U.S. Open qualifiers tee off next week nation-wide

 

The year’s major golf championship ended on Sunday, when Scottie Scheffler’s  last putt dropped, giving hims his second title in three years at  the Masters. Though the second of the four majors, the PGA Championship, will be played in May the third major actually begins next Monday (APRIL 22) and the Chicago area gets a taste of it just two days later.

Sound confusing? It is, until you comprehend just how big the U.S. Open is. The deadline for online registration passed last week, the day before the Masters started.

The finals of the Open will be June 13-16 on Pinehurst’s No. 2 Course in North Carolina, but a long lead-in period is needed to determine the 156 players who will compete there. Getting to the 72-hole climax is a huge accomplishment based on sheer numbers, and the final site is significant.

Pinehurst long held the record for most entries – 10,127 in 2014.  That record was broken last year when 10,187 registered for the event that concluded at Los Angeles Country Club. Numbers like that make the U.S. Open the biggest golf tournament and one of the world’s biggest sporting events in terms of participants.

No entry figure has been announced for this year yet, but it’ll be filled with very qualified competitors.  Amateurs who want to play must have a handicap index that doesn’t exceed 0.4.  Otherwise a player must be designated as a professional to get in.

Pinehurst is the new home of the U.S. Golf Association, which conducts the championship.   Pinehurst also hosted the championship in 1999 and 2005 and has more recently been declared an anchor site.  That means the Open will be back to Pinehurst in 2029, 2035, 2041 and 2047.

Staging a U.S. Open is a massive project for the USGA. This year’s tourney requires 109 local qualifying sessions, all over 18 holes. The survivors and players exempt from locals will go through 36-hole final eliminations that begin May 20 in England, Japan and one U.S. site.  Nine other U.S. sites will host the final stage of qualifying on June 3 and another will be held in Canada that day. None will be played in Illinois, but three first-stage qualifiers will.

One of the early local qualifiers is next Wednesday (APRIL 24) at Stonewall Orchard, in Grayslake.  A former Illinois PGA Championship site, Stonewall will have 73 players battling for four spots in the second stage qualifiers.

A bigger local will be held April 29, when 84 players compete over the Woodside and Lakeside nines at Cantigny in Wheaton with five berths in the second stage on the line.

Still a third Illinois local will be played on the busiest day of the first stage.  On May 13 there’ll be 24 locals nation-wide, with one at Illini Country Club in Springfield. Illini CC, which will also have 84 players competing for five second stage spots, is hosting a local for the 45th consecutive year. That encompasses every year since qualifying has been conducted, and no other club in the country can make that claim.

With about 10,000 registered entries  the chances of any hopefuls going on to win the Open proper are remote, but it has been done – by Ken Venturi in 1964 and Orville Moody in 1969.

Only six players won the Open after surviving the finals stage – Gene Littler (1961), Julius Boros (1963), Jerry Pate (1976), Steve Jones (1996), Michael Campbell (2005) and Lucas Glover (2009).

A few other U.S. Open winners have survived both local and final qualifiers at some point in their careers.  They include Lou Graham and Hale Irwin, both champions when the Open was played at Medinah; Curtis Strange, Lee Trevino, Gary Woodland and Fuzzy Zoeller.

 

 

Illinois flavor is lacking in this year’s Masters

The  88th playing of the Masters tees off on  Thursday, and like every other staging, it’ll trigger golf enthusiasm throughout the world.  The year’s first major championship is traditionally a sign of spring. The tour players are ready for a serious test after three months of tournaments of much lesser importance. That’s just the way it is —  every year.

This Masters, though, is an unusual one from an Illinois perspective.  The local highlight of tournament week at Georgia’s Augusta National Golf Club has already taken place – and it was provided by a pair of 9-year olds.

Emory Munoz, of Lockport, and Lucy Wiertel, of Oswego, were among the very select group of youngsters nation-wide who participated in Sunday’s Drive, Chip & Putt finals. Emory was one of seven participants to earn a return trip after making the finals in 2023.

There were 10 finalists in each age group at Sunday’s nationally-televised competition, and neither Emory or Lucy could match the feat of Northbrook’s Martha Kuwahara a year ago.  She was one of the champions.  This time Emory improved from ninth in 2023 to seventh this time, and Lucy was ninth in her age group. The chance to compete at Augusta National, though, gave both the thrill of a lifetime.

This was a special year for Drive, Chip & Putt, too.  The Masters field will include the first ever Drive, Chip and Putt participant.  Akshay Bhatia, who won the PGA Tour’s Valero Texas Open in a playoff last Sunday, was in the youth event in 2014.

Local tour players couldn’t wangle a Masters invite. Northbrook’s Nick Hardy was a winner on the PGA tour last season, and that usually merits an invite.  Hardy’s win came in a two-man team competition in New Orleans, however, and that didn’t merit his first spot in the Masters. Hardy, though, had his best finish of the season – a tie for 25th at the Valero Texas Open.

Wheaton’s Kevin  Streelman, a 45-year old tour veteran, didn’t make it, either.  He’s been slowed by a back injury suffered in February’s Pebble Beach Pro-Am and that’s hampered his play. His game may be be on the way back up, however, as he’s made three of five cuts since the injury, including the last two tour stops.

Streelman was in the news, too.  His first-round 64 at the Valspar Championship in Florida got him media attention, and the national media were intrigued by a new revolving ball marker that he introduced there.

The Masters has produced some Masters memories already for Streelman.  He won the colorful Par-3 Championship there in 2015 and played in five Masters. He made the cut in the last three appearances, from 2014-16,  with his best finish a tie for 12th in 2015.

Arlington Heights’ Doug Ghim and Northwestern alum Dylan Wu are also PGA Tour regulars still hoping for the opportunity to make a Masters debut.

HERE AND THERE:  Tickets are already on sale for the John Deere Classic, Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour stop.  It’ll be held July 3-7 at TPC Deere Run in downstate Silvis.  The tourney’s Birdies for Charities program started this week.  Since its debut in 1971 it has raised $174 million for local charities.

The Illinois PGA will hold its first Chicago area competition on Monday (APRIL 15).  It’s the Pro-Pro-Pro Scramble, a three-man team event at Mistwood, in Romeoville.

The Chicago District Golf Assn. season opens with qualifiers for the CDGA Mid-Amateur at Maple Meadows, in Wood Dale, on April 22 and Sunset Valley, in Highland Park, on April 23.

 

 

Rahm still winless on LIV Tour but remains a Masters threat

 

Greg Norman, executive director of the LIV Tour, jokes with Jon Rahm. (Joy Sarver Photos)

 

MIAMI, FL. – Last year’s Masters was the first tournament where PGA Tour players competed against those who defected to the LIV Golf League.  The LIV guys got the better of that one.

Four current LIV players finished  one -two-three and a tie for fourth.   That spoke well for the Saudi-financed circuit that is now in its third season. Spain’s Jon Rahm will defend his Masters title this week at Georgia’s Augusta National. He won last year when he was still a PGA Tour member.

Rahm hasn’t won an individual title as a LIV member, but team he captains – Legion XIII – won its second title in five starts on Sunday on the rugged Blue Monster course at Trump Doral and Rahm contributed several key putts to that victory. At least that’s some momentum to take into this week’s Masters.

Knowing a four-stroke lead was slipping away in a tight team battle with Bubba Watson’s RangeGoats, Rahm touched more on a clutch putt he rolled in down the stretch rather than dwell on his individual play.

“I was just trying to two-putt,’’ Rahm said, “and the putt just kept going.  We won by one stroke, so obviously that putt meant more than I had thought it would.’’

It also doesn’t hurt that Rahm has been solid, despite not winning by himself.  He’s the only LIV player to finish in the top 10 of all five tournaments of 2024. He tied for fourth Sunday, three strokes behind South African Dean Burmester and Spain’s Sergio Garcia.

Former president Donald Trump, LIV executive director Greg Norman and Trump’s son Eric enjoy the action around the first tee during the final round at Trump Doral.

Burmester took the individual title in a two-hole playoff, the third loss in extra holes  for the winless Garcia in LIV play. Burmester and Garcia played the regulation 54 holes in 11-under-par 205. Both failed to par the final holes, necessitating their playoff.

Now the focus is solely on the Masters.

If LIV shows as well at this year’s Masters it’ll likely be because of the players who weren’t  so impressive

Sergio Garcia (left) and Dean Burmester matched shots in a tense two-hole playoff.

 

 

 

LIV Tour will return to Chicago after all — but at a new site

Colorful banners are a big part of the atmosphere at LIV Golf events. (Joy Sarver Photo)

MIAMI, Florida – The Chicago area will have a major professional golf tournament this year after all.  The LIV Golf League is returning, but not at Rich Harvest.

Jerry Rich, owner of the Sugar Grove private club that hosted LIV events in 2022 and 2023, invited the fledgling Saudi-based circuit to return this year but has since decided it’d be best to give his club members a year’s break from the distraction that hosting a pro tournament usually requires from a host club.

Rich deemed the two LIV tournaments conducted at Rich Harvest successful, and they had high profile champions.  Australian Cameron Smith won the first event and Bryson DeChambeau was the champion last year. That added to DeChambeau’s Illinois success story that is starting to rival that of Hale Irwin.

Irwin, basically retired from professional golf now, won the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah, the 1975 Western Open at Butler National and three Champions Tour events at Kemper Lakes.

DeChambeau won 2015 U.S. Amateur at Olympia Fields, the 2017 John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run in downstate Silvis and last year’s LIV event at Rich Harvest. DeChambeau can’t defend there.

Three LIV staffers at the circuit’s stop at Trump Doral privately confirmed that the circuit is returning to Chicago this year for one of the two season-ending tournaments on the circuit’s 14-event season.

“An announcement will be coming soon,’’ said one.

Both tournaments are considered majors for LIV players and will be played in September. Last event with a site on the 2024 schedule is at West Virginia’s Greenbrier Aug. 16-18.

Dates and sites for the final two events haven’ t been announced. One is the individual championship, the other the team climax to the campaign. One source at Trump Doral said the individual final would be in the Chicago area.

Both the PGA and LIV tours had Chicago tournaments in 2023.  The PGA isn’t scheduled to return until the President’s Cup is held at Medinah in 2026.

Meanwhile, both the PGA Tour and LIV conclude their competitive tuneups for next week’s Masters on Sunday. Leader of the LIV event after Saturday’s 36-hole stop  at Doral is Spain’s Sergio Garcia, a former Masters winner who has yet to win on the LIV circuit. He’s at 9-under-par 135.  Tied for second, two strokes back, are Talor Gooch, Tyrrell Hatton, Dean Burmeister and Matthew Wolff.

“This course (Doral’s Blue Monster) and Valderrama (in Spain) are the toughest courses we’ll play this year,’’ said Garcia.  “I’m happy to be out there and try to win tomorrow.’’

Picking the Masters winner is getting even more difficult

 It’s a golf tradition like no other.  The Masters – first of the year’s four major championships — is coming up next week.

That means for me – and many of you – it’s time to predict the champion.  That fun competition is much more difficult in golf than any other sport. I covered my first Masters in 1986 and am sure I entered winner’s pools for years before that.  My success record isn’t impressive – only two winners, Fred Couples in 1992 and Scottie Scheffler in 2022.

This year the prognosticating is more difficult. Blame the controversial LIV Golf League for that.  The three-year old Saudi-based circuit has its detractors, at least based on the mild hate mail that I usually receive when there’s a LIV mention in one of my pieces. Some even comes from friends who should know better.

Scheffler is the comfortable choice this year, what with his March wins at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Players Championship and a runner-up last Sunday in Houston. An excellent lead-in to the year’s first major by an excellent player.

I’m going in a different direction this year, though.  I’m predicting a LIV player will win – though you’ll have to read a few more paragraphs to find out who.

LIV has the numbers.  Last year, when the PGA Tour and LIV players gathered for the first time in a big tournament, the fledgling circuit had three of the top six finishers.  Brooks  Koepka and Phil Mickelson tied for second behind Jon Rahm and Patrick Reed tied for fourth. And now Rahm is a LIV member, too, but still without an individual victory on his new tour.

LIV has 13 players in this year’s Masters.  Twelve were exempt based on the club’s rules for determining  invitees.  Augusta National selectors also gave a special invitation to Joaquin Niemann. LIV players don’t get respect in the Official World Golf Rankings, a policy that greatly diminishes their significance.

Niemann, from Chile, beat the system with strong showings in two big non-LIV events, winning the Australian Open and tying for fourth in Dubai. He won two of the first four LIV events this year as well.

The LIV roster includes seven former Masters champions and has six players who are exempt from all four of the major championships.

I also like the fact that LIV, with only 14 tournaments in 2024, has one of its biggest ones the week before the Masters.  It runs Friday through Sunday on the Blue Monster course at Trump Doral in Miami.  Finding it on TV won’t be easy, but Doral is a former PGA Tour site.

“It’s the first big boy golf course that we’ve played this year,’’ said Koepka, who followed up his Masters runner-up by winning the PGA Championship last year.  “You’ve got to be able to ball-strike it (at Doral) and ball-strike at Augusta.  That’s why it’s such good prepare.’’

Seven LIV golfers have been the champion at 10 Masters. Mickelson won in 2004, 2006 and 2010 and Bubba Watson was the titlist in 2012 and 2014. Based on their play this year they don’t have a chance this time. Charl Schwartzel (2011), Sergio Garcia (2017) and Reed (2018) don’t have much of a chance, either, but defending champion Rahm and Dustin Johnson do.

Johnson won the Masters in 2020 with a record 20-under-par score.  The only drawback was that it was during the pandemic, the event was played in the fall instead of the spring and spectators weren’t allowed on the course.

In 2017 Johnson was playing his best golf, with three wins leading into the Masters, but he took a fall while in Augusta and withdrew from the tournament a day before it started.  That freak accident still haunts him.

“Without that I’d have two green jackets instead of one,’’ he said before a small media group last week. “I had a fantastic prep going into that week. I’ve never felt unbeatable but, when I’m on the course and playing my best, I don’t feel anyone can beat me.’’

At 39 he can still play.  He dominated the LIV season in 2022, tailed off last year but has a LIV victory this season and competing against his former PGA Tour rivals again is inspiring.

“The majors are the pinnacle of the sport,’’  said Johnson, “and there’s only four times we’re all together playing now. Maybe that makes them more special.’’

That’s good enough for me. I’ve got great respect for Johnson’s talent. I’ve picked him informally to win other tournaments over the years when he didn’t do it.  Now it’s the Masters, though, and DJ’s going to win this one.

 

Malnati an emotional winner at Valspar tourney

Peter Malnati uses a yellow golf ball to win the Valspar tourney. (Joy Sarver Photo)

PALM HARBOR, Florida — The winners at PGA Tour events are frequently emotional, but Peter Malnati was in tears immediately after his last putt dropped at the Valspar Championship on Sunday.

Malnati, 36, won his second title nine years after his first.  He had qualified for only three major championships and never made it to the FedEx Cup Playoffs.

This year he had four missed cuts and only one top-10 finish while doubling as a recently-named Player Director on the PGA Tour Policy Board. That has put him in the forefront of the complicated negotiations over the proposed merger with the Saudi-based LIV Golf League.

While that’s a time-consuming extra job Malnati had been better known as one of the few players to use a yellow golf ball.  He switched from white to yellow balls because one of his sons “liked them.’’

“He’s gotten over it now,’’ said Malnati, holding one son while fighting back tears during his first post-round televised interview.  “But it still makes me think of him.’’

Malnati, along with his wife Alicia, attended the University of Missouri before Peter turned pro in 2009. They have two sons – Hatcher and Dash. They were more in the spotlight at the Valspar, which offers an unusual opportunity for players to put what they want on their caddy’s bibs.  Malnati chose honor his sons.

Keith Mitchell started the day with a two-stroke lead on Malnati, who was in a three-way tie for second.  Mitchell faded to a 77 in the final round while Malnati shot 67 and won by one stroke over Cameron Young. Malnati posted a 12-under-par 272 for the 72 holes and earned $1,512,000.

“That moment of winning a tournament and have your family come out on the green, the big hugs and all that, that’s something I’ve seen other families have and that has been my dream,’’ said Malnati.  “ There’s been a lot of stretches in golf over the last nine years when I wondered if I’d ever have that experience. It feels completely surreal.’’

Wheaton’s Kevin Streelman, who led the tournament after Round 1 and was tied for the lead after Round 2, shot 73-72 on his weekend rounds and finished in a tie for 28th with, among others, Northwestern alum Dylan Wu. It was Streelman’s best finish of the season. Defending champion Taylor Moore tied for 12th.

 

Mitchell masters Snakepit to lead third round of Valspar

Kevin Streelman, PGA Tour veteran from Wheaton, got off to a fast start in the Valspar Championship before cooling off in the third round. (Joy Sarver Photo)

PALM HARBOR, Florida – The story lines in the first three tournaments of the Florida Swing were certainly different than the one developing in the last one.

The most notable things in the Cognizant Classic of the Palm Beaches, which opened four PGA Tour events in March, was a name change for the tournament (it has been the Honda Classic for decades) and a first-time winner in Austin Eckroat.  Scottie Scheffler ruled the next two, dominating the Arnold Palmer Invitational and making history in becoming the first repeat champion in The Players’ 50-year history.

Concluding the Swing was the Valspar Championship, played on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort. The emergence of veteran players in contention seemed the theme for a while.

Stewart Cink, 50, and Kevin Streelman, 45, played in the final group in Saturday’s third round.  Cink has making his 19th appearance in the tournament, one off Brian Gay’s record 20, and made his 500th cut on the PGA Tour.  Another veteran, Lucas Glover, was in the tourney for the 19th time and was one shot off the lead after 36 holes.

Streelman led solo after shooting a 7-under-par 64 in the first round and was in a five-way tie for the lead after the second.

He had won his first PGA Tour event on Copperhead in 2013, so that seemed a good place for him to get a much needed career boost.

And it was – for a while.

Hampered by a back injury suffered while hitting a shot out of the rough in California’s Farmer’s Insurance Open in February, Streelman made only one cut – a tie for 32nd place in Puerto Rico —  in his first six starts of 2024.

His luck changed when he got to Copperhead, though. Streelman led solo after shooting a 64 in Thursday’s first round and was tied with four others for the 36-hole lead.

Paired with 50-year old Stewart Cink in the final group on Saturday, Streelman got off to a great start, two-putting for birdie on the par-5 first hole. After that, it wasn’t much of a day. His third-round 73 dropped him into a tie for 18th entering Sunday’s final round.

Streelman wasn’t much in the mood to talk about it afterwards, but he didn’t rule himself out of contention, either.

“I’ve just got to attack,’’ he said.  “I was only 2-over (on Saturday) and I’m 6-back.  I’ve just got to focus on golf on the range and tighten things up.’’

With that he headed for the range in hopes of challenging for the lead on Sunday. Keith Mitchell owns it at 10-under-par 203.  Mitchell owns a two-stroke lead on Seamus Power, Mackenzie Hughes and Peter Malnati.

Mitchell finished birdie-birdie-eagle to cap off a 7-under 64. He holed a 7-iron from 190 yards for his eagle to conclude his spectacular finish on Copperhead’s famed finishing holes, dubbed the “Snake Pit.”

“I looked up and something flew in my eye, so I looked away and never saw it come down and land,’’ said Mitchell of his last shot of the day.  “It’s an elevated green, so I wasn’t going to see it go in anyway, but I didn’t even see it come down next to the flag.’’

Defending champion Talor Moore is tied for 34th and Arlington Heights’ Doug Ghim tied for 55th.  Sam Burns, who won the tournament in 2021 and 2022, and reigning British Open champion Brian Harman were among those missing the cut when the weather-delayed second round was completed early Saturday.

 

 

Can Scheffler play any better than he did at Bay Hill?

 

Which version of Scottie Scheffler do you like better — the winner at Bay Hill in 2022 (left) or the one who dominated the API this year?

ORLANDO, Florida — The Arnold Palmer Invitational was a wonderfully competitive event through 54 holes, but not during Sunday’s final round at Bay Hill. In fact, this latest Signature Event on the PGA Tour was downright boring, and you can blame Scottie Scheffler for that.

Scheffler was just too good on a beautiful day, carding the low round of the tournament – a 6-under-par 66 that propelled him to a 72-hole total of 15-under 273. That was good for a five-shot advantage on runner-up Wyndham Clark, but Scheffler led by as many as seven before his last putt dropped.

With a $4 million payoff from a $20 million purse, Scheffler climbed from second to first in the FedEx Cup standings. He won for the seventh time on the PGA Tour and had the widest victory margin in the API since Tiger Woods in 2012.  Scheffler didn’t dwell on his good fortune, though.

“I just stayed in my own little space and tried to keep pushing,’’ he said.

The final 18 started with Scheffler and Shane Lowry tied for the lead at 9-under but the tie didn’t last for long.  Scheffler birdied No. 1, Lowry made bogey – a quick two-shot swing.  Lowry, who finished third,  also made bogey on the second hole and was never a contender again. In truth, no one was.

Scheffler won the API for the second time in three years, but his victories were much different.  He won the first in 2022 with a one-shot margin over joint runner-ups Billy Horschel, Tyrrell Hatton and Viktor Hovland and posted a 72-hole score of 283 – 10 shots higher than his latest win.

A month after his first win at Bay Hill Scheffler won the Masters. He’s playing better now.

“It would be borderline unfair if he started putting really good,’’ said Clark, the reigning U.S. Open champion.  “I never want to wish ill on anybody, but if he starts putting positive each week he’s going to be really hard to beat.  He’s the best player in the world right now.’’

Rory McIlroy was impressed, too.

“Scottie has been super consistent week in and week out every time he tees it up,’’ said McIlroy.  “It’s incredible.’’

Luke Donald, a former world No. 1, echoed that to conclude his two-week stint on the NBC broadcast team.

“He was so, so consistent,’’ said Donald.  “The road to success has so many ups and downs in construction but there were no ups and downs for him today. He was in cruise control all the way.  He did everything well, and that’s not easy when you’re leading a golf tournament.’’

In his API title defense in 2023 Scheffler tied for fourth behind surprise winner Kurt Kitayama, who missed the cut in his own title defense this week.

Scheffler will be gunning for a much better showing next week at The Players Championship, the third event of the four-tournament Florida Swing.  It tees off on Thursday at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra. Scheffler’s 2023 victory in The Players was his most recent victory until his blowout romp at Bay Hill on Sunday. The Players turns 50 years old this week and no player has been a repeat champion.

 

Two crazy days at the Arnold Palmer Invitational; Now what?

Max Homa, Sam Burns and Viktor Hovland (left to right) had similar routines for  putting at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.  Facing the hole, they’re straddling the line of their putts to determine the slope of the green. Call this dance-like movement the “Meter Mash?”

ORLANDO, Florida – The second and third rounds of the Arnold Palmer Invitational couldn’t have been more different.

Six players – Shane Lowry, Hideki Matsuyama, Brian Harman, Russell Henley, Scottie Scheffler and Wyndham Clark – were tied for the 36-hole lead, and that was the most co-leaders after 36 on the PGA Tour since the Valero Texas Open of 2010.

That was an impressive leaderboard for the PGA Tour’s latest Signature Event, too, with Harman the reigning British Open champion and Clark the owner of the U.S. Open crown.

Saturday’s third round was different, but had its own type of craziness with constant leaderboard changes.

Will Zalatoris was great early, making four birdies in his first eight holes and opening a five-shot lead after 11. Then he staggered in, making two bogeys before a brutal double bogey on the last hole.

“You play 42 holes of bogey-free and you take it,’’  said Zalatoris, now tied for fourth but just two strokes off the lead.  “Obviously the finish wasn’t what I wanted.  That’s just Bay Hill.  I’m still in the ball game, as frustrating as it was to finish up that way.’’

Three spectators stood out among those following Nick Taylor (left) and Max Homa.

Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy — an early starter — was spectacular on the back nine.  He became the first player ever to drive the green on the par-4 tenth, a 365-yard dogleg right, and that gave him the momentum to play the back side in a record 6-under-par 30.

“The difference between the front nine and back nine? Eight shots!’’ said McIlroy.  “I just didn’t have any momentum. Then the three on 10 with the tee shot on the green, that got me going.’’

McIlroy salvaged a 68, a boost after finishing outside of the top 20 in his last three starts. He’s tied for eighth, four shots off the lead.

The rivals’ problems enabled Scheffler, tourney champion in 2022, and Lowry to claim a share of the 54-hole lead.  Like McIlroy, Scheffler finished strong with birdies at 12, 13, 15 and 16. His 2-under-par 70 on Saturday wasn’t spectacular but it put him at 9-under 207 for three rounds.  Lowry, the first-round leader, matched his 70 with birdies at 16 and 17. They’re one swing ahead of Clark, who made bogey on his last hole.

“Here you’ve got to think your way around and stay patient,’’ said Scheffler.  “You can make some mistakes, and it’s all about how  you bounce back from them.  I’m just doing a good job of staying in my head space on the greens.  Going to the back nine today I did a really good job of just staying in it as much as I could.’’

Winner of the Masters in 2022, Scheffler will defend his title in The Players Championship next week at another Florida course, TPC Sawgrass.

Justin Thomas wasn’t happy with a chip shot, and it showed in his immediate reactions. (Joy Sarver Photos)

 

 

LET Tour starts a team series in Florida with Saudi ties

 

Charley Hull, Carlota Ciganda and Lexi Thompson (left to right) are among the stars in the Aramco Team Series season opener. Ciganda is the defending champion. (Joy Sarver Photos)

CLEARWATER, Florida – The scheduling for the Aramco Team Series opener was unusual, its opening event being slated opposite the PGA Tour’s Arnold Palmer Invitational just an hour away in Orlando.

With a teeoff Friday on International Women’s Day, the Aramco event is unusual enough.  Imagine a women’s team event — one put on by the Ladies European Tour (LET) with $1 million in prize money provided by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, which also bankrolls the controversial men’s LIV Golf League — being played on American soil.

After this tourney concludes on Sunday the series will have stops in South Korea, London, Asia and Saudi Arabia.

This women’s tourney at Feather Sound Country Club has a stellar field. The 82 players come from 24 countries and own 39 wins on the European Tour, nine on the LPGA Tour and three in major championships.

Though it’s an LET event, the field includes American stars Lexi Thompson, Brittany Lincicome, Marina Alex and Megan Khang.  Top Europeans are England’s Charley Hull and Bronte Law and Spain’s Carlota Ciganda, who won the tournament last year at Trump International in West Palm Beach, FL.

Ciganda and Alex were the only ones among those hotshots to show top form in Friday’s Round 1.  Both carded 6-under-par 66s to share the lead with Chloe Williams, of Wales, and Kim Metraux, of Switzerland.

Defending champion Ciganda had a great start (birdies on the first two holes) and a solid finish.  “I birdied three of my last five holes.  I’m very happy,’’ she said.

This year’s tournament was under the radar because lining up a U.S. site was a  slow process.  Feather Sound wasn’t assured of hosting until five weeks ago, a very short time for tournament preparation. First-round play was also slow, reaching 5 ½ hours at the end of the day on Friday.

This event, though,  is being contested in four-player teams (of three pros and one amateur) for two days.  It’s the only team series on any of the pro golf tours.

After 36 holes the top 60 pros will compete for individual prize money in Sunday’s final round with no qualms about going head-to-head with the $20 million Arnold Palmer Invitational, one of the “elevated’’ events on the PGA Tour schedule.