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DJ turns TOC into a Tour de Force

By Rex HoggardJanuary 8, 2018, 4:37 am

KAPALUA, Hawaii – Call it a bounce-back win, although that implies a competitive imperative, and with Dustin Johnson that’s simply never the case.

Perhaps the world No. 1 needed that shootout triumph against Jordan Spieth at The Northern Trust last fall to once and for all put away any lingering thoughts that the back injury he endured on the eve of last year’s Masters was a reason for lasting concern.

Maybe even after the 2015 U.S. Open when he three-putted the 72nd hole to drop a heartbreaker, also to Spieth, he needed something to remind him that a single week doesn’t define a career.

And maybe there was an element that wanted to see how DJ responded after blowing a 54-hole lead in late October at the WGC-HSBC Champions. But rest assured, Johnson neither desired nor needed a bounce-back victory to start his year at the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Truth is, Johnson’s eight-stroke Rembrandt at Kapalua was no more important than any of his other 17 Tour tilts, but that doesn’t mean it was insignificant.

If one were inclined to gaze into the looking glass Johnson’s victory, his second in Maui, was a foreboding harbinger. It was, after all, a five-shot dismantling at last year’s Genesis Open that set DJ on a dominant path that only a poorly timed spill in his rental house could stall.

Johnson would win his next start after the Genesis Open, the WGC-Mexico Championship, and his next, the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and veer down Magnolia Lane the closest thing to a lock to win the Masters since Tiger Woods was creating Sunday roars in his prime.

Johnson can now admit that it took the better part of a year to feel right again. His practice was limited, that explosive backswing was limited and his game predictably suffered.

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Although he would close the season with another victory, that compelling duel with Spieth at The Northern Trust, that nuclear game just wasn’t the same, as evidenced by his collapse in China when he closed with a 77.

In China, Johnson turned a six-shot third-round lead into a two-stroke loss. In Maui, he rode a two-stroke advantage through 54 holes to a six-shot lead by the time he reached the turn on Sunday.

For four days Johnson was clinical, avoiding any three-putts – as an aside, he hasn’t had a three-jack since the 13th hole on Sunday at the Tour Championship in September – and finishing with the best round of the week, a one-bogey 65 that included his second consecutive eagle at the 12th hole after hitting his drive to inches at the 433-yard par 4.

“I was messing with [Golf Channel analyst Jim “Bones” Mackay] when we were in the fairway, it was like 4 inches short. I said, ‘I hit it a little thin,’” Johnson laughed. “But, no, I was just joking. I hit it perfect.”

He added birdies at the 14th, 15th and 16th holes that might have felt like piling on had his performance not been so entertaining. Although he’s not the first player to win the Tour’s annual lid-lifter multiple times, there’s a growing notion that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw designed the sprawling Plantation Course with Johnson in mind.

His statistical line for the week is a study in dominance, finishing first in strokes gained: tee-to-green, eighth in greens in regulation, fourth in strokes gained: around-the-green and sixth in strokes gained: putting.

Oh, and he drove the ball like a man on a mission. All told, Johnson had 15 drives over 375 yards, including a 419-yard drive on the seventh hole on Saturday that may still be in the air.

“On this course it's tough, the way the wind was blowing today,” said Brian Harman, who was paired with Johnson on Sunday and finished alone in third after a closing 72. “He knocks it to a foot on 12 for eagle, and I'm having to lay up to 130 yards. I mean he's very talented off the tee and he used that to his advantage today.”

Predictably, Johnson said following his round that there’s still work to be done.

“I feel like I could still improve a lot, but everything is going in the right direction,” he said, specifically addressing his iron game as an area that needed to be tightened up.

Of course he would say that. You don’t ascend to No. 1 in the world ranking and win a major championship being complacent, but it’s the edge with how the line was delivered that should give the Tour frat brothers pause.

Johnson is not much of a historian in either golf or otherwise, and he likely had no clue that he was the first player to win in his next start after blowing a six-shot, 54-hole lead since Hal Sutton at the 1983 PGA Championship. But he is aware that his victory marks the 11th consecutive season with at least one win and he is now just a threesome short of winning his 20th Tour event, which is when players normally enter the World Golf Hall of Fame discussion.

Johnson is many things, he can be intimidating between the ropes and entertaining when he relaxes the competitive blinders, but he’s never been much for bravado, which makes his response late Sunday when asked if he considers himself unbeatable so telling.

“I feel like if I play my best, yes, absolutely,” he said. “But there's other guys, there's quite a few guys where, if they're playing their best and I'm not at my best, I can't beat them. But I feel like if I am at my best, yeah, I would welcome any comers.”

No, Johnson’s Maui masterpiece wasn’t a bounce-back victory, it was a statement.

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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.

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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 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.

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“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.”