Friday's golf: Gooch handles the wind at Sea Island and takes 1-shot lead

Associated Press

St. Simons Island, Ga. — A strong wind off the Atlantic Ocean swept over Sea Island on Friday, and it was no problem for Talor Gooch of Oklahoma as he handled the exposed Seaside course for a 5-under 65 to take a one-shot lead in the RSM Classic.

As expected, the balmy conditions of the opening round that led to record scoring gave way to 25 mph wind and temperatures that were 10 degrees cooler.

“The only commonality between yesterday and today is that we played 18 holes,” said Zach Johnson, who lives at Sea Island and toiled for a 1-under 71 on the Plantation course to finish three shots behind.

Talor Gooch hits off the 17th tee during the second round of the RSM Classic golf tournament, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in St. Simons Island, Ga.

Gooch matched the low score of the round — Taylor Moore had a hole-in-one on the 17th hole at Seaside for a 65 — and was at 13-under 129.

He was one shot ahead of John Huh, who had a 67 at Plantation, and Sebastian Munoz, who went from a 60 at Seaside to a 70 in the second round at Plantation. Moore and Mackenzie Hughes of Canada (68 at Seaside) were two shots behind.

Gooch has been trending up. He’s 14th in the FedEx Cup and has a pair of top-five finishes at the Fortinet Championship to start the season and the CJ Cup in Las Vegas. Still seeking his first win, Gooch hasn't missed a cut in six starts this fall and has finished 11th or better four times.

“It’s just comfortable,” he said. “Obviously I’m playing well, but I think my game has made a turn for some good stuff in some ways. And I’ve been working my butt off for years, but especially the last six, eight months with driving the ball and working my butt off with putting. For my game, if I can get in the fairway ... it’s just a matter of how many putts I’m going to make. Hopefully we can keep making putts and see if we can do some good this weekend.”

Gooch highlighted his round with an eagle putt of just over 65 feet on the par-5 seventh, the longest putt he has made in his PGA Tour career.

“Any 66-footer, you’re just trying to two-putt, right?” he said. “But my speed’s been pretty good this week and I actually made about a 50-footer yesterday, so I’ve been comfortable on these greens from long distance. You’re always stealing one when you get those to drop though.”

Gooch made only one bogey, no small feat under the conditions, and four of his five birdie putts came from 6 feet or less.

Munoz, who matched the tournament record with a 60 in the first round at Seaside, birdied his last hole to share second with Huh.

A day after half the field at the Seaside Course broke the scoring record with an average of 66.31 — the second-lowest on the PGA Tour since 1983 — the other half averaged more than four stokes higher at 70.96. The average score on the Plantation almost increased by four shots, going from 68.70 to 72.68.

The cut was at 4-under 138. Among those making it to the weekend was 57-year-old tournament host Davis Love III with birdies at Nos. 13 and 15 for an even-par 70 at Seaside. Also making the cut on the number was Adam Scott, who needed birdies on three of four holes on the Plantation back nine for a 71.

Among those missing the cut were major champions Jason Day, Lucas Glover and Graeme McDowell, as well as defending champion Robert Streb. He beat Kevin Kisner in a playoff last year. Neither will be around for the weekend.

Johnson, meanwhile, is trying to break the “Sea Island curse.” None of the players who live in the area have been able to win the RSM Classic in its first 11 years. That group includes Matt Kuchar, Harris English, Brian Harman and Hudson Swafford, all PGA Tour winners.

“Well, it’s hard, it’s hard to win,” said Johnson, who was in the final group in the final round last year, but finished three shots outside the playoff between Streb and Kisner. “Maybe there’s a little bit of added pressure because of who you’re playing in front of and that kind of thing. I think it’s going to happen. ... I think the odds are in our favor.”

LPGA

Naples, Fla. — What looked to be a wide-open race for the richest prize in women's golf is now in the hands of Celine Boutier, who made seven birdies over the last 10 holes for a 7-under 65 and a four-shot lead Friday in the CME Group Tour Championship.

For so much of the wind-blown second round, a dozen or so players were separated by one shot at Tiburon Golf Club. That included Nelly Korda and Jin Young Ko, four-time winners this year in a battle for LPGA player of the year.

Over the final two hours, Boutier left them all in her wake in the chase for the $1.5 million prize.

Celine Boutier of France watches her shot on the second hole during the final round of the BMW Ladies Championship at LPGA International Busan in Busan, South Korea, Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021.

Among her seven birdies, the 28-year-old from France chipped in from short of the green on the 13th, stuffed her approach to 4 feet behind the hole on the 15th, reached the middle of the green on the par-5 17th in two for an easy birdie and closed with a 7-foot birdie putt.

She was at 14-under 130, four ahead of Gaby Lopez of Mexico (68), Evian Championship winner Minjee Lee of Australia (68) and Mina Harigae (69).

“I was frustrated with my front. I left a couple of shots out there,” Boutier said. “My long game was really solid all day, and I was able to put my shots close, and it was helpful on the back.”

Korda, who has a 10-point lead over Ko in the race for player of the year, was in the group five shots behind after having to settle for a 69.

The 23-year-old American star was right there in the mix until she was slowed by one swing. She went for the green on the par-5 14th and it peeled to the right on her, just inside the hazard line. Korda still had a swing, but her punch shot didn't make it up the slope, and she failed to get up-and-down from there to take bogey.

“I just hit it a little heely and it just floated out to the right,” Korda said. “That’s usually my miss. The ball is above your feet. I was trying to be a little aggressive with it, and my misses have been a little left, so I kind of lifted up and hit it out to the right.”

Ko had a 67 and was in the group six shots behind. More relevant to player of the year, Ko was two shots away from a chance to finish second, which she has to do for any chance to capture player of the year for the second time, and even that depends on how Korda fares.

Going into the weekend of the season finale, they're all chasing Boutier.

Much like the way she finished her round, Boutier is all about the big finish. An ordinary year turned memorable over the last two months. It started at the Solheim Cup where a 5-and-4 singles victory over Harigae — with whom she played Friday — helped Europe win the cup.

“Celine, she’s a great player,” Harigae said. “Honestly, she’s kind of like an all-around, complete player — great ball-striker, great short game, and really, really good putter. You know, that equals 14 under for two days.”

Boutier returned home after the Solheim Cup and won the French Open, and then two weeks later closed with a 63 to beat Ko and Inbee Park in the ShopRite Classic for her second career LPGA title.

“I feel like my game has been solid, just a little inconsistent with putting. That's what was costing me. I changed my putter in September and since then,” she said, pausing to smile, “it's gotten better.”

Boutier's 66 matched the low score of the second round. Danielle Kang also had a 66.

It was a different Tiburon from the day before, when a soft rain and virtually no wind led to 18 players posting 67 or better. This was more like Florida in the fall, with a steady wind that was relentless and strong enough to make players uncomfortable over shots at times.

Lexi Thompson is still a factor, one week after she wasted a chance to end more than two years without winning by finishing bogey-bogey and losing in a playoff. She won at Tiburon two years ago and it plays into her strength of being able to overpower courses.

Thompson says she is working tirelessly on her putting — she chose not to say who is helping her with her short game — and put bad memories behind her. She had a few tap-in birdies to atone for two bogeys in her round of 69 to reach 8-under 136.

“Just going to take the positives from last week and take it into this week. This is a week that I look forward to the most out of the year,” Thompson said. “Two more days, so I'm going to embrace it all.”

European Tour

Collin Morikawa got a big stroke of fortune at the DP World Tour Championship.

Rory McIlroy felt he got no luck at all.

The drama in the second round of the European Tour’s season-ending event was reserved for the final hour at Jumeirah Golf Estates on Friday — and the tournament’s two headline players were at the center of it.

Morikawa, looking to become the first American to win the Race to Dubai title, pushed his tee shot at the par-3 17th hole and shouted, “Get in the bunker.” The ball, instead, bounced on a downslope in the rough and headed toward water, only for it to hit a hazard post and stay dry.

An up-and-down for par followed by a final-hole birdie saw the British Open champion shoot a second straight 4-under 68, leaving him three shots off the lead and in a strong position to finish the season as European No. 1.

“Those are the kind of breaks you need heading into the weekend,” Morikawa said.

McIlroy, the first-round leader after an opening 65, reached the 18th tee with a one-stroke advantage despite hitting only five of 13 fairways to that point. He drove left into a bunker and his third shot kicked left short of the green and dribbled into the water.

A double-bogey 7 completed a round of 70 which saw him fall out of the lead, held jointly by Shane Lowry (65), John Catlin (65) and Sam Horsfield (66) on 10 under par.

“That part of the fairway where the ball was, was just sort of thatchy and came up spinny into the wind,” McIlroy said.

“I hit a good golf shot and felt like I didn’t deserve to be in the water.”

McIlroy will play with Morikawa in the third round as he goes in search of back-to-back wins following victory at the CJ Cup on the U.S. PGA Tour last month.

Morikawa doesn't need a win to have a successful week in Dubai. He came into the tournament ranked No. 1 in the Race to Dubai standings, narrowly ahead of compatriot Billy Horschel, who is only even par after rounds of 74 and 70.

Horschel needs to win or hope Morikawa finishes well down the 52-man field to jump into first place. Neither of those scenarios look likely.

Only four other players — Tyrrell Hatton, Min Woo Lee, Paul Casey and Matt Fitzpatrick — can overhaul Morikawa but they would also need a win on the Earth Course. Casey and Fitzpatrick are best placed to launch a weekend move, having shot rounds of 69 to be 5 under overall and five strokes off the lead.

Like McIlroy, Morikawa struggled off the tee and said he didn't hit his irons well, a rare occurrence for a player many regard as the best iron player on the PGA Tour.

He birdied four of his first seven holes — starting by chipping in from just off the green at No. 1 — but was a picture of frustration after making five straight pars around the turn and then missing a 10-foot putt for par at No. 13 to drop four shots off the lead.

Two of his best shots of the day came in the final two holes, his pitch to nine feet from near the water at No. 17 helping him save par before his third shot at the par-5 last settled inside three feet.

“Wasn’t hitting (the same) quality of golf shots,” Morikawa said, comparing his second round to his first, “but was able to make some birdies and kind of minimize the bogeys.”

McIlroy retained his lead throughout his front nine, but found himself one back from Lowry, Catlin and Horsfield after missing a 6-foot par putt at No. 10.

He responded by chipping in from the fringe at the 11th hole and went back into the lead by rolling in a birdie putt from 16 feet at No. 16.

Everything went wrong down the last, though, after choosing to take driver — a club he struggled with all day.

“It wasn’t the greatest way to finish and I was just sort of holding it together most of the day,” he said. “It would have been nice to finish off a bit better but still right in the golf tournament.”

Lowry had a bogey-free round that really caught fire in the back nine with three birdies and a chip-in eagle in a five-hole span from No. 11.

The 2019 British Open champion will go out in the last group with Catlin, the 129th-ranked American.

“It’s two more days left and then the end of a long year and a half,” Lowry said.

“I’m looking forward to giving everything and leaving it on the course this weekend.”