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But what if ... 2017 played out differently?

By Will GrayDecember 7, 2017, 1:00 pm

There were plenty of highlights over the past year on the course, from thrilling tournament conclusions to heart-stopping drama at majors. Golf fans were granted a bevy of impressive champions, each with a unique story that led them to the winner’s circle.

But what if the many-dimpled ball had bounced in a slightly different direction? How might the landscape have shifted with minor changes in some of the biggest tournaments of the year?

Without further ado, a look at five of the biggest “what-ifs” from the year in golf:

What if…the Royal Birkdale driving range was out of bounds?

The lore of Jordan Spieth’s Open triumph will always be inextricably linked to the chaotic scene that played out to the right of the 13th fairway during the final round. Spieth had sprayed his drive wildly off-line, but he had the wherewithal to realize that he could take a penalty drop on the adjacent driving range. He managed to save bogey and jump-started an electric finish that earned him the claret jug.

But at many tournament courses, the driving range is considered out of bounds. Had the range been off-limits, Spieth would have either had to take a risky drop on an enormous hillside, setting up a blind and difficult third shot, or trudge back to the tee to take another crack at one of the hardest holes Birkdale had to offer.

At that point even a double bogey would have been a noble goal, meaning Matt Kuchar would have walked to the 14th tee with at least a two-shot lead –  en route to what would have been a breakthrough major title.

What if…Dustin Johnson didn’t slip?

This will likely go down as one of the bigger hypotheticals in recent memory, as an 11th-hour freak injury kept the world No. 1 from playing in the Masters and derailed the momentum he accrued by winning each of his last three starts leading down Magnolia Lane.

Johnson was the man to beat for nearly the entire spring, and without a back injury sustained on the eve of the opening round he would have maintained that status throughout the season’s first major. Instead of Sergio Garcia, it would have been Johnson facing off with Justin Rose down the stretch, each vying for green jacket No. 1 and major No. 2.

Johnson still won four times in 2017, but the floodgates would have opened for a truly historic year with a Masters triumph. And Garcia would probably still be viewed as the best player without a major.

What if…Lexi Thompson had marked her ball correctly?

The biggest rules controversy of the year played out at the ANA Inspiration, where Lexi Thompson was assessed a retroactive, four-shot penalty in the middle of the final round for improperly marking her ball the day prior. A phone call from a TV viewer fundamentally altered the outcome of a major championship, as Thompson went on to lose a playoff to So Yeon Ryu.

While Ryu’s name was etched on the trophy, the tournament was Thompson’s to lose – and she wouldn’t have lost it without the penalty. A proper mark would have led to her second win in four years at Mission Hills, and it would have kicked off a torrid season that still netted her the $1 million Race to the CME Globe bonus despite her controversial runner-up.

It would have even meant a little less scar tissue lingering over Thompson as she addressed the 2-foot putt at the season finale in Naples that would have taken her to world No. 1 for the first time.

What if…Jason Day had chipped out?

The Aussie was still in the hunt at the PGA Championship, four shots off the lead when disaster struck on the final hole of his third round. An errant drive onto pine straw led to an ambitious rescue attempt through the trees, one that backfired and led to a quadruple bogey. Any hopes of a second major title vanished in the span of 15 minutes.

While Day still would have faced an uphill battle in the final round, a simple pitch back to the fairway would have likely resulted in bogey at worse. Day would have remained within arm’s length of Kevin Kisner, who went on to bogey the same hole, and would have been an intimidating presence on a leaderboard filled with first-time major hopefuls.

In the end, Justin Thomas’ run to the Wanamaker Trophy may have continued uninterrupted. But Day’s chances would have been kept alive for a win that would have turned around an otherwise disappointing season – and perhaps salvaged his partnership with caddie Col Swatton, which ended a month later.

What if…Brian Gay didn’t crunch the numbers?

Granted, this one didn’t impact the outcome of a major. But Ian Poulter’s resurgent season, highlighted by his runner-up finish at The Players, would have never happened without some number-crunching from Gay and his wife, Kimberly.

When Poulter missed the cut at the Valero Texas Open in April, he believed that he had exhausted his major medical extension without earning enough FedExCup points to keep his PGA Tour card. But after the Gays unearthed an issue with the Tour’s math, the status of both players was adjusted and the Englishman wasted little time in putting his reinstated card to use.

Without a mathematical assist from Gay, Poulter would have been scrapping for playing opportunities all summer long while trying to keep pace with players nearly half his age. Instead, he’ll end the year knocking on the door of the OWGR top 50, with a return to the Masters within reach and a spot on next year’s European Ryder Cup team in Paris a very real possibility.

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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.”

WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Scoring | Group standings

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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.