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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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Group standings at WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 21, 2018, 1:00 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 (3) J. Rahm (4) J. Spieth
(32) K. Kisner (21) F. Molinari (28) K. Aphibarnrat (19) P. Reed
(38) A. Hadwin
(48) P. Kizzire (43) C. Reavie (34) H. Li
(52) B. Wiesberger
(60) L. List (63) K. Bradley (49) C. Schwartzel
Group 5 Group 6 Group 7 Group 8
(5) H. Matsuyama (6) R. McIlroy (7) S. Garcia (8) J. Day
(30) P. Cantlay
(18) B. Harman (20) X. Schauffele (25) L. Oosthuizen
(46) C. Smith (44) J. Vegas (41) D. Frittelli (42) J. Dufner
(53) Y. Miyazato (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
(26) D. Berger (31) M. Fitzpatrick (23) B. Grace (22) C. Hoffman
(33) K. Chappell (45) K. Stanley (35) B. Watson (36) B. Steele
(58) I. Poulter (51) R. Henley (64) J. Suri (55) A. Levy
Group 13 Group 14 Group 15 Group 16
(13) A. Noren (14) P. Mickelson (15) P. Perez (16) M. Kuchar
(29) T. Finau (17) R. Cabrera Bello (24) G. Woodland (27) R. Fisher
(39) T. Pieters (40) S. Kodaira (37) W. Simpson (47) Y. Ikeda
(61) K. Na (59) C. Howell III (50) S.W. Kim (54) Z. Johnson
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Els: Tiger playing well validates his generation

By Doug FergusonMarch 21, 2018, 12:42 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Tiger Woods has come close to looking like the player who ruled golf for the better part of 15 years, and Ernie Els is happy to see it.

Never mind that Els was on the losing end to Woods more than any other player.

He speaks for his generation of Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and others. Els keeps hearing about the depth of talent being greater than ever, and he has seen it. But he gets weary listening to suggestions that Woods might not have 79 PGA Tour victories if he had to face this group.

''I'm just glad he's playing like I know he can play to validate me – validate me, Phil and Vijay,'' Els said. ''We weren't bad players. This guy was a special player. To see him back, playing special stuff again ... is great for the game.''

Generational debates are nothing new.

Every generation was better than the next one. Then again, Jack Nicklaus used to lament that Woods was lacking competition from players who had more experience winning majors, such as Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros.

Mickelson, Els and Singh combined to win 12 majors. Els says Woods won 14 on his own because he was that much better.

Does it get under his skin to hear fans rave about this generation's players?

''It doesn't (tick) me off. Can you imagine how it must (tick) Tiger off?'' he said. ''He was leaps and bounds the best player. People forget very quickly, and then you see special players like we have now, the younger generation. But I know what I played against. You can't take anything away from anybody.''

Doug Ferguson is a golf writer for The Associated Press

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OR_Let the games(manship) begin

By Mercer BaggsMarch 21, 2018, 5:48 am

AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].


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Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 10:07 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.

The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.

“I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”

Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.

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As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.

“I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”