Magnolia Memories

By Rex HoggardApril 1, 2010, 12:53 am

When Tom Watson motors down Magnolia Lane next week it will mark his 37th turn down the game’s most hallowed driveway. He’s won twice, come close more times than he’s cares to recall and, at 60 years young, still gets nervous when he walks past the big oak on his way to the first tee.

The place still amazes him, like a few weeks back when he first eyed Augusta National’s new practice facility, “How about that? It’s quite something. The whole setup there is amazing. The people used to come in on a gravel parking lot, now they come through a main gate area that must have 50 openings and it’s covered,” he said with the look of a 10-year-old on Christmas morning.

Q&As with Hall of Famers are always enlightening, and more often than not entertaining as well, and on the eve of the year’s first major championship, Watson didn’t disappoint.

First, the resume: The two-time Masters champion (1977, ’81) has the distinction of clipping Jack Nicklaus in both triumphs, 19 top-25 finishes amid the dogwoods and azaleas, and an assortment of near-misses that, contrary to common bromides, have not faded with time. With Shotlink precision, Watson can recount shots played four decades earlier and with HiDef quality the emotions each left behind.

When asked if he had one shot to play over again at Augusta National, the answer was delivered with the ease and certainty of 1,000 perfect-struck 7-irons.

“There was a putt on the 14th hole the year Gary Player won that I three-putted (1978),” Watson smiled with his signature toothy grin. “If I make that putt I probably win the tournament.”

It might also provide this year’s first-timers a measure of solace to know that the nerves they will inevitably be fighting when they step to the first tee are not the unnerving domain of the rookie.

Nearly four decades into his Masters career, Watson still feels the competitive rush when he hears the words, “Fore please. Now driving, Tom Watson.”

“I remember the first time I played it,” said Watson, who played his first Masters in 1970 as an amateur. “The excitement I had on the first tee with Doug Ford. That never leaves you when you tee it up at Augusta National in the first round. That never leaves you.”

And the ongoing nip/tuck of the former Fruitland Nursery is of particular interest to a player with a keen sense of golf course design.

“I let the cat out of the bag. They used to mow the fairways, half the fairway one direction and the other half in another direction. If you caught the down-grain (half) you’d have 30-, 40- maybe 50-yards of roll. If you hit into the grain that ball would pop up and stop, maybe with some mud on the ball,” Watson said.

“I made the comment to a chairman, ‘Thanks for doing that because they always cut it on the inside of the dogleg so if you hit the risky shot you were always rewarded with more roll.’ The next year the fairways are all mowed against you. That’s the way it’s been since then.”

Nor, even with 116 competitive rounds at Augusta National, was it a difficult journey to reach his most treasured Masters moment.

“Winning in ’77 was something really special. I remember how nervous I was. Some guy by the name of Nicklaus started (to make a charge) and it boiled down to the last few holes,” Watson recalled.

“The 16th was the game changer, not my birdie at 17, I debated a hard 6-iron or 5-iron. Went with 5-iron but I had to take something off of it. I made the swing and hit it flush, 15 feet behind hole. When I hit that shot the nerves just flushed out of my body. Man if I can do that shot, I’ve got it. Played the last few just relaxed.”

And finally, the man who tempted fate last year with one of the game’s most-improbable and magical runs at Turnberry offered an equally tantalizing pick for next week’s Masters. The active player with the most experience at Augusta National predicts that more than five months of golf inactivity will have little impact on Tiger Woods (place) and acknowledged Lee Westwood’s history and form (show).

For the win, however, Watson went with a Champions Tour contemporary: Fred Couples.

“Winning breeds winning and he has been winning and putting the eyes out of it,” Watson said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a 4 footer on the Champions Tour or the Masters. They all mean the same. They all are the same, you have to make it and he’s making all the 4 footers right now.”

Almost as good as Watson’s historic turn at Turnberry. Almost.

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Kerr blows big lead, heads into Kia Sunday one back

By Associated PressMarch 25, 2018, 1:55 am

CARLSBAD, Calif. - Cristie Kerr blew a five-stroke lead Saturday in the Kia Classic to set up a final-round showdown at Aviara Golf Club.

A day after shooting an 8-under 64 to open the big lead, Kerr had a 75 to drop a stroke behind playing partner Lizette Salas, Eun-Hee Ji and In-Kyung Kim. Kerr was tied with Caroline Hedwall, Wei-Ling Hsu and Cindy LaCrosse, and four players were another shot back.

The 40-year-old Kerr had a double bogey on the par-4 15th after snap-hooking a drive into the trees. The 2015 winner at Aviara, she also had two bogeys and two birdies.

Ji had a 67 to match Salas (69) and Kim (69) at 11-under 205. Salas had a chance to pull away, but missed birdie putts of 1 1/2 feet on the short par-4 16th and 2 1/2 feet on the par-5 17th.

Anna Nordqvist had a 66 to top the group at 9 under.

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Match Play Final Four set to bring the excitement

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 11:55 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Sunday’s Final Four at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play will include a pair of Georgia Bulldogs, a two-and-done phenom from Alabama and a Swede from Stockholm via Stillwater, that would be Oklahoma.

Just like that other tournament, right?

Actually, for all the volatility in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, it’s not even in the same league as this year’s Match Play, where just a single player who began the week seeded inside the top 10 is still playing.

But what the event may lack in star power it’s certainly made up for with stellar performances, starting with Justin Thomas who is the PGA Tour’s most avid Alabama fan and the tournament’s second-seeded player.

After not losing a match in three days of pool play, Thomas again cruised through his morning Round-of-16 bout with Si Woo Kim, 6 and 5; but found himself in an unfamiliar position early in his quarterfinal match against Kyle Stanley.

Having not trailed during any point in his matches this week, Thomas bogeyed the second hole to fall behind.

“I was hoping to never trail this whole week. I thought that was unbelievable that [2017 champion Dustin Johnson] did it last year,” Thomas said. “I'm going out there this afternoon, and I was like, ‘Man, I have got a chance of doing this, too.’ Then I missed a 3-footer on 2 and shot that out the window.”

The world’s second-ranked player was nearly perfect the rest of the way, regaining the lead with three birdies in four holes starting at No. 5 and closing Stanley out with a bogey-free finish.

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It’s all part of an impressive turnaround for Thomas, who had been slowed in recent weeks by dental surgery followed by a bout with the flu, which nearly prompted him to miss the Match Play.

“I had a pretty serious conversation with my dad on Monday if I was going to play,” said Thomas, who can unseat Johnson atop the Official World Golf Ranking if he advances to the championship match. “I never want to play in a tournament, first off if it's going to hurt my health. If I was sick or really sick, me trying to play this week wasn't going to do me any good.”

His improved health has dovetailed with his increasingly better play at Austin Country Club and he’s now two matches away from winning his first World Golf Championship.

Like the NCAA tournament, however, being one of the last four standing only means more work, and Thomas will have plenty to keep him busy when he sets out early Sunday in a semifinal match against Bubba Watson.

Although Watson hasn’t been as dominant as Thomas, his ability to overpower any course, any time, has been evident this week following victories over Brian Harman, 2 and 1, and Kiradech Aphibarnrat, 5 and 3, on his way to the Final Four.

“When you're hitting an 8-iron and another guy is hitting a 7- or another guy is hitting a 6-iron, obviously that's going to change everything,” said Watson, who played his college golf at Georgia. “It's like LeBron James, when he jumps, he jumps higher than I do, so it's an advantage. When you're hitting the driver good and those guys you're naming, they're known for hitting the driver pretty well, just like Thomas is doing right now, he's been hammering it. Anytime that you're hitting the driver somewhat straight, it's an advantage.”

But if Bubba is a familiar foe for Thomas, he may want to do a quick Google search to fill in the blanks on one of his potential final opponents.

While Alex Noren is still a relatively unknown player to many American fans (and that’s certain to change in September at the Ryder Cup), it’s only because they haven’t been paying attention. The Swede, who attended Oklahoma State, has been dominant this week, sweeping the group stage followed by a 5-and-3 victory over Patrick Reed in the Sweet 16 and a 4-and-2 triumph over Cameron Smith in the quarterfinals.

“I've always liked match play because the outcome is quite direct,” said Noren, who will face Kevin Kisner in the semifinals. “In match play, you've just got to be really focused all the time and anything can happen. And then you have to play good each round. You can't just give up a round and then think you've got three more.”

But if a JT vs. Noren final would be the perfect Ryder Cup primer, the dream match up for Thomas in the championship tilt might be Kisner.

Kisner lost a friendly wager to Thomas earlier this year at the Sony Open when Alabama defeated Georgia in the NCAA National Championship football game and he had to wear an Alabama jersey while he played the 17th hole on Thursday.

Kisner would certainly appreciate the chance at a mulligan. And the way the duo have been rolling in birdie putts this week, it has the potential to be just as entertaining as that other tournament.

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Up one, Stricker hunting second Champions title

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 11:48 pm

BILOXI, Miss. - Steve Stricker moved into position for his second straight PGA Tour Champions victory, shooting a 3-under 69 on Saturday to take a one-stroke lead in the Rapiscan Systems Classic.

Stricker won the Cologuard Classic three weeks ago in Tucson, Arizona, for his first victory on the 50-and-over tour. He tied for 12th the following week in the PGA Tour's Valspar Championship.

Full-field scores from the Rapiscan Systems Classic

Stricker had a 7-under 137 total at Fallen Oak, the Tom Fazio-designed layout with big, speedy greens.

The 51-year-old Wisconsin player bogeyed Nos. 2-3, rebounded with birdies on Nos. 6-7, birdied the par-4 12th and eagled the par-5 13th. He has six top-three finishes in eight career senior starts.

First-round leader Joe Durant followed his opening 66 with a 72 to drop into a tie for second with Jeff Sluman (67).

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Thomas can take world No. 1 with win over Watson

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 11:29 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – On March 7, Justin Thomas had his wisdom teeth removed, and just when he was recovering from that, he was slowed by a bout with the flu.

In total, he estimates he lost about seven pounds, and he admitted on Saturday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to play the event.

“I had a pretty serious conversation with my dad on Monday if I was going to play,” Thomas said. “I never want to play in a tournament, first off, if it's going to hurt my health. If I was sick or really sick, me trying to play this week wasn't going to do me any good.”

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Thomas went on to explain he was “50/50” whether he’d play the World Golf Championship, but decided to make the start and it’s turned out well for the world’s second-ranked player.

After going undefeated in pool play, Thomas cruised past Si Woo Kim, 6 and 5, in the round of 16 and secured himself a spot in the semifinals with a 2-and-1 victory over Kyle Stanley in the quarterfinals. If Thomas wins his semifinal match against Bubba Watson on Sunday, he’s assured enough points to overtake Dustin Johnson atop the Official World Golf Ranking.

“I don't care when it happens; I just hope it happens and it happens for a while,” Thomas said when asked about the possibility of becoming world No. 1. “I don't know what to say because I've never experienced it. I don't know what's going to come with it. But I just hope it happens tomorrow.”