Len Ziehm On Golf

Past champs Donald, Streelman look to Valspar tourney for another boost

Luke Donald (left) and Kevin Streelman are already on Innisbrook champions’ wall. (Rory Spears Photo)

PALM HARBOR, Florida – The Masters, the year’s first major golf championship, is just a month away and the Chicago’s top two PGA Tour players haven’t qualified as yet. This week’s stop — the Valspar Championship on Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead course –figures to give both Luke Donald and Kevin Streelman a boost, however.

Neither are off to a notable start this season. Donald, the former Northwestern star, has made four of six cuts with $221,185 in earnings. That puts him 125th on the season money list. Streelman has made six of 10 cuts and has earned $505,886, good for 68th place.

To get into the Masters, though, they’ll likely have to either win one of the tournaments leading into it or boost their world rankings into the top 50 the week before the Masters tees off. Donald is No. 88 in the world rankings now and Streelman is down in the 134th spot. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that both have played well in Masters of the past, both are coming into Thursday’s start of the Valspar Championship well-rested and both have wins here. Those ingredients should count for something.

So could Innisbrook’s extraordinary connection to the Chicago golf scene. The resort’s owner, Sheila Johnson, is a University of Illinois graduate who grew up in Chicago, and all of the resort’s four courses were designed by the late Larry Packard, a Chicago golf architectural legend. All that should add to the comfort zone for Donald and Streelman.

In the case of both players, their victories on the well-regarded Copperhead layout had major implications career-wise. Donald’s victory came in 2011 when the tourney was called the Transitions Championship. He was involved in a head-to-head duel with Rory McIlroy for the No. 1 spot in the world rankings at the time and the win pushed Donald into the No. 1 spot, a position he held for 56 weeks.

Streelman’s win came the following year, the first in which Valspar was the tourney sponsor. It was the first of the Wheaton golfer’s two PGA Tour titles, though the second drew more attention. No. 2 came at Hartford in 2013, with Streelman making birdies on the last seven holes to claim a more spectacular victory.

Neither player qualified for last week’s lucrative World Golf Championship event in Mexico, but that may not be a bad thing. The PGA Tour substituted the Mexico event for the longstanding stop at Doral, in Miami, and it wreaked havoc with all the players’ scheduling.

Those who played in the no-cut tourney in Mexico endured some difficult travels. In the last four weeks the PGA Tour had tournaments in Los Angeles, then the Honda Classic in Florida, then Mexico and now it’s back to Florida. The dropping of Doral “destroyed’’ the traditional Florida Swing, according to no less an expert than Jack Nicklaus who said the schedule change “hurts all the Florida events.’’

The circuit goes to the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando after the Valspar. The quality of the Honda field was down slightly, and Valspar has just four players in the top 15 of the World Rankings – Henrik Stenson (6), Justin Thomas (8), Patrick Reed (12) and Bubba Watson (15).

Stenson, the reigning British Open champion, withdrew from the Mexico stop after 11 holes due to illness and admitted here that “I’m not 100 percent.’’ He was fourth at the Valspar in 2015 and tied for 11th last year when South African Charl Schwartzel won the title.

Stenson insisted the addition of the Mexico tourney didn’t affect the Florida events, but he was in the minority.

“It’s just a busy time of the year,’’ said Stenson. “It’s six, seven, eight good tournaments in a row. You’re not going to get all the guys playing the same weeks. It’s more down to scheduling and preferences, how many do you want to play in that time span. You can’t really be disappointed that certain players take certain weeks off, because that’s the way it’s always going to be.’’

HERE AND THERE: The Valspar field also includes two Illinois alums. Steve Stricker, now eligible for the Champions Tour, will compete after announcing his choices for assistant President Cup captains earlier this week here. Charlie Danielson made the field through the qualifying round on Monday.

Defending champion Schwartzl has already had a tough week. One of his playing partners hit a shot off a tree in Wednesday’s pro-am and the ball hit Schwartzel on the wrist. His hand went numb and he quit play after 10 holes. He was still hopeful of teeing off in Thursday’s first round.

Matt Kuchar, who will make his 10th appearance in the Valspar, generally likes the U.S. Golf Association’s recently proposed rule changes designed to simplify the game. “I have tons of friends that fudge here and there,’’ said Kuchar. “You want the game to be enjoyable, and simplifying the rules only helps make the game more understandable. It’s a good idea they are working on.’’

Palm Beach has a par-3 course that is unlike any other

Palm Beach’s finishing hole gives players one last good look at the Atlantic Ocean and its parasailors.

PALM BEACH, Florida – I’ve always believed that the Nickol Knoll course in my former backyard is the best par-3 course in Illinois. As for the best par-3 in the entire United States I had given the nine-holer at Big Cedar Lodge in Branson, Mo., a slight edge over Three-tops, at Treetops Resort in Gaylord, Mich.

Now, though, I’m not so sure. A visit to the Palm Beach Par-3 here has confused the situation for me.

The Palm Beach Par-3 opened in 1961 as a combination effort by designers Dick Wilson and Joe Lee, and Raymond Floyd did a complete remodeling job in 2009. Actually, Floyd did much more than that. A Palm Beach resident at the time, the world golf Hall of Famer offered to re-design the course and did his work gratis. He also helped raise the $7 million needed to get the job done.

Palm Beach’s Par-3 dates back to 1961, but Raymond Floyd gave it a new look in 2009.

Needless to say, Floyd’s name is on the welcoming sign and his 18 holes are marred by only the fact that you have to cross busy Ocean Boulevard twice on the front nine in the course of your round. Otherwise the course couldn’t have a better location. The Atlantic Ocean is on one side and the Interecoastal Waterway on the other.

This course has a lot of other things going for it, not the least of which is the clubhouse fare. On our visit – in the heart of the Florida tourist season – the golf operation ran smoothly and there were even more people around in early afternoon on a Sunday to enjoy the dining. The Palm Beach Par-3 isn’t your usual par-3 snack shop. It has a full-service dining at its Fresco restaurant that attracts plenty of non-golfers.

As for the course, Golf Digest has called it “one of the best par-3s you can play anywhere.’’ As most of you know, I’ve always been skeptical about the ratings systems used by the various golf publications, but I can’t quibble with Golf Digest listing the Palm Beach Par-3 in its “Top 50 Most Fun golf courses in America.’’

The Intercostal Waterway is a most obvious landmark on most of Palm Beach’s front nine.

The course was in fine condition (especially the greens) when we visited. It also has a well-stocked pro shop and good practice range. The green fees don’t include use of a power cart, and that’s significant.

Walking has no negative stigma here. Pull carts are available and players walking with pull carts, those carrying their own bags and those riding on power carts shared the course comfortably on our visit. That’s not something you always find on par-3s that offers a bit of a challenge.

Holes range from 81 to 211 yards from the tips and three sets of tee options make it interesting for all level of players. Only four of the holes from the front tees are over 100 yars, the shortest being 49 at No. 9. Inevitably it’s the ocean views – all of them on the back nine – that most set this course apart from every other par-3, though.

Palm Beach’s clubhouse was a hopping place when we made our mid-winter, weekend visit.

`The Elegant Mouse’ should be required reading for golf fanatics

Who is the smallest player to compete successfully on the PGA Tour?

My guess is that it was Bob Toski. He stood 5-foot-7 and his fighting weight in his playing days was just 118 pounds. There may have been shorter players, but none lighter.

Now 90, Toski’s stature in golf is that of a giant. As a player he won five times on the PGA Tour and six more times in other notable tournaments. In 1954 he was – at least arguably – the best player in the game. He won four times that year, including the World Championship of Golf at Chicago’s Tam O’Shanter club. The $50,000 he won for that victory helped him become the year’s leading money-winner with $65,820 – and that enabled him to erase a record that had been set by Byron Nelson in his epic 1945 campaign when Nelson won 18 tournaments including 11 in a row.

Toski didn’t stop after reaching the top as a player. He turned to teaching, and was – again arguably, I guess – even better at that than he was as a player. He was also among the first pro golfers to make custom clubs. Toski is in both the World Golf Teachers Hall of Fame and the PGA Golf Professionals Hall of Fame.

All these accomplishments are crystallized in “The Elegant Mouse: The Bob Toski Story,’’ by former Palm Beach Post sports writer Brian Biggane. If ever there was a golfer without a victory in one of the major championships on his resume who deserved a book, it’s Toski.

Biggane and Toski worked on the book together and no less a golfing icon than Jack Nicklaus wrote the Foreward. Nicklaus called the account “truly an inspiring story’’ and I would be the first to second that.

Much to Biggane’s credit, he didn’t just let Toski tell his story. He dug deeply into the research end and interviewed extensively. Not only that, but he touched on a few topics that might have been on the sensitive side for Toski – notably a snub from the PGA of America in leaving him off the 1955 Ryder Cup team and a dispute with PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman following a Senior Tour event in Japan in 1986.

Sam Snead respectfully dubbed Toski “the Mouse,’’ believing that the diminutive Toski’s competitive spirit and ability to drive the ball long distances created a likeness with the Mighty Mouse cartoon character of the 1950s.

“The Elegant Mouse’’ is enhanced by a wide variety of photographs, some dating back to the days when Toski was growing up as Bobby Algustoski, one of nine children in a Polish family from Haydenville, Mass. Toski’s rise to the heights he reached in golf is truly a story worth telling. The book initially may be hard to find in book stores, but it’s available through www.bobtoskibooks.com.

NEXT UP of the new golf books worth reading is “Gary Player’s Black Book,’’ which will be released on April 4 by Skyhorse Publishing. Lee Trevino wrote the forward for this golfer’s guide. It’s presented in the form of 60 questions with detailed responses from Player on his life, golf and business.

ALSO not to be missed is “Tommy’s Honour,’’ a movie that will hit the U.S. theaters on April 14. It’s an historical drama on the lives of legendary Scottish professionals Old Tom Morris and his son, Young Tom Morris. The movie was based on a book that I found an excellent read and the movie, which had its grand opening in June in Scotland, has already been named Best Feature Film at last year’s British Academy Scotland Awards.

PGA Tour’s Florida Swing won’t be the same without Doral, Palmer

The Bear Trap could foil many a contender at this week’s Honda Classic. (Rory Spears Photo).

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Florida – The Florida Swing of the PGA Tour season, which tees off on Thursday at PGA National, has changed dramatically from a year ago.

One tournament, known since 2011 as the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship, left its home of 55 years at Trump National Doral’s Blue Course in Miami and moved to Mexico City. Another popular event, at Bay Hill in Orlando, lost its charismatic founder and namesake with the passing of Arnold Palmer in September.

Those represent big changes in the golfing world. Still, the circuit’s traditional run through the Sunshine State remains a significant part of the season – that time of year when winter starts turning to spring and the bulk of players from across the country warm up to the idea of pulling out their clubs again.

First stop of the usual Florida Swing – minus Doral – is the Honda Classic, an event with proven staying power but not quite the field it was hoping to offer. Honda is the longest-running title sponsor on the PGA Tour, dating to 1982. AT&T (Pebble Beach Pro-Am since 1986) is the only other PGA Tour sponsor that started its run prior to the 1990s.

The Honda Classic began as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic in 1972. It’s been played at PGA National since 2007 when long-time Chicago resident Mark Wilson won the first of his five PGA Tour titles.

The Snake Pit, at Innisbrook, will be a dangerous stretch of holes for players at the Valspar Championship March 9-12.

This year’s tourney figured to be a gallery spectacular when Tiger Woods announced it would be among the first four events on his ambitious comeback schedule. Woods lives in nearby Jupiter, just a 20-minute drive away, and considers the Honda his hometown tournament.

Any hopes for a return of Tiger mania evaporated when Woods’ back problems surfaced again at the Dubai Desert Classic. After missing the cut in his first tournament at Torrey Pines Woods withdrew after one unimpressive round at Dubai. He didn’t even show up for last week’s Genesis Open in Los Angeles, an event that benefits his own charity foundation, and isn’t expected at the Honda since his representative, Mark Steinberg, told media members that doctors have advised Woods to “stay horizontal’’ until his back spasms subside.

Woods isn’t the only notable absentee for the start of the Florida swing. Dustin Johnson, now the world’s No. 1-ranked player after a run-away win at the Genesis Open last week, isn’t here, either. Neither is Jordan Spieth or Hideki Matsuyama, the tour leader in money and FedEx Cup points earned at this point in the season.

Rory McIlroy is back in the United States, but not competing here. Neither is Phil Mickelson, who played the Honda the last two years and stayed around to play in an event at nearby Seminole. The top six in the Official World Golf Rankings are missing, with Jason Day and Henrik Stenson joining the already mentioned Johnson, McIlroy, Matsuyama and Spieth. Bubba Watson and Patrick Reed are also taking the week off.

The first Arnold Palmer Invitational without Arnold Palmer could be the most emotional tournament of the 2017 PGA Tour season.

That’s not to say the Honda has a weak field. Defending champion Adam Scott, No. 7 in the world rankings, is here as are Sergio Garcia, last year’s runner-up; Paul Casey; Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler. Thomas, with three wins already this season, and Fowler are both Jupiter residents.

Two of the more interesting entrants are Thomas Pieters, the Belgian golfer who tied for second in the Genesis Open, and Ian Poulter, who is rounding back into shape after being sidelined 5 ½ months with foot injury. Pieters, the former University of Illinois golfer who played so well in Europe’s Ryder Cup loss to the U.S. in October, is competing on a sponsor’s exemption. A regular on the European Tour, he could earn temporary PGA Tour membership with another good showing this week.

Scores at PGA National figure to be unusually low since the course got a good soaking from heavy afternoon rains that forced the cancellation of the afternoon portion of Wednesday’s pro-am. The players will enjoy the soft greens, at least in the early rounds.

The Florida swing gets interrupted after the Honda with the circuit going to Mexico City instead of Doral. The PGA Tour dumped Doral after hearing Donald Trump’s negative remarks about Mexico during his presidential campaign. Now, with Trump winning that election, there seems to be a making up period going on. Woods, Ernie Els and McIlroy all have come to Trump International in nearby West Palm Beach to play rounds with the new president.

McIlroy visited last Sunday for his presidential round, skipped the Honda and will return to competition in Mexico City. After that event the circuit returns to Florida for the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort near Tampa from March 9-12 and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill March 16-19.

Poulter, who lives in Orlando and had ties with Palmer through their connection to tournament presenting sponsor MasterCard, expects the tourney to carry on without Palmer’s leadership.

“I’m not concerned about it,’’ said Poulter. “The players will certainly embrace it this year, and they should. It’s obviously going to be an emotional week – not just for the family but also for the players, for the fans and for the media. This tournament’s going to be in good shape.’’

One reason for that could be a boost in prize money. It’s now up to $8.7 million, compared to $6.4 million at the Honda and $6.3 at the Valspar. The World Golf Championship event in Mexico City is at $9,750,000.

“Not that that’s going to be a big factor,’’ said Poulter. “We play for enough week-in and week-out. But that also helps. It’s going to have the same power as a WGC event. It’s going to have a very strong field.’’

To offset Palmer’s presence the Bay Hill stop will have five hosts – present or former players Graeme McDowell, Annika Sorenstam, Peter Jacobsen and Curtis Strange – and former U.S. Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, a long-time Palmer friend.

Our revealing inside look at the best in women’s college golf

HAIL TO THE CHAMPIONS: Furman’s women won their second tourney of the season at St. Lucie Trail.

PORT ST. LUCIE, Florida — We received a great inside look at women’s college golf when we volunteered to host a player participating in the Central District Invitational on the St. Lucie Trail course here. What an eye-opening experience it was!

Michigan State University hosted the tournament, and the players on all 14 participating schools were housed by local residents like us. Our player was Alice Chen, a junior at Furman University in South Carolina. Not only was she a delightful houseguest, she also proved a great player in winning her first-ever college tournament. (Alice had already been crowned the New Jersey Women’s Amateur champion).

Alice and I have something in common as far as our golf games go. After most of our tee shots our playing partners say `Nice drive, Alice.’’ Just a joke, folks.

Furman head coach Jeff Hull and individual champion Alice Chen had plenty to celebrate at the Central District Invitational.

Furman was also the run-away winner of the team title at St. Lucie Trail, much to the delight of two of the school’s most celebrated golfing alumni – LPGA legends Beth Daniel and Betsy King. Also on hand was another LPGA great, Meg Mallon.

Ranked No. 7 in the country entering the tournament, Furman appears a sure bet to get into the NCAA tournament and I’m hoping the Paladins (they’re knights on horseback, according to Chen) can make it all the way to the finals. They’ll be played at Rich Harvest Farms In Sugar Grove, IL., from May 19-24. I can take that favoritism approach now because head coach Jeff Hull told us afterwards that “you’re now part of the Furman family.’’

I’ve watched plenty of women’s golf over the years (four U.S. Women’s Opens, four Legends Championships, a flock of LPGA Tour events and 21 Illinois Women’s Opens), but not much at the major college level.

When flying isn’t a necessity this is how the Furman women’s team gets to its tournaments.

Hull drove his team to Port St. Lucie – a 9 ½ -hour drive – in a luxury Mercedes tour bus with reclining leather seats, surround sound, flat-screen TV and disco lights. I’d say that was traveling in style. The team played at a high level as well, posting an even par 864 in winning by 23 strokes over second place Memphis. Louisville, North Carolina and Maryland rounded out the top five.

The Furman team arrived in late afternoon on Saturday, played a practice round on Sunday, then endured a 36-hole session on Monday before Tuesday’s final round. It was all walking golf with most of the players using push or pull carts. Some, though, carried their bags all 54 holes. That made for a good physical test, and St. Lucie Trail is (my opinion) the most difficult of the four courses that encompass PGA Golf Club – the winter home for the PGA of America’s 28,000 members.

Furman has a long way to go before it can win the NCAA title at Rich Harvest Farms, but the Paladins – if they get there – will visit a course big in the history of women’s golf. Owner Jerry Rich hosted one of the most successful-ever Solheim Cup matches there in 2009 when Daniel captained the U.S. team to victory.

Alice Chen shows her winning form on her final tee shot of the Central District Invitational.

Chicago Golf Show’s arrival also reveals The Glen’s return as an Illinois Open site

SOMETHING NEW FOR THE JDC: PGA Tour players will have a tougher approach shot when they visit the par-5 second hole at TPC Deere Run in July. The pond on the left side of the fairway is being expanded, meaning the second shot at the green will be more demanding. Tournament director Clair Peterson said the work is being done to improve aesthetics on the hole. Last year the JDC was selected as the PGA Tour’s Tournament of the Year. (John Deere Classic Photo)

The Chicago Golf Show is always a tantalizing event, in that a mid-winter walk through the Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont is an early forerunner to golf courses opening in the spring.

This year that’s not quite the case, as many courses have taken advantage of unusually warm winter weather to already announce their openings for the season. Still, the 33rd annual show, which opens its three-day run on Friday, will still provide a preview to what’s coming on the courses, in the pro shops and at the resorts when golf is in full swing here.

The arrival of Chicago’s biggest of three golf shows is also a good time to catch up on winter developments on the local scene. Biggest of those was the Illinois PGA’s decision to bring the Illinois Open back to The Glen Club in Glenview.

Though The Glen hosted the tourney finals a record nine times since 1991, it wasn’t used after the IPGA went to an expanded field and two-site format for the finals in 2015. The 54-hole finals were played at Royal Melbourne, in Long Grove, and Hawthorn Woods in 2015 – the first time 258 finalists were welcomed instead of the previous 156 — and St. Charles neighbors Royal Fox and Royal Hawk hosted last year.

With the IPGA headquartered at The Glen, the use of the Tom Fazio-designed course as the main site for the finals made sense. Finalists will play 36 of their 54 holes at The Glen. The alternate site for the other 18 holes hasn’t been determined.

Here’s some other tidbits created after the last putt dropped in the last Chicago tournament of 2016:

The par-4 16th is typical of the new Preserve at Oak Meadows layout. (DuPage Forest Preserve Photo).

NAME CHANGE: The massive renovation project engineered by the DuPage County Forest Preserve District and Batavia architect Greg Martin in Addison will be completed in the spring and the course – known in the past as both Elmhurst Country Club and Oak Meadows – will be called The Preserve at Oak Meadows. While the 288-acre Preserve’s opening will be a Chicago season highlight, the adjoining Maple Meadows course will host the most unique event of the year – a One Club Tournament on April 15.

Welcome to the course chosen as the best of 2016

A TIME TO CELEBRATE: French Lick, the Indiana resort that is the presenting sponsor for the Chicago Golf Show, is celebrating more than the centennial of its Donald Ross Course. The resort just learned that its Pete Dye Course has been named Golf Course of the Year by the National Golf Course Owners Association. In July the LPGA’s Symetra Tour will hold a tournament on the Donald Ross Course and the next day the first LPGA Senior Championship will tee off on the Dye.

MOVING ON: Madasyn Pettersen created a sensation when she won the 2015 Illinois Women’s Open by a five-stroke margin at Mistwood in Romeoville as a 15-year old. She recently left her hometown of Rockford, moved to Arizona verbally committed to play collegiately at Grand Canyon University.

LEGENDS ARE COMING: The Legends Tour, the official senior circuit for the Ladies PGA, has relocated its Walgreens Charity Championship from Delray Beach, Fla., to Geneva National Resort in Lake Geneva. The event, featuring 60 of the top women players who have passed their 45th birthday, will compete in the $300,000 Red Nose Day Walgreens Charity Championship from May 20-21 after two days of preliminary festivities.

KPMG QUALIFIERS: The 63rd KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, which comes to Olympia Fields beginning June 29, has its first four qualifiers. Karen Paolozzi, of Atlanta; Alison Curdt, of Woodlands, Calif.; Jessica Carafiello, of Stamford, Ct., and Amanda McCurdy, of Arlington, Tex.; earned berths in Florida qualifying events this month.

SHOW TIME: The Chicago Golf Show opens at noon on Friday. Doors close at 7 p.m. that day and the hours will be from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. The last two days have been dubbed Hall of Fame Weekend with Tim Raines featured on Saturday and Ryne Sandberg on Sunday.

IT ZIEHMS TO ME: Couples, Daly are off to encouraging starts

The stands are empty around the 18th green at Broken Sound now, but they won’t be for long.

BOCA RATON, Florida — You don’t see this very often any more.

Fred Couples is healthy for a change, and John Daly is not only belting his tee shots further than last year, his drives are straighter, too.

Those two items are what matter most going into the start of Florida’s turn to host the men’s pro golf tours. Couples and Daly are here for the Allianz Championship’s 54-hole run that begins on Friday on The Old Course at Broken Sound.

The 50-and-over circuit moves to Naples next week for the Chubb Classic at TwinEagles. Then the PGA Tour arrives for three tournaments in four weeks. The sport’s premier circuit has the Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens from Feb. 23-26, the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook in Tarpon Springs from March 9-12 and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando from March 16-19.

That’s five tournaments in six weeks for the Sunshine State, and the PGA Tour will be back one more time — for The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra in May.

Charity benefactor Boca Raton Regional Hospital will be a big winner at the Allianz Championship.

NO FIDGETING FOR FREDDIE: Last year Fred Couples’ season was limited to three tournaments. Back problems, his nemesis for years, nearly wiped out his competitive schedule but don’t look for a repeat in 2017.

Couples started the year shooting 65-65 in the weather-shortened Mitsubishi Classic in Hawaii two weeks ago to finish second behind Bernhard Langer in a limited field event. Couples is also in the field at Broken Sound, his second start in three weeks to begin the new year.

Over the years Couples has tried a variety of cures to fix his sore back. None quite worked long-term, but he hopes a change in routine will keep him on the course more this year. Under the impression that he needed to keep his back loose, Couples would twist and turn throughout his rounds in the past. He’s since learned that such squirming might have exacerbated his back issues.

During the Hawaii tournament Couples admitted “Just physically I can’t stop doing it…. I wish I could because I might last longer.’’

At 57 – and despite his relative inactivity in tournaments – Couples may be the most popular player on the PGA Champions’ circuit. The tour needs him out there – if he could only stop fidgeting.

DALY’S PLAYING IT STRAIGHT: Last year, in a shortened rookie season on the Champions’ circuit, Daly led the tour in driving distance with a 303.6-yard average but hit fairways only 57 percent of the time on his tee shots.

In the Mitsubishi event, however, he averaged 310.5 yards and kept 75 percent of his drives on the short grass. Though his tie for 23rd place wasn’t impressive, Daly’s driving was much better than it’s been in years and he credits a new, unique driver for the improvement.

Daly started playing the Vertical Groove driver in Hawaii and spent last week promoting it at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. The company, which produces the club with vertical instead of the usual horizontal groves, has hired him as its ambassador.

“I’m hitting it so much further and straighter,’’ he said during one of his promotional appearances. “It’s like all I have to do is just aim and hit it. No spin. I’m hitting it straighter than my putter actually.’’

The practice range was a busy place, even though the Allianz Championship won’t start until Friday.

KELLY OPTS FOR PEBBLE: Jerry Kelly was to make his Champions debut here, but he opted to play in the PGA Tour’s Pebble Beach Pro-Am after getting a spot in the field there. The Allianz field also lost an even bigger name when Tom Lehman withdrew.

Also on the WD list were Scott Verplank and Gil Morgan. Their spots were filled by Marco Dawson, Guy Boros, Willie Wood and Jim Carter.

MILESTONE YEAR FOR SLUMAN: Jeff Sluman, the only Chicago player on the Champions circuit, begins his 27th season as a PGA tour player this week. He contended in the Allianz Championship last year after a 69-67 start but faded to a 70 in the final round and finished in a tie for fourth behind champion Esteban Toledo.

Sluman his a birthday milestone when he turns 60 later this year but there’s no indication he’ll slow down. Last year he went over the $10 million mark in winnings on the Champions circuit.

BITS AND PIECES: The Allianz Championship is in its 11th year at Broken Sound but next week’s Chubb Classic is even older. It’ll turn 30 next week and legendary Gary Player will be on hand to hit the ceremonial first tee shot. Player, now 81, won that tournament in 1988.

Bernhard Langer notched his 30th Champions win at the Mitsubishi tournament and has had some success at Broken Sound. He has six top-10s in nine starts including a victory in 2010.

Pro-ams are on tap for both Wednesday and Thursday with double shotgun starts at 7:45 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. both days. Wednesday’s schedule also includes a special ceremony honoring soon-to-be World Golf Hall of Famer Ian Woosnam. He’ll compete on a sponsor’s exemption as will former European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley, NBC announcer Gary Koch and Tom Petrovic, a PGA journeyman who will make his Champions debut.

Youngest player in the field will be Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal. The two-time Masters championship and former European Ryder Cup captain turned 50 on Sunday.

Corporate support is a big reason the Allianz Championship has been a successful Champions event.

Allianz tourney draws big numbers for PGA Champions opener

Champions players will find the prettiest hole on the Old Course at Broken Sound as the par-3 14th.

BOCA RATON, Florida – This week’s first full-field event on the PGA Champions circuit couldn’t come at a better place. The Old Course at Broken Sound, home to the Allianz Championship, is one of the best courses on the 50-and-over circuit.

In its 11th season, the Allianz has been the Champions’ season-opening event every year since 2011 and no player wants to miss it. The 80 entries this year include the top 36 in last year’s Schwab Cup standings, eight members of the World Golf Hall of Fame and winners of a combined 317 Champions events, 346 PGA Tour titles and 17 major championships.

And this year’s field is even better than usual. Fred Couples is playing here for the first time. So is John Daly. European stars Paul McGinley and Jose Maria Olazabal will make their Champions debuts and David Toms will play on the senior circuit for just the second time.

“The best field we’ve ever had,’’ said tournament director Ryan Dillon. “There’s nothing like this on tour. We’re the envy of the PGA Champions.’’

Defending champion Esteban Toledo (right) and tournament director Ryan Dillon are ready to get the PGA Champions circuit going again.

Leading into this year’s tourney, Dillon announced earlier this month that Broken Sound had won the ELGA Award – the largest environmental stewardship honor available. The club is very into environmental issues. It has 13 acres of butterfly gardens, 22 beehives and 22 bat houses on its property.

The golf tournament is extraordinary as well. Though Esteban Toledo is the defending championship, the focal point in the 54-hole shootout that begins on Friday will be Couples, who is making his first appearance in south Florida since playing in the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic in 2006.

Couples missed most of the 2016 season with back problems, but he finished second to Bernhard Langer two weeks ago in a Champions limited field event in Hawaii.

Toledo endured 27 hours in airplanes to show up for the Allianz kickoff event last month. He won last year in a three-hole playoff with Billy Andrade. An interesting sidelight: Toledo has four Champions wins with three coming in playoffs, and all of them went three holes.

“I don’t know how I did it, but it was a wonderful experience,’’ said Toledo, who has an interesting background. The youngest of a family with 11 children he grew up in a very poor neighborhood in Mexico. The family’s house had dirt floors and no plumbing. Toledo fished golf balls out of a pond at a nearby golf course and sold them back to the club’s members to help the family survive.

The Old Course at Broken Sound may be the best-conditioned course on the Champions circuit.

He also took up boxing and was good at that, compiling a 16-1 record until an appendicitis brought an end to his time in the ring.

“I’m a better boxer than I am a golfer. There’s no doubt in my mind,’’ he said.

Golf didn’t come as easily as boxing did.

“I used to shoot 100 because I had to always borrow clubs to play,’’ he said. “Then I met an American guy from San Francisco who wanted to sponsor me.’’

That arrangement helped Toledo play on tour for 12 years and he emerged as a mainstay on both the PGA and Champions circuits. His win in last year’s Allianz Championship, which paid him $262,500, came on the same day as the 50th Super Bowl. That, along with less-than-ideal weather limited attendance for the tourney’s climax but the event still drew over 60,000 for the week and 20,000 were on hand for Saturday’s second round.

Broken Sound’s Old Course – one of two 18-holers on the property — was designed by Joe Lee for its 1978 opening and was re-designed by Gene Bates with help from Johnny Miller in 2004. In addition to a beautiful setting it has what Toledo says are one of the top three putting surfaces on the Champions circuit.

The tourney festivities include a members’ pro-am, Lexi Thompson exhibition and women’s pro-am on Monday; practice rounds on Tuesday; and pro-ams featuring Champions players on Wednesday and Thursday before three rounds of tournament play tee off on Friday.

Tee shots at the Old Course will present a variety of challenges for Allianz Championship players.

Drivers were the most interesting feature at the PGA Merchandise Show

Kevin Streelman was the first play to use Wilson’s new Triton driver on the PGA Tour.
(Photo courtesy of Wilson)

ORLANDO, FL. — Be it clubs, balls, training devices or apparel, the PGA Merchandise Show always has something to intrigue every type of golfer.

The 64th staging of this biggest show in golf ended its four-day run on Friday at the Orange County Convention Center with 40,000 industry members from all 50 states and 19 countries getting their first look at the new products entering the marketplace. At the end the talk was mostly about drivers – and with good reason.

When Nike decided to stop making golf clubs last year that left its two high-profile stars, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, free to pick new equipment. Both opted for TaylorMade’s M2 driver, with Woods making his equipment announcement during the show.

The search for the next driver that will produce the longest, straightest tee shots, though, went far beyond TaylorMade and the other big manufacturers – Callaway, Ping and Titleist.

Most visually different of the new models was the Vertical Groove Driver. Its Boston-based manufacturer claims to be the first to bring to market a club with vertical grooves on the clubface. Horizontal grooves are the norm, but Vertical Groove has already convinced two high-profile senior players – John Daly and Rocco Mediate – to use its driver. Daly will be the company’s global ambassador.

Callaway’s banner to promote its new driver rivaled only Wilson’s in size at the PGA Show.

Two Chicago companies were also in the mix. Tour Edge, based in Batavia, introduced its Hot Launch adjustable driver. It has a lighter weight and thinner face, which the company claims will make the club more forgiving while creating more distance. Tour Edge also claims its new hosel system will double the adjustability options, allowing players to raise or lower the loft by two degrees.

Wilson, the long-established producer of all sorts of sports gear, took the most extraordinary steps in putting its new Triton driver on the market, however. The Chicago-based company did it by creating a reality TV show that was shown on The Golf Channel over a two-month period.

The show, which made its debut on Oct. 4, featured 11 teams of amateur club designers completing for $500,000 and the opportunity to have their creations brought to life and sold under the Wilson banner. The judges of the competition were Tim Clarke, president of Wilson’s golf division; Frank Thomas, a long-time director for the U.S. Golf Association; Brian Urlacher, the Bears’ legendary linebacker; and Kevin Streelman, the PGA Tour pro from Wheaton who has won twice on the circuit using Wilson equipment.

Winner of the design contest was Eric Sillies, a University of Cincinnati graduate in its College of Design Architecture Art & Planning. His club featured two detachable sole plates and three adjustable weight ports that allowed the club to change from a lightweight model to a pro-weight version. The TV series was captivating – especially for golfers in the 19 to 35 age group – and Wilson engineers worked with Sillies is creating a finished product.

The problem was, the “finished’’ Triton driver wasn’t quite finished when it was to go on the market with much fanfare last month. The U.S. Golf Association ruled it was non-conforming.

“As long as Wilson has been in business – 100 years – we always produced conforming products,’’ said Clarke. “The decision the USGA made was quite unfair. I had a thousand things on my list that I was worried about, but the USGA ruling was the last thing on my mind.’’

Clarke said the problem with the USGA was corrected with a “cosmetic adjustment,’’ but valuable marketing time was lost while Wilson personnel worked to make the club legal in the eyes of the sport’s ruling body in the United States. The process wasn’t completed until Monday of show week. At Tuesday’s Demo Day – the traditional kickoff to the show — the Wilson station was a focal point.

“It was the busiest Demo Day we’ve had in my 20 years at Wilson. From 9 to 5 people were there banging the Triton,’’ said Clarke, who feels a potential crisis was averted. “It was a great learning experience. The whole concept was to bring excitement around the game and give our brand exposure. It did both those things.’’`

Streelman gave the Triton driver its debut on the PGA Tour when he missed the 36-hole in last week’s Career Builder Classic in California. Ricky Barnes put the club in his bag for the first time at this week’s Farmers Insurance Open . How the club performs for them over the early season tournaments will go a long way in determining its popularity in the marketplace.

The Triton will likely continue to be a prime subject for discussion at two, much smaller, shows on tap for next month in the Chicago area. The Tinley Park Golf Expo is Feb. 10-12 and the Chicago Golf Show, at the Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, will run from Feb. 24-26.

This combination motorcycle/golf cart was the most unusual item on display at the PGA Show.

Palmer Design Company shows off Shingle Creek’s new course — near Bay Hill

Course designer Thad Layton tees off during Shingle Creek’s media preview outing.

ORLANDO, Florida – The late Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club is just a 15-minute drive from Shingle Creek Golf Club, an 18-holer connected to the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel and in Palmer’s final days his design company was in the process of renovating the nearby layout.

That renovation is now completed and the course has opened to rave reviews.

Thad Layton, the lead designer on the project, said Palmer was most interested in how the new Shingle Creek course would differ from Bay Hill – site of the PGA Tour’s Arnold Palmer Invitational each March.

Palmer had played the original Shingle Creek course, designed by a less known local architect David Harman, at least two times since its opening on Dec. 1, 2003. That was even before the accompanying hotel had been built.

Shingle Creek provides a nice blend of challenging golf with a user-friendly design.

Layton took on a re-design that required the course to be closed for six months, though its Brad Brewer Golf Academy remained opened while the work was being done. The finished product is a fun course in which Layton completely re-designed three holes (Nos. 12, 13 and 14) and redid the other 15. The greens in particular underwent major changes. The original ones were relatively flat. The new ones have plenty of interesting undulations.

Brewer, who opened his Academy at Shingle Creek after directing the teaching operation at Bay Hill, said the course became a busy place immediately after its recent re-opening. His teaching staff includes Chris Spalla, a transplanted Chicagoan, and the director of golf, David Scott, got his start in the business at Naperville Country Club.

The Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel offers a steady presence to Shingle Creek golfers throughout their rounds.