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Eight huge questions for golf in 2018

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 2, 2018, 7:00 pm

A new year means new storylines. And though some might wish 2017 never ended (here’s looking at you, JT), others couldn’t wait for the calendar to flip to January 1.

Here are eight burning questions as we roll into 2018:

1. Can the U.S. Win the Ryder Cup?

It’s the most-anticipated event of 2018, and it’s not particularly close. The Americans haven’t won a Ryder Cup on foreign soil since 1993, a squad that was captained, coincidentally, by Tom Watson, whose disastrous reign was the impetus for this U.S. revival. Over the past two international team competitions, the Americans have won by a combined score of 36-22.

Promisingly, the same core will make the trip to France in September, where they will take on a European team headlined by Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood, but whose foundation is built on aging leaders such as Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia.

Never has snapping the U.S. team’s 25-year drought seemed more attainable. Which only adds to the pressure.


2. What Does Tiger Have Left in the Tank?

Here we are again, contemplating Woods’ short- and long-term future an an auspicious return at the Hero World Challenge. We did this very thing last year … except this time it feels different, more promising, after he showed plenty of speed following his last-ditch fusion surgery and vowed to go it alone with his swing.

That last part is important: Over the past few years, it was painfully clear that Woods’ brilliant golf mind was cluttered (remember “release patterns”?) as he morphed from artist to scientist. Woods’ holiday news dump that he’s ditching swing coach Chris Como was welcome news – not because Como had Woods on the wrong path but because it shows that Woods is once again taking ownership of his game, that he’s relying more on his instincts and less on technique.

As of this writing, it’s not yet known what the early part of his 2018 schedule will look like, but here’s hoping (perhaps unrealistically) that it doesn’t include Torrey Pines or any unnecessary international travel. He has only one chance to make this “comeback” work, so he needs to pick his spots where he can fine-tune for the majors.


3. Is It Make-Or-Break Time for Rory?

The former world No. 1 was so out of sorts by the end of his disappointing 2017 campaign that he decided to shut it down for the last three months of the year. That should have been ample time to heal both his injured rib and his battered psyche.

Instead of challenging Spieth as golf’s alpha dog, McIlroy hasn’t looked like the same dominant player over the past few seasons, his hot streak in the 2016 playoffs skewing what was another pedestrian year. Injuries have been a factor, no doubt, but the holes in his game (shaky putting and shoddy wedge play) were obvious, and his occasional disappearing acts prompted some to question his motivation and desire.

Announcing an ambitious, PGA Tour-centric schedule with eight events in the lead-up to the Masters suggests that the fire is back, and hopefully he’ll be sharp by early April.

The game is more interesting with Rory in the mix.


4. What Will Justin Thomas Do For an Encore?

At this time last year, Thomas was among the Tour’s most promising up-and-comers whose only titles had come in Malaysia. He matched that win total with a Hawaiian doubleheader, then kept rolling with three more victories, including his first major at the PGA, to sweep the FedExCup and Player of the Year honors. So complete was his game, he checked off nearly all of his individual goals.

Thomas has always thrived when playing with a Kentucky-sized chip on his shoulder, but slights are hard to find now. He’s the third-ranked player in the world, and no one refers to him as merely Jordan Spieth’s good buddy.

Where will his edge come from? That’s for Thomas to learn this year, his first as a bona fide superstar.


5. How Will Lexi (and Lydia) Rebound?

No player endured more on-course heartbreak than Thompson, the 22-year-old mega-talent whose self-inflicted miscues in bookend big events cost her a major, Player of the Year and the No. 1 ranking. (And that doesn’t even include the off-course distraction of her mother, Judy, being treated for uterine cancer.)

Sure, that’s a lot of scar tissue for someone so young, but Thompson is unlikely to be so careless again, either while marking her ball or attempting 2-footers.

She has all of the physical tools to take over the tour. (Despite her various blunders, she managed two victories and six runners-up last year.) What a story it’d be in 2018 if she finally does.

Though Thompson has never reached world No. 1, Ko is trying to return to the top after her 84-week run ended in June.

By any measure, 2017 was a massive disappointment for Ko, who went winless and baffled observers by changing swing coaches, equipment and caddies. Unlike Thompson, Ko doesn’t have the power to make up for average iron play and putting. If those areas don’t improve, her slide seems likely to continue, especially with the emergence of even more young South Korean talent.


6. What’s Next for Jordan Spieth?

The Golden Child is not a kid anymore – he’s engaged to high school sweetheart Annie Verrett – and his resume is all grown up, too.

His memorable run to the claret jug leaves him only one major shy of the career Grand Slam, and at 24, he’s still on a pace that puts him in the same conversation as Jack and Tiger.

Spieth’s game took a massive step forward in 2017. Viewed by many as just a red-hot putter, he became the best iron player in the game, leading the Tour in strokes gained-approach the green. Interestingly, it was his putter that cost him at times last year, and it’s fair to assume that he spent the majority of his offseason working on his stroke and his driver.

His average is nearly three wins a year, with a boatload of other top-10s, so count on similar production in 2018. The only question is whether he adds to his major haul.


7. Are the Governing Bodies and Equipment Manufacturers on a Collision Course?

It sure seems that way, with the endless chatter about the distance that today’s high-performance golf balls fly. (Which is a gross oversimplification of the issue, but that’s a column for another day.) That the USGA’s Mike Davis opined that the impact of the distance boom has been “horrible” set off alarms in Fairhaven and Carlsbad, though any implementation of a reduced-flight ball would be met with resistance, lawsuits and confusion.

It’s a messy situation that affects only about 20 players on the PGA Tour – no one on the LPGA or Champions circuit, and especially no one at your local club, is complaining about the ball going too far – but the optics are terrible when par 5s are reduced to driver-7-iron.

What’s the solution? Hey, beats us, but distance figures to be a hot topic all year, as will the revamped Rules of Golf set to go into effect in 2019.


8. Who is This Year’s Xander Schauffele?

Tip of the cap to those of you who tabbed Schauffele as the breakout star of a rookie class that included Bryson DeChambeau, Ollie Schniederjans and Wesley Bryan.

Because we sure didn’t see it coming.

Fighting for his card midway through the year, Schauffele starred at the U.S. Open, won his first title at the Greenbrier and then beat the Tour’s best at East Lake.  

This year’s list of newcomers includes former U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein, Keith Mitchell and Aaron Wise. (Technically, Beau Hossler isn’t a rookie, but he already has a pair of top-10s this season.) Austin Cook has already won once, in Sea Island, and he won’t be the only newbie to hoist some hardware. 

Marc Dull (Florida State Golf Association)

Cops called in bizarre ending to Florida Mid-Am

By Ryan LavnerMay 20, 2018, 7:16 pm

In a one-paragraph post on its website, the Florida State Golf Association declared Marc Dull the winner of the 37th Mid-Amateur Championship on May 13 after his opponent – in a tie match with two holes to go – was unable to return because of an “unfortunate injury” sustained during a lengthy weather delay.

Left unreported was what allegedly happened.

According to a police report (see below) obtained by GolfChannel.com, the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office received a call that afternoon from Dull’s opponent, Jeff Golden, who claimed that he’d been assaulted in the parking lot at Coral Creek Club, the tournament host site in Placida. In a statement provided to police, Golden said that he was sucker-punched in the face by Dull’s caddie, Brandon Hibbs.

Both in his statement to police and in a subsequent phone interview afterward, Golden, 33, said that the alleged incident stemmed from a rules dispute on the ninth hole during the championship match. As he surveyed his putt, Golden asked Dull whether the cup was damaged or if there was loose debris around the edge.

“Don’t worry about it,” Hibbs reportedly told Golden. “If you’re going to make it, you’re going around it.”

With tensions already running high because of what he perceived as breaches of etiquette by his opponents, Golden informed the rules official in the group that he believed Hibbs’ statement constituted advice. The penalty was a loss of hole, giving Golden a 2-up lead at the turn.

At that point, Hibbs told police, he recused himself and returned to the clubhouse. Dull and Golden continued their match, heading to the 17th hole all square when they were pulled off the course because of inclement weather.

Golden told police that he headed to the parking lot at 2:45 p.m. to retrieve some dry clothes from his car when Hibbs “approached him, apologized, then punched him on the left side of the face,” causing him to fall to the ground.

“I had a moment where I was happy to see him, because the first thing he said to me was, ‘I want to apologize,’” Golden said last week in a phone interview. “By the time he finished I was being punched.”

Asked why he believed Hibbs would strike him, Golden said: “It was from the earlier ruling, 100 percent. He had anger toward me because I called him out on a ruling.”

In a statement given to police, Hibbs, 36, said that he had “been in the clubhouse the entire time and did not batter [Golden], nor was he in the parking lot.” Hibbs, who caddies with Dull at Streamsong Resort in Central Florida, did not return a message seeking comment.

Police wrote in the report that there were no witnesses to the alleged attack, nor was there any surveillance video from the parking lot. While observing Golden the officer noted “no swelling or abrasions to the face,” but there was “some redness on the inside of [Golden’s] lip.” Hibbs’ hands and knuckles showed “no scrapes or abrasions.”

Golden, however, said that there were three bloodstains on his shirt and punctures inside his mouth that proved he’d been struck. He also described himself afterward as “dizzy” and seeing “weird shades of colors,” and that the area between his wrist and thumb was “very sensitive” from catching his fall. Still feeling woozy, he met with his doctor the day after the alleged incident and also underwent a CT scan on Friday.

“I was extremely shaken up,” he said. “I had concussion symptoms.”

Golden declined to press charges – he said later that he wasn’t given the option, because of a lack of physical evidence – and refused medical attention.

Reached by phone last week, Dull said that he had no knowledge of the alleged attack and was only made aware once the police arrived. He said he had waited out the delay in a storm shelter.

“It was shocking,” he said. “[Hibbs] said to me, ‘I didn’t touch the guy.’”

Once the police left, it was up to the FSGA to determine how to proceed.

With the course now playable after a two-hour delay, under the Rules of Golf, the players were expected back on the 17th hole.

Golden asked Dull whether he would concede the match.

“I said that I wasn’t going to concede,” Dull said. “Why would I concede the match when I was sitting in the shelter, and when I come back someone is accused of being hit?”

So Golden then decided to concede, handing the Mid-Am title to Dull, the reigning FSGA Amateur Player of the Year.

“I just wanted to get home,” Golden explained later.

Asked last week for more details about the final result, Jeff Magaditsch, the organization’s director of tournament operations, said in an email that Golden “expressed concern about a wrist issue” and that “not much additional information is available.”

A day later, once the details of the police report became available, FSGA executive director Jim Demick said that Golden “didn’t want to play anymore.”

“Regrettably, the golf course was very playable and Jeff understood that he needed to resume the match,” he said. “I think he was just ready to go.”

When asked to comment on the alleged attack, Demick said that the police “found absolutely no evidence of an assault.”

Last week Golden, who qualified for the 2007 U.S. Open and is now a tennis pro at Palencia in St. Augustine, appealed the FSGA’s decision, writing in a letter that tournament officials shouldn’t have accepted his concession.

Dull said that he was “annoyed by the whole incident.”

“I think it taints the entire championship,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. No golf tournament should end that way.”

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Delayed start for Nelson might mean Monday finish

By Will GrayMay 20, 2018, 6:04 pm

DALLAS – Inclement weather  pushed back final-round tee times at the AT&T Byron Nelson by more than four hours, increasing the likelihood of a Monday finish in the tournament’s debut at Trinity Forest Golf Club.

With the field already scheduled to play in threesomes off split tees, the opening tee times for the day got pushed back from 9:23 a.m. CT to 1:23 p.m. because of steady rain in the area. The delay means that the final group won’t start their round until 3:35 p.m. local time.

With sunset in the Dallas area scheduled for 8:23 p.m., the leaders will likely have just under five hours to complete their rounds or face returning to the course Monday morning. Threesomes have been used for each of the first three days, and in part because of the intricacies of the new layout rounds have routinely approached 5 hours and 30 minutes in duration.

Should play spill over into Monday, those playing next week’s event will face one of the Tour’s shortest commutes, with Fort Worth Invitational host Colonial Country Club less than an hour away.

Marc Leishman and Aaron Wise share the 54-hole lead at 17 under, four shots clear of the field. They’ll be joined in the final trio by Australia’s Matt Jones, who is tied for third with Kevin Na.

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Watch: Tiger 'drops mic' in long drive contest

By Golf Channel DigitalMay 20, 2018, 12:44 am

Tiger Woods is in Las Vegas this weekend for the 20th annual Tiger Jam charity event that benefits his foundation.

During the tournament on Saturday afternoon, Woods challenged World Long Drive competitor Troy Mullins to a long drive contest.

 

A post shared by TROY MULLINS (@trojangoddess) on May 19, 2018 at 1:25pm PDT

Safe to say it looks like Tiger won.

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Sunday showdown for Wise, Leishman at Nelson

By Will GrayMay 19, 2018, 11:40 pm

DALLAS – While the swirling Texas winds may still have their say, the AT&T Byron Nelson is shaping up to be a two-horse race.

With a four-shot gulf between them and their closest pursuers, co-leaders Marc Leishman and Aaron Wise both stepped up to the microphone and insisted the tournament was far from over. That it wouldn’t revert to a match-play situation, even though the two men didn’t face much pressure from the pack down the stretch of the third round and have clearly distanced themselves as the best in the field through 54 holes.

But outside of an outlier scenario or a rogue tornado sweeping across Trinity Forest Golf Club, one of the two will leave with trophy in hand tomorrow night.

That’s in part because of their stellar play to this point, but it’s also a byproduct of the tournament’s new and unconventional layout: at Trinity Forest, big numbers are hard to find.

Even with the winds picking up during the third round and providing the sternest challenge yet, the field combined for only 16 scores of double bogey, and nothing worse than that.


Full-field scores from the AT&T Byron Nelson

AT&T Byron Nelson: Articles, photos and videos


There’s irony in a course called Trinity Forest offering a tree-less test, sure, but there are also no water hazards in play here. For the most part, players have been maxing out with bogey – and Leishman and Wise have combined for only six of those so far this week.

If someone from the chase pack is going to catch them, the two sharing the pole position aren’t going to do them any favors.

“I don’t really want to give them a chance,” Leishman said. “I’d love to go out and shoot a low one and make Aaron have to shoot a good score tomorrow to beat me, which, I fully expect him to shoot a good score.”

While Leishman has been somewhat of a late bloomer on the PGA Tour, with only one win across his first eight seasons, he now has a golden opportunity to add a third trophy in the last 14 months. He has felt right at home on a sprawling layout that reminds him of a few back in his native Australia, and he’s part of a Down Under invasion on a leaderboard that also includes Matt Jones (-13) and Adam Scott (-9).

While Wise briefly held sole possession of the lead, Leishman has seemingly held an iron grip on the top spot since opening his week with a blistering 61.

“Before last year, I was a pretty slow starter. I always got off to a slow start Thursday, or I’d be fighting to make the cut and have a good weekend to slide into the top 10,” Leishman said. “Getting into that round straight away on the first tee rather than the ninth green or something, which sounds like a really basic thing, but it’s something I didn’t do very well until last year.”

But as Leishman acknowledged, he likely can’t count on a stumble from Wise to help finish off a wire-to-wire victory. As the youngest player to make the cut this week, Wise is facing a challenge of taking down a top-ranked Aussie for the second time in as many starts.

While he came up short at the Wells Fargo Championship, tying for second behind Jason Day, he remains supremely confident that he can put those hard-earned lessons to use this time around.

“I feel like it’s a great opportunity,” Wise said. “It will obviously be a huge day for me. I feel like having one go at it already, I’m a little more confident going into it this time.”

Even among the landscape of the Tour’s promising next wave, Wise stands out as a particularly young gun. Still only 21, he could feasibly be heading to Karsten Creek next week with his Oregon Duck teammates to close out his senior season with another NCAA championship appearance.

But Wise turned pro after winning the NCAA individual title as a sophomore, and he steadily worked his way through the professional ranks: first a win on the Mackenzie Tour in Canada, then one last summer on the Web.com Tour.

Now he’s poised to turn what he described as a “lackluster” season before his Quail Hollow runner-up into one that defies even his own expectations.

“Absolutely, I am way ahead of the curve. It’s pretty hard to do what I’ve done at such a young age. Only a few have done it,” Wise said. “I feel like I’m getting some great experience for a kid this young. It’s only going to serve me well down the road.”

An unpredictable Coore-Crenshaw layout will have one more day to star, and outside of Wise the top six names on the leaderboard have at least one Tour win to their credit. But after the two men traded punches on a firm and fast afternoon, it sure feels like the final round is shaping up to offer more of the same.

For Leishman, it’s a chance to add another notch to some quickly expanding credentials; for Wise, it’s an opportunity to win on the one level he has yet to do so.

“It’s golf, at the end of the day. If you play better than everyone else, you’re going to win,” Wise said. “That’s why I play it. That’s why I love this sport, and tomorrow is nothing different.”