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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. 

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Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 10:07 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.

The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.

“I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”

Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.

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As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.

“I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”

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Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

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Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

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This week, let the games(manship) begin

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

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Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.

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Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana

By Will GrayMarch 20, 2018, 6:43 pm

While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.

The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.

"I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."

Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.

According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."

"I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."

Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.

Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.

"I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."

Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.