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Monday Scramble: DJ's Kapalua crush

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 8, 2018, 4:00 pm

Dustin Johnson keeps rolling, Justin Thomas has caddie issues, Tiger Woods announces his early schedule, Rickie Fowler breaks tradition and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

Here we go again, another year in which DJ looks unstoppable.

There are maybe five players on the PGA Tour who can overwhelm the competition with their physical gifts, who can mash the accelerator and pull away.

The difference with Johnson – the reason he has blown past Rory McIlroy and Jason Day (for now) – is that he can access that awesome potential more consistently; this was his eighth win in the past 19 months.

His eight-shot romp at Kapalua immediately recalled his dominant form last spring, when he headed into the year’s first major with three consecutive victories, all in big events.

“I felt as close as I have to the level my game was during that stretch,” he said Sunday.

Of course, this being Johnson, the question now is whether the star-crossed talent can sustain it, through freak injury (please rent only ranch-style homes from now on) or something else.

Already, it looks like 2018 could be a special year.  

1. DJ might have already locked up Drive of the Year.

With the outcome no longer in doubt, he went at a driver 90 percent and pounded his tee shot down the hill on the 433-yard 12th. He knew his ball started on a good line, but he was stunned to see where it finished – 6 inches from the cup, for a tap-in eagle.

He joked to Golf Channel on-course reporter Jim “Bones” Mackay that he’d caught his drive a little thin.

In reality, he said, “that was flush.”

2. Johnson led the field in strokes gained-tee to green and off-the-tee. (He hit 15 drivers over 375 yards.) In the final round, he gained 4.09 strokes on the field with his driver, the best-ever round at Kapalua.

Sure, he missed a few fairways, but “I don’t think I hit a bad drive all week.”

Most interesting about that?

He was using a new driver, putting TaylorMade’s M4 in the bag last Saturday. 

3. Of his many incredible gifts, DJ’s short memory might serve him best.

It’s the reason why he was able to win the 2016 U.S. Open after several near-misses. And it’s why he was able to shrug off a record-tying loss in his most recent start on Tour, when he blew a six-shot lead in the final round at the WGC-HSBC Champions. 

Johnson insists that he didn’t even remember that loss until it was mentioned to him after his third round … and yet, after being asked about it repeatedly Saturday night in Hawaii, he set out on the final day to “prove to myself that ain’t going to happen again.”

He turned a two-shot lead into an eight-shot margin of victory, one off the tournament record. Johnson joined Hal Sutton (1983) as the only players to lose a six-shot lead and then win in their next start.

4. Justin Thomas had a few issues in paradise.

His game wasn’t as sharp as he’d hoped coming out of the gates, finishing 22nd after a closing 67, but an even bigger dilemma is who he’ll walk alongside during the next few events.

His regular caddie, Jimmy Johnson, has plantar fasciitis and will be in a walking boot for at least the next month. (It usually takes 3-12 months to fully heal.) Subbing in for the final two rounds at hilly Kapalua was Thomas’ father/swing coach, Mike.

This week? Well, good caddies are in short supply on the island, so he’s brought NBC/Golf Channel on-course reporter Jim “Bones” Mackay out of retirement; Bones hasn’t looped at Waialae since 1992.

After that, however, is uncertain. (Mackay’s stint is expected to only be one week, though NBC doesn’t broadcast an event until Honda.) Over the next two months Thomas is scheduled to play Sony, Phoenix, Riviera, Honda and Mexico.

Said Thomas: “I told [Johnson], ‘Look, I’d rather you take as much time as you need to get it better and make sure that you’re fresh come L.A., Match Play, Masters, whatever it is. I want him to be 100 percent again.” 

5. Keep an eye on Jordan Spieth’s putter during this run-up to Augusta.

The three-time major winner said that he spent a majority of his offseason working on his putting. That was the aspect of his game, remember, that slipped in 2017, dropping from second to 42nd in strokes gained-putting.

Spieth said he’s been grinding with swing coach Cameron McCormick since the Bahamas. He’s trying to get his posture and setup back to where it was in 2015-16, when he was at his best, when he primarily used his shoulders, not his hands, during the stroke. It’s unwise to rely too much on putting stats from Kapalua – it’s windy, and the massive greens are slow – but he ranked 30th out of 34 players in putting.

“It’s just stuff that needs on-course reps in tournament play, and I didn’t expect it to be on fire at all at the start,” he said, “and if it was, that would have been an advantage.” 

6. Jon Rahm won three times last year while playing courses he’d never seen before.

No surprise he kept rolling in his first trip around the Plantation Course.

He won the B flight at Kapalua, and the runner-up finish was his 14th top-5 in 37 pro starts.

The 23-year-old Spaniard moved to No. 3 in the world – the fourth-youngest to reach that mark, behind only Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy. 

7. It was little surprise that Tiger Woods’ early-season schedule will include both Torrey Pines and Riviera.

He’s an eight-time winner on the San Diego-area muni, and though the brawny track is no longer the ideal fit for his game, the nostalgia apparently was too much to ignore. Riviera, too, was a no-brainer, now that the event benefits his foundation. (It’ll be his first start at Riv since 2006.)

Though it would have been neat to see Woods ease into the season at courses like Waialae and PGA West, it was never going to happen. He’s nothing if not a creature of habit.

Honda and Bay Hill – two more difficult stops – would be the next logical additions to his pre-Masters schedule. At least there shouldn't be any unnecessary international travel.

8. The first week of the new year always brings with it a slew of equipment signings.

Sergio Garcia’s switch to Callaway was one of the worst-kept secrets in the sport, but a big surprise was Xander Schauffele’s move to the same company.

Schauffele is coming off a breakout season in which he won twice, including the Tour Championship, finished third in the FedExCup and earned Rookie of the Year honors.

He cashed in, but the decision carries some risk – the last Rookie of the Year to change equipment after his big first season was John Huh (2012-13). He hasn’t come close to replicating that success. 

Schauffele tied for 22nd at Kapalua.

A trend-setting Fowler wore an untucked Hawaiian shirt last week, and social media practically melted.

Though most were in favor of his Maui-themed garb, some were genuinely put off by his choice for the opening round.

This is laid-back golf, on an island, in a 34-man event … and yet a few curmudgeons thought he lacked “manners” and looked “unprofessional” and, yes, even that he should be fined. (That one was laughable, especially since PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said: “I thought it was fantastic.")

Never mind that it was the best-selling shirt in the Kapalua merchandise tent on Friday.

Keep doing you, Rick. 

This week's award winners ... 

What’s Up With …?: Brooks Koepka. After routing the field at the Dunlop Phoenix in November, the reigning U.S. Open champion finished last for the second tournament in a row – this time by six shots. Koepka has been battling discomfort in his left wrist, and most concerning, he said, is that doctors still don't know what's wrong. His manager said they're "planning to have some people look at it" this week.

RIP: DJ’s old irons. The clubs that Johnson used during his final-round collapse in Shanghai? Long gone. They never even made the trip home. “They’re probably still in my locker at whatever the golf course is called,” he said.

Worse Than Originally Thought: Jimmy Walker’s health. The 2016 PGA champion was plagued last year by the effects of Lyme disease, but his wife, Erin (who also contracted the disease), chronicled that Jimmy also tested positive for mononucleosis, two types of pneumonia, West Nile Virus and a virus common to children called CMV.

Experience is Overrated: Christopher Carns. This Clemson student, who says he’s never played golf before, drained a 94-foot putt at the Clemson-Louisville basketball game to win $10,000. Bonus points for accomplishing the feat in … slippers? 

Do It For Jarrod: Jarrod Lyle. The Tour has declared this “January for Jarrod month,” as the affable Australian undergoes another round of treatment for leukemia. Head here to help

No Shame in his Game: Ben Crane. There are no words for this. No words. 

What To Watch For: JT vs. Kiz. Your trusty correspondent’s Georgia Bulldogs will look to win their first national title since 1980 on Monday night, but even more is at stake – the loser of a friendly wager between Thomas (Alabama) and Kisner (UGA) has to wear the other team’s jersey this week at Waialae. Go Dawgs!

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Brendan Steele. A smart one-and-done pick because of his T-6 last year and his run of good form during the fall, when he defended his title at Safeway and tied for 13th in Malaysia. Alas, he shot 1 under – 23 shots behind DJ – and finished 29th. Sigh.  

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Winning on Kerr's mind this week and beyond

By Randall MellMarch 24, 2018, 2:11 am

Cristie Kerr moved into position Friday to do more than win the 21st LPGA title of her career.

She moved into position to claim an LPGA Hall of Fame point this week.

Yes, winning is foremost on her mind at the Kia Classic, where she took the lead with an 8-under-par 64 in the second round, she’s on a larger quest, too.

After turning 40 last fall, Kerr was asked what her goals are.

“The Hall of Fame is attainable, if I stick with it,” she said.

Kerr is five shots ahead of Lizette Salas (67), In-Kyung Kim (69), Hee Young Park (70) and Caroline Hedwall (70).

It’s a good time for Kerr to get on a hot streak, with the year’s first major championship, the ANA Inspiration, next week. She has long been one of the best putters in the women’s game, but her ball-striking is impressive this week. She hit 17 greens in regulation Thursday, and she hit 16 on Friday.

“I like winning,” Kerr said. “I like challenging myself. Definitely doesn't get any easier as you get older, with the travel and recovery time. I got up this morning and I'm like, `Man, why does my hamstring hurt?’ From working around this hilly golf course.”

Kerr acknowledged Friday that her body is more vulnerable to time’s realities, but her mind isn’t.

Full-field scores from the Kia Classic

“The golf ball doesn't know an age,” Kerr said. “I've always said that. As long as I stay hungry, going to just keep playing.”

Kerr won two weeks after her 40th birthday last fall, boosting her LPGA Hall of Fame point total to 22. She is five points short of eligibility for induction. A player earns one point for an LPGA victory and two points for a major championship title. So there’s a lot of Hall of Fame ground to gain this week and next.

It’s a long-term goal that motivates Kerr to take care of her body.

“I don't think the golf changes,” Kerr said. “I think, physically, it gets harder as you get older. Like I said, I've got tape on my hamstring. I strained it, just a little bit yesterday, walking around this golf course. It's tough as you get older, just being fresh and rested. I put more focus into that as I've gotten older. I still practice, but off the course I try to get more rest.”

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Big names chasing Kerr into the weekend at Kia Classic

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 1:55 am

CARLSBAD, Calif. - Cristie Kerr shot an 8-under 64 on Friday in the Kia Classic to take a five-stroke lead into the weekend.

The 40-year-old Kerr had eight birdies in her second straight bogey-free round to reach 13-under 131 at rain-softened Aviara.

''I like winning. I like challenging myself,'' Kerr said. ''Definitely doesn't get any easier as you get older with the travel and recovery time. I got up this morning and I'm like, 'Man, why does my hamstring hurt?' From working around this hilly golf course. The golf ball doesn't know an age. I've always said that. As long as I stay hungry, going to just keep playing.''

She has 20 LPGA victories, winning at Aviara in 2015. She won twice last year and helped the U.S. beat Europe in her ninth Solheim Cup appearance.

''It's tough as you get older just being fresh and rested,'' Kerr said. ''I put more focus into that as I've gotten older. I still practice, but off the course I try to get more rest.''

Lizette Salas, In-Kyung Kim, Hee Young Park and Caroline Hedwall were tied for second. Salas shot 67, Kim 69, and Park and Hedwall 70.

''I really like this golf course. I really like the environment,'' said Salas, the former University of Southern California player from Azusa. ''My family gets to come out. So much confidence at the beginning of the week, and definitely showed the first two days.

Jeong Eun Lee was 7 under after a 69, and defending ANA champion So Yeon Ryu had a 70 to get to 6 under.

Full-field scores from the Kia Classic

Ariya Jutanugarn (72), Brooke Henderson (70) and 2016 winner Lydia Ko (71) were 5 under. Shanshan Feng (68) was another stroke back, and Singapore winner Michelle Wie (72) was 1 under.

Lexi Thompson was 2 over after a 74, making the cut on the number in the final event before the major ANA Inspiration next week at Mission Hills.

Kerr opened with birdies on the par-5 10th and par-3 11th, added birdies on the par-4 16th, 18th and second, and ran off three in a row on the par-3 sixth, par-4 seventh and par-5 eighth.

''I don't think you can fall asleep on one shot,'' Kerr said. ''It's a really good golf course. I think I play better on courses that demand the focus, so I think that's why I've played well here in the past. ... I'm trying not to put limits on myself right now. I've got some good things going on with my swing.''

She has long been one best putters and green-readers in the world.

''I can see the subtleties that a lot of people can't,'' Kerr said. ''It's a gift from God being able to do that. I've always had that, so I'm lucky.''

Laura Davies withdrew after an opening 82. The 54-year-old Davies tied for second last week in the Founders Cup in Phoenix, playing through painful left Achilles and calf problems.

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DJ hits 489-yard drive, but it doesn't count for history

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 12:22 am

AUSTIN, Texas – Dustin Johnson is no stranger to big drives, but even for DJ this one was impressive.

Trailing in his Day 3 match at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Johnson launched a drive at the par-5 12th hole that traveled 489 yards, but that number comes with an asterisk.

“He got lucky it hit the road,” smiled Kevin Kisner, who was leading the world No. 1, 3 up, at the time. “I thought he would make an eagle for sure, he only had 80 yards [to the hole]. He didn’t hit a very good putt.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Scoring | Group standings

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

Johnson’s drive, which was 139 yards past Kisner’s tee shot, is the longest recorded on the PGA Tour in the ShotLink era, surpassing Davis Love III’s drive of 476 yards in 2004 at the Tournament of Champions.

The drive will not go into the record books, however, because the Tour doesn’t count statistics from the Match Play.

It should also be noted, Kisner halved the 12th hole with a birdie and won the match, 4 and 3, to advance to the round of 16.

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Durant leads Champions event in Mississippi

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 12:21 am

BILOXI, Miss. - Joe Durant had three straight birdies in a back-nine burst and a shot 6-under 66 on Friday to take the first-round lead in the PGA Tour Champions' Rapiscan Systems Classic.

Durant birdied the par-4 11th and 12th and par-5 13th in the bogey-free round at breezy and rain-softened Fallen Oak. Because of the wet conditions, players were allowed to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairway.

''It just sets up nice to my eye,'' Durant said. ''It's a beautiful golf course and it's very challenging. The tee shots seem to set up well for me, but the greens are maybe as quick as I've ever seen them here. You really have to put the ball in the right spots. I played very nice today. With the wind swirling like it was, I'm really happy.''

He won the Chubb Classic last month in Naples, Florida, for his third victory on the 50-and-over tour.

Full-field scores from the Rapiscan Systems Classic

''Done this long enough, Friday's just one day,'' Durant said. ''Especially in a three-day tournament, you've got to go out and shoot three good numbers. Fortunate to put one on the board, but I know I have to back it up with a couple of good days because you can get passed very quickly out here.''

Mark Calcavecchia was a stroke back. He won last month in Boca Raton, Florida

''It's probably my best round I've ever had here and it was a tough day to play,'' Calcavecchia said. ''The greens are just lightning fast. They're pretty slopey greens, so very difficult to putt.''

Steve Stricker was third at 68. He took the Tucson, Arizona, event three weeks ago for his first senior victory.

''Just getting it around and managing my game I think like I always do,'' Stricker said. ''You get in the wrong position here with the greens being so fast and you're going to be in trouble. I did that a couple times today.''

Billy Mayfair, Billy Andrade and David McKenzie shot 69. Jerry Kelly, the winner of the season-opening event in Hawaii, was at 70 with Wes Short Jr., Glen Day, Gene Sauers and Jesper Parnevik.

Bernhard Langer opened with a 71, and two-time defending champion Miguel Angel Jimenez had a 72.

Vijay Singh, coming off his first senior victory two weeks ago in Newport Beach, California, had a 73.