New normal of parity continues at Torrey Pines

By Rex HoggardFebruary 8, 2015, 12:27 am

SAN DIEGO – Saturday’s headline in the San Diego Union-Tribune announced “Stars Are Out,” a nod to the front-runners at this week’s Farmers Insurance Open.

Maybe it was wishful thinking, maybe it was the acme of hometown bias, but for those beyond the 858 area code the leaderboard was something, well … less than star-studded.

Of the top 12 players heading into Sunday’s final turn along the shores of the Pacific Ocean, the average Official World Golf Ranking is 223rd and the leading dozen have a combined 30 PGA Tour victories. Eighth-ranked Jason Day and No. 13 Jimmy Walker highlight a group that has won a major (Lucas Glover, 2009 U.S. Open).

So forgive some cynical observers if the Torrey Pines leaderboard doesn’t exactly move the proverbial needle, yet what remains is every bit the new normal.

No other way to explain it. If parity is bad, the Tour isn’t going to be right anytime soon.

Consider that perennial headliners Tiger Woods (WD) and Phil Mickelson (MC) failed to advance to the weekend in consecutive starts for the first time ever; and that Friday’s cut was particularly tough on the marquee with the high-profile likes of Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth also missing the back half of the four-day matinee.

It’s not a bad thing, nor should it be overly concerning, just the way of the new world.

Maybe Woods’ ailing back is nothing more than a bump in the rehabilitation road – the former world No. 1 told Golf Channel’s Notah Begay that it wasn’t an injury that sent him packing after 11 holes, just tightness. Maybe Mickelson rediscovers a putting stroke that has abandoned him and Johnson returns from his six-month, self-imposed hiatus a new man and fulfills all that major potential.

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But while those kinds of wishful scenarios may work from 30,000 feet, the reality down in the weeds that ringed Torrey Pines’ South Course suggests a different reality.

Through 54 holes, your front-runners are J.B. Holmes and Harris English, the former an inspiring story of perseverance who is something of a medical miracle and the latter a five-tool potential world-beater who endured a sophomore slump last season and appears to be better for it.

Walker, already a winner this year who impressed many with his play at last year’s Ryder Cup, is tied with Glover, Spencer Levin, Chad Campbell and Nick Watney, a group that has weathered varying degrees of pedestrian play the last few years.

But if it felt as if the air had been vacuumed from the seaside municipal gem on Thursday and Friday with the litany of top-card exits, it should be pointed out that officials didn’t cancel tournament.

Fans still arrived in droves on Saturday, players still cautiously picked their way around a demanding golf course and, as is normally the case at Torrey Pines, Sunday’s finish will most likely be compelling if not classic.

Keep calm and carry on.

It’s an unspoken point of contention on the Tour that while Woods has been the primary driving force in the game for more than a decade, on any given week there are 155 other stories that have the potential to be just as compelling.

“As a player do I feel like the media talks about it a little too much? Yeah,” Holmes allowed. “If he's not playing good, I mean everybody goes through lulls and everybody doesn't play good all the time, we just don't have a camera around all the time.

“So when a guy is down and not playing too good and for everybody to really to just critique everything, it kind of gets in the way, because there's some people that are playing well. I would like to see the TV and the media maybe pay a little more attention to people that are playing well.”

Holmes’ take is neither an indictment of Woods nor his impact on the game, just a new reality that has emerged over the last few years.

Never was that more obvious than on Thursday when Woods made another surreal exit that has become far too familiar in recent years.

“Me and Rickie [Fowler] we got on No. 3 tee and we sort of joked, we saw [Golf Channel reporter Curt Byrum] leave and all the cameras and then we saw all these media people scamper away towards him and we said, ‘How many people will stay with us?’” asked Billy Horschel, who was paired with Woods during Round 1.

The answer to Billy Ho’s question was about 50 who finished the round with the twosome.

“We became chopped liver. We realized where we stand in this game of golf and we had a good joke about it,” Horschel said.

The remaining contenders at Torrey Pines are far from “chopped liver.”

From Holmes, who rebounded from brain surgery in 2011 to win the 2014 Wells Fargo Championship, to Glover, who is playing like he did when he won the ’09 Open – which seems about right considering a South Course that is feeling more like a national championship venue than a spring training tune-up – there are enough compelling storylines to fill a dozen notebooks.

Historically, professional golf was never better than when Woods and Mickelson were playing their best. Maybe this is an end to an era, although considering each star’s competitive drive, that seems unlikely. But even if the game’s alpha males do emerge from their professional abyss the reality is the twilight will come, sooner or later.

When that day comes, players like English, Walker and Glover will play on, and it will be up to the rest of us to read and write their stories.

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Lopez fires flawless 63 for lead in Arkansas

By Associated PressJune 23, 2018, 12:41 am

ROGERS, Ark. – Former Arkansas star Gaby Lopez shot a career-low 8-under 63 on Friday to take the first-round lead in the NW Arkansas Championship.

Lopez, a three-time All-American for the Razorbacks, matched her career best by finishing at 8 under - doing so after missing the cut in her last two tournaments. The Mexican player began the tournament at Pinnacle Country Club ranked 136th in the world but finished just two shots off the course record of 10 under in her third year on the LPGA Tour.

Moriya Jutanugarn was a stroke back along with Minjee Lee, Catriona Matthew, Nasa Hataoka, Lizette Salas, Mirim Lee and Aditi Ashok.

Local favorite Stacy Lewis, expecting her first child in early November, had a 66.

Defending champion So Yeon Ryu, coming off a victory Sunday in Michigan, shot a 67.

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Harman rides hot putter to Travelers lead

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 12:28 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – There are plenty of big names gathered for the Travelers Championship, and through two rounds they’re all chasing Brian Harman.

Harman opened with a 6-under 64, then carded a 66 during Friday’s morning wave to become the only player to finish the first two rounds in double digits under par. The southpaw is currently riding a hot putter, leading the field in strokes gained: putting while rolling in 12 birdies and an eagle through his first 36 holes.

“Putted great today,” said Harman, who ranks 22nd on Tour this season in putting. “Got out of position a couple of times, but I was able to get myself good looks at it. I started hitting the ball really well coming down the stretch and made a few birdies.”

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Harman, 31, has won twice on the PGA Tour, most recently at last year’s Wells Fargo Championship. While he doesn’t have a win this year, he started his season in the fall by reeling off five straight finishes of T-8 or better to quickly install himself as one of the leaders in the season-long points race.

Now topping a leaderboard that includes the likes of Jason Day, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy, he realizes that he’ll have his work cut out for him if he’s going to leave Connecticut with trophy No. 3.

“The putter has been really good so far, but I’ve been in position a lot. I’ve had a lot of good looks at it,” Harman said. “I’m just able to put a little pressure on the course right now, which is nice.”

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10-second rule costs Zach Johnson a stroke

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 12:06 am

CROMWELL, Conn. – Zach Johnson heads into the weekend one shot back at the Travelers Championship, but he was a matter of seconds away from being tied for the lead.

Johnson had an 18-foot birdie putt on No. 3 at TPC River Highlands, his 12th hole of the day, but left the ball hanging on the lip. As Johnson walked up to tap the ball in, it oscillated on the edge and eventually fell in without being hit.

Was it a birdie, or a par?

According to the Rules of Golf, and much to Johnson’s chagrin, the answer was a par. Players are afforded “reasonable” time to walk to the hole, and after that they are allowed to wait for 10 seconds to see if the ball drops of its own accord. After that, it either becomes holed by a player’s stroke, or falls in and leads to a one-shot penalty, resulting in the same score as if the player had hit it.

According to Mark Russell, PGA Tour vice president of rules and competitions, Johnson’s wait time until the ball fell in was between 16 and 18 seconds.

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“Once he putts the ball, he’s got a reasonable amount of time to reach the hole,” Russell said. “Then once he reaches the hole, he’s got 10 seconds. After 10 seconds, the ball is deemed to be at rest.”

Johnson tried to emphasize the fact that the ball was oscillating as he stood over it, and even asked rules officials if marking his ball on the edge of the hole would have yielded a “bonus 10 seconds.” But after signing for a 2-under 68 that brought him within a shot of leader Brian Harman, the veteran took the ruling in stride.

“The 10-second rule has always been there. Vague to some degree,” Johnson said. “The bottom line is I went to tap it in after 10 seconds and the ball was moving. At that point, even if the ball is moving, it’s deemed to be at rest because it’s on the lip. Don’t ask me why, but that’s just the way it is.”

While Johnson brushed off any thoughts of the golf gods conspiring against him on the lip, he was beaming with pride about an unconventional par he made on No. 17 en route to a bogey-free round. Johnson sailed his tee shot well right into the water, but after consulting his options he decided to drop on the far side of the hazard near the 16th tee box.

His subsequent approach from 234 yards rolled to within 8 feet, and he calmly drained the putt for an unexpected save.

“I got a great lie. Just opened up a 4-hybrid, and it started over the grandstands and drew in there,” Johnson said. “That’s as good of an up-and-down as I’ve witnessed, or performed.”

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Travelers becoming marquee event for star players

By Will GrayJune 22, 2018, 11:29 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Get lost in the throngs following the defending champ, or caught up amongst the crowds chasing the back-to-back U.S. Open winner, and it’s easy to forget where this tournament was a little more than a decade ago.

The Travelers Championship was without a sponsor, without a worthwhile field, without a consistent date and on the verge of being jettisoned to the PGA Tour Champions schedule. The glory days of the old Greater Hartford Open had come and gone, and the PGA Tour’s ever-increasing machine appeared poised to leave little old Cromwell in its wake.

The civic pride is booming in this neck of the woods. Main Street is lined with one small business after the next, and this time of year there are signs and posters popping up on every corner congratulating a member of the most recent graduating class at Cromwell High School, which sits less than two miles from the first tee at TPC River Highlands.

Having made it through a harrowing time in the event’s history, the local residents now have plenty of reason to take pride.

The Tour’s best have found this little New England hamlet, where tournament officials roll out the red carpet in every direction. They embrace the opportunity to decompress after the mind-numbing gauntlet the USGA set out for them last week, and they relish a return to a course where well-struck shots, more often than not, lead to birdies.

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Ten years ago, this tournament was also held the week after the U.S. Open. Stewart Cink won, and for his efforts he received a paltry 36 world ranking points. But thanks to a recent influx of star-power, this week’s winner will pocket 58 points – the same amount Rory McIlroy won at Bay Hill, and two more than Justin Rose got at Colonial. Now at the halfway point, the leaderboard backs up the hefty allocation.

While Brian Harman leads at 10 under, the chase pack is strong enough to strike fear in the heart of even the most seasoned veteran: McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Zach Johnson, they of the combined eight major titles, all sit within three shots of the lead. Former world No. 1 Jason Day is one shot further back, and reigning Player of the Year Justin Thomas will start the third round inside the top 20.

Paul Casey and Bryson DeChambeau, both likely participants at the Ryder Cup this fall, are right there as well at 8 under. Casey lost a playoff here to Watson in 2015 and has come back every year since, witnessing first-hand the tournament’s growth in scope.

“It speaks volumes for what Travelers have done and how they treat everybody, and the work that Andy Bessette and his team put in to fly around the country and speak highly of this event,” Casey said. “And do things which matter, to continue to improve the event, not just for players but for spectators.”

Part of the increased field strength can be attributed to the Tour’s recent rule change, requiring players who play fewer than 25 events in a season to add a new event they haven’t played in the last four years. Another portion can be attributed to the short commute from Shinnecock Hills to TPC River Highlands, a three-hour drive and even shorter across the Long Island Sound – an added bonus the event will lose two of the next three years with West Coast U.S. Opens.

But there’s no denying the widespread appeal of an event named the Tour’s tournament of the year, players’ choice and most fan-friendly in 2017. While Spieth’s return to defend his title was assumed, both Day and McIlroy are back for another crack this year after liking what they saw.

“Anyone that I talked to could only say good things about the tournament about the golf course, how the guys are treated here, how the fans come out, and how the community always gets behind this event,” McIlroy said. “Obviously I witnessed that for the first time last year, and I really enjoyed it.”

After starting the week with all four reigning major champs and five of the top 10 players in the latest world rankings, only Masters champ Patrick Reed got sent packing following rounds of 72-67. The remaining top-flight contingent will all hit the ground running in search of more low scores Saturday, with Spieth (-4) still retaining a glimmer of hope to keep his title defense chances alive, perhaps with a 63 like he fired in the opening round.

The Tour’s schedule represents a zero-sum game. Outside of the majors and WGCs that essentially become must-play events for the game’s best, the rest of the legs of the weekly circus become victim of a 12-month version of tug-of-war. Some players like to play in the spring; others load up in the fall. Many play the week before majors, while a select group block off the week after for some R&R far away from a golf course.

But in an environment where one tournament’s ebbs can create flows for another, the Travelers has continued a steady climb up the Tour’s hierarchy. Once in jeopardy of relegation, it has found its footing and appears in the process of turning several of the Tour’s one-name stars into regular participants.

Rory. Jordan. Bubba. JT.

It’s been a long battle for tournament officials, but the proof is in the pudding. And this weekend, the reward for the people of Cromwell – population 14,000 – looks to be a star-studded show.

“All the events are incredible,” Thomas said. “But this is kind of one of those underrated ones that I think until people come and play, do they realize how great it is.”