Sometimes a win is just a tweak away

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 6, 2016, 8:33 pm

CARMEL, Ind. – Rory McIlroy’s victory Monday at the Deutsche Bank Championship was the latest reminder of how quickly fortunes can change – and why PGA Tour players are usually just one swing tip, putting tweak or positive thought from surging into contention.

That’s the only way to explain how McIlroy went from being nearly dead last in putting two weeks ago to pacing the field in Boston.

Or how Vaughn Taylor went 10 ½ years without a win, and was 11 days removed from a visit to a Colombia hospital, when he broke through in February at Pebble Beach.

Or how James Hahn overcame eight consecutive missed cuts to win at Quail Hollow.

Or how Billy Hurley III went nine months without a top-40 finish before rolling at Congressional.

Or how Jimmy Walker went 11 straight tournaments without a top-10 before a wire-to-wire victory at the PGA.

“It always feels like you’re just trying to dial it in,” Taylor said Tuesday at the BMW Championship. “Sometimes it’s a little thing, and other times it feels like you’re miles away from playing good. It’s a funny game, so you just keep working and hope for that moment where it all comes together.”

McIlroy’s victory wasn’t all that unexpected – after all, he’s the third-ranked player in the world with off-the-charts ball-striking statistics – but it still registered as a mild surprise, if only because of his recent putting woes. In his previous seven rounds, he’d missed 23 putts inside 10 feet and lost more than 10 shots to the field on the greens. He turned to putting coach Phil Kenyon for help and began a process that he hoped would be completed in time for next year’s Masters.

BMW Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Suffice to say, the early returns have been encouraging. In his last three rounds, he missed only four times inside 10 feet and gained nearly 5 ½ shots on the greens. The turnaround was as simple, he said, as holding the putter grip more in his fingers, with his right hand on top of the handle. He implemented the slight change on the practice green the morning of his second round, and it allowed him to release the putter, instead of blocking his putts. Three days later, he won for the first time on Tour in 15 months.

“It’s just incredible,” he said, “this game, how quickly things can change and how quickly things can turn around.”

There are similar comeback stories from the Tour’s middle class.

Playing on past champion’s status from his pair of opposite-field victories a decade ago, Taylor had two missed cuts and a withdrawal (the aforementioned hospital visit) in his last three starts entering Pebble. But on the range, he stumbled upon his swing thought for the week: He tried to feel as though he was laying the club off at the top.

“You hit a shot here or there and you say, ‘Oh, that was it; that’s what I’m looking for,’” Taylor said. “From there, it’s usually a lot of variables coming together at the same time.”

Crucial putts need to be holed. Nerves need to be steadied. And in Taylor’s case, a Hall of Famer needed to falter, as he overcame a six-shot, final-round deficit to Phil Mickelson.

It turns out that swing thought was a short-term fix, not a long-term solution. He missed his next five cuts, and seven of his next nine.

“It lasted long enough,” he said with a smile, “and then you’re on to find something else.

Hurley, whose slump-busting victory came at one of the most demanding courses on Tour (Congressional), said that he runs through about 15 to 20 swing thoughts a year, as he chases what works and dumps whatever does not. He even jots down the various tips in a journal.

“It’s one of the best parts about our game and one of the most maddening parts about our game all at the same time,” he said. “It doesn’t take much just to find that little feeling, that little switch that just makes it all feel right and the ball starts going where you’re looking, putts start dropping and you have a great week.”

When Brian Stuard arrived in New Orleans for the Zurich Classic, he’d gone 35 consecutive starts without a top-10. But he wasn’t distraught. He had worked the past few weeks on moving on to his left side through impact, and he said he saw enough positive signs the previous week (a T-55 in San Antonio) to believe that he was due for a “good finish,” whatever that meant.

Even though Stuard was winless in 100 career appearances on the and PGA tours, he sensed early on that it might be his week in New Orleans. In the opening round, he should have dropped at least one shot after his approach shot on the 12th hole wound up in a nasty spot left of the green. He tried to limit the damage, chopping out to 30 feet behind the hole, but he holed the comebacker for par. Walking off the green, Stuard said, “I thought, Hey, this might be a good omen.”

Stuard ended up winning the rain-shortened event.

“Golf to me is weird,” he said, “because if you get that one mental key, it seems to be able to last a tournament, but you can’t keep it going for the whole year. It just seems like if you change something, it must be the positive vibes it gives you.”

Hahn followed that out-of-nowhere script when he won in Charlotte. Even though he’d missed eight cuts in a row, he reviewed the stats and didn’t find any glaring weakness.

“It was just a combination of one putt, one drive, one bad hole, one mud ball, one bad break that kind of snowballed into a couple bogeys and missed cuts,” he said earlier this year.

“The competition out here is so high that you can afford to make mistakes, but you can’t afford to make many of them.”

Players like McIlroy have a bit more leeway, because their tee-to-green performance is so dominant, but even for the stars there is a fine line between a victory and another top-10.

Sure, part of that is because of the deep competition. But it also boils down to a few breaks: tee shots that appear destined for the rough but kick back into the fairway, or approaches that spin closer to the hole, thus increasing a player’s make percentage.

The lesson here: At this level, players are never as far away as they can seem. 

“You’re always evolving,” Taylor said. “You just always have to see the end goal and the end vision and try to stay patient.”

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Former champ Z. Johnson surges at Valero

By Will GrayApril 20, 2018, 7:31 pm

Midway through his opening round at the Valero Texas Open, Zach Johnson appeared far closer to a missed cut than a spot on the leaderboard.

Johnson initially struggled in the winds at TPC San Antonio, playing his first 13 holes in 3 over. But he eagled No. 14 and closed with three more birdies to post a 2-under 70, then went unconscious during a second-round 65 where he made six birdies over his first 10 holes.

It added up to a 9-under total at the halfway point, and instead of packing his bags the two-time major champ now shares the lead with Ryan Moore.

"You just never know. That's the beauty of this game," Johnson told reporters. "I didn't have anything going putting-wise. I felt like I was hitting some solid shots and wasn't getting rewarded, and you've just got to stay in it. You've got to persevere, grind it out, fight for pars. Shoot, I made some good pars all while being 3 over. You just never know."

Johnson won this event in both 2008 and 2009, but that was when it was held across town at La Cantera Golf Club. Since the switch to TPC San Antonio in 2010, he has only one top-10 finish and two missed cuts, including last year's early exit with consecutive rounds of 74.

But Friday he played like a man unaware of the venue shift, with four straight birdies on Nos. 12-15 and a hole-out eagle from the greenside bunker on the par-4 fifth hole. His closing bogey on No. 9 was his first dropped shot in the last 25 holes.

"The confidence is there, and when you can step on the tee with this kind of wind, you trust your clubs and trust your ball, that's pretty important," Johnson said. "I felt good. It was hard, I'm not going to deny that. That was one of the better 27-hole stretches that I've had in a long time."

Johnson's 65 was his first sub-70 score since an opening-round 69 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a span of 12 stroke-play rounds. The veteran has made every cut in 11 starts this season, but his T-8 finish at the RSM Classic in November remains his only top-10 finish.

"I felt really good coming into the week," Johnson said. "Confidence was there, it just wasn't showing up on the scorecard."

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U.S. Open champ Koepka (wrist) to return at Zurich

By Will GrayApril 20, 2018, 7:04 pm

U.S. Open champ Brooks Koepka will make his first start in nearly four months at next week's Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

Koepka injured his left wrist late last year, finishing last at both the 18-man Hero World Challenge and 34-man Sentry Tournament of Champions. He hasn't played since Kapalua, having been diagnosed with a partially torn Extensor Carpi Ulnaris (ECU) tendon in his wrist, and earlier this month missed the Masters for the first time since 2014.

But according to an Associated Press report, Koepka will return to action at next week's team event where he will pair with veteran Marc Turnesa, who lives near Koepka in South Florida and whose lone PGA Tour win came at the 2008 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

"It feels like I've been out for six months," said Koepka, who reportedly didn't touch a club for 91 days. "I still have confidence. I feel like I can win next week."

Koepka's return means TPC Louisiana will be the first course to host all four current major champions since the Tour Championship in September. Patrick Reed will make his first start since winning the Masters when he pairs with Patrick Cantlay, while Open champ Jordan Spieth will team with fellow Texan Ryan Palmer and PGA champ Justin Thomas joins with his former Alabama teammate, Bud Cauley.

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Garcia tosses driver, likely to miss Valero cut

By Will GrayApril 20, 2018, 6:49 pm

It wasn't quite to the level of his watery meltdown earlier this month at the Masters, but Sergio Garcia still got frustrated during the second round of the Valero Texas Open - and his driver paid the price.

Garcia had a hand in redesigning the AT&T Oaks Course along with Greg Norman several years ago, but this marked his first return to TPC San Antonio since 2010. After an opening-round 74, Garcia arrived to the tee of the short par-4 fifth hole and decided to get aggressive with driver in hand.

When his shot sailed well left, a heated Garcia chucked the club deep into the bushes that lined the tee box:

It took considerable effort for Garcia to find and retrieve the club amid the branches, and once he did things only got worse. He appeared to shank a chip once he got up to his ball, leading to a bogey on one of the easiest holes on a demanding track.

Garcia closed out his round with four straight pars, and at 2 over he was one shot outside the projected cut line as the afternoon wave began play. Should Garcia make an early exit, it would mark the first time he missed consecutive cuts on the PGA Tour since 2003, when he sat out the weekend at the AT&T Byron Nelson, Fort Worth Invitational and Memorial Tournament in successive weeks.

Garcia entered the week ranked No. 10 in the world, and he was the only top-20 player among the 156-man field. He missed the cut at the Masters in defense of his title after carding an octuple-bogey 13 on the 15th hole during the opening round.

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Cut Line: Poults' Ryder rise; Slow play plague

By Rex HoggardApril 20, 2018, 5:55 pm

In this week’s edition, Colonial enjoys a sponsorship reprieve, the Ryder Cup gets an early boost and it’s time for officials at the Zurich Classic to consider relocation.

Made Cut

See you in September. Just when you thought it might be too early to start the biennial Ryder Cup build up, Ian Poulter, Europe’s own Mr. September, gave the Continent something to celebrate with another solid finish last week at the RBC Heritage.

Although he failed to convert a 54-hole lead, tying for seventh after a closing 75, he earned enough points to move onto the European team bubble (world points), just behind current automatic qualifier Alex Noren.

That the English thorn in America’s Ryder Cup side made his move one week after Patrick Reed wrapped up his spot on the team with his victory at the Masters is all the reason one needs to imagine the possibilities.

Note to U.S. captain Jim Furyk: You can probably pencil in your opening match of Reed-Jordan Spieth vs. Poulter-Rory McIlroy. Oh, and Sunday’s singles – Reed vs. Poulter – as well.

Don’t mess with Texas. Although the PGA Tour is still a few weeks away from unveiling the overhauled 2018-19 schedule, a few more pieces fell into place this week.

According to multiple sources, officials at Colonial are poised to announce a new sponsorship agreement with Charles Schwab Corporation.

There had been some handwringing that the Fort Worth staple, which needed to scramble this season to find replacement sponsors when Dean & DeLuca ended its sponsorship of the event just two years into a six-year agreement, would be the victim of poor timing when the music stopped.

But officials are poised to announce the new long-term sponsorship deal on Monday and sources also confirmed that the event will remain in May, which had been another concern on the imminent overhaul of the Tour schedule.

Next up for the Tour: finding sponsors for The National and Houston Open.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

Location, location, location. The high on Friday in Farmingdale, N.Y., topped out at 47 degrees.

Cut Line doesn’t have to explain to his friends in the northeast how long winter has lingered this season, but it’s worth pointing out that with the PGA Championship moving to May next year these long cold spells could impact conditions at future venues, like Bethpage Black, which will host the 2019 PGA.

Although this year’s PGA, which will be played in August at Bellerive Country Club, won’t be impacted, when you consider that three of the next six championships are scheduled to be played in northern states, it’s beginning to seem more likely that geography is not on the PGA of America’s side.

Bayou breakthrough. If the field for this year’s Zurich Classic is any indication, the team format that officials introduced in 2017 remains popular, which is an encouraging sign for golf in New Orleans.

It’s time now for tournament officials to continue that progress and break free of TPC Louisiana, an uninspired layout that’s too far removed from the French Quarter and not exactly popular with players.

About a year ago, officials opened the South Course at City Park, a community-based program modeled after the East Lake project in Atlanta with a mission to revitalize City Park and the surrounding neighborhoods.

For years, insiders have considered the City Park layout, which was designed by Rees Jones, an alternative to TPC Louisiana. It’s time to stop talking about moving the event to City Park and make it happen. The tournament deserves better. The city deserves better.

Tweet(s) of the week: We go with a pair of hot takes from two of the game’s most insightful and thoughtful types on what remains one of golf’s most talked-about subjects – slow play.

Missed Cut

Money trail. During his last year as commissioner of the PGA Tour, Tim Finchem earned a combined income of over $9 million.

According to the circuit’s tax forms filed for 2016, Finchem made $4.33 million in “reportable compensation” from the Tour and another $4.74 million from “related organizations.” He also earned $181,784 in “other compensation.”

Compared to 2015, when Finchem earned $5.9 million in combined income, that’s a healthy bump. To be fair, when Finchem retired after nearly 20 years of leading the circuit most observers agreed that the Tour’s unprecedented growth during his tenure justified his salary, and compared to other professional sports leagues the commissioner’s “take home” was not out of the ordinary.

It is, however, worth noting that Finchem earned more than just one player in 2016, Dustin Johnson, who narrowly clipped the commissioner with $9.3 million in on-course earnings. It’s good to be the commish, or former commish.