Pro Golf Weekly

The Starter: Tiger vs Phil, Nelson’s Streak, JT Hits No. 1, and Whatnot

Though Sunday was rather anticlimactic at TPC Sawgrass, Webb Simpson’s rout and Justin Thomas’ rise offered plenty of fodder.

Byron Nelson isn’t around to see his event in its new digs, but his streak isn’t going anywhere. Meantime, do you think a Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson showdown would sell on pay-per-view these days?


THREE HEADLINES

Credit: Getty Images/Icon Sportswire

1. Webb Simpson puts The Players Championship on cruise. Actually, those first three rounds might have been the easy part. Taking a seven-shot cushion into the final day can mess with your mind if you’re not careful. Still, that four-shot final margin was a nice way to end a 4 ½-year victory drought.

2. Justin Thomas is the newest member of the No.1 fraternity. A 6-under-par 66 on Sunday lifted the Kentucky native into a share of 11th, enough to bump Dustin Johnson off the rankings throne. Thomas becomes the 21st man to hold the No.1 spot, and fourth to do it at age 25 or younger.

3. The LPGA unveils its team-play event. The Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational joins the schedule in 2019 as the LPGA’s version of the Zurich Classic, with players pairing up in Michigan for foursomes and four-balls. The way-too-early favorites may be sister acts: The Jutanugarns and the Kordas.


THIS WEEK’S LINEUP

Credit: Getty Images/Drew Hallowell

PGA Tour: AT&T Byron Nelson
Course: Trinity Forest Golf Club
Where: Dallas
Defending: Billy Horschel

PGA Tour Champions: Regions Tradition
Course: Greystone G&CC (Founders)
Where: Birmingham, Ala.
Defending: Bernhard Langer

LPGA Tour: Kingsmill Championship
Course: Kingsmill Resort (River)
Where: Williamsburg, Va.
Defending: Lexi Thompson

European Tour: Belgian Knockout
Course: Rinkven International GC
Where: Antwerp, Belgium
Defending: New event

Web.com Tour: BMW Charity Pro-Am
Course: Thornblade Club
Where: Greer, S.C.
2017 champion: Stephan Jaeger


RANKINGS REPORT

Justin Thomas Dustin Johnson
Credit: Getty Images/Buda Mendes

Justin Thomas ascended to the top of the world rankings in his second opportunity, using Sunday’s 6-under-par 66 to end Dustin Johnson’s reign at 64 weeks.

Thomas owns 11 top-12 finishes in his past 18 starts, dating to when he captured his first major title at last year’s PGA Championship. He’s placed outside the top 20 just twice since the calendar turned to 2018 – tying for 21st in his return to Quail Hollow and 22nd at the Tournament of Champions.

Johnson’s run at No.1 ends at 64 weeks, marking the fifth-longest reign in rankings history. Only Tiger Woods (twice), Greg Norman and Nick Faldo have held longer continuous runs.

1. Justin Thomas (2) – 9.18
2. Dustin Johnson (1) – 8.93
3. Jordan Spieth (4) – 8.09
4. Jon Rahm (3) – 8.07
5. Justin Rose (5) – 7.34
6. Rickie Fowler (6) – 6.96
7. Jason Day (7) – 6.93
8. Rory McIlroy (8) – 6.20
9. Hideki Matsuyama (9) – 5.94
10. Tommy Fleetwood (14) – 5.40


STAT OF THE WEEK

Credit: Getty Images/Icon Sportswire

It’s probably no surprise that Webb Simpson led The Players Championship field in driving accuracy, finding the fairway on 46 of 56 occasions at TPC Sawgrass. That’s the best performance by a winner since Fred Funk hit 48 fairways on the way to the 2005 crown.

Simpson did something else very Funk-like during his week at Sawgrass – he was dead last in ShotLink’s driving distance measurement, averaging just 280.5 yards off the tee.

For what it’s worth, Simpson now ranks No.3 in scoring average on the PGA Tour this season, behind Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas.


STAT OF THE WEEK II

Credit: Getty Images/David Cannon

After making the cut on the number, Tiger Woods blitzed holes 1 through 13 on the weekend in 14-under par on the way to scores of 65-69. Alas, his weekend trips through the final five holes resulted in a 4-over aggregate.

On both days, Woods’ momentum came to a halt with bogeys at the par-4 14th hole. Both instances saw him come up short of the green with his approach shot and unable to convert his par save.


HISTORY SPOTLIGHT

Credit: Getty Images/Bettmann

It’s been a dozen years since Byron Nelson passed away, and much of today’s PGA Tour generation never had a chance to be greeted alongside the 18th green of Nelson’s namesake event, not unlike Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill.

Nelson’s most notable feat, though, remains immortal – 11 consecutive tournament victories in 1945, not likely to be broken in modern times.

It began at the Miami Four-Ball, teaming with Jug McSpaden to sweep through four matches. Next came the Charlotte Open, winning a 36-hole playoff against Sam Snead. The streak included the PGA Championship – the year’s only major as World War II wound down – and Canadian Open before coming to a halt by finishing fourth in Memphis.

Of those 11 wins, five came by at least seven strokes. And while critics will disparage the field strength and course conditions in those wartime days, Nelson went five months without any result but first. He finished the year with 18 victories in 35 starts.


HOLE OF THE WEEK

Credit: Getty Images/Icon Sportswire

No.12, Greystone G&CC (Founders)
Par 4, 453 yards
2017 average: 4.00 (9th toughest)

Statistically, you couldn’t get more middle-of-the-pack this subtle dogleg left, which averaged exactly at par in its first year as host of the Regions Tradition. As it turned out, though, the week’s lone triple bogey wound up deciding the year’s first Champions major.

Fred Funk and Bernhard Langer shared the lead as they stood on the 12th tee, only to see Funk – annually one of the most accurate drivers on the PGA Tour and senior circuit – lose his drive out of bounds.

“I never hit it out of bounds, even on the tightest holes,” lamented Funk, who found himself four shots back after Langer birdied. “That hole, I don’t know what happened. … I don’t know how I could hit a drive that bad.”

The hole’s difficulty actually comes around the green, where a small creek threatens an errant approach shot and the putting surface is bisected by a ridge that can create a dicey two-putt from the opposite side of the pin.

2017 Regions Tradition: no eagles, 55 birdies, 209 pars, 40 bogeys, 6 double bogeys, 1 higher


DID YOU KNOW

Credit: Getty Images/Hunter Martin

The Kingsmill Championship, set to play its 15th edition this week, has been a favorite among LPGA players since joining the schedule in 2003. In this case, the LPGA became the beneficiary in a stand against escalating PGA Tour sponsorship costs.

Kingsmill Resort was the site of the Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic (later the Michelob Championship) from 1981-2002, with Fuzzy Zoeller, David Duval and David Toms among the more prominent winners.

In 2002, officials announced they would give up their PGA Tour slot, taking sponsorship to a new (and less expensive) event on the LPGA schedule. Grace Park won the LPGA debut, later crowning such winners as Annika Sorenstam, Se Ri Pak, Karrie Webb and three-time champ Cristie Kerr.


A PAIRING TOO RARE

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Tiger Woods got the best of both days playing alongside Phil Mickelson at TPC Sawgrass, extending his advantage to 18-15-4 on the 37 occasions they’ve been placed in the same grouping.

Upon further reflection, though, that’s 37 times they’ve played together in more than two decades that they’ve both been professionals. That comes to an average of three times every two years.

“We wish it would happen more,” Mickelson said before their Thursday rounds.

Of course, there was a time when getting them together would have been akin to water and oil. Remember their infamous pairing at the 2006 Ryder Cup, when they hardly spoke to each other as teammates?

Things are different now, thanks to Woods’ lengthy layoff to deal with back woes. They’ve been able to get to know each other outside the competitive realm, and it’s now gone into the public eye.

“I think our relationship has certainly gotten a lot closer with me being a vice captain (at the Ryder and Presidents cups),” Woods said, “and sitting there and having very lengthy conversations with him about things – not just the pairings but about things in general.”


END QUOTE

Credit: Getty Images/Icon Sportswire

TIGER V. PHIL BATTLE?
“Why don’t we just bypass all the ancillary stuff of a tournament and just go head-to-head and have kind of a high-stakes, winner-take-all match. Now I don’t know if he wants a piece of me, but I think it would be something that would be really fun for us to do.”
Phil Mickelson, playfully floating the idea of a showdown vs. Woods

“I’m definitely not against that. We’ll play for whatever makes him uncomfortable.”
Tiger Woods

Jeff Shain

Jeff is a contributor to Pro Golf Weekly. He is the managing editor of Prime Sports, and a weekly contributor to PGATour.com. As a member of the Golf Writer's Association of America, Jeff has covered golf for nearly two decades, including stops at the Orlando Sentinel, Miami Herald and The Island Packet in South Carolina.

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