PGA Tour notes: Spieth learns; Knox fulfills; more

Jordan Spieth during Friday's second round of the PGA Tour's 2014 Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.

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If it’s all about learning, gaining experience, and getting a feel for what it takes to win, consider this 2013-14 season to be a smashing success already for Jordan Spieth.

He played in the final group Sunday for the fourth time in 2013-14. While he hasn’t won, only the strictest of markers would give him poor grades. Those four efforts:

  • Hyundai: Shot 69, finished second.
  • Farmers: Shot 74, finished T-19.
  • Masters: Shot 72, finished T-2.
  • Players: Shot 74, finished T-4.

Five times already this season, Spieth has had at least a share of the lead after a round and he’s been in the final group on the weekend a total of six times. His scoring average for those six rounds is 72.66. Cynics might use those numbers to argue that Spieth has trouble in pressure situations, but at some point could we remind one another that he would be a junior in college had he stayed at the University of Texas.

“Twenty years old? I can’t get my head around that,” Graeme McDowell said.

The man from Northern Ireland played alongside Spieth for two days at The Players Championship and was effusive in his praise.

“He’s not going to wow you like a Rory McIlroy. He doesn’t hit the ball and you say, ‘Wow, this guy is something special.’ I think that’s what makes him great. He’s so rounded.

“Drives it good. Not amazing. Hits his irons good. Not amazing. Chips really well. Not amazing. He’s not Phil Mickelson around the greens. Putts really well. He’s not Ben Crenshaw. Then you add it all up and you go, ‘Wow, this kid’s a really good player.’ "

• • •

SAWGRASS' LONG HOLES: Of the four par 5s at the Stadium Course, the 11th causes the most fits. None of the competitors in The Players Championship birdied it all four days as it ranked toughest of the par 5s, with a field average of 4.793.

At the second, Russell Knox had an eagle and three birdies, while Jimmy Walker and Steve Stricker both made four birdies.

At No. 9, Martin Kaymer helped fuel his victory with four birdies. Matt Jones also made four birdies, but Brian Davis proved best, with an eagle and three birdies.

The 16th offers the best scoring chances and Kevin Chappell took advantage with two eagles and two birdies. Jones also birdied this hole four times, as did John Senden, Dustin Johnson, and Rory McIlroy.

No surprise that Bubba Watson played the par 5s best, at 11 under, while Brian Davis, Jimmy Walker, and K.J. Choi were all 10 under.

Kaymer played the par 5s in 8 under, but made four consecutive pars at the 16th. Pat Perez was perhaps the most consistent, though not in a productive way: He made 14 pars, one birdie, and one bogey.

• • •

ELSEWHERE AT STADIUM COURSE: Some other scoring notes from the 41st Players Championship:

  • McIlroy played Nos. 16-17-18 in a whopping 10 under par. Next-best were Gary Woodland and Marc Leishman, both at 5 under.
  • McIlroy twice birdied 16-17-18 in succession, in both weekend rounds. Russell Henley, Morgan Hoffman, Billy Horschel, Steven Bowditch, and Jason Dufner all did it once.
  • Six players went 2 under at the 17th: Jim Furyk, Justin Rose, Zach Johnson, Luke Donald, Pat Perez, and McIlroy.
  • Eight holes played to an under-par field average, including the island-green 17th (2.986) where only 28 balls were hit into the water, a tournament low.
  • No surprise, but the par-4 14th played toughest, a field average of 4.349.
  • It was the long, par-3 eighth, however, that yielded the fewest birdies (28).

• • •

STARS WILL BE OUT: Some tournaments have a tough time securing four top 20 players, but not so Brad Faxon and Billy Andrade. They’ve received commitments from Nos. 5 (Matt Kuchar), 13 (Zach Johnson), 15 (Steve Stricker), and 20 (Jason Dufner) for the annual CVS Charity Classic. The two-day team event will be held June 23-24, once again at Faxon’s home course, Rhode Island CC in Barrington, R.I.

Bo Van Pelt will be back alongside Stricker to try and defend their title. Lexi Thompson and Juli Inkster have committed, as has Peter Jacobsen. Faxon and Andrade, of course, will also play, and they’ll announce the balance of the field in a few weeks.

• • •

TIMMS PROVES TIMELY: Awarding sponsor exemptions is a borderline impossible task given how many quality players are seeking them. Unfortunately, tournament directors receive far too much scrutiny, especially because the critics rarely know all the reasons that go into the picks.

So it’s always nice to highlight the picks that deserve special praise. Go back a few weeks to when Steve Timms, tournament director of the Shell Houston Open, assigned one of his exemptions to Shawn Stefani. A local kid who had come up through the junior ranks within the Houston Golf Association, Stefani, 32, was on a minor medical extension, given two tournaments in which to earn $84,084.

When he missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open, Stefani had to be prudent with his last chance. He thought of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am “but I didn’t want to be at the mercy of bad elements.” The Puerto Rico Open wasn’t a full purse. But when Timms called, Stefani seized the opportunity.

“Steve is a great guy and I appreciated the chance,” Stefani said.

When he rose to the occasion and finished fifth to earn $256,000, Stefani regained full-exempt status. That offered great relief, but what he took pride in was succeeding as a sponsor’s exemption.

“I know these things don’t come cheap,” he said. “You don’t want to get a sponsor exemption and go miss the cut, then get another one and miss the cut, then get another one and miss the cut. So playing well as a sponsor exemption meant more to me than getting my card back because Steve gave me the opportunity. He’s been nothing but good to me.”

What makes the story even sweeter is the fact Stefani didn’t just take the spot and run. He has established a scholarship to go to a HGA junior golfer who plans to play competitively in college.

“I always told myself that if I’m in position to give back to the kids, I want to,” Stefani said “They’re the future of whole world. If you do good things for them, they’ll do good things for the world.”

• • •

KNOX'S DREAM COMES TRUE: Back in 2004, Scotsman Russell Knox was playing competitively for Jacksonville University when he made it out to watch The Players Championship.

“I was watching, hoping, dreaming that one day I’d be inside the ropes,” Knox said.

His dream came true when he made his debut at the Stadium Course last week in front of a healthy number of friends and former college teammates. Knox, 28, closed with a 68 to finish tied for 34th, the latest in a string of positive performances for the unheralded kid from Inverness.

He has made the cut in 13 of 16 starts, piled up $1,189,471, and from 245th at the end of 2013, Knox has moved to 97th in the world rankings.

• • •

CADDIE'S HEAVY HEART: Before heading out to work for Martin Kaymer in Sunday’s final round of The Players Championship, caddie Craig Connelly heard the news about a colleague – Iain McGregor had died of a heart attack while working for Alastair Forsyth in the final round of the Madeira Island Open.

Connelly went on with his duties, albeit with a heavy heart.

“He was part of the family, you know," Connelly said. "He was a fantastic guy, one of the best. He was one of the guys, you’d walk in the bar, Mac was there. Very, very sad.”

• • •

GREAT SYMMETRY: A round of applause for Ned Longson and the unique feat he scored during his recent victory in the American Seniors Golf Association spring championship at Saucon Valley in Hellerton, Penn.

The past president of the Maryland Golf Association made an ace, a birdie, a par, and a bogey – that would be 1, 2, 3, 4 – on the four par 3s on the Weyhill Course.

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