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Mickelson's WGC win inspires at Valspar

By Will GrayMarch 7, 2018, 9:00 pm

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Three days after he finally got his hands around the trophy, the effects of Phil Mickelson’s drought-breaking victory are still being felt a country over.

Mickelson isn’t in the field at this week’s Valspar Championship, seemingly one of only a handful of stars who have stayed away from the Copperhead Course as the tournament boasts its best field to date. But that didn’t keep his name out of the news Wednesday, as one player after the next stepped up to the microphone to describe the magnitude of his playoff win over Justin Thomas.

Mickelson’s popularity is not just limited to the throng of fans that follow him at tournaments. So when he finally got back into the winner’s circle after nearly five years, the effect was two-fold: it put the young stars on notice that the Tour’s elder statesman can still hang, and it gave hope to a certain 14-time major champ that time has not yet run out.

Tiger Woods is making his tournament debut this week at Innisbrook, marking his first trip here since a co-ed team event in 1996 – when Thomas, Jon Rahm and Jordan Spieth were still toddlers. Woods and Mickelson weren’t exactly warm and fuzzy during their respective primes, but they’ve grown closer as the years have passed and Woods was watching Sunday as Mickelson won after a number of recent close calls.

“What Phil is showing us is that can still do it later on in our careers,” Woods said. “Davis (Love III) did it at 51, I believe. Phil is 47. I think Kenny Perry won a handful of events close to 45, 46. So, you know, there are a few guys that can do it late in their career.”

Woods has an entire YouTube library full of tournaments at his disposal where either he or Mickelson left with the trophy, but the perspective is a bit different for the Tour’s younger generation. When Mickelson won The Open in 2013, his most recent victory prior to Sunday, Spieth was still basking in the glow of his breakthrough victory at the John Deere Classic the prior week.

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Spieth’s youth again shone through when he attempted to compare what Mickelson accomplished to Jack Nicklaus’ Masters win in 1986 at age 46 – only to admit that his perspective on the latter is based entirely on hearsay given that he wasn’t born for another seven years.

“Pretty incredible for a guy who has put family first and certainly backed off the amount of time he’s played, and definitely the amount of work on the course with everything that he has off the golf course,” Spieth said of Mickelson. “To be able to come out and compete at that level consistently, I think that speaks to as much as his win.”

That sentiment was echoed by Rory McIlroy, who eschewed last week’s event in Mexico City for some practice time at Augusta National but still took note of the three-time jacket winner’s latest triumph.

“Good to see Phil win last week. He’s been trending in the right direction,” McIlroy said. “I said yesterday I don’t know why more people aren’t talking about him going into this stage of the season, because it seemed like he was flying under the radar a little bit. He was top 5-ing just for fun.”

McIlroy and Spieth have had plenty of time to watch Mickelson rekindle his game over the recent months, cobbling together top finishes and standout performances in team events before all the pieces fell into place in Mexico. But the player who can perhaps derive the most inspiration from Mickelson’s performance is the one who spent much of Lefty’s winless drought on the disabled list.

Indeed, there was a glint in Woods’ eye as he recounted Mickelson’s performance down the stretch in great detail, a clear indicator that he was tuned in for the tournament’s conclusion where the savvy veteran outlasted the rising star.

“It was a very, very small margin, and what he did on Sunday was very, very cool to watch,” Woods said. “He did it. He put the pressure on Justin in the playoff, put it right there pin-high and hit a beautiful putt. I don’t know how it didn’t go in.”

Woods and Mickelson have carved divergent paths to greatness, intersecting on fewer occasions than their decorated records might suggest. But as they approach the twilight of their careers, gently bridging the gap between Ryder Cup players and potential future captaincies, they have begun to focus more on their similarities than differences.

And while the road to recovery facing Woods remains arduous, watching a longtime peer still more than five years his senior keep the latest crop of young stars at bay for a week could very well have offered a much-needed glimmer of hope at just the right time.

“Seeing Phil win I think was really cool for Tiger to recognize, ‘OK, I’ve got all this time to be able to still get to that high level,’” Spieth said. “I haven’t talked to him about that, but I imagine that’s got to be pretty interesting for him to see, and it helps put things in perspective in how much time he still really does have for the top level. And knowing the nature he’s displayed over the last 20 years, it still wouldn’t be surprising if come Masters time he’s in the hunt on Sunday. That’s pretty amazing to say.”

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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.”

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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.