JOHANNESBURG – Edoardo Molinari and Craig Lee share the halfway lead at the Joburg Open on 11 under par, while David Horsey charged into contention with a 63 to sit a shot off the pace on Friday. England’s Horsey went 8 under through his second round with eight birdies and no dropped shots on the par-71 West Course at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington to be in contention for a first European Tour title in three years. Ahead of him, Molinari and Lee held onto their overnight advantage. Molinari had a 4-under 68 on the longer, tougher East Course and Lee a 67 on the West after a run of four birdies on the front nine. South African George Coetzee (68) is alongside Horsey a shot back. Finland’s Roope Kakko matched Horsey for best round of the day with his 8-under 64 on the East to move to 9 under after racing through the front nine with seven birdies. Kakko slowed on the back nine, and dropped shots at Nos. 10 and 16, but had done enough by then to be within striking distance of the top. Charl Schwartzel made an inconsistent 70, with seven birdies and six bogeys, to sit in a tie for 55th on 4 under – flirting with the cut. Players at the Joburg Open aren’t only chasing the $280,000 winner’s check. Three places in the British Open are available for the highest-placed finishers in the top 10 who have not already qualified. The highest player in Johannesburg already with a place at the Open was Frenchman Gregory Bourdy in a tie for 12th, leaving a bunch of players to battle it out for the qualifying spots. While Italy’s Molinari and Scotland’s Lee hold the edge ahead of the two final rounds on the East Course, Horsey’s performance on Friday started with six birdies in his first nine and was capped by a 30-foot putt for his eighth birdie on No. 16 to put him in sight of the title, and also a place at his home major. ”It’s (the British Open) at the back of my mind at the moment, but it’s certainly a bonus to consider near the end of the week,” Horsey said. Molinari has looked like the player of 2010 – when he won both the Ryder Cup and his last tour title – over the opening two days in South Africa with his 64 and then a 68. ”I’m very happy with pretty much everything. I am very happy with my position and my game right now,” he said. Lee is hanging in there to share the lead with Molinari. Kakko’s impressive 64 put him in a seven-way tie for fifth, two shots off the leaders.
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Harris English got his first Masters week off to an ideal start Sunday – he made an ace on the 12th hole. And it came with a little help from Brandt Snedeker. They played a practice round with Augusta National members Dave Dorman and Toby Wilt, who teamed with Snedeker to win the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am last year. When they got to the menacing 12th hole, Snedeker hit a three-quarter 9-iron to the front-left hole location. English’s caddie suggested about the same, and that’s when Snedeker stepped in with these words of advice: ”Just rip a wedge.” ”I’m 1-for-1 as a caddie,” Snedeker chirped after the round. Turning to English, he said, ”What have you been doing all year? This is easy.” English is among a record 24 players playing the Masters for the first time, though Sunday wasn’t his first time playing Augusta National. He played every year in college at Georgia. Even so, it was a good way to ease into a busy week. And it was a long time coming. English said it was the second hole-in-one of his life, and his first as a professional. The other one? ”Huntsville Country Club, when I was 14,” he said. ”I hit a 5-iron. Hooked it left and it kicked right.” This was a wedge from 142 yards that covered the flag. And he was at Augusta National. Big difference. HAPPY RETURNS: Adam Scott returned to Augusta National on Friday and took one last privilege as the defending champion. He took his father out to play the course. ”It was the highlight of his golfing life,” Scott said Sunday. ”I think for him following me around here for so many years, to get to stand in the middle of the fairways and get the perspective was just great. And for me just playing with him, well, it was pretty special.” Perhaps the best part was going down the 10th hole, where last year he hit 6-iron to 12 feet and made the birdie putt to beat Angel Cabrera on the second playoffs hole. It was a good time, as Scott said his coach told him, to ”stop and smell the flowers.” ”Walking down there the last couple of days thinking about,” Scott said, still amazed at the feeling. ”It’s had an incredible impact on me. Reliving it has been nice, even these last couple of days, as well.” What he’s not looking forward to this week is leaving the green jacket behind – unless he was to win again. Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods are the only players to win back-to-back at the Masters. ”I’m quite determined to not leave it here,” Scott said. AN INSPIRING SUNDAY: By all accounts, the Drive, Chip and Putt competition was a huge success at the Masters. Club chairman Billy Payne said the idea was to inspire young kids to get involved in golf and be motivated to earn a trip to Augusta National. Ian Poulter said his 9-year-old son, Luke, was watching from home. ”My son is home on the sofa watching,” Poulter said. ”I told him, ‘This should get you excited to go play.’ Hopefully, he’s on the range.” Poulter said he spent a good part of the morning watching the Golf Channel coverage and couldn’t imagine what it was like to be a parent. ”I remember my mum and dad watching me play here for the first time,” he said. ”For the parents of these kids, they’ve got to be a complete bag of nerves. This is brilliant. It’s cool for the kids.” Poulter was inspired for other reason. While watching coverage, he noticed one young boy wearing his clothing line. ”I’ve got to go find him,” Poulter said, and off he went. DIVOTS: Matt Jones became the 97th player into the field by winning the Shell Houston Open on Sunday. That makes it a record 24 Masters rookies this week. … British Amateur champion Garrick Porteous has a rare distinction at Augusta National. He is the first Masters competitor to play the 17th hole without the Eisenhower Tree. Porteous played a practice round on Feb. 17, the day after the ice-damaged tree was removed.
PINEHURST, N.C. – Michelle Wie stepping up to win Sunday was Hollywood scripting for this historic staging of the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open. The USGA billed this grand experiment as a celebration of women’s golf and the unprecedented chance to compare the men and women playing the same venue for the first time in back-to-back weeks. Wie, for better or worse, made her name and mark boldly daring to believe she could compete against the men with a dream of someday playing in the Masters. Whether you loved or loathed her ambition you can’t deny the irony in her playing such a giant role with the men and women sharing of one of golf’s largest stages at Pinehurst No. 2. Wie laughed Sunday night when asked if she would have liked to have played in both the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open these past two weeks. “Oh, my God, that would be horrible, like two U.S. Opens in a row,” Wie said. “Oh, boy, I don’t think I could do it.” Devoted followers of the women’s game saw this twinning of championships holding some possible danger of making the women look bad, but with a load of potential upside in the possibility it might be the most watched women’s golf event ever. Wie’s winning was the best possible result for women’s fans thinking that way, because her crossing over to play PGA Tour events as a young teen was a marketing bonanza, vaulting her profile beyond what most women in golf have ever enjoyed. The curious were waiting to see how Wie’s victory compared to the lackluster TV ratings the U.S. Open received with Martin Kaymer running away in an eight-shot rout. The final round of the men’s version pulled a 3.3 overnight rating; the women’s got a 1.7 rating. But while the men’s Open was down 46 percent from a year ago (when Justin Rose won over Phil Mickelson and Co., and Tiger Woods competed), the women’s Open was up 92 percent and the best since 2007. Wie’s victory also bettered final-round coverage of the Travelers Championship, which got a 1.2 rating, and it was the top non-World Cup sporting event on network TV, according to Sports Media Watch. “Michelle Wie winning the golf tournament, I don’t think you can script it any better,” runner-up Stacy Lewis said. “I think it’s great for the game of golf. I think it’s even better for women’s golf.” Lewis knows what kind of jolt Wie can give the tour hitting leaderboards on a regular basis. “You couldn’t ask for anything better for this tour,” Lewis said. Wie has vaulted from No. 100 in the Rolex world rankings a little more than a year ago to No. 7 in this week’s rankings. This is already a magical year for the women’s game. In the year’s first major, Lexi Thompson beat Wie in a head-to-head final-round duel at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. With Wie battling Rolex No. 1 Lewis at the end of her victory at Pinehurst No. 2, the women delivered high drama the men couldn’t provide in their final round. Wie’s title gives Americans claim to the first two women’s majors of the year for the first time this century, since Dottie Pepper and Juli Inkster opened 1999 winning the Kraft Nabisco and LPGA Championship. Lewis, Inbee Park and 17-year-old Lydia Ko are battling weekly for the No. 1 ranking. Ko, Park, Paula Creamer and Hall of Famer Karrie Webb have all hoisted trophies this year. “With the help of [commissioner] Mike Whan, under his command, the tour has really started to flourish,” Wie said. “I think this week, playing on the same stage as the men, I think it opens the door for us to get better, to get bigger.” The USGA couldn’t have drawn up better synergy linking the U.S. Open to the U.S. Women’s Open. It started with the women’s arrival in the final round of the U.S. Open, with Wie, Thompson, Ko, Cristie Kerr and other LPGA stars inside the ropes watching Kaymer win. In the end, with Wie crediting the help she got from Rickie Fowler and Keegan Bradley giving her their yardage books, the men were made part of this dramatic finish. “Just an absolutely wonderful two weeks, great golf,” said Dan Burton, chairman of the USGA’s championship committee. “I think we achieved every objective we could have possibly set out to enumerate. We presented the golf course, I think, both weeks in almost perfect fashion.” It begs the question when the USGA might do this again, but the answer’s uncertain. With future U.S. Women’s Opens being moved to a new permanent date at the start of June, USGA executive director Mike Davis was asked when it makes sense to do this again. “We’ve been asking ourselves that same question,” Davis said. “It won’t be a regular thing if we do this.” Pinehurst No. 2, with its rough-hewn agronomy, proved the perfect venue to stage back-to-back championships. The earliest the U.S. Open could return there is 2022. The dates are booked out until then. Bob Dedman, Pinehurst’s owner, told GolfChannel.com he wants the U.S. Open back as soon as he can get it. Davis told Golfchannel.com a return is highly likely. “I don’t think it’s a question of if we are going to return to Pinehurst No. 2, but a question of when,” Davis said. Davis said the USGA won’t look at future venues until the fall, but Pinehurst No. 2 has formally invited the USGA to return. Dedman’s invite is among 20 the USGA will consider. “You would be hard pressed to find a better place,” Davis said of Pinehurst No. 2s suitability for staging the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open in back-to-back weeks. The grand experiment by all accounts was a hit, and now women’s golf waits to see if they’ve earned an encore.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – You know how American Pharoah lapped the field on Saturday at the Preakness by seven lengths? Yeah, this was better than that. While Rory McIlroy wasn’t vying for the second leg of the Triple Crown – or even the fourth leg of the career Grand Slam, that will have to wait until next April – his seven-stroke masterpiece was still an ominous work of art. With apologies to American Pharoah, the 3-year-old only had to navigate a sloppy Pimlico track for his title; whereas McIlroy had to weather four trips through Quail Hollow Club’s demanding “Green Mile,” which the world No. 1 played in 1 over for the week. But that doesn’t scratch the surface of McIlroy’s performance at Quail Hollow. His Saturday 61 was a course record, breaking the old mark he set when he won here in 2010, and he etched 54- and 72-hole scoring records, shattering the latter by six strokes. It was, by any measure, a signature performance somewhere just south of those eight-stroke romps at the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship. Not that the Northern Irishman was exactly caught up in the hyperbole following a closing-round 69 that was, by McIlroy’s own assessment, good enough. Wells Fargo Championship: Articles, videos and photos “Sort of boring, really,” he said of his 11th PGA Tour victory. “In terms of there wasn’t as much excitement on the back nine. I finished with six 3s the last time I won here. Would have been nice to finish with six 3s again.” It’s always more with this kid. But what this victory lacked in fireworks it made up for in foreshadowing, with McIlroy comparing his current run, which includes May victories at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play and now the Wells Fargo Championship, to his late-summer tear in 2014 when he won bookend majors (Open Championship and PGA Championship) around a World Golf Championships high card (Bridgestone Invitational). For others, it was more akin to his PGA walk-off in 2012 at Kiawah Island where he overpowered the course and all takers. “He just has that killer instinct. He wants it so badly,” said David Feherty, the CBS Sports on-course reporter who walked with McIlroy in ’12 at the PGA and on Sunday at Quail Hollow. “There weren’t two of those on Noah’s Ark, I can tell you that much.” There was a time when some openly asked if McIlroy was mean enough to win events with such cutthroat efficiency, a time when his periodic competitive lapses (see PGA Tour season, 2013) were grounds to question any comparisons to Tiger Woods. But with each passing milestone those excuses begin looking thinner than Quail Hollow’s parched fairways. In the last three weeks, McIlroy has played 265 competitive holes on Tour with progressively better results. Although he said on Sunday it’s his complete game that makes performances like this week possible, what separates him from the pack on these occasions is an utter fearlessness off the tee. For the week, he had 42 drives of 300 yards or more and yet still batted well over .500 (31 of 56) in fairways hit. There were cracks on Sunday, most notably a three-putt bogey from 56 feet at the second hole which was his first three-putt in 167 holes on Tour, and as he stepped to the 16th tee to begin the “Green Mile” he took a mental note that he was just four strokes clear of Patrick Rodgers at the time. But a 364-yard drive and tap-in birdie at No. 16 quickly robbed the landscape of whatever drama was remaining. Beginning the day, McIlroy’s plan was simple – birdie the four par 5s and two “reachable” par 4s. Six birdies, he reasoned, would be hard to beat considering the field had already spotted him a four-stroke advantage heading into the final turn. But then simple is what an older, wiser McIlroy seems to do best. Like last year at Hoylake, when his trigger words for the week were “process” and “spot.” This week it was an 11th-hour meeting with putting coach Dave Stockton Sr., who spent all of three minutes working with McIlroy on Wednesday. This time the message was stay down and with the putt through impact. “Rory likes to keep things simple, like last year at the Open Championship, and that’s what we did,” said Stockton Sr., who reconnected with McIlroy after a 13-month hiatus. Perhaps most impressive of all, however, is how much the 26-year-old relishes his status atop the pack. Following his WGC-Match Play victory he acknowledged that he checks the Official World Golf Ranking to see his lead every Monday. High-profile victories in recent weeks by Jordan Spieth (Masters) and Rickie Fowler (The Players) have only intensified McIlroy’s desire to dominate. “It does push me. I think you see guys that you knew well, guys that are your peers and they’re winning golf tournaments, big golf tournaments, that you want to win,” McIlroy said. “I felt like as the best player in the world I want to go at it every week and just show that.” Whether by seven lengths or seven strokes, McIlroy’s play this week was more than just a single victory, it’s a sign of what’s becoming the norm for golf’s fiercest racehorse.
NAPA, Calif. – The 3-footer that Emiliano Grillo missed on the 18th green Sunday at Silverado wasn’t going to haunt him. Not this time. Seven months ago, he whiffed a short putt on the 72nd hole in Puerto Rico that cost him a career-altering title. He eventually lost in a playoff. “I had nightmares for a week,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep. It was one of the most painful times of my life.” There wouldn’t be a repeat at the Frys. After missing what appeared to be a certain birdie, and after Kevin Na made a mess of the second playoff hole, Grillo wedged to 10 feet and poured in the putt to win the PGA Tour’s season-opening event. It was his first start as a Tour member. The latest success story in a high school class of 2011 that has also produced Jordan Spieth, Daniel Berger, Justin Thomas and Patrick Rodgers, Grillo, 23, is expected to jump inside the top 40 in the world rankings. He is also exempt into the Masters. “They said the word ‘Masters’ twice today,” he said. Then he pointed at his smile. “You see this?” he said. “That is what I’m going to do every single time you say ‘Masters.’” Frys.com Open: Articles, photos and videos Two weeks after winning the Web.com Tour finale with an uphill, right-to-left-breaking 25-footer, Grillo holed virtually the same putt on the final hole of regulation. Twenty minutes later, Na matched Grillo’s 15-under 273 total with a cold-blooded 6-footer of his own, but he never gave himself a realistic shot to win in the playoff. In fact, he was fortunate to even get a second chance. With the sun quickly disappearing behind the mountains, Grillo appeared to be in position to end the playoff early. He nestled his pitch shot on the par-5 18th to 3 feet, but he hammered his putt on the left edge and lipped out – eerily similar to the putt he missed earlier this year in Puerto Rico. “I hit this one good,” he said. “I don’t know what happened.” He had only a few minutes to recover. “My caddie asked me if I was 100 percent and I said, ‘Yes. I want to win it,’” Grillo said. “You know how they say it: Third time is a charm.” Still alive, Na was in ideal position on the second playoff hole, 274 yards away on the right side of the fairway. With the ball slightly above his feet, Na opted for a driver off the tight turf, a shot that he “hit perfect” five or six times this week. This one was far from perfect. He dropkicked the shot and sent his ball screaming into the left rough, behind a tree, about 100 yards out. “I was a little shocked by that,” Grillo said. From there, Na somehow wedged through a small opening in the trees, but his ball skittered through the back of the green. His fourth shot was too aggressive, and he missed the 12-foot comebacker for par. It was his third career overtime loss. “You would think I would get my share,” Na said afterward, “but I certainly haven’t gotten my share of wins for how good I’ve played for the last seven or eight years. But you know what? It’s coming. It’s coming.” Grillo and Na’s playoff miscues were but a sampling of a sloppy first Sunday of the season, when nine players had at least a share of the lead. There was a long line of players who rued their missed opportunities: • Looking to go wire to wire, Brendan Steele overcame a rocky start and was tied for the lead when he made five bogeys in a six-hole stretch on the back nine, dropping all the way to a share of 17th. • Journeyman Jason Bohn had the outright lead when he butchered the par-5 16th, chunking his third shot and making bogey. • Justin Rose, the second-highest ranked player in the field (No. 7), pulled within a shot of the lead but came home in 38. • And Justin Thomas, who made a compelling case for top rookie honors last season, shot 69 in the final round but failed to make birdie on the last five holes, a stretch that includes two par 5s and a short par 4. Though disappointed with the finish, Thomas still stuck around the scorer’s trailer to congratulate Grillo on his 72nd-hole birdie. “He’s really, really good,” Thomas said, “and this isn’t going to be the last time he’s in contention.” Indeed, it’s been a steady rise to prominence for Grillo, who trained during high school at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. A fixture on AJGA and amateur leaderboards, he has battled the likes of Spieth, Thomas and Rodgers since they were 14. Thomas joked that his mom was Grillo’s mode of transportation during those tournaments, waking at 6 a.m. just to get Grillo to the course for an early tee time. Thomas briefly tried to recruit Grillo to join him at Alabama, and Spieth tried the same trick at Texas. But the Argentine had no desire to earn a college degree. He wanted to major in golf. After turning pro at 18, Grillo headed overseas to climb his way up the world rankings. He combined for six top-10s on the European Tour in 2012-13, then broke out at the ’14 Dubai Desert Classic, where he finished second after a closing 66. In five starts this past season on Tour, he lost the playoff in Puerto Rico and also recorded a pair of top-25s. That was enough to get him inside the top 200 in FedEx Cup points, which sent him to the Web.com Tour Finals. He finished in the top 10 in three of the four make-or-break events, including the narrow victory in the finale. “He hits it really, really good,” Thomas said, “and he’s not scared. He’s going to go out and get it done. If you want to win golf tournaments, you have to be able to do stuff like that on the last hole.” Except Grillo’s week at the Frys figured to be remembered for a scary incident Saturday, when he hit into the group ahead on the drivable 17th. Little did he know the player he nearly plunked with his drive was Rory McIlroy. Grillo said that he never got an opportunity to apologize for the incident, that he wanted to jog across a couple of fairways Sunday just to tell McIlroy that he was sorry. “I didn’t want to be the guy who almost hit Rory McIlroy this week,” he said. “I wanted everybody to know me because I have the trophy.”
SHANGHAI – Russell Knox raised both arms in the air, closed his eyes and tilted his head toward the heavens as if he couldn’t believe what he had just done. Dating to when the World Golf Championship began in 1999, no one had ever won in his debut. Knox wasn’t even eligible for the HSBC Champions until he got in 10 days ago as an alternate, and then it was a mad scramble in Malaysia to get a Chinese visa in time to play. Walking out of the Sheshan International clubhouse on Sunday with a share of the 54-hole lead, Knox noticed a billboard with names and images of past winners at the HSBC Champions – Phil Mickelson and Martin Kaymer, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson. ”Everyone who wins this tournament is a superstar,” Knox said. ”I knew this would be the hardest day in my life.” For a 30-year-old from Scotland who had never won in 92 previous tries on the PGA Tour, Knox made it look like a breeze. He broke out of a five-way tie for the lead with two quick birdies to start the back nine and was flawless the rest of the way for a 4-under 68 and a two-shot victory over Kevin Kisner. ”I always thought I was going to win a big one for my first one,” he said. ”But this is going to take a long time to sink in.” He played alongside Johnson, whose power can be so intimidating that Knox didn’t watch him hit a shot for 12 holes. In the group ahead was Jordan Spieth, on his way back to No. 1 in the world. The cheers were for Li Haotong, the 20-year-old from Shanghai who received rock-star treatment during a wild final round that ended with the best finish ever by a Chinese player on the PGA Tour. ”Incredible for me this week,” Li said. ”This for me is very, very big.” Imagine how it felt for Knox, whose unexpected trip to China ended with a most surprising victory. Knox finished at 20-under 268 and earned $1.4 million, along with perks that include his first trip to the Masters in April. ”I got married on Saturday of the Masters,” he said. ”What a great wedding anniversary we’re going to have.” It was the fourth runner-up this year for Kisner – the other three were in playoffs. He closed with a 70, though his birdie putt on the 18th hole was worth an additional $285,000, a small consolation. ”That’s all right,” Kisner said. ”I’ll keep finishing second and I’ll keep giving myself a shot, and I know I’ll win one of them.” His birdie was expensive for Danny Willett, who closed with a 62 and tied for third with Ross Fisher (68). If Kisner had not made birdie on the final hole, Willett would have overtaken Rory McIlroy in the Race to Dubai on the European Tour. Willett is playing next week in the BMW Masters in Shanghai – McIlroy is not – and even if he doesn’t pass him, the Race to Dubai will come down to the final event. McIlroy closed with a 50-foot birdie putt for a 66, ending a week in which his energy was low while recovering from food poisoning, and his putter was cold, as it has been since he returned in August from his ankle injury. Spieth, who started the final round three shots behind, didn’t feel comfortable with his swing and didn’t make enough putts in his round of 70. Two birdies on the back nine at least allowed him to tie for seventh, and that was enough to move back to No. 1 in the world. ”Everyone is pushing each other a little bit, and when that No. 1 ranking slips away, it leaves some unrest in you and you really want to get back at it,” Spieth said. Johnson wound up four shots behind, and with more reason than anyone to feel as though a third WGC title got away. He was one shot behind Knox on the par-5 eighth hole when his wedge covered the flag and appeared that it would land a few feet behind the hole or a tap-in birdie. Instead, it struck the pin and caromed harshly off the green and into the creek. A birdie turned into a double bogey, and Johnson never recovered. He closed with a 71. The hopes were with Li, and the crowd stood four-deep behind the range with cameras on him at all times. The attendance this week (34,790) set a record, topping 2009 when Mickelson and Tiger Woods played in the final round. But those hopes ended quickly. Li hooked his opening tee shot and had to scramble to make bogey. He hooked his second tee shot into the hazard and made double bogey. He didn’t make a par until the seventh hole, and only because he missed a 4-foot birdie putt. But he kept fighting until the end, making two late birdies and saving par after a second shot into the water on the 18th, finishing tied for seventh. ”He was really off with his game, but man, did he have heart,” Spieth said. ”He didn’t have his best stuff. If he did, he really could have done some damage today.”
ATLANTA – Jhonattan Vegas doesn’t have a realistic chance of claiming the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus even if he wins the Tour Championship. It’s having any chance at all that makes this season so remarkable. ”Best year of my career so far,” Vegas said Wednesday with as broad a smile as could be found at East Lake. ”It’s just crazy to think of this from where we started.” Still vivid are memories of how uncertain his career felt a year ago. Vegas failed to keep his card, and then his season got even worse. With a chance to regain his card in the Web.com Tour Finals, he missed the cut in the final event. That left the 32-year-old from Venezuela with limited status. ”I remember sitting down Friday afternoon after I missed the cut, not knowing where I could play,” Vegas said. Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos He received a sponsor’s exemption to the Frys.com Open to start the season, opened with a 64 and tied for 10th to get into the next tournament in Las Vegas. In an opposite-field event in Mississippi, he tied for fourth. And then he broke through in a big way by winning the RBC Canadian Open in July, and he played well enough in the FedEx Cup playoffs to finish at No. 29 and get into the Tour Championship by a mere four points. All he wanted to do this year was finish in the top 125 and keep his card. Now, he is playing the Tour Championship and is assured of playing at least three majors next year, along with World Golf Championships in Mexico and Firestone. ”One of the biggest accomplishments of my career,” Vegas said. For others, there is so much more to accomplish. The Tour Championship, which starts Thursday, is the final stop of the FedEx Cup season that pays out $10 million to the winner in a finale that is up for grabs among the 30 players who made it to East Lake. Everyone has a mathematical chance to win the FedEx Cup, though it’s unlikely for Vegas. He would have to win, and Dustin Johnson would have to finish 28th. The focus is more on Johnson, the No. 1 seed, and the next four players behind him – Patrick Reed, Adam Scott, Jason Day and Paul Casey. They only have to win the Tour Championship to claim the prize no matter what anyone else does. Bill Haas at No. 25 in 2011 was the lowest seed to win the FedEx Cup. The last player to win the Tour Championship without claiming the FedEx Cup was Phil Mickelson in 2009. He wound up second in the FedEx Cup to Tiger Woods. Johnson and Day have their own competition going. Players will be voting on PGA Tour player of the year at the end of the week. Both have three victories, though Johnson has a big edge from his U.S. Open title (Day’s biggest victory was The Player Championship). Johnson also is leading the money list and the Vardon Trophy for lowest adjusted scoring average. But if Day were to win this week, that might make the vote more complicated. Vegas is nowhere near that conversation. For him, just getting to East Lake was worth celebrating. With only past champion status, which he had at the start of the season, he could only count on getting into tournaments where most of the top players didn’t show up. It’s hard to plan a schedule. There is no continuity. And his confidence was lagging. It turned out to be the best thing for him. ”Losing my card made me realize how much harder I had to work to get better,” Vegas said. ”It led me to make a bunch of changes – important changes – that I wasn’t ready to make. But it forced me to do them.” Vegas was part of the next wave of impressive young players when he won the Bob Hope Classic in the second start of his rookie season in 2011. The following week, he was tied for the lead at Torrey Pines with eight holes to play and tied for third. Suddenly, he was playing in majors and World Golf Championships. Over time, he started going through the motions. He lost one year to surgery on his left shoulder. By the end of last season, he had plunged to No. 381 in the world ranking. ”If I kept my card, that was my No. 1 goal,” Vegas said. ”I knew I had limited starts. I would have about 15 events. So I knew that every week was a major for me. If you approach things that way, your preparation and everything around it is more important. Because you’re there to get it done. It puts it in a different perspective.”
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – “Is Tiger playing?” asked one player after his early round on Friday in Dubai. No, he wasn’t. About an hour before his tee time at Emirates Golf Club officials announced Woods had withdrawn from the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, his second consecutive missed weekend and the seventh time he’s tapped out since 2010, because of back spasms in his lower back. Woods looked tentative on Thursday on his way to an opening 77 that made a trip to the weekend unlikely. He grimaced crawling out of a bunker early in Round 1 and moved like a man who has endured two back procedures within the last 15 months. His manager, Mark Steinberg, stressed that the back spasms that cut his week here in the desert short weren’t the same as the nerve pain that led to him missing all of last season, and following his round on Thursday, Woods said his poor play had nothing to do with his oft-injured back. “I wasn’t in pain at all,” he said after his worst round ever in Dubai. “I was just trying to hit shots and I wasn’t doing a very good job.” Omega Dubai Desert Classic: Articles, photos and videos Any opinions beyond these facts are pure speculation, the kind of background noise that has dominated the Tiger narrative for years now, and Steinberg was hopeful Woods could make his next scheduled start in two weeks in Los Angeles. Whether this most recent setback is a sign of the times or the beginning of the end may be a lively hot take for those on social media, but only Woods knows within the chambers of his heart what the future may hold. That’s not to say there’s no room for Friday morning quarterbacking. After a 15-month hiatus from tour golf, the road back to relevance has been curious, with Woods starting at last week’s Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego, where he missed the cut, followed by a flight, commercial no less, across 12 time zones for this week’s stop in Dubai. The rigors of such a trek could impact even a healthy player half Woods’ age, never mind a 41-year-old who has spent the last year on a strict pitch count. “I’m sure there’s so many different factors that could play into it. I just couldn’t know what causes a back to go into a spasm,” Steinberg said. “Look, he doesn’t have the strongest back in the world, right. So it’s probably easier to spasm because of the issues he’s had. So I’m sure there’s a variety of factors that can play into it.” There’s also something to be said for Woods’ return rotation, which includes Torrey Pines, Dubai, Riviera and PGA National for the Honda Classic later this month. After that, it’s likely he’d play Bay Hill and the Masters. That’s not exactly a user-friendly return to the fray or anything that could be remotely considered “rehab starts.” Maybe it would have been best to ease back with a warm week at the CareerBuilder Challenge, but that’s not really Woods’ style. As much as he talks about allowing his game to evolve as he gets older, he’s always played the toughest courses against the game’s deepest fields and no amount of maturity is going to soften that competitive edge. So the path ahead is also not up for debate. What remains is rather straight forward, continue to push himself and the reality of his physical restrictions, because the alternative, at least to Woods, is the kind of self-actualization that he’s always sidestepped. You don’t win 14 majors and redefine the game by allowing yourself to contemplate boundaries, but there will be a point, be it in a month or 10 years from now, that diminishing returns begin to sink in. Pat Perez knows something of such harsh realities having endured the strangest of seasons in 2016 that included shoulder surgery, seven months of rehabilitation and, finally, a victory in November at the OHL Classic. Last month at the SBS Tournament of Champions as Perez talked of his own struggles the conversation, as it often does, turned to Woods. “I know how hard it is to come back and this guy [Woods] has had three back, all his knee [surgeries], it will be interesting,” Perez said. “He’s had so much time off.” If Woods’ Dubai WD is the new normal, and not simply a bump in the road to recovery, if missed cuts and more withdrawals are the status quo, how long is he willing to deal with mediocrity? “I hope he plays well, I’ve known the guy my whole life and he’s made us a lot of money,” Perez said. “What I don’t want to see is him struggle, because he won’t do it long. If he plays all [four] tournaments and misses all [four] cuts you won’t see him again. That’s just not in him.” In recent weeks Woods has conceded he’s considered life after golf, an exercise that included a brand makeover to TGR that was aimed at bringing together all of his business interest, but it’s doubtful he’s looking further than his next start at the moment. But as another opportunity, another chance to prove there are still traces of greatness in him, comes and goes, that steely resistance to doubt and appraisals of his own limitations are sure to be tested.
PATTAYA, Thailand – Ariya Jutanugarn and Amy Yang both shot 6-under 66 in the first round Thursday to take a share of the lead at the LPGA Thailand. Jutanugarn, ranked second in the world, had six birdies while Yang, the 2015 champion, had seven birdies and a bogey at the Siam Country Club Pattaya Old Course. ”In the middle, during the round, I had some time I couldn’t control the ball, but I still had a lot of good shots,” Yang said. ”Gave myself a lot of good opportunities out there.” Ryann O’Toole, Sei Young Kim, Minjee Lee and Shanshan Feng were a stroke behind the leaders. Top-ranked Lydia Ko (70) had five birdies and three bogeys, while former No. 1 Inbee Park shot a 72 in her first action since winning the Olympic gold medal last year. ”I don’t feel much of the injury anymore,” said Park, the winner in Pattaya in 2013. ”Ball-striking was really good today. Just around the greens wasn’t as sharp as I wanted. Obviously that’s just going to happen. Just got to be patient.”
HONOLULU – The Sony Open features the year’s first cut and there was no shortage of material: From a distance debate that just won’t go away to Jordan Spieth, who is only going home at the moment. Made Cut From strength to strength. Cut Line has applauded the PGA Tour’s strength-of-field requirement that was introduced in 2016. Officials and players had debated for years how to get players – particularly marquee players – to add events to their schedules, and the requirement has proven to be a surprisingly simple answer. The rule proved its worth even more in recent weeks after Jordan Spieth and Ian Poulter failed to fulfill the requirement last season. Instead of fining them, the Tour negotiated much better terms. Spieth added not one but two new events to his schedule this season (Shriners Hospitals for Children Open and Mayakoba Golf Classic) and Poulter played both Hawaii stops while also hosting eight guests from the Wyndham Championship at his house in Orlando, Fla. The requirement also drew Rory McIlroy to the Sentry Tournament of Champions last week for the first time in his career. Finding solutions to complicated problems is never easy, but it certainly is refreshing. Consider it settled. Speaking of settling problems, when the Tour announced in November that its ongoing legal battle with Vijay Singh had been settled, there was an assumption that the circuit paid the Fijian to put an end to more than five years of court wrangling. That notion was reinforced this week when Cut Line asked Singh about the settlement. Although a confidentiality agreement prevented him from disclosing any terms of the settlement, he did seem pleased to move beyond the distraction of the lawsuit. “I can get on and do my own stuff and not worry about anything anymore,” he said. “I think both sides are happy, although I might be just a little bit happier.” The Tour was sloppy in handling Singh’s 2013 suspension for an anti-doping violation that wasn’t. If a hefty “settlement” keeps that from happening again consider it a win-win. Your browser does not support iframes. Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF) Going the distance. It took exactly three days for the distance debate to resurface this year. Last Saturday in Maui, Tour commissioner Jay Monahan was asked if he had any concerns over last season’s jump in average driving distance on the circuit, from 292 yards in 2016-17 to 296 yards. “Players are getting younger, they’re getting more athletic and then you look at technology and data, and players can optimize their swings, they can optimize their clubs, and that trend only continues in terms of the power of technology and data,” Monahan said. “You look at course conditioning and you look at weather.” Monahan’s final point is worth noting following last week’s stop in Maui. During the 2017-18 season, seven of the year’s 10 longest drives came on the Plantation Course’s steep and firm fairways. That will change this season with just three of this season’s longest drives coming at Kapalua after just nine events. Heavy rains the week before the year lid-lifter in Maui and a planned renovation to the course after last week’s tournament produced some of the slowest conditions in recent memory. As a result, the Tour’s current driving average (291 yards) is a yard less than it was at this point last year. The driving debate is sure to rage as players get younger and stronger, but ignoring the impact conditions have on those numbers is simply ignoring the facts. When a drop isn’t a drop. Midway through his opening round last week in Maui, Andrew Landry was doing what he’s done hundreds of times in his career – taking a drop. With his arm extended to shoulder height, Landry’s mundane routine was interrupted by Marc Leishman, who was playing in the group behind Landry. At the same moment, a Tour rules official began racing to Landry’s location in the fairway to correct what is now an incorrect drop. Under the new Rules of Golf, players are required to drop from knee height. Landry quickly corrected his mistake, but expect moments like this to become the norm in the coming months as decades old routines clash with the new rules. “You drop it knee height, but like what’s the advantage of dropping it shoulder height? Actually probably a disadvantage, so why can’t you still do that?” asked Jordan Spieth, who had to be corrected not once but twice during his opening round at the Sony Open. “It’s like a frustrating asterisk that I have to pick it up and re-drop from your knee.” Tour types will figure it out eventually, but just like’s Pavlov’s dogs this will take some time. Tweet of the week: @maxhoma23 (Max Homa) “Play better.” Homa, who has become something of a social media savant with his humorous and self-deprecating takes, posted this missive on Wednesday with a picture of his locker at the Sony Open with a card identifying his locker that was handwritten. Most other lockers at Waialae Country Club had signs with players’ names printed on them. Yep, play better. Missed Cut No end in sight. Jordan Spieth took a predictably optimistic tone earlier this week when asked about his expectations at the Sony Open. Following a pedestrian season in 2018 that didn’t feature any victories or a trip to the Tour Championship, he also revealed that his offseason wasn’t as intense as one might think. “I just had very limited work compared to other years past. I think that was good for me,” he said. The light workload may have been good for Spieth’s psyche, but it proved to be a liability in his first start of 2019. He posted rounds of 73-66 to miss the cut, and his struggles on the greens largely persisted. Spieth ranked 82nd in strokes gained: putting for the week. He needed 30 putts on Thursday and was only slightly better on Day 2 with 27. “It’s a learning experience, but I’m tired of learning experiences,” Spieth said. Your browser does not support iframes. New schedule, new problems. This season’s condensed schedule was always going to create some tough choices for players. Adam Scott became the first to reveal how tough. With a particularly busy stretch of top events leading into the Masters and again toward the end of the season after The Open, Scott said he went with a simple approach when picking his 2019 schedule. “I thought I’ll just play the ones I like and that make sense to play. At the moment I have not scheduled a World Golf Championship because they don’t fall in the right weeks for me,” Scott said. “I feel like there are good tournaments right around them that are a preferred option. I thought that was interesting for my schedule change. I wouldn’t have thought that was the case, but that is the case at the moment.” Scott currently plans to skip the WGC-Mexico Championship, WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational despite being currently qualified for all of them. He may have been the first to choose convenience and comfort for his schedule, but he won’t be the last.