didn’t include Steve Stricker because he has basically become a part-time player.

Snedeker, meanwhile, entered last week 33rd on the U.S. list. It obviously has been a very strange year to this point, particularly when you think back to where those in the game’s upper echelon stood at the start of the season. Woods picked up five more victories. Mickelson mounted a Sunday charge and won the major he was never supposed to win. Adam Scott underwent a career makeover.

Even Rory McIlroy, for all his struggles, ended the year on a very upbeat note. Five months later, Tiger’s on the shelf. Scott has played consistently well, but all anyone remembers is the big blown lead at Arnie’s House. And Mickelson + McIlroy = Mediocrity.

“I don’t feel bad about my game, but mentally, I’m just really soft right now,” Philly Mick admitted after missing the cut at The Players. “I’m having a hard time focusing on the shot. I’m having a hard time [visualizing] the ball going in the hole.”

Fact: This is by far the deepest Lefty has gotten into a season as a pro without registering a top-10 finish. It’s not even close.

Opinion: The man has Pinehurst on his mind. As elated as he was to win the British Open last summer, it surely led him at some point to chagrin all those missed opportunities at the U.S. Open. He’d have a career Grand Slam by now. At this point, that’s the one thing he’d really, really like to own.

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LPGA's new Q-Series to offer deferrals for amateurs

By Randall MellMarch 21, 2018, 4:36 pm

The LPGA’s new Q-Series, which takes the place of the final stage of Q-School beginning this year, will come with a revolutionary new twist for amateurs.

For the first time, the LPGA will offer deferrals that will allow amateurs to win tour membership in December but delay turning pro until the following June or July, tour commissioner Mike Whan told GolfChannel.com.

It’s a notable change, because the deferral will allow a collegiate player to earn tour membership at the end of this year but retain amateur status to finish out her collegiate spring season next year, before joining the tour.

“We haven’t done that in the past, because we didn’t want an onslaught, where every player in college is trying to join the tour,” Whan said.

The way it worked in the past, a collegian could advance through the final stage of Q-School, but if that player earned the right to a tour card and wanted to take up membership, she had to declare after the final round that she was turning pro. It meant the player would leave her college team in the middle of the school year. It was a particularly difficult decision for players who earned conditional LPGA status, and it played havoc with the makeup of some college teams.

Whan said the revamped Q-Series format won’t create the collegiate stampede that deferrals might have in the past.

“It will take a unique talent to show up at the first stage of Q-School and say, ‘I’ll see you at Q-Series,’” Whan said. “There won’t be a lot of amateurs who make it there.”

Under the new qualifying format, there will continue to be a first and second stage of Q-School, but it will be much harder to advance to the final stage, now known Q-Series.

Under the old format, about 80 players advanced from the second stage to the Q-School finals. Under the new format, only 20 to 30 players from the second stage will advance to the Q-Series, and only a portion of those are likely to be collegians.

Under the new format, a maximum of 108 players will meet at the Q-Series finals, where a minimum of 45 tour cards will be awarded after 144 holes of competition, played over two weeks on two different courses. The field will include players who finished 101st to 150th and ties on the final LPGA money list, and players who finished 11th to 30th and ties on the final Symetra Tour money list. The field will also include up to 10 players from among the top 75 of the Rolex Women’s World Rankings and the top five players on the Golfweek Women’s Collegiate Rankings.

“We feel if you make it to the Q-Series finals as a college player, you are probably among the best of the best, and we ought to give you the opportunity to finish the college year,” Whan said.

University of Washington coach Mary Lou Mulflur said she would prefer amateurs not be allowed to compete at Q-School, but she called this a workable compromise.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Mulflur said. “It’s better than the way it’s been in the past. That was hard, because it broke up teams.”

Mulflur said she disliked the tough position the former policy put college players in at the final stage of Q-School, where they had to decide at event’s end whether to turn pro and accept tour membership.

“I can’t imagine being a kid in that position, and I’ve had a couple kids in that position,” Mulflur said. “It’s hard on everybody, the player, the family and the coaches. You hear about coaches standing there begging a kid not to turn pro, and that’s just not the way it should be, for the coach or the player.”

Mulflur agreed with Whan that the new Q-Series format should limit the number of collegians who have a chance to win tour cards.

“I believe it’s a good compromise, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out going forward,” Mulflur said. “Kudos to the commissioner for giving kids this option.”

Whan said collegians who take deferrals will be counseled.

“We will sit down with them and their families and explain the risks,” Whan said. “If you take a deferral and start playing on July 15, you might find yourself back in Q-Series again later that year, because you may not have enough time.”

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Tour still focused on security after death of suspected Austin bomber

By Rex HoggardMarch 21, 2018, 4:07 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Although the suspect in the wave of Austin-area bombings was killed early Wednesday, the PGA Tour plans to continue heightened security measures at this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin Country Club.

According to various news outlets, Mark Anthony Conditt has been identified as the bombings suspect, and he was killed by an explosion inside his car in Round Rock, Texas, which is 19 miles north of Austin Country Club.

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“We do not comment on the specifics of our security measures, but we are continuing to work in close collaboration with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in Austin to ensure the safety of our players and fans at this week’s tournament,” the Tour said in a statement. “Regardless of the recent developments, our heightened security procedures will remain in place through the remainder of the week.”

Authorities believe Conditt is responsible for the five explosions that killed two people and injured five others in Austin or south-central Texas since March 2.

Play began Wednesday at the Match Play.

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Monahan addresses alcohol, fan behavior at events

By Rex HoggardMarch 21, 2018, 3:53 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Fan behavior has become a hot-button topic on the PGA Tour in recent weeks, with Rory McIlroy suggesting on Saturday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational the circuit should “limit alcohol sales on the course.”

The Tour’s policy is to stop selling alcohol an hour before the end of play, which is normally around 5 p.m., and on Wednesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play commissioner Jay Monahan said it’s something the Tour is monitoring.

“When you have people who aren’t behaving properly and they’ve had too much alcohol, then I agree [with McIlroy],” Monahan said. “In those incidences those people who are making it uncomfortable for a player alcohol sales should be cut off.”

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Fan behavior became an issue with some players when Tiger Woods returned to competition at last month’s Genesis Open. During the final round of the Honda Classic Justin Thomas had a fan removed when he yelled for Thomas’ tee shot at the par-4 16th hole to “get in the bunker.”

Monahan declined to address Thomas’ situation at PGA National specifically, but he did seem to suggest that as interest grows and the Tour continues to attract more mainstream sports crowds, vocal fans will continue to be the norm.

“I believe that there was more that went into it that preceded and in a situation like that we’re hopeful our players will reach out to our security staff and they can handle that,” Monahan said. “[But] yelling, ‘get in the bunker,’ that’s part of what our players have to accept. In any sport, you go to an away game, in any other sport, and people aren’t rooting for you. Sometimes out here you’re going to have fans that aren’t rooting for you, but they can’t interfere with what you’re trying to do competitively.”

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Senden playing first event since son's brain tumor

By Will GrayMarch 21, 2018, 3:03 pm

John Senden is back inside the ropes for the first time in nearly a year at this week's Chitimacha Louisiana Open on the Web.com Tour.

Senden took a leave of absence from professional golf in April, when his teenage son, Jacob, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He didn't touch a club for nearly four months as Jacob endured six rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, a gauntlet that stretched from April until mid-November.

But Senden told PGATour.com that his son's tumor has shrunk from the size of a thumbnail to the size of a pinky nail, and after a promising MRI in January he decided to plan his comeback.

"I haven't really played in 12 months, but in that time Jacob has really, really hung tough," Senden said. "His whole body was getting slammed with all these treatments, and he was so strong in his whole attitude and his whole body. Just really getting through the whole thing. He was tough."

Senden was granted a family crisis exemption by the Tour, and he'll have 13 starts to earn 310 FedExCup points to retain his playing privileges for the 2018-19 season. He is allowed five Web.com "rehabilitation" starts as part of the exemption, but will reportedly only make one this week before returning to the PGA Tour at the RBC Heritage, followed by starts in San Antonio, Charlotte and Dallas.

Senden, 46, has won twice on Tour, most recently the 2014 Valspar Championship.