With many of the PGA Tour’s biggest stars taking the week off before teeing it up in Phoenix during Super Bowl week, the golf world’s attention shifts back to the Middle East, where hopefully someone is shaking that palm tree to find Patrick Reed’s ball.
A handful of PGA Tour members and a boatload of contractually obligated LIV Golf players are competing in the Saudi International, which tees off Thursday at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia.
Current PGA Tour members Cameron Young, Cameron Champ and Lucas Herbert are also playing in the event. They were given conflicting-event releases by the PGA Tour to compete in the tournament. So are Mito Pereira and Sebastián Muñoz, who have long been rumored to be defecting to LIV Golf, although Greg Norman’s circuit hasn’t officially announced it has added either player to its roster.
Young, the reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, told reporters at the Tour Championship in late August that he was “very interested” in LIV Golf’s pitch to him, but had elected to stay with the tour.
On Tuesday, a slimmed-down Mickelson addressed reporters during a news conference for the first time in a while. So did Koepka, who pronounced himself injury-free. The four-time major champion has been hampered by knee and hip injuries the past two years.
“It’s been a while since I’ve felt this good,” Koepka said. “Been about four years. Just excited to play healthy. Feel like I can play to my potential again, which is exciting.”
Here’s what’s happening in men’s professional golf this week:
What’s next on the PGA Tour
AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am
Where: Pebble Beach, California
Defending champion: Tom Hoge
Purse: $9 million
THREE STORYLINES TO WATCH
Where are the big names?: The Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which has been around since 1937, might be among the victims of the PGA Tour’s new elevated events. With a $20 million purse on the line in the next two events, WM Phoenix Open and Genesis Invitational, most of the tour’s biggest stars are skipping this week’s tournament on the Monterey peninsula.
Only seven of the top 50 players in the Official World Golf Ranking are in the field: Matt Fitzpatrick (10th), Viktor Hovland (11th) and Jordan Spieth (16th) are the highest-ranked players. Seamus Power (28th), Hoge (29th), Kevin Kisner (32nd) and Kurt Kitayama (43rd) are the others in the top 50.
Plenty of celebrities, though: There are myriad big stars from sports and entertainment who will be competing in the pro-am portion, including Bills quarterback Josh Allen, country music singers Eric Church and Darius Rucker, former NFL receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and, of course, actor Bill Murray. Actor Jason Bateman is also making his debut.
The field includes 156 teams of one pro and an amateur, who will compete in better-ball format on a three-course rotation — Spyglass Hill Golf Course, Pebble Beach Golf Links and Monterey Peninsula Shore Course-over the first three days. The pros will also play in a traditional individual stroke-play format for 72 holes. There’s a 54-hole cut with the low 60 pros and ties and low 25 teams and ties advancing to the final round at Pebble Beach.
McNealy’s turn?: Hoge was a first-time PGA Tour winner at Pebble Beach last year, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see another one because of the watered-down field. Maverick McNealy was a superstar at Stanford but has yet to win on tour. The California native loves putting on poa annua greens. He was runner-up in this event in 2021 and tied for fifth in 2020.
“I love poa annua grass,” McNealy said. “A lot of guys don’t like it, especially guys who grew up in the Southeast. I kind of have the same feeling about dormant Bermuda, but I just say it breaks downhill; play a lot of break and hit it soft and it’s a speed contest. That’s something I literally work on every day I go to the golf course, is my putting speed control.
“There’s a little bit of variance in that poa. It gets a little bumpy in the afternoons, but if you putt with good speed, you have a better chance of making it. I’m comfortable with the turf. I love these golf courses. Suits my eye.”
ANWA field announced
The field for the upcoming Augusta National Women’s Amateur will include each of the top 45 eligible amateurs, including the past two champions, Tsubasa Kajitani and Anna Davis, as well as No. 1 amateur Rose Zhang of Stanford. Davis, 16, will become the first champion to try to defend her title.
The ANWA field also includes USC sophomore Amari Avery, 2022 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Saki Baba of Japan and 2022 Women’s British Amateur champion Jess Banker of England.
Once again, the first two rounds will be played at Champions Retreat Golf Club in Evans, Georgia, from March 29-30. Following a 36-hole cut, the entire field will play a practice round at Augusta National on March 31, followed by the top 30 players competing the final round there on April 1.
Golf Channel will broadcast the first two rounds for the first time; NBC Sports will air three hours of the final round.
Smith’s campaign begins
Australia’s Cameron Smith knows he’s going to have a difficult time duplicating what he did on the golf course a year ago. He won his first major at the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews, captured the Sentry Tournament of Champions and the Players on the PGA Tour, and then added the LIV Golf event in Chicago and the Australian PGA Championship for good measure.
“I think probably 2022 will be a really tough one to back up,” Smith told reporters in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday. “But I’m going to try. I’m keeping the same processes going, digging deep and working hard on my game at home, I think is really what I’ve got to do. It’s really easy when you’re playing good golf to be complacent.”
Smith’s 2023 campaign kicks off at the Saudi International this week before the LIV Golf circuit starts at Mayakoba in Mexico on Feb. 24.
Odds are that Smith won’t reach No. 1 in the world rankings after defecting to LIV Golf. The circuit’s players still aren’t receiving world ranking points for competing in LIV Golf tournaments, which are 54 holes and don’t include cuts. He is currently ranked fourth.
“I’ve tried to take it [on the chin] but it hurts, for sure,” Smith said. “I was really close to getting to No. 1 and that was definitely something I wanted to tick off. The longer this stuff goes on, I think the more obsolete those rankings become.
“Do we need them [points]? It’d be nice, but … when you rock up to a tournament, you know who you have to beat; there’s generally seven or eight guys in that field who’ll put up a pretty good fight. You know that, whether there’s a world ranking or not.”
Reed issues statement
The controversy surrounding Reed’s tee shot on the 17th hole in the third round of the Dubai Desert Classic on Sunday won’t go away.
TV replays of Reed’s tee shot appeared to show his ball landing in a different tree than the one in which he identified his ball was lodged in. At least that is the assessment of Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee, who is among the media members and others who are being sued by Reed in a defamation case.
If you haven’t seen the video of Patrick Reed’s tee shot at 17, here it is. pic.twitter.com/sgnKcLH4Sf
— Brandel Chamblee (@chambleebrandel) January 30, 2023
After the round, Reed said, “You could definitely see and identify the line with the arrow on the end, and the rules official was there to reconfirm and check it to make sure it was mine as well.”
Reed, who has been involved in rules sagas in the past, issued another short statement on Twitter on Tuesday.
This is my statement regarding Dubai Desert Classic! Maybe it’s time we get back to playing some golf! Best wishes. pic.twitter.com/sTUHOHzkPF
— Patrick Reed (@PReedGolf) January 31, 2023
Reed’s team, it should be noted, disabled comments to his tweet, so that only people he mentioned (no one) could reply.
It seems not everyone is buying Reed’s explanation.
Next time I’m stuck on top of the tree, I’m just going to drop where I think it went. No need to identify it
— Byeong Hun An (@ByeongHunAn) January 31, 2023
Homa keeps winning
How did Max Homa celebrate winning his sixth PGA Tour event at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines on Saturday? By winning again in a Monday skins game at Papago Golf Club in Phoenix.
Homa carded a 5-under 67 and beat Griffin Wood, who plays on the PGA Tour Canada circuit, by 1 stroke. His first-place prize: $400.
Yesterday @maxhoma23 won $1,566,000 for winning the Farmers.
How did he celebrate?
He went to the Papago Monday Skins game today, shot 67, and won $400. pic.twitter.com/4jq1uCWRMy
— Monday Q Info (@acaseofthegolf1) January 31, 2023
It’s just further proof Homa is a man of the people.
Varner goes for back-to-back in Saudi Arabia
It hasn’t quite been a year since Harold Varner III drained a 90-foot eagle putt on the 72nd hole to claim the biggest victory of his career in the 2022 Saudi International. Much has changed for the 32-year-old since that moment, including jumping from the PGA Tour to the Saudi-financed LIV Golf League. As Varner was preparing to defend his title this week, he acknowledged being initially surprised by the criticism that came with the decision to jump to LIV Golf, but says he has grown comfortable with it.
“I think it’s actually made things more clear,” Varner said during a news conference Tuesday. “It’s something I wanted to do. I made the decision. I enjoy it. I really enjoy it. I enjoy the money that comes with it. I enjoy the time.
“But what ended up happening is people you thought were your friends, colleagues — you know who’s legit when you do something they don’t want you to do and you want to do it and it doesn’t harm them, and they still reach out to you, they still talk to you.”
Varner said he doesn’t like the “bitterness and pettiness of both LIV and the PGA Tour” during their ongoing battle for the best players in the world.
“I don’t think it’s a sport where 50 million people are going to watch and we can afford to have people [not watch] because some people are like, ‘I don’t really want to watch it because people are arguing,'” Varner said. “We don’t have that luxury in golf to have so many people watching we can still get away with it.
“At the end of the day, it’s golf. I don’t care what tour it is — it’s golf. But try not to take away from that. The arguing and the bickering and stuff like that, that’s just not great for the game. People enjoy investing in golf because it’s clean, respect and a gentleman’s game, and that’s going right down the toilet right now.”
Fitzpatrick joins TGL
Fitzpatrick, the reigning U.S. Open winner, became the latest PGA Tour star to commit to play in TGL, the prime-time golf league being fronted by Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. The league, which is slated to begin play in 2024, will feature six teams of three PGA Tour players competing in head-to-head matches in a tech-infused indoor venue in Palm Beach, Florida.
The two-hour matches will be televised in prime time on Monday nights. The regular season will consist of 15 matches, followed by semifinals and finals. Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Adam Scott and Collin Morikawa have also committed to play in the league.
— Matt Fitzpatrick (@MattFitz94) January 31, 2023