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Volvik WLD: Top 16 set, but No. 1 ousted

By Will GraySeptember 5, 2017, 12:48 am

THACKERVILLE, Okla. – The primetime lights have not yet been turned on, with players instead toiling under the beaming heat of a summer sun. But the primal screams and eye-popping yardages emanating from “the grid” indicate that the Volvik World Long Drive Championship is already in full swing.

The Winstar World Casino and Resort will take center stage over the next two evenings, but when a world championship is at stake the sport of long drive becomes more of a marathon than a sprint. For the most prolific drivers who have all gathered at this Oklahoma outpost, one good shot won’t do the trick.

Instead they were asked to navigate a meandering, double-elimination bracket that has already whittled the field from 96 entrants to 16. Along the way there have been plenty of surprises, with more likely in store once the cameras are turned on and the music gets pumping Tuesday before a national television audience.

For the uninitiated, there remains a simple question: How did we get to this point?

Seventy men qualified through past world championship performance, regional qualifiers or results in one of the other nine long-drive events contested this year. The final 26 spots were decided during a “last chance” qualifier conducted last week.

Pool play started Saturday, with players split into 16-man qualifying groups while vying for a handful of spots in the next round. Over the course of two days, the top 32 drivers were identified and re-bracketed based on world ranking.


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Monday’s head-to-head matches included a 3-minute time clock during which players stood side-by-side while hitting eight balls apiece. The player with the longest single drive won the “set,” with each match a best-of-3 affair. Players could afford to drop a single match, but were eliminated after their second loss.

It’s a change from last year’s format which saw the top 64 square off in a single-elimination, match-play bracket. A larger sample size should benefit the top players, but there were still upsets aplenty as three of the top five ranked players in the world lost their initial match Monday morning.

That group included world No. 1 Maurice Allen, who made headlines earlier this year with his Ric Flair-inspired monologue at the Mile High Showdown. But after twice losing to unheralded Wes Patterson, the lowest-ranked player in the field, Allen’s title run came to an abrupt halt.

“Today just wasn’t my day,” Allen said. “I think 2017 is the hardest field in world championships history. You’re looking at a lot of big names going home. Like I’ve said many, many times, this sport is growing. The guys are getting better and the competition is getting stiffer, so that’s why when you get a win you truly try to relish it. You don’t know when a win will be your last win.”

While Allen will be relegated to a spectator when a champion is crowned Wednesday night, there are still plenty of notable contenders standing. Two-time winner Tim Burke rallied to make the Round of 16 after losing his opening match, while defending champ Joe Miller breezed through after uncorking four different drives of at least 375 yards.

“I’m sure there’s a target on my back, but I try not to think about it too much. Let the talking be done on the tee box,” Miller said. “Once we get under the lights, just concentrate on game, go out there and hit your ball.”

With the top 16 now identified, players will be re-seeded based on ranking and put into a single-elimination bracket. When the competition resumes Tuesday night, they’ll each face an opponent equipped with eight balls, a driver that utilizes every last spec afforded by USGA regulations and a swing speed that would make any Trackman machine blush.

The winners move on to Wednesday’s high-octane finale, where the final eight players will vie for the coveted championship belt. The loser of each Round of 16 match heads home.

And the men aren’t the only show this week in Thackerville. The women’s division gets underway Tuesday, with the four longest drivers facing off during Wednesday’s primetime competition.

With three days of competition in the books, there are still a few unexpected names on the men’s leaderboard. Patterson is a former pitcher who was considering Web.com Tour Q-School as recently as last month, while Kyle Berkshire was playing collegiate golf at nearby University of North Texas last fall.

But after launching a couple 400-plus yard drives during tournament practice rounds, his teammates encouraged him to try the long-drive circuit and his coach at UNT gave him a one-semester redshirt to give it a shot.

Berkshire hit a 474-yard shot during his first qualifier, turned pro and hasn’t looked back.

“That’s when I knew this was something that I was one of the best at,” Berkshire said. “It’s just something that I really want to reach my potential in.”

That chase toward potential will now include a spot under the lights, where the 20-year-old will stand toe-to-toe against the world’s best with a world championship up for grabs.

“Anything less than a win for me is a disappointment, because I know how good I am,” Berkshire said while sporting the UNT logo on his shoes. “It’s not about being cocky or being conceited. It’s about keeping your head down, hitting your shots and letting your clubs do the talking.”

The work under the sun is in the books. Now the focus shifts to primetime, where the only certainty is that there will be plenty of high-energy fireworks as the longest drivers in the game continue their chase deep into the night sky, with the biggest title of the year at stake.

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Wise: 'No hard feelings' over Nelson missed kiss

By Will GrayMay 23, 2018, 10:18 pm

Aaron Wise left the AT&T Byron Nelson with his first PGA Tour trophy and a seven-figure paycheck. But lost in the shuffle of closing out his breakthrough victory in near-darkness was his failed attempt for a celebratory kiss with his girlfriend on the 18th green.

Wise appeared to go in for a peck after his family joined him on the putting surface, but instead he and his girlfriend simply laughed and hugged. After the moment gained a bit of online notoriety, Wise told reporters at the Fort Worth Invitational that the young couple simply laughed it off.

"Yeah, I have been giving her some s--- about that," Wise said. "A lot has been made about it. It's really nothing. Like I was saying, she was just so excited to surprise me. I was kind of ruining the surprise a little bit that she was shocked, and she didn't even see me going in for the kiss."

At age 21, Wise is now one of the youngest winners on Tour. He explained that while both his girlfriend and mother flew in to watch the final round at Trinity Forest Golf Club, where he shared the 54-hole lead and eventually won by three shots, he took some of the surprise out of their arrival in true millennial fashion - by looking up his girlfriend's location earlier in the day.

Still getting used to his newfound status on Tour, Wise downplayed any controversy surrounding the kiss that wasn't.

"No hard feelings at all," Wise said. "We love each other a ton and we're great. It was a funny moment that I think we'll always be able to look back at, but that's all it really was."

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Giving back: Chun creates education fund at site of Open win

By Randall MellMay 23, 2018, 8:04 pm

South Korea’s In Gee Chun is investing in American youth.

Chun broke through on the largest stage in women’s golf, winning the U.S. Women’s Open three years ago, and she’s making sure Lancaster, Pa., continues to share in what that brought her.

Chun is preparing for next week’s U.S. Women’s Open at Shoal Creek outside Birmingham, Ala., but she made a special stop this week. She returned to the site of her breakthrough in Pennsylvania on Tuesday and Wednesday, launching the In Gee Chun Lancaster Country Club Education Fund. She announced Tuesday that she’s donating $10,000 to seed the fund. She’s expected to raise more than $20,000 for the cause in a fundraising dinner at the club Wednesday evening. The fund will annually award scholarships to Lancaster youth applicants, including Lancaster Country Club caddies and children of club employees.

“I’m excited to be back here,” said Chun, who put on a junior clinic during her stay and also played an outing with club members. “Winning the U.S. Women’s Open here in Lancaster gave me the opportunity to play on the LPGA and make one of my dreams come true.”

Chun also supports a fund in her name at Korea University, where she graduated, a fund for various “social responsibility” projects and for the educational needs of the youth who create them.

“Education is very important to me,” Chun said. “I would like to help others reach their goals.”

Chun made donations to the Lancaster General Health Foundation in 2015 and ’16 and to Pennsylvania’s J. Wood Platt Caddie Scholarship Trust last year. Lancaster Country Club officials estimate she has now made donations in excess of $40,000 to the community.

“We are grateful In Gee’s made such a wonderful connection to our community and club,” said Rory Connaughton, a member of Lancaster Country Club’s board of governors. “She’s a special person.”

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Spieth admits '16 Masters 'kind of haunted me'

By Will GrayMay 23, 2018, 6:38 pm

Two years ago, Jordan Spieth arrived at Colonial Country Club and promptly exorcised some demons.

He was only a month removed from blowing the 2016 Masters, turning a five-shot lead with nine holes to play into a shocking runner-up finish behind Danny Willett. Still with lingering questions buzzing about his ability to close, he finished with a back-nine 30 on Sunday, including birdies on Nos. 16-18, to seal his first win since his Augusta National debacle.

Returning this week to the Fort Worth Invitational, Spieth was asked about the highs and lows he's already experienced in his five-year pro career and candidly pointed to the 2016 Masters as a "low point" that had a lingering effect.

"Even though it was still a tremendous week and still was a really good year in 2016, that kind of haunted me and all the questioning and everything," Spieth told reporters. "I let it tear me down a little bit. I kind of lost a little bit of my own freedom, thoughts on who I am as a person and as a golfer."


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Spieth went on to win the Australian Open in the fall of 2016, and last year he added three more victories including a third major title at Royal Birkdale. Given more than two years to reflect - and after nearly nabbing a second green jacket last month - he admitted that the trials and tribulations of 2016 had a lasting impact on how he perceives the daily grind on Tour.

"I guess to sum it up, I've just tried to really be selfish in the way that I think and focus on being as happy as I possibly can playing the game I love. Not getting caught up in the noise, good or bad," Spieth said. "Because what I hear from the outside, the highs are too high from the outside and the lows are too low from the outside from my real experience of them. So trying to stay pretty neutral and just look at the big picture things, and try and wake up every single day loving what I do."

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Spieth offers Owen advice ahead of Web.com debut

By Will GrayMay 23, 2018, 6:22 pm

As country music sensation Jake Owen gets set to make his Web.com Tour debut, Jordan Spieth had a few pieces of advice for his former pro-am partner.

Owen played as a 1-handicap alongside Spieth at this year's AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and this week he is playing his own ball on a sponsor invite at the Nashville Open. Owen joked with a Web.com Tour reporter that Spieth "shined" him by not answering his text earlier in the week, but Spieth explained to reporters at the Fort Worth Invitational that the two have since connected.

"We texted a bit yesterday. I was just asking how things were going," Spieth said. "I kind of asked him the state of his game. He said he's been practicing a lot. He said the course is really hard. I mean, going into it with that mindset, maybe he'll kind of play more conservative."

Owen is in the field this week on the same type of unrestricted sponsor exemption that NBA superstar Steph Curry used at the Web.com's Ellie Mae Classic in August. As Owen gets set to make his debut against a field full of professionals, Spieth noted that it might be for the best that he's focused on a tournament a few hundred miles away instead of walking alongside the singer as he does each year on the Monterey Peninsula.

"Fortunately I'm not there with him, because whenever I'm his partner I'm telling him to hit driver everywhere, even though he's talented enough to play the golf course the way it needs to be played," Spieth said. "So I think he'll get some knowledge on the golf course and play it a little better than he plays Pebble Beach. He's certainly got the talent to be able to shoot a good round."