Jan
6
2016
Pre-tourney odds and ends from Kapalua
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

 

Happy New Year! Before I get started with the meat of this column, I’d like to pass along my best wishes for everyone in 2016. As I’ve mentioned, 2015 was a bit of a strange year, but it was also one of the greatest, and by far, it was the most memorable season for all four majors that I’ve witnessed in my young career. That said, I’m back covering PGA Tour events (along with as many European Tour ones I can do) and I’m ready for the new year.

As many often do when a new year rolls around, I’ve done some reflecting in the last couple of months, particularly when it comes to WUP. It’s no secret that my priorities have changed a bit in the past two years since I started doing more on-camera work (which I enjoy greatly and broadcasting has always been the ultimate goal for me when it comes to career development). Unfortunately, that’s taken time away from writing and looking after WUP with the passion that I have in its earlier years. 

Well, I have a renewed sense of energy and motivation in that regard. WUP deserves better. You, the readers, deserve the high quality of coverage that I like to think I had provided in the past. I plan to do my best to achieve that and I’m already working on figuring out how to improve the site and create better, more unique content.

Obviously, things and people evolve with time. More of my time and energy has been spent via my social media outlets (and I’m working on incorporating another one with more frequency, along with starting a podcast). I may not be able to dedicate as much time as I used to in this space, but the amount of time and energy I spent from 2010-2014 was simply unsustainable for one person with a limited budget. (And this is a good read that sort of explains the problem.) There are tons of things I wish I could do to provide you with the most informative and compelling coverage of the tours, but they just aren’t possible for a small, independent shop. (I not-so-secretly wish that I had the resources to handpick a team and manage a new site that would easily outshine any current outlet.) So, I will just need to get more creative! This is my public pledge to do that, so please hold me to it.

As always, I welcome any ideas, suggestions, advice and/or donations. What do you want to read? What are your favorite posts? What is a waste of both our times? Please leave your comments below or feel free to email me.

Thanks for your continued support of WUP. Now, without further ado, here’s an inside look from everything you need to know from Tuesday at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.


Welcome to the first PGA Tour event of the year (and the unofficial “fifth major” for WUP). Obviously, we are already quite a few tournaments into the 2015-16 season — though I’m still not used to the format/idea of the wraparound schedule and I’m nostalgic for the past when this event kicked things off.

But that’s not the point — it’s the one week of the year when literally EVERYONE is in a fantastic and chill mood. It’s really fun because I’m fairly certain the entire field stays on-site at the resort, so there’s more mingling and camaraderie than there is at any other regular U.S. Tour event. It’s also one of the only weeks that nearly all tour types — caddies, coaches, entourage members, media members, etc. — stay at the same place. So, it just lends to a really good atmosphere (by far, the best of the year, with perhaps the exception of the press center, but that is rarely a place I’d describe as a pleasant experience with positive vibes).

You never know when you’ll run into Jimmy Walker or Justin Thomas when you’re popping by the lobby bar or Zach Johnson when you’re working out at the hotel gym. It’s the one tournament all year where everyone (well, almost) actually acts like normal, friendly human beings. It’s a fantastic ambience, but then at the same time, it’s kind of depressing because when it ends, you remember how lonely and isolating the rest of the season can be.

I’m also pumped for the tournament that the field is so strong this year. I’ve always scratched my head when I’d hear that player X was skipping it. I mean, I kind of understand if you aren’t based in the States or if you play more than one major tour, but otherwise, why wouldn’t you come? It’s a paid vacation! The pros are literally guaranteed $60,000 (have to double-check this figure, but that’s what it was in recent years) to play golf in Maui.

In fact, Jordan Spieth, who arrived last Wednesday, mentioned that he wants the media to call him out if he doesn’t show up in the future. Spieth was one of the first — if not the first — player to arrive on-site this year.

“It’s beautiful,” said Spieth. “It’s fantastic. We were jumping off the cliff house, doing a lot of snorkeling, spear fishing, whatever. Look forward to some more activities we don’t get to do throughout the year, kind of take advantage of where we’re at. We’ve had just a fantastic time this week.

“And I do love this golf course. I love the grainy Bermuda. It’s fun. The elevation changes, having to judge the elevation change with the wind, the ball just kind of does some crazy stuff out here as it kind of shoots over into that setting.

“This is one that we strive to make each year, and if I am eligible to play in this tournament and I’m not, I hope every single one of you calls me and bashes me for it.”

Spieth qualified for Kapalua in 2014 — where he finished second to Zach Johnson — after he won the 2013 John Deere Classic, but he didn’t bring his family. Well, he learned from that mistake and he’s got an entourage with him this year, including his younger sister Ellie (but excluding brother Steven who is already back in school at Brown University).


Here’s a breakdown of the 32-man field, which not only includes the winners from the 2014-15 season, but also the guys who secured victories in the first seven tournaments of the 2015-16 season.

  • The 32 players in the field have accounted for 128 Tour wins, led by Davis Love III, whose triumph at the Wyndham Championship put his career total at 21. He is followed by 2014 Hyundai Tournament of Champions winner Zach Johnson (12), Dustin Johnson (9), Bubba Watson (8), Jason Day (7) and Brandt Snedeker (7).
  • Winners of seven major championships including all three winners of the four major championships in 2015: Jordan Spieth, winner of the Masters and U.S. Open, Zach Johnson, winner of the Open Championship and Day, winner of the PGA Championship. Other major champions in the field include Watson, Love III and Graeme McDowell.
  • The field includes four players with multiple wins in the 2015 calendar year:
    • Jordan Spieth (5) – Valspar Championship, the Masters Tournament, U.S. Open, John Deere Classic, TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola
    • Jason Day (5) – Farmers Insurance Open, RBC Canadian Open, PGA Championship, The Barclays, BMW Championship
    • Jimmy Walker (2) – Sony Open in Hawaii, Valero Texas Open
    • Rickie Fowler (2) – THE PLAYERS Championship, Deutsche Bank Championship
  • Thirteen players who competed in The Presidents Cup 2015 are in the field: Zach Johnson, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Jason Day, Bill Haas, Jordan Spieth, Jimmy Walker, J.B. Holmes, Chris Kirk, Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler, Steven Bowditch and Danny Lee. Davis Love III was a captain’s assistant on the U.S. Team, and is the captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 2016.
  • There are 14 first-time winners in the field – Alex Cejka, Fabian Gomez, Emiliano Grillo, James Hahn, Smylie Kaufman, Kevin Kisner, Russell Knox, Brooks Koepka, Danny Lee, David Lingmerth, Peter Malnati, Troy Merritt and Justin Thomas.
  • 16 of the top 30 from the 2014-15 final FedExCup standings, including four of the top five.
  • 13 of the top 30 in the Official World Golf Ranking, including four of the top six: Spieth (1), Day (2), Watson (4), Fowler (6).

When I arrived mid-morning Tuesday to Kapalua’s Plantation Course, I saw that Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Brandt Snedeker and Jimmy Walker were making the turn. (And that’s also another unique aspect of this event — you don’t usually see a five-some during practice rounds or any other time.) I rightly assumed they were playing some type of match, so I decided to follow them because with those guys, you know you’ll pick up some fun content.

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Spieth and Thomas were teamed up and played against the other three in round-robin matches, so there were three matches going. They each ended up all square in the end, but it came down to the 18th hole, which is a fun, pretty straightforward par-5. Spieth and Thomas were 1-up heading into the final hole, but they had what Jordan described as their “worst hole of the day.” Justin knocked it in the hazard and Jordan hit a poor third shot. However, Rickie, who looked like he was playing the best from the five holes or so that I saw, came through in the clutch and rolled in a birdie to tie things up. So did Walker.

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“It would have been cool if we would obviously have won all of it,” said Spieth. “We played pretty well. It was a fun match. Yeah, we had a good time. Those guys are great. It was supposed to be two on two and then Brandt decided he would bug in, so we had to figure out a different game.”

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For bettors and Fantasy Golf leaguers, like I said, Rickie played the best probably, so I’d put him on my team. (Also: think good wedge players, so definitely Spieth and probably Zach Johnson. I’ve also received a tip to look out for Patrick Reed and Graeme McDowell.)

“I played well,” he said. “All of us kind of played about the same. No one really lit it up. That’s why all the matches were pretty close, never more than 1-up or 1-down.

“I think Jordan and Justin were 1-up and everything going into the last hole, and we made some birdies to halve it out…We closed it down the stretch.”

Speaking of Rickie, he hit a sick punch wedge to about five feet on the par-4 13th, which has one of the trickiest greens at the Plantation and it’s super tough to get it close to the hole. On TV it obviously doesn’t look like much, but if you’re above it, good luck two-putting — though Jordan had what I thought was an automatic three-putt and he easily two-putted. Naturally.

On the other hand, Walker was around pin high about 15 feet from the hole. He lagged his first to three feet, but mistakenly left it above the hole, so his second putt burned the edge and ran about four feet past it.

Back to Rickie. He missed his birdie attempt. Then he proceeded to try it again…four more times and didn’t make it until the sixth time. That’s just one example of the super grainy Bermuda greens (which I have only recently started to be able to read and I’ve played here a bunch of times).

But, of course, Spieth doesn’t find them too tricky.

“I grew up on (Bermuda grass),” he said. “I really love grainy greens. It’s just what I’ve always played on. I love — I feel like — Jimmy Walker loves Bermuda greens, right; that’s what he grew up on. When you grew up in Texas or Florida, you’re used to it, and along the southeast coast. So it’s not that much of an adjustment for us because it just feels natural.

“But it’s something that you have to think about when you’re chipping, whether you’re off the fairway or out of the rough. You have to play it differently than you do out of other grass. You just have to get over here early enough and make sure you get enough repetitions. But with this grain, there’s also the effect of the hill. You look up to the highest point, the hill is shooting away there and sometimes the grain is just a little different. The ball seems to be rolling with the grain over anything else out here.”

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Also: everything rolls toward the nearby island of Molokai, which you can see from various parts of the course, not to mention the whales are aplenty this time of year and chances are if you look out toward the ocean, you’ll see a couple frolicking around in the distance.

Kapalua’s Plantation Course has some of the largest greens on Tour, and thus, are ranked the easiest greens to hit in regulation on the schedule. While the course has yielded the easiest greens to hit in 11 of the last 13 years, it’s ranked among the toughest in terms of getting the ball close to the pin, ranking inside the top 15 in toughest in 12 of the last 13 years, with it coming out as the very hardest in 2006, 2007 and 2013.


As I’ve already mentioned, the end of the year/start of the new year is a time where we reflect on the last 12 months and set goals and/or resolutions for the upcoming 12 months. For Jordan Spieth, it’s going to be tough to beat 2015 and after five wins, including two majors, what can you really improve on?? He tweeted the following just before ringing in the new year at Merriman’s in Kapalua last week.

Just like almost every tour player, during the short offseason, Spieth sat down with his team and outlined what he needed to work on. His answer might surprise you. I mean, I almost fell out of my chair in the press conference.

“I sat down and (my swing coach) Cameron (McCormick) and I went to how can we improve, and we did that strictly by going over statistics,” explained Spieth. “We went over and figured out for me that specifically my wedge play needs to get better, proximity to the hole and up-and-down percentage, from really 60 to 140 yards or so.

“We got reports from Mark Broadie on all the strokes gained from every category, Cameron did, and he narrows it down and he asks questions before I even look at them, like what do you think about your play, your mid-iron play, what do you think about how you were off the tee, and then wedge play, and I told him when he asked me that, I said I felt like my wedge play was average last season, and it was as average as any category that we had.”

Well, his “average” wedge play is obviously still pretty darn good. And it’s hard to get your head around it when his phenomenal wedge play played a big part in his wire-to-wire victory at the Masters last April. However, Spieth acknowledged that the stats did not include the Masters or the three other majors — and that provided him with some consolation.

And yes, I did look up his stats on the Tour website and he is sort of right: for the stat on approaches from 50-125 yards, Spieth ranked 111th last season. But again, those aren’t entirely accurate because it doesn’t include the majors.


I noticed Rickie Fowler was wearing some interesting looking shoes, so I asked him about them. What are they called?

“Mine,” he quipped. “101?”

I like.

Upon further questioning, I learned that the bottoms (the spikes part) of the shoes were the same as he had worn in the last couple of years, but he asked PUMA if they could make hi-tops. They did it for him and he was wearing the only existing pair — except for the three others that were arriving Wednesday.

As you can see, he was wearing joggers, too. I’m not sure how I feel about them yet, but I will say that I thought all of it wasn’t a bad look — well, at least Rickie was able to pull it off.

“Each season we work closely with Rickie throughout the apparel and footwear development and design process to ensure we’re pushing the limits when it comes to both performance and style,” said Grant Knudson, Head of Footwear PUMA Golf in a press release Wednesday morning. “During a recent meeting, Rickie expressed interest in wearing a high-top cleated shoe that could be worn with more progressive apparel (joggers style pants).  Our design team took inspiration from a prior PUMA high-top lifestyle shoe and combined it with the TITANTOUR IGNITE outsole.  The result is a stylish, cleated performance high-top that includes a lace + Velcro closure.  The apparel team then matched this with a version of our 6 Pocket Pant that has been custom tailored to a jogger silhouette.”


IMG_1223Bubba Watson and Patrick Reed played together in a practice round Tuesday. Bubba, who isn’t known to be the most patient person in the world, was already annoyed with waiting on the group in front of him when I saw them on the par-3 11th. He seemed like he was in a great mood and did complain in a jovial tone. Then, he went on to talk about how the only reason he was even playing a practice round was because they are allowed to take carts at Kapalua (it’s not conducive to walking and I am not kidding when I say that you’d have to pay me Tour-player money to play it without a cart). Bubba said he’d play an excessive amount of practice rounds if he always had access to a cart.

Fast forward to a few holes later. I noticed that Bubba and Reed were behind the fivesome and I wondered what had happened to Kaufman and Grillo. I saw Teddy Scott, Bubba’s caddie, as he had driven ahead on the 15th to spot their drives, and I asked if they had played through, which I thought it was kind of amusing and one of those “only Bubba” things, if that were the case. Teddy explained that they had and the two rookies hadn’t played the front nine, so they technically “cut” ahead of them, so when they ran into them somewhere between 11 and 15, they “asked” if they were there for the front and the rookies naturally told them to go ahead. Besides, they were taking their time as they didn’t know the course like Bubba and Reed already did. I just found it slightly funny. I guess you kind of had to be there.


 

For those of you who checked out my holiday gift guide, thanks for reading! For those of you who didn’t, never mind. Well, you may remember that I included the Bettinardi second amendment putter headcover as one of the items.

The description on the company’s website reads:

“A free people ought not only be armed and disciplined, but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government.” -George Washington

Made for the Bettinardi enthusiasts who love their guns as much as their putters!

I can’t say I was super surprised when I spotted one in the flesh yesterday on the range. Guess which player had it in his bag? OK, that would be too tough because it could be almost any of them. But this one belongs to J.B. Holmes…

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Maybe someone saw WUP’s gift guide?!? OK, most likely not!

I’ll save my personal commentary for private conversations.


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We had a little sit down chat with three of the Tour’s young up-and-coming recent winners: Emiliano Grillo, Justin Thomas and Smylie Kaufman. It was a great session as the three of them are around the same age and grew up playing junior golf together, which lent to plenty of fun stories. We also obviously got to know them a little better. I knew next to nothing about Grillo and Kaufman since they’re rookies, so this gave me the opportunity to do so and they seem like great guys.

A few nuggets from what we learned:

*Asked which player was the best in junior golf, Thomas quipped: “If it was a ballstriking content, I’d take Emiliano. If it were a putting contest, I definitely wouldn’t take Emiliano.”

To which Emiliano replied, “That’s true.”

*Emiliano, who hails from Argentina, traveled by himself to junior golf tournaments starting at a young age — around 15, he estimates. He said he went around and explored cities and just prepared for the events. I was impressed that he did so much traveling at a young age, as I know some people who can barely travel alone when they’re in their 30s. But I was also initially surprised that his parents just sent him on his own. He pointed out that it was expensive to travel from Argentina, etc. Which reminded me that when I was playing junior golf, I knew quite a few international kids who did the same and I always wished my parents would let me do that.

*With their victories in the first three events on the 2015-16 calendar, these three young guys also earned spots to the Masters. When you receive an invite to play in the first major of the year, you are allowed to go and check out the course basically as many times as you want beforehand. Thomas has already made one trip with his dad in December. He said he’ll likely go back a few times this spring.

Kaufman had the privilege of playing Augusta National when he was a freshman in college, but he has at least two scouting trips planned prior to the Masters in April.

Grillo said that he’s going to wait until the actual tournament rolls around because that makes it extra special. He added that he already knows the course as well as anyone from video games. Asked for the lowest score he’s shot virtually at Augusta, he said, “68.” Thomas looked at him, shook his head and jokingly said, “Man, you’re not very good at video games!”

*Here’s a fun story that Grillo told from their AJGA days. When he was 15 or 16, he was paired with Kaufman at an event and he three-putted (no big surprise, he said sarcastically) and out of frustration, he threw his ball at his bag. There was an official that saw and handed him a one-shot penalty. However, on the same hole, Kaufman had thrown a club at his bag after hitting a shot, but managed to avoid getting caught and thus didn’t receive a penalty for perhaps a graver infraction.

*Kaufman told a(nother) fun(ny) story about Thomas when they were around 8 years old. He said they were playing in a junior tournament in Mississippi in the summer, which as you know, is known for its sweltering heat. Well, Thomas showed up wearing pants (which are obviously not required when you’re a junior golfer as they are on Tour).

“Greenville, Mississippi, might be the hottest place in the world, and he’s wearing pants!” recalled Kaufman. “(Thomas) already had the Tour thing dialed in. I was like, this guy’s got it figured out!”


 

OK, that’s it for now. If you read this entire post, thank you for taking the time — it took forever and I lost my work halfway through and had to rewrite most of it. More content from Wednesday to come, so stay tuned.