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PGA Tour

How I ruined Jordan Spieth's Masters chances

By Mike Stachura

SpiethW1.jpgHere's the thing: I picked Jordan Spieth to win the Masters. It wasn't an unheard of choice. The guy could play. It wasn't like I was tabbing Michael McCoy. Or Craig Stadler.

The weird thing was I picked Spieth based on a formula. A statistical forecast. Sort of like Nate Silver. Only he's actually smart and uses valid means of interpolating data, regression analysis and, well, other numbers-type stuff things. I just know how to work Microsoft Excel. A little. 

In any case, I crunched the PGA Tour stats leading up to the Masters in four categories I thought might be important skill sets: driving distance, greens in regulation, scrambling and strokes gained/putting. (Those were arbitrary choices, which I believe is Latin for "makes sense to me, but I could be way off base here.") I compared the averages in those categories for the last 10 Masters winners and found an overall average for those figures. Then, I found the current PGA Tour player with a cumulative statistical average right in line with the 10-year average. That turned out to be Jordan Spieth. (Actually, David Hearn had pretty much the same number but he had the misfortune of not actually being a participant in the Masters. I deemed that a fairly solid reason for not picking him.)

So Spieth came close. In this completely random format. Last time I tried something similar, I wasn't close at all. (Boo Weekley missed the cut at last year's U.S. Open despite having a perfectly matching stat number, what I somewhat regrettably referred to at the time as "Super Rank," which as things turned out, is precisely what it was.) 

But I have faith in the numbers, and in another way, they were pretty accurate. Turns out, the guy with the lowest cumulative average in my four ranking statistical criteria was, that's right, Dustin Johnson.  OK, not that impressive. But the guy who made the cut at the Masters who had the lowest Super Rank? That guy was Bubba Watson. So, there, it's really quite predictive. Until some youngster finds himself leading the biggest tournament in golf on Sunday afternoon. No amount of statistics can account for that. 


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Instruction

How He Hit That: Bubba Watson's curveball driver dagger

By Matthew Rudy

The shot that won the Masters for Bubba Watson wasn't the four-inch tap in on the last hole. It was a 360-yard tree-skimming parabola off the 13th tee. Watson had just taken a three-shot lead over Jordan Spieth, and the creek running alongside the 13th (and in front of the green) was probably only thing that could keep Watson from a second coat fitting. 

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Watson could have played it safe and stayed to the right side of the hole, but he hit his best -- and most aggressive -- tee shot of the week, dramatically cutting the dogleg and ending up 144 yards from the flag, in the middle of the fairway. Spieth would later say that when the ball came off the face of Watson's driver, it looked like was headed out of bounds 70 yards left of the hole. Watson hit a wedge safely onto the green, made par and sucked all the drama out of the back nine. He cruised to a three-shot victory. 

"The shots he sees are amazing," says Top 50 Teacher Kevin Weeks. "The two most famous ones he's hit -- the shot out of the trees in the playoff in 2012 and this tee shot -- are amazing not just because he was able to make the ball curve so much, but because he was willing to hit those shots in such high-pressure situations. But that's the way he plays golf every day. Those shots are no different than what you see from him day in and day out."


It should come as no surprise that Watson doesn't fade the ball in the way most Tour players do. "Bubba instinctively knows how to make it curve," says Weeks. "It's a face and path relationship. To make a ball fade, the face is open to the path. Most players set it up with their body and make a similar swing. Bubba does it all with his hands. He has an incredible feel for the clubface."  

Weeks says there's a method to Watson's curveballs. By playing such a pronounced fade with the driver, Watson is able to double the effective size of his target area. "When you hit it as hard as he is, you're giving yourself a 30-yard target when you aim at the edge of the right rough and let it cut instead of a 15-yard target in the middle of the fairway with a relatively straight ball," says Weeks. "It's something the average guy should be doing on every hole with his driver.  Aim to account for your predominant ball flight and give yourself more room." 

Almost as distinctive as Watson's heavily curving tee shots is his unorthodox footwork through impact. His rear foot comes off the ground, and he shuffles his feet so that he ends up standing facing the target. "It might look like he's not in balance, but the ball is gone by the time all that stuff is happening," says Weeks. "Before that, his swing looks a lot like Jack Nicklaus' in his prime, but from the other side of the ball. He makes a huge turn and has those high hands with a lot of wrist cock. He's a tall guy with long arms, and he has a long, arcing swing. His hand action is wonderful -- like a wrist shot in hockey. He has a ton of club head speed, but he also hits it in the center of the face every time. You can have lots of speed, but it only translates into distance if you're hitting it flush."

Watson found his swing -- and his strategy -- with no help from a coach. He's never had a lesson, and he doesn't work on mechanics in the classic sense. "He just goes and hits balls until he feels it," says Weeks. "He's a lot like Sam Snead. If Snead was hitting it bad, he'd go hit balls barefoot. If he was still hitting it bad, he'd go hit balls barefoot in the mud. With Bubba, most of the time he plays bad, it's mental. Something is distracting him. He wasn't distracted this week."

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News & Tours

A Masters favorite is trying to make sure his game knows he's a Masters favorite

By John Huggan

HUMBLE, TEXAS -- Ask any bookmaker and he'll tell you Rory McIlroy is the favorite to win next week's Masters. That's understandable. In the last three years, the young Ulsterman has won two major titles by wide margins, the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship. At his best, McIlroy is the best, albeit he has slipped to No. 7 in the World Ranking.

That high level of performance, however, was only glimpsed occasionally during the second round of the Shell Houston Open. While McIlroy's good shots were their usual exceptional selves -- he outdrove playing partner Luke Donald by a yawning 66 yards on the par-4 fourth hole at the Golf Club of Houston on Friday -- there were also moments of uncertainty en route to a 71 that left him nine shots off the early pace set by Sergio Garcia.

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"I left a couple out there," McIlory admitted. "I was three under par through 10 holes with two par 5s to come. I was thinking I could get a couple more but ended up giving a couple back. So I'm a little disappointed. I could be standing here a few shots better."

Or, it must be said, a few worse. While claiming "all aspects of my game feel pretty good," McIlroy was erratic off the tee, particularly on the front nine (his back). A wild drive to the right finished unplayable at the par-4 sixth. And that was soon followed by a low smother off the eighth tee, an ugly shot that finished in the left fairway bunker. Long before it expired, however, McIlroy made his displeasure known by slamming his driver into the turf then uttering a prolonged and guttural "aaarrgghhh."

Still, it would be wrong to conclude the boy from Belfast isn't within touching distance of top form. He is. If one or two well-struck putts had dropped rather than sliding by, both his mood and score would have been much improved.

"I'm about 80 percent of where I want to be," McIlroy insisted. "I'm playing nicely and confident in my game. I'd just love to string a few birdies together and get on some sort of run."

If and when he does: watch out.

Photo: Getty Images

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News & Tours

Phil Mickelson shows the easiest way to heal a strained oblique muscle is shoot a 68

By John Huggan

HUMBLE, TEXAS -- Looks like Augusta National's injured list just got shorter. In the wake of a bogey-free, four-under-par 68 to open the Shell Houston Open, Phil Mickelson was -- ironically -- at pains to emphasize the significant improvement in the oblique muscle strain that caused him to withdraw from San Antonio last week.

"I feel a lot better," claimed Mickelson after his four-birdie effort at the Golf Club of Houston. "Instead of feeling hurt, it just felt sore. And today I didn't even think about it, which is nice. Last week I was worried about the Masters. But it has healed a lot quicker than I thought it might. I felt great today."


loop-mickelson-shell-0403-518.jpgThe 43-year-old Californian had good company too. Playing in the same threesome with Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley, the three members of the 7:50 a.m. starting time went all 18 holes without dropping a single shot.

"It was the first time I remember that happening in my career," Mickelson said. "It was such a fun day. We probably wanted a few more birdies, but to not make any bogeys in a group is pretty special."

Even as Mickelson was enjoying the short-term buzz that comes with a sound start to a tournament he won in 2012, his competitive instinct was wandering further ahead. Specifically, to Augusta National and the imminent opportunity to win what would be his sixth major title and fourth green jacket.

"One of the things I really worked hard on today was staying focused on each shot," he said. "I did have to back away a few times when my concentration wandered. But, generally, I kept my focus, which is something I've struggled with this year. I needed to play here this week and really challenge myself in that regard to give myself the best chance for next week."

Photo: Getty Images

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News & Tours

Fantasy Fix: Jordan Spieth heads our Houston Open picks

By Alex Myers

We're a week away from the Masters, but this week's Shell Houston Open has a major-like field with 22 major winners teeing it up at the Golf Club of Houston. Who do we like to win this final tuneup in Texas? Here's the lineup:

Starters -- (A-List): Henrik Stenson. Arguably the best player without a major, Stenson is coming off a T-5 and he finished runner-up at this tournament last year.

The Grind: Is the golf world ready for a Tiger-less Masters

(B-List): Jordan Spieth. The Dallas kid has lived on leader boards all year, but hasn't won. We think that changes this week.

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Related: 15 signs you watch too much golf on TV

(B-List): Dustin Johnson. If it seems like we play him every week, it's because we do. We're going to eventually have to start conserving his starts, but for now, we'll play the man who has made nearly $600,000 per start in 2013-14.

(C-List): Carl Pettersson. A runner-up at this event in 2012, Pettersson has quietly turned his game around with three consecutive top-20 finishes.

Bench/Backups: Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, Graham DeLaet, and Sergio Garcia.

Related: 11 sleepers to watch in 2014

Knockout/One-and-done pick: Jordan Spieth. There are plenty of big names in this field, but with such a huge event looming next week, few have the motivation to go all out for a win that this 20-year-old does. Think anyone in the gallery will be rooting for him if he's wearing that burnt orange shirt?

Previously used: Keegan Bradley (Doral), Tim Clark (Sony), Graham DeLaet (Phoenix), Luke Donald (Valspar), Rickie Fowler (Honda Classic), Bill Haas (Farmers), Charles Howell III (Humana), Freddie Jacobson (Valero), Dustin Johnson (Northern Trust), Martin Laird (Kapalua), Graeme McDowell (Bay Hill), Jimmy Walker (Pebble -- winner!).

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PGA Tour

Why Tiger Woods could miss all four majors in 2014

By Alex Myers

On Tuesday, Tiger Woods' announcement that he had undergone successful back surgery and would miss the Masters for the first time as a pro led to two main questions: What is a microdiscectomy and how long will Woods be out of action?

Related: Can we handle a Tiger-less Masters?

We asked Dr. Andrew Hecht, the Chief of Spine Surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, to answer both.

"A microdiscectomy is a treatment for someone with a disc herniation," Hecht said. "If you think of a disc like a jelly donut, the outer cover tears and the jelly comes out. That jelly starts to irritate a nerve."

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Woods said in a statement he had surgery in Utah on Monday for a pinched nerve that had been bothering him for several months. The No. 1 player in the world and four-time Masters winner had to withdraw during the final round of the Honda Classic early last month before skipping the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Such an injury, according to Hecht, is often the cause of pain in the leg and buttock, as well as in the lower back. It can get better with rest, but many athletes opt to have this procedure because of its high success rate. Hecht said approximately 90 percent of elite athletes return to their former level of competition.

Of course, that will take time. Hecht said there is a gradual phase of rehabilitation followed by a more intense phase and finally the return of an athlete to activities for his/her specific sport.

"The golf swing is a very powerful, twisting motion," Hecht said. "Just because you're not getting tackled, doesn't mean you can't hurt your back."

Hecht said on average the rehab process takes three to four months. Woods could recover more quickly, but a three-month layoff wouldn't have Woods returning until the end of June, meaning he'd miss the U.S. Open in addition to the Masters. A four-month recovery would mean he'd miss the British Open as well, and anything more could result in him missing all four major championships.

In other words, Woods picked the worst time to miss a three-to-four month chunk of the season.

No two injuries are the same, of course, but Graham DeLaet is a recent example of a golfer to undergo the same surgery as Woods. He spoke about his microdiscectomy at the 2012 Sony Open:

"I had a herniated disk over to the right, so they go in and shave off a piece of that to alleviate the pinch on the nerve," DeLaet said. "I had terrible pain in my right leg. Yeah, it was not fun. I'm glad it's all over and I'm feeling great now."

Related: A look back at Tiger Woods' injury history

DeLaet made a full recovery and was one of 2013's breakout stars when he was the best player for the International squad at the Presidents Cup. That's the good news for the 38-year-old Woods. The bad news? DeLaet had the surgery when he was 10 years younger than Woods and it essentially wiped out his entire 2011 season. 

Odds are, Woods won't miss as much time as DeLaet. But due to the timing of the procedure, he could wipe out his entire major championship season. For a man so focused on golf's four biggest events, that might hurt just as much.

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News & Tours

Fact Check: Is Andrew Loupe really that slow?

By Luke Kerr-Dineen

The slow play issue once again cast a long shadow during the Valero Texas Open last weekend.

Andrew Loupe, whose strong finish to the 2013 Web.com season earned him a PGA Tour card for 2014, started pumping the breaks almost as quickly as he rose into contention. Loupe's pre-shot routine reached up to 1:15 seconds on Sunday. He was eventually put on the clock by a rules official, but even then, his routine lasted more than 50 seconds, earning him an official warning.

Related: Fact Check: Is playing with Kevin Na really unfair?

Those were extremes, but here's a clip of Loupe's normal pre-shot routine, from after the tee is in the ground until he pulls the trigger, which runs 39 seconds. 


Relative to the rest of the tour, is 39 seconds really that slow? Even 1:15 seconds; how big a deal is that?

We decided to find out by timing video footage of random players' pre-shot routines on drives. The timer started when players were done teeing up the ball, and ended right before they started their swing. Each name on the list had at least two pre-shot routines timed, which were averaged out to the numbers listed. (The only numbers that weren't averaged were those of Na, Furyk, Loupe and Scott from the four specified events -- we included those just for interest.)

Here's how it shook out:

Bill Haas: 13 seconds
Angel Cabrera: 14 seconds
Rickie Fowler: 15 seconds
Steve Stricker: 19 seconds
Kevin Na: 19 seconds
Adam Scott 20 (2013 Masters Playoff)
Phil Mickelson: 21 seconds
Dustin Johnson: 21 seconds
Tiger Woods: 22 seconds
Rory McIlroy: 22 seconds
Adam Scott 23 seconds
Jason Dufner: 26 seconds
Matt Kuchar: 29 seconds
Jim Furyk: 31 seconds
Justin Rose: 33 seconds
Andrew Loupe: 39 seconds
Jum Furyk: 57 seconds (2013 PGA Championship)
Kevin Na: 1:10 seconds (2011 Players Championship)
Andrew Loupe: 1.15 seconds (2014 Valero Texas Open)
 
Related: Fact Check: Is Patrick Reed really a top five player in the world?

As you can see, Loupe's 0.39 second routine, relative to the other players on the list, is substantially slower than average. And with that routine seemingly slowing down even more under pressure, it's easy to see people getting increasingly annoyed. Johnny Miller seemed to put it best:


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News & Tours

'Is it time to look beyond Tiger and Phil?'

By John Strege

SAN ANTONIO -- Google "Phil Mickelson" and "tinkering" and more than 69,000 results turn up. Mickelson tinkers with his swing, his putting stroke, his equipment, attempting to find the square peg that fits a round hole.

This time, at the Valero Texas Open, he was tinkering with a driver swing to take to the Masters, working on a custom fit for Augusta National's generous fairway widths. He was swinging hard and hitting it high and hurt himself doing so.

Mickelson pulled an oblique muscle hitting driver on the first tee (his 10th hole) on Saturday and withdrew from the tournament. His status for the Shell Houston Open this week and even the Masters the following week is not yet known.

Couple Mickelson's injury with Tiger Woods' bulging disc and his own uncertainty about Augusta, and a question posed by Dottie Pepper recently gives one pause.

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"We've been pretty spoiled with easy story lines and high expectations for a very long time. Is it time to look beyond @TigerWoods and Phil?" she wrote on Twitter.

It's not time yet -- Woods won five tournaments last year, Mickelson three, including the British Open. But sooner clearly is gaining on later, and when the day comes, the hangover golf might experience could be colossal.

Woods and Mickelson have anchored golf's marquee for nearly two decades. A television promo for the Valero Texas Open began this way: "Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy. Every week champions will rise. Every week history will be made."

The first two names have 19 major championships and 121 PGA Tour victories between them. The second duo have three majors and 16 PGA Tour wins between them. McIlroy is equipped to help fill the eventual void, but it remains an open question as to whether he will.

Related: More from John Strege 

Woods' dominion over the game has resulted in tournaments being categorized: Tiger tournaments, those in which he played, and the others, those in which he did not play. The buzz in the former is palpable, but its falloff in the latter is usually dramatic.

Mickelson in the Tiger era, meanwhile, has always been an entertaining second fiddle, one capable of playing lead violin from time to time, and he might have been on the cusp of doing so again at Augusta.

The Texas Open was the first of what was to be a three-week run of tournament golf, culminating with the Masters. Each of the three times Mickelson won at Augusta, it was his third straight tournament. Ditto the British Open he won last year and the Players Championship he won in 2007. On the 10 occasions that he played the two weeks prior to the Masters, he finished out of the top 10 only once.

Friday, Mickelson was borderline euphoric about the state of his game and health. "I actually really like the way I'm driving the ball," he said. "My speed is back, my back feels great, my body feels great and I'm able to hit the ball hard again."

A day later, he joined Woods on the disabled list. They'll still dominate story lines in the run-up to the Masters, but by Thursday's start, we might already be looking beyond Tiger and Phil, for one week, at least.

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Gear & Equipment

So you're in charge of running this year's Masters pool. Well, there's an app for that

By Stephen Hennessey

The Masters is less than two weeks away, and many golf fans are likely to enter pools to predict who will contend for the green jacket at Augusta National. If that sounds like you, a new smartphone app that launched this month could prove helpful.

DraftKings (available in iTunes) is believed to be the first fantasy app that incorporates golf (along with pro and college football and basketball, baseball and hockey). Fans can use the app to run their own free Masters pools--or hold similar weekly PGA Tour fantasy competitions.


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If you want to run a league where more is on the line than simply pride, DraftKings also hosts individual leagues for a small commission based on the overall purse that's available.

The app offers several public golf contests with cash prizes for the winners, each requiring an entry fee to play. (Last week, I won $45 on a $12 entry fee for the Arnold Palmer Invitational.)

For the Masters, DraftKings is running a contest with $300,000 in guaranteed payouts, including a $100,000 prize to first place. The cost, however, is not for the faint of heart. To get into the game requires a $200 entry fee.

For more, go to DraftKings.com.



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News & Tours

Fantasy Fix: Our "upset special" pick for the Valero Texas Open

By Alex Myers

Think your NCAA bracket is ugly? You should have seen our fantasy golf picks last week. We picked Tiger Woods. Then he pulled out. We turned to Bubba Watson. Then he shot an 83 and withdrew. But like in basketball, where good shooters keep on shooting, we will not be deterred with our predictions -- especially since we had the winner, Matt Every, as one of our four starters. Yeah, baby! Who makes our Final Four this week for the Valero Texas Open? Here's the lineup:

The Grind: Fun with Matt Every's name and Kate Upton's return to Bay Hill

Starters -- (A-List): Matt Kuchar. Outside of Kuchar and Phil Mickelson, it's pretty slim pickings in this group. Kuchar seems the safest bet.

(B-List): Freddie Jacobson. This guy either misses cuts (five times in 2013-14) or finishes in the top 20 (five times this season). We're banking on the latter happening at a course where he's finished in the top 20 in all four tries, including a solo second in 2010.

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Related: 15 signs you watch too much golf on TV

(B-List): Jim Furyk. Is Furyk the slowest player on the PGA Tour? Debatable. Not debatable? He finished T-3 last year in his only time teeing it up at TPC San Antonio.

(C-List): Jimmy Walker. Remember this guy? Yeah, it's been a few weeks since he won so it's probably time to plug him back into the lineup.

Bench/Backups: Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Billy Horschel, and Ryan Palmer.

Related: 11 sleepers to watch in 2014

Knockout/One-and-done pick: Freddie Jacobson. In the spirit of March Madness, we'll go with a bit of an underdog. How do you say "Final Four" in Swedish?

Previously used: Keegan Bradley (Doral), Tim Clark (Sony), Graham DeLaet (Phoenix), Luke Donald (Valspar), Rickie Fowler (Honda Classic), Bill Haas (Farmers), Charles Howell III (Humana), Dustin Johnson (Northern Trust), Martin Laird (Kapalua), Graeme McDowell (Bay Hill), Jimmy Walker (Pebble -- winner!).

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