West Coast swing feeling the pinch

By Randall MellFebruary 5, 2014, 10:35 pm

They’re juggling.

They’re experimenting.

They’re re-thinking how best to prepare for golf’s biggest events.

The game’s best players are finding their schedules becoming more complicated and challenging as golf’s “world tour” continues to evolve.

We’re seeing these challenges making an impact on the West Coast swing while bolstering the Florida swing. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson look like they will both make their fewest West Coast swing starts ever.

Woods may end up playing just once on the West Coast, Mickelson just three times.

Age and health are functions of new scheduling choices for Woods and Mickelson, but there’s more to it than that.

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“The year basically gets pretty congested for most of the players, starting at the British Open, and some who play the week prior to the British, because then if you play the British Open, then usually some guys have to go play Canada,” Woods said last week. “For me, I take that week off, but then it's Firestone, then it's the PGA, then a week off, then all four playoff events, and then for the Americans, there's a Ryder Cup and a Presidents Cup every year ...

“Now, with this new wraparound schedule going on, I think we're all trying to get our heads literally wrapped around it, and trying to get a feel for it. I don't know how far behind I was in FedEx Cup points when I came back, but Jimmy Walker already has won twice with this new scheduling system. It's very different.”

It’s another new twist players are figuring out.

Adam Scott is amid a six-week break. He’s skipping the entire West Coast swing for the first time since he joined the PGA Tour in 2003. He won’t tee it up again until the Honda Classic in three weeks.

“There’s got to be a break somewhere,” said Scott, who made the most of the Australian swing in December. “You can’t continue to perform at the level you want if you play all the time.”

Graeme McDowell is making his first start of 2014 at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am this week. He’s ending a 10-week break.

“I’m actually scheduling myself to prepare myself more for the playoffs this year, because I feel I’ve been beat up by the time I’ve come to August, September, the last three years,” McDowell told the Irish Golf Desk. “My schedule revolves around being ready for the summer this year, being ready for August, September, the Ryder Cup.”

McDowell could be speaking for a lot of players.

With the PGA Tour’s new wraparound schedule, with rich international paydays waiting late in the season, the beginning of a new year is looking like the best time for elite players to get some rest.

Mickelson is skipping the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles, usually a staple on his schedule. He’s also skipping the WGC-Accenture Match Play. He has played as many as six West Coast swing events before the Masters in the past. This year will mark the first time he’ll play fewer than four times on the West Coast swing.

Woods is off to a sluggish start in great measure, it appears, because he took some extra time off in the offseason to rest. It’s carrying over to fewer starts on the West coast swing and fewer pre-Masters starts.

Woods used to play eight events at year’s start to get himself ready for the Masters. That’s how many times he played before he won at Augusta National in ’97, in ’01 and in ’02. He played seven times at year’s start before he won his last Masters in ’05.

With Woods looking as if he’ll join Mickelson in skipping the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship this year, it appears Woods will play just five times leading into this Masters, just once on the West Coast swing, his fewest starts out there. Well, that’s not counting 2010, when he was coming back from his personal woes and didn’t play anywhere before the Masters. Woods, Mickelson, Scott and Rory McIlroy are all scheduled to play Honda and the WGC-Cadillac Championship on the Florida swing.

With Woods 38 now, age is part of the function of his changing schedule. So is his health. The nature of the changing “world tour” is also a factor, with so many big events late in the summer.

So much has changed since Woods joined the Tour in ’96. With the launch of World Golf Championship events, with the creation of the FedEx Cup playoffs, with lucrative international opportunities growing late in the year, scheduling choices have expanded.

And the game’s best are still figuring just what their best choices are. So, expect more juggling and experimenting.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”