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Monday Scramble: Questions great and small

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 12, 2018, 4:30 pm

Ted Potter Jr. overtakes Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson impresses, Tony Romo gets a start, an amateur shoots 56 over par and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

There’s no overstating just how impressive Potter’s victory was Sunday at Pebble Beach.

It was his first time in a final group since 2011, on the Tour.

It was the first time he’d been paired with Johnson since 2014, before DJ was a major champion and the world No. 1.

And he was playing one of the most iconic courses in the world, against the most stacked field of the year, in a threesome that waited all day while the other groups ahead needed six hours to complete their final rounds.

All of that … and Potter never blinked, other than a nervy three-putt on the opening hole. He was 4 under the rest of the way, holing clutch par-savers and putting it on cruise control late, an anticlimactic three-shot victory. Not that Potter minded.

He now has two Tour victories (2012 Greenbrier), to go along with his estimated 60 titles on the mini-tours. This was easily the most significant – and the most surprising, given the circumstances. 

1. Potter’s win at Pebble Beach was his first top-10 on Tour since July 2013. He lost nearly two years after breaking his fibula and tibia and requiring 12 screws and two plates to put his ankle back together.

But Potter, 34, is used to overcoming adversity. In 2004, while trying to establish himself in golf’s minor leagues, he missed the cut in all 24 of his starts. So, no, an ankle injury wasn’t going to deter him.

He regained his Tour card by finishing 14th on last year’s Web money list, after a season in which he had two runners-up and seven other top-10s.

With this victory, he is now exempt through the 2019-20 season.

2. And what of Potter’s more heralded playing partner?

A birdie on the last gave Johnson an even-par 72. At one point Saturday Johnson led by four shots, but Potter’s 62 at Monterey Peninsula and then another solid closing round Sunday left Johnson three shots behind.

Johnson shot only 2 under across the final two rounds at Pebble. To put that in perspective, no player over the past 10 years had a better scoring average at Pebble than DJ (68.9). He just wasn’t sharp enough with his irons.

3. Sunday’s pace of play didn’t help, either, and for that he can look to his pro-am partner. 

Johnson’s father-in-law (oh, yeah, and former NHL legend) Wayne Gretzky withdrew after the third round because of a back injury.

Or not.

Gretzky was in Edmonton on Sunday afternoon, as his 1984-85 Oilers squad was celebrated as the “Greatest NHL Team of All Time,” after a vote by 3.6 million fans. The intimate gathering at the Rogers Place cost fans $99, and they'd been promoting that Gretzky would attend.

Why was this significant? Johnson plays quickly, and as a three-ball (including Potter’s pro-am partner, 9-handicap Sean Kell) they waited on every shot behind all of the foursomes.

“It was slow,” Johnson admitted.

Gretzky could have been a welcome distraction from all of the downtime in between shots. 

4. This was the second time in three tries this season that DJ coughed up a 54-hole lead, though this wasn’t nearly as crushing as his six-shot meltdown last fall in China. Over his career, he’s now 5-for-12 converting a third-round lead.  

5. Now nearly five years and 100 starts removed from his last victory, Phil Mickelson seems as close as ever to ending the longest drought of his career.

Lefty closed with a 67 Sunday to finish in a four-way tie for second. It was his seventh runner-up finish since that Muirfield Open, but his first since the 2016 Open, when he was outdueled by Henrik Stenson.

Coupled with a tie for fifth in Phoenix – another track where Mickelson has historically played well – he now has consecutive top-5s for the first time since 2013. The last time he’s had three top-5s in a row? All the way back in 2007. He’s in the field this week at Riviera.

“Right now I’m hitting it as well as I have in a long time,” Mickelson said. 

6. It may have looked like an ordinary tie for 20th, but Jordan Spieth made significant progress last week at Pebble. He needed 27 or fewer putts each of the last three rounds on bumpy, poa annua greens, and he finished the week ranked 38th in strokes gained-putting – his best of the season in a full-field event.

The reason for the turnaround?

Spieth said Steve Stricker took a look at his putting, and caddie Michael Greller offered a good tip about keeping things moving, not being so static over the ball.

“From the beginning of the year until now,” he said, “this is as good as I’ve felt. It’s all positives.” 

7. The setting is so idyllic, it’s hard to storm off property after a missed cut at Pebble Beach. And so Rory McIlroy still managed a few smiles even after a disappointing season debut on the PGA Tour.

After two close calls to start the year on the European Tour, McIlroy’s putter didn’t make the long trip. It was ice-cold during a Friday round at Spyglass, where he needed 38 swipes (and five on one hole), and he missed the 54-hole cut by two shots.

Still, he seemed to enjoy his three rounds in his tournament debut, playing alongside his father, Gerry. “I wish I could have played a little bit better for him,” McIlroy said. “But it was a really cool few days, even though the golf didn’t quite go where we wanted it to. We still had a good time.”

He’s back in action this week at Riviera, his second of three events in a row. 

8. Tony Romo will make his official PGA Tour debut next month at the PGA Tour’s opposite-field event in the Dominican Republic. CBS broadcasting partner Jim Nantz called this a few weeks ago, when he suggested that Romo would soon tee it up in a Tour event.

It’s a smart move by the folks at Corales Puntacana Resort & Club – there was going to be little attention on the event that is played opposite the WGC-Match Play, and now there’s a reason to tune in – but a risk by the Tour. No professional athlete has teed it up in a Tour event since 1992, since a disastrous showing by former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien, who shot 80-91.

If Romo similarly flames out – and there’s no reason to think he will, as a plus-0.3 handicap – then it’ll be a long time before another athlete gets a crack at the big leagues. 

9. Kiradech Aphibarnrat didn’t decide to play the World Super 6 until last Sunday and didn’t even arrive in Perth until Wednesday, eschewing a practice round. He was the final qualifier for match play, finishing 24th, and then survived a marathon weekend to earn his fourth European Tour title.

It’s his second match-play title, after winning the 2015 Paul Lawrie event. It’ll be fun to watch him at next year’s Presidents Cup, assuming he remains in good form. 

10. Tiger Woods hasn’t yet committed to next week’s Honda Classic, and he likely won’t decide until he sees how his week progresses at the Genesis Open. That’s what Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg, told ESPN over the weekend.

It’s easy to see Woods playing Honda if he misses the cut at Riviera – that’d give him a few more days to recover – but playing back-to-back weeks is a tall task for a guy coming off four back surgeries and wanting to take things slowly in 2018. If he makes the cut at Riviera AND plays Honda, that’s a great sign moving forward.

If Woods doesn’t play Honda, then his options for the rest of the pre-Masters schedule is limited. He isn’t eligible for the WGC-Mexico or WGC-Match Play, he’s never played the week before the Masters (Houston) and, if we assume that he’ll tee it up at Bay Hill, then Valspar the previous week would be a no-go, too, since that’d be back-to-back starts. 

Still want to complain about how Steph Curry doesn’t deserve an unrestricted sponsor exemption on the Tour?

At least he didn’t embarrass himself.

The same can’t be said for amateur Julio Bell, who was given a spot in this week’s Club Colombia Championship.

The 52-year-old shot rounds of 93-105 – that adds up to a 36-hole total of 56 over par – and then didn’t even have the dignity to sign his scorecard, so he was disqualified. 

Because it’s an unrestricted sponsor exemption, there are few rules in place about who can and can’t play – there were some reports that Bell paid for the spot – but maybe the sponsors can do just a little vetting beforehand? 

This week's award winners ...

Weekend Troubles: Jon Rahm and Beau Hossler. With a chance to make a dent in his world-ranking deficit, Rahm has now shot over par in each of his last three final rounds, including a 76 Sunday at Pebble. Hossler, meanwhile, is averaging less than 69 in each of the first two rounds this season, while he’s 184th on Tour (73.33) in the final round. Both are too talented to keep this trend going for much longer.

Master of Consistency: Chez Reavie. Dating to last fall, he has now finished in the top 25 in 10 of his past 12 starts, including a playoff loss at the Phoenix Open. He followed that up with a tie for second at Pebble. 

Story You Might Have Missed: Adam Scott. After missing the cut at Pebble, the Australian is all the way down to 51st in the world. He’s not yet exempt into the U.S. Open – his five-year exemption for winning the 2013 Masters expired last year – but he will need to remain in the top 60 later this spring for a spot. 

Give These Guys a Medal: Bell’s playing partners. Somehow, Jim Knous (T-16) and Jimmy Stanger (T-20) both made the cut in Colombia, despite watching the third in the group slap it around like a 20-handicapper. They should be commended. 

How to Clap Back: Romo. Pulling double duty on the par-3 17th at Pebble Beach, Romo settled in for his bunker shot with his headset on and a microphone stuffed in his left pocket while CBS analyst Nick Faldo criticized his setup. Romo splashed out to 12 feet, grabbed the mic and said to Faldo, without missing a beat, “It’s a different kind of sand, Nick.”

Of course, the week wasn’t all bad for Faldo: He also made an ace on Jim Nantz’s (sick) backyard hole.

Initiated: Charlie Rymer. Making his PGA Tour Champions debut, the Golf Channel personality got a rude awakening to the senior circuit, finishing last in the 77-man field (and 39 shots back of winner Mark Calcavecchia) after a closing 87. These guys are good!

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Gary Woodland. Flying high off a win in Phoenix, and with a tie for fifth in this event a year ago, Woodland was a good bet to continue his run of three consecutive top-15s. Instead, he crashed out with rounds of 69-72-73 to miss the cut. Sigh.

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McIlroy pleased with opening 67 at BMW PGA

By Will GrayMay 24, 2018, 4:47 pm

While a short miss on the final green denied him a share of the clubhouse lead, Rory McIlroy had plenty of reason to smile after opening the BMW PGA Championship with a 5-under 67.

McIlroy won the European Tour's flagship event in memorable fashion in 2014, erasing a seven-shot deficit on the final day. But the West Course at Wentworth has otherwise been a house of horrors for the Ulsterman, as he missed the cut in his three other appearances since 2012 and has played the course in a combined 10 over in his eight career appearances.

This marks his first return to the event since 2015, and he's now one shot off the early pace after a round that at times offered glimpses of his commanding form from recent years.

"I think I did everything pretty well," McIlroy said. "I drove the ball much better, put the ball in play off the tee a lot more than I've done the last couple weeks, so that's been really good. I thought I gave myself a lot of chances, and I took most of them."

McIlroy started slowly, and a bogey on No. 9 after a poor approach from the middle of the fairway meant he made the turn in just 1 under. But he got that dropped shot back on the next hole, then added birdies on Nos. 14 and 16 to climb up the leaderboard. He appeared poised to add at least one more tally, but was unable to birdie either of the two closing par-5s at Wentworth including a miss from inside 4 feet on No. 18.

"A little frustrated that I couldn't get a birdie or two out of the last couple holes, but overall a really good start," he said.

Making his first start since a missed cut at The Players Championship, McIlroy sits one shot behind Darren Fichardt, Dean Burmester and Lucas Bjerregaard with hopes for "more of the same" from his game over the weekend on a course that has often had his number.

"If I can hit the ball like I did today over the next three days, I think I'll be right there," McIlroy said.

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NCAA Women's takeaways: Heartwarming for Haley

By Ryan LavnerMay 24, 2018, 4:33 pm

STILLWATER, Okla. – Before Karsten Creek is officially handed over to the men, here are some parting thoughts from the NCAA Women’s Championship, which saw Arizona defeat Alabama in an extra-holes thriller:

• A team of destiny, maybe not, but there was an unmistakable sense from speaking to other coaches that they wanted no part of Arizona after Bianca Pagdanganan buried that 30-footer for eagle on the final hole of stroke play. The Wildcats played with an edge, and without fear, after barely sneaking into the match-play field – and that’s a dangerous combination for opposing teams.

• It was heartwarming to watch Arizona’s Haley Moore sink the clinching putt, a 4-footer for birdie that gave the Wildcats their third NCAA title (and first since 2000). She’s had an interesting career, from making the cut at the ANA Inspiration at 16 years old to dealing with some less-than-welcoming teammates in Tucson. Her coaches refer to her as a “gentle giant,” but her wild swings in emotion on the course are difficult to manage; she so desperately wants to play well for her team that she puts undue pressure on herself to perform. That’s why Wednesday’s result was so important. “It gives them a little extra belief in themselves that they didn’t have before,” Arizona coach Laura Ianello said.

• That Alabama’s Lakareber Abe even pushed the anchor match into extras was somewhat of a surprise. She missed a 5-footer on 16 that would have given her a 1-up lead with two holes to play, and she also hit a pair of shanks (or semi-shanks) on both Nos. 13 and 17 that would have destroyed most players’ confidence. Instead, she stepped up on the par-5 18th and hit the second-most impressive shot of the championship, a roasted 3-wood to 12 feet to set up a two-putt birdie and sudden-death playoff.

• The pace of play at the NCAA Championship was, in a word, dreadful. Yes, the final day of stroke-play qualifying is the most intense day of the season, and it’s staged on the most difficult course they’ll play all year. But rounds can’t take six hours to complete, nor should the championship match go for 4 hours and 45 minutes in regulation. (They had time for maybe two more playoff holes before sunset.) In most cases, there was way too much over-coaching, and it’s something that needs to be addressed by the NCAA.

• The curse of the medalist continues. UCLA extended a run of misery for the top seeds after stroke play, as the Bruins made it 0-for-13 for both the men and women. If there’s any team that can snap the streak, winning both the stroke- and match-play portions, it’s Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are the prohibitive favorites at nationals this week, and not just because they’re playing on their home turf. Don’t be surprised if they take the stroke-play portion by as many as 20 strokes, which will only ratchet up the pressure in match play.

• In one of the tightest races in recent memory, your trusty correspondent voted for Wake Forest junior Jennifer Kupcho for the Annika Award, given to the top player in the country. Kupcho didn’t have the most wins – that was Arkansas’ Maria Fassi, with six. She didn’t have the most consistency, either – that was UCLA’s Lilia Vu, who didn’t finish outside the top 6 in the regular season. But Kupcho earned my vote for one simple reason: No player went into this season with the specter of having blown an NCAA title a year ago. In 2017, Kupcho had a two-shot lead heading into the 71st hole and made triple bogey to lose by one. All she did this year was rip off three wins in her last four starts – including regionals, where she set a school scoring record and sank the clinching birdie to push Wake into nationals, and then went wire-to-wire at Karsten Creek.

• Depending on your rooting interests, Arizona either won a thriller … or top-ranked ’Bama lost it in gut-wrenching fashion. The 18th green afterward is always a surreal scene: One team chanting and dancing and crying, while a few feet away the other five players are absolutely devastated. The trophy presentations are difficult to watch, with the five losing players and two coaches enduring a 20-minute ceremony. While Arizona whooped it up beside them, the Tide stood silently, holding their NCAA runner-up trophies, politely clapping and generally looking as though they’d rather be anywhere in the world but there.

• UCLA’s Patty Tavatanakit and Arizona’s Pagnanganan were the two most impressive players this observer watched last week in Oklahoma. The sound coming off their clubfaces was just different. They look like not just future LPGA winners, but possibly major champions.

• Alabama junior Cheyenne Knight is turning pro, and it’s a bit of a head-scratcher. Sure, she was a first-team All-American once again, but she also was the third-best player on her squad this season (and it wasn’t particularly close). It leaves a hole in the middle of coach Mic Potter’s lineup, and the void could grow even wider with standout Lauren Stephenson (fresh off recording the lowest single-season scoring average in NCAA Division I history, 69.5) expected to enter the LPGA’s new qualifying series in the fall. It could be the Kristen Gillman Show in 2018-19, and she’s ready.

• Duke senior Leona Maguire capped her remarkable college career with a quarterfinal exit in match play. She leaves as one of the best players not just in Duke history but in all of college golf, a two-time Player of the Year and the owner (at least for now) of the lowest scoring average in NCAA history. The only thing she didn’t do? Win a NCAA title, either with her team or as an individual, despite staying in school all four years. She’ll be an intriguing player to watch at the pro level, because Duke coach Dan Brooks believes she can be a future Hall of Famer.

• If you’re still griping that match play doesn’t crown the best team all season … well … just stop. The nonstop drama of Arizona-Alabama is exactly why the NCAA switched to head-to-head match play. It’s not going anywhere.

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Bifurcate to make game easier for amateurs

By Phil BlackmarMay 24, 2018, 1:01 pm

In January of 2017, Golf Digest ran a story about the average driving distance of amateurs. If you missed the article (click here to read it), the numbers may surprise you. It conveniently breaks down the results, both by handicap and by age, to provide a more detailed view of what golf is really like for the majority of players.

I recently ran across the post again and couldn’t help myself; hence this article. The average driving distance on the PGA Tour is around 295 yards, with the leader in the 320-plus range. Per the article, low handicap players top the list at 250 yards, while the 10-19 handicapper – average player – drives it around 215. That’s a big difference.

Bifurcation, the hotbed topic which ignites division among golfers at a level nearly on par with our nation’s current political weather, keeps banging at my door. Frank Nobilo recently said something to the effect that “the average player has never been further removed from the professional game.” I agree.

The most common argument against splitting the rules is that golf is one game – where amateurs and professionals, alike, play the same game. But, do they really?

The “regular” tees on many courses today have been stretched to around 6,500 yards, while the PGA Tour average is over 7,400. Most courses keep greens soft and running around 10 on a stimpmeter (I know, you’re course prides itself on 14’s) while the average on Tour is 12 1/2. Even with the Tour’s comparative lack of rough, it’s still deeper and more penal than most courses opt for, day in and day out.

Tour players also compete under the watchful eye of a staff keen on strict adherence to the rules, while a large percentage of average players are unfamiliar with many of the rules (Me, too; they keep changing). One other thing: Tour players have to count every shot they hit, finish every hole and there are no gimmes nor mulligans.

Add the distance pros hit the ball and it’s easy to see they play a different game. If you disagree, take the time to play a “Tour” course from the tournament tees right after a competition and see what you can shoot.

Putting that argument aside, it occurred to me that I’ve been looking at this from the wrong angle. My reasons for bifurcation have had more to do with protecting my view of the integrity of the game rather than what would be best for the average player.

The guys on the PGA Tour and Tour (LPGA and PGA Tour Champions, too) can really, really play. Last week, I watched a 36-year-old unknown player who had never won on either tour shoot 27 (with a bogey on the front-nine, par 35) in route to a 60. Then he came back two days later with a 28 on the same nine. He won on the Tour.

Science has unlocked many of the mysteries of the game. Club and ball technology have prompted a benefit for athleticism like never before. Biomechanics, video, launch monitors and force plates have combined to create a huge pool of players with very good swings. Did I mention that they can really play?

However, taking advantage of all this technology requires hours in the gym every day, hours on the range every day, hours on the course every day, and hours in the laboratory on a consistent basis. How many amateur players have the time and money to do all this? That’s right, not most. That’s why the median 10-19 handicap player averages 215 off the tee. They just don’t receive nearly as much benefit from today’s technological advancements as does the touring pro.

So, instead of penalizing the professional player for working hard and taking advantage of all that is available today, my argument has shifted to wanting bifurcation in order to make the game easier, less costly and quicker for the average player.

My idea for the average player begins with distance; the game is too darn long. Think about it: If a player gives up 80 yards off the tee and 45 yards on a 7-iron (180-135), it makes sense that this player should play from 7,400 – ((80 X 14) + (45 X 14) + (4 X 50)) = 5,450 yards to relate to the tour game. Even for the player who averages 250 off the tee and 160 with a 7-iron, the same reasoning yields a 6,400-yard course, give or take a little. But I’m not stopping there, equipment rules need to be relaxed as well.

For instance, the allowable trampoline effect for amateurs should be increased with a focus to fit slower club-head speeds. The limit on the size of the club head needs to be removed and larger grooves for more control and spin should be allowed. Ball limits should be relaxed so the player with lower club-head speed gets more benefit from new ball technologies.

Courses also need to quit watering so much, which would yield a more natural look as opposed to playing in the botanical gardens. This will allow the ball to run out more, effectively shorten the course and open up more options for how to play a shot or hole. Running the ball up on a green or down a fairway needs to return to the game. Rough needs to be eliminated; it’s supposed to be a game rewarding angles not just penalizing off the mark shots. It would also be great to see tree branches trimmed up, when possible, to allow for windows of opportunity and artistry instead of simply creating pitch-out masters.

There will always be the faction that consider themselves purists, which is great. Let major amateur championships stick to the stricter set of rules.

Wait, you could even go as far as to make it a different game altogether and give it a different name, flog for example. That way you don’t need different sets of rules for the same game; each game can have its own set of rules. Tennis is seeing a shift to include pickle ball, maybe golf embraces flog. You could go to the flog course instead of the golf course.

You could even have the USFA, United States Flogging Association, established for the advancement and preservation of flogging, tasked with protecting the game’s original vision of a fun, cheap game which plays quick and embraces imagination and artistry. I think you would be surprised how much you would like flog.

Anyone care to go flogging Saturday?

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LPGA Korean event gets sponsor, new venue

By Golf Channel DigitalMay 24, 2018, 12:21 pm

BMW Group Korea will be the title sponsor of the LPGA’s new South Korean event scheduled for next year. 

The event will be played at LPGA International Busan in the port city of Busan in October of 2019. It’s the first LPGA golf facility to be opened outside the United States, with the golf course scheduled to be ready for play in the summer of next year. The LPGA announced in a news conference in Busan in March that the course would host a new event with the title sponsor to be named at a later date.

BMW Group Korea will give South Korea two LPGA events in the fall Asian swing. The KEB Hana Bank Championship is played in Incheon in October.

The Busan event will feature a $2 million purse with a first-place check of $300,000.

Formerly Asiad Country Club, LPGA International Busan is a renovation being managed by Rees Jones. The golf facility’s opening will mark the first of several projects the LPGA plans in the region, including the opening of an LPGA Teaching and Club Professional Center and the establishment of an LPGA regional qualifying school.