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The Tiger comeback just got real on Friday

By Randall MellFebruary 24, 2018, 1:11 am

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Slow play was a big storyline on the PGA Tour’s West Coast swing, but not so much anymore.

Not with Tiger Woods speeding things up Friday at the Honda Classic.

Not with Woods thumping the gas pedal around PGA National’s Champion Course, suddenly looking as if he is racing way ahead of schedule in his return to the game.

The narrative wondrously started to turn here.

It turned from wondering at week’s start if Woods could make the cut here, after missing it last week at the Genesis Open. His game was too wild for Riviera, where a second-round 76 left him looking lost with the Masters just six weeks away.

It turned in head-spinning fashion Friday with Woods climbing the leaderboard in tough conditions to get himself into weekend contention with a 1-over-par 71.

He is just four shots off the lead.

“I’d be shocked if he’s not there Sunday with a chance to win,” said Brandt Snedeker, who played alongside Woods in the first two rounds. “He’s close to playing some really, really good golf.”

Just a few short months ago, so many of us were wondering if Woods was close to washed up.

“He’s only going to improve,” Snedeker said. “The more time he has, as the weather gets warmer, he’ll feel better and be able to practice more.”

Snedeker has had a front-row seat for this speedy Tiger turnaround. He played the third round with Woods at the Farmers Insurance Open last month. That was Woods’ first PGA Tour start in a year.


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How much improvement did Snedeker see from that Torrey Pines experience?

“It was kind of what I expected – significantly improved,” Snedeker said. “His iron game is way better. His driver is way better. I don’t’ see it going backward from here.”

This was the hope packed into Friday’s new narrative.

“I’m right there in the ballgame,” Woods said. “I really played well today. I played well all day today.”

Tiger sent a jolt through PGA National when his name hit the top 10 of the leaderboard. He didn’t do it with a charge. He did it battling a brutish course in wintry, blustery winds, on “scratchy” and “dicey” greens that made par a good score.

When Woods holed a 25-foot putt at the ninth to move into red numbers at 1 under overall and within three shots of the lead, a roar shook across the Champion Course.

“It got a little loud, which was cool to see,” Snedeker said. “It’s great to have that energy and vibe back.”

Woods sent fans scampering to get into position, blasting a 361-yard drive at the 10th, cutting the corner. He had them buzzing when he stuck his approach to 9 feet for another birdie chance to get within two of the lead.

“I thought if he makes it, this place will go nuts, and he could get it going like he used to,” Snedeker said.

Woods missed, but with the leaders falling back to him on this grueling day, he stuck his approach at the 12th to 10 feet to give himself a chance to move within a shot of the lead.

It’s another putt that could have turned PGA National upside down, but Woods missed that.

“It really is hard to make birdies,” he said. “At least I found it hard. It was hard to get the ball close, even if the ball is in the fairway, it's still very difficult to get the ball close, with the wind blowing as hard as it is. It’s hard to make putts out here.”

Patton Kizzire, a two-time PGA Tour winner who won just last month at the Sony Open, could attest to how tough the test at Honda has become. He played alongside Woods this week for the first time in his career. He shot 78 Friday and missed the cut.

Kizzire had a close-up look at what suddenly seems possible for Woods again.

“He’s figuring it out,” Kizzire said. “He hit some nice shots and rolled in some nice putts. It was pretty impressive.”

Woods could not hide his excitement in getting himself in the weekend hunt, but his expectations remain tempered in this comeback. He knows the daily referendums his game is subject to, how we can all make the highs too high and the lows too low.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Woods said.

Woods lost a tee shot in a bush at the second hole and made bogey. He hit his tee shot in the water at the 15th and made double bogey. He three-putted the 16th to make bogey. He knows this course can derail a player’s plans in a hurry, but he knows his game is quickly coming around.

“I’m right there where I can win a golf tournament,” Woods said. “Four back on this golf course with 36 holes to go, I mean, anybody can win this golf tournament right now. It’s wide open.’”

Woods hit his shot of the day at the 17th to right his game after the struggles at the 15th and 16th. He did so in front of the Goslings Bear Trap Party Pavilion, cutting a 5-iron to 12 feet. It was the hardest hole on the course Friday, with nearly one of every three players rinsing a shot in the water there. Woods made birdie there to ignite an explosion of cheers.  He got a standing ovation.

“I was telling you guys, I love Riviera, I just don't play well there,” Woods said. “So here we are, we're back at a golf course I know and I play well here.”

So here we are, on the precipice of something special again?

Woods seems in a hurry to find out.

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Lopez fires flawless 63 for lead in Arkansas

By Associated PressJune 23, 2018, 12:41 am

ROGERS, Ark. – Since its first year on the LPGA Tour in 2007, the crowds at the NW Arkansas Championship have belonged to Stacy Lewis.

Another former University of Arkansas star staked her claim as the hometown favorite Friday when Gaby Lopez shot a career-low 8-under 63 to take the first-round lead at Pinnacle Country Club.

Like Lewis, the two-time winner of the tournament, Lopez starred as a three-time All-American for the Razorbacks before joining the LPGA Tour in 2016. Despite flashes of potential, Lopez had yet to join Lewis among the ranks of the world's best - missing the cut in her last two tournaments and entering this week ranked 136th in the world.

For a day, at least, the Mexican standout felt right at home atop the leaderboard in her adopted home state.

''I feel like home,'' Lopez said. ''I feel so, so comfortable out here, because I feel that everyone and every single person out here is just rooting for us.''


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Moriya Jutanugarn was a stroke back along with Minjee Lee, Catriona Matthew, Nasa Hataoka, Lizette Salas, Mirim Lee and Aditi Ashok. Six others finished at 6 under on a day when only 26 of the 144 players finished over par, thanks to some mid-week rain that softened the greens and calm skies throughout the day.

Jutanugarn finished second at the tournament last year and is trying to win for the second time on the LPGA Tour this year. Her younger sister, Ariya, is already a two-time winner this year and shot an opening-round 66.

Lewis, the former world No. 1 who won the event in 2007 in 2014, finished with a 66. She's expecting her first child in early November

Defending champion So Yeon Ryu, coming off a victory Sunday in Michigan, shot a 67.

Friday was Lopez's long-awaited day to standout, though, much to the delight of the pro-Arkansas crowd.

After missing the cut her last two times out, Lopez took some time off and returned home to Mexico City to rest her mind and work on her game. The work paid off with two straight birdies to open her round and a 6-under 30 on her front nine.

Lopez needed only 25 putts and finished two shots off the course record of 61, and she overcame a poor drive on the par-5 18th to finish with a par and keep her place at the top of the leaderboard. Her previous low score was a 64 last year, and she matched her career best by finishing at 8 under.

''(Rest) is a key that no one really truly understands until you're out here,'' Lopez said. ''... Sometimes resting is actually the part you've got to work on.''

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Harman rides hot putter to Travelers lead

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 12:28 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – There are plenty of big names gathered for the Travelers Championship, and through two rounds they’re all chasing Brian Harman.

Harman opened with a 6-under 64, then carded a 66 during Friday’s morning wave to become the only player to finish the first two rounds in double digits under par. The southpaw is currently riding a hot putter, leading the field in strokes gained: putting while rolling in 12 birdies and an eagle through his first 36 holes.

“Putted great today,” said Harman, who ranks 22nd on Tour this season in putting. “Got out of position a couple of times, but I was able to get myself good looks at it. I started hitting the ball really well coming down the stretch and made a few birdies.”


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Harman, 31, has won twice on the PGA Tour, most recently at last year’s Wells Fargo Championship. While he doesn’t have a win this year, he started his season in the fall by reeling off five straight finishes of T-8 or better to quickly install himself as one of the leaders in the season-long points race.

Now topping a leaderboard that includes the likes of Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy, he realizes that he’ll have his work cut out for him if he’s going to leave Connecticut with trophy No. 3.

“The putter has been really good so far, but I’ve been in position a lot. I’ve had a lot of good looks at it,” Harman said. “I’m just able to put a little pressure on the course right now, which is nice.”

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10-second rule costs Zach Johnson a stroke

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 12:06 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – Zach Johnson heads into the weekend one shot back at the Travelers Championship, but he was a matter of seconds away from being tied for the lead.

Johnson had an 18-foot birdie putt on No. 3 at TPC River Highlands, his 12th hole of the day, but left the ball hanging on the lip. As Johnson walked up to tap the ball in, it oscillated on the edge and eventually fell in without being hit.

Was it a birdie, or a par?

According to the Rules of Golf, and much to Johnson’s chagrin, the answer was a par. Players are afforded “reasonable” time to walk to the hole, and after that they are allowed to wait for 10 seconds to see if the ball drops of its own accord. After that, it either becomes holed by a player’s stroke, or falls in and leads to a one-shot penalty, resulting in the same score as if the player had hit it.

According to Mark Russell, PGA Tour vice president of rules and competitions, Johnson’s wait time until the ball fell in was between 16 and 18 seconds.


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“Once he putts the ball, he’s got a reasonable amount of time to reach the hole,” Russell said. “Then once he reaches the hole, he’s got 10 seconds. After 10 seconds, the ball is deemed to be at rest.”

Johnson tried to emphasize the fact that the ball was oscillating as he stood over it, and even asked rules officials if marking his ball on the edge of the hole would have yielded a “bonus 10 seconds.” But after signing for a 2-under 68 that brought him within a shot of leader Brian Harman, the veteran took the ruling in stride.

“The 10-second rule has always been there. Vague to some degree,” Johnson said. “The bottom line is I went to tap it in after 10 seconds and the ball was moving. At that point, even if the ball is moving, it’s deemed to be at rest because it’s on the lip. Don’t ask me why, but that’s just the way it is.”

While Johnson brushed off any thoughts of the golf gods conspiring against him on the lip, he was beaming with pride about an unconventional par he made on No. 17 en route to a bogey-free round. Johnson sailed his tee shot well right into the water, but after consulting his options he decided to drop on the far side of the hazard near the 16th tee box.

His subsequent approach from 234 yards rolled to within 8 feet, and he calmly drained the putt for an unexpected save.

“I got a great lie. Just opened up a 4-hybrid, and it started over the grandstands and drew in there,” Johnson said. “That’s as good of an up-and-down as I’ve witnessed, or performed.”

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Travelers becoming marquee event for star players

By Will GrayJune 22, 2018, 11:29 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Get lost in the throngs following the defending champ, or caught up amongst the crowds chasing the back-to-back U.S. Open winner, and it’s easy to forget where this tournament was a little more than a decade ago.

The Travelers Championship was without a sponsor, without a worthwhile field, without a consistent date and on the verge of being jettisoned to the PGA Tour Champions schedule. The glory days of the old Greater Hartford Open had come and gone, and the PGA Tour’s ever-increasing machine appeared poised to leave little old Cromwell in its wake.

The civic pride is booming in this neck of the woods. Main Street is lined with one small business after the next, and this time of year there are signs and posters popping up on every corner congratulating a member of the most recent graduating class at Cromwell High School, which sits less than two miles from the first tee at TPC River Highlands.

Having made it through a harrowing time in the event’s history, the local residents now have plenty of reason to take pride.

The Tour’s best have found this little New England hamlet, where tournament officials roll out the red carpet in every direction. They embrace the opportunity to decompress after the mind-numbing gauntlet the USGA set out for them last week, and they relish a return to a course where well-struck shots, more often than not, lead to birdies.


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Ten years ago, this tournament was also held the week after the U.S. Open. Stewart Cink won, and for his efforts he received a paltry 36 world ranking points. But thanks to a recent influx of star-power, this week’s winner will pocket 58 points – the same amount Rory McIlroy won at Bay Hill, and two more than Justin Rose got at Colonial. Now at the halfway point, the leaderboard backs up the hefty allocation.

While Brian Harman leads at 10 under, the chase pack is strong enough to strike fear in the heart of even the most seasoned veteran: McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Zach Johnson, they of the combined eight major titles, all sit within three shots of the lead. Former world No. 1 Jason Day is one shot further back, and reigning Player of the Year Justin Thomas will start the third round inside the top 20.

Paul Casey and Bryson DeChambeau, both likely participants at the Ryder Cup this fall, are right there as well at 8 under. Casey lost a playoff here to Watson in 2015 and has come back every year since, witnessing first-hand the tournament’s growth in scope.

“It speaks volumes for what Travelers have done and how they treat everybody, and the work that Andy Bessette and his team put in to fly around the country and speak highly of this event,” Casey said. “And do things which matter, to continue to improve the event, not just for players but for spectators.”

Part of the increased field strength can be attributed to the Tour’s recent rule change, requiring players who play fewer than 25 events in a season to add a new event they haven’t played in the last four years. Another portion can be attributed to the short commute from Shinnecock Hills to TPC River Highlands, a three-hour drive and even shorter across the Long Island Sound – an added bonus the event will lose two of the next three years with West Coast U.S. Opens.

But there’s no denying the widespread appeal of an event named the Tour’s tournament of the year, players’ choice and most fan-friendly in 2017. While Spieth’s return to defend his title was assumed, both Day and McIlroy are back for another crack this year after liking what they saw.

“Anyone that I talked to could only say good things about the tournament about the golf course, how the guys are treated here, how the fans come out, and how the community always gets behind this event,” McIlroy said. “Obviously I witnessed that for the first time last year, and I really enjoyed it.”

After starting the week with all four reigning major champs and five of the top 10 players in the latest world rankings, only Masters champ Patrick Reed got sent packing following rounds of 72-67. The remaining top-flight contingent will all hit the ground running in search of more low scores Saturday, with Spieth (-4) still retaining a glimmer of hope to keep his title defense chances alive, perhaps with a 63 like he fired in the opening round.

The Tour’s schedule represents a zero-sum game. Outside of the majors and WGCs that essentially become must-play events for the game’s best, the rest of the legs of the weekly circus become victim of a 12-month version of tug-of-war. Some players like to play in the spring; others load up in the fall. Many play the week before majors, while a select group block off the week after for some R&R far away from a golf course.

But in an environment where one tournament’s ebbs can create flows for another, the Travelers has continued a steady climb up the Tour’s hierarchy. Once in jeopardy of relegation, it has found its footing and appears in the process of turning several of the Tour’s one-name stars into regular participants.

Rory. Jordan. Bubba. JT.

It’s been a long battle for tournament officials, but the proof is in the pudding. And this weekend, the reward for the people of Cromwell – population 14,000 – looks to be a star-studded show.

“All the events are incredible,” Thomas said. “But this is kind of one of those underrated ones that I think until people come and play, do they realize how great it is.”