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Schauffele, Finau put Furyk in a Ryder Cup vice

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 7, 2018, 6:19 pm

NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. – Pass Jim Furyk the Advil.

He has a whopper of a headache coming on.

When U.S. Ryder Cup decision-makers implemented the so-called Billy Horschel Rule after the 2014 matches, their intent was to make sure that the hottest American player had a spot on the roster. Though it sounds smart in theory – just push back the deadline for the last guy! – it’s messy in practice.

By passing over Tony Finau in the first group of captain’s picks, Furyk essentially told him that he hasn’t yet done enough to warrant a spot on the squad. Delaying the final pick also creates an unintended consequence: It cracks open the door for another contender to sneak in and impress before the deadline, which is exactly what reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele has done here at Aronimink, firing rounds of 63-64 to surge in front at the BMW Championship.

At 13-under 127, Schauffele has a two-shot lead over Justin Rose – setting the stage, perhaps, for another Ryder Cup audition.

“I feel like I’m on a mission here,” Schauffele said.

The 24-year-old raised a few eyebrows after his opening round, when he said that even with a win, he wasn’t sure it’d be enough to influence Captain Furyk’s opinion.

“I feel like if I were Jim right now,” Schauffele said, “I would pick (Finau), to be completely honest.”

Projected FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from BMW Championship

That scenario got even more complicated Friday, when Finau carded a 64 to jump into a tie for 10th, just five shots off the lead. It seems he’s not going away quietly, either.

“I’m in a position where I feel like a win is the only way I’d even be in consideration,” Schauffele said. “Tony, obviously, is the guy right now.”

Finau was flattered by his peer’s praise, even if he thought Schauffele was “being a little generous.”  

“It’s probably pretty good to be Jim right now,” he said. “You’re not going to make a bad choice.”

But it could be a controversial one.

Though Finau’s entire body of work is stronger, with 10 top-10s, Schauffele (12th) actually finished ahead of Finau (15th) in qualifying, on the strength of top-6 finishes at The Players, U.S. Open and Open Championship.  

Those timely results are his biggest points-earners and only top-20 finishes since April.

“I’ve got a lot to prove, not just to everyone else but to myself this weekend,” Schauffele said. “I’ve been failing a lot, so it would be nice to turn the switch and clutch up.”

This has been a transitional year for Schauffele as he adjusts to life as a primetime player. Before last year’s U.S. Open, the only thing most fans knew about Schauffele was that he was a rookie with a last name that was difficult to pronounce. Then he popped up with a tie for fifth at Erin Hills and used that newfound confidence to win The Greenbrier. Two months later, among the world’s best at East Lake, he prevailed over Justin Thomas to capture the Tour Championship and become a no-brainer choice for Rookie of the Year.

It was a life-changing moment for a player who, a few months earlier, was battling just to keep his card.

“But after that breakout you kind of want validation, to prove to everyone that it wasn’t a fluke year and that you’re actually a great golfer,” said Schauffele’s caddie, Austin Kaiser.

But the more he pressed, the worse he played. That added stress showed up on the greens – he regressed from 40th to 113th in strokes gained: putting – and in his overall results.

“Guys around here tell him that he’s an upcoming star,” Kaiser said. “And when you hear that, and you expect to have those results and you’re tying for 49th, you start doubting yourself at that point, like, Am I that good? Deep down, he knows he’s that good. The shots he hits, the mind he has under pressure, it’s top notch.”

Those top finishes in the majors put Schauffele in position to lock up an automatic spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup, and he played with Furyk (and Finau) during the first two rounds of the PGA. Needing a high finish to crack the top 8, Schauffele instead played his first seven holes in 4 over and needed to battle the rest of the way. He still had a chance to make the team Sunday, but he shot 72 and slid to 35th – a common theme throughout the season, as he ranks 183rd in final-round scoring average on Tour (72.39). 

“I have lots to prove to myself,” he said. “I just want to win and handle my business. I feel like I haven’t been doing that as well on the weekends. But I feel like I’ve been a little more focused this week and a little more serious.”

The turning point may have come this week, during his five-hour car ride from Boston to Philadelphia. Schauffele had just tied for 49th in the second playoff event, endangering not only his chances of landing a wildcard pick but also, at No. 41 in the FedExCup standings, of returning to East Lake for the Tour Championship. Assessing the year with Kaiser, they agreed that they needed to be more disciplined.

“We were more methodical last year,” Kaiser said, “and we needed to get back to that. This year we’ve been messier and playing more freely – and it’s easy to do that, when you have a three-year exemption. Last year we were playing to secure our card. It’s a totally different mindset.”

Since Schauffele’s speed control on the greens was the chief concern, they decided to implement a new routine in which he’d make two practice strokes before stepping in.

It’s a small change that’s made a massive difference: Schauffele is ranked first in putting this week, needing only 54 putts through two rounds, holing 242 feet worth of putts and gaining more than five strokes on the field.

“That’s what I’m most proud of,” Kaiser said. “He’s stuck to that plan.” 

When Schauffele won the Tour Championship last year, he wasn’t even disappointed that he didn’t walk away with the season-long title. He was just thrilled to win, period.

The same might be true if he takes the BMW.

Whether it leads to a Ryder Cup berth sounds secondary.

“I just want to prove to myself that I can win again and be clutch,” he said. “I always thought I was a rather clutch player coming down the stretch, and this year has said otherwise. I’m trying to prove it to myself again.”

He’d prove it to Furyk and the rest of the U.S. team, too.

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McCarthy wins Tour Championship by 4

By Associated PressSeptember 24, 2018, 2:14 am

ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – Denny McCarthy won the season-ending Tour Championship on Sunday to earn fully exempt PGA Tour status and a spot in the Players Championship.

McCarthy closed with a 6-under 65 for a four-stroke victory over Lucas Glover at Atlantic Beach Country Club. The 25-year-old former Virginia player earned $180,000 to top the 25 PGA Tour card-earners with $255,793 in the four-event Tour Finals.

''It's been quite a journey this year,'' McCarthy said. ''The PGA Tour was tough to start out the year. I stuck through it and got my game. I raised my level and have been playing some really good golf. Just feels incredible to finish off these Finals. So much work behind the scenes that nobody really sees.''

McCarthy finished at 23-under 261.

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, closed with a 69. He made $108,000 to finish seventh with $125,212 in the series for the top 75 players from the regular-season money list, Nos. 126-200 in the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup standings, and non-members with enough money to have placed in the top 200.

Jim Knous earned the 25th and final card from the four-event money list with $41,931, edging Justin Lower by $500. Knous made a 5-foot par save on the final hole for a 71 that left him tied for 57th. Lower missed an 8-footer for birdie, settling for a 69 and a tie for 21st.

''It was a brutal day emotionally,'' Knous said. ''I wasn't quite sure how much my performance would affect the overall outcome. It kind of just depended on what everybody else did. That's pretty terrifying. So I really just kind of did my best to stay calm and inside I was really freaking out and just super psyched that at the end of the day finished right there on No. 25.''

The top-25 finishers on the regular-season money list competed against each other for tour priority, with regular-season earnings counting in their totals. Sungjae Im topped the list to earn the No. 1 priority spot of the 50 total cards.

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LaCava pushed Woods to work on bunker game

By Rex HoggardSeptember 24, 2018, 1:52 am

ATLANTA – Last week as Tiger Woods prepared to play the season finale at East Lake he sent a text message to his caddie Joey LaCava that simply asked, what do I need to do to get better?

Although when it comes to Woods his proficiency is always relative, but LaCava didn’t pull any punches, and as the duo completed the final round on Sunday at the Tour Championship with a bunker shot to 7 feet at the last the two traded knowing smiles.

“We had a talk last week about his bunker game and I said, ‘I’m glad you kept that bunker game stuff in mind,’” LaCava said. “I told him he was an average bunker player and he worked at it last week. There were only two bunker shots he didn’t get up-and-down, I don’t count the last one on 18. He recognized that after two days. He was like, ‘What do you know, I’m 100 percent from the bunkers and I’m in the lead after two days.”

Final FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

For the week, Woods got up-and-down from East Lake’s bunkers seven out of nine times and cruised to a two-stroke victory for his first PGA Tour title since 2013. That’s a dramatic improvement over his season average of 49 percent (100th on Tour).

“His bunker game was very average coming into this week,” LaCava said. “I said you’ve got to work on your bunker game. If you had a decent bunker game like the Tiger of old you would have won [the BMW Championship].”

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For Woods, is this only the beginning?

By Damon HackSeptember 24, 2018, 1:42 am

If this is Tiger Woods nine months into a comeback, wait until he actually shakes the rust off.

This was supposed to be the year he kicked the tires, to see how his body held up after all those knives digging into his back.

To see if a short game could truly be rescued from chunks and skulls.

To see if a 42-year-old living legend could outfox the kids.

On the final breath of the PGA Tour season, it was Tiger Woods who took ours away.

Playing alongside Rory McIlroy on Sunday at the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club – and one group behind the current World No. 1 and eventual FedEx Cup champion Justin Rose – Woods bludgeoned the field and kneecapped Father Time. 

It was Dean Smith and the Four Corners offense.  Emmitt Smith moving the chains. Nolan Ryan mowing them down.

And all of a sudden you wonder if Phil Mickelson wishes he’d made alternate Thanksgiving plans.

Even if everybody saw a win coming, it was something else to actually see it happen, to see the man in the red shirt reach another gear just one more time.

Win No. 80 reminded us, as Roger Maltbie once said of Woods when he came back from knee surgery in 2009: “A lot of people can play the fiddle. Only one guy is Itzhak Perlman.”

It wasn’t long ago that Tiger Woods seemed headed toward a disheartening final chapter as a broken man with a broken body.

Final FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

He would host a couple of tournaments, do some great charity work, shout instructions into a walkie talkie at the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, and call it a career.

There would be no Nicklaus 1986 Masters moment, no Hogan Mystique at Merion.

He would leave competitive golf as perhaps both the greatest to ever play the game and its greatest cautionary tale.

Willie Mays with the New York Mets. Muhammad Ali taking punishment from Larry Holmes.

But then Brad Faxon and Rickie Fowler started whispering at the end of 2017 that Tiger was healthy and hitting the ball hard. 

There was that hold-your-breath opening tee shot at the Hero World Challenge, a bullet that flew the left bunker and bounded into the fairway.

Rollercoaster rides at Tampa and Bay Hill, backward steps at Augusta and Shinnecock, forward leaps at The Open and the PGA.

He switched putters and driver shafts (and shirts, oh my!) and seemed at times tantalizingly close and maddeningly far.

That he even decided to try to put his body and game back together was one of the all-time Hail Marys in golf.

Why go through all of that rehab again?

Why go through the scrutiny of having your current game measured against your untouchable prime?

Because you’re Tiger Woods, is why, because you’ve had way more wonderful days on the golf course than poor ones, despite five winless years on the PGA Tour.

Suddenly, Sam Snead’s record of 82 PGA Tour wins is in jeopardy and Jack Nicklaus, holder of a record of 18 major championships, is at the very least paying attention.

Woods has put the golf world on notice.

It won’t be long until everyone starts thinking about the 2019 major schedule (and you’d better believe that Tiger already is).

The Masters, where he has four green jackets and seven other Top 5 finishes. The PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, where he won in 2002 by 3. The United States Open at Pebble Beach, where he won in 2000 by 15.

The Open at Royal Portrush, where his savvy and guile will be a strong 15th club.

But that’s a talk for a later date.

Tiger is clearly still getting his sea legs back.

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Nonfactor McIlroy mum after lackluster 74

By Mercer BaggsSeptember 24, 2018, 1:04 am

ATLANTA – Rory McIlroy didn’t have anything to say to the media after the final round of the Tour Championship, and that’s understandable.

McIlroy began the final round at East Lake three shots behind Tiger Woods. He finished six back.

McIlroy closed in 4-over 74 to tie for seventh place.

In their matchup, Woods birdied the first hole to go four in front, and when McIlroy bogeyed the par-4 fourth, he was five in arrears. McIlroy went on to make three more bogeys, one double bogey and just two birdies.

Final FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

McIlroy was never a factor on Sunday and ultimately finished tied for 13th in the FedExCup standings.

The two rivals, Woods and McIlroy, shared plenty of conversations while walking down the fairways. On the 18th hole, Woods said McIlroy told him the scene was like the 1980 U.S. Open when people were shouting, “Jack’s back!”

“I said, ‘Yeah, I just don’t have the tight pants and the hair,’” Woods joked. “But it was all good.”

It’s now off to Paris for the upcoming Ryder Cup, where Woods and McIlroy will again be foes. It will be McIlroy’s fifth consecutive appearance in the biennial matches, while Woods is making his first since 2012.