Schauffele playing best golf of his career as Niemann seeks third LIV win of 2024

The Masters — the first major championship of the men’s professional golf season — is only 35 days away, and it can’t get here soon enough.

The start of the 2024 PGA Tour season has been plagued by inclement weather and littered with not-so-familiar names at the top of leaderboards. Sure, the winners were some of the game’s rising stars and played better than everyone else, but Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Viktor Hovland are the golfers who bring eyeballs to TV sets on Sundays.

Will a superstar finally lift a trophy on Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational — the fourth signature event of the season with a massive purse and limited field?

The LIV Golf League heads to Hong Kong for the first time, and Joaquin Niemann will try to win in a different time zone. He has already won in Australia, Mexico and Saudi Arabia since December. He’s arguably the most popular golfer on the planet and might have his sights set on winning a green jacket in Augusta, Georgia, in April.

Here’s what to watch in professional golf this week, including the LPGA Tour returning to China for the first time in six years.

What’s next on the PGA Tour

Arnold Palmer Invitational

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Bay Hill Club & Lodge, Orlando, Florida

Defending champion: Kurt Kitayama

Purse: $20 million ($4 million to winner)

Puerto Rico Open

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Grand Reserve Country Club, Rio Grande, Puerto Rico

Defending champion: Nico Echavarria

Purse: $4 million

Another first-timer?

There have already been four first-time winners in nine PGA Tour events this season: Nick Dunlap (American Express), Matthieu Pavon (Farmers Insurance Open), Jake Knapp (Mexico Open at Vidanta) and Austin Eckroat (Cognizant Classic).

Dunlap, Pavon and Knapp are rookies and their three victories match the total for the number of rookie winners during the entire 2022-23 season. There haven’t been four or more rookie winners on tour since there were five in 2018-19.

The average Official World Golf Ranking of the eight winners besides Dunlap, who was an amateur when he finished first at LaQuinta Country Club in California on Jan. 21, was 73rd. Only reigning U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark was ranked in the top 50 — he was 10th when he captured the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on Feb. 3.

“We’ve had quite a few first-time winners on tour this year,” Will Zalatoris said. “You’ve got some tenured guys that are contending week in, week out. The official World Golf Ranking is what it is right now. I also think that the competition that we have is pretty stiff.

“It’s really good to see guys like Nick [Dunlap] especially come up, and it just shows you the golf climate that we’re in, with kids in college coming up and playing that great. I think that when you look at over the last few years and seeing the first-time winners and playing as well as they have, I think that’s something that I’m more excited about, because on any given week you can see someone just pop off a win.”

Kurt Kitayama picked up his first PGA Tour victory at last season’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. Will one of the tour’s superstars finally lift a trophy on Sunday?

Schauffele getting close

Xander Schauffele is playing some of the best golf of his career. He is ranked fifth in the world and already has four top-10 finishes in five starts on tour this season, including a tie for third at the American Express, ninth at the Farmers Insurance Open and fourth at the Genesis Invitational.

Victory has eluded Schauffele for more than 19 months — his last win came at the Genesis Scottish Open on July 10, 2022.

“Just a little bit of a comfort factor,” Schauffele said. “I know I’m going to be uncomfortable, it’s pretty hard to feel super comfortable. I think the times you see guys win by six to eight shots coming down the stretch, they’re pretty comfortable. I haven’t had that moment yet.”

Schauffele, 30, started working with swing coach Chris Como in December. Como has coached Tiger Woods, Jason Day, Bryson DeChambeau and others. It was a dramatic change for Schauffele, who had worked with his father, Stefan, for most of his career.

“I think he’s just sort of been trying to get some of my swing patterns back to sort of 2017-2018, and then adding in a few things that he likes to see,” Schauffele said of Como. “Whether it’s sort of, I don’t know, something as simple as steepening my shoulder plane or things of that nature. Tough for me to do, but when I can seem to grasp it, it seems to help.”

The early results have been promising: Schauffele ranks fifth in shots gained total (1.630), 10th off the tee (.672) and 12th in approach (.707).

The opposite-field event

Nearly twice as many golfers (132) will be competing in an opposite-field event this weekend at the Puerto Rico Open for a $4 million purse.

Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre — a member of the winning European Ryder Cup team at Marco Simone in September — is the highest-ranked player in the field at 68th in the world. Aaron Wise, who hasn’t competed on tour since the U.S. Open in June, is also back. Echavarria, the defending champion, Daniel Berger, Camilo Villegas, Brandt Snedeker and Kevin Kisner are also competing in Puerto Rico.

The winner earns a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour and an invitation to next week’s Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

What’s next in the LIV Golf League

LIV Golf Hong Kong

When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Hong Kong Golf Club, Sheung Shui, Hong Kong

Purse: $20 million individual ($4 million to winner); $5 million team ($3 million to winning team)

Niemann’s hot streak

Niemann, the Torque GC captain, has picked up three worldwide victories since early December, including the Australian Open and LIV Golf League events in Mexico and Saudi Arabia. He was the leader after five of the nine rounds in LIV Golf tournaments this season.

Not surprisingly, Niemann leads the individual points standings and has won nearly twice as much money ($8.2 million) as nearly any other player.

“He’s more repeatable and he’s not making mistakes,” Bryson DeChambeau told reporters in Hong Kong. “He’s not making dumb mistakes. As simple as it can be. He’s in a great place, and I’m very happy for him and all the accolades that come with that have been great. I hope that more continues to come because he deserves every bit of it, and he’s one of the best players in the world.”

Niemann qualified for The Open in Scotland in July by winning the Australian Open. He has received special invitations to play in the Masters in April and the PGA Championship in May. He said he intends to attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open in June as well.

It’s a short course

Hong Kong Golf Club’s Fanling composite course is a par-70 course at only 6,710 yards. It’s the shortest course that the LIV Golf League has utilized in the past three seasons. The Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, was the only other course shorter than 6,800 yards with its setup in 2022.

“It’s a course which sets up, I think, for us as some oldies that don’t hit it 350 yards,” Majesticks GC co-captain Ian Poulter said. “It’s quite refreshing to come to a course where for the most part we won’t really be using driver. There’s only a couple of holes probably on the course that lends itself to hitting driver. Accuracy is something hopefully Team Majesticks can lean on this week.”

Legion XIII captain Jon Rahm said he’d probably “never” played a 6,700-yard course in competition.

“The thing is it plays longer than this just because on a lot of tee shots you’re simply not allowed to be hitting drivers, so you’re playing it to a spot,” Rahm said. “It plays a little bit longer. You have the option of hitting driver if you want, but you’re going to have to be extremely accurate.”

No LIV Golf players at Presidents Cup

It wasn’t much of a surprise, but International Team captain Mike Weir confirmed during a video conference Tuesday that LIV golfers won’t be allowed to compete in the Presidents Cup at Royal Montreal Golf Club on Sept. 27-29. Since the PGA Tour organizes the biennial match, there seemed to be little hope that LIV golfers would be part of the match.

“I’ve been told they’re not eligible,” Weir said. “They’re not gonna be eligible but hopefully going forward, maybe in Chicago in 2026, they are. It is a shame. I mean, we would want the best players, but I like our team. Our team looks great right now, but yeah, I think as a captain, we want the best international players from around the world to be playing against the best U.S. guys.”

That takes Niemann, Cameron Smith, Abraham Ancer, Louis Oosthuizen and Sebastián Muñoz out of the mix for the International Team.

The U.S. team won 17 ½- 12 ½ at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2022, its ninth straight victory in the international competition.

What’s next on the LPGA Tour

Blue Bay LPGA

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Jian Lake Blue Bay Golf Course, Hainan Island, China

Defending champion: Gaby Lopez

Purse: $2.2 million

Back in China

The final leg of the Asian swing will take place on Hainan Island in China, where an LPGA event will be played for the first time since 2018. The tournament debuted in October 2014 and was played for five straight seasons. It was canceled in three of the past four years because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Mexico’s Gaby Lopez was the most recent winner in 2018. Five of the top 10 players in Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings are in the field, including world No. 1 Lilia Vu, Celine Boutier (No. 3), Ruoning Yin (No. 4), Minjee Lee (No. 5) and Lydia Ko (No. 7).

The 108-player field also includes more than two dozen golfers from the China Golf Association. There will be a 36-hole cut with the top 65 scores plus ties playing the last two rounds.

Ko on cusp of LPGA Hall of Fame?

With her victory at the season-opening Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions in Orlando on Jan. 21, Ko moved to within one point of the required 27 for LPGA Hall of Fame induction.

The 26-year-old can earn another point with her 21st LPGA victory, winning an Olympic gold medal, being named Rolex Player of the Year or claiming the Vare Trophy, which goes to the golfer with the best scoring average.

Ko nearly picked up victories in consecutive starts to begin the season, losing to Nelly Korda in a playoff at the LPGA Drive On Championship in Bradenton, Florida, on Jan. 28. She tied for 34th at last week’s HSBC Women’s World Championship in Singapore.

Solheim Cup stars in Florida

Many of the best performers from last year’s Solheim Cup in Spain will meet again this week in the first round of the Aramco Team Series Presented by PIF, which starts Friday at the Feather Sound Country Club in Clearwater, Florida. It’s part of the Ladies European Tour schedule.

The pros will compete in a 54-hole individual tournament, as well as a 36-hole team competition. The two best scores will count. Each captain will pick one teammate and is given another one via a random draw. The 28 four-player teams will also include an amateur.

The field includes Megan Khang and Lexi Thompson from Team USA, and Charley Hull and Carlota Ciganda from Team Europe.

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