LPGA Tour young guns

With the U.S. Women’s Open only two weeks away, which of these LPGA Tour young guns do you think has the best chance to reach superstardom?

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Cantlay: The Decision

Patrick Cantlay, formerly the world’s top-ranked amateur, decided to forego his junior and senior seasons at UCLA and turn professional this week at the Travelers Championship in Hartford, Conn.

The site of Cantlay’s professional debut is not surprising. A year ago, he shot a 60 at the event — the lowest round by an amateur in the history of the PGA Tour — on his way to a top-25 finish.  Cantlay had a stellar record as an amateur playing in professional events, with a tie for 21st at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club and a tie for 47th this year at the Master’s.

Cantlay’s rise through the collegiate and amateur ranks is also impressive. In 65 competitive rounds for the UCLA Bruins, Cantlay was an astounding 35-under-par. His freshman season saw him win the Jack Nicklaus Award as the best Div. 1 collegiate player and the Phil Mickelson Award as the nation’s best freshman. He was the runner-up to Kelly Kraft at the 2011 U.S. Amateur and recorded a 2-1-1 record at the Walker Cup. Clearly, the kid has serious game.

That brings us to the question of whether his decision to turn pro after the 2012 U.S. Open is the correct one.

In terms of amateur athletes declaring to go professional early, I have always leaned towards the idea that if you are good enough to get paid now, you should get paid now. There is no telling what kind of injury problems are around the corner, so you should cash in while you can. I have never had a problem with great collegiate football or basketball players declaring early so they can make their money.

A common argument against leaving school to go pro is that the athlete should finish his or her degree. This logic makes absolutely no sense. People are aware that athletes can come back and finish their degree at any time, right? If the professional sports route doesn’t work, the athlete can go finish their degree after the fact, and they likely at least made rookie money in whatever sport they chose.

Golf, however, is a little different. When a football player gets drafted, they get a rookie contract based on where they went in the draft. That is basically guaranteed money. In golf you have to earn every paycheck. There are no guarantees. The water is a bit murkier.

With that being the case, when is the correct time for a golfer to turn professional, and did Cantlay make the right choice?

Another factor that weighs on a golfer’s decision to turn pro are the strength of amateur events in the United States and around the world. Winning USGA Championships like the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Amateur Public Links is prestigious, and can gain a player a spot on the Walker Cup Team. Turning pro eliminates all of these opportunities. Very few sports offer the kind of achievement at the amateur level that golf does.

The correct answer on when a player should turn professional is: whenever they feel comfortable. Cantlay often said that he would play all four years at UCLA, but it seems as though he has been so comfortable competing at the highest level that playing collegiate golf isn’t enticing anymore. If he feels he is ready to compete, then why not shed the amateur label and try to use his talent to make a living?

Some players like to learn how to win on the amateur level before turning professional. Tiger Woods spent one year at Stanford, won the NCAA Individual Championship, and then said “Hello World” as he joined the PGA Tour. We know the rest. But his whole plan was to learn how to win at every level which, according to his record, seems to have worked fairly well.

Other players turn professional at a very young age to try and cash in as quickly as possible. Michelle Wie’s career has been scrutinized for this reason, but nobody can argue her decision was poor from a fiscal standpoint. Rory McIlroy turned professional at age 17 and has been a mainstay on the world stage ever since.

The point is that for every player, the decision to turn pro is different. It is easy to judge it based on one round or one tournament, but only at the end of a career is it possible to really judge whether it was the right call or not. If Cantlay felt ready to turn professional now, then now is the right time for him.

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LSU descends on NGA Tour’s Texas Honing Open

With at least seven former Louisiana State University Tigers in the field at the NGA TOUR’s Texas Honing Open this week at Sterling Country Club, Houston is starting to look a lot more like Baton Rouge.

There would be at least eight former Tigers in the field this week, butJohn Peterson dropped out to play in the Travelers Championship on the PGA TOUR after earning an exemption by way of his T4 finish at the U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco last week. He will rejoin the NGA TOUR at next week’s Golfcrest Classic, also played in Houston.

Peterson contended until the very end at the U.S. Open, and improved his Official World Golf Ranking by over 500 positions. His hole-in-one at the 180-yard 13th was the shot of the championship and was Peterson’s first hole-in-one. His shot also gave him the No. 1 play on Sports Center’s weekend top-10 plays.

Ken Looper — currently 8th on the NGA TOUR money list — was one of Peterson’s teammates at LSU and sees Peterson’s performance at the U.S. Open as a way to increase his own confidence as a professional.

Ken Looper is a rookie on the NGA Tour in 2012

“He doesn’t beat me every time we play. Obviously he is really good, but he isn’t above and beyond all of us,” Looper said. “It makes me think I can do the same thing.”

Looper and Peterson were both seniors at the same time on LSU’s golf team along with Austin Gutgsell, who is also teeing it up in Houston this week. NGA player Clayton Rotz was also a member of the LSU golf team at the same time.

Watching a former teammate contend at a major championship proved to Looper how small the difference is between playing golf on the NGA TOUR and the highest levels of professional golf.

“The difference between playing at this level and the highest level is so small,” Looper said. “He (Peterson) got an opportunity to go play out there and I didn’t, that’s it.”

Having so many LSU players on the NGA TOUR provides a level of comfort for the former Tigers. But other SEC players, not just former teammates, also bolster that comfort.

Tyson Alexander played at FloridaJonathan Randolph played at Ole Miss and Hudson Johnson played at Vanderbilt,” Looper said.
Other former LSU Tigers in the field are Brent BlaumWilliam LanierJarrod Barsamian and Andrew Loupe.

The first round of the Texas Honing Open will start on Thursday, June 21 at 7:30 a.m.
For Tee Times, visit: http://ngahooters.tourgolfscores.com/gscode/public/tee_times/pairings.cfm?tournament_id=348&rd=1

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NGA Tour

For the next two events and a couple in July, I am an intern specializing in media with the NGA Tour, the third-ranked golf tour in the United States behind the PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour.

The NGA Tour is also linking this blog to their website, so welcome if you are here by way of that. Also, I will be posting articles I write for them in this space as well, so expect some NGA content, as well as my normal coverage of PGA Tour, LPGA Tour and Nationwide Tour events.

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Confidence is key

At the top levels of golf, the talent level is so good that trying to differentiate between them based on golf skill alone is like trying to figure out who the smartest Mensa member is.

Of the millions of people that play golf, only 200 or so play on the PGA Tour in a given year. If a player has made it to the big stage, they are good ball strikers, chippers, putters and know how to score. How, then, are we supposed to look at a PGA Tour field and figure out who has the best chance to win and explain why some players just can’t seem to get it done and why others have a knack for finding the victory circle? It is cliche, but the ability to win on the PGA Tour — or even in a friendly match at your local club — originates in your brain. And the most important factor swimming around in the six inches between your ears? Confidence.

Jason Dufner, who won the Byron Nelson today for his second tournament victory in as many starts — after a previous period of 164 winless starts — is the perfect illustration of the value of confidence. What changed? Why is Dufner suddenly striping his shots rather than hitting them in a manner we would describe using his last name? The answer is easy: He finally feels he can win.

It would be possible to sit here and look at certain statistics in Dufner’s game and use it to explain his triumphs in recent weeks. Maybe his strokes gained putting improved by 5 percent, maybe he is hitting it 4 yards closer on approaches from 125 to 150 yards or maybe his sand saves are improving. But these small statistical improvements wouldn’t be telling the real story behind Dufner’s success. The real reason he is the new Mr. Consistency on tour is his belief that he can succeed.

Confidence is bred by practice and positive reinforcement. Visualizing a shot and knowing that the result will be the same as the visualization is the ideal situation for a golfer. Clearly it is important to have a command of one’s own golf swing to inspire this confidence. Swing troubles only make confidence harder to achieve, but a golfer can overcome swing issues on confidence alone. Tiger Woods’ golf game and personal life were in complete disarray at the 2010 Master’s, but his confidence in his abilities and knowledge of Augusta led him to a T-4 result.

Look at the state of Woods’ current game. By all accounts, he is absolutely striping it on the range and at his home course, but under pressure his brain doesn’t trust his swing and his confidence sinks. Everyone finds this confidence in a different way: For Tiger, it is hitting tens of thousands of golf balls until he feels comfortable and ready, for Phil Mickelson, it is convincing himself that he can pull off any shot even when the odds are long and the lie is bad.

If you don’t think confidence is important, head to your nearest golf course and try something. Hit a shot where your last thought is, “There is no way this is going to be good,” and another with the thought, “This one is going to be good and right where I want it,” and tell me how they turn out. Having confidence and thinking confidently won’t make you a scratch golfer, but negative thoughts and self doubt make it impossible to reach your potential.

Golf is a game that has thousands of little aspects that chip away (no pun intended) at a player’s confidence during a round. A poor chip due to a bad lie, a gust of wind that carries a ball into the water or a distraction that causes a bad swing in a key moment can all make a golfer feel vulnerable, but the best players never let external factors affect their confidence.

Confidence issues usually are more intense in major championships, when the stakes are the highest. For this reason, whenever a tournament is near the end and the leader board is bunched, I will always put my money on any player that has won a major to beat those that haven’t. It will be interesting to see if Bubba Waton’s recent Master’s triumph will lead to more tour victories. I would be surprised if it didn’t. I am also excited to see if Rickie Fowler can channel his victory at the Wells Fargo into more titles (he almost pulled a Dufner and went two in a row, contending at the Players’ Championship).

In a climate where every player is a master of the game and full of talent, self belief is what separates the winners and losers at the highest level. But it isn’t just important to be confident on the PGA Tour; every golfer would benefit from positive thinking. Try it and you might find your wallet is just a little heavier when you are done playing that Saturday foursome.



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An LPGA event at Augusta National?

Forget the topic of a woman member at Augusta National for a second. At the LPGA event in Alabama this week, American star Paula Creamer discussed the desire to have a women’s major held at the undisputed best golf course in the United States.

Most of the LPGA players have never played Augusta National in practice or informal conditions, so it would be interesting to see how they would maneuver the treacherous greens around Bobby Jones’ masterpiece.

Before I get too far, I want to make it clear that I don’t see Creamer’s dream coming to fruition anytime soon for a myriad of reasons, but it is fun to speculate on what it would be like. The course is already closed much of the year to members in order to get it in pristine condition for the Masters. There is no way they would sacrifice precious playing time to host another major championship.

Other than logistics, there are some other factors that would make Augusta a bad fit for the LPGA tour. The greens at Augusta are lightning fast and test the best on the PGA Tour. It is not secret that men hit the ball farther than women and create a lot more spin. With the lower amount of spin and lower ball flight from the average LPGA Tour pro, the greens would be almost impossible to hold. If they could find a way to slow the greens down for the event, then maybe it would be more feasible.

Clearly the women would have to play from shorter tees than the men play, which are almost 7,500 yards. Would Augusta National be willing to create a set of tees around 6,600 yards?

As far as exposure and fan interest are concerned, the event would be a home run. Augusta National is a special place and a true test of golf. Having a women’s Masters at Augusta would add a level of legitimacy and interest to a sport that is still struggling to find its foothold.

Plus, it would give golf fans another chance to see the famous piece of land in north Georgia. There are some that might argue that another event would water down the Masters, but I disagree. I think the event would be different enough to be interesting, but still hold true to what makes Augusta National so great.

All of these points are moot until Augusta addresses its female membership issue, which I believe they will do in the near future. The members at Augusta clearly like to do things their own way and on their own time. What they don’t want to do is be forced into action. I think they will address the female membership issue in the next year behind closed doors. Augusta National is like Fight Club, and what is the first rule?

The LPGA Tour has a fun crop of players right now with Lexi Thompson, Michelle Wie, Azahara Munoz, Yani Tseng and Paula Creamer. Having a major at Augusta would only help them get more exposure and grow the game of golf. It may be a long shot, but who knows what the future holds.

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5 best non-major golf tournaments

The majors drive golf viewership and interest. The best players always show up, they are played on the best courses in the world and the players want to win them the most.

But majors only make up four weeks out of a season that now spans almost 11 months. When the best players in the world aren’t teeing it up at major championships they are playing other tournaments and make the PGA Tour season one of the longest and most interesting.

Most players will play 20-30 tournaments in the course of a year, so they aren’t just sitting around drinking beer and waking up at 3 p.m. when there are no major championships (with the possible exception of John Daly). With so many tournaments, how do players decide which events to play and which are considered the best?

I want to give you my top 5 non-major tournaments based on my own criteria. Take note that I have left off the Ryder Cup and President’s Cup since these events take place every other year.

Honorable Mention: Wells Fargo Championship- Quail Hollow Club, Charlotte, NC

The Wells Fargo Championship gets an honorable mention on this list because of the quality of the field that it attracts. You can always tell an event on the PGA Tour is strong when it attracts a large number of international players who might not even be full-time PGA Tour members. The Wells Fargo passes this test, with Rory McIlroy winning his first PGA Tour event at the 2010 edition. Looking down the list of champions also paints a picture of the strength of this event. The last seven winners listed in order with their number of major championships won: Lucas Glover (1), Rory McIlroy (1), Sean O’Hair, Anthony Kim, Tiger Woods (14), Jim Furyk (1), and Vijay Singh (3).

5. WGC-Bridgestone- Firestone Country Club, Akron, Ohio

The WGC events have an unfair advantage on these lists because they have extremely strong and international fields. Keeping that in mind, I wanted to only choose one for this list. The reason I chose the WGC-Bridgestone is almost entirely because of its venue. Firestone Country Club is an old-school golf course with a bite. Its monster par-5 16th, aptly named “The Monster” is 667 yards and is one of the few Par 5s on tour that players actually fear. Another positive for this tournament is its position as the last tune-up opportunity before the PGA Championship.

4. Arnold Palmer Invitational- Bay Hill Club, Orland, Fla.

Arnie’s event gets a nod here mostly based on the fact that it is Arnie’s event. Because of this fact, most of the best players in the world tee it up at Bay Hill on a yearly basis. One of the coolest scenes in sports is seeing the King greet the champion as he walks off the 18th green. Tee to green, Bay Hill is an extremely difficult test and it often produces strong champions. Tiger Woods (who has won this event seven times), Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Fred Couples and Kenny Perry are all former champions at Bay Hill.

3. The Tour Championship- East Lake Golf Club, Atlanta, Ga.

The Tour Championship has always been one of the premier stops on Tour. If you remember, this is the event Shooter McGavin wanted to win badly so he could collect his gold jacket (gold jacket, green jacket…you know the rest). With the invention of the FedEx Cup and its 10 million dollar payout, the Tour Championship has gained even more notoriety because it is the final event of the “playoffs.” Last year, the Tour Championship was the scene of a the richest playoff in the history of the PGA Tour, with Bill Haas defeating Hunter Mahan for over 11 million dollars.

2. The Memorial Tournament- Muirfield Village Country Club, Dublin, Ohio

Like Arnold Palmer’s Tournament, the Memorial gets a huge boost because it is Jack Nicklaus’ event. With a host like Nicklaus, every good player that is eligible usually tees it up in Dublin. But this isn’t the only reason it occupies the runner-up spot on this countdown. The golf course itself is stunningly beautiful and is routinely listed among the top 20 courses in the United States. It is kept in almost flawless condition and is often ranked behind only Augusta National in terms of course condition and upkeep. Clearly Nicklaus considers Muirfield Village to be his baby. Another factor that puts this event near the top is its resemblance to the Masters. Scoreboards are hand operated rather than electronic, the course is designed to give spectators the best viewing lines and fans are referred to as “Patrons” like they are at Augusta. With the U.S. Open often only two weeks after the Memorial, it is used as a tune-up for the year’s second major as well.

1. The Players Championship- TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

When a tournament is called the fifth major, it is clearly on another level than a regular PGA Tour event. And it makes sense that The Players Championship is the best non-major because it is the PGA Tour’s flagship event. The PGA Tour is located in Ponte Vedra Beach and they put everything they have into The Players. The purse is bigger (the richest event on tour), the hospitality is better and the field is major-quality. The Players Championship is glitz and glam, and a boatload of Official World Golf Ranking points are up for grabs along with exemptions into every important tournament worldwide. About the only thing that lacks during The Players is the course itself. While TPC Sawgrass has an extremely famous finish (including the island green par-3 17th), its first 14 holes or so are fairly bland and in some cases tricked up. But this doesn’t detract from what is the most major-like non major on the PGA Tour.

If you are a golf fan (and if you are reading this I would be pretty surprised if you aren’t), buckle up, because May includes three of the events I have listed above (Wells Fargo, Players Championship and Memorial Tournament).

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