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WGC-Mexico deserves better spot on the schedule

By Rex HoggardFebruary 28, 2018, 9:32 pm

MEXICO CITY – Leaving Trump National Doral was bittersweet for many PGA Tour types.

Although the Blue Monster had fallen out of favor in some circles following one too many facelifts, the annual South Florida stop was more than just another week on the road. For many, it was the unofficial start to the season and a staple on the schedule since 1962.

Those mixed feelings were somewhat mitigated by the event’s shift to Mexico City last year, a move that finally put the “World” back in World Golf Championship. The WGCs might have brought together the game’s best from across the globe, but they did so with a distinctly American lineup since the concept’s inception in the late 1990s.

Until the WGC-HSBC Champions in China was added to the rotation, the events had with a few exceptions been played in the U.S., which made the move to Mexico both encouraging and overdue.

The best version of professional golf being played in a region that had been void of top-caliber events checked off all the right boxes and was exactly what Benjamin Salinas, the CEO of Grupo Salinas, had in mind.

“In Mexico, golf has been an elite sport, and if you wanted to play golf you had to be a member of a private club, and that’s unacceptable,” Salinas said on Wednesday at Chapultepec Golf Club.

For Salinas, whose family runs TV Azteca and retailer Grupo Elektra, bringing the world’s best to Mexico is a matter of pride. Giving children, who have never been exposed to the game, a chance to experience and understand golf has always been the primary goal.

“We want more golfers, of course, but it’s more important the values that the game has,” he said. “We feel it starting to grow and this [the WGC] is an eye-opener.”

Officials recently opened a First Tee program just outside Mexico City, which was no small feat in a country that doesn’t adhere to the same non-profit notions as in the U.S., and Salinas has an ambitious goal to open a private golf course in every state in Mexico.

WGC-Mexico Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Perhaps exposing the game to the globe’s underdeveloped corners wasn’t in the original WGC mission statement, but Mexico now stands as the standard and a potential model for future international events.

That Salinas’ ambitious dream is unfolding in real time despite less-than-ideal conditions is both avoidable and misguided.

This week’s field at Chapultepec features 45 of the top 50 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, which is hardly reason for concern, but the no-shows are conspicuous. Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson and Jason Day all passed on the event, while Hideki Matsuyama and Brooks Koepka are out with injuries. It’s always easy in these situations to question the player, but this is more about the schedule than it is an issue of individual motivation.

McIlroy is fresh off three consecutive starts dating back to Pebble Beach, Stenson is in the field next week in Tampa, and Day is a former champion at Bay Hill and will pick up his schedule there. All three will also play the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Texas, in three weeks. Put another way, something had to give, and Mexico’s golf showcase, which is currently wedged between two Florida swing events, is the loser in this scenario.

Even Jordan Spieth, who tied for 12th here last year, was on the fence about playing this WGC as late as two weeks ago in Los Angeles.

“I love the golf course. I just didn’t know what was going to be best for me to be prepared for the Masters,” Speith said. “Ultimately, this tournament was one I thought could be fantastic for that. I was just trying to figure out where I was going to tee it up and get those reps."

The dramatic makeover of the Tour schedule beginning with the 2018-19 season will feature the WGC-Mexico Championship moving to the back end of the West Coast swing, but with fields in California and Arizona enjoying a renaissance in recent years, a post-Los Angeles date likely won't be a dramatic improvement over the event’s current date.

As the Tour schedule compacts to prepare for a pre-football season finale in 2019 and beyond, finding prime real-estate will be a challenge, but Mexico should be first in line for an upgrade, particularly with officials like Salinas talking in terms of a 20- or 30-year commitment.

The championship deserves better. Salinas deserves better. And the opportunity to truly grow the game on an international stage certainly deserves better.

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Fleetwood fires 63, waits to see if score is enough

By Rex HoggardJune 17, 2018, 8:52 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Tommy Fleetwood became the sixth player to shoot 63 at the U.S. Open, and just the second to do it in the final round. Now he waits.

Fleetwood teed off almost 2 ½ hours before – and six strokes behind – the leaders at Shinnecock Hills on Sunday, but stormed into the hunt thanks to four consecutive birdies starting at the 12th hole. The Englishman’s round was even more impressive considering he didn’t birdie either of the layout’s par 5s.

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Fleetwood finished at 2 over par – after missing a 9-foot putt for birdie and 62 at the 18th – which was tied for second place and one stroke off the lead held by Brooks Koepka when he completed his round.

After speaking with the media, Fleetwood went to the locker room to await a possible playoff, which was changed this year from an 18-hole overtime to just two holes of aggregate play.

“We'll go and relax a little bit and just see,” said Fleetwood, who rolled in 159 feet of birdies putts. “Only time will tell what's going to happen today at the course. If it was like yesterday, I'd feel a little more comfortable than now.”

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Fowler follows 84 with 65, praises Shinnecock setup

By Rex HoggardJune 17, 2018, 5:44 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – As promised, the USGA dialed back Shinnecock Hills for Sunday’s final round, watering the greens overnight and deferring to more user-friendly hole locations.

The evidence of this was on the leaderboard, with four early finishers having shot under-par rounds, including Rickie Fowler, who closed with a round-of-the-week 65. There were just three under-par cards on Saturday.

“That's the golf course I enjoy playing. Obviously, pin placements were a lot safer,” said Fowler, who had just one bogey on Sunday and opened his day with a 4-under 31 on his opening nine. “The pins today will definitely allow for the greens to firm up and get fast, and we'll see how much they dry out. It was definitely more receptive this morning than yesterday, that's for sure.”

U.S. Open: Scores | Live blog | Full coverage

It was a 19-stroke turnaround for Fowler, who ballooned to a third-round 84 on Day 3 during what most contend were the week’s toughest conditions. Fowler had put himself into contention going into the weekend thanks to a second-round 69, but struggled on Saturday afternoon like much of the field.

Fowler said the setup was vastly different to what players faced on Saturday and that even if the winds increase for the afternoon tee times the course will remain playable, unlike Round 3 when many players said the USGA “lost” the golf course.

“They did a good job of staying safe,” Fowler said, “because if it does dry out, it will still be very playable.”

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Phil celebrates par on 13, ducks media after round

By Ryan LavnerJune 17, 2018, 5:35 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Phil Mickelson didn’t have another meltdown at the U.S. Open.

Back on the 13th green Sunday – less than 24 hours after taking a two-shot penalty for hitting a moving ball and recording a sextuple-bogey 10 – Mickelson poured in a 10-footer and raised his arms in mock triumph, as if he’d finally won that elusive major title.

Not quite.

He’d simply made par.

“It looked like he won the Masters,” said playing partner Rickie Fowler. “He didn’t jump, but he had a little celebration there.”

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The par save and the final-round 69 were one of the lone bright spots during what was an adventurous week for Lefty, even by his unpredictable standards. Mickelson’s shocking swat was still the talk of this Open, especially after USGA executive director Mike Davis revealed Saturday night that Mickelson had called him to ask for more clarification on the rule he said that he knew he’d broken.

Despite some calls for him to withdraw from the tournament, Mickelson displayed his usual cheerful demeanor inside the ropes with Fowler.

“He joked about it right as we went down the first hole,” Fowler said.

Fowler said that he didn’t know “if I would have had the wits like Phil to run after it” on 13, but added that it never should have come to that in the first place.

“He could have saved himself a shot by just letting it go and taking unplayable, but then that would still look pretty funny too,” he said. “The course shouldn’t play that way.”

If you’re wondering whether Mickelson would be defiant or contrite on Sunday, we don’t know the answer. He declined to stop and speak with the media, deciding instead to sign autographs for more than a half hour and then offering a few short answers before ducking into player hospitality.

“The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’” he said. “I don’t know.”

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USGA slows greens, alters hole locations for Sunday

By Ryan LavnerJune 17, 2018, 3:29 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – After admitting that it went too far with the setup Saturday at the U.S. Open, USGA officials made some modifications for the final round.

In a statement released Sunday morning, the USGA said that it watered Shinnecock Hills’ greens an “appropriate level” and slowed down the surfaces nearly a foot on the Stimpmeter.

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That was in anticipation of a sunny, dry forecast that calls for temperatures to reach 80 degrees and wind gusts up to 20 mph.

They said the setup for the final day is similar to what was used in Round 1, when officials braced for 30-mph winds.

Some of the hole locations were also adjusted based on the forecast – changes, the USGA said, that were meant to “maintain a challenge yet fair U.S. Open test.”