Ryder Cup asst. captain picks become interesting

By Rex HoggardFebruary 25, 2015, 7:57 pm

For the American sideline, picking an assistant Ryder Cup captain has been akin to piecing together a seating chart for a wedding.

Your Uncle Sal may be a cherished member of the family, but do you really want to spend two hours trying to make small talk with the guy?

So while there’s never been a shortage of available players with the institutional moxie to make a real difference as an assistant, more times than not the coveted cart keys went to friends. The kind of guys you’d want to spend a few days with in a team room.

That’s not to say the recent crop of assistants weren’t deserving, accomplished players in their own right, but were they right for the job? Were they right for the team?

In 2012, for example, Davis Love III named Fred Couples, Jeff Sluman, Scott Verplank and Mike Hulbert his assistants.

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Freddie is, well, Freddie, always the coolest guy in the room who just happens to be a three-time winning Presidents Cup captain; Verplank is one of the few Americans with at least two starts in the biennial matches with a winning record (4-1-0).

But consider Sluman: a former PGA champion, good guy, but he’s never played on a Ryder Cup team. Ditto for Hulbert.

In 2010, Corey Pavin went with Tom Lehman, Love and Paul Goydos – who, again, is one of the most interesting people who ever played the game at the highest level, but he’s also never played a match for Team USA.

This disconnect was atop the Ryder Cup task force’s “to do” list when they went to work in December. As part of America’s extreme makeover, teams will now feature four assistants: two former captains – like Lehman, who was named Love’s assistant for the 2016 matches on Tuesday – and two former Ryder Cup players who will be groomed for a future captaincy.

“I would expect Davis to be an assistant captain in 2018 because he is going to have invaluable information from this year’s cup that he has to pass on and share,” said task force member Phil Mickelson. “That’s going to be a requirement.”

In practical terms, the next logical move for the six-member Ryder Cup committee, a scaled-down version of the task force that will be calling the shots going forward, would be to name Paul Azinger Love’s second “past captain” assistant.

Azinger told GolfChannel.com last week that he withdrew his name from consideration to captain next year’s team “for many reasons, personal and business,” but he did not rule out a turn as an assistant in 2016. “I’m not going there at this point,” he said via text message.

The more interesting selections, at least with an eye toward the future, would be Love’s two “player” assistants, the captains-in-waiting.

Couples, who was an early front-runner for the ’16 job but faded quickly according to various sources, could be an interesting choice. Love and Couples are long-time friends and a spot on the sidelines at Hazeltine National next year could indicate Freddie’s chances of ever captaining a team are still alive.

The other options would likely depend on player performance. Stricker, Jim Furyk, Mickelson and David Toms would all fit the formula and would be popular choices as captains-in-waiting but are likely more interested in playing next year.

As a measure of the commitment the task force members have to the new system, Lefty was asked if he’d embrace a role as one of Love’s “plus ones” if he failed to make the team. “Undoubtedly, I would love to do that,” he said.

Of all the changes the PGA of America unveiled Tuesday in South Florida, this legacy program may be the most sweeping and have the most long-term impact. While the task force gave players the voice they’d been wanting, the captain’s apprenticeship program creates the continuity that has been missing from the matches for the last decade.

It’s worth noting, in light of Tuesday’s overhaul, that Tom Watson had his own version of a legacy formula.

Old Tom went old school with his assistants last year, tabbing Raymond Floyd, Andy North and Steve Stricker, a savvy past captain in Floyd and a likely future captain in Stricker.

It’s interesting that Watson will be remembered in some circles as the face of the new Ryder Cup system for all the wrong reasons after last year’s Contentious Cup. Without Watson the PGA of America likely never turns to a task force for answers.

It’s just as telling that a central part of the new deal will be a legacy for captains past, present and future. Maybe Watson wasn’t as bad as advertised.

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Minjee Lee co-leads Walmart NW Arkansas Championship

By Associated PressJune 24, 2018, 12:25 am

ROGERS, Ark. - Minjee Lee wasn't all that concerned when she missed her first cut of the year this month at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

The ninth-ranked Australian has certainly looked at ease and back in form at Pinnacle Country Club in her first event since then.

Lee and Japan's Nasa Hataoka each shot 6-under 65 on Saturday to share the second-round lead in the NW Arkansas Championship 13-under 129. Lee is chasing her fifth victory since turning pro three years ago. It's also an opportunity to put any lingering frustration over that missed cut two weeks ago behind her for good.

''I didn't particularly hit it bad, even though I missed the cut at ShopRite, I just didn't really hole any putts,'' Lee said. ''I'd been hitting it pretty solid going into that tournament and even into this tournament, too. Just to see a couple putts roll in has been nice.''

The 22-year-old Lee needed only 24 putts during her opening 64 on Friday, helping her to match the low round of her career. Despite needing 28 putts Saturday, she still briefly took the outright lead after reaching as low as 14 under after a birdie on the par-5 seventh.

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Lee missed the green on the par-4 ninth soon thereafter to lead to her only bogey of the day and a tie with the 19-year-old Hataoka, who is in pursuit of her first career win.

Hataoka birdied six of eight holes midway through her bogey-free round on Saturday. It was yet another stellar performance from the Japanese teenager, who has finished in the top 10 in four of her last five tournaments and will be a part of Sunday's final pairing.

''I try to make birdies and try to be under par, that's really the key for me to get a top ten,'' Hataoka said. ''Golf is just trying to be in the top 10 every single week, so that's the key.''

Third-ranked Lexi Thompson matched the low round of the day with a 64 to get to 11 under. She hit 17 of 18 fairways and shot a 5-under 30 on her opening nine, The American is in search of her first win since September in the Indy Women in Tech Championship.

Ariya Jutanugarn and Celine Boutier were 10 under.

First-round leader Gaby Lopez followed her opening 63 with a 75 to drop to 4 under. Fellow former Arkansas star Stacy Lewis also was 4 under after a 72.

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Henley will try to put heat on Casey in final round

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:55 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While it will be a tall task for anyone to catch Paul Casey at the Travelers Championship, the man who will start the round most within reach of the Englishman is Russell Henley.

Henley was in the penultimate group at TPC River Highlands on Saturday, but he’ll now anchor things during the final round as he looks to overcome a four-shot deficit behind Casey. After a 3-under 67, Henley sits at 12 under through 54 holes and one shot clear of the three players tied for third.

Henley closed his third round with a run of five straight pars, then became the beneficiary of a pair of late bogeys from Brian Harman that left Henley alone in second place.

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“Could have made a couple more putts, but to end with two up-and-downs like that was nice,” Henley said. “I felt a little bit weird over the shots coming in, put me in some bad spots. But it was nice to have the short game to back me up.”

Henley has won three times on Tour, most recently at the 2017 Houston Open, and he cracked the top 25 at both the Masters and U.S. Open. But with Casey riding a wave of confidence and coming off an 8-under 62 that marked the best round of the week, he knows he’ll have his work cut out for him in order to nab trophy No. 4.

“I think I can shoot a low number on this course. You’ve got to make the putts,” Henley said. “I’m definitely hitting it well enough, and if I can get a couple putts to fall, that would be good. But I can’t control what he’s doing. I can just try to keep playing solid.”

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Back from back injury, Casey eyeing another win

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:36 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Given his four-shot cushion at the Travelers Championship and his recent victory at the Valspar Championship, it’s easy to forget that Paul Casey hit the disabled list in between.

Casey had to withdraw from The Players Championship because of a bad back, becoming the only player in the top 50 in the world rankings to miss the PGA Tour’s flagship event. He flew back to England to get treatment, and Casey admitted that his T-20 finish at last month’s BMW PGA Championship came while he was still on the mend.

“I wasn’t 100 percent fit with the back injury, which was L-4, L-5, S-1 (vertebrae) all out of place,” Casey said. “Big inflammation, nerve pain down the leg and up the back. I didn’t know what was going on.”

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Thanks in large part to a combination of MRIs, back adjustments and anti-inflammatories, Casey finally turned the corner. His T-16 finish at last week’s U.S. Open was the first event for which he felt fully healthy since before the Players, and he’s on the cusp of a second title since March after successfully battling through the injury.

“We thought we were fixing it, but we weren’t. We were kind of hitting the effects rather than the cause,” Casey said. “Eventually we figured out the cause, which was structural.”

Casey started the third round at TPC River Highlands two shots off the lead, but he’s now four clear of Russell Henley after firing an 8-under 62 that marked the low round of the week.

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Bubba thinks he'll need a Sunday 60 to scare Casey

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:15 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Perhaps moreso than at most PGA Tour venues, a low score is never really out of reach at TPC River Highlands. Positioned as a welcome change of pace after the U.S. Open, the Travelers Championship offers a lush layout that often pushes the balance much closer to reward than risk.

This is where Jim Furyk shot a 58 on the par-70 layout two years ago – and he didn’t even win that week. So even though Paul Casey enters the final round with a commanding four-shot lead, there’s still plenty of hope for the chase pack that something special could be in store.

Count Bubba Watson among the group who still believe the title is up for grabs – even if it might require a Herculean effort, even by his standards.

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Watson has won the Travelers twice, including in a 2015 playoff over Casey. But starting the final round in a large tie for sixth at 10 under, six shots behind Casey, he estimates that he’ll need to flirt with golf’s magic number to give the Englishman something to worry about.

“My 7 under yesterday, I need to do better than that. I’m going to have to get to like 10 [under],” Watson said. “The only beauty is, getting out in front, you have a chance to put a number up and maybe scare them. But to scare them, you’re going to have to shoot 10 under at worst, where I’m at anyway.”

Watson started the third round three shots off the lead, and he made an early move with birdies on Nos. 1 and 2 en route to an outward 32. The southpaw couldn’t sustain that momentum, as bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 turned a potential 65 into a relatively disappointing 67.

“Bad decision on the par-3, and then a very tough tee shot for me on 17, and it just creeped into the bunker,” Watson said. “Just, that’s golf. You have mistakes every once in a while.”