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Els Wins Two in a Row

Ernie Els had the whole of Sunday evening to reflect on his double bogey – bogey finish, thanks to the deluge which halted play until noon Monday. He admitted to that after winning his second tournament in a row. He realized that despite those mistakes, he still had a two shot lead with four holes to play. Not a bad place to be all things considered. Two par saving putts and a bogey by Kevin Na on the 18th hole later Mr. Els collected another trophy. I kept thinking of Happy Gilmore as I watched Mr. Els putter work the same magic it did two weeks ago at the Honda Classic, the part where Happy learns to putt. The talking heads all commented about his putting stance being more bent over at the waist, more like it used to be long before he turned 40 years old. Accepting that they know more than I, not always an easy thing to do, they’ll get no argument from me. It’s obvious something is different because all those putts Mr. Els missed the last few years have started going into the hole. Big difference in confidence, directly corresponding to the amount of fun one can have on the course. Mr. Els had more fun Monday than Mr. Na, who left his par putt on the 18th hole short by about a rotation of the ball

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Ernie Els had the whole of Sunday evening to reflect on his double bogey – bogey finish, thanks to the deluge which halted play until noon Monday.  He admitted to that after winning his second tournament in a row.  He realized that despite those mistakes, he still had a two shot lead with four holes to play.  Not a bad place to be all things considered.  Two par saving putts and a bogey by Kevin Na on the 18th hole later Mr. Els collected another trophy.  

“I know a lot of guys basically have written me off,” Els said. “And a lot of guys probably said it was a fluke in Miami. It was hard work this week. I’ll just keep working hard. There’s still a lot of flaws in my game that I’ve got to figure out and get right. I know I’m never going to play the game perfectly, but I can still improve.”   Doesn't sound like the Ernie Els from the last couple of years.  But then, with the family issues and his knee injury there has been a lot of life get in the way of work.  Finally having a diagnosis for his son and getting his autism foundation set up takes a lot out of anyone.  it's not a surprise that his professional life would suffer.  But now, “But I still have a lot of work left, and there are a lot of majors left. And that’s going to be fun now.”  It should be fun to watch as well.

To his credit Mr. Na didn't vanish while in contention, hitting a lot of quality shots under pressure.  He's been a professional since he was 18 and has been around so long it's easy to forget he's only 27 years old.  I didn't realize he's won over $8 million in his career to date.  All without winning.  Nice.  The not winning part shouldn't last too much longer given the high level consistency at which he's been playing of late. 

Edoardo Molinari made putts from all over the yard Monday to vault into a tie for second place with Mr. Na.  The former US Amateur champion now has special temporary membership on the PGA Tour, but how much he'll play other than the major events is unknown.  After watching him this week, and on the European Tour last year, I really hope we get the chance to watch him play even more now.  He's got all kinds of talent and potential (even though I hate that word). 

For some it's off to Houston, others will hone their games for the Masters in two weeks.  It's almost spring!

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5 Things We Learned: Friday at the Women’s PGA

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Not every shot comes off as planned, and not every golfer makes it to the weekend. As we see below, sometimes you do what has to be done, even if it means a complete 180. Sahalee is not your typical championship course. When it arrived on the major championship scene in 1998, it claimed a solid champion in Vijay Singh. It also claimed great outcry, for the narrow nature of its fairways. Workability of shots was lost, some claimed. Few recovery options from beneath those trees, others cried. Well, that’s golf in the Pacific Northwest, at least at Sahalee.

The 2024 Women’s PGA is the second at the venerable club, eight years after Brooke Henderson won her first major title in a playoff. As often happens with the grand events, a mix of veterans and hopetobees has arrived in the final groups. The next 36 holes of play will bring drama and great viewing. How did we get here? Have a look at our five things we learned from day two at the 2024 Women’s PGA Championship.

1. First in the house: Sarah Schmelzel

I wrote about Cheyenne Knight making a move on Sunday. I was incorrect. It was Sarah Schmelzel who jumped up on Friday. The South Carolina alumna from Arizona etched six birdies against a single bogey on day two, to jump from one under to six deep, and from 14th to 1st position.

Schmelzel will tee it up in the day’s final game, tied with Amy Yang. In March, Schmelzel posted a second-place finish at Blue Bay, her best result on tour. She tied for 15th in last year’s PGA Championship; her best major finish as a professional was also at the PGA. In 2019, she came 14th. Sahalee would be a wonderful place for a double breakthrough (first LPGA and Major titles) but there are 36 fairways along the path, and much learning ahead.

How much learning? We couldn’t find video of her on Twitter, until we went back to her time as a USG Gamecock. Odds are, we’ll see a few reels on that platform today!

2. Next to the top: Amy Yang

If there were a trivia question about most top-five finishes in LPGA majors, without a major title on the resume, well, you know where I’m headed. Three at the Chevron; five at the US Open; two at the PGA; three at the British. That’s 13 top-five finishes for Amy Yang since 2010. If we add top-ten results, she has eight more.

How has Amy Yang not won a major championship? None of us around the coffee shop has any idea. She has five LPGA titles to her credit, and she seems to be the sort of disciplined golfer that wins major titles. On Friday, Yang drilled home four birdies for 68, and joined Sarah Schmelzel at the top of the pyramid. She and Schmelzel will be joined by Hinako Shibuno in the day’s final triumvirate. Yang’s card has been clean since the 4th green on day one. Continued pursuit of that scoring system will no doubt bring her again to the top five. Perhaps she can finally be the top one in Washington state.

3. Lexi hangs tough

Lexi Thompson has a pair of major titles on her resume. As she heads toward an announced retirement, she no doubt looks back with both smiles and frowns. Great champions always look back and see “I dids” and “What ifs.” If you’re not pulling for Amy Yang to break through, or Sarah S to double break through, you should be pulling for Lexi T to head off with one more major title.

Lexi stood seven-under par as she turned to Sahalee’s first nine holes, her second of the day. Four holes later, she had lost three shots, to double and single bogeys at two and four. Birdie at six, and bogey at eight, and Thompson was in for even-par 72, but not out of the running. She’ll peg her ball on Saturday in the penultimate trio, alongside Jin Young Ko and Hae Ran Ryu. Thompson’s quest is simple: make some birdies and avoid the bogeys.

4. Jin Young and Hinako rise to podium

Both JIn Young Ko and Hinako Shibuno are major champions. Each also has a set of nearly-dids on their resumes. Last month, Shibuno came second at the US Open. Ko hasn’t found the magic since a ninth-place tie at Chevron in 2023, but is too good a major-championship golfer to stay away for long.

Shibuno will tee off in Saturday’s final game, while Ko will be one group ahead. Shibuno has posted four birdies against two bogeys, each of the first two day. If she keeps up with that pattern, she’ll reach minus-eight by Sunday evening. Depending on course conditions and weather, that might be enough. As for Ko, Thursday’s four-birdie, four-bogey card was replaced by one that contained five birdies and one solitary miscue. More of the later, will give her the opportunity to add major title number three to her Wiki.

5. The ones we shall miss

Inexplicably, Nelly Korda once again suffered through an undesirable round in a major title. She began round two with four consecutive bogeys, and added a fifth at the sixth hole. She did not make her first birdie until the closing green; it served to bring her one shot shy of the cut line. She will be back, and soon, and all in golf hope that she is able to sort out the current malady. Golf needs Nelly.

Miss Korda wasn’t the only surprise struggler at Sahalee. Pornanong Phatlum, Nasa Hataoka, US Open challenger Wichanee Meechai, and Carlota Ciganda were there in the end, staring across the gate at the weekend. Sahalee is an acquired taste, bowling-alley narrow in spots, and symbolic of the extraordinary trees that inhabit the region. If your driving game isn’t on, recovery from the hardwood is nigh impossible.

 

 

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5 Things We Learned: Thursday at the Women’s PGA

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The 2024 Women’s PGA Championship features a return to Sahalee, near Seattle, where Brooke Henderson won her first major title. Henderson defeated Lydia Ko in a playoff, and the tournament featured play over the club’s North and South nines. This year’s tournament will showcase the same 18 holes, with expectations high for another dramatic finish.

Sahalee runs against the grain of golf’s current championship trend. The northwest USA course is known for its well-treed fairways and its narrow fairway corridors. You’ll not find the land-and-release style of architecture and conditioning that featured so prominently last week’s US Open at Pinehurst. Instead, players will have the opportunity to strategize carry-and-hold distances, more closely associated with the American style of play.

Regardless of your preference, welcome to another major championship week. The Women’s PGA championship celebrates its 10th playing this year, and it won’t be too heavy a lift to learn a quintet of news items each day from the field’s play. Settle in with a nice cup of coffee and enjoy the five things we learned on day one at the 2024 Women’s PGA Championship.

1. Lexi will not go quietly into that good night

Lexi Thompson has been, on many occasions, the featured competitor in the resolution of major titles. At far too many of those events, victory has fallen away, to the opposition. In Lexi, we see ourselves. She experiences in front of the camera, what often happens to us each weekend. She rises, time and again, to confront the impossibility of closing a tournament, of claiming glory. No matter how easy it may seem, it isn’t remotely easy to do.

When Lexi announced that the 2024 season would be her last, we both understood and regretted. She has taken time away from competition over the last five years, to recenter her life and balance her emotions. She has been vocal and public about the challenge and the struggle of growing up in competitive golf, and playing so hard, for so long. The announcement, and fate, have made us desperate for one final and great victory for the Floridian, so that she might ride off into this sunset with a triumphant smile.

On Thursday at Sahalee, Lexi rose to the first-round lead, thanks to six birdies. A pair of bogeys brought her back to minus-four, but she stands one shot clear of Nelly Korda and Patty Tavatanakit. Lexi isn’t one to fear the bogey lady, so her performance this week will depend on her ability to seek the birdies, and not hold back. Aren’t all of our fingers crossed?

2. The Chasers

Nelly needs no introduction; she is the top-ranked player in the world, with six wins (one of them a major) thus far in 2024. Tavatanakit burst onto the LPGA circuit with a 2021 major championship win at the ANA. Her second tour title came this year, at Honda Thailand. Last month, Nelly missed the cut at the US Open, while Patty did not figure in the outcome. One is at the top of her game, while the other seeks a return to the elite tier of women’s professional golf. Sahalee plays right into both golfers’ hands, so expect both to around through Sunday.

Like Lexi, Nelly had six birdies on the day. Her engine was momentarily derailed by a double bogey at the fourth hole, but she returned to the tracks and finished off a minus-three 69 on day one. Patty offered a streamlined round of three birdies and zero bogies, to match Korda’s performance. That’s what makes Sahalee so compelling: there will be rounds of high drama, with many birdies and a few others, alongside others with clean cards but fewer shots saved. We have no idea how this one will play out, and we’re engulfed by intrigue and mystery.

3. Eleven is a lucky number

Eleven golfers are tied at two-under par, a pair of shots off the lead. Among that assemblage are European golfers Celine Boutier (the Nelly Korda of wins in 2023) Leona Maguire, Charley Hull, and 2023 US Open champion Allisen Corpuz. That quintet of golfers sits at either one or zero major championships over their career arcs. As aficionados of the game know, majors elevate you to a higher strata, and each opportunity offered is a chance to ascend.

Among the Sahalee’s Eleven, Madalene Sagstrom offered the most interesting tour of the high 18. She posted five birdies, offset by three bogeys. Hinako Shibuno arrive next, with four birdies on the day, including a run of three in five holes, over the second nine.

4. Who struggled?

That’s the part of tournament coverage that no one relishes … finding out who didn’t have her best game, and what the second day might have on offer. Minjee Lee appeared to have one hand on the US Open trophy last month, only to lose her way over the final nine. She opened with 74, and has work to do to make the cut and contend.

Lydia Ko is one win away from the earned LPGA hall of fame, a hall like no other. Votes don’t get you in; wins do. 75 in round one doesn’t help her cause, but she has history with Sahalee, going back to that runner-up finish in 2016. A comeback from Ko would be an amazing story for the Return to Sahalee.

Lilia Vu has been on the PUP list for a few months, and was champing at a return to competition. Like Ko, she posted 75 and will need to reverse course to be around for the final 36 holes. Most confusing of all is the 76 turned in by Rose Zhang. Despite bursting onto the tour with a first-event win in 2023, and following that with a victory at the 2024 Founders Cup, the former, world top amateur has struggled to find her game in major championships. Perhaps that’s part of the learning curve. The curve continues this week for Zhang.

5. What’s in store for round two?

Despite hosting major championships adjacent to the LPGA, PGA, and Champions tours, Sahalee is an unknown commodity. Out of the public eye for vast stretches of time, it doesn’t boast signature holes and familiarity, as happens with other tracks. What is known is this: the putting surfaces will reward a true roll of the rock, so the emphasis will continue to be on the driver. Bomb and gouge doesn’t play well in Washington, due to the influence of the abundant tree population. Your accurate driver will have the best opportunity to stand tall through 36 holes. We’re going to pull out a surprise, second-round leader, by the name of Cheyenne Knight. We see the Texan reversing course in round two, with way more birdies than bogeys, with her reward being a place at the main table.

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Equipment

Callaway Opus wedges launched on PGA Tour

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Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of an article our Andrew Tursky filed for PGATour.com’s Equipment Report. Read the full piece here.

While this is the world’s first official look at the final versions of the Opus line of wedges, Callaway staffers have actually been involved In the prototyping and design process for around two years, according to Callaway Tour Manager Joe Toulon.

“The Tour launch is basically when we’re introducing it to the Tour players officially for the first time,” Toulon said on Tuesday at the 2024 Travelers Championship. “We’ve done a lot of work with this wedge in the prototyping stages. It’s a project that we’ve really kicked off 2 years ago, when we really started digging into this category and understanding what the best players in the world look for in a wedge.”

Of course, Callaway’s research and design team has been studying the wedge category for decades, but this time around – during the design of the new Opus wedges – Callaway put more power than ever into the hands of PGA TOUR players. Toulon and team paid close attention to everything Tour players wanted from a wedge, including the look at address, the shape of the leading edge, how the club sits on the ground with the face open, the shaping of the sole, the sound, the feel, and how the wedge interacts with the turf at impact under various conditions.

Although all factors were considered, the most significant barrier to entry for Tour players is their first impression of the shape of the wedge at address.

“The shape is really something we spent a lot of time with, and getting it to look good to the majority of players – it’s something that you may not hit everybody’s eye exactly right, but this is something where we got countless hours of feedback and testing from Tour players, and this is kind of the final product,” Toulon said. “…I think one of the things that players really focus on when they set a wedge down for the first time is what it looks like at address, and what it looks like when you open the face, and we did a lot around that; the shaping and the roundness of this wedge.”

Toulon calls it the “final” product, because there were various iterations of the Opus wedges before this. Actually, these final versions of the Opus wedges are based on the sixth prototype, specifically.

“[The Opus wedge] was code named ‘S6’ during the process,” Toulon said. “We stamped every wedge out here (on the PGA TOUR) in this shape with S6, and that basically just stands for some of the shaping designs we went through. That was the sixth shape design that we settled on based on what the player feedback was. That’s really the whole story behind this wedge; tour-inspired, tour-driven. These guys out here designed this wedge. This is just the final cosmetic and final design that we went with.”

Read the full piece here.

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