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New look for the new year: What to watch for in 2018

By Rex HoggardJanuary 3, 2018, 2:30 pm

A few years back Rory McIlroy revealed that each year, on his way to his first event of the new calendar he would scribble his annual goals onto his boarding pass.

Justin Thomas went 2.0 with the notion last year, thumbing his goals into his cell phone, a detailed and impressive list he unveiled following his FedExCup-winning performance at the Tour Championship.

As the PGA Tour readies for the start of a new year this Thursday at the Sentry Tournament of Champions it seems an apropos time to revisit the practice for some of the game’s most high-profile goal-setters.

Tiger Woods. It’s an easy enough place to start considering the newly minted 42-year-old’s imminent return to competition following nearly a year on the disabled list.

While Woods’ own list likely includes any number of relevant goals – win an event, play 15 tournaments, qualify for the U.S. Ryder Cup team, et al – when it comes to the often-injured 14-time major champion, it’s best to keep this simple – remain upright. If Tiger can stay healthy, and off the surgeon’s table, his competitive ceiling is high, at least according to his Tour frat brothers, but the key is a clean bill of health.

Along those lines, it’s probably best if Woods forgoes one of those globe-jumping flights from say Southern California to Dubai. First-class seats may be comfortable, but nothing good comes from 15 hours of inactivity and binge watching Netflix.

Jay Monahan. By many accounts, the Tour commissioner is a detail-oriented kind of guy so his list is probably peppered with all sorts of circuit minutia, but from 30,000 feet, the new year will be defined by a dramatic schedule overhaul that will begin with the 2018-19 season.

There’s all manner of competing interests when it comes to the new Tour schedule and the overall theme, ending the season before Labor Day, will be good for golf; but along the way Monahan will need to find a way to limit any potential collateral damage the new line up may cause.

Change is natural in every business - but in golf, tradition has its own, unique value.

Justin Thomas. When Thomas revealed his list of 2017 goals at East Lake it prompted a moment of reflection. How would he follow his groundbreaking season?

The Tour’s Player of the Year said he’d consult with Woods and Jack Nicklaus and Jordan Spieth, players who had followed historic years with even better campaigns, but the answer may have been etched onto his 2016-17 list.

Although there were specific goals, like qualifying for the Tour Championship and winning a major, Thomas’ list of goals included many more esoteric objectives, like ranking inside the top 30 on Tour in scrambling and a strokes gained-tee to green average above one shot.

If Thomas learned anything from 2017, understanding the big picture (winning) is easy; but it’s drilling down to the specifics that makes for a great year.

Jim Furyk. The last time the U.S. Ryder Cup team won an “away” match, Spieth was two months old, so the American captain’s natural tendency may be to create something new.

The hardest thing for Furyk in the build-up to the ’18 matches in France will be to trust the process that was put in place following the U.S. loss four years ago in Scotland and led to team victories in ’16 at Hazeltine and last year at the Presidents Cup.

Dustin Johnson. Heavily favored to win the Masters, DJ’s ’17 season took a detour when he slipped and injured himself before the year’s first major, so the world No. 1’s goals should be rather straightforward.

Don’t run with scissors, don’t roughhouse with the little ones on the eve of a major championship and don’t, under any circumstances, go bouncing down a set of stairs wearing socks and no shoes.

Mike Davis. The USGA’s executive director appears destined for a busy year with a new set of modernized rules poised for public consumption, but Davis’ primary goal should be to resist the urge to push back.

After record scoring last year at Erin Hills, it would be natural for Davis and the USGA to make this year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills something closer to golf’s toughest test. But Davis’ plan should be to take a breath and let the storied New York layout prove why it’s a classic without the need of tricked up fairways or ridiculously fast greens.

Paul Casey. It’s been nearly a decade since the Englishman won on the PGA Tour, a footnote Casey was reminded each time he played his way into contention and failed in ’17.

Players like Thomas succeed by focusing on the process, but after so much time away from the winner’s circle, Casey may want to try a more pointed approach. As the late Al Davis famously said, just win, baby.

Bryson DeChambeau. The week after winning his first Tour title at the John Deere Classic, the game’s most intense mad scientist was spotted testing new putters. DeChambeau’s endless quest to improve is admirable, and it's why he’s emerged as one of the game’s most dynamic players, but golf is as much art as it is science.

For such a complex and calculating player, the goal for ’17 should be surprisingly simple – futz less, freewheel more.

Grayson Murray. Following an eventful year that included his first Tour victory and some high-profile social media faux pas, the 24-year-old should also keep his ’18 goals basic.

Continue to improve, make the most of his new opportunities (like this week’s start in Maui), and stay off Twitter; in fact, stay off social media of any kind. It’s best for everyone involved.

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New dad Garcia removes shoes, wins match

By Rex HoggardMarch 22, 2018, 12:48 am

AUSTIN, Texas – In one of the day’s most explosive matches, Sergio Garcia rolled in an 8-footer for birdie at the 18th hole to defeat Shubhankar Sharma, 1 up, at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.

The duo halved just nine holes on Day 1 at Austin Country Club, with Garcia going from 2 up through four holes to 1 down with five holes to play.

But the Spaniard rallied with five birdies over his final eight holes and pushed his record to 20-17-1 in the Match Play. He also gave himself his best chance to advance out of pool play since the format began in 2015.

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The victory continued what has already been a memorable week for Garcia, whose wife, Angela, gave birth to the couple’s first child last Wednesday.

“I already feel like I’m a winner after what happened on Wednesday,” Garcia said. “Obviously, it's something that we're so, so happy and proud of and enjoying it as much as possible.”

The highlight of Garcia’s round on Wednesday came at the 12th hole when he took a drop on a cart path. After considering his options, he removed his shoes and hit his approach from 212 yards to 29 feet for a two-putt birdie to halve the hole.

“I have spikes. So if I don't take my shoes off, I'm going to slip. It's not the kind of shot that you want to slip,” Garcia said. “I had tried it a couple of times on practice swings and I was already slipping a little bit. So I thought I would just take my shoes off, try to get a little bit in front of the hole and it came out great.”

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On a wild Wednesday, DJ, Rory, Phil saved by the pool

By Rex HoggardMarch 22, 2018, 12:39 am

AUSTIN, Texas – Call it black Wednesday, but then the one-and-done aspect of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play was dulled three years ago with the introduction of round-robin play that assures every player at least three matches in pool play.

Otherwise Wednesday at Austin Country Club would go down as one of the championship’s darkest hours for the top of the dance card. In order, world No. 1 and defending champion Dustin Johnson dropped his Day 1 match, 3 and 1, to world No. 56 Bernd Wiesberger; last week’s winner Rory McIlroy lost to PGA Tour rookie Peter Uihlein, 2 and 1, and Phil Mickelson, the winner of the last WGC in Mexico, dropped a 3-and-2 decision to Charles Howell III.

All told, 11 lower-seeded players pulled off “upsets” on Wednesday, although it’s widely held that the Match Play is more prone to these types of underdog performances than the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

But if it wasn’t March Madness, it was at the least March Mayhem, particularly for those who shuffled around Austin Country Club in a state of mild confusion.

Although there were plenty of matches that went according to plan – with top-seeded players Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama and Sergio Garcia all winning – it was still a tough day for chalk with three of the top 10 players in the world ranking either losing or halving (world No. 3 Jon Rahm halved his duel with Keegan Bradley) their matches.

At least McIlroy made things interesting after finding himself 5 down through 13 holes. The Northern Irishman played his last six holes in 5 under par to push the match to the 17th hole, but Uihlein closed out the bout with a par.

“If he birdies seven straight on you, hats off to him. It is what it is,” Uihlein said of McIlroy’s late surge. “I felt like if I just kind of kept giving myself a chance, I didn't want to give him any holes. He made me earn it, so hats off to it.”

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Johnson couldn’t say the same thing.

After not trailing in any match on his way to victory at last year’s Match Play, Johnson hit a ball in the water, two out of bounds (on the same hole, no less) and began to fade when he made a double bogey-5 at the 11th hole. Although scoring is always skewed at the Match Play because of conceded putts, Johnson was listed at 9 over through 17 holes before his day came to a merciful end.

“We both didn't have a great day. I think we only made three birdies between us, which is not a lot out here,” Wiesberger said. “Obviously it wasn't his best day. It wasn't the best of my days. I think we both have to do a little bit of work this afternoon.”

Although not as scrappy as Johnson’s round, Mickelson has also seen better days. Lefty made just a single birdie and played 17 holes in even par to lose just his second match in pool play.

But then this event hasn’t exactly been kind to Lefty, who has advanced to the weekend just twice in 13 starts.

“I was fortunate today, obviously, to get past him,” said Howell, who is the second-lowest seeded player to advance out of pool play when he did it in 2017 as the 61st player in the field. “But with this pod play the way it goes now, you never know. You've got to keep playing good. Last WGC we had, he won. So he's never out of it.”

That will be the solace those high-profile players who find themselves on the wrong side of the round-robin ledger now cling to. There is a path back.

Since pool play began, just four players have lost their Day 1 matches and went on to win their group. One of those players is Johnson, who lost to Robert Streb on Wednesday in 2016 but still advanced to the quarterfinals.

But if that helps ease the sting for those who now embrace the Match Play mulligan, it did little to quiet the crowds on what turned out to be a wild Wednesday.

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Match-by-match: 2018 WGC-Dell Technologies, Day 1

By Will GrayMarch 22, 2018, 12:22 am

Here is how things played out on Day 1 of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, as 64 players take on Austin Country Club with hopes of advancing out of pool play:

Group 1: (52) Bernd Wiesberger def. (1) Dustin Johnson, 3 and 1: Down goes the defending champ. Johnson never trailed in any match en route to victory last year, and he won five holes against Wiesberger. But that wasn't enough as the Austrian turned an all-square affair into an upset victory by winning three straight from Nos. 15-17.

Group 1: (32) Kevin Kisner vs. (38) Adam Hadwin, halved: This was a tight one throughout, as neither player held more than a 1-up lead. Kisner held a lead for much of the back nine, but Hadwin birdied the 17th to draw even and the match was halved when they both made par on the final hole.

Group 2: (2) Justin Thomas def. (60) Luke List, 2 up: In perhaps the most entertaining match of the morning, Thomas edged List in a rematch of last month's Honda Classic playoff despite List spending much of the round putting with a wedge after bending his putter. Thomas was 3 up with four to play before List pushed the match the distance.

Group 2: (21) Francesco Molinari def. (48) Patton Kizzire, 3 and 1: Molinari turned a tight match into a victory thanks to a few timely errors from Kizzire. Pars on Nos. 14 and 17 were good enough to win the hole for Molinari, with the latter sealing his victory and moving him a step closer to a potential winner-take-all battle with Thomas on Friday.

Group 3: (3) Jon Rahm vs. (63) Keegan Bradley, halved: Rahm was a runner-up at this event last year, but he got all he could handle from one of the last men in the field. Bradley was 2 up with three holes to play, but bogeys on two of the final three holes opened the door for the Spaniard to escape with a draw.

Group 3: (28) Kiradech Aphibarnrat def. (43) Chez Reavie, 3 and 2: Aphibarnrat took the lead in his group with a victory over Reavie during which he never trailed. The globetrotting Thai held a 2-up lead at the turn and closed things out with a birdie on No. 16. Reavie won only two holes all day.

Group 4: (4) Jordan Spieth def. (49) Charl Schwartzel, 2 and 1: The top seed in the group scored an early point in a battle between former Masters champs. Spieth never trailed and took control of the match with three straight wins on Nos. 12-14.

Group 4: (19) Patrick Reed def. (34) Haotong Li, 3 and 2: Reed's much-anticipated match with Spieth is still two days away, but he dispatched of Li in his opener by winning the opening hole and never trailing the rest of the way. Li got to within one of Reed after 10 holes but the American won three of the next five to separate.

Group 5: (5) Hideki Matsuyama def. (53) Yusaku Miyazato, 2 and 1: This all-Japanese battle went to the group's top seed, as Matsuyama poured in a birdie on the par-3 17th to close out the match. Miyazato got off to a strong start, holding a 2-up lead through six holes, before Matsuyama turned the tables with two birdies over the next three holes.

Group 5: (46) Cameron Smith def. (30) Patrick Cantlay, 2 up: Smith never trailed in the match, but it turned into a closer contest than it appeared when the Aussie held a 3-up lead with four holes to play. Uihlein won the next two holes, but he couldn't get any closer as Smith earned a critical victory as he looks to earn a Masters spot by staying in the top 50 in the world rankings after this week.

Group 6: (57) Peter Uihlein def. (6) Rory McIlroy, 2 and 1: McIlroy won last week at Bay Hill, but he's now playing catch up after a decisive loss to Uihlein. The American held a 5-up lead before McIlroy reeled off five straight birdies to cut the lead to 2-up, but a par from Uihlein on the 17th hole sealed the upset.

Group 6: (18) Brian Harman vs. (44) Jhonattan Vegas, halved: This was a tight match throughout, with Harman clinging to a 1-up lead for most of the back nine. But Vegas rolled in a birdie putt on the final green to salvage half a point, much to the delight of the Austin galleries who were out supporting the former Longhorn.

Group 7: (7) Sergio Garcia def. (62) Shubankhar Sharma, 1 up: Garcia and Sharma took turns leading this match throughout the day, with the Indian holding a 1-up advantage through 13 holes. But Garcia won the next hole to square the match, then earned a full point with a birdie on the 18th hole in his first competitive start since becoming a father last week.

Group 7: (20) Xander Schauffele def. (41) Dylan Frittelli, 1 up: The reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year got the best of the former Longhorn in a tight match that went the distance. Schauffele led for much of the afternoon before Frittelli drew level with wins on Nos. 14 and 15. But Schauffele won the next hole and held on from there.

Group 8: (8) Jason Day def. (56) James Hahn, 4 and 2: Day is a former winner of this event, and he separated from Hahn on the back nine to score an early point. Hahn offered a concession on No. 13 to fall 3 down, then conceded again on No. 16 to close the match.

Group 8: (25) Louis Oosthuizen def. (42) Jason Dufner, 1 up: Oosthuizen appeared poised for an easy point before Dufner rallied with three straight wins on Nos. 14-16 to square the match. But Oosthuizen regained a lead with a par on No. 17 and held on for a hard-fought victory.

Group 9: (58) Ian Poulter def. (9) Tommy Fleetwood, 3 and 2: The match between Englishman went to the veteran, as Poulter took his putter from the 2012 Ryder Cup out of the closet and put it to quick use. Fleetwood won only two holes during the match, none after the eighth hole, and he now faces the prospect of early elimination as the group's top seed.

Group 9: (33) Kevin Chappell def. (26) Daniel Berger, 3 and 2: Chappell and Berger were Presidents Cup teammates in the fall, but the opener went to Chappell. Berger won the 13th hole to draw all square, but Chappell reeled off three straight birdies on Nos. 14-16 in response to close out the match.

Group 10: (10) Paul Casey def. (51) Russell Henley, 1 up: Casey is making his first start since winning at Innisbrook, and he scored an early point after rallying back against Henley. The Englishman didn't lead in the match until the final hole, when Henley's tee shot found the hazard leading to an ill-timed concession.

Group 10: (45) Kyle Stanley def. (31) Matthew Fitzpatrick, 1 up: Stanley is making his first match play appearance since 2012, and he got off to a promising start by edging the Englishman. Fitzpatrick was 2 up with five holes to go, but Stanley won three holes the rest of the way including a birdie on the 18th hole to secure a full point.

Group 11: (64) Julian Suri def. (11) Marc Leishman, 3 and 2: Suri was the last man to get into the field following the withdrawal of Joost Luiten, but he's already on the board with an early point. Suri won each of the first two holes and never trailed in the match, closing out Leishman with a birdie on the par-5 16th.

Group 11: (35) Bubba Watson def. (23) Branden Grace, 5 and 3: Watson was absolutely unstoppable in the biggest rout of the day. The two-time Masters champ made seven birdies over his first nine holes, making the turn with a 6-up advantage. Grace never stood a chance.

Group 12: (12) Tyrrell Hatton def. (55) Alexander Levy, 3 and 2: Hatton won the opening hole with a par and never trailed the rest of the way. Levy's win on the eighth hole proved to be his only victory of the day, as Hatton barely had to break a sweat after building a 3-up lead through five holes.

Group 12: (36) Brendan Steele def. (22) Charley Hoffman, 1 up: Steele never trailed in the match and at one point held a 4-up lead, but coming down the stretch it took everything he had to keep Hoffman at bay. Hoffman won four in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 13-17, but a par on the final hole was enough to give Steele the full point.

Group 13: (13) Alex Noren def. (61) Kevin Na, 4 and 2: Noren has come close to winning a few times already this year in the U.S., and he improved his career record in Austin to 5-1 thanks to a steady back nine. The match was all square through 11 holes before Noren took three of the next four, closing things out when Na conceded on No. 16.

Group 13: (29) Tony Finau def. (39) Thomas Pieters, 2 and 1: Two of the longest hitters in the field squared off in this tilt, with Finau notching a full point despite losing two of the first three holes. The American birdied the 15th to take a 2-up lead, then closed out Pieters with a par on the 17th hole.

Group 14: (59) Charles Howell III def. (14) Phil Mickelson, 3 and 2: Mickelson is making his first start since his WGC win in Mexico, but he's now on the ropes after Howell put together a strong back nine that included three birdies in a four-hole stretch from Nos. 10-13 to take control of the match.

Group 14: (17) Rafael Cabrera-Bello def. (40) Satoshi Kodaira, 2 and 1: Cabrera-Bello made a run to the semifinals at this event two years ago, and he's off to another good start following a match in which he never trailed and lost only three holes. With the match tied through 11 holes, Cabrera-Bello's birdies on Nos. 12 and 13 proved pivotal.

Group 15: (15) Pat Perez vs. (50) Si Woo Kim, halved: The first match of the day ended up in a draw, as the top seed rallied from a deficit to salvage half a point. Kim won three of the first six holes and held a 3-up lead with seven holes to go, but Perez fought back with four birdies over the next six holes to draw even.

Group 15: (24) Gary Woodland vs. (37) Webb Simpson, halved: This group remains entirely up for grabs since nothing was decided on the opening day. Woodland took a 3-up lead at the turn, but Simpson rallied by winning four of the next seven holes, including a birdie on No. 17 that brought him back to all square for the first time since the third hole.

Group 16: (16) Matt Kuchar vs. (54) Zach Johnson, halved: This draw likely felt like a victory for Johnson, who was facing a 4-down deficit with four holes to play before closing with four straight birdies to steal half a point.

Group 16: (47) Yuta Ikeda def. (27) Ross Fisher, 2 and 1: Ikeda now holds the top spot in the group after ousting Fisher, who made the quarterfinals last year. Ikeda squared the match with wins on Nos. 6 and 7 before a pivotal birdie on No. 15 gave him a 2-up lead he would not relinquish.