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World Long Drive has style and substance

By Will GraySeptember 7, 2017, 2:23 pm

THACKERVILLE, Okla. – Look past the lights. See through the smoke.

The Volvik World Long Drive Championship offered up another high-octane spectacle Wednesday under the primetime spotlight at Winstar World Casino and Resort, where Justin James and Sandra Carlborg each left with a championship belt.

Even as the word “spectacle” hits the page, the footsteps can be heard of golf purists heading for the exit. But slow the stampede.

Sure, there are no putters in the golf bags on this particular driving range. The only hazard these players face is missing a grid that seemingly runs for miles and looks more like a runway than a fairway. There isn’t any rough, and there aren’t any scrambling opportunities. No one is turning in a scorecard.

It isn’t golf as we know it – but it isn’t threatening golf, either.

Over the past few months, and even years, there have been plenty of voices wondering aloud about the health of the sport, be it through participation numbers or television ratings. The ardent pursuit of a younger demographic remains a key focus from golf course operators to tournament directors.

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So what’s the harm with mixing in a little smash factor with your strokes gained-putting?

The World Long Drive Tour continues to carve out a niche and establish itself as a viable offshoot of a more traditional sport. It’s a path first trod by the likes of beach volleyball, and perhaps more recently the 3-on-3 professional basketball league that turned some heads over the summer.

But what a few years ago may have been a discipline that revolved around a single event on the calendar continues to grow in scope. It’s very much a “tour” out here, with the familiar faces of long drive traversing the country from coast to coast while flashing their eye-popping Trackman numbers for new audiences both in-person and on TV.

Like with any burgeoning outlet, increased attention has garnered increased competition. Despite a format change designed to create a larger sample size for the best players, this year’s world championship was rife with upsets as the men’s quarterfinals kicked off without the defending champ or the top two players in the world.

Just as the gap between No. 1 and No. 100 in the OWGR has thinned over the years, so too has the advantage the elite long drivers once had over their closest competition.

“I think 2017 is the hardest field in world championships history,” said No. 1 Maurice Allen, who won three events this season but was knocked out in the Round of 32. “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 cherish it. You don’t know when a win will be your last.”

It’s a sentiment that shows that long drive continues to take itself seriously as more than just an adrenaline-fueled exhibition – and rightfully so.

“It’s just getting out to more people now, and the proof is even in the competitors as well,” said 2016 world champ Joe Miller, whose title defense ended in the Round of 16. “It’s not just the fans and who it’s reaching, but the guys. You’re getting people that come in every year now, new fresh faces that can swing out of their shoes. That’s just a direct result of how many people it’s getting out to. It’s building every year.”

Granted, long drive is not for everyone. Many will see it as a two-dimensional stunt, one that caters more toward bodybuilders than golfers.

But any questions about athletic prowess can be answered by watching James connect with incredible speed, or Kyle Berkshire nearly levitate while taking a mighty lash. Berkshire would never be mistaken for a weightlifter, and like many in this week’s field he is in fact an elite golfer who reached a +4 handicap while at the University of North Texas last year before pursuing long drive on a full-time basis.

Berkshire’s background in golf is more common than you might expect. Stroll the range at dusk as players warm up before walking onto the tee and you’ll see the same crisp wedge shots or high-flying long irons that might be on display before the opening round at a Tour event.

Around these parts, possessing a scratch handicap is largely the rule – not the exception.

“That’s why I do well even as a newcomer, because I have the speed but I’m also a really good golfer,” said Berkshire, 20, who lost to Mitch Grassing in the semifinals. “I can flight it, I can hit the ball where I want to and I have more control over it than a lot of people might realize.”

So yes, long drive is a little different, and it packs a whole lot of flair. And of course, few groups fear change and cling to tradition quite like the game of golf.

But this is an elastic landscape, one that should be willing to cater to new disciplines and outside-the-box thinking with an eye toward the future. No one is playing less golf, or turning away from PGA Tour coverage, because of their newfound interest in the emergence of long drive. If anything, it’s a way to engage more casual fans who pay attention to 400-yard shots much more than four-hour final rounds.

This is an additive proposition, not a zero-sum choice.

The lights may have been turned off in Thackerville for another year, but the sport of long drive won’t be dimming anytime soon. And that’s probably a good thing, even if more traditional golf fans remain shrouded by the smoke.

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List takes Thomas to 18 putting with a wedge

By Rex HoggardMarch 21, 2018, 7:57 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – As he walked off the sixth tee on Wednesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Luke List “swiped” his putter into what he thought was a bush. It was a wall.

List’s putter bent slightly, which meant he wasn’t allowed to employ it the rest of the round. Using a wedge to putt, he lost his opening-day match to Justin Thomas, 2 down.

“Stupid on my part,” List said. “I'll get the club fixed and go on to my next two matches.”

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Despite his putting disadvantage, List pushed Thomas to the 18th hole thanks to birdies at Nos. 13, 15 and 16, which included a chip-in from 18 feet at 15. Thomas was 3 up with four holes to play and managed to birdie the last, but it was far from stress-free.

“I was thinking about it, how bad that would hurt if I couldn't get it done,” Thomas said. “He hit some great putts and he made some good ones when he needed to.”

The situation also prompted Thomas to change his strategy on the greens, with not nearly as many conceded putts as normal.

“He putted probably two or three putts I wouldn't have made him putt with a putter,” Thomas said. “[No. 13] was a short putt he's probably going to make. It had a lot of break. But 12, that putt was 2 feet straight uphill. But I was like he's got a wedge, so I'm going to make him putt it.”

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Group standings at WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 21, 2018, 7:45 pm

Here are the group standings for pool play at the 2018 WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship in Austin, Texas. The player with the most points in each pool advanced to Saturday's Round of 16 in Austin, Texas. Click here for scoring and click here for the bracket.

Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Group 4
(1) D. Johnson (2) J. Thomas: 1-0-0 (3) J. Rahm (4) J. Spieth
(32) K. Kisner (21) F. Molinari: 1-0-0 (28) K. Aphibarnrat (19) P. Reed
(38) A. Hadwin
(48) P. Kizzire: 0-1-0 (43) C. Reavie (34) H. Li
(52) B. Wiesberger
(60) L. List: 0-1-0 (63) K. Bradley (49) C. Schwartzel
Group 5 Group 6 Group 7 Group 8
(5) H. Matsuyama: 1-0-0 (6) R. McIlroy (7) S. Garcia (8) J. Day
(30) P. Cantlay: 0-1-0
(18) B. Harman (20) X. Schauffele (25) L. Oosthuizen
(46) C. Smith: 1-0-0 (44) J. Vegas (41) D. Frittelli (42) J. Dufner
(53) Y. Miyazato: 0-1-0 (51) P. Uihlein (62) S. Sharma (56) J. Hahn
Group 9 Group 10 Group 11 Group 12
(9) T. Fleetwood (10) P. Casey (11) M. Leishman (12) T. Hatton: 1-0-0
(26) D. Berger (31) M. Fitzpatrick (23) B. Grace (22) C. Hoffman: 0-1-0
(33) K. Chappell (45) K. Stanley (35) B. Watson (36) B. Steele: 1-0-0
(58) I. Poulter (51) R. Henley (64) J. Suri (55) A. Levy: 0-1-0
Group 13 Group 14 Group 15 Group 16
(13) A. Noren: 1-0-0 (14) P. Mickelson (15) P. Perez: 0-1-0 (16) M. Kuchar
(29) T. Finau (17) R. Cabrera Bello (24) G. Woodland: 0-1-0 (27) R. Fisher
(39) T. Pieters (40) S. Kodaira (37) W. Simpson: 0-1-0 (47) Y. Ikeda
(61) K. Na: 0-1-0 (59) C. Howell III (50) S.W. Kim: 0-1-0 (54) Z. Johnson
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Hot Seat: The driver is burning Tiger

By Randall MellMarch 21, 2018, 6:51 pm

The men’s first major championship of the year is two weeks away, the women’s just a week away.

Here’s our Hot Seat lineup with the approach of the Masters and the ANA Inspiration in mind:

Smoking carbon composites – Tiger Woods

Woods is the betting favorite to win the Masters in most sportsbooks, and while his game is coming together quickly, he won’t be the experts’ pick without getting his driver under control.

The driver looks like the last piece Woods needs to once more become the favorite wherever he goes.

Right now, though, there’s an open wound that needs to be cauterized before he heads to Augusta National.

That double-cross Woods blew into someone’s backyard along the 16th hole Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational came from a reservoir of uncertainty that his driver continues to create. 

Woods has come a long way with his driver. When he pulls it out of the bag, it isn’t like he’s ripping a bandage off anymore, not the way it was three and four years ago. Still, he doesn’t pull that club with the same relish Rory McIlroy does, or Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, for that matter. Physically and psychologically, they’ve got an advantage on him until he does. 

Woods did not qualify for this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship, so he’s got extra time to address his biggest shortcoming.

“Project No. 1 over the next two weeks is going to be the driver,” Golf Channel’s Notah Begay said earlier this week. “Tiger has to focus in on trying to find some way to navigate Augusta National with the driver, because it’s a course that’s going to force you to hit driver.”

Dustin Johnson at the 2018 WGC-Mexico Championship.

Smoldering Tex Mex Tango – Dustin Johnson

The world No. 1 is playing just fine enough since his victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions at year’s start. He’s just been overshadowed by the brilliance of a lot of fellow stars.

With McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Justin Thomas all winning in the last month, with Woods stepping up his game, Johnson has been quietly toiling toward the Masters.

Johnson has won 10 times since Woods' last victory, and yet Woods is the 8-to-1 favorite to win the Masters.

Johnson, McIlroy and Thomas are listed at 10-to-1 by the Westgate Las Vegas SportsBook.

It doesn’t rankle Johnson.

“It’s fine with me,” he said Tuesday. “He’s playing pretty well.”

Even as the defending champ this week at the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Texas, Johnson isn’t center stage, not with McIlroy marching into town off his dominant finish at the API.

Flying relatively under the radar might seem like a comfortable position for a world No. 1, but he won’t stay atop the world rankings for long flying under the radar.

Shanshan Feng during Round 2 at the 2017 Japan Classic.

Rolex Ranking Roast – Shanshan Feng

The women’s Rolex world No. 1 enters the week at the Kia Classic trying to hold off a strong field with the ANA Inspiration looming next week.

The top seven players in the world rankings, and 11 of the top 12, are at Aviara Golf Club in Carlsbad, California.

Feng has quietly reigned atop the world rankings for 19 consecutive weeks, holding off bids to overtake her by No. 2 Lexi Thompson, No. 3 So Yeon Ryu and No. 4 Sung Hyun Park.

They’ve all been close enough in world ranking average this year to take the top spot, but Feng isn’t backing down. She’s winless so far this this year, but she has finished fifth or better in two of her three starts.

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Match-by-match: 2018 WGC-Dell Technologies, Day 1

By Will GrayMarch 21, 2018, 6:32 pm

Here is how things played out on Day 1 of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, as 64 players take on Austin Country Club with hopes of advancing out of pool play:

Group 2: (2) Justin Thomas def. (60) Luke List, 2 up: In perhaps the most entertaining match of the morning, Thomas edged List in a rematch of last month's Honda Classic playoff despite List spending much of the round putting with a wedge after bending his putter. Thomas was 3 up with four to play before List pushed the match the distance.

Group 2: (21) Francesco Molinari def. (48) Patton Kizzire, 3 and 1: Molinari turned a tight match into a victory thanks to a few timely errors from Kizzire. Pars on Nos. 14 and 17 were good enough to win the hole for Molinari, with the latter sealing his victory and moving him a step closer to a potential winner-take-all battle with Thomas on Friday.

Group 5: (5) Hideki Matsuyama def. (53) Yusaku Miyazato, 2 and 1: This all-Japanese battle went to the group's top seed, as Matsuyama poured in a birdie on the par-3 17th to close out the match. Miyazato got off to a strong start, holding a 2-up lead through six holes, before Matsuyama turned the tables with two birdies over the next three holes.

Group 5: (46) Cameron Smith def. (30) Patrick Cantlay, 2 up: Smith never trailed in the match, but it turned into a closer contest than it appeared when the Aussie held a 3-up lead with four holes to play. Uihlein won the next two holes, but he couldn't get any closer as Smith earned a critical victory as he looks to earn a Masters spot by staying in the top 50 in the world rankings after this week.

Group 12: (12) Tyrrell Hatton def. (55) Alexander Levy, 3 and 2: Hatton won the opening hole with a par and never trailed the rest of the way. Levy's win on the eighth hole proved to be his only victory of the day, as Hatton barely had to break a sweat after building a 3-up lead through five holes.

Group 12: (36) Brendan Steele def. (22) Charley Hoffman, 1 up: Steele never trailed in the match and at one point held a 4-up lead, but coming down the stretch it took everything he had to keep Hoffman at bay. Hoffman won four in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 13-17, but a par on the final hole was enough to give Steele the full point.

Group 13: (61) Kevin Na def. (13) Alex Noren, 4 and 2: The biggest upset from the early matches came here, as Na turned a close contest into a blowout. The two men were all square after 11 holes, but Na won three of the next four and then closed out the match when Noren conceded on the par-5 16th.

Group 13: (29) Tony Finau def. (39) Thomas Pieters, 2 and 1: Two of the longest hitters in the field squared off in this tilt, with Finau notching a full point despite losing two of the first three holes. The American birdied the 15th to take a 2-up lead, then closed out Pieters with a par on the 17th hole.

Group 15: (15) Pat Perez vs. (50) Si Woo Kim, halved: The first match of the day ended up in a draw, as the top seed rallied from a deficit to salvage half a point. Kim won three of the first six holes and held a 3-up lead with seven holes to go, but Perez fought back with four birdies over the next six holes to draw even.

Group 15: (24) Gary Woodland vs. (37) Webb Simpson, halved: This group remains entirely up for grabs since nothing was decided on the opening day. Woodland took a 3-up lead at the turn, but Simpson rallied by winning four of the next seven holes, including a birdie on No. 17 that brought him back to all square for the first time since the third hole.