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Houston's last stand? Long-standing event in danger

By Will GrayMarch 28, 2018, 5:12 pm

HUMBLE, Texas – The fountain that once floated in the middle of the lake lining the 18th hole at the Golf Club of Houston is gone. So, too, is the floral arrangement that was annually propped behind the final tee, a mix of reds and yellows arranged in the shape of a seashell that served as the backdrop for some of the tournament’s most pressure-packed moments.

The Houston Open is back on the schedule this week, nearly 22 months after Shell Oil Company told the Houston Golf Association that they would be ending a 26-year run as title sponsor. Last year’s lame-duck edition was seen as a bittersweet send-off for a faithful corporate partner, with one eye on the new chapter that lay ahead.

But a year later, there is no flashy sponsor art to plant behind the 18th tee. Instead that spot sits empty, while the ring of grandstands and skyboxes along the final hole features plain white tents with navy blue trim and no longer reaches all the way around the green.

The revamped logo simply says “Houston Open” in bold white font, adding only an “Est. 1946” note below the name as the tournament relies on its strongest remaining asset – its legacy – in the hopes that the 71st Houston Open is not the last.

Staging a top-tier PGA Tour event without the benefit of a title sponsor is no enviable task, and it’s not a position tournament director Steve Timms ever expected to find himself.

“I’m surprised,” Timms said. “If you’d have told me when Shell let us know in the summer of 2016 that by the 2018 tournament we would not have a new title, I probably would have made a small wager that we would.”

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Timms’ optimism at the time was certainly warranted given his event’s location and history. Houston is the fourth-largest city in the U.S., and home to headquarters for 25 different Fortune 500 companies. Certainly, it seemed, getting one of them to foot the bill for a tournament that started with Byron Nelson defeating Ben Hogan 72 years ago would be more than feasible.

That optimism remained bright following last year’s event, but no one could have foreseen what would roll into town a few short months later.

Hurricane Harvey devastated the greater Houston area in late August, putting the tournament course under several feet of water. It brought business in town, both present and future, to a grinding halt as the priorities of millions of residents shifted overnight.

It’s been a slow rebuilding process. Timms shared that some local companies didn’t return to their office buildings until February. There’s never a good time for a natural disaster, but as it related to his efforts to land a new title, the timing of Harvey was especially inopportune.

“It certainly, and understandably, captured the attention of our business community,” Timms said. “Anytime you have that kind of a natural disaster, a lot of things become secondary, if you will. So it took a lot of momentum out of the market that we’ve just had to rekindle.”

Timms declined to share financing specifics for staging this year’s event, except to say that the HGA dipped into its “cash reserves” to make good on a promise that the city of Houston would have a golf tournament to look forward to this spring.

They’re also not alone in the world of un-sponsored PGA Tour events, as the Fort Worth Invitational and The National both currently seek new titles. But the former split their bill among four presenting sponsors at a reported $2 million apiece for 2018, while the latter enjoys the backing of Tiger Woods’ TGR Foundation as it seeks a permanent home.

It all adds up to a murky situation for Houston which, despite its storied history, could be at risk of extinction as the Tour looks to overhaul its schedule for the 2018-19 season.

“I would hate to see it,” said Rickie Fowler. “Texas gets a handful of tournaments, but Houston is pretty rich in golf history. And especially coming off of last year with Harvey, and the devastation here, I think there’s a lot of good that we can do and continue to do in helping out. So hopefully it doesn’t go away.”

Complicating matters further is the fact that three hours down the road, in San Antonio, the sponsorship situation is among the best on Tour. In October, the Valero Texas Open announced a 10-year renewal with its own title sponsor from the oil & gas sector, which brought with it the added twist that in 2019 it will be Valero – not the Houston event – that will be held the week before the Masters.

It’s a spot on the calendar that didn’t seem especially desirable when Timms’ team took it over in 2007, but in the subsequent decade it’s transformed into a significant recruiting tool. The HGA prides itself on making its venue as conducive to Masters prep as possible and enjoyed a spike in field strength as a result.

Now the reality is that as the search for a new sponsor drags into its third year, the tournament will have lost one of its most marketable assets for 2019.

“It’s a shame if it does go away. There’s a long history there,” said 2015 champ J.B. Holmes. “A lot of the players went to Houston because it was set up a lot like Augusta. So maybe they’ll give that spot back to them, but I think they’ll be surprised with the people who normally play (the week before the Masters) that won’t play that one (Valero).”

The fight continues for Timms, who has had “meaningful discussions” with potential sponsors in recent months and hopes to showcase his event in front of a national audience this week. He remains confident that the tournament will enjoy both a new date and a new title next year, as one of the Tour’s longest-running events continues a prolonged effort to find its footing.

Ask Houston resident Chris Stroud, who watched his community struggle through Harvey and emerge strong on the other side, and the tournament’s future seems hardly in doubt.

“One hundred percent confident we’ll find somebody. 100 percent,” Stroud said. “With the combination of Steve Timms, the HGA, Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour and the power of Houston, I’m 100 percent confident we’re going to have somebody in place next year. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

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Lincicome grouped with two rookies in Barbasol

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 17, 2018, 9:54 pm

Brittany Lincicome will tee it up with a pair of rookies when she makes her first start in a PGA Tour event Thursday at the Barbasol Championship at Keene Trace Golf Club in Nicholasville, Ky.

Lincicome, an eight-time LPGA winner, is scheduled to go off the 10th tee at 9:59 a.m. ET in the first round with Sam Ryder, 28, and Conrad Shindler, 29. They’re off the first tee Friday at 2:59 p.m. ET

Lincicome will become just the sixth woman to play in a PGA Tour event, joining Babe Zaharias, Shirley Spork, Annika Sorenstam, Suzy Whaley and Michelle Wie.

“The first three or four holes, I’ll be a nervous wreck, for sure,” Linicome said.



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Lincicome thrilled by reception from male pros

By Randall MellJuly 17, 2018, 8:31 pm

Brittany Lincicome wondered how PGA Tour pros would greet her when she arrived to play the Barbasol Championship this week.

She wondered if there would be resentment.

She also wondered how fans at Keene Trace Golf Club in Nicholasville, Ky., would receive her, and if a social media mob would take up pitchforks.

“I can’t stop smiling,” Lincicome said Tuesday after her first practice round upon arriving. “Everyone has been coming up to me and wishing me luck. That means a lot.”

PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, husband of LPGA pro Gerina Piller, welcomed her immediately.

Other pros sought her out on the practice putting green.

She said she was also welcomed joining pros at a table in player dining.

Fans have been stopping her for autographs.

“It has been an awesome reception,” said Dewald Gouws, her husband, a former long-drive competitor. “I think it’s put her much more at ease, seeing the reception she is getting. There’s a lot of mutual respect.”

Lincicome, 32, wasn’t sure if she would be playing a practice round alone Tuesday morning, but when she made her way to the first tee, Domenico Geminiani was there, just about to go off.

He waved Lincicome over.

“He said, `Hey, Brittany, do you want to join me?’” Gouws said. “Come to find out, Dom’s a pretty cool guy.”

Geminiani made it into the field as a Monday qualifier.

“The two of us were both trying to figure things out together,” Lincicome said.

Keene Trace will play to 7,328 yards on the scorecard. That’s more than 800 yards longer than Highland Meadows, where Lincicome finished second at the LPGA’s Marathon Classic last weekend. Keene Trace was playing even longer than its listed yardage Tuesday, with recent rains softening it.

Nicknamed “Bam Bam,” Lincicome is one of the longest hitters in the women’s game. Her 269.5 yard average drive is 10th in the LPGA ranks. It would likely be dead last on the PGA Tour, where Brian Stuard (278.2) is the last player on the stats list at No. 201.

“I think if I keep it in the fairway, I’ll be all right,” Lincicome said.

Lincicome is an eight-time LPGA winner, with two major championships among those titles. She is just the sixth woman to compete in a PGA Tour event, the first in a decade, since Michelle Wie played the Reno-Tahoe Open, the last of her eight starts against the men.

Lincicome will join Babe Zaharias, Shirley Spork, Annika Sorenstam, Suzy Whaley and Wie in the elite ranks.

Zaharias, by the way, is the only woman to make a 36-hole cut in PGA Tour history, making it at the 1945 L.A. Open before missing a 54-hole cut on the weekend.

What are Lincicome’s expectations?

She would love to make the cut, but . . .

“Just going to roll with it and see what happens,” she said. “This is once in a lifetime, probably a one-and-done opportunity. I’m just going to enjoy it.”

Lincicome grew up playing for the boys’ golf team at Seminole High on the west coast of Florida. She won a couple city championships.

“I always thought it would be cool to compete against the guys on the PGA Tour,” Lincicome said. “I tend to play more with the guys than women at home. I never would have gone out and told my agent, `Let’s go try to play in a PGA Tour event,’ but when Tom Murray called with this opportunity, I was really blown away and excited by it. I never in a million years thought I would have this opportunity.”

Tom Murray, the president of Perio, the parent company of Barbasol and Pure Silk, invited Lincicome to accept one of the tournament’s sponsor exemptions. Lincicome represents Pure Silk.

Lincicome said her desire to play a PGA Tour event is all about satisfying her curiosity, wanting to know how she would stack up at this level. She also wants to see if the experience can help take her to the next level in the women’s game.

As a girl growing up, she played Little League with the boys, instead of softball with the girls. She said playing the boys in golf at Seminole High helped her get where she is today.

“The guys were better, and it pushed me to want to be better,” Lincicome said. “I think playing with the guys [on the PGA Tour], I will learn something to take to LPGA events, and it will help my game, for sure.”

Lincicome has been pleased that her fellow LPGA pros are so supportive. LPGA winner Kris Tamulis is flying into Kentucky as moral support. Other LPGA pros may also be coming in to support her.

The warm fan reception Lincicome is already getting at Keene Trace matters, too.

“She’s already picked up some new fans this week, and hopefully she will pick up some more,” Gouws said. “I don’t think she’s putting too much expectation on herself. I think she really does just want to have fun.”

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Stunner: Inbee Park steps aside for Int. Crown

By Randall MellJuly 17, 2018, 4:00 pm

There was a big surprise this week when the LPGA announced the finalized lineups for the UL International Crown.

Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park won’t be teeing it up for the host South Koreans Oct. 4-7 in Incheon.

She has withdrawn, saying she wanted another Korean to be able to experience the thrill of representing her country.

It’s a stunner given the importance the LPGA has placed on taking the UL International Crown to South Korea and its golf-crazy allegiance to the women’s game in the Crown’s first staging outside the United States.

Two-time major champion In Gee Chun will replace Park.

"It was my pleasure and honor to participate in the first UL International Crown in 2014 and at the 2016 Olympics, and I cannot describe in one word how amazing the atmosphere was to compete as a representative of my country,” Park said. “There are so many gifted and talented players in Korea, and I thought it would be great if one of the other players was given the chance to experience the 2018 UL International Crown.”

Chun, another immensely popular player in South Korea, was the third alternate, so to speak, with the world rankings used to field teams. Hye Jin Choi and Jin Young Ko were higher ranked than Chun but passed because of commitments made to competing in a Korean LPGA major that week. The other South Koreans who previously qualified are So Yeon Ryu, Sung Hyun Park and I.K. Kim.

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Na: I can admit, 'I went through the yips'

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2018, 3:35 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following his victory two weeks ago at A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, Kevin Na said his second triumph on the PGA Tour was the most rewarding of his career.

Although he declined to go into details as to why the victory was so gratifying at The Greenbrier, as he completed his practice round on Tuesday at the Open Championship, Na shed some light on how difficult the last few years have been.

“I went through the yips. The whole world saw that. I told people, 'I can’t take the club back,'” Na said on Tuesday at Carnoustie. “People talked about it, 'He’s a slow player. Look at his routine.' I was admitting to the yips. I didn’t use the word ‘yip’ at the time. Nobody wants to use that word, but I’m over it now so I can use it. The whole world saw it.”

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Na, who made headlines for his struggles to begin his backswing when he found himself in the lead at the 2012 Players Championship, said he asked other players who had gone through similar bouts with the game’s most dreaded ailment how they were able to get through it.

“It took time,” he said. “I forced myself a lot. I tried breathing. I tried a trigger. Some guys will have a forward press or the kick of the right knee. That was hard and the crap I got for it was not easy.”

The payoff, however, has steadily arrived this season. Na said he’d been confident with his game this season following a runner-up showing at the Genesis Open and a fourth-place finish at the Fort Worth Invitational, and he felt he was close to a breakthrough. But being able to finish a tournament like he did at The Greenbrier, where he won by five strokes, was particularly rewarding.

“All good now,” he smiled. “I knew I was good enough to win again, but until you do it sometimes you question yourself. It’s just the honest truth.”