Mickelson unhappy, staying positive after first round

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2013, 1:35 am

LA QUINTA, Calif. – Phil Mickelson’s season debut was destined to be a strange one. Ambling onto the range Thursday morning at La Quinta Country Club, he greeted tournament officials, loosened up with a few swings and threw down a bucket of balls not next to Pat Perez, Tim Clark or Charles Howell III. No, he saddled up right next to Craig T. Nelson.

They small-talked for 20 minutes, lashing balls into the morning sun, and Mickelson eventually invited the 68-year-old actor not just to dinner but perhaps a golf game in L.A. next month. “I’ll get your number,” Mickelson told him, and Nelson practically floated to the first tee.

That unlikely union is part of the unique charm of this event, but the Humana Challenge is no place for an ailing golfer, what with the myriad distractions, excruciatingly long rounds, cold-topped tee shots, shanked irons and yippy putting. To survive these rounds, a pro may feel compelled to reach for something stronger than flu medication.

But Mickelson on Thursday seemed to thoroughly enjoy the intimate experience, if not his uneven play. He grinned his way through a five-hour, 21-minute round, regaling his pro-am partners with lively stories, dazzling with his short-game wizardry, confounding with mental blunders and, through it all, providing an endless stream of commentary that showed the left-hander is in good spirits (if not perfect health) entering his 22nd year as a pro.  

“I was really anxious to get back (on Tour),” Mickelson said, even if his body wasn’t ready to cooperate. Last week he came down with a nasty case of the flu, and he didn’t arrive in the desert until Wednesday. Now about “95 percent” healthy, the only lingering signs of illness Thursday were a leaky nose and nasally voice, and Mickelson downplayed the effects after his round, saying, “It wasn’t anything life-threatening.”

More so than his health, however, Mickelson’s main concern now is making sure he’s around Sunday. His opening-round, even-par 72 in ideal conditions at La Quinta left him nine shots back and frustrated that his offseason work didn’t translate in his first official round of 2013.

“I know it’s there,” Mickelson said, “even though the results today were not good.”

After a pedestrian opening nine, Mickelson’ back side featured a few shots that won’t show up on the box score. On 10, he lined up on the right-hand side of the tee box and smashed a drive that cut off the right-to-left dogleg. Alas, it also brought into play the out of bounds down the left. Mickelson watched helplessly as his ball caught a tree and caromed off the cart path.

“Are you kidding me,” Mickelson hissed, and asked his caddie, Jim Mackay, for a reload.

When he arrived at his first ball, Mickelson quickly surveyed the situation – O.B. by a foot, near an artificial rock patch and a resident’s patio furniture – and angrily snatched up the ball and flipped it to Bones. After his fourth shot sailed long, Mickelson needed to make a 6-footer just to save double bogey – the same score he made there last year, during an opening 74 en route to a T-49 finish.

“That hole,” he said, “is just my nemesis.”

On the 12th tee, Mickelson pounded a 5-Hour Energy and then made one of his worst swings of the day, his ball sailing weakly to the left, behind the gallery. Of course, being 15 yards left of the green and behind two overhanging trees also afforded Mickelson an opportunity to show off his otherworldly short game, and he didn’t disappoint. He opened the blade of his 60-degree wedge and swung hard, the ball sailing above the trees, nicking nary a leaf, and dropping delicately on the edge of the green. The ball nestled to within 3 feet of the cup. Lefty grinned.

“You hit it there as much as I do, eventually you’re going to learn how to hit those shots,” he woofed.

Even more creative, perhaps, was how he handled his second shot on the 13th, after his tee shot sailed right, into the trees. His only option was to start the ball down the 14th fairway with a 5-wood and play a slinging slice.

Erik Compton, walking up the 14th, called out to Mickelson: “You got a shot?” 

Lefty shrugged. Then he smirked.

Of course he did.

Mickelson found the left side of the green, about 40 feet away for eagle. (Summing up his day, he three-jacked from there and settled for a momentum-killing par.)

On 15, he yanked his tee shot right, into the gallery, and hit a spectator in the groin. But once again, Mickelson recovered with a spectacular flop shot off a tight lie that helped him salvage par.

“I was able to shake out an even-par round today,” he said. “As bad as that is, I’ve got a low round in me tomorrow, and I don’t feel like it’s far off.”

Of course, only low rounds will suffice on Friday and Saturday if he wants to extend his stay in the desert. Sixteen players shot 65 or better on Day 1, and Mickelson sits at T-122 heading into Friday’s round on the Nicklaus Course, the easiest course in the rotation. 

“That,” Mickelson said, “was certainly not what I was expecting.” 

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Match Play Final Four set to bring the excitement

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 11:55 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Sunday’s Final Four at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play will include a pair of Georgia Bulldogs, a two-and-done phenom from Alabama and a Swede from Stockholm via Stillwater, that would be Oklahoma.

Just like that other tournament, right?

Actually, for all the volatility in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, it’s not even in the same league as this year’s Match Play, where just a single player who began the week seeded inside the top 10 is still playing.

But what the event may lack in star power it’s certainly made up for with stellar performances, starting with Justin Thomas who is the PGA Tour’s most avid Alabama fan and the tournament’s second-seeded player.

After not losing a match in three days of pool play, Thomas again cruised through his morning Round-of-16 bout with Si Woo Kim, 6 and 5; but found himself in an unfamiliar position early in his quarterfinal match against Kyle Stanley.

Having not trailed during any point in his matches this week, Thomas bogeyed the second hole to fall behind.

“I was hoping to never trail this whole week. I thought that was unbelievable that [2017 champion Dustin Johnson] did it last year,” Thomas said. “I'm going out there this afternoon, and I was like, ‘Man, I have got a chance of doing this, too.’ Then I missed a 3-footer on 2 and shot that out the window.”

The world’s second-ranked player was nearly perfect the rest of the way, regaining the lead with three birdies in four holes starting at No. 5 and closing Stanley out with a bogey-free finish.

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It’s all part of an impressive turnaround for Thomas, who had been slowed in recent weeks by dental surgery followed by a bout with the flu, which nearly prompted him to miss the Match Play.

“I had a pretty serious conversation with my dad on Monday if I was going to play,” said Thomas, who can unseat Johnson atop the Official World Golf Ranking if he advances to the championship match. “I never want to play in a tournament, first off if it's going to hurt my health. If I was sick or really sick, me trying to play this week wasn't going to do me any good.”

His improved health has dovetailed with his increasingly better play at Austin Country Club and he’s now two matches away from winning his first World Golf Championship.

Like the NCAA tournament, however, being one of the last four standing only means more work, and Thomas will have plenty to keep him busy when he sets out early Sunday in a semifinal match against Bubba Watson.

Although Watson hasn’t been as dominant as Thomas, his ability to overpower any course, any time, has been evident this week following victories over Brian Harman, 2 and 1, and Kiradech Aphibarnrat, 5 and 3, on his way to the Final Four.

“When you're hitting an 8-iron and another guy is hitting a 7- or another guy is hitting a 6-iron, obviously that's going to change everything,” said Watson, who played his college golf at Georgia. “It's like LeBron James, when he jumps, he jumps higher than I do, so it's an advantage. When you're hitting the driver good and those guys you're naming, they're known for hitting the driver pretty well, just like Thomas is doing right now, he's been hammering it. Anytime that you're hitting the driver somewhat straight, it's an advantage.”

But if Bubba is a familiar foe for Thomas, he may want to do a quick Google search to fill in the blanks on one of his potential final opponents.

While Alex Noren is still a relatively unknown player to many American fans (and that’s certain to change in September at the Ryder Cup), it’s only because they haven’t been paying attention. The Swede, who attended Oklahoma State, has been dominant this week, sweeping the group stage followed by a 5-and-3 victory over Patrick Reed in the Sweet 16 and a 4-and-2 triumph over Cameron Smith in the quarterfinals.

“I've always liked match play because the outcome is quite direct,” said Noren, who will face Kevin Kisner in the semifinals. “In match play, you've just got to be really focused all the time and anything can happen. And then you have to play good each round. You can't just give up a round and then think you've got three more.”

But if a JT vs. Noren final would be the perfect Ryder Cup primer, the dream match up for Thomas in the championship tilt might be Kisner.

Kisner lost a friendly wager to Thomas earlier this year at the Sony Open when Alabama defeated Georgia in the NCAA National Championship football game and he had to wear an Alabama jersey while he played the 17th hole on Thursday.

Kisner would certainly appreciate the chance at a mulligan. And the way the duo have been rolling in birdie putts this week, it has the potential to be just as entertaining as that other tournament.

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Up one, Stricker hunting second Champions title

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 11:48 pm

BILOXI, Miss. - Steve Stricker moved into position for his second straight PGA Tour Champions victory, shooting a 3-under 69 on Saturday to take a one-stroke lead in the Rapiscan Systems Classic.

Stricker won the Cologuard Classic three weeks ago in Tucson, Arizona, for his first victory on the 50-and-over tour. He tied for 12th the following week in the PGA Tour's Valspar Championship.

Full-field scores from the Rapiscan Systems Classic

Stricker had a 7-under 137 total at Fallen Oak, the Tom Fazio-designed layout with big, speedy greens.

The 51-year-old Wisconsin player bogeyed Nos. 2-3, rebounded with birdies on Nos. 6-7, birdied the par-4 12th and eagled the par-5 13th. He has six top-three finishes in eight career senior starts.

First-round leader Joe Durant followed his opening 66 with a 72 to drop into a tie for second with Jeff Sluman (67).

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Thomas can take world No. 1 with win over Watson

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 11:29 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – On March 7, Justin Thomas had his wisdom teeth removed, and just when he was recovering from that, he was slowed by a bout with the flu.

In total, he estimates he lost about seven pounds, and he admitted on Saturday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to play the event.

“I had a pretty serious conversation with my dad on Monday if I was going to play,” Thomas said. “I never want to play in a tournament, first off, if it's going to hurt my health. If I was sick or really sick, me trying to play this week wasn't going to do me any good.”

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Thomas went on to explain he was “50/50” whether he’d play the World Golf Championship, but decided to make the start and it’s turned out well for the world’s second-ranked player.

After going undefeated in pool play, Thomas cruised past Si Woo Kim, 6 and 5, in the round of 16 and secured himself a spot in the semifinals with a 2-and-1 victory over Kyle Stanley in the quarterfinals. If Thomas wins his semifinal match against Bubba Watson on Sunday, he’s assured enough points to overtake Dustin Johnson atop the Official World Golf Ranking.

“I don't care when it happens; I just hope it happens and it happens for a while,” Thomas said when asked about the possibility of becoming world No. 1. “I don't know what to say because I've never experienced it. I don't know what's going to come with it. But I just hope it happens tomorrow.”

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Garnett's six-shot lead dwindles to two in Punta Cana

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 10:57 pm

PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic - Brice Garnett took a six-stroke lead into the wind Saturday in the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship. He came out with a two-stroke advantage.

Garnett bogeyed three of the final six holes in the wind and rain for a 3-under 69 and a 16-under 200 total.

''Once we made the turn coming back, all those holes coming in toward the north, it was all we wanted and then some,'' Garnett said. ''I kind of took advantage of some holes going out, some holes downwind, some par 5s, and then we were just trying to leave it in the right spot those last four or five holes. Pars are pretty good scores on those holes.''

Canadian Corey Conners was second after a 67, and Tyler McCumber also had a 67 to get to 12 under. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo dropped out Friday, finishing last in the 132-man field in his PGA Tour debut. He shot 77-82 playing as an amateur on a sponsor exemption.

A stroke ahead after each of the first two rounds, Garnett opened with a bogey, birdied Nos. 2, 4 and 6, eagled the par-5 seventh, and made two more birdies on the par-3 ninth and par-5 12th. He bogeyed the par-4 13th, par-5 15th and par-3 17th.

Full-field scores from the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship

''I looked once and the lead was a little bigger than what it is now,'' Garnett said. ''The eagle was huge, kind of gave me that confidence that I can push it on out and stretch it a little bit more. That wind was tough and I'll take a two-shot lead into tomorrow.''

The 34-year-old Garnett is winless on the PGA Tour. He won twice last year on the Web.com Tour.

''You've got another 18 holes. So much can happen,'' Garnett said. ''Just going to try to keep the golf ball in front of me. I have that self-belief this week and that's what I had last year when I won, so I'll just keep my head down and just keep going.''

Conners had five birdies and a bogey on the front nine and added a birdie on No. 12.

''Really happy with the round,'' Conners said. ''I got off to a nice start, made a bunch of birdies on the front nine and kind of held it together on the back nine. It was playing really difficult. The wind was really blowing out there, made things challenging.''

McCumber, the son of 10-time PGA Tour winner Mark McCumber, has played his last 39 holes with a bogey.

''Second shots have been pretty solid,'' McCumber said. ''Putting pretty well, short game is pretty good. Just really being in the right areas and staying below the hole.''

Tom Lovelady was fourth at 11 under after a 68. Seamus Power (71), Denny McCarthy (71) and Seungsu Han (72) were 10 under.