This week in golf: Sony Open Power Rankings, a PGA Tour vs. LIV Golf update and more
- Senior college football writer
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- Graduate of the University of Georgia
The PGA Tour’s 2023 calendar started with a bang last week, as Jon Rahm rallied from a 6-shot deficit over the final nine holes to catch Collin Morikawa at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Kapalua, Hawai’i.
The tour stays in the islands for one more week at the Sony Open in Honolulu, before starting its California swing with stops at The American Express, Farmers Insurance Open and AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
It will be another week before the LPGA Tour kicks off at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions in Orlando, Florida, and more than a month before the second LIV Golf League season starts in Mexico, but there’s still plenty going on in professional golf. Here’s what to watch this week:
What’s next on the PGA Tour
Sony Open in Hawai’i
Where: Waialae Country Club, Honolulu
Defending champion: Hideki Matsuyama
Purse: $7.9 million
THREE STORYLINES TO WATCH
Matsuyama goes for back-to-back titles: Matsuyama, from Japan, seemed headed toward another big season in 2021-22 after he won the Zozo Championship in October 2021 and then the Sony Open in January 2022. But neck and back injuries derailed the 2021 Masters champion’s campaign. He was forced to withdraw from three tournaments since April, including the Houston Open in November. A tie for 21st at last week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions was his best finish since August.
Matsuyama, who is ranked 21st in the Official World Golf Ranking, told reporters in Hawai’i on Tuesday that he’s still dealing with injuries.
“I’ve been having a little trouble with my neck recently,” Matsuyama said, through his interpreter. “I wasn’t able to practice as much as I can for the last couple months, but the game is trending going forward. So I can’t expect too much, but I’m really looking forward to this week.”
Matsuyama, 30, said the injury has been bothering him since the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.
“It did happen last year at Bay Hill,” Matsuyama said. “It’s been coming back and forth, especially last November, October, November. Every time I played golf, the pain was coming back. So I’ve been working with the doctors, too, and I’ve been getting some good advice, so I feel like it’s getting better and better.”
At last year’s Sony Open, Matsuyama erased Russell Henley’s 5-stroke lead over the final nine holes and beat him in a playoff. Matsuyama made an eagle on the par-5 18th hole in the playoff by blistering a cut 3-wood from 276 yards to 32 inches. It was a blind shot, so Matsuyama didn’t see how close his ball was to the cup.
“I wasn’t able to track that shot, so, you know, by watching that video, I kind of know how good that shot was,” Matsuyama said. “It was good.”
Henley bounces back: Henley’s crushing loss to Matsuyama in the final round of last season’s Sony Open was the fifth time in his PGA Tour career that he had failed to convert a 54-hole lead into a victory. His final-round struggles caused him to utter the words that you’ll rarely hear a professional athlete use: “I’ve just choked, you know? The nerves have gotten to me, and I’ve made bad mistakes, bad mental mistakes, and just haven’t gotten it done on Sunday.”
That admission came after Henley closed the deal at the World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba in November. It was his fourth PGA Tour victory and first since 2017. His first career win came at the 2013 Sony Open.
“Thinking on last year, definitely stings, but I do take a lot of positives,” Henley told reporters this week. “I had a putt to win last year and I thought I hit a pretty good putt. I had a 2-shot lead and shot 65 and lost in a playoff, so not very often that happens.”
Henley said jokingly that he bumped into Matsuyama at the WM Phoenix Open last year and pretended to break his 3-wood over a knee.
“I just walked up and said, ‘Hey, there, buddy,’ and grabbed his 3-wood and almost broke it over my knee,” Henley said. “I mean, he played awesome. He shot 63-63 on the weekend and it’s just going to happen in golf where you lose. But no hard feelings, obviously. I was just messing around.”
Maybe Henley can draw inspiration this week from his alma mater, the Georgia Bulldogs, who bounced back from an uneven performance against Ohio State in a College Football Playoff semifinal by crushing TCU 65-7 to win their second straight national title.
“I guess at the end of the first half, when we kept scoring in the last couple minutes, I just was like, I can’t believe [it], like we already basically won,” Henley said. “I think we were up 38-7 at the half and their one play that they scored was kind of like a weird broken-coverage pass. I guess for me it’s just mainly surprising. I would love for us to win the national championship by 60 every year, but I’m just still kind of surprised. I mean, that was crazy.”
Castillo’s debut: Michael Castillo, the head pro at Kapalua, which hosted last week’s Tournament of Champions, made the Sony Open field by winning the Aloha Section PGA Championship in September. He birdied the 18th hole to win by 1 stroke.
Castillo will make his debut in the tournament at age 60. He is the oldest player in the field and three times older than Tom Kim. He is the fourth member of his family to play in the tournament; his father, Ron, made 10 starts and two of his brothers also played in the event.
Castillo will make his first PGA Tour start two months after receiving radiation treatment for cancer. He told The Associated Press that he was diagnosed with colon cancer five years ago. It moved to his liver, lung and then back to his liver.
“I went with radiation and I’ll know next month if it was successful,” Castillo told the AP. “In December, it cleaned my body out and I feel pretty good. I’m ready for the Sony.”
Adam Scott, 42, said jokingly that he was happy he wasn’t the oldest player in the field this week.
“I’m getting those young vibes,” Scott said. “Most weeks it seems like I’m the oldest man on the tour or in the field these days. I think it’s a great story. He qualified at 60 years old for his first Sony Open. I think it’s a great story about the game of golf. It’s like Fred Couples, who is obviously a superstar, but shoots 60. How would he, [he] is, 63? It’s a great game when stuff like this happens.”
PGA Tour Power Rankings
1. Jon Rahm: The Spaniard rallied from seven shots back-six at the turn-to stun Collin Morikawa at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. It was Rahm’s third victory in his past five starts worldwide; he also captured the Acciona Open de Espana and DP World Tour Championship on the DP World Tour. He’s first in shots-gained off the tee (1.123) and third in shots gained: total (2.821).
2. Rory McIlroy: The world No. 1 golfer is scheduled to make his 2023 debut at the Dubai Desert Classic on Jan. 26-29. Last year, he hit his approach shot on the 72nd hole into the water to miss a playoff and finished third. He’ll make his first PGA Tour starts at the WM Phoenix Open and Genesis Invitational.
3. Patrick Cantlay: Cantlay won just one individual event in 2021-22 (he also captured the Zurich Classic with teammate Xander Schauffele), but it was a big one at the BMW Championship, the second leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs. He lost in playoffs to Scheffler at the WM Phoenix Open and Jordan Spieth at the RBC Heritage and was runner-up two other times since then. If Cantlay can close the deal, he might win a few times this coming season.
4. Tony Finau: Few players were hotter than Finau near the end of last summer when he won in back-to-back starts at the 3M Open and Rocket Mortgage Classic. Then he was first again at the Houston Open in November. Every aspect of his game is trending well and he might be headed for a big, big year –maybe even winning his first major.
5. Scottie Scheffler: Outside of a hot-and-cold putter, the reigning Masters champion seems to be heating up again. He tied for seventh at Kapalua, his third straight top-10. The normally reserved Scheffler also offered up the best quote of the season so far.
Scheffler told reporters at the Tournament of Champions that he and his wife bumped into Bubba Watson and his wife at a restaurant during a vacation to Tennessee. Asked about hosting the Champions Dinner at Augusta National in April, Scheffler joked, “I told [Bubba] that I was just going to have a separate table for him in the corner by himself. Only kidding, obviously.”
Watson, a two-time Masters winner, is one of six former green jacket owners who are now competing in the LIV Golf League.
6. Xander Schauffele: Along with his victory with Cantlay in New Orleans, Schauffele won in back-to-back starts at the Travelers Championship and Scottish Open in 2022. He performed well in his last two starts in the FedEx Cup playoffs and then tied for ninth at the Zozo Championship. A nagging back injury caused him to pull out of the Tournament of Champions.
7. Viktor Hovland: The Norwegian struggled with his short game and consistency last season, but his extra work with short-game guru Josh Gregory seems to be paying off. Hovland ranked 191st in shots gained: around the green (-.651) last season. He’s 41st (.330) so far this season. He won the Hero World Challenge, an unofficial event hosted by Tiger Woods in the Bahamas, for the second straight time and tied for 10th at Mayakoba.
8. Justin Thomas: With his alma mater, Alabama, missing the College Football Playoff, the reigning PGA Championship winner had a busy December. He won the latest iteration of The Match with Spieth and competed with his father, Mike, in the PNC Championship. He finished fifth at the Hero World Challenge and tied for 25th at the Tournament of Champions.
9. Matt Fitzpatrick: The Englishman, who picked up his first major at the U.S. Open in June, played well in Europe at the close of 2022. He was second in the Italian Open and tied for fifth in the DP World Tour Championship. He tied for seventh at the Tournament of Champions.
10. Collin Morikawa: The stunning final-round collapse at Kapalua is going to sting for a while, but it’s clear that Morikawa’s dedication to improving his short game is working. He spent time with Parker McLachlin, affectionately known as the “Short Game Chef,” on his chipping; he hired his first putting coach, Stephen Sweeney. After capturing two majors, Morikawa didn’t win last year. He’s too talented for that to happen.
LIV Golf vs. PGA Tour update
LIV Golf’s second season won’t tee off until Feb. 24 at El Camaleon Golf Club in Mayakoba, Mexico. But the legal showdown between LIV Golf and the PGA Tour is heating up with their ongoing disputes over discovery, and who can be deposed possibly coming to a head in a hearing on Friday in U.S. District Court in San Jose, California.
On Wednesday, Judge Susan van Keulen denied a motion to postpone the hearing by attorneys representing Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and the fund’s governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan.
In a motion filed to the court on Monday, the PGA Tour’s lawyers argued that LIV Golf strategically delayed producing discovery documents that “dramatically contradicts their claims” and establishes evidence that the PIF and Al-Rumayyan have “extensive control over LIV and the decision to bring this lawsuit.”
“PIF and Mr. Al-Rumayyan should not be permitted to conduct business in the United States –including the final authority in the initiation and ongoing conduct of this litigation –only to hide behind a shell corporation to evade the jurisdiction of this court,” PGA Tour lawyers wrote in the motion.
According to the PGA Tour attorneys, LIV Golf claims that neither PIF nor Al-Rumayyan manage or control LIV’s day-to-day operations and there is no evidence that they “engaged in conduct beyond the routine activities of an investor.” The Tour claims the “Shareholders’ Agreement” between PIF and LIV Golf proves otherwise. Details of the shareholders’ agreement were redacted from the motions, which were filed under seal.
“This was all false, and PIF, Mr. Al-Rumayyan, and LIV knew it,” the PGA Tour attorneys wrote.
LIV Golf and 11 of its players, including Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau, filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour, alleging the Tour was using its monopoly powers to squash competition. Mickelson and others later removed themselves as plaintiffs. The PGA Tour filed a countersuit, alleging LIV Golf interfered with its contracts with players.
The jury trial is scheduled to begin in January 2024.
Playing for a spot in majors
The Latin America Amateur Championship tees off at Grand Reserve Golf Club in Puerto Rico on Thursday. The winner of the 72-hole event receives an invitation to the Masters, an exemption into the 151st Open Championship at Royal Liverpool and an exemption into final qualifying for the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club, as well as guaranteed spots in the Amateur Championship in England and the U.S. Amateur. The event, which is sanctioned by Augusta National Golf Club, the R&A and USGA, hopes to promote golf in Latin America.
Brazil’s Fred Biondi (a University of Florida senior), Argentina’s Mateo Fernandez de Oliveira (Arkansas senior) and Segundo Oliva Pinto, Peru’s Julian Perico and Panama’s Omar Tejeira are among the highest-rated amateurs in the field.
Last year, then-UNLV freshman Aaron Jarvis, 19, posted a final-round 69 to secure a 1-shot victory. His older brother, Andrew, will compete in his third LAAC this week.
Tiger on the Ryder Cup team?
The 2023 Ryder Cup in Rome is still eight months away, but U.S. team captain Zach Johnson is already contemplating pairings and potential matchups. After the Americans throttled the Europeans 19-9 at Whistling Straits in 2021, Johnson admitted on Wednesday that there’s a pretty good template in place.
“I’m not going to say [it’s foolproof],” Johnson said during a news conference ahead of the Sony Open. “I’m fully vulnerable to screwing things up. We all are. I would say the continuity we have from Cup to Cup to Cup to Cup right now is something I’m very impressed with and grateful for.
“I think it kind of started six, seven years ago, but just because we have continuity and some sort of system does not mean it’s foolproof and results in wins. But I appreciate and I fully acknowledge that there is something to be said about what has been laid — the system, the template that’s been laid in front of me. Yeah, it’s systematic, but it’s also not rigid. It has some fluidity and the ability to take on the personality of the leader and the leaders.”
Johnson was asked if 15-time major champion Tiger Woods might be a player on the U.S. roster if he returns and plays well. Woods, who is recovering from injuries suffered in a car wreck in February 2021, played only nine rounds in three majors in 2022.
“I would only contemplate having him on the team if he felt [like] he was putting up some numbers and some scores, No. 1, showing some sign of being competitive,” Johnson said. “And then No. 2, that discussion would be had with the other guys that are a part of that team, and specifically him.”
Even if Woods, 47, isn’t a playing participant at the Ryder Cup, which is scheduled to be played at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club outside Rome on Sept. 29-Oct. 1, Johnson said he would be part of the squad, presumably as an assistant captain.
“If there is anything I trust in Tiger Woods, is that he’s extremely invested in this team and the future Cups,” Johnson said. “Extremely invested. I can’t speak that enough.”
Netflix releases “Full Swing” details
Netflix released a trailer for its upcoming golf docuseries, “Full Swing,” which followed PGA Tour players and their families throughout the 2021-22 season. The ongoing drama between the Tour and LIV Golf was an added bonus. An appearance by McIlroy, who wasn’t previously disclosed as participating, also added some star power. McIlroy appeared in a trailer that was released on Wednesday.
The docuseries is scheduled to be released on Feb. 15. It promises to provide private moments outside the ropes and at home.
Among the other PGA Tour players who will appear in the series are Scheffler, Thomas, Spieth, Morikawa, Finau and Fitzpatrick.
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