Around the Tours: Storylines To Watch

While the NFL, NBA, and NCAA are dominating the headlines in the sports world, professional golf continues to fly under the radar. But for the PGA Tour, the European Tour, the Champions Tour, and the LPGA Tour, this is one of the most legitimately intriguing times of the year.

Many of the world’s best golfers are teeing up this week, most in exotic locations, and some with championship aspirations.

It should be missed at one’s own risk.


PGA TOUR: OHL CLASSIC

After a thrilling three-week swing in Asia, highlighted by three winners who rank inside the top 18 in the Official World Golf Rankings: No. 18 Pat Perez, No. 3 Justin Thomas, and No. 6 Justin Rose, respectively, the PGA Tour spent last week back in its home country, as Patrick Cantlay notched what is expected to be his first win of many, at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open at TPC Summerlin in Las Vegas.

That return to the U.S. was temporary, however, as the world’s premiere golf tour again goes abroad, making a stop at El Camaleon Golf Club in Playa del Carmen, Mexico for the OHL Classic at Mayakoba, the penultimate event of the PGA Tour’s Fall Series.

Prominent players who are scheduled for four full days of work while vacationing on the inimitable Yucatan Peninsula include Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed, Zach Johnson, and Bryson DeChambeau.

Whoever is able to triumph at Greg Norman’s gift to Southern Mexico will gain an invaluable advantage on the money list and FedExCup standings that will be factor through the end of the 2017-18 season.


THE SKINNY

Tournament: OHL Classic at Mayakoba
Course: El Camaleon Golf Club
Where: Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Distance: 7039 yards, Par 71
Architect: Greg Norman
Purse: $7,000,000
Winning Share: $1,260,000
FedEx Cup Points: 500


1: PEREZ DEFENDS

Unofficially, Pat Perez’s stunning transformation, which has the everyman 41-year-old playing hands-down the best golf of his career, began at last year’s OHL Classic.

Playing just his third event after an eight-month injury layoff, Perez put an emphatic end to an eight-year winless drought, chasing down Gary Woodland on the final day to match the tournament scoring record and win by two strokes.

Ranked 271st in the world coming into the week, Mayakoba was a catalyst for a year that saw him rise to his current position of 18th.

Since the victory, Perez has another first place, which occurred at the recent CIMB Classic in Malaysia, a runner-up, a third place, eight top 10s, and just three missed cuts. His 12th place finish in the final FedExCup standings was easily the best of his career.

Perez’s form has been tremendous in the short amount of time since the PGA Tour’s 2017-18 wraparound season started. In three events, he has the win at the CIMB, which was a four-shot triumph, a T5 at the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges in South Korea, and a T24 at the WGC-HSBC Champions.

He is the current leader in the newest FedExCup rankings, and has shown little problem hitting fairways and greens. On a short course like El Camaleon, that pinpoint accuracy makes him an easy favorite.


2. RICKIE FOWLER’S DEBUT

The best of the best on the PGA Tour typically do not play much in the calendar year after the FedExCup Playoffs and the Ryder/President’s Cup debuts, but nearly all the big names (aside from Tiger Woods) have made at least one appearance in the six weeks since the new season took off. That is except for two: Rory McIlroy, who is nursing an injury that marred his pedestrian 2017 season, and world No. 10 Rickie Fowler.

McIlroy is shutting it down until he is 100%, but the immensely-popular Fowler will be making his 2018 debut this week in Mexico.

The 2017 season came and went with no major championships for the majorless 28-year-old Fowler, but it was yet another great season from the proud Oklahoma State product who continues to assert himself as one of the world’s premiere players.

Fowler’s 2016-17 season was his highest earning yet, as a win, two runner-ups, two third places, and 10 top-10s engendered over $6 million in winnings. He finished second on Tour in scoring average and fourth in birdie average.

This will be Fowler’s OHL Classic debut, but despite his unfamiliarity with the course, he is definitely the man that the field fears most.


3. HEAT CHECK

While the OHL Classic at Mayakoba might lack a plethora of top-end talent – only three of the world’s top 25 are in the field – it is undoubtedly replete with formidable players in hot form.

Here are a five of the notables who are feeling good coming into the week.

1. ALEX CEJKA

While quiet in 2016-17, the 46-year-old German exploded onto the leaderboard during the final round of last week’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open with an incredible 8-under 63 that skyrocketed him from 29th place into a surprising three-way tie for the lead after 72 holes.

Cejka went on to lose on the second playoff hole to Patrick Cantlay, but it was easily his best finish since he won the 2015 Puerto Rico Open. While he fell well short of the FedExCup Playoffs, despite playing in 28 events (for comparison, Cantlay made it with nine), Cejka will be looking to ride his current hot form and hopefully extend his next season even further.

2. CHESSON HADLEY

Perhaps no golfer on the planet has been hotter lately than the 30-year-old Hadley. After finishing No. 1 on the Web.com Tour money list, he has posted one great result after another in his return to the PGA Tour, with finishes of T3, 2, and T4 in his three starts in the new season.

He played well at TPC Summerlin, finishing just one stroke out of the three-man playoff. He is likely to cool off at some point, but for now, he is among the short-list of players to watch.

3. BEAU HOSSLER

The 22-year-old former collegiate star at the University of Texas contended for the first time as a professional at last week’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

In just the third event of his rookie season, Hossler shot three rounds in the 60s to earn a spot in the final Sunday grouping in Las Vegas. He struggled on Sunday, shooting a 2-over 73 to drop into a tie for 7th, but overall, it was an extremely encouraging week.

4. WHEE KIM

The third member of last week’s playoff, Kim surged into the co-lead at TPC Summerlin after five back-nine birdies, at a time where most of the field was backing up.

A disastrous drive on his second playoff hole, which led to an unplayable, effectively ended the South Korean’s hopes at a first career PGA Tour victory, but it was his second great result of the new season, as he also finished solo-4th at The CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges.

5. GRAEME MCDOWELL

A bogey-free final round 66 led to a T10 finish in Las Vegas for the former U.S. Open Champion, McDowell’s first top-10 since the 2016 Wyndham Championship. The 38-year-old from England has only played this event once, but one of those was a playoff victory two years ago.


4. CAN SPAUN REBOUND?

The closing stretch at last week’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open claimed several victims, especially when the wind picked up in the late afternoon, but none of those were more pronounced than the collapse of 54-hole co-leader J.J. Spaun.

With just two holes to go, Spaun had regained the lead he lost, but was completely overwhelmed by the wind and the course, finishing with back-to-back double bogeys to finish in a tie for 10th.

While missing out on his first career victory was no doubt painful, Spaun is getting right back to work by playing in Mexico this week. Spaun is coming off a strong rookie season on the PGA Tour, notching three top 10s, breaking $1 million in earnings, and finishing a respectable 91st in the final FedExCup standings.


EUROPEAN TOUR: NEDBANK GOLF CHALLENGE

The PGA Tour is not the only major golf tour heading South for the week. After a week in Antalya, Turkey for the Turkish Airlines Open, where Justin Rose won his second event in two weeks, the European Tour will be in South Africa this week for the Nedbank Golf Challenge Presented by Gary Player.

Played at the famed Gary Player Country Club in Sun City, the Nedbank Golf Challenge is the second-to-last event of both the lucrative “Rolex Series” and the Race to Dubai Postseason.


THE SKINNY

NAME: Nedbank Golf Challenge hosted by Gary Player
DATES: Nov. 9-12, 2017
COURSE: Gary Player Country Club
WHERE: Sun City, South Africa
DISTANCE: Par 72 / 7,831 yards
ARCHITECT: Gary Player
MONEY: $7.5M Purse, $1.25M Winner’s Share
2016 WINNER: Alex Noren


1. ALEX NOREN’S DEFENSE

Despite being played on a mammoth course measuring 7831 yards, making it the third longest course in European Tour history, last year’s Nedbank Golf Challenge was obliterated by a relatively short hitter in Alex Noren.

Going into the final round of the 2016 edition six strokes behind 21-year-old prodigy Jeunghun Wang, Noren put together one of the greatest 18 hole stretches in tournament history, scorching the field with eight birdies and an eagle on his way to a eye-popping 9-under 63 to reach 14-under for the week and win by the same six-stroke margin he came into the day trailing by.

That 63 was the field-low on Sunday by four strokes and was Noren’s fourth win in a four-month span, vaulting him into the world’s top 10 for the first time.

Noren set the bar high with that performance, and now as the defending champion, he will have the condensed field targeting him. Noren’s 2017 season has not quite been at his 2016 level, where he won four times, had another runner-up, and finished third in the final Race to Dubai standings, but he did win the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship, back in May and also finished T5 at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in March.

At No. 8 in the current Race to Dubai standings, another good week would put the 35-year-old in fantastic shape heading into next week’s Race finale.


2. PADRAIG’S RESURGENCE?

From 2000-2008, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington was consistently one of the best golfers in the world, winning 16 events worldwide, including three major championships. Swing changes after 2008 saw his form drop prodigiously, however.

Reaching as high as No. 3 in the world in 2008, Harrington fell all the way to 371st in early 2014, but with one win in each of the past three seasons – one apiece on the Asian, PGA, and European Tours, even at 46 years of age, Harrington has found ways to stay relevant, and now ranks a respectable 126th in the world.

2017 has not been kind to Harrington, which is not shocking given his age. In the first 19 events of his season, he had missed 10 cuts and only collected one top 10, but something interesting happened at last week’s Turkish Airlines Open: Harrington looked really good.

Off the strength of an impressive round one 65 and a third round 64, Padraig contended in Turkey and finished solo-fourth, just two strokes behind winner Justin Rose. He even tied Rose for the lead after an eagle on the par-5 15th hole, but was unable to take advantage of the final three holes the way Rose did (two birdies).

While Harrington did not rank highly enough in the Race to Dubai standings to qualify automatically for the Nedbank Challenge, he was one of three players to receive a special invitation from Gary Player (Louis Oosthuizen and Thomas Bjorn were the other two). With the recent surge in form, the 15-time European Tour champion Harrington is suddenly a player to watch in a stacked field.


3. FLEETWOOD LEADS RACE

Despite being the penultimate event of the 2017 Race to Dubai season, a few highly ranked players in the standings will be absent from Sun City this week, including No. 2 Justin Rose, No. 3 Sergio Garcia, and No. 4 Jon Rahm.

What the field does have, however, is the guy sitting atop the rankings: England’s Tommy Fleetwood. The 26-year-old Fleetwood reached No. 1 in the standings off the strength of six top-five finishes on the season, including two wins and two runner-ups.

While Fleetwood holds the coveted top position in the standings, he is not coming into Gary Player’s event in his best form. All six of those aforementioned top-five finishes occurred more than four months ago, and he has struggled to maintain consistency within recent tournaments. He has shown flashes of championship form, though, with two rounds of 63 in his three October starts.

Fleetwood is hoping to regain his early season form in South Africa, just one week before the much-anticipated DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, the final event of the Race to Dubai.


4. HEAT CHECK: TYRRELL HATTON

While Fleetwood is trying to get his season back on track, one player who is ecstatic about how he has played lately is fellow countryman Tyrrell Hatton.

After a career season in 2016, where he collected a win, two runner-ups, and had two top-10 finishes in major championships, Hatton sunk into a surprising slump in 2017. From April through August, the rising star in the golf world failed to record a finish better than T30, and shockingly missed the cut in all four major championships.

Fortunately for Hatton, his latent elite form re-emerged in a big way in September, as a T3 finish at the Omega European Masters kickstarted a torrid hot streak. Hatton posted a T8 the following week at the British Masters and then left the field in his dust with two consecutive victories, the first being a 24-under effort at the Alfred Dunhill Links and the second a 21-under at the Italian Open.

In two starts since, Hatton has a T11 and a T16. The six-week tear rose Hatton to the No. 5 position in the Race to Dubai standings, the second-best position of anyone in the Nedback Golf Challenge field.


CHAMPIONS TOUR: CHARLES SCHWAB CUP CHAMPIONSHIP

While every golfer teeing up on one of the major tours has something significant to play for this week, no stakes are higher than the ones at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship, the final event of the prolific Champions Tour playoffs.

A field comprised of 36 of the world’s best age 50-and-older athletes will be competing at the famed Phoenix Country Club in an intense 54-hole battle to determine the winner of the season-long Charles Schwab Cup, and its $1 million payday.

As it has been for most of the past four years, the Charles Schwab Cup has basically had two participants: Bernhard Langer and everyone else.

The 60-year-old senior sensation and three-time defending Schwab Cup-holder Langer again obliterated his 2017 competition in record-smashing fashion, but the final event of the playoffs provides a desperately-needed gift for the other 35 players in the field: a points reset.

Langer still leads the Cup standings, but the points are redistributed in a way that gives a mathematical path to the championship for everyone. Most importantly, each golfer sitting in the top 5 after the reset controls their own destiny. Win the Schwab Cup Championship, and they win the Schwab Cup. Langer may look unbeatable, but those in the 2-5 slots only need to find a way to better the legendary German for one week.


THE SKINNY

Tournament: Charles Schwab Cup Championship
Course: Phoenix Country Club
Where: Phoenix, Arizona
Distance: Par 71 / 6,763 yards
Architect(s): Harry Collis (1901); Tom Lehman / John Fought (2002)
Purse: $2,500,000
Winning Share: $440,000
Format: 36 players, 54 holes, No cut
2016 Winner: Paul Goydos


1. CHASING LANGER

Just how phenomenal has Langer been this season? In his age 60 season, many thought he might finally regress, but he somehow compiled his best Champions Tour year yet. He won seven(!) times, finished in the top 10 in 16 of 21 events, and his $3.6 million in earnings is more than $1 million better than the man who finished second on the money list, and more than double what anyone else on Tour earned.

Langer’s historically great putting has been the difference week in and week out, and especially lately as he won the first two events of the Schwab Cup playoffs, and three of his past four events.

Surprisingly, Langer has not won the Cup Championship in nine tries, but he was the runner-up in the last two, and has played well enough in the last three to still win the Schwab Cup. 60 or not, he is still far and away the man to beat in Phoenix.


2. THE OTHER FOUR

If Langer somehow does not win the Charles Schwab Cup, the most likely to break his three-year streak are the other four golfers who comprise the top 5. If any of them win this week at Phoenix Country Club, they will take the season’s top prize, regardless of where Langer finishes.

Here are those four men:

SCOTT MCCARRON (2)

The only player on the 2017 Champions Tour that has eclipsed 50% of Langer’s current season earnings is 52-year-old Scott McCarron, who is still more than $1 million out of the money lead. McCarron has four wins on the season, which ranks second on Tour, but none of those are in the past two months, a span of time that has seen three Langer victories.

KENNY PERRY (3)

The last player not named Bernhard Langer to win the Charles Schwab Cup was Kenny Perry, who took the 2013 title after a three-win season. The 57-year-old Kentuckian Perry, has just one victory on the season, but has turned it on over the year’s second half with six top 10s in his last ten starts to reach No. 3 in the standings.

MIGUEL ANGEL JIMENEZ (4)

The runner-up to Langer in an intense playoff at the most recent Tour event, the QQQ Championship, the 53-year-old Spaniard Jimenez made an important move into the top 5 and now controls his own destiny in Phoenix. Jimenez has one victory on the season, in addition to three runner-ups, and 10 top-10s in 18 events.

KEVIN SUTHERLAND (5)

Sutherland has yet to win a Champions Tour event in 77 starts over the past four seasons, but played well enough in 2017 to nab one of the coveted top 5 positions in the playoff finale. The 53-year-old has an impressive 14 top 10s in 22 events this season, although none of those were in his five most recent starts.


3. FREDDIE GIVES IT A GO

Many believe that Langer’s biggest obstacle to his fourth straight Schwab Cup is a man who actually ranks outside the top five of the current standings.

Currently in 10th place is 58-year-old Fred Couples, who has been as good as anyone outside of Langer in 2017, but a notoriously bad back limited him to just 11 starts. He made the most of those 11 starts though, winning twice and posting 8 finishes inside the top-six.

Couples is hoping his back holds up to make it through three competitive rounds for the first time since late August. He might be rusty, but nobody is overlooking him.


LPGA TOUR: BLUE BAY LPGA

For the fifth straight tournament, the LPGA is in Asia, with this week’s event being the Blue Bay LPGA, the Tour’s annual stop in Hainan Island in China.

A talented field is scheduled this week as players not only are hoping to capture the last stop of the Asian swing, but also look to sharpen their form and improve their position for next week’s much anticipated CME Group Tour Championship, the championship event of the Race to CME Globe season.


THE SKINNY

Name: Blue Bay LPGA
Course: Jian Lake Blue Bay GC
Where: Hainan Island, China
Distance: 6,680 Yards, Par 72
Field: 81 players
Format: 72-hole stroke play/no cut
Total Purse: $1,500,000
Winner’s Share: $225,000
2016 Winner: Minjee Lee (Australia)


1. MINJEE LEE DEFENDS

Minjee Lee, one of the ultra-talented South Korean products, won last year’s Blue Bay LPGA by a stroke over Jessica Korda, and two over a then red-hot Ariya Jutanugarn.

Just 21 years old, Lee has three career victories, but none since her victory in China one year ago. Still, her season has been anything but a letdown, as she has managed an impressive 10 top-10 finishes on the season, including a T5 at last week’s TOTO Japan Classic.


2. HEAT CHECK: SHANSHAN FENG

Everything seems to be aligning perfectly for World No. 3 Shanshan Feng, one of the most accomplished players on Tour. The 28-year-old arrives in her native China in blazing form, having won last week’s TOTO Japan Classic and having finished in the top three of her last three starts.

A two-win season has her currently occupying the fifth spot in the Race to CME Globe rankings.


3. NEW NO. 1: SUNG HYUN PARK

For the first time in the history of the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, the golfer atop the list is a rookie. Sung Hyun Park rose to that position this week and is looking to improve her profile even more as the highest-ranked player in the Blue Bay field.

The 24-year-old from South Korea has two wins among her nine rookie season top-10s, the most notable coming at the U.S. Women’s Open in July.


Credits: LPGA Communications, PGA Tour Media


Joel Cook

Joel Cook is Pro Golf Weekly's Lead Writer. He is a member of the Golf Writer's Association of America.



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