#AskLav: The Masters is so close, you can taste it

By Ryan LavnerMarch 28, 2013, 11:30 am

As if you needed another reason to be deliriously optimistic about this year’s Masters – besides the smack-you-in-the-face storylines of Tiger Woods resuming his race to 18 majors, Rory McIlory bidding to win three-quarters of the career grand slam and Phil Mickelson hoping to avenge last year’s blunder amid the bamboo – there is this:

The chicken sandwich is back in Masters concession stands.

Stand and cheer – politely, of course – because a year after one of the most popular sandwiches was removed in favor of a healthier alternative, deep-fried minds have prevailed in bringing it back. The re-entry of that $3 staple means a hearty lunch consisting of three sandwiches (egg salad, pimento cheese, chicken breast) and a lemonade will cost about $10. (Mmm, food.) Sorry, Waffle House.

Here are a few other savory morsels in this week’s #AskLav mailbag:

The Tour’s hands were tied with this one, alas. With the Masters so late this year (April 11-14), there is an extra week to fill between the Florida swing and the year’s first major. Why not flip-flop San Antonio and Houston, you ask? In its contract, Valero stipulates that the tournament cannot be held Easter weekend, which is the same scenario that led to the Hilton Head tournament being played ahead of the Masters (and not its customary week-after spot) in 2011. That said, the switch hasn’t seemed to hurt the Houston field, with 12 of the top 25 players in the world teeing it up this week. Redstone is always one of the best-manicured courses on Tour, and tournament officials set up the course to replicate the conditions players will face in two weeks. It’s always a great tune-up for Augusta.

Of course, Tiger’s play has been eye-opening – after all, he’s already matched his victory total from last year in the first four PGA Tour stroke-play events this year. But when it comes to Woods, little truly surprises. So give me last year’s major champions. Among the quartet of Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson, Ernie Els and Rory McIlroy, they have produced just a pair of top-5 finishes this season, and in neither event were they serious contenders. That said, Bubba’s game turned a corner last week at Bay Hill, and he seems primed to make a spirited title defense in two weeks at Augusta. As for Simpson, well, he captured medalist honors earlier this week at the Tavistock Cup, which just might be the most meaningless sentence I’ve ever typed.

Considering he has never played Bay Hill – and clearly he isn’t afraid of turning down the King, who, as we saw in that EA Sports clip, has some pretty devastating counterpunches – then I wouldn’t count on seeing McIlroy next March in Orlando.

Myriad factors, of course, but the most significant reason is that he’s battling a flaw in his swing. Once that gets sorted out – plenty of practice time in the last two weeks, remember – there won’t be any talk about adjusting to the new equipment, or the pressures of being world No. 1, or whether he lacks the character traits to be a dominant and consistent force in the game. He’ll be just fine by summertime.

Of course he has a chance! This opinion is subject to change, especially after seeing how he performs this week in Houston. There are plenty of good seats still available on the Rory bandwagon, but if he follows up that Sunday 65 at Doral with another good showing at Redstone … yes, he’ll still be miles behind Tiger in terms of Masters favorites.

Stricks is too nice of a guy, so scowling at him might be most damaging. No, seriously, what he did by helping Tiger on the putting green at Doral is no different than what dozens of Tour pros do each week. They help. They are an extra (and expert) set of eyes. Stricker told reporters in Houston this week that he’s had about five players come up and ask him to look at their strokes. Some were joking. Some, however, were quite serious.

Sixteen years – is this some kind of historic anniversary? But since you asked … mostly, I remember sitting in my tiny living room, watching on a little Zenith TV, just a few days after turning 10, and marveling at how a kid just barely a decade older than I was could humiliate the world’s best players. Naturally, it was inspiring. Even at that age, it was impossible not to believe you were witnessing the opening act from the greatest golfer who ever lived.

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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.

Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship

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.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“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.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

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.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

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.”