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As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.

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List takes Thomas to 18 putting with a wedge

By Rex HoggardMarch 21, 2018, 7:57 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – As he walked off the sixth tee on Wednesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Luke List “swiped” his putter into what he thought was a bush. It was a wall.

List’s putter bent slightly, which meant he wasn’t allowed to employ it the rest of the round. Using a wedge to putt, he lost his opening-day match to Justin Thomas, 2 down.

“Stupid on my part,” List said. “I'll get the club fixed and go on to my next two matches.”

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

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

Despite his putting disadvantage, List pushed Thomas to the 18th hole thanks to birdies at Nos. 13, 15 and 16, which included a chip-in from 18 feet at 15. Thomas was 3 up with four holes to play and managed to birdie the last, but it was far from stress-free.

“I was thinking about it, how bad that would hurt if I couldn't get it done,” Thomas said. “He hit some great putts and he made some good ones when he needed to.”

The situation also prompted Thomas to change his strategy on the greens, with not nearly as many conceded putts as normal.

“He putted probably two or three putts I wouldn't have made him putt with a putter,” Thomas said. “[No. 13] was a short putt he's probably going to make. It had a lot of break. But 12, that putt was 2 feet straight uphill. But I was like he's got a wedge, so I'm going to make him putt it.”

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Group standings at WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 21, 2018, 7:45 pm

Here are the group standings for pool play at the 2018 WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship in Austin, Texas. The player with the most points in each pool advanced to Saturday's Round of 16 in Austin, Texas. Click here for scoring and click here for the bracket.

Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Group 4
(1) D. Johnson (2) J. Thomas: 1-0-0 (3) J. Rahm (4) J. Spieth
(32) K. Kisner (21) F. Molinari: 1-0-0 (28) K. Aphibarnrat (19) P. Reed
(38) A. Hadwin
(48) P. Kizzire: 0-1-0 (43) C. Reavie (34) H. Li
(52) B. Wiesberger
(60) L. List: 0-1-0 (63) K. Bradley (49) C. Schwartzel
Group 5 Group 6 Group 7 Group 8
(5) H. Matsuyama: 1-0-0 (6) R. McIlroy (7) S. Garcia (8) J. Day
(30) P. Cantlay: 0-1-0
(18) B. Harman (20) X. Schauffele (25) L. Oosthuizen
(46) C. Smith: 1-0-0 (44) J. Vegas (41) D. Frittelli (42) J. Dufner
(53) Y. Miyazato: 0-1-0 (51) P. Uihlein (62) S. Sharma (56) J. Hahn
Group 9 Group 10 Group 11 Group 12
(9) T. Fleetwood (10) P. Casey (11) M. Leishman (12) T. Hatton: 1-0-0
(26) D. Berger (31) M. Fitzpatrick (23) B. Grace (22) C. Hoffman: 0-1-0
(33) K. Chappell (45) K. Stanley (35) B. Watson (36) B. Steele: 1-0-0
(58) I. Poulter (51) R. Henley (64) J. Suri (55) A. Levy: 0-1-0
Group 13 Group 14 Group 15 Group 16
(13) A. Noren: 1-0-0 (14) P. Mickelson (15) P. Perez: 0-1-0 (16) M. Kuchar
(29) T. Finau (17) R. Cabrera Bello (24) G. Woodland: 0-1-0 (27) R. Fisher
(39) T. Pieters (40) S. Kodaira (37) W. Simpson: 0-1-0 (47) Y. Ikeda
(61) K. Na: 0-1-0 (59) C. Howell III (50) S.W. Kim: 0-1-0 (54) Z. Johnson
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Hot Seat: The driver is burning Tiger

By Randall MellMarch 21, 2018, 6:51 pm

The men’s first major championship of the year is two weeks away, the women’s just a week away.

Here’s our Hot Seat lineup with the approach of the Masters and the ANA Inspiration in mind:

Smoking carbon composites – Tiger Woods

Woods is the betting favorite to win the Masters in most sportsbooks, and while his game is coming together quickly, he won’t be the experts’ pick without getting his driver under control.

The driver looks like the last piece Woods needs to once more become the favorite wherever he goes.

Right now, though, there’s an open wound that needs to be cauterized before he heads to Augusta National.

That double-cross Woods blew into someone’s backyard along the 16th hole Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational came from a reservoir of uncertainty that his driver continues to create. 

Woods has come a long way with his driver. When he pulls it out of the bag, it isn’t like he’s ripping a bandage off anymore, not the way it was three and four years ago. Still, he doesn’t pull that club with the same relish Rory McIlroy does, or Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, for that matter. Physically and psychologically, they’ve got an advantage on him until he does. 

Woods did not qualify for this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship, so he’s got extra time to address his biggest shortcoming.

“Project No. 1 over the next two weeks is going to be the driver,” Golf Channel’s Notah Begay said earlier this week. “Tiger has to focus in on trying to find some way to navigate Augusta National with the driver, because it’s a course that’s going to force you to hit driver.”

Dustin Johnson at the 2018 WGC-Mexico Championship.

Smoldering Tex Mex Tango – Dustin Johnson

The world No. 1 is playing just fine enough since his victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions at year’s start. He’s just been overshadowed by the brilliance of a lot of fellow stars.

With McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Justin Thomas all winning in the last month, with Woods stepping up his game, Johnson has been quietly toiling toward the Masters.

Johnson has won 10 times since Woods' last victory, and yet Woods is the 8-to-1 favorite to win the Masters.

Johnson, McIlroy and Thomas are listed at 10-to-1 by the Westgate Las Vegas SportsBook.

It doesn’t rankle Johnson.

“It’s fine with me,” he said Tuesday. “He’s playing pretty well.”

Even as the defending champ this week at the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Texas, Johnson isn’t center stage, not with McIlroy marching into town off his dominant finish at the API.

Flying relatively under the radar might seem like a comfortable position for a world No. 1, but he won’t stay atop the world rankings for long flying under the radar.

Shanshan Feng during Round 2 at the 2017 Japan Classic.

Rolex Ranking Roast – Shanshan Feng

The women’s Rolex world No. 1 enters the week at the Kia Classic trying to hold off a strong field with the ANA Inspiration looming next week.

The top seven players in the world rankings, and 11 of the top 12, are at Aviara Golf Club in Carlsbad, California.

Feng has quietly reigned atop the world rankings for 19 consecutive weeks, holding off bids to overtake her by No. 2 Lexi Thompson, No. 3 So Yeon Ryu and No. 4 Sung Hyun Park.

They’ve all been close enough in world ranking average this year to take the top spot, but Feng isn’t backing down. She’s winless so far this this year, but she has finished fifth or better in two of her three starts.

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Match-by-match: 2018 WGC-Dell Technologies, Day 1

By Will GrayMarch 21, 2018, 6:32 pm

Here is how things played out on Day 1 of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, as 64 players take on Austin Country Club with hopes of advancing out of pool play:

Group 2: (2) Justin Thomas def. (60) Luke List, 2 up: In perhaps the most entertaining match of the morning, Thomas edged List in a rematch of last month's Honda Classic playoff despite List spending much of the round putting with a wedge after bending his putter. Thomas was 3 up with four to play before List pushed the match the distance.

Group 2: (21) Francesco Molinari def. (48) Patton Kizzire, 3 and 1: Molinari turned a tight match into a victory thanks to a few timely errors from Kizzire. Pars on Nos. 14 and 17 were good enough to win the hole for Molinari, with the latter sealing his victory and moving him a step closer to a potential winner-take-all battle with Thomas on Friday.

Group 5: (5) Hideki Matsuyama def. (53) Yusaku Miyazato, 2 and 1: This all-Japanese battle went to the group's top seed, as Matsuyama poured in a birdie on the par-3 17th to close out the match. Miyazato got off to a strong start, holding a 2-up lead through six holes, before Matsuyama turned the tables with two birdies over the next three holes.

Group 5: (46) Cameron Smith def. (30) Patrick Cantlay, 2 up: Smith never trailed in the match, but it turned into a closer contest than it appeared when the Aussie held a 3-up lead with four holes to play. Uihlein won the next two holes, but he couldn't get any closer as Smith earned a critical victory as he looks to earn a Masters spot by staying in the top 50 in the world rankings after this week.

Group 12: (12) Tyrrell Hatton def. (55) Alexander Levy, 3 and 2: Hatton won the opening hole with a par and never trailed the rest of the way. Levy's win on the eighth hole proved to be his only victory of the day, as Hatton barely had to break a sweat after building a 3-up lead through five holes.

Group 12: (36) Brendan Steele def. (22) Charley Hoffman, 1 up: Steele never trailed in the match and at one point held a 4-up lead, but coming down the stretch it took everything he had to keep Hoffman at bay. Hoffman won four in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 13-17, but a par on the final hole was enough to give Steele the full point.

Group 13: (61) Kevin Na def. (13) Alex Noren, 4 and 2: The biggest upset from the early matches came here, as Na turned a close contest into a blowout. The two men were all square after 11 holes, but Na won three of the next four and then closed out the match when Noren conceded on the par-5 16th.

Group 13: (29) Tony Finau def. (39) Thomas Pieters, 2 and 1: Two of the longest hitters in the field squared off in this tilt, with Finau notching a full point despite losing two of the first three holes. The American birdied the 15th to take a 2-up lead, then closed out Pieters with a par on the 17th hole.

Group 15: (15) Pat Perez vs. (50) Si Woo Kim, halved: The first match of the day ended up in a draw, as the top seed rallied from a deficit to salvage half a point. Kim won three of the first six holes and held a 3-up lead with seven holes to go, but Perez fought back with four birdies over the next six holes to draw even.

Group 15: (24) Gary Woodland vs. (37) Webb Simpson, halved: This group remains entirely up for grabs since nothing was decided on the opening day. Woodland took a 3-up lead at the turn, but Simpson rallied by winning four of the next seven holes, including a birdie on No. 17 that brought him back to all square for the first time since the third hole.