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Leading ain’t easy, even on Friday

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By Zak Kozuchowski

GolfWRX Managing Editor

After the last putt drops – that’s when professional golfers want to be leading a tournament. Because despite how well golfers are playing or how good they say they’re feeling, leading a golf tournament does something strange to golfers – even the best ones in the world.

Martin Laird and Ian Poulter breezed through Round 1 of The Players Championship with matching 7-under 65s at the difficult TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course. Both players said the right things in their post-round interviews. Laird said he was putting well, and happy with his new caddie. Poulter said he was relaxed, as he was finally able to move his family into his new home that took nearly three years of construction.

But what professional golfers say about their game when they are leading a tournament rarely impacts their play the next day. That’s the thing about pressure. It’s like a snap hook. There’s no talking to it.

Laird, a two-time winner on Tour, had the best chance of keeping the top spot at The Players in Round 2, playing his first 15 holes in 3-under par. That put him at 10-under, three shots ahead of a streaking Zach Johnson at one point, who was playing in the group behind him.

Laird’s day wasn’t perfect through 15 holes, but like most tournament frontrunners, he had found a way to make the most of it. He had given himself short birdie putts on the previous par 5s, Nos. 2, 9 and 11, and converted them all. Two of his bad swings were fairly benign as well. On No. 6, he chose iron off the tee, but caught it thin and off the heel of the club. Had he struck it solidly, the shot would have likely scampered into the rough, but to quote Laird, “Hit it so bad it’s alright.”

On No. 8, he hit another tee ball to the right, this time a high spinner with the driver that didn’t go very far. But it was one of the “good misses” that golfers love to tell their playing partners about. Helping Laird too was the fact that he’d scored an early tee time, which meant the wind was mild and the course was as soft as it would be all day. Also, he played his first 15 holes in relative obscurity – either most fans didn’t know who Martin Laird was, didn’t care to know him, or didn’t have their coffee before the gauntlet of holes Nos. 16-18. But the fans were there on No. 16, and murmuring about Laird’s low score.

“Did you see that,” a husband told his wife. ‘This guys is 10-under. He might win it.”

Laird launched a drive in perfect position on 16, giving him a good yardage with a 4 iron to attack the flag.

“I hit three of four great iron shots in a row right at the flag and kind of got a little greedy there,” Laird said. [I] tried to fade one into the wind to get it working down the green there to the pin.”

But Laird’s ball didn’t get working down the green. His shot never had a chance, splashing well right of the green in The Stadium’s famous lake. After that shot, Laird got working down the leaderboard.

Laird splashed another ball on No. 17 off the tee with a 9 iron. Tiger Woods said in his Tuesday press conference that he didn’t like the island green par 3 because at times good shots can go in the water. Laird’s shot was not one of those. It was thin, it was low and it was well short of the green.

On No. 18, Laird went the conservative route, hitting a 5 wood off the tee. For the first time in two holes, he made a good swing, sending it down the middle of the water-lined fairway. He bailed out to the right on his approach, leaving himself a delicate chip toward the front left pin location that he botched. And when his par putt didn’t fall, he had played his final three holes in four-over par and finished at 6-under.

Johnson, who shot 66 in Round 2, played his final three holes in even par, putting him at 8-under. In the span of three holes, Laird had gone from being in front, to being “in the hunt.”

Poulter took a less roundabout route to disaster. He teed off at 1:39 p.m. on No. 10, when the course had firmed up and the wind had achieved full strength. He promptly double bogeyed two of his first four holes, dropping him to 3-under, five shots out of the lead he once owned. He dropped another shot at No. 15, but unlike Laird, handled the pressure of Nos. 16-18 without fail. He birdied No. 16, parred No. 17, and barely missed his birdie chance on No. 18.

Poulter steadied the ship on the front nine (his finishing nine), but the damage had been done. Poulter only has one Tour win to his resume, the 2010 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, but he’s won 11 times in Europe. However, that’s pressure. It doesn’t care who you are or where you’re from – when golfers are playing well, it’s there. It will be felt by Johnson tomorrow, and by the weekend leaders, especially on Nos. 16-18. That’s why there will be thousands of people in attendance surrounding those holes on Sunday, and countless viewers watching worldwide. Pressure can make anything happen. Sometimes it helps a player, sometimes it hurts a player, but it’s always fun to watch.

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour Talk” forum.

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Zak is the Editor-in-Chief of GolfWRX.com. He's been a part of the company since 2011, when he was hired to lead GolfWRX's Editorial Department. Zak developed GolfWRX's Featured Writer Program, which supports aspiring writers and golf industry professionals. He played college golf at the University of Richmond (Go Spiders!) and still likes to compete in tournaments. You can follow Zak on Twitter @ZakKoz, where he's happy to discuss his game and all the cool stuff that's part of his job.

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Tour News

REPORT: Tiger Woods to play in the Genesis Open on Feb 15

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Last season, Tiger Woods withdrew from a press conference at the Genesis Open due to back spasms. This season, Woods will reportedly play in the 2018 Genesis Open at Riviera C.C. in Pacific Palisades, California from February 15-18.

By withdrawing from the 2017 Genesis Open — an event which his Tiger Woods Foundation hosts — Woods ensured that a promising comeback was not to be. At the start of 2017, Woods committed to play in the Farmers Insurance Open, the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, the Genesis Open and the Honda Classic… an aggressive schedule for Woods, who hadn’t played much competitive golf in the previous year due to back injuries and surgeries. Things didn’t go as planned, however, as Woods missed the cut at the Farmers, withdrew after an opening-round 77 in Dubai, and withdrew from the Genesis Open and the Honda.

Since then, Woods has had spinal fusion surgery, and he recently finished T9 at the 18-player 2017 Hero World Challenge. It was there he showed the golfing world — and probably himself, too — that he can still compete among the world’s best golfers when he’s healthy.

At the Hero World Challenge, Woods was consistently hitting 179 mph of ball speed off the tee with his driver, and despite some early concerns with the wedge, he showed prowess around and on the greens. He was yip-less, fast, healthy, and finished 8-under through four rounds. A Tiger Woods comeback seems more plausible now than it has in three years.

Woods will continue to test his game at the 2017 Genesis Open — a start that will come 26 years after competing as a 16-year-old amateur in the 1992 Nissan Open at Riviera. Much like 26 years ago, Woods comes to Riviera as a golfer who needs to prove himself… it’s just that this time around, he has 14 majors and 79 PGA Tour wins to his name.

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Thursday’s Photos from the 2017 PNC Father/Son Challenge

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GolfWRX is live this week from the 2017 PNC Father/Son Challenge at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club in Orlando, Florida.

The 20-team field includes some of the game’s legendary major champions, and their sons. Notable teams include John Daly/Little John Daly, Nick Faldo/Matthew Faldo, Tom Kite/David Kite, Bernhard Langer/Jason Langer, Greg Norman/Greg Norman Jr., Jack Nicklaus/Gary Nicklaus Jr., and Lee Trevino/Daniel Trevino.  The teams will compete in a scramble format over 36 holes to decide the winners of the Willie Park Trophy.

Last year, David Duval and his step-son Nick Karavites took home the trophy, and they are back in the field this year to defend.

Check out our photos below from this year’s event!

Thursday’s Photos

Discussion: See what GolfWRX members are saying about the photos

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Friday’s Photos from the 2017 QBE Shootout

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GolfWRX is live this week from the 2017 QBE Shootout at Tiburon G.C. in Naples, Florida. Formerly known as the Franklin Templeton Shootout, or the Shark Shootout, the unofficial event plays host to 24 of some of the world’s best golfers, competing in a two-person team competition. The format calls for 54 holes; first-round scramble, second-round modified alternate shot, and third-round fourball (or better ball).

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Here is a list of the teams:

  • Daniel Berger-Gary Woodland
  • Keegan Bradley-Brendan Steele
  • Kevin Chappell-Kevin Kisner
  • Jason Dufner-Billy Horschel
  • Harris English-Matt Kuchar
  • Tony Finau-Lexi Thompson
  • Brian Harman-Pat Perez
  • Russell Henley-Kyle Stanley
  • Charley-Hoffman-Zach Johnson
  • Shane Lowry-Graeme McDowell
  • Brandt Snedeker-Bubba Watson
  • Sean O’Hair-Steve Stricker

Last year, Harris English and Matt Kuchar took down the crown, finishing at 28-under par for the event. Of course, they’ll be playing together again this year as the defending champs.

Check out our photos from the 2017 QBE Shootout below!

Friday’s Galleries

Discussion: See what GolfWRX members are saying about the photos in our forums.

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