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DJ-Spieth duel is as good as it gets

By Rex HoggardAugust 28, 2017, 12:24 am

OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. – It just doesn’t happen very often, not at this level with so many quality players and the natural competitive ebb and flow of even the game’s best.

Even in their prime, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson – the undisputed alpha and omega of their era – went head-to-head on a Sunday with a title on the line just five times out of roughly 300 events they played together.

That’s the sum total of more than two decades of hype and hope, and it proves the stars simply don’t align that often, which makes Sunday’s extra-holes extravaganza at The Northern Trust between Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson worth more than the sum of the outcome.

DJ vs. Jordan. The world’s Nos. 1 and 3 (Spieth would move to second in the world with his runner-up finish) mano a mano at a playoff event that is often overlooked as little more than an extension of the regular season. No disrespect to Hideki Matsuyama, the Japanese machine who was ranked second in the world, but this is as good as golf gets at the moment.

It wasn’t supposed to be this epic, not with Spieth three strokes clear and cruising through 54 holes. Things looked even more unlikely when the lead went to five strokes after five holes.

With Spieth anything is possible, as anyone who watched last month’s Open Championship can attest, but it certainly didn’t feel probable.

But like he did at Royal Birkdale, when Spieth squandered a three-stroke lead with an opening nine of 37, the Golden Child slowly let a golden opportunity slip through his grasp, first with a rinsed tee shot at the sixth hole, double bogey, and then a tugged approach shot at No. 9, bogey.

By the time the duo walked to the 11th tee the day’s final pairing was tied at 11 under, the byproduct of back-to-back two-stroke swings at the ninth and 10th holes and some clutch golf from Johnson.


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“When he made his putt on 10 [for birdie], that's when I said, ‘OK, we've got a bunch of wedge holes here,’” said Spieth, who was 5-for-5 with a 54-hole lead of two shots or more in his career. “I expect him to go a couple under coming in. Therefore, I've got to step up to the plate now and deliver a couple birdies myself, and was able to do that.”

At the 17th hole, Spieth did what Spieth does in these situations when he rolled in an 18-footer for par to keep pace with Johnson; which made DJ’s 17-footer for par on the 18th hole to force overtime that much more impressive.

“I wasn't rooting for him to make that putt,” smiled Spieth when asked about Johnson’s par save at the last. “About 3 feet out, I thought it was high from my angle. But I thought it was missing high, but his body language was hanging in. I'm like, does that really still have a chance? My initial thought was: I just did that exact same thing to him the hole before.”

But if beating Spieth at his own game was satisfying, it didn’t take long for Johnson to revert to more familiar ways, with a drive on the first extra hole (No. 18) that sailed 341 yards and left just a wedge in from 95 yards. By comparison, Spieth took a conservative approach off the tee, playing to the right side of the fairway and was left with 174 yards to the hole.

On Saturday, Spieth was asked if he enjoys playing alongside Johnson at America’s annual team matches: “It's a lot of fun playing from DJ's shots. I love playing alternate-shot with DJ,” he laughed.

Against Johnson, however, is an entirely different story.

If ever there was an example of how Johnson’s power can so dramatically tilt the scales of a competition it came at the 73rd hole when he had only a 60-degree wedge shot into a bowled green, which he hit to 3 ½ feet for a title-clinching birdie, to Spieth’s 7-iron, which just missed the green right and left a winding 25-footer for birdie that he missed.

“It's a tough shot to that flag to get a 7-iron close. I mean, Jordan hit a pretty good shot. It just chased through the green,” said Johnson, who closed with a 66. “I was coming in with a 60 [degree wedge], so the odds went to my favor for sure.”

Sunday at Glen Oaks was just the second time the two had been paired together on the PGA Tour on a Sunday, and the first in the final group, which makes the title bout that much more intriguing giving the duo’s high-profile status in the game.

The 2015 U.S. Open had its moments, but back at Chambers Bay Johnson and Spieth weren’t paired together on that glorious Sunday, and at the time Spieth and Johnson were ranked second and seventh, respectively, in the world ranking.

Since then the two have been on a collision course, with Johnson winning the ’16 U.S. Open and three World Golf Championships and Spieth adding this year’s Open Championship to his major resume.

With Rory McIlroy still on the mend after an injury-plagued season and Jason Day struggling with inconsistent play, Johnson and Spieth have emerged as the default leading men in what has become an al a carte rotation of would-be world-beaters and on Sunday the golf world got what they wanted.

“I thought that was a fun show to be a part of. I was hoping it wasn't going to be that much fun,” said Spieth, who has now struggled to keep a lead in three of his last four starts, including his dramatic victories at the Open and Travelers Championship.

Even Johnson, whose lack of outward emotion on the course is legendary, flashed a rare moment of excitement with what he called a “weak” fist pump following his final putt in regulation.

“I like playing with Jordan in the last group, hopefully we play in the last group the last three [playoff] tournaments,” Johnson said.

It’s a sentiment that’s likely shared by many, but the harsh reality is these types of high-profile showdowns between the game’s best players just don’t happen very often, so take some time and savor one of the season’s most exciting Sundays.

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Watch: Tiger 'drops mic' in long drive contest

By Golf Channel DigitalMay 20, 2018, 12:44 am

Tiger Woods is in Las Vegas this weekend for the 20th annual Tiger Jam charity event that benefits his foundation.

During the tournament on Saturday afternoon, Woods challenged World Long Drive competitor Troy Mullins to a long drive contest.

 

A post shared by TROY MULLINS (@trojangoddess) on May 19, 2018 at 1:25pm PDT

Safe to say it looks like Tiger won.

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Sunday showdown for Wise, Leishman at Nelson

By Will GrayMay 19, 2018, 11:40 pm

DALLAS – While the swirling Texas winds may still have their say, the AT&T Byron Nelson is shaping up to be a two-horse race.

With a four-shot gulf between them and their closest pursuers, co-leaders Marc Leishman and Aaron Wise both stepped up to the microphone and insisted the tournament was far from over. That it wouldn’t revert to a match-play situation, even though the two men didn’t face much pressure from the pack down the stretch of the third round and have clearly distanced themselves as the best in the field through 54 holes.

But outside of an outlier scenario or a rogue tornado sweeping across Trinity Forest Golf Club, one of the two will leave with trophy in hand tomorrow night.

That’s in part because of their stellar play to this point, but it’s also a byproduct of the tournament’s new and unconventional layout: at Trinity Forest, big numbers are hard to find.

Even with the winds picking up during the third round and providing the sternest challenge yet, the field combined for only 16 scores of double bogey, and nothing worse than that.


Full-field scores from the AT&T Byron Nelson

AT&T Byron Nelson: Articles, photos and videos


There’s irony in a course called Trinity Forest offering a tree-less test, sure, but there are also no water hazards in play here. For the most part, players have been maxing out with bogey – and Leishman and Wise have combined for only six of those so far this week.

If someone from the chase pack is going to catch them, the two sharing the pole position aren’t going to do them any favors.

“I don’t really want to give them a chance,” Leishman said. “I’d love to go out and shoot a low one and make Aaron have to shoot a good score tomorrow to beat me, which, I fully expect him to shoot a good score.”

While Leishman has been somewhat of a late bloomer on the PGA Tour, with only one win across his first eight seasons, he now has a golden opportunity to add a third trophy in the last 14 months. He has felt right at home on a sprawling layout that reminds him of a few back in his native Australia, and he’s part of a Down Under invasion on a leaderboard that also includes Matt Jones (-13) and Adam Scott (-9).

While Wise briefly held sole possession of the lead, Leishman has seemingly held an iron grip on the top spot since opening his week with a blistering 61.

“Before last year, I was a pretty slow starter. I always got off to a slow start Thursday, or I’d be fighting to make the cut and have a good weekend to slide into the top 10,” Leishman said. “Getting into that round straight away on the first tee rather than the ninth green or something, which sounds like a really basic thing, but it’s something I didn’t do very well until last year.”

But as Leishman acknowledged, he likely can’t count on a stumble from Wise to help finish off a wire-to-wire victory. As the youngest player to make the cut this week, Wise is facing a challenge of taking down a top-ranked Aussie for the second time in as many starts.

While he came up short at the Wells Fargo Championship, tying for second behind Jason Day, he remains supremely confident that he can put those hard-earned lessons to use this time around.

“I feel like it’s a great opportunity,” Wise said. “It will obviously be a huge day for me. I feel like having one go at it already, I’m a little more confident going into it this time.”

Even among the landscape of the Tour’s promising next wave, Wise stands out as a particularly young gun. Still only 21, he could feasibly be heading to Karsten Creek next week with his Oregon Duck teammates to close out his senior season with another NCAA championship appearance.

But Wise turned pro after winning the NCAA individual title as a sophomore, and he steadily worked his way through the professional ranks: first a win on the Mackenzie Tour in Canada, then one last summer on the Web.com Tour.

Now he’s poised to turn what he described as a “lackluster” season before his Quail Hollow runner-up into one that defies even his own expectations.

“Absolutely, I am way ahead of the curve. It’s pretty hard to do what I’ve done at such a young age. Only a few have done it,” Wise said. “I feel like I’m getting some great experience for a kid this young. It’s only going to serve me well down the road.”

An unpredictable Coore-Crenshaw layout will have one more day to star, and outside of Wise the top six names on the leaderboard have at least one Tour win to their credit. But after the two men traded punches on a firm and fast afternoon, it sure feels like the final round is shaping up to offer more of the same.

For Leishman, it’s a chance to add another notch to some quickly expanding credentials; for Wise, it’s an opportunity to win on the one level he has yet to do so.

“It’s golf, at the end of the day. If you play better than everyone else, you’re going to win,” Wise said. “That’s why I play it. That’s why I love this sport, and tomorrow is nothing different.”

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5 thoughts from NCAA Women's Championship Day 2

By Ryan LavnerMay 19, 2018, 11:35 pm

The field is almost halfway through stroke-play qualifying at the NCAA Women’s Championship. Here are some thoughts on the first two days at Karsten Creek:

1. UCLA is on a mission. Just a year ago, the Bruins were headed home from regionals after becoming the first No. 1 seed that failed to advance out of the qualifying tournament. This year, with the core of the team still mostly intact, the Bruins have opened up a five-shot lead on top-ranked Alabama and a comfortable 16-shot cushion over Southern Cal in third place. On one of the most difficult college courses in the country, UCLA has received contributions from all four of its usual counters – standout Lilia Vu shot 68 on Saturday, while Mariel Galdiano posted a 69. Freshman Patty Tavatanakit and junior Bethany Wu also broke par. This is a strong, deep lineup that will pose issues for teams not just in stroke-play qualifying, but also the head-to-head, match-play bracket.

2. What happened to Arkansas? Riding high off their first SEC Championship and a dominant regional performance, the Razorbacks were considered one of the top threats to win the national title. But entering Sunday’s third round of stroke play, they need to hold it together just to ensure they make the top-15 cut. Arkansas is 32 over par through two rounds. The Razorbacks had shot in the 300s just once this season in the play-five, count-four format. Here at Karsten Creek, they’ve now done so in consecutive rounds.

3. The Player of the Year race is heating up. With a decent showing at nationals, Arkansas’ Maria Fassi should have been able to wrap up the Annika Award, given annually to the top player in the country. She has six individual titles, plays a difficult schedule and is well-liked among her peers. But through two rounds she’s a whopping 15 over par while spraying it all over the map. If the Razorbacks don’t survive the 54-hole cut, neither will Fassi. That’d open the door for another player to steal the votes, whether it’s UCLA’s Vu or Wake Forest’s Jennifer Kupcho. There’s a lot still to be decided.

4. Stanford has steadied itself. One of the biggest surprises on Day 1 was the horrendous start by the Cardinal, one of just two teams to advance to match play each of the three years it’s been used to determine a national champion. They were 19 over for their first nine holes Friday, but instead of a blowup round that cost them a shot at the title, they’ve found a way to hang tough. Stanford has been just 4 over par over its last 27 holes. Andrea Lee made only one bogey during her second-round 69, Albane Valenzuela eagled the 18th hole for a 73 and senior leader Shannon Aubert – who has been a part of each postseason push – carded a 74. And so, even with its early struggles, coach Anne Walker once again has Stanford in position to reach match play.

5. Karsten Creek is identifying the best teams. The top teams in the country want a difficult host venue for NCAAs – it helps separate the field and draws an unmistakable line between the contenders and pretenders. Only one team (UCLA) is under par after 36 holes. Fewer than a dozen players are under par individually. The dearth of low scores might not be the greatest advertisement for how talented these players are, but the cream has still risen to the top so far: Five top-10 teams currently sit inside the top 7 on the leaderboard (and that doesn’t even include last year’s NCAA runner-up Northwestern). This is all any coach wants, even if the scores aren’t pretty.

Quick hits: Cheyenne Knight, part of Alabama’s vaunted 1-2-3 punch along with Lauren Stephenson and Kristen Gillman, shot rounds of 70-69 to figure in the mix for individual honors. The junior will turn pro after nationals. …  Arizona’s Bianca Pagdanganan made a hole-in-one on the 11th hole Saturday en route to a 68 that tied the low round of the day. She’s at 5-under 139, same as Knight. ... Defending champion Arizona State, which lost star Linnea Strom to the pro ranks at the halfway point of the season, is 35 over par after two rounds. … Play was delayed for nearly an hour and a half Saturday because of inclement weather.

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Wise (21) makes Leishman (34) feel a little old

By Will GrayMay 19, 2018, 10:55 pm

DALLAS – With the final round of the AT&T Byron Nelson likely to take on a match-play feel, Marc Leishman likes his chances to close out another win – even if his opponent makes him feel a little old.

Leishman, 34, shares the lead at Trinity Forest Golf Club with 21-year-old Aaron Wise, who was the youngest player to make the cut at the tournament’s new venue. The two men will start the final round at 17 under, four shots clear of their next-closest pursuers.

Leishman played the third round alongside Wise and Brian Gay, and he originally didn’t realize just how fresh-faced his fellow co-leader is.


Full-field scores from the AT&T Byron Nelson

AT&T Byron Nelson: Articles, photos and videos


“He’s a solid player for, I heard this morning he’s only 21. I didn’t realize that,” Leishman said. “I guess I was in high school before he was born, so that’s – I don’t know. You hear guys talk about that all the time but I’ve never said that, I think. Yeah, he’s a good player.”

Wise won the 2016 NCAA individual title while at Oregon, and he opted to turn pro after his sophomore season. While he could have been capping his senior season with a return to the NCAAs next week, Wise is pleased with the career choice and remains eager for a chance to close out his first career PGA Tour win against a seasoned veteran.

“I feel like I’m in a great spot for tomorrow,” Wise said. “I feel like I’m getting some great experience for a kid this young. It’s only going to serve me well down the road.”